The Stuff of Life

Susan Ouriou is an award-winning fiction writer and literary translator based in Calgary, Alberta, Canada. She has published a number of short stories and two novels, Nathan and Damselfish, and is now ... [+]

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The fog that descended that day still clings to me. It followed me from intensive care, where the man I loved drew his last breath, to the morgue, where his body was reduced to ashes and returned to me in an urn. Followed me from Calgary to Paris. The clouds at the airplane's porthole an extension of the mist muffling my sobs, enveloping all that I see, touch or hear. It is my only companion, the only presence at my side.
I've told no one in France that I'm back in Paris. From the airport to the train station to the street, I pull my suitcase, the urn inside, till I stumble on a room for rent. The ceiling so low, I have to stoop as I walk through, the walls a conduit for sound, not a barrier, the wide-open window letting in air, yes, but smelling only of exhaust, the din of traffic, the drone of smokers outside the bar next door. Interrupting the little sleep night brings.
Sleep is welcome, except for the dreams. The dream. Over and over. A woman marching through a house's storeys, shattering anything and everything of beauty—pictures in their frames, instruments for music-making, every single light bulb. She draws plans that turn each hallway into a tight, narrow corridor offering only enough room to pass and no more.
I waken, suffocated. No Zach to calm me down, take me in his arms, tell me it's only a nightmare. How to calm myself? I've forgotten. Did I ever know? So long ago, ten years, me 18 and alone. First time away from home. In a strange country, not knowing a soul.
Every night I fell asleep dreaming of home. But then, Zach became my home. And now he's gone.
When he died, it was like my heart was instantly petrified. As though the stuff of life quit pumping through my veins. A stone core in a hope-ridden body. In a mist-cloaked forest lost to the march of time.

Grey crowds everywhere pushing, glaring, wolf-whistling, traffic so thick I can't see how to cross the street, even the sky grey, not a hint of sunlight. The way I remember Paris pre-Zach.
But in his presence, Paris turned into another city. Till I met him, I lived in the dark, my student room a closet with no window, my time spent underground, shuffling from metro station to lecture hall to metro station again. Until I finally dragged myself one evening to a nearby co-op café. Zacharie motioning for permission to sit at my tiny table as the musicians struck up their instruments, the music first, next our words, each of us stumbling in a language not our own, the two of us resurfacing along darkened streets, heading for a dance hall where we danced till dawn. The return to his maid's room to shed clothes become a hindrance on the dance floor and, finally, to speak each other's language.
We walked Paris's breadth and length. Above the Charles de Gaulle metro, I discovered the Arc de Triomphe. Above Bir Hakeim the Tour Eiffel. At the end of the RER line, lakes and vistas and verdant woods. Blind men playing accordions, bouquinistes, the smell of crèpes, handlers walking their animals to parks to offer donkey rides, bright cotton candy, merchants shouting their wares, children screaming on pebbled playgrounds.
Then back onto the streets again after midnight, to concerts in churches, in cafés, on city squares. Paris as alive late at night but with different crowds, more skateboarders, lone souls on terrasses, street artists, pickpockets, never slowing down till sunrise, when the two of us would find ourselves alone on quiet streets.
Let the memories stop. Too much like losing him all over again.
Even so, I haunt our old grounds, all our favourite places, longing for a sign. Leave my room, past the Turkish toilet on the landing, down six flights, across the courtyard, through the portes cochères, onto the sidewalk, the narrow street, the shops, the crowds, the cafés. I walk and I walk, up the right bank, down the left. Speak to no one. Climb up and down, into and out of packed metros. Only strangers' shoulders in the train, on the stairs, on the street to keep me from crumpling to the ground.
What is it exactly I'm looking for? Listening for. His end so fast, no time to grasp its approach. When his soul fled his body, the only thought that sustained me was that it would have made its way to France. His homeland. So I followed.
My money's almost gone now. Not sure where the next funds will come from. What were you thinking? There's nothing here for you. Nothing anywhere.
It's in silence that I heat milk for my coffee in the cracked pot on the Bunsen burner. In silence that I spread the last of the almond butter on my burnt toast. In silence that I sit at the flea market bought table in the kitchen corner. Like every other morning.
Insanity is expecting a different result.
I get to my feet, strip off the T-shirt and leggings that have been my uniform since my arrival, cover the few steps to the mattress on the floor. Shift the urn off the suitcase-cum-nighttable, unlatch it to see what other clothes lie inside. Shrug into a bra, pull out a dress, trade in my runners for a pair of sandals.
There may well be no signs, the intangible kind, but maybe I can find a real notice posting a job offer in the window of some café, bar or store. A job to cover next month's rent, food, a metro pass. Do something different. Until I know why I'm here.
No such sign for many blocks, then finally a red Recherche employé placard beckons to me. In that store window, looking up, I see a guitar.
A guitar like Zach's. The one he taught me on.
I step inside, the door chimes, footsteps sound. I reach into the display window, pluck the guitar's taut strings. The owner comes up from behind.
"Il vous plaît, cet instrument-là?"
Not thinking, I respond in English."Yes." My fingers stroke its curves.
He too switches to English, "Well, then." He reaches inside the display case and places the guitar in my arms. I look at him. Greying, wiry. His gaze reading mine. "A good eye you have. Is unique, this one. I used wood no other luthier would use, too fragile. Wood from a tree of many defects. 'ere you see—'ow do you say—un nœud, a burl." He points at a large dark swirl on the lower half of the guitar. "A trunk that can't form a branch, its cells divide. That weakens it—you know, the way cancer cells go 'aywire in the body—creates a pattern that makes the 'eartwood even more beautiful." He pauses for breath.
"H'Always the 'eartwood. The core of any tree, wood that's stopped carrying sap, water, nutrients, but still 'elps to keep the tree upright."
I hear traces of Zach's own accent, the misplaced h's, the switched order, the never-ending sentences. I close my eyes as I run my hand down over cells gone haywire. Open them to see the luthier watching me.
"Essayez," he says. He strums once, the sound sets the wood to vibrating against my belly. I feel tears pushing up against my eyelids. Sense the warmth of the guitar. Its body firm against mine. Firm, yes, and of this world. Not hidden in the forest, not lost to another time. Its heart responding to mine.
"It's maple," he adds, "la meilleure essence."
The translation of Recherche employé comes to me then. Help wanted.
I lower my head, body memory rising, and breathe deep of the essence's scent.
I begin to play.