Bats or Swallows

“My teeth,” Frances said. “They fall out of my mouth when I speak. They’re falling and I keep spitting them out like they’re cherry pits, but no one says anything about it. You were there once, and you ignored it, but I think you kicked a tooth away when it landed too close to your foot. You were barefoot. I was too, even though we were on Yonge Street, somewhere in the city. I don’t think anything’s wrong until I take a deep breath, and it feels like I’m eating something minty, you know, really fresh? So I find a mirror and see my gums, empty. And then I panic and wake up.”

Dreaming of tooth loss can be a symbol of death or sudden monetary windfall, and Frances was worried.

“Maybe you’ll win the lottery?” I suggested.

“No, I think someone is going to die. I’ve always thought I was a little psychic.”

When I was in the sixth grade my friends and I wanted to know who was the most psychic in our class. This was before we knew anything about odds or statistics, so we made cards with symbols on them: squares, triangles, hearts, circles. One person selected a card and concentrated on the symbol while the rest of us tried to pick up their brainwaves. We kept score of who guessed the most correctly, and in the end I was the most psychic, but that was mostly because I had accidentally cut up the cards unevenly and could tell what they were by their shape.

“What am I thinking?” I asked.

“You’re wondering who’s going to die.”

“Sorry, lady,” I told her. “Try again.”

Sometimes you look back on conversations like that and you wonder if there is something to be said about omens. Okay, there are statistics that explain it’s just life happening, but maybe there are also signs or premonitions worth paying attention to, interpreting.

A few days later, I left Frances a voicemail. Hey, last night I had a dream too. I’m wearing a necklace made of teeth, human teeth—as if they’re a string of pearls—and some have roots. I show the necklace to people, you’re one of them.

A few months after I started dating my boyfriend Nathan, he gave me pearl earrings, these small creamy globes with dull gold backing. They had belonged to his grandmother. The earrings reminded me of bath beads, the way the beads looked solid, but how if you squeezed them soap would gush out. He told me that pearl is calcium carbonate fused together with a compound called conchiolin. He always knew stuff like that, these useless facts. Molluscs produce conchiolin as a response to irritating objects in their shells. When you combine the two compounds together you get nacre, which is commonly known as pearl. When he wasn’t looking, I bit into an earring, surprised by its strength.

My father called at 3:15. I remember waking up and looking at the clock. He said my name twice when I answered. My brother, Peter, had been in an accident. I listened to my father, but I also zoned out, and I sat on my couch and looked at the outlines of frames hanging on my wall. I noticed I had left my balcony door open and hugged my bare legs towards myself. And then I put on some clothes and took my car keys and drove to the hospital.

Things I’ve made wishes on: dandelion fluff, white horses in fields, lost eyelashes, even times (11:11, for example). As a teenager, I heard stories about the apparitions of the Virgin Mary in Lourdes, France. People would travel from all over the world to visit the site to get healed. I heard that if you prayed a certain series of prayers to the Lady of Lourdes over nine days, something good would happen. When I started reciting the prayers quietly in bed, I felt a twinge of guilt for diluting the prayers of those more deserving of goodness—the sick, the crippled, the elderly—but I kept at it anyway. On the tenth day, I went to school and I clearly remember having a fantastic day. There were no miracles, but the day was really good, and I wondered if the prayers had something to do with it.

But when my brother had his accident, I was stubborn about my wishes and prayers. I thought, if this is going to happen, it’s going to happen. It wasn’t that I was angry, but that I felt useless. A wish was a puff of air; it was nothing. My mother prayed and then she stopped because she said that whenever she prayed, something bad happened anyway. It didn’t mean that God wasn’t listening, it just meant that whenever one becomes so solemn it’s because something serious has happened, something big and often something irreversible. So we kept quiet and still, but that didn’t change anything either.

Peter had been coming home from a night out. His car got a flat tire and he tried to change it, but the jack wasn’t working properly, so he walked out into the road to flag down some help. It was a highway, not busy. Two lanes, a few lights. The problem is that other drivers don’t expect people to be there, in the dark and with car trouble.

Peter liked sending postcards and he mailed cards to me even when we were living in the same city. The last postcard he sent had a picture of an old-timey amusement park on the front. He wrote, How many vegans does it take to change a light bulb? They can’t—vegans can’t change anything, and then he described a hot dog he had eaten. My brother had been a vegan for the past few months. An experiment, he said, to see if he could do it, but how could he when there were all these hot dogs in the world begging to be eaten? He had forgotten to write my apartment number on the postcard, and it didn’t get stuffed into my mailbox until over two weeks after it had been mailed, the day before his funeral.

Soon after the funeral I went camping. I wanted to go somewhere that felt and looked different, somewhere quiet and dusty. When I told this to Nathan he said, “Definitely, let’s do it!” as if it was the best idea I ever had.

“I mean, I want to go right now.”

Nathan paused, but he could tell how desperately I meant it, and by the time we gathered our things together and figured out a game plan, it was late. We drove up to Georgian Bay. Nathan set up the tent in the dark as I sat at the picnic table and shone the flashlight in his direction. I wasn’t very helpful, so he took the flashlight himself, and I kept sitting there, digging my fingernails into the damp wood.

In the morning we rented a little motorboat. It cost $30 for the day, plus a credit card as security, and before we left they gave us a map of the area, a photocopied piece of paper with little squiggly island shapes sprinkled throughout. I squinted at the map and directed the boat. We wanted to swim, but we wanted privacy and eventually we settled on an empty-looking cottage perched atop massive, flat slabs of granite. We anchored the boat and jumped into the water.

I don’t know who started it, but we had sex on the rocks outside the cottage. Ted Hughes wrote this about the first time he slept with Sylvia Plath: you were slim and lithe and smooth as a fish. It felt like that. Nice. It was the bathing suit, I think; the swimming. And then I stretched out, stomach down with my cheek on the rock which was warm from having absorbed the heat of the day. I breathed and closed my eyes and thought about how things petrified, how it wasn’t fair that when molluscs were upset they eventually produced pearls, and how if I just lay here for awhile maybe things would harden into something good.

I didn’t get up for a long time, and Nathan swam back to the boat to grab our towels. He held them above his head as he treaded back and then covered me with them. Eventually he forced me to get up, practically dragged me to the boat, and we chugged back to the campsite, me in the front, refusing to wear the lifejacket, my t-shirt, or shorts.

The camping trip was an example of how, after Peter died, I would come up with plans, with ideas. Ways To Feel Better. These ideas would make so much sense at the time, and then, suddenly, they would stop making sense and I wouldn’t know what to do. I was flummoxed. I didn’t recognize this pattern until long afterwards, even after it had been suggested to me by others, and at the time I would cling to the idea, whatever it was, white-knuckled, and no one would be able to shake me of it.

At the end of the summer Frances and I sat in her backyard, looking up. There were black birds shooting around in circles, squeaking. The sounds they were making made me think they were bats, but Frances said, no, they were swallows. Squeak, squeak. Despite the squeak, definitely, swallows. Sailors used to think that swallows would pull them to safety if they were drowning and if that didn’t work, their souls to heaven. They would get tattoos of swallows as talismans. The birds we were looking at were darting around, small and quick. You would need hundreds of them to swoop down and lift you up.

I could see Frances’s talisman on the inside of her wrist. A tattooed, cursive F for her name. It was small, and unless you knew it was there you might think it was just a birthmark or an errant splotch of ink. She didn’t mean the tattoo in a narcissistic way. She meant it as a symbol that in the end, throughout your life, you always have yourself to rely on. She got it in Europe and didn’t tell me about it. I noticed it myself, and when I asked, she was sheepish. “I was kind of drunk at the time.”

Frances told me that my brother had been planning on stealing her idea and getting his own initial tattooed on his body, on his chest. Frances and Peter had dated for awhile. They had remained friends afterwards and he wrote her postcards too. He told her about the tattoo in his last card. I was jealous that hers had been serious, while mine had been a joke.

“Are you okay?” she asked. “Did that upset you?”

I was having problems clearing my mind. I constantly felt coated in a layer of wax paper: crinkly, opaque. I felt like those scrambler rides at amusement parks, the ones that spin you into dozens of little circles, and just when you’re getting used to the velocity of the swings, you’re dropped.

“Here, let me show you something.” Frances was taking yoga and she wanted to teach me what she had learned.

“I’m not good at the breathing stuff,” I said. “Or meditation. Or Sanskrit.”

But she made me get up anyway. We took off our shoes. She showed me how to bring the bottom of my right foot to the inner part of my left thigh so that my right leg was jutting out to the side, like a flamingo. This was the tree pose. After you steady yourself on your leg, your root, you lift up your arms and branch out. And then you keep your balance. The trick to staying up is to focus on a single fixed spot. I stared straight ahead at the top of the tree across the yard, ignoring Frances’s swaying profile beside me, ignoring the squeaks of the swallows above. I kept my arms stretched out and I curled my toes. I didn’t stay up for very long.

“It’s not so easy, is it?” she asked as I steadied myself and grunted. When my foot touched the ground, I did it again, and then again.

I realized that for those few seconds I would think only of keeping my balance. When it worked, when I stayed up, I felt good. My rooted leg was strong and with my arms above my head my body looked streamlined, graceful. I got the idea that if I kept standing on one leg and looking up, if I kept focused and if I practised this pose, maybe eventually I could train my body to produce something beautiful. Something beautiful and permanent and solid.

Teri Vlassopoulos is a writer living in Montreal. She is currently working on a novel.