Fiction

Drift

I used to believe you would be able to find me anywhere. Anywhere on this blue-green fluke of a planet, no matter where in the world I had moved since you died. The Earth being so small, after all, and the spirit, once uncoupled from the awkward burden of the body, might be free to travel anywhere, light-years in a blink – Etruscan battlefields, the inscription of Nazca Lines, birdlife returning to Krakatoa after a desolate quarter-century. Or maybe just that last lived summer, a borrowed cabin by the Esopus, tangled drowsy in a hammock and waiting for the storm to roll in.

Then I heard a radio piece about very young children remembering their past lives and how geographical proximity always plays a role. There’s a range, apparently, a radius related to wherever the previous life had ended. According to parapsychologists, it’s uncommon – in fact, as yet unseen in their case studies – for a consciousness to have travelled beyond the bounds of a continent when seeking out a new corporeal host.

Makes sense, yeah? the presenter interjected. Like a hermit crab? A hermit crab isn’t going to scuttle naked all the way from Ocean City to Essaouira looking for the ideal batch pad. It’ll settle for a Coke can, or a kicked-off baby sneaker, whatever’s going.

The children, incidentally, would all forget their previous existence after a certain age – traces of the former self blurred out along with the clutter of earliest experience, in the blanket erasure of childhood amnesia.

 

The parapsychologists had not yet determined the exact specifications or circumference of the circle. They were still working on it. Surely, by now, someone must have mapped it more definitively. But probably safe to say that way over here, where I am now, you and I are out of range. I can see the ocean, same ocean as before, but from a different coastline.

Oceans being an absolute, an uncrossable boundary, so far as a consciousness is concerned.

Perhaps oceans and larger bodies of water prove too great and exhausting an obstacle, or even too tempting a distraction. Perhaps many, unnumbered, attempting to cross simply give up and tumble in. As with crashing satellites, the odds so much more likely than on dry land. The seas not yet full, but all the same pretty damn populous, crowded with alluringly alien possibilities, home to so many poly-sentient colonies of molluscs and anemones and other multifarious organisms not yet encountered or classified.

A question, then, of these collective entities – coral, say, or wide sargasso seas, or groves of quaking aspens, or the miles of mycelium sprawling beneath entire forests of aspens – is not so much a question of sentience (because of course sentience) but of aggregation: how many crashed satellites might rank out any of these pluralist life forms?

Perhaps there is always room for more.

(Here, once, you would look at me, your mineral green eyes lit with a clarity of attention I have never known, before or since. You would tell me I sound like a commie.)

When I mention the radio interview to my friend (you never met her) she tells me about a woman she met recently at the dog park, who believes her schnauzer is her dead husband, reincarnate. From the moment she brought him home, the dog showed unusual culinary preferences, at least for a dog – radishes, wholegrain mustard, very strong rooibos – and was bullishly possessive about certain objects that had previously belonged to her man.

A bit like how they recognise the new Dalai Lama, my friend offered, unsure of how else she could respond.

The woman whose husband had come back as a schnauzer seemed pleased by this comparison, and by the arrangement in general.

Not her first choice, needless to say, but she’d come to accept it for what it was.

The revelation about the husband-dog had come entirely unsolicited, preceding the exchange of names, even dogs’ names. My friend had only remarked on the sheen of the schnauzer’s coat and his dignified air of composure, and the woman had unbottled, clearly primed for any opportunity to have witness to this miracle that was quite possibly the most extraordinary thing to have happened in her life (and who could argue?).

My friend did not ask the obvious. I would have. Asked the obvious. But perhaps the marriage had long since burnt up all such complicating desires.

 

Baby, all I’m asking is when you come back, please don’t come back as a dachshund. I couldn’t stand it. Don’t come back as a crane or a fox, like the old fables. And please not as the neighbours’ youngest daughter, piffing banksia pods against the side of the house as she recites the periodic table from beginning (hydrogen) to end (oganesson), the way you would when my mind was racing and I could not sleep, until she-you reaches age five or six and forgets her deeper past, her older life, along with everything you ever knew, and her parents are disappointed by the sudden reversal of savantism, if perhaps a little relieved (the father at least) that she will have an easier, more normal life, unencumbered by useless and potentially isolating brilliance.

 

Point is I really don’t think I could stand that either.

 

Perhaps what I’m saying is, Baby, don’t come back, not in any almost-recognisable form.

Not as a solar flare, or storm light, or a tree whose upper branches slope with the exact same incline as your shoulders.

Not as a song I never really paid attention to that suddenly begins playing everywhere, or the ornamental passionfruit vine that bears nothing edible but is nevertheless steadily consuming this house, or as the storm rolling in, at last, heavy rain on the Colorbond roof in January with all its tiny cool hands applauding, applauding the change.

Not even that. Not even.

Come back as yourself, or not at all. Leave no doubt. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on February 10, 2024 as "Drift".

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