Water Of Life
by Andrew Crumey
Commissioned by Glasgow "Aye Write" Book Festival
Published in The Herald (February, 2009)
It was during a thaw that I was born. An unexpected breath of warmth had entered the leafless world; birds and old ladies noticed it first, the snow was sinking and receding, retreating from lost territory like Fatherís hairline. In the garden, a mound appeared; a gentle white hump in the melting landscape, barely discernible at first, but as the days passed and the white burden relentlessly diminished it became distinct, unmistakeable. Every morning, through the thick green pane of the kitchen window, Mother observed its progress while Father, in silence, watched Mother. Eventually it parted, the last cap of snow upon the little rise in the garden, and the swollen earth was revealed, hard and frigid yet forced up by unseen pressure from beneath. Still the hump grew, slow as the endless season, until one morning at the window Mother fainted - the soil had cracked. A few days later, when she dared look out again, she saw the tiny bowed head of a child pushing up from the ground, blue with cold, the face frozen in folds.
Father went and fetched the large shovel. He pushed its flat blade down on four sides of me, digging carefully to avoid the roots, and raised me from the ground, carrying me inside, still encased in a chilled block of clay that he placed on a board in the pantry, where cheese was stored, and where the temperature, he said gravely, was just right, being insufficient to provoke the sudden shock of melting that might have killed me. Two days more my mother had to wait before declaring that the time had come for my entry into the world. The soil was pulled away from me - with hands, with teaspoons; scraped and wiped from me; worked from between my fingers and toes; teased from my navel with a clothes peg, from my nails with a toothbrush. Finally I was taken to the sink to be washed with soap and warm water. At the first splash I coughed, cried, drew breath, and my life began.
It was all so different then. Days were shorter, the winter constant and serene. Even the snow was otherwise; I think they made it from paper. In the street, like twigs on a stream, people met and spoke in soft voices, unwilling to disturb the perfection of silence. Tradition did not exist, because everything was tradition. Stories did not exist, because everything was true. Yes, the days were certainly shorter, impossible to measure now or confirm but also unnecessary, because memory proves everything. In fact I know that the sun was mounted on a great iron wheel of constant rotation, and on the stillest days, coming across the bare fields and dulled only by the intermittent calling of hooded crows, you could hear its turning, the low rumble of its great untiring axle. I think there was someone who oiled it, perhaps a team.
Going out each day into the cold, we were instructed first to take our medicine, standing in line with the porcelain obedience of dolls. Onto our projecting tongues a drop of Fatherís bronze-tinted spirit would be poured judiciously from a spoon; to each of us a single splash, sharp as cut-glass, an explosion of head-filling warmth to counterbalance the sublime eternal frost. Alcohol, I maintain, like all else, was in those days other, better, more fulfilling, in fact not entirely as liquid as it subsequently became with the descent of time. I think Father may have found a way of freezing it. You could do that then.
I miss that precious spirit as much as I miss the long and carefree nights when we would play without fear or worry, never even stopping to consider what we implicitly assumed, that nothing in our world would ever cease, that nothing need be measured except by administering adults who rationed life only so as not to spoil us with it. We thought the last of the rime would never go, the crystal never shatter.
See there, Father would say, his outstretched limb combing the black sky and picking out, like a nit, the sparkle of a star. That, he would tell us, is where the ice comes from, where everything comes from, the frozen water of life. Itís only because there are so many of them that we never notice. And to instruct us he took the cardboard tube in which his medicine bottle was stored - the bottle our daily doses could never empty or even noticeably deplete - and removing cap and base provided a tunnel to our view, a channel to the clockwork sky. See, he said, aiming the tube at a star and thereby isolating it for each childís eye in succession, see its glitter and it will make you tingle. It was true; the drop of light, concentrated by steady vision, was as warming as liquor. They made stars properly then, without plastic. Father said that not so far away was a place where the most enormous cardboard tube had been constructed, housed in a splendid birch-wood dome, so that hundreds of people at a time could see the skyís bewildering chaos cleansed, purified, distilled; the vatted stars made single. But they had to be careful about how many people they let in at a time, because there was only so much wisdom to go round. Even then, I had the dimmest intimation that the world is not infinite, its bounty not unlimited.
Most of all I remember the coldest days when Mother would send me to fetch fire. Hunting for money; she'd always try the old teapot first - usually empty, then we would all run our hands behind cushions, look under rugs until eventually a few worn coins would be found and Mother would sit me down to fasten my leather boots. She would wrap a long scarf around my neck and pull my coat tight, then I would march stiffly in my thick clothing into the snow-filled street.
The fire seller's patch was a corner not far away, where he would stand, tall and thin faced, every day and night, with the little bottles of fire glowing on a bandolier across his chest. He always demanded too high a price, and I always had to haggle him down to what we both knew to be the correct one, then he would unhook a bottle and I would feel in my hand its solemn weight; I would watch through the thick glass the dancing flames inside. On the label, in big letters: NOT TO BE OPENED BY CHILDREN.
Carrying it home safe in my grip, I would tread with a mixture of pride and fear. What if I should slip in the snow, and the bottle were to break? Then home again; the hearth prepared, my sisters crowding round as Mother took the bottle, ordering us to keep back in case anything went wrong, and she would stoop beside the fireplace with the precious flask held level in her hand. Slowly, carefully, she would unscrew the lid, and out would trickle a single golden bud of fire, its scent exactly like our medicine, gathering and swelling on the lip then falling into the dark nest of coal and waste papers.
At first nothing, as if perhaps it had died, and we would wait a moment holding our breath until there it was again, leaping out from its hiding place and skipping around the tinder, leaving flames wherever it touched, and soon it would all be going, a regular fire, you could feel the warmth starting and my sistersí faces would be red and smiling with delight, and Mother would take the bottle and put it in a special cupboard high on the wall, the only one in the house you could lock, and I would look up at that cupboard and long - how foolishly I would long - for the day when I would be tall enough to reach it.