Down From by Ursula Pflug

The novella Down From (2018, Snuggly Books) follows on the heels of Ms. Pflug’s 2017 cli-fi novella Mountain, which was published by Inanna. It’s a little hard to describe Down From, but as I see it, it is a story of two females, Sandrine and Vienna. They are the prime characters, with Habib and Sandrine’s husband River providing some male presence. At the outset, Sandrine has just come “down from” the mountain, but it is not a literal mountain, it is a figurative one where Sandrine visits alternate realities. Habib is fishing off a bridge that crosses over the canal. Like exiting a dream, Sandrine has difficulty recalling which present she is in. Her husband’s name eludes her, for instance. Habib, though she instantly recognizes. Perhaps he is a type of gatekeeper between her worlds, she muses.

She figured there must be a lot to rant about on this planet once you got started. Pretty much everything, in point of fact.

Maybe it’s simple,” he [Habib] said. Maybe I’m your gatekeeper because you can remember me, and not the other way around.” Sandrine had to think for a moment what the other way around was. “I can remember you because you are my gatekeeper,” she said.”I think it makes more sense that way. What else explains you being on the bridge every time I come down from the mountain?”

Upon returning home, Sandrine tries to remember her husband’s name:

Mike. Why did Sandrine keep calling him that when she had no idea whether or not it was even his name? Maybe she’d been right the first time and it was Randy. Or the last time, and it was Frank. Sandrine struggled with it again, hoped he’d give it away, and soon. Not knowing your husband’s name, that was probably really bad in this world.

It is while discussing things with her husband that she gets a mental image of a train ride from one of her past realities. Fortunately, Sandrine keeps notebooks of her journeys up in the attic, where there are boxes upon boxes of them. She just has to find the right one. She pulls one out at random, hoping it might have something about a train ride. It doesn’t but she finds this deep thought she once jotted down:

“Over the course of a lifetime, I have found that random thoughts, like dreams, can be cryptic messages from the soul, cryptic, disguised, veiled, which require only a bit of personal pondering, inspection, to parse their meaning and significance.”

The next day, she gets an image or a thought of a grown male child that she had. She presently has two young children with River, but she definitely knows she has a mature, red-headed son. He lives in Montreal, went to Concordia. He has a girlfriend that doesn’t speak much English. Her name is Mireille. This much she knows, but what happened to him? Did she forget that? Who could she ask?

“Did you forget your best friend is a professional witch?” she asked aloud.

Vienna is the witch in question. She lives near a swamp, having moved out of her large house (called Hartwood) into a shack that River had built for her. The house has it’s own existence (not like the house in The Amityville Horror though), and behind each of the upstairs doors lie stories, and it is there, behind a door called Pomme Verte that Sandrine receives the help she needs from Vienna (who has lost her own own daughter and she is not sure if she is dead or alive).

A story that may seem strange at first, Down From slowly coalesces into a narrative on dreams, alternate realities and even ecology, for Sandrine knows (and rants about) the ways we are slowly destroying this world (don’t get her started on fluoridation, or Aspartame!). A very different read to be sure, but one can easily sympathize with Sandrine and Vienna for the losses they have suffered and the burdens that they carry. Worth a look!

Down From by Ursula Pflug
Snuggly Books (UK)

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