She opens my blinds and she knows I’ll wake up when the sunlight strikes my eyelids. Restless from last night’s disturbed sleep, I’m heavy with pins and needles in my feet. I typically avoid cleaning my shelves; they get messy so easily, there’s no point. I rise and make myself some eggs and toast before venturing back into my haphazard room to conquer what Mum considers ‘a mess’. It’s organised mess, Mum. I promise.
The shelves are a mismatched pair of mahogany wood in one the left corner of my room. Stacks and stacks of books, both unread and read are piled around, yellow and cream pages taunting me. Perhaps colour coordinated books would be interesting. Though rainbow would be a lot of effort, I decide something in my life has to be in order.
I put on an upbeat Spotify playlist; the voice of Charlie Puth croons from my tiny iPhone speaker. Cleaning isn’t complete without a soundtrack. Specks of dust find their way into my nostrils, and I realise I should have brought tissues. It’s rather self-sabotaging, having a dust allergy and a lack of motivation to clean. I start pulling apart the rows on my shelves, my fingers caressing the deckled pages of old and new books. It feels like revisiting a second home. I find pots of gold and navy ink, a couple of stained quills and a multitude of bookmarks dating back from the beginning of high school. The only signs of wear are the fading orange and yellow of paper. I push the frames of my glasses up my nose; I’ve had them since year nine, since my habit for reading in the dark started to dwindle. I can feel the weight of the old stories that once kept me up at night, the creased pages and dim torchlight under my doona. Of wizards, dragons, underdog heroes and broken homes.
A collection of mermaid novels catch my eye, a chapter of my youth. Oh, and fairies—everybody loves fairies with their iridescent wings and glittery magic. I remember Mum telling me it was okay that none of them looked like me, that having dark hair and warmer skin didn’t mean I couldn’t be a fairy. The spines of the books reveal the names of the fairies, each named after seasons and flowers. They also had a tiny pet that followed them around. I once made a tiny cricket my familiar for a while before he suffocated in a plastic container. (I forgot to put holes in it.)
At the age of eight, I had convinced myself I was a long lost mermaid. The sea was calling me home, a shell to a hermit crab. Despite the fact I hated sand in my hair and the burning salt water in my eyes and mouth, my legs would one day join together and scales would crawl across my skin, tiny shimmering pearls caught in the sunlight. My tail would carry me forth into the ocean—I wasn’t a strong swimmer, but my tail would make me so, and I wouldn’t feel the cold.
I was the new Emily Windsnap—the protagonist of a middle grade novel I ‘borrowed’ from the library and never returned. It still has the school logo stamped on the front page, a deep navy stain faded with age. I couldn’t possibly return it now.
My copies of Harry Potter are battered and falling apart. Memories of moving to this house flicker in my mind, and I recall The Order of the Phoenix sitting with me on the car trip. I open it, soft pages fluttering between my fingers. There it is—a crisp line on page 57. The Order are turning southwest, with Moody yelling into the night.
Our old house was packed within weeks of me finishing primary school. I said goodbye to the red roses, the lemon and fig trees, the clothes line I loved to swing on. We were off somewhere else, a new house with a block of land. ‘We’re going to have cows and sheep,’ Dad said. My siblings and I were packed into the car, our belongings in tow. I waved to our tiny brick structure with a plaque inscribed ‘HOME’ on the front. The trip took an hour, 68 kilometres that we measured out, the scent of manure sticking to the hot seats of the old Toyota Tarago. My siblings and I ate popping candy, mandarins and Smith’s sea salt chips. We licked our fingers and listened to 106.5fm, taking in the soft plains and swaying trees outside. I found myself reading for a while, but the heat was exhausting. With sweaty knees and a pounding in my head, I dog-earred Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and tried to sleep, the hills a murky green blur out the window. My brother and sister leaned on me as if I were a pillow.
I was jostled awake by the rocky path of our driveway, a dirt road forking at the top—to the right was our home. Sweeping fields with grass taller than I was. A willow tree bowing by the length of a shallow dam. In my lap, Harry was soaring through the sky with Mad-Eye Moody and the rest of the Order, his heart pounding in the sky. My mind was reeling with ideas, with the stories that filled the crevices of our new home. When I saw the cubby house, the toys and tools left behind, I didn’t pick up Harry for another two weeks.
I shut the book and place it with the others in their spot. The memory fades like the last bits of popping candy.
The covers are black and laminated, a remnant of my time preserving my collection. I give them a quick dust, giggling to myself. I unwittingly fell into the Twilight phase as a teen. Yet when I was reading about sparkling vampires, it was accompanied by heavy thoughts. It’s a trying time when your body is growing, moulding into something completely different. Blood flowed from places I didn’t know it could—they didn’t prepare us for this in Catholic school. I abandoned fairies, their enchanted woods and unicorn pals. I was no longer a lost mermaid princess from the sea. My body didn’t feel like a temple, a sacred place that boys were not allowed to touch until I was 21. It felt like a graveyard. Flowers didn’t grow from the pores of my skin; they wilted and rotted within seconds like deformed fruit. Yet it felt right.
I needed a distraction. I searched for it in the laminated books from my high school library, the scent of cucumber sandwiches lingering along with tiny smears from clammy hands. Charles Dickens—not a fan. J.R.R Tolkien? It wasn’t the right time. A friend guided me to something new and I was suddenly engrossed with vampires and gloomy nights, with alleyways drenched in rain and spontaneous kisses under moonlight. But glimmering skin and handsome fanged men still did nothing to stop the trembling thoughts echoing in my head, taunting me.
‘You’ll never be beautiful,’ they told me. Over and over and over.
And, for a time, I believed it.
I finish the first shelf with a sense of victory. The scent of Mr Sheen is slightly overwhelming and my dusting cloth is filthy. I retrieve multiple from the laundry; I have eight to go. The second shelf is filled with sunburnt orange Penguin classics and old crime thrillers. Jane Eyre sticks out like a sore thumb, wild strips of neon tabs peeking out from the pages. The spine is broken. I stroke it in apology.
There’s a gap between my last couple of years in school and my time in university, a period during which my reading habits dropped down to the bare minimum: assigned texts. But one name on the list of recommended texts in my creative writing class caught my attention. Jane Eyre. Classics have never been my cup of tea, yet the premise of this Bronte novel intrigued me. Whether it was the feminist undertones, the independence of Jane, or the complicated romance, it was hard to tell. My tutor, a lovely woman who wore huge hoop earrings, helped me find a copy in the university library and said, ‘This is one of my favourites.’
Jane Eyre brought about one of turning points in my young adult start. For a long time, I was prone to being easily flustered and aggressive. Maybe my Zoloft wasn’t working anymore, but anything stirred up a storm in my stomach. I’d finished class and was sitting on a mossy rock outside one of the art buildings when I saw an ex-friend I had fallen out with. My heart thundered in my chest, my palms were slippery with sweat as I contemplated whether to throw out an obnoxious insult or run. But I thought of Jane, of her resolve and strength, and I met his eyes. Our time throwing sand at each other on the beach, sharing clothes and food, making our Economics teacher laugh was gone. The flicker of recognition between us passed was swift. I turned back to my work and finished my coffee, edging his face out of my memory, off the cliff.
I don’t wish ill on him. If he broke a leg I might laugh. I haven’t seen him since that day. I don’t have any more memories to cast away.
I move five candles off the shelves and place them onto my bed, their scents of vanilla and flowers lingering. Ed Sheeran’s Perfect fills the corners of my room, warming my chest. It’s such a lovely song. The Picture of Dorian Gray, Sherlock Holmes, Breakfast at Tiffany’s—I stack them on my night stand, out of the way. Situated between a stray candle and a Rapunzel pop vinyl is The Handmaid’s Tale. The crimson dress is hard to ignore, the title even more so. It had fallen into my shopping basket on Book Depository when a university friend recommended the TV series. I’ve always been a read-the-book-before-you-watch-the-movie kind of girl (I did this with Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—that was a mistake). I had no warning for what I was about to dive into.
The train ride dragged on as I gripped the closed book in my hands. I couldn’t open it again. I had made it 70 pages before nausea roiled in my stomach. Offred’s tale felt like a nail and hammer, driving the point into my chest and saying over and over again:
You are nothing but your body. You will be used and discarded.
Way too real for seven in the morning.
The disturbing idea that women would be used a breeders for a new society crawled along my skin. I had never held grudges against men themselves, only the patriarchal system we’re subject to. And yet I had to catch myself as I glared at men who shoved past me to get on the train first, ones who take up two seats or spread their legs wide enough for three. I clutch the book with both anger and cold despair—it’s far too close to a reality. It struck every single chord in my body.
The sudden absence of music snaps me from my reverie. My phone must have died. I replace The Handmaid’s Tale, its polished spot on the shelf gleaming in the midday sun, and realise I have only managed to clean two shelves. I sit on my bed, the candles tumbling against my hips. My mind is weary, the stories I’ve encountered burying themselves deep, somewhere I won’t revisit for a while. My history is attached to the books I’ve read, they are a part of me that cannot be overshadowed by anything else. It’s strange how powerful ink and paper can be, forming words into sentences into stories of love, despair and hope. Maybe I’ll craft my own story from these words, the soft pages in my mind calling to be inked.
Not today though.
I replace the books neatly, in a vaguely colour co-ordinated fashion. Mum comes in, assesses my work and gives me a slight nod and smile. The sun catches her high cheekbones, the lines of her face deeper than usual. I rarely see her, only on the weekdays she stays home from work. I wonder what stories she has. She tells me lunch is ready whenever I want to come out. I thank her, a sudden ache in my chest, a need to ask.
The lips of the book in my hand caress my wrist, reminding me of the story I have to tell.
Sofia Casanova is an emerging writer and editor from Sydney. Her writing focuses on mental health, feminism and culture. She tweets @sofiaecasanova.