While the Gods Were Sleeping

Erwin Mortier



I have always shuddered at the task of beginning. At the first word, the first touch. The unease when the first sentence has to take shape, and after the first the second. The unease, and the excitement, like pulling away the shroud covering a body, asleep or dead. Then there’s the desire, or the fantasy, of beating the pen into a ploughshare and ploughing back into blankness a just-written page, straight over the lines, furrow after furrow. I would then look back at a stark-white field, at the relics turned up by the plough: rusted buckets, bits of barbed wire, bone fragments, bed rails, a dud shell, a wedding ring.

I’d give a great deal for a chance to descend into the netherworld of our histories, to be lowered on ropes into their dark shafts and watch layer after layer glide past in the lamplight. Everything the ground has secured: foundations, fence posts, tree roots, soup plates, steel helmets, the skeletons of animals and people in a silenced chaos, the maelstrom that engulfed us congealed to earth’s crust.

I would call it the book of shards, of bones and crumbs, of colonnades of trees and the dead in the cellar, and the drinking sessions at the long, long table. The book of mud too, of placenta – formless mud, morass and matrix.

I am grateful to the world because it still has window frames, and door jambs, skirting boards, lintels, and the consolation of tobacco, and black coffee and male thighs, that’s all. The day comes when you’re too old to carry yourself hour after hour to the grave, to mutter the dies irae in doorways, on street corners or squares for so many figures who’ve fallen from you like leaves, decomposing to a bogginess your toes sink into. When you’re old you no longer see people around you but animated ruins. The dead always find back doors or kitchen windows to slip inside and haunt younger flesh with their spasms. Draughts roar through each of us. We have memories that allow us to tame the dead till they hang in our neurones immobile like foetuses throttled by the umbilical cord. I fold their fingers and close their eyes, and should they sit up under their sheets I know it’s the enzymes or acids plucking at their sinews. Their true resurrection lies elsewhere.


When I was a child fancies such as these were sure to annoy my mother, if I was foolish enough to tell her about them. She harboured a sacred awe for boundaries and barriers. Letting your imagination loose from the earth was seen as a sign of a frivolous disposition. To her the most unforgivable thing the living could do to the dead was to make them speak, since they had no way of defending themselves against what you put in their mouths. In her view, the coins the Greeks once placed under the tongues of the deceased were not to pay the ferryman for taking them across the Styx, they were hush money. If the dead had started to blab they’d have choked there and then. They’ve no right to speak, she said, which is why no one should act as their mouthpiece.

I have my doubts about that even now. Everything that lives and breathes is motivated by a fundamental inertia, and all dead things conceal within them their lost existence, like a repressed disgrace.


She’d be over a hundred were she still alive. Not so very much older than I, who am doing my best not to put anything into her mouth, not even a coin. Actually, I don’t think about death very often these days. He thinks often enough about me. Every morning, after brushing my teeth, I run my tongue around the inside of my mouth, proud that I still have all my own molars, and read the rictus grin of my skull in Braille. That is memento mori enough.

There are nights when sleep pushes me up out of its depths as a relic myself, till I wake from the cold, draw the blankets tight and wonder how a memory perhaps decades old can impose itself so forcefully that I wake up. There’s never anything dramatic about it. It might be the sight of a room, a landscape, a look from someone I’ve known, or an event without much significance – such as that Sunday morning, a spring day in the forties when, awaiting lunch, I stand at the window in my living room with my daughter. We look outside, at the front garden and the road, which are strewn with white dots. The wind is blowing them out of the sweet chestnuts on the far side of the river across the water and swirling them round in tiny tornadoes over the road as if snow were falling. The silence in the streets that morning, the pale light, the languor of Sunday, the smell of soup and roast veal, and my daughter saying: ‘I thought it was going to rain every day.’


Or I’m on the beach again, the broad beach at low tide, near the dyke, in the first chill of autumn, one of those days when, out of the wind, you can absorb the last of the warmth. I’ve taken my husband and brother outside, or they me, for some fresh air, to inhale something other than that eternal hospital smell. They stand in the lee of the barrack blocks, in the sun, scarves round their necks, caps on their heads, the silver-white sand glittering all around. In a fit of frivolity they’ve pinned their medals to their pyjama tops and now they’re sharing a match for the cigarettes I’ve brought them. They look pale, and fragile, in that implacable light, the frontal light of September. Only their cheeks are ablaze.

The scene would represent something shut away, closed in on itself for ever, were it not that my husband, to be, from behind my brother’s fingers as he shelters the flame with his hand, suddenly looks me straight in the eye: amused, roguish, sharp – a sense of fun in which I instantly spot the intelligence. My brother meanwhile stares hard at my husband, not so much reading his profile as sucking it in through his eyes. I suddenly realize we’ve both been in love with the same man.

When I turn round it’s not my room I see, not my chair, my legs wrapped in blankets and the board with the pen and paper in my lap, but the beach, the wide beach at low tide, the wind whipping up the water in the tidal pools, the thin white surf-line, the grey-green brine, the underside of the clouds, a friendly void drawing me in.


‘The angel of time has already carried me off,’ I say to Rachida, the home carer, as she helps me get out of bed in the mornings. I say it to see her smile. ‘You know the angel of time, don’t you? He could be the angel of wrath or the angel of victory. But he’s also the angel of sleep and of Dürer’s Melancholy.’

‘Yes, Mrs Helena. Your angels are complicated.’

I am glad she smiles, always smiles. Each morning she walks in as cheerful as ever, sets me upright in bed and arranges the pillows behind my back. She doesn’t cut my bread into finicky lumps, like the harpy who sometimes stands in for her, and who sits on the edge of the bed till I’ve finished my breakfast, puffing audibly with impatience, before getting up to fill the bath and put the hand-towels ready – the telegraphy of her impatience with me and my old age.

I’m glad too that Rachida spares my body as she frees me from my nightdress, pulling my bony arms through my sleeves with a devotion undiminished by routine, and easing my head through its daily birth from the narrow neck of my vest as gently as possible, whereas her stand-in, that pillar of salt, always manages to molest me with my own limbs. She squeezes me to her chest as if I were a mannequin and drags me across the floor to the bathroom to sit me on the pot. While I finish dripping she shakes out the sheets, pulls open the blinds and tugs at the hangers in the wardrobe as if she’s looting the treasures of Rome. Lord preserve us from the scourge of the Norsemen.

‘She’s called Christine,’ says Rachida, and although she gives me a dubious look, she smiles.


Most of the scenes that come to me during my half-sleep are old, but clear as a fata morgana. They have never been wholly governed by language, whose flow only shallowly carves out the channels of thought in our minds when we are young. Those are the purest of images, epitomizing the questions that preoccupied me in my early years and now, as if the circle could ever be closed, engage me once again.

I can’t really call them recollections, since I don’t try to remember, they just come to me – unless the nature of recollection changes over the years. Sometimes in that half-sleep the echo of my breathing seems to reawaken old acoustics. Rooms long since stacked away wall against wall in the backstage of forgetfulness enclose me again. Roof tiles zip together on rafters, forming a membrane of earthenware scales. Bricks fall back into their old bonds. Beneath my soles floors recover their solidity, each echoing tread prompting hallways and corridors to remember their vaulting and niches. Astonished, baffled even, I step into those sinuous passages and find myself lost in a cave filled with paintings that come alive in quivering candlelight.


When I was young I wanted to know where time came from, whether it was a substance like water or ether that you could catch and keep or filter out from inside things, the way every June my mother scooped clusters of redcurrants into muslin to squeeze the juice out of the fruit. I also wanted to know why I was myself, and not somebody else, at another place, in another time, or indeed the same time, and at the same place – someone who lived my life, with my relatives and my school friends and yet wasn’t me.

‘Then you’d be your own brother or sister,’ my mother said briskly. To her everything was clear. Yet in her life too, time must have grown less homogenous as she aged, the days sprouting like twigs, doubling inwardly, with minutes when dozens of stories bunched together, with dozens of denouements or open endings. Centuries it would take, and several universities, to understand the conversations between my mother and me in my childhood years, to bring out all the nuances and connotations vibrating inside them, the presumptions our words concealed, the things we withheld or took as self-evident, and all those fleeting essences, the unexpressed fear, anxiety, rancour and, why not, love that travelled like stowaways in the bowels of the words we tossed back and forth while we worked.


For a long time I asked myself why she speaks so abruptly when she visits my dreams, why only the sound of her voice is so clear and close by. ‘The scissors, Helena!’ she calls, from a distance that reverberates like a long, narrow subterranean passage. Whereas my father, at the breakfast table, which I more or less recognize as the one in our summerhouse, with the tranquil light of a cloudless morning in the bay window behind him, can be almost tangibly present.

He refills his cup, or reads the newspaper next to his plate. On the walls the reflection of sunlight on water makes bobbing frescos slip past.

Without looking up he turns towards me. Unlike my mother he speaks in full sentences, but he talks too quickly, or too quietly, or mumbles, or has started using a language that sounds Slavic, with that rasping of air between tongue and palate. I can hear him building suspense, pausing, laying down sentences with such care that I’m almost jealous of him for commanding the unsayable so fluently. If he kept quiet or threw plain inanities at me, I might wake up less distraught.

I can see him in his fullness before me, with all his traits and habits, his idiosyncrasies, his charm, as if the earth, from all her mantles and produce, were calling to order the matter out of which he was constructed and piling him up before me again, at breakfast or knee-deep in the surf, on a holiday by the sea, long ago. I hear the seaside music of those times, women’s voices, children yelling, the shouts of street vendors and the snorting of horses pulling the bathing huts down to the waves – and there’s the intense cold spattering onto my shins out of that landscape of sound, the sharp taste of seawater, and his arm curling over my belly to scoop me up, into the closeness of his body.

Seawater evaporates from his swimsuit, making the fabric rough with salt and soaking free his body odour, sharp and sultry at the same time. If I press myself close to his chest, out of the way of the sea breeze, with my head on his shoulder and a hand on his ribs, I can completely immerse myself in his smell; a small, private atmosphere enfolds me. I scent his skin, the sweaty hair at his neck, his sex, and when I hear him inhale, his body becomes the sound box in which life has resonated as nowhere else – because he is he and I am I.

There are people whose existence embodies an almost pure tone, or rather gives expression to life in music that has all the sonority of a Stradivarius, lives that encompass the mystery of what it means to be human, and then there are others, who will never produce much more than the shrill toot of a tone-deaf child playing the cheapest of recorders. My father was no Stradivarius, but neither was he a recorder. Increasingly I believe that an as yet unread universe would reveal itself if I could populate the flow of his monologues with my mother’s staccato vocabulary, his mumbled tales with the loose pebbles of her speech.


In my mother’s eyes, that might amount to the ultimate transgression. In my difficult stage she called me a born poet on account of my questions, and that was no compliment. It came to be seen as normal for children to ask questions, with that slightly preposterous imagery we’re quick to consider poetic. Children will not have lost have that ability, but in my own early years parents believed the answers were firmly fixed, as firm as their world. There was little you were supposed to give much thought to. Things were what they were. Questions from children were seen as odd, or at best amusing, since the answers seemed so self-evident.

I think anyway I had more in common with a naive philosopher, or possibly a small theologian, than a poet. My mother regularly proclaimed me a natural talent in some discipline or other when she felt a need to poke fun at me and set me down with both feet on the ground, as good mothers do when their offspring show signs of recklessness. Her harshest ridicule was usually reserved for poets. She called them bogus athletes. In doing so she unwittingly betrayed herself as akin to Plato, who like her would have nothing to do with poets, but my mother lacked Plato’s jealousy. She saw me reading and writing and believed I ought not to lose myself by doing so. I carried on nonetheless.


She would undoubtedly raise a sceptical eyebrow if she could hear me say now that in children the substance of the gods has still not quite seeped away.

‘What grotesque self-glorification, Helena,’ she’d sigh, and I’m not putting anything into her mouth. I’ve heard her say it often enough, without looking up from the mending we filled the long winter evenings with during the war.

Meanwhile I’m past the age she had reached when she died. Now she shares with the gods the fact that she stands outside time – and I still think I’m right about the godliness of children and the childlikeness of the gods. Both exist in what resembles a fanciful game, since they have no conception of death. Their cruelty is fleeting, their tenderness brutal. Meld the infinity of the dead with the candour of a child and you find yourself with an abominable deity.


At this point – I’ve seen her do it more than once – she would abruptly put her mending aside. She’d pull apart the worn seam of a garment with both hands, or accidentally prick herself on one of her pins. Then she’d stand up out of the sheaf of lamplight where she always sat to work, rinse her bleeding finger clean at the sink and put the kettle on the stove for tea. From the kitchen she might grouse at me for spouting nonsense, but I think it more likely she would say nothing. To some sophistries she regarded a resentful silence as the best retort.

She could summon little patience for things that went beyond the immediately tangible. I was a poet to her because in her eyes poets hovered.

‘That’s true,’ I said to her later. ‘But with their heads downwards.’ I believe I meant it, even though it may have been something I tossed off on the spot purely to prevent her from having the last word. I crept gradually into the school of rebellion.


Her ridicule served a higher purpose. She was trying to drum into me the ordinariness of words, to wrangle my way of thinking into stout winter garments. Dull but durable; above all waterproof. To my mother, reasoning and clothing were one and the same, they had to be impervious, whereas I liked nothing better than to lounge around for long lethargic afternoons in the hanging gardens of Babel in my open nightdress, proud of my burgeoning curves, and climb the ziggurat of books. I abandoned myself to the cadence of soundless speech that rose from their spines, the Styx of sentences, in which here and there, like driftwood or the drowned, words and images floated that I was beginning to understand, along with much else that amounted to no more than specks of shadow in a dark flood.

I still believe books, like gods and children, reside in the limbo of existence, a dimension where effects can lead to causes and yesterday crawls forth from tomorrow, where it’s impossible to pass final judgement on who deserves heaven or hell. Everything in them has yet to happen and everything is already over; that is paradise, in essence.


When I was a child, books were in some sense dead people to me, in fact I still believe they are. Anyone who writes stages his own spiritualism. Books exuded the same impassivity as the stiff limbs of relatives on their deathbeds. True, books had more notes in their songs but they seemed, like the dead, to long for a living spirit to resonate with their singing.

I loved the anonymity, the posthumous element all books contain. I saw their titles and headings as unforgivable genuflections to vanity, or as a means of glossing over a story’s power to possess you utterly. An author putting his name to a book for the benefit of a reader seemed to me almost as absurd as being assaulted by someone who first politely hands you his visiting card. I felt like scratching the names from the covers and tearing out the title pages. I wanted to go even further by liberating all those books from their static battle-order on the shelves of our private library and accommodating them elsewhere, in other rooms, in the garden, behind the beams of the shed, in the cellars, as Easter eggs or Christmas presents, nameless, unspeakably vulnerable, their fate in the hands of whoever found them.

I have never been able to free myself from that fantasy. I’ve begun to believe in it more and more. Books should troop together on street corners like feral dogs. They should sleep in tiers in shop doorways under cardboard quilts, beggars with little hope of charity. They should be wetted by rain on park benches, or kicked around on the floor of a tram, to enthral or exasperate whoever finds them, leaving either indifference or an irritation so great that you feel compelled to write a response to them, which will then be blown around the world just as namelessly. Somewhere that book will disrupt public order, subdue turmoil, freeze someone’s happiness, commemorate the future or foresee the past, unwarranted, heralded at best by a rustle of pages – the only angels I more or less believe in.


Perhaps my mother’s lack of understanding for my questions arose out of her dislike of what she felt was an unforgivable provisionality. She was more Catholic than she thought she was. However staunch an unbeliever, the divine fitted into her thinking like a plug in a bath. God was a dam people had built to avert a fatal encounter with the bottomlessness of their own desire. Pull out the plug or breach the dam and everything flows away. It’s been a long time since I could ask her for clarification but I know she always preferred to resist capitulating. ‘We can’t hang around hanging around,’ was her favourite expression. ‘We must get going. If the hen won’t lay, then into the pot with her!’ She loved exclamation marks and pronounced them audibly. They stood at the ends of her sentences like sentinels with flaming swords: thus far and no further.

I heeded her battle cry, if only grudgingly. No one will ever be more than a jotted version of himself, a crude sketch on a sheet of paper that might be crumpled into a ball any moment. Why should I worry about dots on lines, about where to put commas or exclamation marks – and why delineate spaces; rooms, houses, bullet holes, craters? Sooner or later I pick gold coins out of the cold mouths of the dead, a mineral from a time without time, and their voices burst out boundlessly as if they were still alive.


‘Time is the great soul of all things,’ I wrote, aged about fourteen – the word adolescent didn’t really exist then. ‘It fills its lungs, without ever exhaling.’ I don’t know whether I find that as bombastic as my mother probably would, had she been able to read my most private writings, but now, almost a century later, I hear time’s constant inhalation more distinctly than I used to, and I’m already half absorbed in the air screeching through its bronchial tracts – a gasp lasting light-years, forcing its way through caverns of calcium and bone. It might be possible for me, shortly before vanishing into obscurity, to look back over existence itself, as if finally soaked free from it.

I imagine being able to see life, not just mine or yours but life itself, in the far depths beneath my feet, churning, meandering. A hundred thousand Grand Canyons weaving together, a vast tissue of rapids, pools, salt pans and waterfalls, glistening in an endless night.

Perhaps I could read the patterns unfolding in that broadening flood, the motifs that develop within it and dissolve back into it, the fullness it bears and the futility of human time that drowns in it. It would be as if, just before dissolving into oblivion, I were briefly allowed to wear God’s spectacles. I could adopt something of the fatalism that makes Him see a rodent resisting the stranglehold of a snake as embodying a cosmic tragedy on the scale of the fall of Troy – or the reverse: the same banality.

A person ought not to think in dimensions like these, I know. Life is not a performance or a painting, observable from outside. Yet to be honest I would never have put a word down on paper unless I really believed it was, and don’t go telling yourself you have other reasons for reading.


My mother would have run out of patience long before now. ‘Pathetic,’ she’d chuckle, shaking her head. She would pour her tea in the kitchen and drink it alone, without understanding what a triumph I wish her.

It doesn’t matter.

She is dead.

As she gets up out of her chair her contours dissolve in the lamplight, and along with her contours the room.


‘Life is simple,’ she said to me once. ‘I don’t need any big words for it. It’s doing the washing up. You make the plates dirty, wash them clean, wipe them dry, put them away, take them out again, make them dirty, wash them clean, wipe them dry, put them away, take them out, and one day the whole pile falls from your hands.’

She stopped, looked down and took a sip of her tea.

I had no answer, then.

She was a born poet.



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