Over a year ago I wrote a short story about a twelve years old boy coming face to face, for the first time in his life, with the sad spectacle of death in the family. In it, Ben watches his father trying to revive his frail grandma, and later he attempts the same technique on the fish tilting upside down in his new aquarium.
"Before I know it my hand cuts into the water; it comes out dripping, with the fish lying there, helpless, between my fingers.
It seems to be gulping for air. Maybe it forgot how to breathe. I know I can fix it. First I rub the mouth, delicately, with my finger. Then I try to massage the entire body. I am doing my best, my very best to be gentle—but in the end, some scales tear off the body, and a tiny fin flakes away.
At this point, I must do something, and fast. Just like dad: he did what he could for grandma, and blew his breath into her; and his breath was magical, because it lasted in her, somehow, for the next two weeks. I can do better than that for this little body, even with a few scales or a fin missing. So, I take a deep breath, put my lips to the fish—but then the smell, the touch... It makes me pause for a minute.
Still, I cannot give up: I must be brave, just like dad—or else, the spell may be broken. So again I gasp, and with frantic hope, I give a full-blown puff. The red eyes seem to be looking at me, and the tail is hanging over my finger, and it looks limp, and a bit crumpled.
I cannot allow myself to weep. No, not now. So I wipe the corner of my eye. Now if you watch closely, right here, you can see that the tail is still crinkling. I gasp, and blow again. I blow and blow, and with a last-gasp effort I go on blowing until all is lost, until I don’t care anymore, I mean it, I don’t care but the tears, the tears come, they are starting to flow, and there is nothing, nothing more I can do—
Then I feel mom, the smell of her skin. Here she is, wrapping her arms around mine. Softly, gently, she releases the fish, and takes me to their bed, and dad says nothing but makes room for me, and I curl myself in the dent between them, and it feels so warm here and so sweet that at last, I can lose myself, and I cry myself to sleep."
My watercolor painting, Floating
I set the story aside, thinking I was done with it. But the character of the boy, Ben, came back to me and started chatting, chatting, chatting in my head. It became the seed of my just-published novel Apart from Love.
In writing it I asked myself, what if I ‘aged’ him by fifteen years? Where would he be then? Would he still admire his father as a hero, or will he be disillusioned at that point? What secrets would come to light in the life of this family? How would it feel for Ben to come back to his childhood home, and have his memories play tricks on him? What if I introduce a girl, Anita, a redhead who looks as beautiful as his mother used to be, but is extremely different from her in all other respects? And what if this girl were married to his father? What if the father were an author, attempting to capture the thoughts, the voices of Ben and Anita, in order to write his book?
So the process of writing became, for me, simply listening to the characters and trying, as fast as I could, to capture their thoughts. My role as an author was merely suggesting a place, coming up with the stage set and illuminating it as appropriate for the time of day, and allowing the characters to describe what they see and to act out their passions and fears.
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