The Call of Bagpipes
By Sheryl St. Germain
Say you were nervous, your husband’s ex-wife was coming for dinner, your new step children were going to be there, you were cooking and started with the wine too early, say you like to drink wine while cooking and didn’t realize how much you were drinking, say everyone stayed too long and you didn’t realize how much you were drinking, say you don’t like being around lots of people and drinking makes it easier, say you are more interesting when you drink, say everyone else is more interesting when you drink, say an old friend was visiting and you didn’t realize how much you were drinking, say everyone else was drinking, you were just trying to keep up and didn’t realize how much you were drinking, say you feel like dancing when you drink, say you were preparing for a date and wanted to feel sexy, say you were sad because you hadn’t heard from your son in a long time, or upset because you’d had an argument with a friend or had a bad day in general. It was raining, snowing, sleeting, too hot, too cold, say you wanted to celebrate your birthday or someone else’s birthday, say it was Thanksgiving or St. Patrick’s Day or Valentine’s Day or just a regular day when you felt lonely or happy. Say you had a bad day writing or teaching, say you didn’t realize you’d drunk the whole bottle, say surely you hadn’t drunk the whole bottle, say you’re sure there’s still some left.
Don’t believe it when your son says you sometimes slur your words, don’t believe it when your husband and ex-husband say it. Swear you would have noticed it if you had been slurring. Tell them to tape you the next time. Feel triumphant when no one takes you up on it. Tell yourself blackouts are normal, it’s fine not to remember things as long as it’s only a few times a year, even blackouts are okay in moderation. You are productive at work, impeccably sober when you need to be, what does it matter what you do at home? You usually only drink a couple of glasses of wine to unwind, so it’s okay to sometimes drink until you are sick; throwing up gets the poisons out, and if it’s only once or twice a year, nothing to worry about. You’re not a public drunk like your father.
It doesn’t really matter that you have Hepatitis, that your liver is weakened and your doctor has said you should stop drinking, because you found a nurse who told you a glass of wine every now and again would be okay, and anyway there’s no real proof that drinking will make your liver any worse than it already is. And you have lived long enough, you tell yourself, do you really need to live another thirty years? Wouldn’t twenty be enough? What does it matter if your liver shorts out a bit early? You don’t want to be stumbling around at 80, right?
What To Call Yourself
Someone who likes to drink a lot, someone who knows how to hide how much she drinks, someone who is very good at hiding how much she drinks, someone who misses alcohol as you would miss the kindest, most forgiving mother in the world. A drinker, a wine lover. Someone who’s forgotten where the off button is. Daughter, granddaughter of a drunk.
When you finally stop drinking, say you are allergic to wine, say it makes you sick, say you are taking some kind of medicine that doesn’t mix well with it, say not tonight, say maybe later, say not now, say sorry, say you can’t, say no not even a little, say no, not even champagne, say no, not even a taste of your fine cognac, your special home-made in France wine, your grand cru whatever, say you don’t know the meaning of a little.
One morning you wake to find yourself unusually sore. You get up to make coffee and find bruises on your wrists. Your husband isn’t speaking to you at first. When you hand him his coffee he says you don’t remember last night, do you? And you do remember, some of it, you remember you cooked dinner for 12 people, you remember you started cooking around 4:00, started drinking around 5:00, and that at some point after dinner when everyone was still hanging around you sensed you’d had too much and excused yourself to go to bed. You had thought you were being mature, you had thought it best to retire rather than be told later that you were slurring your speech or that you did something for which you might be ashamed. You had been proud of yourself: this was the key, you thought, just go to bed when it seems like you’ve had enough.
But now your husband tells you that you woke up later, walked downstairs naked, to the first floor and then down into the basement. Everyone was gone, he says, but can you imagine if they had all still been there (his ex-wife, your grown children). You kept wanting to go down, he says, you kept looking for stairs that went from the basement into the earth, stairs that didn’t exist. He tried to get you to go upstairs but you yelled at him, he says, you told him to leave you alone, then, after a futile search for the stairs that would take you further down into some unimaginable darkness you started to climb back up to the second floor bedroom, but you started to fall down the stairs. He grabbed you to break the fall, he says, thus the bruises. You remember nothing, not the waking, not the walking, not the wanting to descend deeper into the earth, not the falling, not the grabbing.
Somehow this story makes you feel worse than the ones from when you were much younger, the ones when you woke up with someone whose name you didn’t remember, having forgotten every word that had passed between you, every intimacy. Then, it was just regret that you’d had sex with this person you’d wanted to sleep with so much, this person to whom you were so deeply attracted, you’d had perhaps wonderful earth-moving, ecstatic sex, but you remembered nothing, no kiss, no touch, no undressing, no whispered words, nothing.
You wonder how much deeper you might have tried to go if your husband hadn’t been there to stop you, if you would have clawed at the cement or found the ax and tried to chop out a hole to reach that bottom you seemed so hell-bent on reaching.
You don’t really know what makes this time so much more special than any other time, but within a day you have decided. You will not walk naked and oblivious again on any fucking steps, you will not try to dig your way to more fucking darkness, you will not fall down another set of steps without being fully fucking conscious, you will not fall, yet, into any fucking good night.
Eighteen Months Later
It’s spring, and you’re in a remote mountain village in the south of France. You are soaking in a bathtub full of lavender bubbles, a bar of violet-scented soap at hand, you are looking out of this many-windowed 12th century chateau at the valley below, the mountains, the rain that is pouring down, the lightening that is sometimes illuminating everything, listening to the thunder that’s barking across the valley, the rain pounding the trees and the creek below. And you wish, as you have wished every day for the last year and a half, that you had a glass of wine, just one, something white and maybe a little buttery, a chardonnay or maybe something lighter, sweeter, a good Reisling, something like summer, which is almost here. But you will not have a glass of wine, at least not today, although you are in a country that loves wine, although this valley and the one next and the one next are filled with ripening grapes that will be made into wine that you will not have.
You will drink nothing that will make this bath seem more than what it is: the bubbles just bubbles, the scent lavender and violet, nothing more, nothing less. The rain is rain, no wine will make it seem better or worse or something else. The thunder will roar as thunder does. No glass of wine will help you smile, will relax you enough so that you can feel more than you do at this very moment: how lucky you are to be here, atop a mountain in a 12th century chateau with lavender bubbles and violet soap watching a thunderstorm develop under your eyes.
And when you get out of the bath and dry off, and look at your body in the mirror, no glass of wine will make it seem more or less than what it is, the body of an ordinary older woman. Sober, you will dry yourself off, dress, and open the windows wide so that you can smell the rain, the grass and the trees, hear more clearly the voice of the thunder, the rushing of the creek, drunk with rain.
You Think you have Become Anti-Social
Since you’ve stopped drinking. Parties no longer interest you, not even dinner parties, where everyone lingers too long and drinks wine while you sit there wanting to go off and read or write or play video games or check email or just about anything rather than sit here socializing with people who are drinking. You don’t understand anymore why people just don’t eat, have coffee or tea, and then go home. You wish they would go home. Even here, at this writer’s retreat in the south of France, everyone gathers to drink wine at night. You can hear them, under your window, laughing and talking. You don’t join them. At night you sleep well. They do not, and you want to tell them that they might sleep better if they didn’t drink as much but you keep your mouth shut because you know this is about you, not them. Your husband sometimes joins them, and sometimes he comes back to the bed a bit drunk. He leaves bottles of wine in the room, full and empty. You try not to care, you tell yourself this is your problem, not his, but the bottles bother you and the drinking bothers you and sometimes you hate yourself—what kind of boring, judgmental person have you become? Your husband is mostly loving and affectionate but you don’t understand how he can not understand that you have this sleeping monster inside of you, that you are doing your best to keep it down, but it’s snarling, raging, and you don’t know why he can’t hear.
Lo Camin de la Ceba
It’s windy and threatening rain, but that hasn’t stopped them. Today, May 15th, is the day of the ancient onion walk from Mazamet, a village some twenty kilometers away, to this one, Labastide Esparbairenque. Every year for as long as anyone can remember the Occitan villagers have walked to Labastide to buy onion plants, then stayed until evening to drink and eat, play music and dance. I gather with them now outside the village church of St. André , where the wind is bossing us around, but no one is leaving.
The sound of bagpipes fills the valley. A few villagers are playing the crabas,bagpipes made out of whole skins of white goats. When they blow, the bodies seem to come alive again, grow fat, almost whole, headlessly piping drone and melody at once. There is nothing, nothing, like the sound of a bagpipe. The drone echoes without interruption like a sweet, deep melancholy you don’t want to let go of, an unexpected rhyming, a vibrating in sinew and bone, a sudden and lingering breath, an awareness in the muscles of heart and eye, an ohhhhhhmmmmmmmm that will not be ignored, and you wonder what insight or madness you might come to if you listened long enough to the drone of a bagpipe. Against it, the chanter pipes its brave and clear melody. The two sounds, one like a dirge, one like a dance, speak as one voice, one instrument, the only instrument you know that has two such different voices.
There is free wine, and someone is grilling sausages. Someone else is frying potatoes, someone else selling bread and crepes. Someone is selling honey made from mountain acacia, thyme soap and chestnut butter, and someone is, of course, selling onion plants. Groups of families are spread out on blankets all along the mountain in the shadow of the church and its cemetery. Children and dogs are running everywhere, stealing sausages from each other as the crabas fill every unspoken-for cranny of this valley with drone and melody. Old ladies in church dresses smile, stand straight and proud with the help of canes. French men with red berets sit, drinking wine and smoking, some speaking French, some Occitan. On one side of the church laughing families, on the other, the cemetery for their dead. The two voices of the bagpipe seem appropriate for both picnic and funeral.
You wander among the living, part of you happy to be here, part of you feeling blessed to be among these friendly, wine-drinking Ocs. You buy onion plants and honey, chestnut butter. You chomp down on a French bread sausage sandwich, listening with both glee and sadness to the goat-pipes. Anyone who doesn’t feel both the urge to dance and the urge to cry when listening to bag pipes is not really listening.
The other part of you, the darker one, comes alive whenever you walk past the free wine, you could have one, she says, just one, look how small the glasses are, no one knows you’re here, no one would know, no one. She is not happy, the dark one, with anything, not the honey, not the soap, not the sausages or bread or the hopeful onion plants you have stuck into the coat of your jacket. She doesn’t like the music, she doesn’t like the people, the church or the cemetery, she only wants one thing,just one.
Later, you walk home with your onion plants, the honey, chestnut butter and your miserable dark self, you walk away from the festival, away from the music, through the ally of thousand-year old cypresses that leads toward your summer home here. You crumple into bed, exhausted with listening, exhausted with the effort of not drinking.
Eighteen months, you say to the dark one, as you try for sleep, eighteen months it’s been. When will you leave me alone.
You sleep, finally, rolling, during the night over onto the onion plants you’d thrown onto the bed. In your dreams you hear the call of the bagpipes. Everything smells like onions, even the breath of the dark one, who visits you, as always: I’ll never leave you, she drones, I’m unending, without stop, without pause, without yield, without period. I’m you. I’m here for good.
Play whatever melody you like.
Sheryl St. Germain’s poetry books include Making Bread at Midnight,How Heavy the Breath of God, The Journals of Scheherazade, and Let it Be a Dark Roux: New and Selected Poems. A memoir Swamp Songs: the Making of an Unruly Woman, was published in 2003, and she co-edited, with Margaret Whitford, Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century. Her most recent book, Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair, was released in September of 2012. She is currently co-editing a literary anthology for teaching creative writing in alternative spaces, Make Mine Words, which will be published by Trinity University Press. She directs the MFA program in Creative Writing at Chatham University.
(Updated Oct. 2013)