I write from Nana’s Breton cliff-top house. A maritime gale bellows outside, tossing sailors from ships, tearing tiles from roofs. Crash, bang, wallop. A lifetime has passed since the day I left here. Memories permeate every corner, souvenirs embedded in edifice. Branded skin. Scarred walls. I insist to myself, it is a mere building, a random locus of igneous rocks made from stilled lava, not a living home.
A decade ago, I stepped over this threshold. Don’t look back, I thought. Won’t look back. I shut the door, crossed the Rubicon. Tonight, I sleep here for the very last time. All I long to do is flee. Today was Nana’s funeral. I said, “Au revoir”; I am alone.
Mimi, this afternoon, I received my inheritance from my French Nana. Unbelievable. A small-town, po-faced solicitor read me her Will,
“Her Breton house is bequeathed to her University”, he declared. I sighed; I wanted the house, it would fetch a high price. He continued, “As your parents are both dead you have been left the infamous collection, The Ruins, otherwise known as The Mineral Cities. The Will stipulates that The Ruins cannot be given away or sold, individually or collectively.”
I gulped. He advised,
“Your grandmother has also provided you with a yearly subsistence allowance, so you can maintain The Ruins. You own The Mineral Cities now” he smiled; I almost let out a cry. “You must consider your responsibilities, where you will live, what you will do. The collection is priceless; the largest of it’s kind. The only other important Ruin collection we know of is held in Liberia by a Kpelle agricultural philosopher.”
The solicitor beckoned to his clerk, who handed me the large oak trunk I had seen my Nana opening and closing a hundred times, always warning me
“Touche pas! Don’t touch!”
As I stared furiously at the lid, I recalled her other oft-repeated words,
“I’ve been collecting the Ruins for hundreds of years.” Nana claimed, “And before I collected them, my mother collected and her mother before her. One day, if you are a good girl, the Ruins will be yours. ”
My heart was heavy with the load of The Mineral Cities, the most ancient weight on our planet.
Once I had been old enough to understand, I had always insisted to Grandpa (the power behind the throne),
“I don’t want the Ruins. Ever. Just make sure Nana doesn’t give them to me.”
He had nodded, sadly, shaking his head with regret.
“Yet, they are rare annals of nature; the prescient rock story. Delightful fossils and dangerous human civitatem”, he said, trying to persuade me to change my mind.
But, I sought neither the haunting burden of their past, or the responsibility of their future. Between memory and forgetting, I grasped the latter. I held its blank page, its Corbusien newness like a square concrete talisman before me. Who wants an aesthetic trophy to destruction and collapse, the fall?
Mimi, the oak trunk is now in the living room beside me. Tomorrow, it should leave this house for mine. Inside are a series of wooden cases divided into square specimen sections; my Grandpa had the box made especially. Each section holds a Ruin sheathed in protective silk, like the desiccated corpse of an Egyptian Mummy.
As the gale blows around the granite house, I have unwrapped a few Ruins, held each stone. Cradling minuscule cities in the cup of my hand, the night has tipped me back and forth in time. My life. Theirs. Ours. I now own the remains of human civilisations, the Wonders of the World, overpopulated, stinking urban sprawls: an empty Manhattan devoured by crystals, the tall climbs of a Mexican church, a French chapel clinging tentatively to rock, the vestiges of the Garden of Babylon evaded by stone…
“The Ruins depict an architecture built from lithic matter, but the minerals sauvage are invading the cities. The minerals advance in geological time, their evolution invisible to our human eyes.”
I once overheard Nana dictating to a select herd of eager professors, invited here for a rare private viewing of The Ruins,
“The stones will always outlast us; they are older than life, their suspended information narrates the history of the earth.”
A Chinese gentleman in a tweed jacket with a mustard yellow bowtie raised a quivering hand.
“Allow me to enquire whom you believe made the Ruins originally?” he stuttered, almost spitting as he spoke.
Nana turned her shrewd eyes to meet his,
“Many petrology myths claim to tell the story of The Ruin’s creation; delirious fabrications, fabulous conspiracy theories. Do the mineral cities tell the past or predict the future?”
Nana laughed haughtily. In her hands, balanced on a piece of rare agate silica was Tokyo, one of her favourite Ruins. Mount Fuji dominated urban turf, a collision of superstructures, concrete erections and tonnages of Roman concrete blending with bitumen. Nana gently stroked four lanes melting into the invisible wind of a high-speed train. Crouched by the window, I wished she would be as tender when she brushed my hair.
“Some believe The Ruins belonged to Gaia (the Earth), Uranus (the sky) and Pontus (the Sea). The Mineral Cities, lithic chimeras of stone and architecture, were pieces from an ancient game, similar to Chess. Others insist The Ruins were invented by non-humans, speaking substances; that The Mineral Cities are-were rare, precious souvenirs, made by mountains, predicting a future world.”
Nana raised an eyebrow, a small smile spilt across the parchment of her skin, “I also once read a theory that the Ruins were constructed by humankind as a painful reminder of the power of stone, when global warming, urban invasion and frenzied overpopulation led to devastation on Earth.”
Nana carefully returned The Ruin, Tokyo, to its wooden case,
“As a collector, I can only verify the fact that the majority of architectural aspects, that is to say the ‘frozen music’ of The Ruins, have been identified as coming from the first two millennia, a period of great upheaval, movement and conflict. “
Mimi, now the Ruins are mine, what am I going to do? Where shall I go with my heritance? I don’t want this lithic data, it testifies to the inevitability of our death. Our organic ephemerality transformed into mineral durability, our cities heartbeats mortified.
This oak chest is worth millions. It even contains a Ruin from the infamous Calais “jungle”; it is a single footprint from the years 2000, when the displaced lived in tents, were chased around the lands. Disparaged. Blamed. The Calais Ruin, the footprint, is engraved in a crystalline substance on a section of polished metamorphic rock: a marble, with a lacy folded foliation, each band of mineral, a storyline, a visible tale.
Nana would be lecturing me, waggling her gnarled finger in my face like some cranky dictator,
“The Ruin in this case is the Ruin of a Diaspora. Each line in the marble records the pulse of a displaced person, the cadence of a million itinerant souls. In popular language they called these temporary Calais homes a “jungle”, a despicable metaphorical linguistic choice, dehumanising the homeless immigrants, the exiles, as though their architectural structure was chaos and the inhabitants animals.”
When I was a little girl, I spent all my summer school holidays with Nana and Grandpa. My parents died when I was eight. The pink-granite Breton house became my home, the beach my playground. On rainy afternoon’s, I would play at the Ruins; the Mineral Cities were mine. I would hold tea parties in Regent’s Park when it opened to the public in 1835 and pick flowers from Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylonian “pensil paradise”. I skipped through Brasilia’s superquadras which Simone de Beauvoir claimed oozed “elegant monotony”; women, men and children gripped on rock, crystal and stone.
I made the Ruins come alive, sought out the human traces, architectural intentions, footprints, whispers and shadows ingrained in a wall: the aural history of Babylon, the murmurs from the domus of a heretic Cathar home and the praying wail from a Mosque or a temple.
“Come out and play”, I whispered to my imaginary playmates.
“Look Nana” I said proudly, at the age of nine, surrounded by the bricks and toys from which I had constructed my own Ruins,
“Running under Manhattan is an invisible token subway, at 8th- NYU a tiled squirrel munches on an acorn”.
Mimi, throughout my childhood, even during school-term, the Ruins were forever present. Nana made recordings of her voice to send me to sleep. The Nurse at school played them to me at night, particularly when I was crying and missed my parents. In tones, as bewitching as the returning sea, Nana recited a lament of rocks and stones,
“Igneous, sedimentary and metamorphic rock: Arkose, Marble, Shale, Greywacke, Dacite, Gossan, Granite, Laterite, Latite, Pumice, Skarn, Tonalite….”
Yet, as I got older, I began to wonder who Nana loved more, the Ruins or me. She was so patient with the discrete layers of stone, the ordered relics; I was a living, unpredictable human being. The Ruins became a bore, indoctrination, a wedge of decomposed matter. After all, I told my pre-teen self, the stones were made from dead living things, The Ruins were vampires, sucking the life from our veins…
I remember a day, down at the beach; I must have been twelve, nearly thirteen. The sun was shining. I was trying to read a book on transparency; I have always been interested in glass. Nana was talking on and on about the Ruins, her voice sounded like a drone, an irritating fly I longed to squash.
“Our obsession with the permanence, the timeless of stone, la pierre, is related to our own human fragility. The intimate structure of this matter has fascinated us since the first two flints lit the first fire. Our world began with stone. Its geological vocabulary has shaped our limbs, our landscape: aggregate minerals held together by chemical bonds. A stone is always perfect even when it is split in two, a geologist will consider it as chemically whole. Buildings are ruins from the day they are built, death inserted in their very foundations. Human’s are always imperfect, doomed to disappear”.
I clenched my fists, wishing she would shut up about death. Three years previously, both my parents had died, her own daughter; didn’t she care?
“But they are just a silly load of stones. Just stones. Pebbles.” I muttered at her, and she stood, and swift as panther, raised her hand and struck my face.
“Never speak like that”, she said, without a hint of disarray.
She hit me so hard I flew backwards in the sand. Lay, incredulous. Terrified. I ran back to the house, willing myself not to cry. In a mirror I saw the marks of her fingers, red lines on my skin.
“I will not forget this. I will not forget.” I vowed.
Later, Grandpa tried to explain,
“Your Nana loves you. But, she was born into a city destroyed in the war, walked to school between the bombed buildings, the torn, blackened, half-standing remains of a town. A landscape slashed into unrecognisable pieces. She always told me she didn’t think human beings deserved this earth. And –“ Grandpa coughed, “When your mother died, our only daughter. Something snapped inside her; she turned towards the stone. She’s never been able to look away”.
However, Grandpa’s words were not enough. They could not contain the rage that rose in my bones. At the age of eighteen, I couldn’t bear it anymore. Nana had become delirious about the Ruins. Every night, she would padlock herself to the oak chest,
“They are coming for my Ruins”, she would rave at Grandpa and me, “They are going to try to undo the stone. She”, Nana would designate me with a long, bony finger, “ Is the leader of their gang. This girl has subterfuges, lies, tricks and traps. She must be surveyed; she wants the rocks, the minerals, she does not understand”.
Mimi, in the end, I left for University and never came back. I burnt all my bridges calcified the past; bought only new things. I now live in a clean, transparent urban apartment. No photos. No books. No dust. No remains. All glass. I see through. I do not look back.
Mimi, I shall have to finish this letter here. Dawn is breaking night from day, splitting pink into my horizon; the storm has died down. I’ve spent the night thinking about the collection. I wonder, should I take the Ruins with me, or shall I toss the stones into the sea? Set them free. Let them roll.
From the living-room window, I glimpse the beach below. I once spent summer days, crouched beside the dunes, constructing intricate sand castles. While Nana concentrated on reading large volumes of History and Greek Philosophy, mineral cities emerged from my childish fingers. Ten digits and a palm assembled rock particles, dug moats, inserted shells and seaweed into granular walls, hands producing houses.
Did you know that at the end of each day, after le diner, Nana would take me, hand-in-hand, running back down to the beach and encourage me to jump on all the castles?
“They are ephemeral. Utterly ephemeral”, she would whisper, as I jubilantly kicked down sandy facades and crushed ramparts, destroying my creations. I hear her voice now, her learned tone, falling into the pink shell of my ear like the sweet crackle of a needle on vinyl, “Ephemeral, from the Greek ephemeroi, creatures of a day. This is the premise of humankind, for our cities, our homes, to tip from a gleam of happiness to the mighty blow of fate”.
Love to you Mimi,
Susanna Crossman is the co-writer of the French hospital roman, Le dessous des Cartes (LEH, 2015). Her short fiction is recently published or upcoming in The Creative Review, Litro, Dangerous Women Project, BlueFifth Review, Visual Verse… and has been shortlisted for the Bristol Prize and Glimmertrain. Her regular hybrid collaborations with visual artists and musicians have led to artists books, readings and video-poem performances in Britain, USA and France, most recently the on-going project Les Ruines: Cités Minérales with Anne-Sophia Duca (FR) When she is not writing, she works internationally as a clinical arts-therapist and lecturer. She is currently collaborating with the film director Gilles Blanchard on the film-theatre project ‘ Camille Claudel’ (FR).