Momentarily, she acted as if she intended to really ravage me, but it was a phoney growl. She didn’t know how. I must fuck Robin. That was my job. She had the largest … cunt, vagina I have ever stuck my finger in. It was big red and needy. I stuck two three fingers in and fucked her and fucked her. I’ve always received complaints that I was rough but I felt like I could have been shoving a stick up this woman, a branch. Her ass was up in the air, it was April and the trees were still pretty bare and I looked through the black rusty cross-hatched window gates of my East Village apartment and I felt detached and I fucked and fucked her with my hand, and twisting her nipples. She moaned and growled with pleasure. Such a woman, I have never met such a horny animal nor have I ever so distinctly serviced a woman before. Do you want my fist inside you. Anything she shrieked, anything.
So this is my late winter stolen landscape. Robin’s hungry butt bobbing in front of my window next to my desk where I write. I felt my home, myself, violated by this animal. I couldn’t stop. This must be what faggots do. The inside of her pussy was hot and warm, it did, it did feel like a live animal. I put my fingertip to her butt-hole but there didn’t seem to be any magic there. I was getting bored. Wanna come up on me. I wanted to be underneath—her pussy on my mouth. Sure, anything. I had no way of framing her true repertoire with these kind of replies. I suspected she had done everything in the past, or on the other hand maybe she was a liar.
Here it comes, the salty hairy organ, the slippery wet thing with a hard pearly center, jammed in my face. I started licking and sucking like crazy. I am wild for the sensation of having my face covered and dominated, almost smothered by a cunt. She was happy. It all seemed one to her, then a great groan and buckets of wet acrid fluid flooded into my mouth, splashing down my cheeks and onto my pillow. Initially I surmised she had come in some new way, but it was pee and now I had drank it for the first time. I swallowed some, but then no I don’t really want to drink piss. I wiped the edges of my mouth and then kissed her. I think she said I’m sorry but grinned at me wiping my face. Do you have any music she said. Take a look—the tapes are on the refrigerator. I lay on the bed, fascinated by the acrid taste of piss, yet horrified at the inadequacies of my tape collection. Da, duh-duh, Da, duh-duh came the opening notes of “Kimberly” and Robin walked naked across the length of my apartment like she was the real Patti Smith.
I think we tried to cram more into her pussy for a while after that and she gave my lips a quick swipe with her mouth, but I really suspected that was not her cup of tea. Because she was not a lesbian, nothing like that.
Do you have a towel? Actually I didn’t. Or I didn’t have a clean towel and I didn’t want to give her mine, out of a desire not to insult one of us. Finally I gave her a facecloth. I guess a towel’s a towel. I didn’t know what was going on. I’ve got to meet my girlfriend she explained. Today she had a girlfriend. A blow to the stomach, received in silence of course. I’m going out too I said. Well then come on, come with me to meet her. I did something in the kitchen sink, brushed my teeth, but I was feeling demolished.
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.
Ale wolałbym opowiedzieć wam o jej uszach. Przeoczyłem je w klubie tenisowym, kiedy związywała włosy tamtą zieloną wstążką, pod kolor lamówki i guzików na sukience. A na co dzień nosiła włosy rozpuszczone, pofalowane na uszach i sięgające połowy szyi. Tak że dopiero kiedy znaleźliśmy się w łóżku, a ja zabrałem się do szperania i węszenia po całym jej ciele, w każdym zakamarku, w każdej nadmiernie i niedostatecznie zbadanej części, pochylony nad nią, odgarnąłem jej włosy i odkryłem uszy.
Nigdy wcześniej nie poświęcałem uszom zbyt wiele uwagi, widząc w nich tylko komiczne narośle. Dobre uszy to takie, których się nie zauważało; złe uszy sterczały jak skrzydła nietoperza lub były kalafiorowate po ciosie boksera, albo też –jak uszy tamtego wściekłego kierowcy przy przejściu dla pieszych –chropowate, czerwone i włochate. Ale jej uszy, ach, jej uszy… od dyskretnego, niemal nieistniejącego płatka łagodnym łukiem biegły do góry, ale potem w połowie drogi takim samym łukiem zawracały ku jej czaszce. Jakby zaprojektowano je raczej według jakiejś idei estetycznej, a nie zasad użyteczności słuchowej.
Kiedy zwracam jej na to uwagę, mówi: – Pewnie są takie, żeby wszystkie te bzdury przelatywały obok i nie trafiały do środka.
Ale to nie wszystko. Kiedy badałem je czubkami palców, odkryłem, jak delikatna jest ich zewnętrzna krawędź: cienka, ciepła, łagodna, aksamitna, niemal półprzezroczysta. Wiecie, jak nazywa się po łacinie obrąbek ucha? Helix. Jak helisa. W liczbie mnogiej helisy. Uszy były częścią jej absolutnej wyjątkowości, uzewnętrznieniem jej DNA. Podwójna helisa jej helis.
Później, zastanawiając się, co mogła mieć na myśli, kiedy mówiła o „bzdurach”, które przelatują obok jej zadziwiających uszu, pomyślałem: cóż, oskarżenie o oziębłość –to wielka bzdura. Tyle że to słowo wpadło prosto do jej uszu, a stamtąd do mózgu, gdzie utkwiło na zawsze.
Julian Barnes, Jedyna historia, tłum. Dominika Lewandowska-Rodak, Warszawa 2018.
1. Suppose I were to begin by saying that I had fallen in love with a color. Suppose I were to speak this as though it were a confession; suppose I shredded my napkin as we spoke. It began slowly. An appreciation, an affinity. Then, one day, it became more serious. Then (looking into an empty teacup, its bottom stained with thin brown excrement coiled into the shape of a sea horse) it became somehow personal.
2. And so I fell in love with a color—in this case, the color blue—as if falling under a spell, a spell I fought to stay under and get out from under, in turns.
18. A warm afternoon in early spring, New York City. We went to the Chelsea Hotel to fuck. Afterward, from the window of our room, I watched a blue tarp on a roof across the way flap in the wind. You slept, so it was my secret. It was a smear of the quotidian, a bright blue flake amidst all the dank providence. It was the only time I came. It was essentially our lives. It was shaking.
19. Months before this afternoon I had a dream, and in this dream an angel came and said: You must spend more time thinking about the divine, and less time imagining unbuttoning the prince of blue’s pants at the Chelsea Hotel. But what if the prince of blue’s unbuttoned pants are the divine, I pleaded. So be it, she said, and left me to sob with my face against the blue slate floor.
42. Sitting in my office before teaching a class on prosody, trying not to think about you, about my having lost you. But how can it be? How can it be? Was I too blue for you. Was I too blue. I look down at my lecture notes: Heártbréak is a spondee. Then I lay my head down on the desk and start to weep.—Why doesn’t this help?
48. Imagine, for example, someone who fucks like a whore. Someone who seems good at it, professional. Someone you can still see fucking you, in the mirror, always in the mirror, crazy fucking about three feet away, in an apartment lit by blue light, never lit by daylight, this person is always fucking you from behind in blue light and you both always seem good at it, dedicated and lost unto it, as if there is no other activity on God’s given earth your bodies know how to do except fuck and be fucked like this, in this dim blue light, in this mirror. What do you call someone who fucks this way?
49. There is a color inside of the fucking, but it is not blue.
59. There are those, however, who like to look. And we have not yet heard enough, if anything, about the female gaze. About the scorch of it, with the eyes staying in the head. “I love to gaze at a promising-looking cock,” writes Catherine Millet in her beautiful sex memoir, before going on to describe how she also loves to look at the “brownish crater” of her asshole and the “crimson valley” of her pussy, each opened wide—its color laid bare—for the fucking.
61. In his book On Being Blue, William Gass argues that what we readers really want is “the penetration of privacy”: “We want to see under the skirt.” But his penetration is eventually tiresome, even to himself: “What good is my peek at her pubic hair if I must also see the red lines made by her panties, the pimples on her rump, broken veins like the print of a lavender thumb, the stepped-on look of a day’s-end muff? I’ve that at home.” After asserting that the blue we want from life is in fact found only in fiction, he counsels the writer to “give up the blue things of this world in favor of the words which say them.”
62. This is puritanism, not eros. For my part I have no interest in catching a glimpse of or offering you an unblemished ass or an airbrushed cunt. I am interested in having three orifices stuffed full of thick, veiny cock in the most unforgiving of poses and light. I will not choose between the blue things of the world and the words that say them: you might as well be heating up the poker and readying your eyes for the altar. Your loss.
90. Last night I wept in a way I haven’t wept for some time. I wept until I aged myself. I watched it happen in the mirror. I watched the lines arrive around my eyes like engraved sunbursts; it was like watching flowers open in time-lapse on a windowsill. The tears not only aged my face, they also changed its texture, turned the skin of my cheeks into putty. I recognized this as a rite of decadence, but I did not know how to stop it.
91. Blue-eye, archaic: “a blueness or dark circle around the eye, from weeping or other cause.”
92. Eventually I confess to a friend some details about my weeping—its intensity, its frequency. She says (kindly) that she thinks we sometimes weep in front of a mirror not to inflame self-pity, but because we want to feel witnessed in our despair. (Can a reflection be a witness? Can one pass oneself the sponge wet with vinegar from a reed?)
134. It calms me to think of blue as the color of death. I have long imagined death’s approach as the swell of a wave—a towering wall of blue. You will drown, the world tells me, has always told me. You will descend into a blue underworld, blue with hungry ghosts, Krishna blue, the blue faces of the ones you loved. They all drowned, too. To take a breath of water: does the thought panic or excite you? If you are in love with red then you slit or shoot. If you are in love with blue you fill your pouch with stones good for sucking and head down to the river. Any river will do.
The hole was just about wide enough for a thumb to pass through. My eyes had been accustomed to the dark outside, so the bright light inside the room blurred my vision at first, and all I could make out were a few vague shadows. I had a very clear sense, by contrast, of Sonomura’s heavy breathing as he stood next to me. In the dead silence of the night, the tick-tock of his wristwatch seemed like the agitated beating of a heart.
After a couple minutes, my vision began to recover. The first thing I saw was an astonishingly white column-like object, lithe as could be, standing bolt upright. I recall that it took me several seconds more before I grasped that this was a long line of flesh just below the beautiful nape of the neck of a woman standing there with her back to me. In fact the woman was positioned so closely to the window that her body threatened to occlude the knothole, making it difficult to recognize as the back of a human being. All I could make out was a squashed Shimada hairdo and a light summer haori of black silk gauze that covered her back. The rest, from her waist below, was outside the range of my vision.
The room was by no means large, but for some reason it was lit by an extremely powerful electric light. It was no wonder that I had mistaken the woman’s neck for a white column. She was facing slightly downward and the expanse of skin from the nape of her neck to the edge of her clothing was covered in a thick layer of makeup that shone like white lacquer in the blinding light. She was near enough that my nostrils were flooded with the sweet and soft fragrance of her perfume. I felt that I could count each individual strand of her hair. It glistened and gleamed as if she had just stepped out of the hairdresser’s; the two side-bund puffed up like the breast feathers of a bird, and the smart chignon with not a single hair out of place, almost like a wig, in shiny black, had a chic and irresistible charm. It was a shame not to be able to see her face, but the gentle, feminine curves of her sloping shoulders, the delicate hairline peeking out of her clothing like the head of a doll, and the alluring musculature between the lobe of her ear and her back was more than enough evidence that this was a woman of astonishing beauty. It was all worth it, I thought, the effort to find this knothole, now that a peek through it had revealed such a woman in such an unexpected place.
It is necessary for me to record a few more of my impressions of the instant when I first saw her, and of the scene I observed over the subsequent minute or two. Even if Sonomura had been mistaken in his predictions, the very fact that such a woman was standing stock still in this way, at this hour, and in a place like this was nothing short of bizarre. The squashed Shimada was evidence that she was no amateur; she was clearly either a geisha or something similar. The elaborate and elegant hair and clothing were those of a woman who followed the latest fashions of the demimonde. And this was no ordinary geisha, but one of the very highest class, perhaps from one of the houses in Shimbashi or Akasaka. But what such a woman was doing in a place like this was more than I could fathom. When I wrote earlier that she was standing „stock still”, I meant it quite literally. She was a motionless as a figure in a tableau vivant. It was as if she had frozen the exact moment I peeked through the knothole, face turned downward and neck outstretched, as quiet as a fossil – perhaps she had heard our footsteps outside and was listening for more with bated breath? – as this thought occurred to me I hurriedly averted my eyes and looked over at Sonomura, who remained with his face pressed greedily against his own knothole.
Just then someone began moving around inside the house, which had been so hushed until then, and I heard a slight creaking sound, that of someone walking across tatami mats supported by wobbly floor joists. However contemptuous I may have been of Sonomura’s madness, at some point my own curiosity had gotten the better of me. No sooner did I hear the sound that I was drawn back unthinkingly to the scene inside. I brought my eye to the knothole again.
It had only been a moment – no more than one or two seconds – but the woman had changed her posture and shifted her location. This must have been the cause of the noise I had just heard. Whereas before she had stood directly in front of the knothole so as to block my view, now she had advanced diagonally – the distance of one tatami mat – into the center of the room, thus widening my field of vision considerably so that I could now see almost every corner of the room. Straight ahead, directly opposite the window where I was standing, was a yellowish wall with a peeling wallpaper that one finds in a typical longhouse. To the left was a bamboo screen, and to the right, reed blinds and an exterior veranda closed off with a sliding storm shutter. I had noticed some kind of white object fluttering about near her head, and now I saw it was a man wearing a white cotton yukata. He stood pressed up against the wall on her left, facing my direction. He looked to be about eighteen or nineteen, no older than twenty. His hair was cut square in a crewcut, and he was tall, with a swarthy complexion that made him look like a younger version of the last Kikugorō. The comparison comes to mind not only because he had the crisp good looks of an old-fashioned Edo dandy, but because somewhere, in his cool, narrow eyes and slightly protruding lower lips, there was hint of cunning and coarse slyness that called to mind characters from old kabuki plays like the Hairdresser Shinza or the Rat Boy Thief.
I was so transfixed by the sight of this beautiful woman that until then I had failed to notice the enormous metal tub that sat on the right side of the room. The presence of such an object in the room was in fact even more mysterious than that of the camera, and I would surely have noticed it long before if the woman had not been there to distract me. It was the size of a Western-style bathtub, an oblong container, narrow but deep, covered in enamel, and it sat there, hulkingly, next to the veranda and the reed blinds.
There was no doubt about it. No matter how you looked at it, the man’s gaze was hovering on the woman’s body, between her chest and lap. And not only that, the woman herself, who was also looking down, seemed to be staring at the same area on her own body. From what I could see at my angle, she extended her elbows outward and brought her hands together over her waist, as if she were sewing; she was in the process of fiddling with some kind of object that was resting there. Once I had noticed this, I began to discern the vague outlines of a black lump-like object on her lap. It was stock still and seemed to extend quite a ways forward in the shadow of her body.
„Could this be someone – a man – making a pillow of her lap?”
Just as this thought occurred to me, I was startled by a sudden thud, the sound of a heavy object being moved. The woman had turned her body toward the camera. And there, in her lap, was the head of a man looking upward, a corpse slumped over.
I am not sure how best to describe what I felt at that moment. It was like nothing I had ever experienced before, a breathless feeling, as if all the blood iny my body had been drained, and my consciousness began to dim; the feeling had gone far beyond fear, reducing me to an insensate numbness that was close to ecstasy… I knew that the body was a corpse not only because the eyes were open wide despite his prone position, but because the collar had been torn from the elegant tails he wore, and his neck was wrapped tightly in a piece of crimson silk crepe that looked like a woman’s undergirdle. His hands were outstretched, as if caught in the throes of death reaching out for his soul as it escaped his body, and had reached the collar-piece of the woman’s kimono, which was covered in a gaudy embroidered image of wisteria flowers the color of celadon. She had inserted her hands in the corpse’s armpits, and twisted her body around to reposition it as it lay there like a dead tuna. But she was only able to move the torso. The rest of the body, from the fat waist swelling up like a white cummerbund-wrapped hill and downward, remained in the same position, such that the body was now jackknifed, like a recumbent letter „V”. Her delicate arms did not look up to the task of moving that ponderous belly – or so one would think from the sight of this dead man. He was quite obese despite having a relatively small frame. I could not see his face very clearly, but I could see enough from the side to guess that he was ugly and around thirty, with a low nose, a protruding forehead and skin flushed red as if he were drunk.
Junichiro Tanizaki, Devils in Daylight, translated by J. Keith Vincent, p. 32-34. 37-39, New York 2017.
‘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.
It is, of course, an indispensable part of a scrivener’s business to verify the accuracy of his copy, word by word. Where there are two or more scriveners in an office, they assist each other in this examination, one reading from the copy, the other holding the original. It is a very dull, wearisome, and lethargic affair. I can readily imagine that to some sanguine temperaments, it would be altogether intolerable. For example, I cannot credit that the mettlesome poet, Byron, would have contentedly sat down with Bartleby to examine a law document of, say five hundred pages, closely written in a crimpy hand. Now and then, in the haste of business, it had been my habit to assist in comparing some brief document myself, calling Turkey or Nippers for this purpose. One object I had in placing Bartleby so handy to me behind the screen was to avail myself of his services on such trivial occasions. It was on the third day, I think, of his being with me, and before any necessity had arisen for having his own writing examined, that, being much hurried to complete a small affair I had in hand, I abruptly called to Bartleby. In my haste and natural expectancy of instant compliance, I sat with my head bent over the original on my desk, and my right hand sideways, and somewhat nervously extended with the copy, so that, immediately upon emerging from his retreat, Bartleby might snatch it and proceed to business without the least delay. In this very attitude did I sit when I called to him, rapidly stating what it was I wanted him to do—namely, to examine a small paper with me. Imagine my surprise, nay, my consternation, when without moving from his privacy, Bartleby, in a singularly mild, firm voice, replied, “I would prefer not to.” I sat awhile in perfect silence, rallying my stunned faculties. Immediately it occurred to me that my ears had deceived me, or Bartleby had entirely misunderstood my meaning. I repeated my request in the clearest tone I could assume; but in quite as clear a one came the previous reply, “I would prefer not to.” “Prefer not to,” echoed I, rising in high excitement, and crossing the room with a stride. “What do you mean? Are you moon-struck? I want you to help me compare this sheet here—take it,” and I thrust it towards him. “I would prefer not to,” said he. I looked at him steadfastly. His face was leanly composed; his gray eye dimly calm. Not a wrinkle of agitation rippled him. Had there been the least uneasiness, anger, impatience or impertinence in his manner; in other words, had there been anything ordinarily human about him, doubtless I should have violently dismissed him from the premises. But as it was, I should have as soon thought of turning my pale plaster-of-Paris bust of Cicero out of doors. I stood gazing at him awhile, as he went on with his own writing, and then reseated myself at my desk. This is very strange, thought I. What had one best do? But my business hurried me. I concluded to forget the matter for the present, reserving it for my future leisure. So calling Nippers from the other room, the paper was speedily examined. A few days after this, Bartleby concluded four lengthy documents, being quadruplicates of a week’s testimony taken before me in my High Court of Chancery. It became necessary to examine them. It was an important suit, and great accuracy was imperative. Having all things arranged I called Turkey, Nippers and Ginger Nut from the next room, meaning to place the four copies in the hands of my four clerks, while I should read from the original. Accordingly Turkey, Nippers, and Ginger Nut had taken their seats in a row, each with his document in hand, when I called to Bartleby to join this interesting group.
“Bartleby! quick, I am waiting.” I heard a slow scrape of his chair legs on the uncarpeted floor, and soon he appeared standing at the entrance of his hermitage. “What is wanted?” said he mildly. “The copies, the copies,” said I hurriedly. “We are going to examine them. There”—and I held towards him the fourth quadruplicate. “I would prefer not to,” he said, and gently disappeared behind the screen.
Herman Melville, Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.
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.
As I reread Natali’s message, I scrolled through memories of my first evenings in their house as my teenage years came to an end: spilling wine on hardwood and upholstery, Bernard and Natali patiently listening to my younger self as I affected literary seriousness, my speech no doubt a patchwork of interpretive clichés and errors of fact, their telling stories the import of which would often only occur to me years later. I remembered debating and/or flirting with other students and hangers-on, other young writers from whom I was desperate to distinguish myself, getting no help in that regard from either Bernard or Natali, since they treated everyone equally, infuriating me. But the memory that returned to me most vividly as I stood on East Seventy-ninth Street was of meeting their daughter, a young woman with whom I was for a time obsessed, and of whom I still occasionally think, despite having met her only once.
A distinguished South African writer had come that night to campus to read from his new novel, so I encountered the daughter at what was an unusually crowded gathering. It was perhaps the second or third time I’d been in the house, which meant I was still nervous, skeptical. I was standing in the dining room where food and wine and glasses had been laid out on the table, admiring a collage of Bernard’s on the wall, when a woman—older than I was then, younger than I am now—identified the source of one of the collage’s elements from behind me: a sliver of a movie poster for Murnau’s Sunrise. I turned to face her and was, as they say, stunned—large gray-blue eyes, a full mouth, long and jet-black hair with a few strands of silver in it, and an immediately apparent poise and intelligence for which no catalog of features could account. Realizing that I was just staring at her, it finally occurred to me to speak, and I managed to say something about the rightness of fit between silent film and collage, mute media that depend on splicing for effect. Whatever its merit, she acted as though I’d contributed something intelligent, and electricity branched through me with her smile. I asked her if she was often at Bernard’s and Natali’s and she said, laughing, “I grew up here,” and then I understood—her knowledge of the collage, her aura of brilliance, her obvious comfort in this hallowed space—that this gorgeous woman was their daughter.
We shook hands and said our names, but I was too overwhelmed by contact with the former to catch the latter, and before I could ask her to repeat it, she was taken away from me by a man, a distinguished professor of something, who wanted to introduce her to the distinguished writer. For the rest of the evening I milled around the reception waiting for an opportunity to insinuate myself back into her company, but somehow it never came, or I never had the nerve to act. Every time I heard her laugh or succeeded in picking out her voice from the general din or saw her move gracefully through a room, my whole body started, then I felt as if I were falling, a sensation akin to the myoclonic twitch that, just as you are drifting off to sleep, wakes you violently; standing there among the first editions, I was convinced it was the shudder of fate.
I found myself before the glass cases of curios and sculptures that lined one of the dining room walls and discovered that there was a small line drawing of the daughter in a silver frame, vaguely reminiscent of Modigliani in its elongation; I wondered if Bernard had composed the little unsigned portrait. By this point I’d outlasted most of the crowd. The wine gave me the courage to have another glass of wine, which in turn gave me the courage to take one of the now-available chairs in the living room and to listen along with the others to Bernard. He was telling the story, pausing every few minutes to stir the fire he was sitting beside, of a French author who, hard up for money, had fabricated letters to himself from famous interlocutors, then attempted to sell them to a university library. I glanced at Bernard’s daughter furtively; in the firelight, she was dusky gold.
Ben Lerner, 10:04 PM, Granta Books 2015, p. 35-37.
I could begin with Lily Briscoe. Lily Briscoe—“With her little Chinese eyes and her puckered-up face …”—is a principal character in Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse. Lily is a painter. She is painting a picture throughout the course of the narrative—a painting of Mrs. Ramsay sitting by the window reading to her son James. Lily has set up her easel outside on the lawns and she paints while various players flit and charge about the property. She is nervous about being interrupted, about someone breaking her concentration while she is engaged in this delicate act. The idea that someone would interrogate her about the painting is intolerable. But kind, acceptable Mr. Bankes wanders up, examines her work, and asks what she wished to indicate “by the triangular purple shape, ‘just there.’ ” (It is meant to be Mrs. Ramsay and her son, though “no one could tell it for a human shape.”) Mother and child then—objects of universal veneration, and in this case the mother was famous for her beauty—might be reduced, he pondered, to a purple shadow… Mother and child: reduced. *** We never see this picture (the picture Lily paints in Virginia Woolf’s novel). We are only told about it. Lily is painting the scene that we, as readers, are being asked to imagine. (We are asked to imagine both: the scene and its painted likeness.) *** This might be a good place to begin: with the picture that Lily paints; with its shapes, smudges, and shadows. The painting is Lily’s reading of the tableau in front of her. I cannot see the scene that Lily is attempting to capture. I cannot see Lily herself. She is, in my mind, a scarcely perceptible hieroglyph. The scene and its occupants are blurred. Strangely, the painting seems more … vivid.
Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read, Vintage (August 5, 2014).