Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.
—Michel de Montaigne
All, like diamond,
is carbon first, then light.
I did not see the woman jump, nor did I see her fall, but I can somehow hear the faint swish of her skirt as she leaped over the rooftop’s brick rim, sailed through the cloaked London sky, and landed with a crack on the sidewalk where bystanders gaped, shrieked, turned their heads, gripped their knees, heaving.
My arms, I remember, were filled with something solid—books, maybe, or a package to mail. In my head, I keep seeing myself alight from the South Kensington metro escalator, caught in the static just before I crossed the street towards Tesco, where I had meant to buy dinner rolls, where, instead, the woman’s body hit the sidewalk and crumpled.
Later there would be sirens, police tape, photographs of her troubled angles. But right then, there was nothing. Not the slightest line to cordon the shock. No protocol. I held my books against my chest and felt my ribs expanding without me.
* * *
Virginia Woolf spent her childhood on the top floor of 22 Hyde Park Gate, a few blocks from my flat, devouring her father’s books. I imagine that she curled up in her chair, like a bird sheltering under the thin hollow of a leaf, surrounded by shelves and tapestries. From time to time she glances up from her book and out the leaded window. She sees treetops and shadows. A few passing clouds.
Hidden from view, perhaps she felt like the bird she would later describe in Mrs. Dalloway, the bird that starts at the crack of a dry twig, as young Italian Rezia laments, surrounded by the enormous trees, vast clouds of an indifferent world, exposed.
* * *
My favorite family photo has all nine of us standing in front of our brick fireplace. It is late 1991, just a few months before my mother will die. We children wear floral dresses and pleated slacks. Hair combed and curled. Our parents grin at some inside joke. My mother’s pale face is rouged and luminous. She wears a floppy blue hat to hide her shorn head. In the corner of the frame, there is a glimpse of a red and white checked rocking chair.
Looking at that patch of fabric, I can suddenly smell the exact dusty odor of the carpet behind the chair. I can see the tall tree in the wicker basket that shaded the corner. I can feel the cool ceramic glaze of the Aunt Jemima vase that sat on the side table. The side table’s curved legs and beautiful claw feet. The honey glaze of the entire room.
The checkered chair later became a pale blue La-Z-Boy that reclined. Its cushions were so deep you could get lost in them for days. The footrest flipped out from under its belly. After my mother died, our Rubenesque nanny, Marlena, sat in that chair for hours watching soap operas and Dances with Wolves on repeat. I stopped hanging out behind the couch and locked myself in my room to read or cry.
* * *
I used to walk by Virginia’s house on my way to the park. Now it’s a pretty place, white and columned, priced at 1.5 million pounds. But in Virginia’s day, the narrow, five-story house must have felt oppressive, especially with its thick Victorian curtains and claw-footed tables.
In this dreary “cage” Virginia’s nephew, Quentin Bell, wrote that she could “create an atmosphere of thunderous and oppressive gloom.” In response, her siblings Vanessa and Thoby had “some technique” (still unknown) that could summon the most explosive paroxysms from Virginia, causing her to turn, as Nessa said, “the most lovely flaming red.”
* * *
In January 2011, Greg Butcher, director of bird conservation at the National Audubon Society, said, “The structures that seem to cause the most bird deaths are very tall and constantly lit.”
He was trying to explain why 5,000 Red-Winged Blackbirds fell dead from the Arkansas sky on New Year’s Eve.
“On foggy nights,” Butcher elaborated, “birds that should probably normally be paying attention to the stars get disoriented, and circle around the structures until they collapse,” falling to the sidewalk in a cascade of feather and bone.
* * *
The woman jumped at half past six, when night was beginning to fold into day, casting scant shadows across the pavement. It was April, Virginia’s “sad always” time, as “it brought back memories.” Above Tesco, apartment windows glowed. Through their open frames came music and the bright sound of glasses.
Inside, it seemed that no one noticed the missing woman. Though it was still early, I heard that they were all sauced, arms flung around each others’ waists and shoulders, celebrating something—a promotion or an engagement—waiting for dinner to be served. Perhaps the woman had excused herself to freshen up and smoke a cigarette, which was how she found herself on her rooftop, peering down.
* * *
However sensitive Virginia was, she was also a great charmer. At age six, for instance, she wrote a letter to her godfather, James Russell Lowell. “My dear godpapa,” it begins:
Have you been to the Adirondacks and have you seen lots of wild beasts and a lot of birds in their nests you are a naughty man not to come here good bye your affect—Virginia.
Won over by little Virginia, Lowell always gave her a sixpence when he visited the family (where the other children only received threepenny bits). And once, in an extravagant reference to her letter, he gave her a “real live bird in a cage” to keep in the nursery.
* * *
When I was little, I spent my afternoons hiding behind the family room couch. Cocooned in a blanket, I inhaled stacks of books, one right after the other, until I had to set the dinner table. By age six, I had been reading chapter books for almost a year and rarely spoke a word. Slouched against the couch, I read each book as quickly as possible in order to drown out the chaos around me. With each passing page, I transformed into an intrepid girl detective. I rode in covered wagons and lived in dark sod houses. I met rich granddads and babysat loads of kids. In my books, I was outspoken, witty, darling. I did not fear a thing.
But when I peeked over the couch, I could see my mother’s newly shaved head bobbing as she rocked in the checkered chair watchingI Love Lucy reruns. She clutched a Diet Coke in one hand and used the other to fidget with the tail of her drooping headscarf. Her arms poked out from her bathrobe sleeves, jaundiced twigs laced with track marks from that week’s chemotherapy session. They reminded me of fledglings, her arms, studded with pinfeathers trying to become wings.
* * *
Virginia’s early preoccupation with birds resurfaces in her writing, where birds hop on branches, roost in eaves, and speak in Greek. Thoughts fall “from branch to branch, like a bird alighting with all its claws firm upon the bough.” Even light glows “like some bird that has flown in.”
But most often, birds personify her characters. Clarissa Dalloway has “a touch of the bird about her.” Italian Rezia flutters nervously about her suicidal husband, Septimus, who later perches like a bird just before he flings himself off the windowsill “vigorously, violently down onto Mrs. Filmer’s area railings.”
* * *
According to Eugene Buechel and Paul Manhard, compilers of the2002 Lakota Dictionary, the Lakota call Red-Winged Blackbirdswabloša, or “wings of red.” Their songs keen across the Great Plains, filling the air with mourning.
When I lived in Iowa, I used to wake to this sound. My dirty windowpanes filtered light, reforming bright mornings into a dull pulse. Once, the quaking bird notes blended with a tornado siren. Combined, the despair stretched the tinny air, pulling it thinner and thinner with each haunting wail.
I was not surprised to read that the Lakota transcribe the Red-Winged Blackbirds’ songs as t?ke, mat’? n?—
“Oh! that I might die.”
* * *
On the sidewalk four stories below, the woman probably saw the usual weekday scenes: waiters setting café tables, businessmen hurrying towards the Underground, couples sizing up bistro menus. She may have watched customers entering Tesco and leaving with bags full of wine, cheese wrapped in wax paper, stuffed olives.
As usual, the auctioneer locked his storefront, as did the florist. The woman watched everyone bustling to and fro. She thought of everything, “mixing,” as Virginia’s compatriot T.S. Eliot wrote, “memory and desire,” until nothing felt real, not her fingers holding the cigarette, nor the sooty brick, nor the sound of traffic, nothing. She felt the weight of her body but it did not feel like hers. It was elsewhere, displaced.
* * *
Virginia spent the summer of 1910 in a private nursing home, recovering from a nervous breakdown. Unhappy and alone, she confided in her sister, Vanessa: “To be 29 and unmarried—to be a failure—childless—insane too, no writer.”
She wrote the letter, I imagine, while sitting by a broad window. In the quiet afternoon, with London’s clatter muted, she must have felt strange, suspended. Nothing but birdsong broke the clean air. Her strained nerves.
“I shall soon have to jump out of a window,” she either joked or confessed a few lines later.
She might have blotted the letter then. Glancing out the window, perhaps she could see Septimus perched on the ledge. His hazy form seemed to grow clearer and clearer, until his character’s sloped shoulders and wrinkled trousers solidified. He nodded at Virginia—he seemed to recognize her—then leaped into the exquisite blue.
* * *
My mother had wanted scads of children. She wanted all the tap shoes and footballs, the family dinners and theatric holidays. Newlywed at twenty-four, she could already see her future children’s friends flinging themselves onto couches and ransacking the pantry. She imagined scores of PTA meetings, galleries of children’s art. She needed something to muffle the pins of anxiety that shot through her everyday—not good enough, not smart enough, not enough at all.
“Waiting for another child has been the hardest thing I have ever had to endure,” she wrote in her journal, lamenting her inability to produce children as quickly as she hoped. She stared wistfully at her friends’ babies, toddlers, school kids. Envied their unkempt lawns and laundry piles.
She was ecstatic to become pregnant with her second child in 1978, two years after her firstborn, my sister Jana. She recorded her joy in a letter to her family: “I wish this baby knew how much I already loved it. I have waited it seems years to have another child, and I think about this new life in me each day.”
She was equally delighted with the adoption of her third (me), fourth, and fifth children from South Korea. She was tired but pleased with the birth of her sixth baby. But when she learned she was pregnant with her seventh child, she could not mask her horror. “I have been so depressed because I am pregnant,” she wrote in her journal. “This isn’t what I wanted out of my life.” She could not keep up with the dirty clothes and screwy schedules. There were too many orthodontist appointments, too many dinners to make.
Three days before she gave birth to an eight-pound, four-ounce baby girl, she discovered a lump in her right breast. This is more than I can bear, she thought, before locking herself in a bathroom to weep silently and alone.
* * *
No newspaper that I read reported the woman’s jump but rumors blazed around the neighborhood all week. She was high, almost everyone said, she was depressed and lost her job. Then why had she invited all those people to her flat for dinner?
In hindsight, nothing about the woman is clear. Sometimes I see her from above, as a formless mound. Other times I see nothing but a fabric swatch—the Swiss dot of her dress, for instance—so close that I cannot be sure of what I am seeing. From such proximity, the fabric could very well be a snowdrift, or a dividing cell. Steam.
There are times when I think that the woman did not ever jump, that I did not emerge from the Underground, did not want dinner rolls. Without the clarity of facts and newsprint, I doubt everything.
* * *
Of her first memories, Virginia wrote:
If I were a painter, I should paint these first impressions in pale yellow, silver, and green. There was the pale yellow blind; the green sea; and the silver of the passion flowers … I should make a picture of curved petals; of shells; of things that were semi-transparent; I should make curved shapes, showing the light through, but not giving a clear outline.
To achieve this, Virginia would have needed to glaze her paintings, a technique that swipes thin layers of complementary colors over a base coat. The resulting color levels make a finished piece shimmer—think of the opalescent blue turban in Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”—creating a depth and dynamism that single-color brush strokes lack.
My memory, on the other hand, is rendered in impasto strokes, thick hazy abstractions of reality. Van Gogh preferred this technique, used his mixing knife and coarse paintbrushes to make his canvas surfaces appear whipped, like heavy cream.
* * *
In 1890, Van Gogh painted the dreamy landscape “Cypresses and Two Women.” Virginia would have been eight, still young enough to sit on her Uncle Lowell’s knee, still ecstatic about the summer vacations to their cottage at St. Ives where she situated her first memory, the one with the glowing light and her mother’s lap.
The painting, arrayed in Van Gogh’s signature swirls, sends the cypress trees’ green plumage soaring towards the sky. They look like flames, these leaves, strong and contorted. The trees’ commanding presence nearly engulfs the two women. You could miss them, but for their white frocks.
The women have their arms about each other. They are so close they appear to be conjoined. With blank faces, they walk away from the trees. But they have an air of intimacy. Their heads bent in congenial conversation. They are unconcerned. Though the trees and bushes threaten to envelop them, they keep walking. In the background, a quaint cottage waits. Beyond the trees’ grasp, meringue clouds idle in the tapering blue.
The two women could be anyone. An image from Van Gogh’s dreams. A mirage. But there’s something about the way they hold themselves. The woman closest to the viewer tilts her narrow chin in such a way that her hair seems to fall over her brow, just as Virginia’s does in that famous photo from her youth. The other woman, the one with the rust-colored bodice, holds herself in mid-stride. She looks able and fierce. In her stance I see Vanessa. Sisters bound together by immeasurable loss and two vagabond hearts.
* * *
Like Virginia, my mother died when I was young. I was left with vague sketches that linked me to her fading memory. I can hardly remember what she looks like, except when I see my sister. They have the same bleach blonde hair. The same arched brows. I catch a flicker of my mother’s smile when my sister laughs, a glimpse of her face when she turns. Virginia saw her mother in her sister, too. Vanessa’s beauty matched Julia’s, as did her constancy.
Virginia writes beautifully of her first memory, linked to her mother. Later, she remembers her mother’s “three rings: a diamond ring, an emerald ring, and an opal ring.” In Moments of Being she writes, “My eyes used to fix themselves upon the lights in the opal as it moved across the page of the lesson book when [my mother] taught us, and I was glad that she left it to me.” My engagement ring is made from one of the rings my mother wore everyday. I look at it and can somehow see it glinting on her hand as she guided mine across lined paper, teaching me how to write.
There’s a part of me that believes that, once upon a time, Virginia befriended me, or perhaps it was the other way around. Though it’s impossible, I keep remembering a moment where we passed on the street and nodded in recognition. How is it that I can live my life completely as myself but feel like I’ve also lived as many others? How can I see all of my memories transposed through the mind of Virginia? The same yellow blind. Waves lapping at the shore. St. Ives or Zuma, the beach of my youth. A golden ring. Loss does strange things. Makes one thing appear as another.
* * *
In Leonardo da Vinci’s time, people did not understand migration. They believed that birds turned into stone mid-flight and dropped from the sky. These granite birds plummeted into lakes, where they would wait for spring nestled on the mossy floors.
But Leonardo knew about wings. He dreamed about them, sketched them in notebook margins, detailed their fine bones and feathers banking on the wind.
Despite his thorough observations, Leonardo’s first flying machine did not have wings. Instead, he designed a square pyramid base surrounded by linen—the first prototype of a parachute. Thrilled with his discovery, he wrote that now, thanks to the parachute, man can jump from any great height without injury.
* * *
Virginia’s erratic flights between sanity and insanity unhinged her, left her diminished and insecure. Later she explained another migration that she, like many people, made between states of being and non-being.
“A great part of every day is not lived consciously,” she explained. “One walks, eats, sees things, deals with what has to be done; the broken vacuum cleaner; ordering dinner; writing orders to Mamel; washing; cooking dinner; bookbinding.”
This “cotton wool” acts as a buffer to reality, the “instances of shock, discovery or revelation”—Virginia’s rare moments of being. She wrote in her diary about one of these moments, an awful memory from a childhood vacation in St. Ives:
Some people called Valpy had been staying at St Ives, and had left. We were waiting at dinner one night, when somehow I overheard my father or my mother say that Mr Valpy had killed himself. The next thing I remember is being in the garden at night and walking on the path by the apple tree. It seemed to me that the apple tree was connected with the horror of Mr Valpy’s suicide. I could not pass it. I stood there looking at the grey-green creases of the bark—it was a moonlit night—in a trance of horror. I seemed to be dragged down, hopelessly, into some pit of absolute despair from which I could not escape. My body seemed paralysed.
* * *
Responding to a theory that the flock of Red-Winged Blackbirds was poisoned, Arkansas Game and Fish Commission ornithologist Karen Rowe said, “It’s important to understand that a sick bird can’t fly.”
Septimus certainly couldn’t. Nor Rezia. “To love makes one solitary,” she said, looking at her husband across the uncharted gulf between them.
Virginia, to stop her own manic flights of fancy—her Greek-tongued birds—weighted her pockets with stones and walked into a river.
* * *
The doctors began carving things out of my mother the day after she gave birth to her last child. She had not wanted chemicals to interfere with the baby. She grew lighter and lighter with every surgery. The chemotherapy and radiation raided her body too, made her vomit for days. She was stripped of her clothes, her hair, her breasts, until all that remained was a husk of a body. Skin like cicada wings.
* * *
In “Codex on the Flight of Birds,” Leonardo said, “Write of swimming under water and you will have the flight of birds through the air.”
Leonardo proposed to establish a “science of the winds … by means of the movements of water.” Following the same analogy, swimming might lead to the discovery of the secrets of flight.
* * *
I did not know that Virginia failed the first time. That she returned home dripping wet, explaining that she had somehow lost her balance. I imagine her nodding hello to her relieved husband, Leonard, as she stepped out of her sodden boots. Hanging her coat to dry, she stealthily examined its pockets, tugging at the seams. She nodded again, satisfied. She would use heavier stones next time.
“Her [walking] stick and footprints were found by the edge of the river,” wrote Clive Bell in a letter to Frances Partridge. “We hoped against hope that she wandered crazily away and might be discovered in a barn or a village shop.”
But Leonard knew better. He could not forget Virginia’s soaked form standing in the doorway just a few weeks before. In his autobiography, he recounted that he “felt sure that she had gone down to the river.”
Three weeks later, children found her body floating in the river. It was April.
* * *
Stone birds. How else would you explain the absence of wings in December? In the evening, coming in from the cold, you might see flocks trumpeting through the air. You might hear the splash of water when they landed nearby, hear their bickering and flurried chatter.
But, upon waking, there would be silence. Glassy air. Instead of birds, you would see a few feathers. The lake’s staid face. You might imagine that the birds were sleeping under the water, waiting out the winter for spring to sweeten the lake and release them from their granite slumber. The birds, once awakened, would clamor up from the watery depths and greet the sun with shining wings, fill the quiet with song.
* * *
In her last days, my mother seemed to float in and out of herself. She saw her husband and her seven children as if from very far away, a bird’s-eye view. She remembered the first time she flew with her husband, then a newly minted pilot. The wheels of their small passenger plane skimmed the asphalt and then lifted as though they were nothing, a feather, a broken law of physics where not even gravity could contain her flight. Before her, the sky looked like a mirror, endless and blue.
Looking down at the landscape shrunk to doll-house proportions, she could not have known about all her future children. Even though she had told her mother several times and even written in her journal that she felt sure that she would die young, she could not have foreseen the cancer that would take her life at forty-one. Instead, she was a newlywed, at the cusp of everything, soaring thousands of miles above the earth. She threw her head back and whooped. She flew for hours that day, the wind whistling in her ears.
* * *
What did Virginia see, standing on the banks of the Ouse River, her pockets still light, the stones yet unturned?
* * *
I suppose, that my memory supplies what I had forgotten, so that it seems as if it were happening independently, though I am really making it happen. In certain favourable moods, memories—what one has forgotten—come to the top. Now if this is so, is it not possible—I often wonder—that things we have felt with great intensity have an existence independent of our minds; are in fact still in existence? And if so, will it not be possible, in time, that some device will be invented by which we can tap them? I see it—the past—as an avenue lying behind; a long ribbon of scenes, emotions. There at the end of the avenue still, are the garden and the nursery. Instead of remembering here a scene and there a sound, I shall fit a plug into the wall; and listen in to the past. I shall turn up August 1890.
I feel that strong emotion must leave its trace; and it is only a question of discovering how we can get ourselves again attached to it, so that we shall be able to live our lives through from the start.
* * *
In my head, the woman wears a thin dress fit for spring, which was just beginning to blossom in South Kensington’s dogwoods. Before landing, the woman floats, her dark hair in waves behind her like water. I’ve somehow recast her as Ophelia—wan and lovely, dim circles beneath her eyes. She floats longer than a falling mass should, smiles abstractly as she scans the crowd, her lithe arms outstretched, body in pirouette.
“Man is a wing,” poet José Martí wrote, born of protein, pinion and light. This woman, did she feel the gravity of her fall, the jerk of her body against pavement? Or did she soar like she does in my memory, free for that slice of time when she was airborne, her weight null as feathers sprouted from her sides, buoying her thin body aloft?
All quoted and italicized portions were taken from the following sources.
1. Bartoli, G. et. al. “Leonardo, the wind and the flying sphere.”CRIACIV:
Inter-University Research Centre on Buliding Aerodynamics and Wind
Engineering. Italy, July 2009.
2. Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Mariner Books, 1974.
3. Buechel, Eugene and Paul Manhard. Lakota Dictionary: Lakota-English/English-
Lakota; New Comprehensive Edition. Lincoln and London: University of
Nebraska Press, 2002.
4. Eliot, T.S. The Waste Land. Ed. Michael North. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., Feb.
5. Knowles, David. “500 More Red-Winged Blackbirds Found Dead in Louisiana.”
AOLNews, 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 1 Jun. 2011.
6. Scott, Ann. Unpublished Personal Journal. 1976-1991.
7. Woolf, Virginia. Moments of Being. London: Mariner Books, 1985.
8. Woolf, Virginia. Mrs. Dalloway. London: Mariner Books, 1990.
9. Woolf, Virginia. The Years. London: Mariner Books, 2008.