“Number rules the universe” — Pythagoras
At fourteen I saw my mother fly.
When Yves Klein jumped out of a second-floor Paris window to create his famous Leap into the Void photograph he was living at 14 rue Campagne-Premiére.
As the exact year of her birth is not agreed upon, some reports say that Joan of Arc was fourteen, not thirteen, when she began to hear voices.
At fourteen a voice told me my parents would be dead in a week.
“It was true— / sounds weren’t coming out of my mouth. And yet / they were in my head, expressed, possibly, / as something less exact, thought perhaps” Louise Glück, Faithful and Virtuous Night, 2014.
At fourteen I was in rehearsals for a play that was going to tour England, Scotland, and Wales, when the voice inside my head spoke.
On yourdictionary.com the first two examples on the list of sentences featuring the word “fourteen” are:
For her, the last fourteen months had been nothing short of heaven on earth.
Fourteen years of friction and struggle followed.
The fourteenth century was a period of great human suffering as the Black Death crept its way across Europe.
At fourteen I imagined that in the face of great tragedy, I would be brave, heroic even.
Geoffrey Chaucer was five years old when the plague reached England. Later, in 1387, as the country struggled to recover, he would begin to write The Canterbury Tales and continue until his death in 1400.
At fourteen, instead of writing the required essay for Year 9 English, I dressed as Chaucer’s dirty, gap-toothed woman and performed for the class. The silence that followed told me it was not a resounding success.
“I certainly learned a lot of things I never would have learned otherwise this way, and even when they surprised me or made me sick I never let on, but pretended that’s the way I knew things were all the time.” Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar, p. 14.1
At fourteen my teacher quietly handed me a copy of Plath’s only novel. Its pages opened and welcomed me in.
“I Thought That I Could Not Be Hurt” was Plath’s first tragic poem, written at age fourteen.
My mother’s name is made up of fourteen letters. B-e-v-e-r-l-y-V-i-n-c-e-n-t. My father’s name falls short. By one. R-o-n-a-l-d-V-i-n-c-e-n-t. He is less than. The numbers don’t lie. Pressured her to get out of the car on a busy highway when all she wanted was to get home.
At fourteen my parents crossed the road. They did not get to the other side.
T-o-w-t-r-u-c-k-d-r-i-v-e-r. Fourteen letters.
Told police he was driving home, not rushing to a job, but home was in the other direction.
I have never said this out loud before, but…
Both men killed her. Dad and the driver.
At fourteen I told my seventeen-year-old sister that our mother was dead.
In 2014 the movie Kill the Messenger was released.
“In all you do or say or think, recollect that at any time the power of withdrawal from life is in your own hands.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth, p. 14.2
At fourteen I began to plan my exit. There was so much to choose from, it became like a game. Sword in the stomach, knife at the throat, pills down the hatch, trip on the stairs, rope to the neck, match to the gas, head in the oven, leave the car running, jump out the window, rocks in the pocket, bullet in brain, open a vein.
“I decided to stay, I felt this was something I could still do for my mother.” Annie Ernaux, A Woman’s Story, trans. Tanya Leslie, p. 14.3
At fourteen it felt as though I had switched the numbers and become forty-one, the age my mother was on the day of her death.
At fourteen I was the cat in Gavin Ewart’s poem, “A 14-Year-Old Convalescent Cat in the Winter.” An “Old Age Pensioner, retired, resented,” not “by no one” but by everyone.
At fourteen, in London, I saw the musical Cats and for one bright, sparkly moment I was no longer a teenage convalescent. I was a Jellicle cat, a quick-change comedian, a tight-rope walker, an acrobat.
At fourteen I thought of all the ways she died. Crushed under wheels? Thrown into the air like a circus performer? Blood flying, painting the sky.
Human hands contain fourteen digital bones: five proximal phalange, four middle phalange, five distal phalange. The thumb does not have a middle phalange.
At fourteen I remembered how my mother unwittingly became part of the circus act when the tiger in the cage lifted its tail and peed in the air, the arc making it all the way into her Styrofoam cup. Even at such a young age I recognized what that said to her. To be singled out. Pissed on. The year before that a cow shat on her foot at the Royal Easter Show.
At fourteen I wondered what she thought at the moment of impact.
There are fourteen bones in the face: two nasal, two lacrimal, two inferior nasal concha, two maxilla, one mandible, two palatine, two zygomatic, one vomer.
At fourteen I didn’t notice people being hit by cars and trucks in TV shows and movies. These days I see it all the time but have learned to close my eyes when it looks as though someone is about to cross the road.
At fourteen when they came to me on the sofa and told me she was dead I jumped up and ran.
“Not one of them would allow their feet to touch the floor.” Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry, p. 14.4
Human feet contain fourteen digital bones: five proximal phalange, four middle phalange, five distal phalange. The big toe does not have a middle phalange.
At fourteen I didn’t see my mother buried. I couldn’t get out of the car. Instead, I watched as the mourners gathered on the grassy hill in the hot sun and looked down at what I assumed was a deep, dark hole.
How Green Was My Valley beat Citizen Kane for Best Picture at the fourteenth Academy Awards in 1941.
The year Edvard Munch turned fourteen his older sister Sophie died of tuberculosis. This would haunt him for the rest of his life and inspire paintings such as The Sick Child and The Scream.
At fourteen my mother died instantly, my father didn’t, surviving for four weeks and one day with a broken, bloodied body.
It is advised that sutures be removed within fourteen days.
At fourteen I saw them both underground. Nasal passages and ear canals filling up with dirt. I did not see coffins, just earth, as though they were buried in a time long past.
Woodlice have fourteen legs and armored bodies.
The Cement Garden, Ian McEwan’s 1978 novel about four children who bury their dead mother in a trunk of wet cement in the basement, is narrated by a fourteen-year-old boy.
At fourteen I didn’t know who to be. I was no longer a child but not yet an adult.
I once read a study that said fourteen is one of the worst times to lose a parent. This made me feel sane and seen. For about a minute. Then I went back to berating and hating myself.
Going through my files I find Paul Auster’s essay “Why Write?” in The New Yorker and see that I have highlighted “I simply want to underscore what a vulnerable age fourteen can be. No longer a child, not yet an adult…” Are my words not my own? I thought that line was mine, but maybe it was his first?
“I was only fourteen years old, after all, and what did I know? I had never seen a dead person before,” said Auster about a boy who died at summer camp.
At fourteen, when my religious studies teacher suggested I visit my mother in the mortuary I decided against it, fearing I would forever remember her as a cold, hard thing.
“When my mother was dressed up she always sat straight and held her neck very stiff.” Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye, p. 14.5
At fourteen I wore a hot pink dress to my mother’s funeral.
On page fourteen of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn there is half of a black and white reproduction of Rembrandt’s The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp. A white line, the spine of the book, cuts through it, severing the body in two. Page fourteen shows the top half which includes the deathly face but excludes the skinned forearm, which appears on the next page.
In Egyptian mythology Set chopped his brother Osiris into fourteen pieces.
Canto XIV in Dante’s Inferno focuses on those who have sinned against God. Their punishment is to have flakes of fire slowly rained down on them.
At fourteen I still believed in God. I knew He existed because He had punished me. He had heard that voice and decided to make me pay. Later I would drop the capital H.
At fourteen I called God.
At fourteen God said, Sorry, wrong number.
In Psalm 14 of the Bible David tells the audience that it is foolish not to believe in God.
“I had never believed in the sacred nature of literature. God had died when I was fourteen,” said Simone de Beauvoir.
At fourteen people would look skyward and tell me my parents were in a better place.
In 2003 NASA’s aging Galileo spacecraft concluded its fourteen-year, $1.5 billion exploration of Jupiter and its moons.
At fourteen adults started telling me that it was time to “get over it” as though I’d lost a pet and not two parents.
Some people believe that fourteen is the number of forgetfulness.
At fourteen I began to forget their faces but found it impossible to look at photographs that would remind me.
During its mission the Galileo spacecraft returned more than 14,000 images.
Patti Smith “slowly ascended” fourteen stairs after her final good night phone call with Robert Mapplethorpe on the night that he died.
At fourteen I took three deep breaths every time I climbed the stairs that lead to the front door of my house.
At fourteen my best friend Teresa spoke Cantonese at home.
For Cantonese speakers fourteen is considered unlucky because it sounds like, “will certainly die.”
At fourteen I wanted to be someone else and became convinced I was a reincarnated Russian peasant. As my history teacher told us of the cruelty and poverty of Tsarist Russia my mind filled with visions of me standing outside the Tsar’s palace with all the other dirty, smelly peasants, my feet bloodied and frozen in the snow, screaming for justice, for better conditions, for life. It was nice to think that another version of me existed in another place, another time.
“Dostoyevsky truly is a writer for 14-year-olds […] his energy, and rage, his endless pessimism, and endless innocence. There’s something especially adolescent—especially half-cracked, and sweaty—about The Double, […] we aren’t sure which world we’re in. Ancient or modern?” said the author of Book of Numbers, Joshua Cohen.
“But as for you, your carcasses, they shall fall in this wilderness. And your children shall wander in the wilderness forty years,” Numbers 14:32-33, King James Version.
At fourteen, fearing I would not survive another day, I tried to lighten the load. It’s a numbers game. I smiled. What are the odds? I laughed. Their number was up. I shrugged.
The fourteenth entry in Yury Olesha’s No Day Without a Line begins, “Nothing compares with the grief I experienced as a four-year-old child in connection with the departure home of my cousin who was then visiting us.” When describing his book of autobiographical fragments Olesha said, “These notes are all attempts to resurrect life.”
Is that what I’m trying to do, resurrect life?
And if so.
Theirs or mine?
1 Victoria Lucas, The Bell Jar (London: Heinemann, 1963), 14.
2 Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, trans. Maxwell Staniforth (London: Penguin Books, 2004), 14.
3 Annie Ernaux, A Woman’s Story, trans. Tanya Leslie, (London: Quartet Books Ltd, 2014), 14.
4 Jeanette Winterson, Sexing the Cherry (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 14.
5 Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2001), 14.