God came to Moses, I believe the story goes, in the form of a burning bush to tell him that he must lead the Jewish people. Moses didn't want to be the leader. I'm fascinated by the hero's reluctance to be the hero. Why not? Don't we all want to be leaders? Superheroes? The one who goes down in history, who will be revered and remembered for all eternity, rather than forgotten in a generation, a mere moment's flicker of light?
The burning bush is also a pretty interesting part of the story though. A freak of nature. Was it a bolt of lightening? Or spontaneous combustion? Or merely divine intervention? It speaks of divine desire on a level that is possible, attainable. It turns out, the divine translated into human terms is a bush enflamed. As a lesbian, I truly appreciate that.
And it spaketh thus.
I was up in Temagami, a beautiful and contested old-growth forest in north-eastern Ontario, slashing and stomping through the bush with my fourth year class. Even as I continued with everyday life, my thoughts buzzed back to the same image and thoughts.
This is just like where they found my dad. Plane smashed around a tree. He was hardly recognizable.
I was aware, as I pointed to specific rock formations, geographic anomalies, old burn areas, not of my fresh-faced students, gathered around in their gortex jackets and woollen toques, but of my inescapable pain. I am newly orphaned, I whispered inside to myself, which sounds like a feisty red-haired girl hero of some plucky children's novel, some sort of modern Anne of Green Gables, but that isn't the case at all. I am old enough to expect it, if anyone ever can, but orphanhood is still a newly-earned badge, a new wound to marvel over, poke one's tongue into, as if a lost molar. No such thing as a tooth fairy anymore. My father died in a plane crash in a Northern New Brunswick forest, a small Cessna he flew for fun. Like a Greek myth modified, the father flies too close to the sun. What a tragedy, everyone whispered at the funeral. It was packed; they had to bring chairs over from the church hall. I didn't cry.
“And I see her. My god. It was a bolt of lightning that caused the burning bush.”
My mother died shortly afterwards, of grief they all said, but I knew that the painkillers, and sleeping pills, and tranquilizers, and antidepressants were the more likely culprits. Not as many people whispered, what a tragedy this time, but I felt it more tragically. At least my father lived, swelled past his limitations, crashed in the attempt to push beyond the ordinary. My mother suffocated on her own vomit in her bed in the middle of the afternoon, they figured.
There is something about returning to that field camp each spring that sparks those losses for me. I suppose it's because, some of my friends might argue, I've been unable to “get over them.” I do my best. I go to the gym faithfully, I teach my courses, I smile, and I go for drinks. I feel part frozen inside, like a body suspended under the ice, but I carry on anyway, hoping no one notices. No one does.
And then it happens. The burning bush. But I didn't know it at the time. I was in an East Coast pub in Northern Ontario, because that's where I taught. It was late summer. I was in the pub with an alcoholic depressive friend who was in love with me, because that was all I had at the time. I am a lesbian who kept hopping into bed with men because they are easy, and I needed to shield myself from the yawning darkness of the void. Men'll do in a pinch. With the depressive friend, Matt, who I swore I wouldn't sleep with—famous last words—I scanned the bar for babes, for him, because entertainment is necessary, talk is annoying, and playing cards would be simply embarrassing.
And I see her.
It was a bolt of lightening that caused the burning bush. She is sitting at a table, leaning forward, with a bandana on her head. She is wearing a tank-top, white, and her muscles shine in the early evening light. She is deep in conversation. And I know. I know.
This only happened once before. I attended a soccer game of my first-ever girlfriend's. I came out rather late in life and was stupidly nervous around all the lesbians who were duly cleated and comfortable with being lesbians. I wore heels and tight pants. To watch a soccer game. What an embarrassing mistake. As in love with Pam as I thought I was, when Diana appeared, sun behind her, and I looked up and saw her, I simultaneously soared upwards and was struck by lightening, which vibrated, reverberated through my entire body right down into the very bowels of the earth, already astir. Diana stared at me as if she knew me, had always known me. A part of me either died right there or came alive. It might necessarily be the same thing.
You know the rest of the story, of course, because it's so typical. Pam and I broke up, if you can call it that, the inevitable unravelling of an already-fragile stitch. I finally march over to talk to Diana one night at the gay bar. I call her. We go out. I immediately start sleeping with a man and wind up in a year-long relationship with him. Is that fear? What would have happened if I had simply embraced my desires? Last I heard, she's in the Yukon. In the wild.
Moses refused God's request at first. He didn't want to be chosen.
I would have gone over there, to Bandana-girl, that night, just enough Keith's and irritation with depressive Matt. I perched at the bar, convincing myself that this was possible, and wondering what I might say: “Hi, I had to meet you.” Or should I come up with some excuse? But when I looked back, she was gone. It was just after nine and the sun had started to set, a blaze of pink and orange in the window framing the empty table where she had been sitting.
But life became full anyway. Unburnished grief gave way to a type of contentment in the form of teaching and research, a house that required attention, and a relationship with a woman I'd met through friends, a skinny, nervous dog groomer who required little effort and drank too much. Contentment: a purring of cats on a cold winter night as one arrives home from dinner with friends; a heart-swell on the sunny drive to work when a favourite song comes on the radio; a sense of well-being and fulfillment, like a crawling into bed after a long day.
But little passion. The familiar clink of cutlery as it is loaded into the dishwasher. The quiet warmth of eyes meeting. The safe embrace of the comfortable. Virginia knew that something necessary was missing. I knew it was me. I couldn't possibly be there because I had retreated into an abandoned mine, sought solace in a forgotten forest, like a teddy bear in some children's animal story, a handmade sign in children's scrawl, “Closed,” hanging loosely over the heart.
And then Bandana-girl showed up at the monthly gay dances, which are necessary for a sense of the community' in small-town Northern Ontario. Hallelujah. I knew she was gay. It was Halloween, and she was dressed as a construction worker: work boots, hard hat, low-slung tool belt, white tank top… Great god have mercy. ..
And, then, she appeared on campus, at the college, with glasses, looking much more serious. My heart pounded on approach. She was deep in conversation. She passed me. I looked hopefully over my shoulder. She did not notice.
Which is fine. Better, really, since I was in a relationship and one that was fine. Fine. Meets all the needs. Is quite compatible.
I was at one of the dances, watching Bandana-girl from afar when I saw her laugh and turn toward someone. I started; it was one of my students. She'd come up to the field camp in Temagami this past spring. Perfect.
“I don't think I've met your friend yet.” I was aiming for subtlety, but alcohol usually runs interference.
“Who?” Anita said, and swung her head to follow my gaze.
“Ah, Charlie… Well, come meet her.” And I went.
Could I have known? Her dark-eyed, sparkling energy was familiar to me. I knew her before I even had my gaze returned. Of course, I was drunk for the introduction, because I'd been taking after dear old Mom in my ability to handle grief and despair without pharmaceuticals.
“This is Charlie.” Charlie?
“As in Brown?” Oh, how embarrassing. I was far too drunk to be having this conversation, but far too hungry for it to leave, to rip my eyes from her eyes. Her large, dark eyes. I wanted to crawl into those eyes, into her very soul, curl into a ball, and stay there forever. She just laughed.
“Charlotte. But I hate that name.”
“Charlie is a firefighter,” Anita pipes up.
“That's pretty sexy.” Shit. A firefighter. Turns out, in the summers when she's not at school taking environmental chemistry, she is a forest firefighter, out in the bush, protecting Canada's vast forests from the ravages of nature or human interference. She could douse the chattering flames of Moses's burning bush if she chose. When sober, I am a geographer, a newly-minted PhD, researching the mysterious forests of the north, and leading students through the wonders of rock and snow formations. Clearly the two of us belong together. I'm not certain I was able to make that clear that night. I think I was having difficulty with my balance.
I went home with the now-uncomfortable girlfriend and writhed like a piece of twisted paper on fire. It might have been better not to speak. To have merely watched from afar, safely projecting one's desires and fears and longings on to that unattainable other. Now she is real. Larger than life. Solid. In the flesh.
Next time in the hallway at school, she saw me. My heart thumped as I approached, gasped hello, and continued. She responded. My cheeks burned.
At the next gay dance, our eyes met immediately. Flame. No matter where I was, I could feel her eyes on me. And she came to speak to me, again and again. And this seemed somehow preordained, divinely decreed. I drunkenly corralled a friend to buy me a drink for some reason known only to the gods of alcohol. As I accompanied him to the bar, Charlie turned with a red wine in hand for me. She was there for me already. Of course, in my drunken challenge to gravity, I spilled said glass of wine all over my white-shirted friend. With a frenzy of apologies and laughter, I turned, and she was there with a cloth, soda water, and another red wine. She was there for me. She presented a competence, a control, a matter-of-fact dominance that enthralled me.
I told her to call me. She called.
You know the rest of the story, of course. Virginia and I broke up with an anguish that did not, unfortunately, go untold, including twenty-three phone messages in one night and three a.m. visits to inform Charlie in a bellow from the front step that she will be “fucked and thrown away.” Virginia might still be somewhere up north drinking this one into oblivion.
No matter. I am in love like I never thought possible. It feels like flying straight into the sun, the sun setting afire glittering wings and casting down great flames of desire like some egomaniacal god starved for worship.
And reluctant Moses led the Jews. He parted the Red Sea and led them through the desert and through the worst hardships–starvation, death, disease, lack of shelter, persecution–they had ever known. These hardships now form the basis for their rituals, for their understanding of themselves as a people, for their identity. If he had known what the burning bush was foretelling would he have run away? He wanted to as it was. He hid his face.
And Moses led the Jews to safety. That is the beauty. Out of the place of persecution and pain, through an outrageous suffering that seems unbearable—mere nuggets of unleavened bread to eat and only tears to drink—into a life of longing for the homeland. Perhaps that's the real story of the divine. That constant yearning to return to the homeland, to a time before suffering was an inevitable fact. Moses's story creates their togetherness, their shared origin, their belief in community.
Beginning with the burning bush.
I don't even really remember our first kiss, but it was in the washroom at the Irish pub in the town in Northern Ontario. Of course, in the washroom and not on the waterfront at sunset or on a yacht. Even as drunk as I was, I remember enough of necking with her on my living room floor, even though I had sworn to myself that I was not taking her home so soon after a break-up, and that I was not going to bed her so quickly. She was stretched out on her back on my fake Persian carpet on sawdust and upholstery nails because I'd been reupholstering a chair that day, in a fitful and unfinished attempt to change my life. She didn't notice. She left me, somewhat reluctantly, as the birds started heralding the rising sun. I was covered in scratches, my lips bruised, and already more in love than seemed possible.
I don't believe these grand narratives, though, the ones that speak to some holy life-transcending love or belief or experience. I see biblical stories, for example, as metaphorical. They teach us something about ourselves, a psychological truth about humanity perhaps. I don't believe that a burning bush actually spoke to Moses, for example. Jeez…
But here I am, plunged into the heart of something soft and warm and pulsing with life, something orange and hot and percolating beneath the surface, something that smells of musky earth and green leaves and sweet perfumes and burning wood, something that curls itself around me like a giant cat, purring and touching and rubbing and loving, something that promises me that I might never feel that ache again, at the very same moment that it reveals to me the absolute barrenness of that former self, and the terrifying possibility that I might slam back into that aloneness. But I don't care. Sore from the night before, I wake in the morning already turned toward her, and the light is caressing her body before me, as if it cannot wait, greedy sun. And I cannot blame it. I join it and the air, all touching her, and I feel myself opening, believing, hoping that, just maybe, maybe it is all true. Maybe there really are knights in shining armour. Maybe people do fall in love for all eternity. Maybe I will desire her with this level of burning intensity for all time.
Love for someone, this being shot up into a floating plateau of intense, beautiful, transcendent love, cries immediately for the acknowledgement of its necessary limitation, of its brutal finality, of the crash of the plane into the ground. But I don't care any more. I have suffered the worst pain already and survived. It has been a hell of a bloodbath, a persecution without an enemy, a war with no sides. I have been shaken into fragments like a child's toy, and I have pieced myself together again, biting my lip with concentration.
Miraculously, I see that suffering reflected in Charlie. In her muscled body that speaks to hard work. In her broad shoulders. In her hands that are calloused with labour and yet so gently lift her two-year-old niece to her shoulder. In her unconscious chewing of the inside of her mouth. In the scarring that decorates her left arm: a u-shaped burn from the top of a lighter she pressed there, the hole where the safety pin went in and where it came out, and the lines where she cut and cut in order to bleed herself free from her own inarticulate grief as a teenager. She still refuses to tell me about it.
In Temagami, a fire tower rises over the town and forest from a high escarpment. It was someone's job in years before the advent of small planes and helicopters to watch for fires from this tower in order to protect the forest and surrounding lands. Now it is a tourist attraction that the geography students love. Climbing the tower is scary as each level becomes more slender, more exposed, higher up. Some of the more timid students refuse to climb last few tiers of rickety ladders. Once at the top, however, the entire world spreads its luxurious foliage before you for kilometres and kilometres on every side: glimmers of rivers and creeks and small lakes; patchwork of farmlands; squares of houses and buildings; small cubes of cars; wild dark tousle of forest as far as the eye can see. At the apex, you can almost believe you are soaring. That is how I feel with Charlie.
I would not be able to love with this trembling intensity if I hadn't suffered such unaccountable pain. I would not be able to hold her tight to my body and appreciate the fullness of what she is, if the people I loved so passionately hadn't been ripped from me. That pain necessarily makes this absolute joy. I am thankful.
Moses led me out of the desert. Finally.
As the religious know, faith is entirely necessary, it turns out.
About the Author
Laura Robinson is an Associate Professor of English literature at the Royal Military College of Canada in Kingston, Ontario. She has published articles on L.M. Montgomery in Canadian Studies: An Introductory Reader, Canadian Literature, L.M. Montgomery and Canadian Culture, and Children's Voices in Atlantic Literature Culture, as well as articles on Ann-Marie MacDonald in Canadian Literature and on Margaret Atwood in English Studies in Canada. Her short fiction has appeared in Wascana Review, torquere, and Frontiers.