Note: On March 28th, 1941, Virginia Woolf committed suicide by drowning herself in the River Ouse, at Rodwell, near Lewes, where she and her husband, Leonard Woolf, shared a residence in the English countryside. Three weeks later, her body was recovered washed ashore near a bridge in Southease, where some children made the gruesome discovery. The lines in italics are from Virginia Woolf’s The Waves.
Early morning, dawn, the smell of mulberries far off, the River Ouse before me, dark still the path behind me, and the garden, with its multi-colored mimosa flowers, drips low above the housetops amidst the dew, pearl-hung. It’s a wonder I’m doing this now, but everything comes in due time, and this time I won’t escape it. Slipping under the massive tilt of this broad river, slipping under: before the day waves yellow with its crops or the rooster has a chance to crow from its low-lying tree, before the waves surrender their million atoms of dark blue, before my resolve abandons me or the tide falters, whimpering till noon.
There is nothing to fear. It is only the shore offering grubby alms, salt-swollen piths. Like burnt offerings in a bowl, only this time I offer myself as the perennial gift. The surrender of water upon lungs, nose, eyes. And my hair coming loose in its bun, fanning out. Everything is iridescent. Grotesquely uneven. Going under is like tucking yourself into the gray cloth of the sea, with only slight crinkles in the fabric. But there is also resignation, a dying flower, a dryad of too many years, too many thoughts; a fly perpetually slamming into the window until it lies dried up on the sill in the August sun. Leonard will be happier without me.
It’s been a full life, really. The summers all pink and worn like an overcoat, when the cold water from the scullery tap ran smoothly across the backs of my hands, draping over my fingers in a curtain of water, and onto the mackerels in the metal pail left in the sink. The sunlight streaking upon the drying flowers, my pen and thoughts in hand, turning over my life as I do now these smooth stones in my pocket. Here, now, is a capsized frond. Hiding underneath is a school of fish, speckled and phosphorus. And all my darlings. My Vitas and Leonards, Nessas and Lyttons. Winters at Sevenoaks, fireside tea and thick, lemon cakes. The smoke rising in purple wisps from the chimney, when sleep would furl round my legs by the fire, then curl off the roof like mist. One would stand by the window alone, watching the foxes like quicksilver.
And then, the years by the sea, when the small house we rented would fill with music, friends, cheer; a stodgy English summer warmed by the tide. We rose at noon and fixed a sea-salt lunch to eat by the shore. We watched from the rocks those shoals of minnows in shallower eddies, the half-crept sun along a gray-lined horizon, the sunbathers like marooned whales, the great rhythmic tides refusing their silhouettes. On still nights a wall of water fell with a roar a mile off from our shore. The ancient dog would heave himself through the night to hurl insults at the moon. And some treelined path could be heard whistling with the wind through its teeth.
The water is a black hollow beneath the stalks of light upon the dark green varicose. Now, all tremors shake me. I feel the passing of water through my body of silver and lead, the weight pressed to my ribs. Already my eyes feel lidless, eroded by the gentle tide. My arms grope heavily in the water. My black coat drags like the wings of some lawless viper. Four women with red pitchers kneel by the river. I skim the surface, mimicking the awkwardness of a large seabird. The willow trees awaken as the sun begins her slow ascent to her throne. The low-lying houses that line the river in bricks of red, blue, and yellow come undone. Each house on this anonymous lane is a distinct house with a green numbered placard, yet all meld together to form the same facade. A woman rises to hang the linens in the front yard. A man leaves his house sporting a cap and cane. I submerge my body in the cold river, inch by inch.
For weeks, I have had the same dream: the one in which scores of bodies, turquoise and luminescent, sink softly to the ocean floor. They drift under an archway of days; silent, graceful; their mermaid bodies and long hair trailing vertically behind them. These bodies accruing on the seabed are calm and kind. Here, in the underworld, I, too, will make my home. My body is a dusty polyp. I am shadow among shadows, when my own shadow is not my shadow, but my home.
I hear a call, a song from the old country, a birthsong that marks me like a birthright. It calls to me, to end this, this something like a madness. The illusion is upon me, so that something adheres for a moment, has roundness, weight, depth, and feels complete. This is my life, it seems, and sums up my life, though I am so tired. Waterlogged and specious. If it were possible I would hand you my life like a handful of grapes. I would break it off as one breaks off a bunch of grapes. Take it. This is my life.