Lighter Than Claire

“We were scaly. We scurried through the undergrowth.”

Claire recalled a jagged light, exploding into brightness. “We hatched from eggs, we cracked our shells.”

“Do you remember flying? We swooped and soared.”

Claire saw it and felt it, but she didn’t understand.

“We flew before we ran. Were we birds once?”

Magda shook her head, not in denial but not knowing.

“Does a fish swim?”

“I suppose it does.”

“I don’t think so. We swim. But for a fish, the ocean is air. She flies on her silver fins.”

The crystal bell chimed. It wasn’t loud but it carried everywhere because the school was made of cardboard, and it had no windows or doors.

It was time for special studies class, and Claire and Magda sat in the front row because the teacher wasn’t like the others–he let them ask questions.

Claire remembered their first class, when he still shaved and didn’t fall asleep halfway through.

“I have no name but I have a rule. Numbers are not permitted in my classroom. Once you start with numbers and counting you never stop. You reach infinity before you know it.”

He took a piece of purple chalk from his pocket and wrote ‘Special Studies’ on the wall.

“This is class is about …”

He lit a cigarette. Even back then he was a heavy smoker.

“Well. It’s self-explanatory isn’t it?”

He contemplated the purple letters. “Perhaps it will explain itself tomorrow. Does anyone have a question?”

Magda put her hand up. “Sir, why doesn’t the school have windows? The rain comes in.”

“Glass is a sharp liquid. It would damage the walls.”

Claire was next. “Sir, why are the walls made of cardboard anyway?

“They’re metaphors.”

“Metaphors are just ideas. They’re not real.”

“Let’s not be too clever.”

Afterwards Claire understood that when he said that, it was a signal not to keep asking, but in the first class she didn’t know.

“Why not?”

“The more you know, the more you have to forget. What’s your name?”


“Does anyone who isn’t Claire have a question?”

Eduardo raised his hand. “Sir, you’re different to the other teachers. They’re all ghost people and they never let us ask anything. You’re the first teacher who’s done that.”

He was startled, and he dropped his cigarette.

“The rule. You’ve forgotten the rule.” He shrugged. “I suppose you’ll get used to it soon enough.”

He picked up the cigarette stub and brushed it off. “The ghost people are just projections. They teach you what you already know. I’m the counterpoint, the antidote to all their pointless truth.”

Claire had a thousand questions on the tip of her tongue in that first lesson, but she wasn’t allowed to ask them.

“It’s almost the end of semester so we’re going on an excursion–a bus trip to Forget Me Park. We’ll visit Soleil Station where the trains arrive.”

There was a buzz of chatter in the classroom. A change was coming, the end of their school days.

“Sir, what powers the trains?”

“Hasn’t the science teacher explained where our power comes from?”

Claire shook her head, and he seemed smug. “The school bus, the trains, everything is solar powered. We’re at the sun’s eastern terminus, the sun is all around us.”

“But if the sun is–”

“I’m sorry Claire, no more time for questions now. We’re going to make kites.”

“We’ll press the paper for the kites here. It looks complicated but it’s simple enough to use.”

They were gathered in a room at the back of the assembly hall, standing in front a large papier-mâché press. It was covered in buttons and dials, mostly drawn on.

The teacher picked up a knife and used it to cut out a slab of air that he maneuvered between the jaws of the press.

“It doesn’t matter which button you push.”

He chose one and the press closed with a hiss and a groan.
When it opened again, the air had been flattened into a sheet of tissue paper.

They ran and laughed, flew their kites, and the teacher looked on, with his scruffy diamond kite on the ground beside him.

Claire’s was made of paper boxes, wonderfully misshapen, and unfolding new adornments as it drifted high above the fields of forgotten flowers.

“It doesn’t look like trains ever come along here, sir.”

The rails that ran through the park to Soleil Station were rusted and overgrown with weeds, and the teacher was standing on the tracks.

“They’ll turn up soon enough. You’ll know when it’s your turn. You’ll hear your carriage a long way off.”

“What do the train whistles sound like?”

“All different. Mine was the sound of raindrops falling on a clock.”

Their teacher decided it would be best to fly the kites from the top of the ridge, so they wound them down and set out along a path through the flowers. He was short of breath, and he occasionally stopped to pick up dried leaves for his cigarettes.

The path zigged and zagged up the slope, and the teacher trailed further and further behind. “I’ll see you at the top. Just go ahead.”

Their kites swooped and twirled, sparking in the sunlight. Tiny pieces broke off and blew away, and their strings tangled and untangled.

“Just let them go now. Let them drift away.” A hazy blue cloud wearing hessian pants had appeared over the rise.

“Sir, can’t we keep them?”

“Sir, where will they go?”

“Sir, what’s the sky made of?”

“It’s made of dreams. And a little macaroni.”

“No, it’s not.” Claire spoke sharply, irritated without knowing why. “The science teacher says the sky is molecular. There are amoebas in the raindrops, and the clouds are full of microorganisms.”

“All part of the dreams. Not knowing is a blessing. Free your kites and imagine where they’ll fly.”

He pulled a pair of scissors out of his pocket. “First cut the strings so the spools don’t tangle in the trees.”

They passed around the scissors and cut the strings. The kites drifted so high that it seemed the sun might set them alight, or they might tear a hole in the molecular sky as if it was painted on paper.

Claire whispered to Magda. “I’m sure I’m forgetting things. Important pieces of information.”

Magda whispered back. “Sometimes I’m not even sure I’m Magda anymore.”

They watched their kites until they turned to dots, and in the end the sunset swallowed them.

The last class started with a coughing fit. “It’s the dreams,” the teacher croaked, “They make the air too thick to breathe.”

He turned and drew on the wall with his purple chalk—ellipses and curved arrows. It looked deep, almost metaphysical.

“In this lesson we will learn to dance the mambo. Without counting the steps, it goes without saying.”

They danced without music, which is mathematical, mostly counting in their heads although a few lips moved, and the crystal bell rang for the last time.

“Well I won’t be seeing you again, so good luck and goodbye.”

Claire thanked him for his efforts on behalf of the class, and suggested he might cut back.

He studied his cigarette. “Let’s not get emotional now.” He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. “We still have a little time for questions.”

Eduardo asked what all of them were wondering–where their trains would take them.

“You will follow your kites.”

For a moment, he seemed to be thinking. “We always forget when we learn. Every piece of knowledge is a piece of ignorance forgotten. But in the end, when everything collapses and folds in on itself, it’s better not to know too much. Otherwise there’s no room left for dreams.”

Claire had never heard him talk like that before, about an ending. “Sir, if everything collapses, what’s left?”

He looked surprised, as if the answer should have been obvious. “This. This is what’s left.”

One by one, carriage by carriage, the class disappeared until only Claire remained. She heard a wren singing at the end of a summer rainstorm, and it was her turn.

The special studies teacher came to Soleil Station with her. She knew he wanted to make sure she boarded her train.

“There’s so much I don’t understand. I want to stay and find out.”

He sighed. “I was like you. I didn’t take my train and I was left behind. But I’m sure you’ve already guessed that.”

She nodded.

He inspected his cigarette. “Why do I bother? They’re just props. I know too much, and I can’t unremember it.”

“Everything is thin here, temporary, waiting for something, and you know what’s behind it all.”

He shook his head. “I don’t know everything. I don’t know the reason for eternity. I only know it starts and ends here.”

Claire looked along the tracks and saw a star on rails falling towards the terminus. “My train’s coming.”

“It’s best to forget. Eternity isn’t meant to be felt by anyone.”

The sun carriage stopped and the doors slid open. Warm air gusted onto the platform.

“I won’t forget you.”

He stood back. “You have to. You have no choice.”

She grabbed hold of his arm and pulled him into the carriage with her.

“No. I won’t.”

The penne and spirali dance and turn in the amniotic fluid–an Italian mambo, repetition with variation.

She knows she isn’t Claire now. Claire could spin on a thread–she’s much too heavy for that.

She opens her eyes to the light. She’s not aware of the nurse or the doctor, but she sees Claire, recognizes her at last, and mother and daughter are at journey’s end and beginning, all stations west.

“They’re fine, perfectly healthy.” The obstetrician is defensive. “I don’t know how we missed him. The ultrasounds–there was no indication, nothing. I’m so sorry, Claire.”

“He’s a little mystery then.”

Two pairs of brown eyes are watching her.

“They’re beautiful. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”


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