or Literature, Loneliness & Loss
Descansos is the Spanish name for those roadside memorials you often see – crosses, flowers, ghost bikes – that mark a coming to rest, a death, a spot where someone’s journey in life halted unexpectedly.
Mostly we think of death as the end of our own, or a loved one’s, existence. But really, Life is a series of small deaths – roads not taken, paths cut off, ambushes, and betrayals. Most of us, women especially, have died a thousand deaths before we’re twenty, and while instrumental in deepening, growing and awakening our individuation, these dead-ends in development are also tragedies to be mourned.
I thought it would be interesting to visit these descansos, to honour their memory and to understand the meanings they’ve brought to the person I am today.
Feel free to share your own in the comments, or simply acknowledge their gifts in your thoughts.
I was eight when the best book I ever read came into my hands. I’d seen it in the Puffin Book Club flyer at school. Entranced by the tantalising blurb and squinty image I was gobsmacked when I asked my mother to buy it and she said ‘Yes’. Had the book already begun to weave it’s magic? The title alone held unquantifiable promise: “The Neverending Story”.
Weeks crawled by like years. With a child’s exquisite agony, I waited for the book orders to arrive at school, and when they (finally!) did, and the teacher handed them out I could scarcely bear the last few minutes. As soon as the bell went I dove straight in. Words closed about my head like water, muffling the world around me, and I was submerged in a place accessible only to the deepest, most murky of imaginations. Like the fantastically named loner protagonist Bastian Balthazar Bux, I spent every spare minute in this alternate reality. Offered the chance to live out my life There instead of Here, I would have clasped it without a moment’s hesitation for Bastian was someone, isolated and suspiciously different just like me, who had found the friendship and understanding I coveted in the most unexpected of places – a book.
That autumn was my first in England, in a strange bedroom in a rented house filled with someone else’s furniture, in my second new school within a year. Raw with grief for the farm I hadn’t wanted to leave, the book helped me adjust to my new life without feeling it all quite so painfully, sort of letting it unfurl quietly in the background. My Irish lilt dissolved in the caustic spite of the schoolyard. At her insistence my Mammy became Mummy (that felt strange – disloyal somehow – like introducing a dear friend as just ‘someone you know’. It was as if I’d left my real mother back in Ireland). My legs learnt to navigate a lightless landing from bedroom to bathroom and my hands found the biscuit tin (even that was someone else’s, a great black thing splotched with big red and orange blooms) in its disturbingly spice-pungent cupboard without having to check the blueprint in my head. Soon I could wander the house with my nose in a book and not bump into anything.
In spite of its title and comforting thickness (it was the longest book I’d yet read, easily equal to four Famous Fives piled one on top of another) it was inevitable that I would reach the end of ‘The Neverending Story’, and when that happened the only way to keep from falling into my own emptiness was to read it again. And again. And again. And again.
Each reading salved the abrasions of the first major transition in my young life. The book came with me everywhere, school, the garden, something to read in the car while my mother shopped in a faceless superstore instead of a friendly grocers in an Irish market town where the shopkeepers all knew me by name. (It’s highly likely it also delayed me burning a ring into my middle finger when curiosity taught me what the flame-labelled dashboard button did).
My constant companion in a wholly altered world, it was a refuge when I lacked words to bridge the isolation inside; for who else would have, could have, understood? After a few months its curled cover was soft with the white fur cracks of a million creases. No longer a thing apart, its contours, the weight and feel of its pages, were as much a part of me as the curls on my head.
Then, one day, I reached for it and it was gone. I didn’t know how long it had been missing; by now it was an occasional retreat (the Silver Brumby series in the school library fuelling a horse-lust that culminated in another descanso years later), but it still held the soul-grip of something that’s been with you through thick and thin, a bond smelted in the fires of experience, a dear friend you would never, ever desert.
Puzzled, I searched my room – drawers, cupboard, dresser, under the bed. I went downstairs, eyes raking surfaces for the familiar outline.
Swallowing hard, dread sticking in my throat like an expanding cotton ball, I found my mother in the kitchen.
“Have you seen my Neverending Story?”
“You know – my book from the Puffin Book Club.” A pause. Her eyes moved up and to the right scanning some mental bookcase then – Certainty.
“Oh yes, now I remember. I threw it away.” She shrugged and turned back towards the counter.
“You what??! Why?” I almost choked on the words.
“It was so tattered it looked ready to fall apart.”
Incapable of translating such a bellowing anguish into words, a small, pathetic “I still wanted it” was all that came out.
“You’ve read it lots of times anyway” she continued as if she hadn’t heard.
Then, glancing conspiratorially at me over her shoulder “Once I’ve read a book I can never read it again.”
So much of what we learn is absorbed not instructed; for the next thirty years, neither did I.
Images courtesy of shutterstock.com