By Ellen Maslin
When Benji and Jaz were young, they were blissfully naïve to the murmurs and rumbles of destruction around them. They walked under trees, quite unaware of the changing colour of their leaves until kicking through bundles of them in certain seasons. In their youth, nor Benji or Jaz recognised that there were increasingly less of these trees each year, and that the bundles of kickable leaves became flatter and less plush. These rumbles were murmured by angry, ignorant, and greedy members of society, keen to optimise the land and people who fit neatly and agreeably into it, unafraid of flattening those who didn’t despite how plush or rare their leaves. Benji and Jaz would grow to become boomingly loud voices in the fight against this flattening, desperately and effectively savouring what should never be lost. Many occurrences throughout their lives contributed to their awakening and desire to protest the rising suffocating norm. One moment in particular however, would forever be cemented in their minds and hearts, honoured and shared.
A vacancy resided in Benji’s twenty-something year-old mind, her teenage years not far behind her at all and the hardening of adulthood not yet quite taken a grip of her edges. On this day, Benji struggled to see through a mass of mental fog, which was unhelpful given she was trying to hide her reluctance to attend the art exhibition her best friend Jaz was so eager to get to. Benji could hear Jaz chatting away as they walked side-by-side, as they often did, but was confronted by her inability to form plump enough responses to chew on before words fell out all thin and limp. She looked in Jaz’s direction, mostly out of politeness, as her concentration wavered through her friend as if she were invisible. Jaz’s zingy upbeatness strove to yank at Benji’s apathy but instead tapped dully against her forehead in translation. Occasionally this dull tapping made Benji’s jaw twitch and clench, but Benji prided herself in being a master of emotional repression. And was successful at it, most of the time. Although at this moment in time, and at this point in her lunar cycle, Benji was less successful at pushing down the tapping, ticking, twinging, twanging, and now thriving irritability that was itching to burst from the seams of its numb disguise. She clenched a little harder and it retreated its head temporarily, before being unleashed entirely in a self-defence attack on Jaz’s innocent giggle.
“Are you laughing at me?”, snapped Benji misinterpreting the laugh as a critical snigger. A spiky silence shuddered between them.
Behind the veil of vacancy, an old familiar friend sat obnoxiously in the driving seat of Benji’s thoughts and was taking a little too much pleasure in planting seeds of self-doubt and paranoia. When watered with sadness and fatigue these seeds can grow to become bitter and poisonous weeds and this driver was skilfully green fingered. This old friend, this recklessly driving horticulturalist, was far more familiar with Benji than Benji was with them. Benji knew them well enough to attempt to hide at the first signs of their arrival, turning off all the lights and hastily shutting the curtains, but in all the years that this unwelcome visitor recurringly came to stay (ignoring the “We’re closed” signs, entering confidently and making themselves quite comfortable) not once did Benji enquire about them. Not once did Benji ask why they kept coming (despite being obviously not welcome) or why they insisted on their endless tormenting. When Jaz first came into Benji’s life, all sunny and pick-me-up peony-like, their old grey pal seemed to visit a little less. During their much-appreciated vacation, Benji wondered if they had left out of spite, envious of this new friendship blossoming. Little did Benji know, her mind was by no means their only dwelling. Her pesty guest had simply decided to plague someone else whilst this fresh and radiant wall of trust, hope, and companionship was too strong to penetrate.
Nevertheless, they returned vengefully, ever the shapeshifter presenting in a variety of forms. They crowned themselves The King, The Queen, The Puppeteer, and even sometimes looked like people Benji knew. People who loved Benji and would be heartbroken to know that their faces and voices were used to amplify such internal reprimanding. Kindred with the cycle of the moon, this guest was also shark-like, hypersensitive to the scent of soon-coming blood. Their host’s decline in oestrogen and peak in progesterone would send the shark into a frenzy, creating sandstorms in the shadows of the mind, breeding with self-criticism and shamelessly rebuking joy.
Benji had been trudging through her premenstruum this week, so the guest had feasted on festering unkind thought-seeds and summoned them into full bloom. Today, Benji was aching and swollen, although she ignored this very well, as would she manage to somewhat ignore her soon-coming blood. The products available for people who bled predominantly promoted absorbing ‘stick-it-up-and-suck-it-up’ mechanisms that chafed and irritated in ways that people who bled rarely talked about. In fact, people rarely talked about under-the-surface matters altogether.
“No, I am not laughing at you”, spoke Jaz whose words would have landed softly on Benji’s cheek had Benji’s skin not been barricaded by icy guards of preservation.
“I was laughing at that squirrel struggling to climb a pole. I think they thought it was a tree”. Jaz gestured to the nearby greenery ahead, her posture and expression somewhat defeated, “Seems silly now, and I guess also kind of sad”. Where once the entrance of a forest could be discerned, a shadow of such remained. A handful of trees were still there, and many more if you ventured further in. The belly of the forest was full, but its bones were thinning.
Benji shrunk a little, as a pang of guilt travelled through the front of her body. The vibrations momentarily snapped her attention back into focus; she noticed Jaz’s doey eyes blink from curious to concerned and this felt intrusive. In reflex, Benji returned to the realm of rumination, struck by how oblivious she had been of any creature or woodland kind at all and how wrongly she’d received her friend. Having been impatiently hanging fire, drooling at the anticipation of a moment like this, The King of The Spiral kicked into action. Benji’s thoughts, which had been scattered and incoherent, whipped to a halt at the click of their master’s fingers. In unison they spun around to face their target and swarmed towards the demolition of Benji’s self-esteem. Each vicious thought tore out a chunk rapaciously, and as the flesh of Benji’s self-worth fell so did her strength to fight back.
‘You’re such a bad friend.’
‘Jaz is nothing but nice to you and you just bit her head off.’
‘Why does she even bother with you? You’re clearly no fun to be around.’
Benji’s head was fizzing, boiling over, and she felt like she was drowning, but facing the outer world was terrifying too. Here, her fears could be confirmed; Jaz could shake hands with Benji’s ugly thoughts and cast them into truths. Her whole world would crumble down if Jaz aligned with how Benji was talking to herself. The other conundrum that existed in reality, was that Benji had an inkling that Jaz’s love for her wore X-ray glasses that could see the whirring thought monsters at large. Feeling so seen was nauseating because it forced Benji to stare at her own reflection through her friend’s eyes, and in the clear water lay pain and discomfort. Whichever way Benji turned, her fate was unpleasant.
As though a pool of gravity existed inside Benji, she could feel herself being pulled away from the world. Her body was waking up to play now and wanted to place a stake in the game. Tired of being ignored, Benji’s body struck hard, and a sharp pain wrenched in her lower abdomen. Having peaked and summoned the shark, progesterone had ridden her steep descent towards collapse proudly. Now washing her hands of this month’s duties, progesterone stretched out and yawned before lying flat next to oestrogen and intertwining their fingers in rest. Heavy and persistent, Benji’s body conjured up another weighty tug that caused her to double over in pain. Benji winced, swallowing her breath, and instinctively put her hand between her legs. Blood.
Benji’s eyes darted around, scanning first for nearby onlookers, experiencing ripples of shame at the sight of anyone even a street away, and next for somewhere she could discretely purchase the plugging products that would help her forget about this inconvenient process. Then her eyes landed on her friend. Jaz was holding Benji with her gaze, reaching out to her with compassion and patience. Benji couldn’t help but look away, shrinking in distress and embarrassment.
“Bet you wish I hadn’t suggested taking the ‘scenic route’ now?”, Jaz offered a half smile, testing Benji’s capacity for humour. The line was thin. Benji had cursed this fact when her desperate pursuit was met only with the sight of grand whimsical houses overlooking the fading forest. The kind of homes that wealthy eccentric people lived in, some wonderful and some with questionable ethics, all who agreed that waking up to such a view affirmed their achievements and life choices and set them up for a good day. This could not have felt like less of a good day for Benji. Her friend was dragging her along to something she hadn’t the least bit of interest in – Jaz had always been the quirky creative one, whilst Benji felt more at home with reason than she did rhyme and was quite intimidated by Jaz’s artsy spaces, though she would never admit it – and she had just started her period in the middle of bloody nowhere!
There was no direction they could turn that would take Benji to where she wanted to be. They were far from home, there were no shops around, and she certainly didn’t fancy knocking on the door of any of these houses! There was no way to assess the kind of character that might answer and how long they’d be in there drinking tea. Jaz intruded even further into Benji’s parameter of defence; gently she shook her head at Benji as if to say, ‘Please don’t worry’, and melted the barrier that had been built between them with a look that said ‘You’re safe. It’s just you and me’.
Jaz had a knack for soothing and attuning to what her loved ones needed. She was not immune to panic though. Despite being great at regulating, rationalising, and thinking on the spot, Jaz still needed to feel all the feelings and internally freak out first. She spun around a couple of times and realised, as Benji did, that there really was nothing around that could offer any convenient solution. Biting her lip, Jaz quickly fought off the frustration that they would likely be missing the once-in-a-lifetime ‘one-day-only’ pop-up art exhibition of her favourite artist, Pepa Marone. She took a deep breath.
“Look, this might seem odd, but we could go in there?”, Jaz pointed towards the mouth of the forest that once gaped proudly but now opened like a small yawn. Benji looked up at Jaz with a furrow of dumbstruck confusion and not enough energy to query ‘Why?’. Jaz read her expression.
“Well, it’s quiet and no one really walks through it anymore so, it’d be private, and could maybe just buy us some thinking time and a moment for you to, well, breathe”. Jaz pressed her fingers and thumb together in an unconscious pattern as she waited for Benji’s response.
Cowering into the embrace of her friend’s right arm, Benji felt herself leaning into trust and being guided towards the greens and browns before them. Slushy defeated puddles of ice were left behind. With this thawing, came a hot tingly trembling in Benji’s face. Her cheeks burnt and tightened as she tried to fight it but, defiantly, her tears still fell.
Jaz pulled Benji in closer as she wept, having unlocked an uncontrollable release, and they ventured into the belly of the forest. When Jaz sensed that they were somewhere in the middle and, although not knowing why she wanted to be in the centre of this humming buzz of nature, she stopped. Jaz felt Benji yielding and knelt with her as she sank down onto the dark earth. Benji lay, still. As her tears fell so did her blood, oozing through the fabric of her clothes, turning light blues to deep reds. Jaz sat on her knees, stroking Benji’s back in circular motions, gathered herself and waited for a plan to arrive. She had no idea what to do but reassured herself that she was great at rolling with it.
The swelling dampness of Benji’s clothes was not comforting like the dampness of the ancient ground. They tightened, scratched, and taunted and she became restless. “I can’t wear these. I can’t bare it”, Benji squirmed and tugged at her trousers.
“Just take them off”. Jaz flung this statement casually, attempting to comfortingly normalise the situation.
“What? Is that not weird?”
“Erm. No! No one’s here. No one’s gonna see you”. Jaz wasn’t sure whether or not it was weird. She was simply determined to alleviate her friend’s distress and was figuring this out as she went along.
Benji accepted this permission and began unbuttoning frantically before being smacked by a wave of shame knocking her backwards. Clenching her fists against her head and digging her knuckles in, she screamed into her forearms.
Moving fast, and not thinking much at all, Jaz started to undress herself.
“Hey, you wouldn’t be the only naked person in the forest now!”.
Benji looked up at her spectacularly nude best friend and the cracking heat of laughter split through her. Tears fell as she allowed joy to shatter through her body, loosening her neck and shoulders as they shook bashfully with bruised glee.
“You’re crazy”, Benji marvelled through soft sighs of eased disbelief, and joined Jaz in removing her clothes. Layers of shame dropped off with them. The pair looked at each other and, in a shared acknowledgement of this moment’s ridiculousness, flailed their arms in a wiggly harmony and frolicked for a while. Benji couldn’t frolic extensively, with pretty low energy levels, so chose to nestle back into the forest floor. Free to flow, she felt the inside of her body contract and release, pain and relief in synergy. As though spellbound by the mysticism of nature and this deep internal pull, Benji found herself intrigued by the unusual textures against her skin. She traced her finger against surfaces around her, touching the hairs on her arm and finding the twin to this sensation as she stroked the trichome of a leaf. She noticed creases, folds, and marked stretches in her skin that were etched into the bark of thick trees. And as she turned, absorbing the crunches and rustles of sound, she faced the beauty of her friend who too now lay beside her. Jaz’s eye, framed by freckles that dusted her cheekbone, had a corner of blood vessels resembling the branches that craned into the sky.
Benji felt like she was floating whilst simultaneously feeling her back flat and rooted to the ground, sinking into the slow twists of pain and rising away from them with euphoric endorphin wings. She began to follow her body’s call for gentle movement, rocking slightly before pressing herself up to a crouched position, her feet turned outwards and flat against the alive uneven surface of the earth. She pressed her hands against her chest, massaging in motions of apology for how she had handled her body before. Her heartbeat softened in forgiveness. Benji watched her blood drop down from inside of her in a direct line of symmetry, more fiercely red than she had ever imagined or allowed herself to know. Some collected in fallen autumn leaves like chalices or disappeared into the soil as though returning to its source. Benji was sure she saw one droplet meet a deeply sleeping bud and, in its meeting, burst into full bloom. For a brief moment, a great oak tree rose from this bud and soared above her. Benij heard its mycelium whispers. What the great oak said, we’ll never know, such intimate secrets should never be shared. But we do know that Benji left this liminal space with the seed of a sense of purpose, turning to Jaz with a story of when a family first arrived on a Road and made changes to it forever. Benji knew that nature was far more important than the ‘important’ people claimed it to be, that this would be devastating, and that she had to try and do something about that.
She didn’t know how she was going to do this, or where to even start, but she knew that she wanted to do it with Jaz. Jaz who had guided her here, held and nurtured her in the most amusingly loving way, and who had not shaken hands with the bully inside her mind. Coming to think of it, Benji realised, her once disturbingly noisy guest hadn’t made a peep for a good while. Facing the world hadn’t watered her fears. It was quite the opposite.
Artwork by Victoria Watson, @victoria_j_watson on Instagram (www.victoriajwatson.com), Image Caption: “Lady in the Sea” Menstrual blood, gold acrylics & pen.