Clusters of My Mind
There is a star cluster in the constellation of Cancer which Ancient Chinese sky watchers thought looked like a ghost or demon riding in a carriage. They likened its appearance to a “cloud of pollen blown from willow catkins.” It is called the Beehive Cluster or Praesaepe.
“If Praesaepe is not visible in a clear sky it is a presage of a violent storm.” Pliny.
Inside me there is an ocean. It sways to the rhythm of an unknown planet, coursing up through my spine and flowing into the caverns and interstices of my skull. Rich in sodium, potassium, calcium, this cerebrospinal fluid bathes interior lands of muscle, tissue and bone. Open the canals and dam gates and it will flow into new terrain, into unfamiliar spaces.
I stand inside a consultation room in a private clinic, where they practice cranial osteopathy.
Sit, he tells me, be at ease.
The massage couch is warm, covered with stretch velvet and a sheet of tissue paper. It gives gently as I sit, my legs dangling over the edge.
The ceiling is a chalk white plane with a redundant plaster rose of spiralling acanthus leaves at its centre. It is an old room, but newly decorated. Clean, clinical and tasteful. There is a faint hint of rosemary or geranium oil in the air and shelves of blue ointment bottles adorn the walls, along with anatomy charts of muscles, ligaments and bones.
Inside me is a sea that should be wild and free; instead, it is locked up, dammed and frozen. I am seeking relief from post-traumatic stress and numbness, the result of a shock from years ago. I was told that cranial osteopathy might help and have agreed to try it.
I grow still on the couch as he stands in front of me. In a mirror, I glimpse his back, the whiteness of his tunic. I catch the flicker of his hand before my eyes, a butterfly in shadow. With a whisper, his words have taken me elsewhere, to deep within myself. Obedient, in a beautiful sleeping wakefulness, I am at his command.
Lie back, he tells me, the length of the couch.
He positions his hands under my back. I am aware of fragments of movements, but am too drowsy to move. He is tuning in, sensing pulses and currents. Like a sea god he wishes to alter the rhythms and tides, the longshore drift of my inner ocean.
A solitary bee hums at the window, thud, thud, as though trying to get in. Perhaps she sees the fuchsias in the vase on his desk. I think of haze and honey, of meadows and of mists rising off a river, a bed of flowers beneath a dawn sky, worker bees laden with pollen and the ultra-violet rays of the morning sun that only pollinating insects can see. In the trance, the edges of my perception fuzz with the drone of bees.
I am falling deeper, becoming more remote. I sense more haze, more flowers, more bees and then visions of the accident surface. The stench of diesel and red wine penetrates my nostrils. I see broken glass everywhere, and a fractured window open to the sky. I’m in shock, but I can move, clamber out into the light. There is panic all around me, but inside, an absence, a sense of nothing. Something has been erased. The others are scrambling out, too; havoc and then just the quiet, empty country road.
The police deal with the body while I take Steph for a walk. Steph is ranting; she was at the wheel. We walk and Steph talks as I listen. Numbness fills my body, and I am aware that the birds are silent. In my mind is a hazy horizon as though a train has just sped by: a blur of faces and windows, with no sound.
We continue walking past a field of oilseed rape, a cool yellow brilliance. There are bees everywhere, their low-frequency humming the background to Steph’s despair. I listen as we cross this field of bees and flowers, me in silence, like the birds.
Trauma can have devastating effects on the body. I was not physically hurt in the accident, but it affected me in ways I would never have predicted. My vision blurred, my emotions shut down and I felt numb, as though a blind had been drawn between myself and the world. Then, depression crept in. The accident was more traumatic as I had seen it weeks before in my mind’s eye: visions of chaos on the roads through France, interspersed with bouts of anxiety.
I should have been buoyant, excited for the trip, but instead felt, in my bones, a pervading sense of unease. There was something Angus, who organised our journey, was not telling us. I felt it in his distracted demeanour when he met us in London a mere week before departure. He had bought a Land Rover but never driven one. He had mad, exciting plans about travelling through France and Spain, then on to Morocco, Algeria and finally crossing the Sahara via Mali. We discussed water carriers, sand ladders and other equipment. He said he had it all under control.
I was not convinced. On the eve of our departure, we met at his flat in Bethnal Green to find him still at work, piling up papers and taking phone calls. He hadn’t even packed. Methodically, Steph, Tig, Jack and I began sorting out the Land Rover, while Angus flustered about refusing to accept anything was amiss. Eventually, vehicle readied, we left him to pack while we went in search of an evening meal.
As we traversed France, my qualms persisted. Would it have been any use to raise my concerns?
After a few nights beneath the stars, we approached the border with Spain. Steph suggested Angus should take a break from driving. She had always wanted to drive a Land Rover and here the roads were quiet – just regular French, country roads. Angus happily gave up the wheel and sat in the back with me, beside the window.
I felt fine that day; we were truly underway, my feelings of foreboding apparently unfounded. Then it happened. On a fork in the road, Steph asked which way to turn, left or right. A simple question, asked too late. At the last minute, she swung the wheel to change direction and over the vehicle went, landing in a ditch.
Back in the consultation room, my inner sea is turbulent. I feel dazed and open my eyes. The plane of white above me shimmers as sunlight swings across it. The ceiling rose swims into view like a planet loosed from orbit. The bee has gone, it didn’t come in; there are flowers for it in the garden.
He has removed his hands from my back and I feel a powerful force flooding my body, as though I am charged with light. I sense the back of my head open, a tide of energy rushing in. It feels overwhelming. The couch creaks as I shuffle up to a sitting position. I feel empowered, but the surge is too strong. It is the wrong treatment.
I notice the grey hollows beneath his eyes as he turns from me, the way he takes up space like an office cabinet.
I stand up and waver beside the couch. I tell him I’m not sure how I feel, the unsteadiness, the feeling of being broken open and blown up high. So high that I float above my body in a misty cloud. I wonder if the treatment was right after all, that it’s my intuition that is not to be trusted, that it is somehow my fault.
He seems taken aback. The next patient enters the room. She has arrived early or he is running late. He winks at her and tells her to wait in the corridor. Flustered, I pay for the treatment and gather up my bag, leaving the large, clinical house by the back door.
It is night and the turbulence has not left. I sit feebly alone. My mind spins off into galaxy after galaxy, further and further away, as though its fabric is a rare constellation. I want to draw the skylight of my consciousness shut, but it resists and the stars shine too brightly. Inside, the night sky is no friend. As though trapped within a nightmare of event horizons and black holes, I float silent and unanchored in the eternity of space.
The bad dream continues. Not long after my visit to the osteopath, I am sitting in a chair opposite a psychiatrist. He is young with long, loose hair like a sixteenth-century troubadour. Maybe he will understand me. I feel flaky, still disturbed within myself. He is telling me that I am a very sick girl, in an Australian drawl. I do not know what to say and how I came to be here. I want something in my mind to close, but I cannot close it. He gives me a prescription and says it will help hold things together, stabilise things, for the time being.
For days I drift far out, far away, to the edges of my broken mind. And through all of this, I find myself thinking of bees.
Bees are sacred animals they say, symbolic of many things – creativity, love, magic, rebirth, to name but a few. In many cultures they have served as symbolic messengers between the natural world and the Underworld. Perhaps they are psychological messengers between our inner and outer worlds, too, symbols of death and rebirth – personal regeneration and transformation.
On a clear night in spring, one can find the constellation of Cancer in the northern sky. Within is a beautiful cluster of stars that can only be seen clearly with binoculars or a telescope. It is called the Beehive Cluster.
It is many years after the accident and my visits to the cranial osteopath and psychiatrist. Things are improving and my mind is more stable. It’s June and I am sitting on a balcony overlooking a valley dotted with villages on the island of Gozo in the Mediterranean. It is nine o’clock and I’m looking west, into the evening sky. It is warm and the stars are brilliant against dark velvet. With my binoculars I find the stars Castor and Pollux in the constellation of Gemini. Then I locate Leo and its bright star Regulus. Between these three I should find the Beehive Cluster. I manage to locate four stars laid out like the splayed hands and feet of Leonardo di Vinci’s Vitruvian Man. If these stars represent a man, then on his chest should be a small group of stars like twinkling medals. I count about eight main stars and I’m sure they are the Beehive Cluster. I continue to look, trying to take in the vastness above.
Early morning and I am wandering the dry fields beneath Gozo’s capital, Victoria. All about are herbs and their cool yellow flowers. I watch the bees at work and listen to birdsong. I sit down and a honeybee lands on a flower beside me. She inches her way over petals and stamens, her body dusted yellow-gold. She lifts up and alights on my leg. She has come to me and I have allowed her close; soon, she will note the position of the sun and fly back to her hive.
It has been said that if a bee were to fly in a straight line for long enough, it would eventually return to the place where it started, that the universe is like that, a giant loop in which you cannot get lost. Watching the bees working among the flowers, I feel things are as they should be. At night, beneath the dome of a starlit sky, I somehow feel safer, contained and ready to continue my journey, a journey that will take me yet further south and far away, so that I can leave the past where it belongs.
Illustration by Alexi Francis