***Warning: fictional violence.***
16:43. I walk up the stairs with a pot of herb tea and a mug. I think: this is it. I will write that novel. The one I have to write before I leave this country. The one that is about this place, where once four small girls grew up, and now four boys grow up.
A novel about this smallish former farm and its huge, solitary linden tree — this mysterious yet solid being that houses something of immense light and quiet power within it, the small southeastern windows that look directly toward unseeable Mecca, in the distance, the sunrise, in the winter, and also, further to the right, toward the dormant volcano that the region is named for.
It has everything, this place, and I have never done it justice, never told the story — not the house’s story, nor the story of the family that owned it before us, and not even the remarkably unremarkable story, of how we, six Canadians, ended up here.
“But Auvergne — how did you end up in Auvergne?” A local will sometimes ask, in French, of course, if I meet them for the first time. As if to say, “Of all places, why here, in this no-where place?”
I remember not long after we arrived, having coffee and german coffee cake with a French couple who had also newly moved to the region, when I’d asked them the same question. They’d been all over France, seeking the perfect place to settle for the rest of their lives. Our boys played quietly together in a nearby room. Toy trucks and cars.
The man, tall and blond, pulling out a map, spreading it over the thick polished slab of wood that was their dining table. “Catastrophe,” he said clearly, easy for me to understand, as he traced his long finger along the southern Mediterranean coastline. “Ici, catastrophe aussi,” he said next, tracing his finger along the west coast also. Traffic. Overpopulation, especially during the holiday seasons. Then there are the weather extremes. Catastrophes in general. I had to laugh at his dramatic choice of words and delivery, but he was quite serious.
“Auvergne — calme, mystérieux, magique… beau.”
I nodded. I felt the same way.
On my way to my attic desk, I pause outside the door to the kids’ room. My second son is in there. I hear gunshots. I walk into the room, temporarily put down my teapot and mug.
“May I have that, please?”
Reluctantly, my second son hands over his VR headset. The one he bought with his own money: birthday money from relatives, plus hours and hours of work money from his father, for digging trenches for plumbing in the yard, and for building a retainer wall to support the edges of the driveway.
Trenches and walls. Funny to think about.
He knows that I do not condone violent video games.
I put the headset on.
I am in a prison; there is a row of cells in front of me. They are empty. Across a courtyard from me, two male figures in army fatigues scuttle about with long and low strides, pointing black guns as they crouch and turn. I look around, scanning the horizon behind me. There is a view over the prison wall. It’s a white-sky wasteland of military outposts and grey-dirt hills that stretches as far as the eye can see.
“This place looks awful,” I say softly. “What an awful place to be.” One of the manly-looking soldiers has the voice of a small child. “That way,” says the child voice, urgently, to their partner. A man’s voice, from the other soldier, says, “Fuck.”
My son, who can hear these voices as well, starts laughing softly. He’s embarrassed. Both at what I am seeing and hearing, but also at how I am making his character look or act, in this multiplayer online game. Stunned and stupid.
The two soldiers face me. Their actions seem uncertain. I sense they are confused.
“Change your reality,” I hear myself tell them. My hands are at my sides.
They do nothing.
“Choose a different reality,” I say. “Choose a game in which you can create things, not destroy them.”
The closest one lifts his gun, shoots me. I feel no pain.
“I think I’m shot,” I tell my son. The other players can hear me. My son is still hiding in the corner of the attic bedroom, as though the other players can see him. He’s still chuckling nervously in total mortification, in his boy-becoming-man voice.
“Look down, tell me what you see,” he says, wondering if I was indeed shot.
I see a man’s body, in army fatigues, the same as the two that were in front of me, face down on the dirt ground of the prison courtyard, its right arm folded awkwardly beneath it, blood staining the underarm of the uniform. I tell this to my son.
“That’s your body,” says my son.
Strangely, I feel fine, and I can still see around me, as though I’m standing.
“Choose a different reality,” I hear myself saying again.
I’m not sure what compels me to keep repeating this gods-forsaken phrase. I guess something in me wants my voice to be heard, before I leave, by these two strangers, whoever they may be. And I want that unknown child’s reality to be different. I want his future to be different. I want my own kids’ future to be different.
But it’s a stupid phrase, perhaps. Why should anyone listen to it?
Still, something in me believes it will sink in, to the real minds behind these virtual co-players, even after I have left the game. Perhaps I am getting through to them. Who knows. Might as well try.
My son doesn’t make a sound. He knows exactly what I’m doing, and he can predict with ease what will happen, based on experience. He waits for it, now, calm.
The closest soldier raises his gun again, points it directly at my face. I’m looking down the barrel of a gun. I have never seen that before. Someone in real life pointed a gun at me, once, when I was a cashier in a beer-and-wine store many years ago, but it was at stomach level, and had turned out to be fake, the police had later said. I remember having felt glad that I had somehow managed not to give over the money. I would have felt so stupid. Like I had done something wrong. Failed my employers somehow.
My gut twists involuntarily. I feel somehow unseen, though I’m being directly observed by these two fellow characters in the game.
The soldier fires.
For a moment, everything is black.
Then, suddenly, I’m standing in a gorgeous open-plan peaked-roof log cabin, probably worth millions, were it real; looking out of enormous floor-to-ceiling windows with a view over beautiful snow-covered mountaintops and clusters of village lights. A fading dark-blue evening sky. There are bookshelves and cosy sofas along the far-away walls, inside the mansion-like cabin. A fire burns cosily in a huge fireplace.
“Wow! This is better!” I hear myself cry out, spontaneously.
“You’ve died and gone to heaven,” laughs my son, making a joke. It’s the home-base of VR-headset land.
“They chose a different reality for me, instead of choosing one for themselves,” I mutter aloud.
“Not so bad, is it,” says my son.
“But the problem is this,” I say, taking off the headset — he knows what’s coming — he’s heard it before: “the reality is virtual. It’s not real. Death is not tidy. And in real life, a family would be left behind, grieving. Lifetimes all around would be changed for generations — whether it was you, that chose to end your life in this world, or someone else, who chose to end it for you.”
Are kids being programmed to think it’s no big deal to end their own lives? No big deal to kill? That perhaps life is even better after death? That it’s all swank mansions and ski hills and hot cocoa by the fire, afterwards, anyway?
Of course, these are the big questions these days. The ones I nearly fell into a nervous breakdown over, a couple of years ago, and which I argued about, and argued about, and then got tired of arguing about, when more and more gaming technology kept making its way into this house.
“That’s okay. I needed to charge the battery anyway,” says my second son. He takes the headset out of my hands and leaves.
I pick up my teapot and mug and cross the attic bridge to my writing desk, in the opposite room. If I’m in heaven, I guess I might as well do what I like best.
17:55. One-hour Saturday-afternoon writing exercise. Can you do it, too? Give it a shot. ;))
(Sorry for the dark humour. And for those who don’t “get” it, I’m not trying to look good here. This is sadly the reality, or actually usually worse, i.e. with less parental discussion and supervision, in many teenage — and younger — kids’ homes these days. We can point the finger endlessly; how about we try turning it on ourselves, first. And please, “don’t shoot the messenger.”)
Nadine inhales & exhales words & images from current vantage point in Auvergne, France. Thank you for reading. ❤︎