My grandmother once told me that she was homesick for the past. It was before I was married; I didn’t even know what homesickness was. The past is like a place, she told me. There are people there that you love. Your body feels familiar, there. The air smells like home. No-one is missing and nothing is broken. There’s no grief in the past, only ease. The food tastes better and the sun is brighter on the water. Your skin is a perfect fit. I listened patiently because patience was a virtue, not because she made any kind of sense to me. If the past was a different place, then the elderly were a different species that wittered nonsense all day long and reached out to grasp you for no reason with their withered hands.
I know now, though. If I could make a wish and go anywhere at all, I would go there.
My wedding gown took 8 months to sew, in tiny stitches, laced through with gold thread. After the feast, my new husband and I slept in the guest chambers like strangers, and I rode out with him the next morning, my family all weeping and waving behind me, to my new home. I remember that I was sore, and shifted in the saddle, while his men nudged and laughed and cast glances at me and my maid, who rode between us like a shield and did nothing but blush. I was excited and determined and proud to be making my own way in the world but for the first week after we arrived, the strangeness made me dizzy; the salty food; the stickiness of the sea air; the astringent scent of the linen. The foreign territory of the male body. Then I was sick with it, and wept, and remembered what my grandmother had said. I only went back a handful of times; for my brother’s crowning, and much, much later, for the christening of his one and only child. For my sisters’ weddings. When my grandmother died.
If I went back to the past, I would see her again. Her chamber would be full of roses and the creak of her loom. I would walk out onto the grassy slope under the battlements and lie down on soft ground and watch the spinning of the sky. The clean air would smell of hay and wildflowers. There would be the soft thud of horse’s hooves, the distant murmur of wind in the trees, maybe a faint snatch of song. My brother would be there, loud and rosy-cheeked. I would eat baked potatoes with butter from gentle cows. My waist would be supple, my skin would be a perfect fit. Early in the morning, mist would rise from the river and coat the fields in lace.
But you can never go back. Instead, you walk along the beach with sticky wind tangling your hair, picking up round rocks one by one and throwing them at the sea. Some are porous and dark, and some are grey-blue and shot through with stubborn veins of white. Others are simple jet, flat and shining like a moonless night. I throw them all, one by one. The black ones skip. One for the messenger who came with the news. One for the curse on my brother’s child. One for the spindle, one for the castle, one for the rose trees locking them in. One for my family lost forever, and one – one more – for me.
Because you can never go back. And you can never go forward. And the cruelest trap of all is the trap of time.