The Girl Who Couldn't Leave

One time, maybe it was fifteen years ago, I went away to a commune of sorts for ten days with a friend of mine. We were going there to do a ten-day brown rice fast in a small forest on the edge of a lake. There was no real reason for the fast. She was always trying to fix her heart with her body, and I had nothing better to do.

intimidation by trees

I was living up in my head like a hot air balloon in those days. I floated around above myself, my body a string. I could barely hear or see. It was as a dream. Everything sifted through my fingers and nothing was left. I had a lot of time on my hands and no obligations. I felt terrible.

The place was clothing optional. A man gardened naked while three young women lay out naked on a scrubby lawn that first afternoon, and I studied the grass with the curiosity of an alien botanist. I hung around for two days amidst what seemed like a profusion of nipples before I realized that it was my plaid shirt and jeans that were making me feel awkward. I took them off. I didn't wear clothes again for over a week.

The fast was one with an easy enough beginning. We were to eat short grain brown rice and nothing else. We added no salt or spices, and the only flavouring came from the well water we hauled across the property to cook it. The rice had to be chewed until it was like milk in our mouths, which we did dutifully, slowly chewing our way through one or two bowls a day. It kept us hungry but continually engaged with food, so our starvation remained somewhat manageable.

On the first day, the rice tasted bland, and we poked at its sticky texture without much enthusiasm. On the second day it tasted sweeter, but it fell short of inspirational. I dreamed about buttered toast. On the third day, the flavour had grown legs, but we were largely dissatisfied, suffering hunger pangs and sharp headaches. My friend sobbed on a cot in the main cabin, sure that she would remain one of the great unloved for the length of her days. On the fourth day, our rice was suddenly so full of texture and flavour that we checked our pot for signs of any outside doctoring. Plain rice, it turns out, can be a delight to a palate unsullied by anything but more rice for over eighty hours.

We wanted to keep track of our gastrointestinal adventure's physical effects, so, with an outhouse as our only plumbing alternative, we took to shitting on the forest floor in order to properly document our scat, and it was worth documenting. Interesting things happen to your body when you go on an extended fast, and your shit lays it all out in living colour. On the fourth day, we pulled it apart with sticks to find that it was the white of rice chewed into milk all the way through.

The fasting and mid-summer heat brought out a sickly slick of oil and sweat, and it occurred to us that we had not had a proper bath in all of those four days. We decided to use the sauna by the lake, which was the community's answer to showering. In our weakened state, we couldn't handle the heat for very long, though. After spending only about five or ten minutes letting the grime of naked living drip from us, we gave each other a quick rub-down with some biodegradable dish soap we had found in the main cabin.

"How do we rinse off?" I asked.

"We run off the end of the dock," she said.

I was afraid of of the chilly water, and I briefly contemplated living out the next six days inside that film of soap, but it was stinging my eyes, so I followed her heavy feet pounding down the boards to the end of the dock. She splashed through the surface, her skin moon grey in the evening light, and she shot straight up laughing. Water sprayed from her lips while she yelled out Oh ho ho!

I hesitated.

"Come on!"

I ran the length of the dock, but I stopped short with my toes gripped over the end of the last board. I breathed in and watched the cool air stipple the skin on my forearms for a moment before I heaved the best leap I could off that last few inches of wood. I crashed through the surface and sank.

It took me a moment to realize that my heart had stopped with the shock of cold. Silent and calm and wide awake with my eyes open, I sunk through the brown lake water. I watched the flush of silt sparkle up through the last rays while my body settled downward. Cold water flushed out the last of the heat in the well of my armpits.

Everything was beautiful and everything was far away while my heart remained still inside my chest. A switch had been flipped, and none of it was mine anymore. I knew that I was going to leave myself at the bottom of that lake. Life was the one infinite point upon which my consciousness had balanced. My body was an afterthought falling away.

From a distance, there was splashing and yelling, and I vaguely wondered what the matter was until she was suddenly right on top of me with her fingers in my hair, and she was screaming Jump! Jump up! Her fingernails scratched my shoulder. I supposed that I had to jump up, then. I had no desire to leave, but there was such a terrible panic above me, and I had to attend to it. It was clear to me that one way or the other, someone was going to haul me out.

That sounds so dispassionate now, so divorced from feeling, but it wasn't. I was just so entirely peaceful about my situation. At the time, it felt as though my heart were a mechanical fist from which I had been freed, and in that tipping point between here and there, I had been right in the middle of being alive. I had been in the lap of it, but now she was pulling at my hair, and it was take or be taken, so I gathered all I had left into my legs and pushed, at first with my ankles from a cross-legged position, and then with my feet, until my face broke the surface, and I pulled in air. I gasped at it. I swallowed it into my stomach like a panicked fish, and it hurt. It pulled at the inside of me like an atrophied muscle, and I regretted drawing it in. The air was an external object that forced my body to hum, and I threw up water. Bits of bile skimmed the surface.

I wanted to fall again into the loudness of the lake and the stillness without my heart, but there was no safe way back. I couldn't walk in again and enter it the same way I had come, and so I had to walk out of the water. I stood on the strip of beach until the night air had dried my skin, and then I hid in the tent with my head on a pillow cobbled together out of the clothing I no longer wore.

She lay down next to me in the tent and said I'm glad you didn't drown. I pretended to sleep and counted the rocks that pushed up along my spine.

I'd had a near death experience at nine, I had nearly drowned at ten, and now I had walked away again through very little will of my own. It felt neither relieving nor miraculous. It was suffocating, this life that continued to close in around me. It was claustrophobic.

I was the girl who couldn't leave.