I WALKED FOR A LONG TIME through the fissures in the earth, carrying Mademba, heavy like a sleeping child, in my arms. An enemy target escaping notice under the light of the full moon, I arrived at the gaping hole that was our trench. Seen from a distance, our trench looked to me like the slightly parted lips of an immense woman’s sex. A woman, open, offering herself to war, to the bombshells, and to us, the soldiers. It was the first unmentionable thing I allowed myself to think. Before Mademba’s death, I would never have dared imagine such a thing, would never have thought of the trench as an outsized female organ ready to receive us, Mademba and me. The insides of the earth were outside, the insides of my mind were outside, and I knew, I understood that I could think anything I wanted to, on the condition that the others knew nothing of it. So I locked my thoughts back in my head after observing them from up close. Strange.
David Diop, At Night All Blood Is Black, translated from the French by Anna Moschovakis.
While I do think the word “slut” should be reclaimed, I should be clear about what I mean by that. The word “reclaim” is associated with redemption—to reclaim is to recover, to reform, to civilize. That’s not exactly what the goal is with “slut,” at least in my opinion. We don’t want to simply reverse the idea of being a slut from being “bad” to being “good,” or from unacceptable to acceptable. There is something bad about being a slut—something naughty, controversial, and unpredictable—and I don’t think we should lose that. Men don’t have to be good, so why should women? The idea that female sexuality is entirely righteous, or that we have a better handle on controlling our sexuality than men, is a great societal delusion (and one that is sometimes perpetuated by feminism). To totally flip the meaning of “slut” into something that’s solely positive or empowering denies the darkness that’s inherent in slutdom, which is part of what makes it so sexy. Of course, we want to move toward a society where women aren’t slut-shamed and can express themselves without fear. But I think it’s possible to cultivate a society that permits healthy sexual exploration, while also maintaining the taboo and transgressive elements of slut life. Like, my goal isn’t to be good or normal or accepted. My goal is to be free. (And maybe also to troll society a bit in the process, for good measure).
Karley Sciortino, Slutever: Dispatches from a Sexually Autonomous Woman in a Post-Shame World, 2018.
‘You won’t find my father, you know,’ she informed me.‘
Why not?’ I asked. My fingers were still in the snow trap of her clutch.
‘If he didn’t come back in time to prune the roses, he won’t come back at all,’ she said, and shook with such silent but vigorous laughter her tea slopped from her cup on to her dress, which was already stained with all manner of other spilled food and drink.
‘What do you think happened to him, Mary Anne?’ I asked gently for, though I knew from the records and my own intuition she was quite real, I had never before met a woman who looked so conversant with shadows as she.
‘He disintegrated of course,’ she said. ‘He resolved to his constituents – a test-tube of amino-acids, a tuft or two of hair.’
She gestured with her cup for more tea. She had not given me any answer I might have expected and, when I tried to question her further, she only giggled again and shook her head so that a twist of apple leaves fell to the floor and her hair flopped over her eyes. Then she put her cup down on the table with the excessive care of the born clumsy and ran up the dark corridor again. She must have left the door of the drawing room open, for her piano sounded louder this time, and she must have changed her music, for some irrational reason; now she played the lucid nonsense of Erik Satie. With a sigh, the housekeeper gathered up the cups.
‘A screw loose,’ she said. ‘A piece missing.’
Soon she took me to a bed with a patchwork quilt in a simple but pleasant room at the back of the house. It was a soft, warm night and the girl at her piano picked out an angular fretwork of audible lace on the surface of my first sleep. I think I woke because the music stopped. Perhaps her candles had burned out.
Now the moon had fully risen and shone straight into my room through the screen of ivy and roses so that dappled shadows fell with scrupulous distinction on the bed, the walls and the floor. Inside looked like the negative of a photograph of outside and the moon had already taken a black and white picture of the garden. I woke instantly and completely, with no residue of sleep in my mind, as though this was the proper time for me to wake although it could only have been a little past midnight. I was too wakeful to stay in my bed and got restlessly up to look out of the window. The grounds were far more extensive than I had at first thought and those behind the house were even further on the way to wilderness than those through which I had passed. The moon shone so brightly there was not a single dark corner and I could see the dried-up bed of a large pond or small lake which was now an oval of flat-petalled lilies while the roses had entirely engulfed in their embrace a marble Undine who reclined on her side in a touching attitude of provincial gracefulness. Delineated with the precision of a woodcut in the moonlight, a family of young foxes rolled and tumbled with one another on a clearing which had been a lawn. There was no wind. The night sighed beneath the languorous weight of its own romanticism.
I do not think she made a sound to startle me but all at once I grew conscious of a presence in the room and cold sweat pricked the back of my neck. Slowly I turned from the window. She lived on the crepuscular threshold of life and so I remember her as if standing, always, hesitantly in a doorway like an unbidden guest uncertain of her welcome. Her eyes were open but blind and she held a rose in her outstretched fingers. She had taken off her plain, black dress and wore a white calico nightgown such as convent schoolgirls wear. As I went towards her, so she came to me and I took the rose because she seemed to offer it to me. A thorn under the leaves pierced my thumb and I felt the red rose throb like a heart and saw it emit a single drop of blood as if like a sin-eater it had taken on the pain of the wound for me. She wound her insubstantial arms around me and put her mouth on mine. Her kiss was like a draught of cold water and yet immediately excited my desire for it was full of an anguished yearning.
I led her to the bed and, in the variegated shadows, penetrated her sighing flesh, which was as chill as that of a mermaid or of the marmoreal water-maiden in her own garden. I was aware of a curiously attenuated response, as if she were feeling my caresses through a veil, and you must realize that all this time I was perfectly well aware she was asleep, for, apart from the evidence of my senses, I remembered how the peep-show proprietor had talked of a beautiful somnambulist. Yet, if she was asleep, she was dreaming of passion and afterwards I slept without dreaming for I had experienced a dream in actuality. When I woke in the commonplace morning, nothing was left of her in the bed but some dead leaves and there was no sign she had been in the room except for a withered rose in the middle of the floor.
Mary Anne did not appear at breakfast though the housekeeper supplied me so amply with eggs, bacon, sausages, pancakes, coffee and fruit that I guessed, for whatever reasons, she was well satisfied with her house guest. In the bright light of morning, the old woman’s plump, lugubrious face looked indefinably sinister, even malign. She pressed me to return to the Mayor’s house for supper and at last, to quiet her, I agreed to do so and gave seven o’clock as the probable hour of my return, although I did not know if I would still be in the town at that time. When I went to my room to collect my briefcase, I passed an open door and, glancing inside, saw my nocturnal visitant sitting in front of a dressing-table mirror in an untidy room full of scores. She was still in her austere night-shift as she gave her tangled hair its (probably) single combing of the day.
She smiled at me remotely in the mirror and I knew she was awake.
‘Good morning, Desiderio,’ she said. ‘I hope you had a good night’s sleep.’
I was bewildered.
‘Yes,’ I stammered. ‘Oh, yes.’
‘Though occasionally people are frightened by the nightingales, because they make such a noise, sometimes.’
‘Mary Anne, did you dream last night?’
Her comb caught in a knot and she tugged it impatiently.
‘I dreamed about a love suicide,’ she said. ‘But then, I always do. Don’t you think it would be very beautiful to die for love?’
It is always disquieting to talk with a person in a mirror. Besides, the mirror was contraband. Her voice was high and clear and, though she always talked softly, very sweetly piercing, like the sight of the moon in winter.
‘I’m not at all sure it would be beautiful to die for anything,’ I said.
‘One only resolves to one’s constituents,’ she said with a trace of precocious pedantry. I stepped into the room, leaving a crude trail of heavy footprints on her white carpet, and, lifting her hair, I bent to kiss the nape of her neck. As I did so, I saw my own reflection for the first time since the beginning of the war. I saw that I had aged a little and was now as cynical as a satyr in a Renaissance painting. My face, poor mother, had all the inscrutability of the Indian. I greeted myself like a friend. Mary Anne allowed me to kiss her but I do not think she noticed it.
‘What will you do today, Mary Anne?’
‘Today, I shall play the piano, of course. Unless I think of something better to do, that is.’
And I do not know if, for a moment, I saw another person glance briefly out of her eyes for I was not looking at her in the mirror, only myself.
Angela Carter, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman, 1972.
All morning I stand on a stump as buyers file by. They take souvenir photos of my claws, using pens and matchbooks for scale. They note the cracked flesh and the swelling and doubt aloud my ability to handle fieldwork. They ask can I cook. I say no. They ask can I build furniture or supervise a cleaning staff or create interesting pastries. I say no no no. By dinnertime it’s just me and a set of Siamese twins and a few double amputees sitting hopefully on crates.
Krennup and Mollie glare at me from across the Sterno fire.
“Are we not going to be able to get anything for you?” Krennup says. “Are you literally worthless? Those feet are so off-putting. It’s frustrating.”
“Maybe we could rent a power sander,”Mollie says.
“Not to intrude, folks,”says a buyer nearby wearing a wool vest, “but you’ve talking to this man in awfully derogatory terms. I don’t even talk to my sheep so negatively. I have half a mind to buy this fellow and turn him into a shepherd.”
“If you’ve got fifty bucks you can turn him into dog food for all I care,”Krennup says.
“Oh, come now,”the man says. “What does a comment like that tell us about your self-image? Talk about an inhibitory belief system. You see yourself as someone who needs to sell someone else to a dog-food factory in order to validate yourself. And yet it seems to me that you have some very fine qualities. If nothing else, the fact that you own property says some positive things about your organizational skills and your will to power. Cut yourself some slack, friend. Come down off that cross of your own making, and believe in you!”
“Whatever,”Krennup says. “Do you want him or not? Fifty, firm.”
“Frankly, I abhor this slavery thing,”the man says to me. “But you can’t fight it. So I do my part to treat my people like human beings. My name’s Ned Ventor. I consider myself to be working for change from within the system.”
He shakes my hand, then slips Krennup a fifty and leads me to a wagon with padded seats, where four other Flaweds are sitting unchained drinking lemonade.
“Care for some lemonade?”he says. “Bagel? I hope these seats are neither too soft nor too hard. Please fill out a name tag. Attention all! What I usually like to do is hold a brief philosophical orientation session to get us all on the same wavelength. Any objections? Is this a good time for it? Great! Then let’s begin with principle number one: I trust you. I’m not going to treat you like a slave and I don’t expect you to act like one, not that I think for a minute that you would. Second principle: My sheep are your sheep. I realize that without you, the shepherds, my sheep would tend to wander all over the mountainside, being eaten by wolves or the dispossessed, not that I have anything against the dispossessed, only I don’t like them eating my sheep. Principle three: If we get through the year without a lost sheep, it’s party time. We’ll have couscous and tortilla chips and dancing and, for the main course, what else, a barbecued sheep. Principles four and five: Comfort and dignity. You’ll be getting hot meals three times a day, featuring selections from every food group, plus dessert, plus a mint. You’ll each be getting a cottage, which you may decorate as you like, using a decoration allowance I’ll distribute upon our arrival. Buy a lounge chair, or some nice prints, maybe even a coffeemaker, whatever, have some Flawed friends over for cards, I don’t care. In fact I think it’s great. You come out to the meadow next morning feeling empowered, you give your sheep that little extra bit of attention, all the better for me. My take on this is: I can’t set you free, but if I could, I would. That is, I can’t set you literally free. My business would be ruined, wouldn’t it? But spiritually free, that’s another matter. So I’ll be offering meditation classes and miniseminars on certain motivational principles we can all put to work in our lives, even shepherds. For that matter, even sheep. We’ll be doing some innovative sheep-praising, which you might think is nutty, but after you see the impressive gains in wool yields, I think you’ll do a one-eighty. They come up and lick your hands as if to say: Hey, I like who I am. It’s touching. I think you’ll be moved. Any questions?”
“Where exactly are we going?” asks a petulant Flawed on my right whose name tag says Leonard.
“Great question, Leonard!”Ventor says. “You said to yourself: Look, I want to know where I’m headed. I like that. Good directedness. Also good assertiveness. Perhaps you weren’t quite as sensitive to my feelings as you might have been, given that I should have told you where we were headed right off the bat and so therefore feel at the moment a little remiss and inadequate for not having done so, but what the heck, a good growth opportunity for me, and a chance for you, Leonard, to make yourself the center of attention, which seems to be one of your issues, not that I’m in a position to make that judgment, at least not yet. The answer, Leonard, is: southern Utah. Here, take a look.”
He passes around snapshots of his ranch and we sit oohing and aahing while holding our lemonades between our knees. It’s beautiful. The skies are blue, the cottages immaculate, the mountains white.
On my soft seat I say a little prayer:
Let this be real.
George Saunders, Bounty, [in:] George Saunders, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella, 1996.
“Perhaps you need to go home,” he says. “I’m sorry for your loss. But I’d like to encourage you not to behave like one of those Comanche ladies who bite off their index fingers when a loved one dies. Grief is good, grief is fine, but too much grief, as we all know, is excessive. If your aunt’s death has filled your mouth with too many bitten-off fingers, for crying out loud, take a week off, only don’t take it out on our Guests, they didn’t kill your dang aunt.”
But I can’t afford to take a week off. I can’t even afford to take a few days off.
“We really need the money,” I say.
“Is that my problem?” he says. “Am I supposed to let you dance without vigor just because you need the money? Why don’t I put an ad in the paper for all sad people who need money? All the town’s sad could come here and strip. Good-bye. Come back when you feel halfway normal.”
From the pay phone I call home to see if they need anything from the FoodSoQuik.
“Just come home,” Min says stiffly. “Just come straight home.”
“What is it?” I say.
“Come home,” she says.
Maybe someone’s found the body. I imagine Bernie naked, Bernie chopped in two, Bernie posed on a bus bench. I hope and pray that something only mildly bad’s been done to her, something we can live with.
At home the door’s wide open. Min and Jade are sitting very still on the couch, babies in their laps, staring at the rocking chair, and in the rocking chair is Bernie. Bernie’s body.
Same perm, same glasses, same blue dress we buried her in.
What’s it doing here? Who could be so cruel? And what are we supposed to do with it?
Then she turns her head and looks at me.
“Sit the fuck down,” she says.
In life she never swore.
I sit. Min squeezes and releases my hand, squeezes and releases, squeezes and releases.
“You, mister,” Bernie says to me, “are going to start showing your cock. You’ll show it and show it. You go up to a lady, if she wants to see it, if she’ll pay to see it, I’ll make a thumbprint on the forehead. You see the thumbprint, you ask. I’ll try to get you five a day, at twenty bucks a pop. So a hundred bucks a day. Seven hundred a week. And that’s cash, so no taxes. No withholding. See? That’s the beauty of it.”
She’s got dirt in her hair and dirt in her teeth and her hair is a mess and her tongue when it darts out to lick her lips is black.
“You, Jade,” she says. “Tomorrow you start work. Andersen Labels, Fifth and Rivera. Dress up when you go. Wear something nice. Show a little leg. And don’t chomp your gum. Ask for Len. At the end of the month, we take the money you made and the cock money and get a new place. Somewhere safe. That’s part one of Phase One. You, Min. You baby-sit. Plus you quit smoking. Plus you learn how to cook. No more food out of cans. We gotta eat right to look our best. Because I am getting me so many lovers.Maybe you kids don’t know this but I died a freaking virgin. No babies, no lovers. Nothing went in, nothing came out. Ha ha! Dry as a bone, completely wasted, this pretty little thing God gave me between my legs. Well I am going to have lovers now, you fucks! Like in the movies, big shoulders and all, and a summer house, and nice trips, and in the morning in my room a big vase of flowers, and I’m going to get my nipples hard standing in the breeze from the ocean, eating shrimp from a cup, you sons of bitches, while my lover watches me from the veranda, his big shoulders shining, all hard for me, that’s one damn thing I will guarantee you kids! Ha ha! You think I’m joking? I ain’t freaking joking. I never got nothing! My life was shit! I was never even up in a freaking plane. But that was that life and this is this life. My new life. Cover me up now! With a blanket. I need my beauty rest.Tell anyone I’m here, you all die. Plus they die. Whoever you tell, they die. I kill them with my mind. I can do that. I am very freaking strong now. I got powers! So no visitors. I don’t exactly look my best. You got it? You all got it?”
We nod. I go for a blanket. Her hands and feet are shaking and she’s grinding her teeth and one falls out.
“Put it over me, you fuck, all the way over!” she screams, and I put it over her.
We sneak off with the babies and whisper in the kitchen.
“It looks like her,” says Min.
“It is her,” I say.
“It is and it ain’t,” says Jade.
“We better do what she says,” Min says.
“No shit,” Jade says.
All night she sits in the rocker under the blanket, shaking and swearing.
All night we sit in Min’s bed, fully dressed, holding hands.
“See how strong I am!” she shouts around midnight, and there’s a cracking sound, and when I go out the door’s been torn off the microwave but she’s still sitting in the chair.
In the morning she’s still there, shaking and swearing.
“Take the blanket off!” she screams. “It’s time to get this show on the road.”
I take the blanket off. The smell is not good. One ear is now in her lap. She keeps absentmindedly sticking it back on her head.
“You, Jade!” she shouts. “Get dressed. Go get that job. When you meet Len, bend forward a little. Let him see down your top. Give him some hope. He’s a sicko, but we need him. You, Min! Make breakfast. Something homemade. Like biscuits.”
“Why don’t you make it with your powers?” says Min.
“Don’t be a smartass!” screams Bernie. “You see what I did to that microwave?”
“I don’t know how to make freaking biscuits,” Min wails.
“You know how to read, right?” Bernie shouts. “You ever heard of a recipe? You ever been in the grave? It sucks so bad! You regret all the things you never did. You little bitches are gonna have a very bad time in the grave unless you get on the stick, believe me! Turn down the thermostat! Make it cold. I like cold. Something’s off with my body. I don’t feel right.”
I turn down the thermostat. She looks at me.
“Go show your cock!” she shouts. “That is the first part of Phase One. After we get the new place, that’s the end of the first part of Phase Two. You’ll still show your cock, but only three days a week. Because you’ll start community college. Pre-law. Pre-law is best. You’ll be a whiz. You ain’t dumb. And Jade’ll work weekends to make up for the decrease in cock money. See? See how that works? Now get out of here. What are you gonna do?”
“Show my cock?” I say.
“Show your cock, that’s right,” she says, and brushes back her hair with her hand, and a huge wad comes out, leaving her almost bald on one side.
“Oh God,” says Min. “You know what? No way me and the babies are staying here alone.”
“You ain’t alone,” says Bernie. “I’m here.”
“Please don’t go,” Min says to me.
“Oh, stop it,” Bernie says, and the door flies open and I feel a sort of invisible fist punching me in the back.
Outside it’s sunny. A regular day. A guy’s changing his oil. The clouds are regular clouds and the sun’s the regular sun and the only nonregular thing is that my clothes smell like Bernie, a combo of wet cellar and rotten bacon.
Work goes well. I manage to keep smiling and hide my shaking hands, and my midshift rating is Honeypie. After lunch this older woman comes up and says I look so much like a real Pilot she can hardly stand it.
One evening in the early winter of 1976, an event occurred that would mark my childhood and forever after stand as a hinge moment in my life. The episode lay bare to my seventeen-year-old mind the threat undergirding the “traditional” arrangement of the sexes. Not just in principle and theory, but in brutal fact.
I was in my room, nodding over a book, when I was jolted awake by a loud crash. Someone was breaking into the house, and then pounding up the stairs with blood-curdling howls. It was my father, violating a restraining order. Six months earlier he had been barred from the premises. I heard wood splintering, a door giving way before a baseball bat. Then screams, a thudding noise. “Call the police,” my mother cried as she fled past my room. When I dialed 911, the dispatcher told me a squad car was on its way.
Yes, the dispatcher said. Some minutes earlier, an anonymous caller had reported “an intruder” at the same address.
The police arrived and an ambulance. The paramedics carried out on a stretcher the man my mother had recently begun seeing. He had been visiting that evening. His shirt was soaked in blood, and he had gone into shock. My father had attacked him with the baseball bat, then with the Swiss Army knife he always carried in his pocket. The stabbings, in the stomach, were multiple. It took the Peekskill Hospital’s ER doctors the better part of the night to stanch the bleeding. Getting the blood out of the house took longer. It was everywhere: on floors, walls, the landing, the stairs, the kitchen, the front hall. The living room looked like a scene out of Carrie, which, as it happened, had just come out that fall. When the house went on the market a year later, my mother and I were still trying to scrub stains from the carpet.
The night of his break-in, my father was treated for a superficial cut on the forehead and delivered to the county jail. He was released before morning. The next afternoon, he rang the bell of our next-door neighbor, wearing a slightly soiled head bandage, trussed up, as my mother put it later, “like the Spirit of ’76.” He was intent on purveying his side of the story: he’d entered the house to “save” his family from a trespasser. My father’s side prevailed, at least in the public forum. Two local newspapers (including one that my mother had begun writing for) ran items characterizing the night’s drama as a husband’s attempt to expel an intruder. The court reduced the charges to a misdemeanor and levied a small fine.
In the subsequent divorce trial, my father claimed to be the “wronged” husband. The judge acceded to my father’s request to pay no alimony and a mere $50 a week for the support of two children. My father also succeeded in having a paragraph inserted into the divorce decree that presented him as the injured party: by withdrawing her affections in the last months of their marriage, my mother had “endangered the defendant’s physical well being” and “caused the defendant to receive medical treatment and become ill.”
“I have had enough of impersonating a macho aggressive man that I have never been inside,” my father had written me. As I confronted, nearly four decades and nine time zones away, my father’s new self, it was hard for me to purge that image of the violent man from her new persona. Was I supposed to believe the one had been erased by the other, as handily as the divorce decree recast my father as the “endangered” victim? Could a new identity not only redeem but expunge its predecessor?
And when that afternoon I arrived home at kilometre 27 on the road from town, she was walking around, already waiting for me on the lawn, and came and opened the gate so that I could drive right in, and as soon as I came out of the garage we climbed the stairs together to the conservatory, and no sooner were we there than I opened the middle curtains and we sat down in the wicker chairs, our eyes fixed on the hilltop opposite, where the sun was setting, and the two of us sat in silence until she asked me ‘what’s the matter?’, but I, somewhere else entirely, remained distant and still, my thoughts lost in the red sunset, and it was because she repeated the question that I replied ‘have you eaten yet?’ and as she said ‘later’ I got up and wandered over to the kitchen (she followed me), took a tomato from the fridge, went over to the sink and washed it, then went to get the salt-shaker from the cupboard and sat down at the table (she followed all my movements from across the room, while I, to annoy her, pretended not to notice), and it was under her constant gaze that I began to eat the tomato, sprinkling more salt on what remained in my hand, making a show of biting into it with relish in order to reveal my teeth, strong as a horse’s, knowing that she couldn’t tear her eyes off my mouth, knowing that beneath her silence she was writhing with impatience, knowing above all that the more indifferent I seemed to be, the more attractive she found me, I only know that when I finished eating the tomato I left her there in the kitchen and went to get the radio that was on the shelf in the living room, and without going back to the kitchen we met again in the hall, and without a word and almost together we entered the half-light of the bedroom.
Raduan Nassar, A Cup of Rage, translated by Stefan Tobler, 2015.
Don’t know if I am in the Pound grave, or the Fifteen Shilling grave? Fuck them anyway if they plonked me in the Ten Shilling plot after all the warnings I gave them. The morning I died I calls Patrick in from the kitchen, “I’m begging you Patrick, I’m begging you, put me in the Pound grave, the Pound grave! I know some of us are buried in the Ten Shilling grave, but all the same …”
I tell them to get me the best coffin down in Tim’s shop. It’s a good oak coffin anyway. I am wearing the scapulars. And the winding sheet … I had them ready myself. There’s a spot on this sheet! Like a smudge of soot. No, not that. A daub of finger. Who else but my daughter-in-law! ’Tis like her dribble. Oh, my God, did Nell see it? I suppose she was there. Not if I had anything to do with it …
Look at the mess Kitty made of my covering clothes. I always said that that one and the other one, Biddy Sarah, should never be given a drop to drink until the corpse was gone from the road outside the house. I warned Patrick not to let them near my winding sheet if they had a drop taken. All they ever wanted was a corpse here, there, or around the place. The fields could be bursting with crops, and they’d stay there, if she could cadge a few pence at a funeral …
I have the crucifix on my breast anyway, the one I bought myself at the mission … But where’s the black one that Tom’s wife, Tom the crawthumper, brought me from Knock, that last time they had to lock him up? I told them to put that one on me too. It’s far nicer than this one. Since Patrick’s kids dropped it the Saviour looks a bit crooked. He’s beautiful on this one, though. What’s this? My head must be like a sieve. Here it is, just under my neck. ’Tis a pity they didn’t put it on my breast.
They could have wrapped the rosary beads better on my fingers. Nell, obviously, did that. She’d love it if it fell to the ground just as they were putting me in the coffin. O Lord God, she better stay miles away from me …
I hope to God they lit the eight candles on my coffin in the church. I left them in the corner of the press under the rent book. You know, that’s something that was never ever on any coffin in the church, eight candles! Curran had only four. Tommy the Tailor’s lad, Billy, had only six, and he has a daughter a nun in America.
I tells them to get three half-barrels of porter, and Ned the Nobber said if there was drink to be got anywhere at all, he’d get it, no bother. It had to be that way, given the price of the altar. Fourteen or fifteen pounds at least. I spent a shilling or two, I’m telling you, or sent somebody to all kinds of places where there was going to be a funeral, especially for the last five or six years when I felt myself failing. I suppose the Hillbillies came. A pity they wouldn’t. We went to theirs. That’s how a pound works in the first place. And the shower from Derry Lough, they’d follow their in-laws. Another pound well spent. And Glen Booley owed me a funeral too … I’d be surprised if Chalky Steven didn’t come. We were at every single one of his funerals. But he’d say he never heard about it, ’til I was buried.
And then the bullshit: “I’m telling you Patrick Lydon, if I could help it at all, I would have been at her funeral. It wouldn’t have been right if I wasn’t at Caitriona Paudeen’s funeral, even if I had to crawl on my naked knees. But I heard nothing, not a bit, until the night she was buried. Some young scut …” Steven is full of crap! …
I don’t even know if they keened me properly. Yes, I know Biddy Sarah has a nice strong voice she can go at it with if she is not too pissed drunk. I’m sure Nell was sipping and supping away there also. Nell whining and keening and not a tear to be seen, the bitch! They wouldn’t have dared come near the house when I was alive …
Oh, she’s happy out now. I thought I’d live for another couple of years, and I’d bury her before me, the cunt. She’s gone down a bit since her son got injured. She was going to the doctor for a good bit before that, of course. But there’s nothing wrong with her. Rheumatism. Sure, that wouldn’t kill her for years yet. She’s very precious about herself. I was never that way. And it’s now I know it. I killed myself working and slaving away … I should have watched that pain before it got stuck in me. But when it hits you in the kidneys, actually, you’re fucked …
Máirtín Ó Cadhain, The Dirty Dust (Cré na Cille), translated by Alan Titley.
Paris is a world meant to be seen by the walker alone, for only the pace of strolling can take in all the rich (if muted) detail. The loiterer, the flâneur, has a long, distinguished pedigree in France. An Italian traveller said in 1577, „Looking at people go by has always been the Parisians’ favourite pastime; no wonder they’re called gawkers.” A few years before the Revolution a writer named Louis Sébastien Mercier wandered the streets of Paris taking notes about the cries of strolling vendors, studying boutiques and watching the hundred and one crafts of the great city being practised. In a massive work called Picture of Paris in twelve volumes (published from 1781 to 1789) Mercier argued for wider streets (with sidewalks and latrines) and called for an improvement in the desperate lot of the poor.
These practical and noble goals, so typical of a man of the Enlightenment, were of course transposed into a discordant key by the Revolution and the Terror. In any event, they seem little more than a pretext for Mercier’s entraptured inventories. As he admitted, „I’ve run about so much to do the Picture of Paris that I can say I’ve done it with my legs; and I’ve learned to wald the pavements of the capital in a manner that is nimble, lively and eager. That’s the secret you must possess in order to see everything.” As an observant flâneur, he studied the habits of the city’s thirty thousand prostitutes, its multitudinous beggars and the six thousand children abandoned every year, its soldiers and police („They all seem suited to subjugate for ever the outbreak of any serious uprising”, Mercier commented with a singular lack of prescience); its washerwomen and greengrocers – as well as that ubiquitous figure, the décrotteur, who scraped boots clean after a tromp through the muddy, filthy streets („He readies you to put in an apperance at the houses of ladies and gentlemen; for you can get away with a slightly worn jacket, a cheap shirt or clother that have been taken in, but you mustn’t arrive with dirty boots, not even if you’re a poet”).
Like a true flâneur, Mercier found his „research”, disorganized and fragmented as it might be, endlessly absorbing. As he put it, „I haven’t been bored once since I started writing books. If I’ve bored my readers, may they forgive me, since I myself have been hugely amused.”
In the nineteenth century the consummate Parisian flâneur was Baudelaire. One of the key texts of the modern urban experience is „The Painter of Modern Life”, in which Baudelaire talks about the caricaturist Constantin Guys (a man who so shunned public attention that Baudelaire refers to him only under the misleading initials M.G.). In one sweeping passage, translated below, Baudelaire extols the modern artist who immerses himself in the bath of the crowd, gathers impressions and jots them down only when he returns to his studio. For him a foray into the cityscape is always undirected, even purposeless – a passive surrender to the aleatory flux of the innumerable and surprising streets.
Of the flâneur, Baudelaire writes:
The crowd is his domain, as the air is that of the bird or the sea of the fish. His passion and creed is to wed the crowd. For the perfect flâneur, for the passionate observer, it’s an immense pleasure to take up residence in multiplicity, in whatever is seething, moving, evanescent and infinite: you’re not at home, but you feel at home everywhere; you see everyone, you’re at the centre of everything yet you remain hidden from everybody – these are just a few of the minor pleasures of those independent, passionate, impartial minds whom language can only awkwardly define. The observer is a prince, who, wearing a disguise, takes pleasuer everywhere… The amateur of life enters into the crowd as into an immense reservoir of electricity.
Baudelaire goes on to compare the flâneur to a mirror as huge as the crowd – or to a kaleidoscope outfitted with a consciousness that at every shake of the tube copies the configuration of multifarious life and the graceful movement of all its elements.
Of course we must bear in mind that the cosy, dirty, mysterious Paris Baudelaire is discussing (or Balzac or even the Flaubert of A Sentimental Education) is the city that was destroyed agter 1853 by one of the most massive urban renewal plans known to history, and replaced by a city of broad, strictly linear streets, unbroken façades, roundabouts radiating avenues, uniform city lighting, uniform street furniture, a complex, modern sewer system and public transportation (horse-drawn omnibuses eventually replaced by the métro and motor-powered buses).
Edmund White, The Flâneur: A Stroll through the Paradoxes of Paris, 2008, pp. 34-37.
She hears it again, then, and knows it—a wolf caught in a trap. She looks down near the fence line. It is a wolf, beyond beautiful, with its leg caught in a trap. She moves closer, aware now of how the cold is biting into her. She studies the wolf. The wolf is smart. It is almost finished. She thinks, in only the briefest of thoughts, of releasing it.
The wolf is nearly free.
In its freedom it will lose a leg.
It will be worth it.
She holds perfectly still.
More still than a dead person.
Which she has seen, many times—a corpse in snow.
She watches the wolf chew its own leg by the light of the moon, by the rhythm of its journey. The moon makes its slow arc in the sky, and inside the moon’s movement, reflected in the girl’s eyes, the wolf finally frees itself.
It is then that she does something pure bodied. Child minded. She goes to where the rust-orange and black metal of the trap sits holding its severed limb, to where blood and animal labor have reddened and dirtied the pristine white of the snow—like the violence against a canvas. There, without thinking, she pulls down her pants, her underwear, squats with primal force, and pisses and pisses where the crime happened. A steam cloud moves upward from the snow and the blood as the relief of rising heat warms her skin.
Her eyes close.
Her mouth fills with spit. This is how the sexuality of a girl is formed—an image at a time—against white; taboo, thoughtless, corporeal.
She opens her eyes.
The piss smell and the blood smell and the youth smell of her skin mingle. She licks her lips.
The wolf runs.
It runs three legged, like all damaged creatures, across the snow.
She thinks: this is true.
She thinks: this is a life.
She thinks: I do not want to die, but my life will always be like this—wounded and animal, lurching against white. She bends down and rubs her hands in the blood. She lifts her hands, her eyes, her heart to the heavens, in the space where they say god is, a god she has never known, a god she will replace with something else. Her small hands make what might look to an outsider like a prayer shape. But she is not praying.
She closes her eyes. This is the night it happens. She looks down at her red hands. She laughs, up. She bends down and wrenches the severed limb from the trap. And then she runs toward a self.
What is a girl but this? This obscene and beautiful making against the expanse of white. This brilliant imagination, inventing meaning.
Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs Of Children, 2015.