Authors: Sarah Blackman
Copyright © 2013 by Sarah Blackman
The University of Alabama Press
Tuscaloosa, Alabama 35487-0380
All rights reserved
Manufactured in the United States of America
FC2 is an imprint of The University of Alabama Press
Book Design: Illinois State University's English Department's Publications Unit; Director: Tara Reeser; Assistant Director: Steve Halle; Production
Assistant: Allie Maher
Cover Design: Lou Robinson
The paper on which this book is printed meets the minimum requirements of American National Standard for Information Sciences—Permanence of Paper for Printed Library Materials, ANSI Z39.48–1984
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Blackman, Sarah, 1980-
[Short stories. Selections]
Mother Box and other tales / Sarah Blackman.
ISBN 978-1-57366-174-4 (paperback : alk. paper) — ISBN 978-1-57366-842-2 (ebook)
To John and Helen
For both the theory and the practice
It was a summer night. Always it was summer in the
womanish, childish, animal houseshape of God.
Two small dogs went to the wood,
new shoes on their feet.
Two small dogs going back home
having lost one of the shoes.
Two small dogs.
Two small dogs went to the wood,
spraining their ankles, turning their feet.
Two small dogs running home,
flour and husks up to their legs.
Two small dogs.
Two small dogs, their breasts are white.
Two small dogs with astonished eyes.
Two small dogs still staring out.
Two small dogs, “How are you tonight?”
Two small dogs.
—A Welsh children's song
The people she knew, she had met under difficult circumstances. She wasn't the sort of girl who made friends—rather, she had contacts in the art world. She was a jazz pianist and a poet, a singer/songwriter, had taken up painting with acrylics and was practicing kinesthetic spiritualism. Also, she was taking a kind of medication that made her hair fall out along her part so that her part was becoming wider and whiter, the hair that remained on her head looking darker and coarser by contrast. Her mother called and wanted to know why her hair was falling out. “Why don't you
something about it?” her mother asked. “What kind of a person are you that this is alright?”
Of course, she was the sort of person who had a lot of secrets. Her secrets were how she understood it was herself and not, say, a peanut or a broken-bottomed chair. Listen, she was sort of a reprehensible figure. We knew it was cruel, but she didn't like us either and would sing wherever she went in piping notes
like she was saying, “what WEEP? what WEEP?” over and over again. When we asked her what she was singing, she told us she was exercising her voice for an upcoming performance and then expressed one of her secrets which were stale and sodden, private examinations into the nature of the body suspended in a state of decay. Oh, oh! Our lives were so much worse now that she was in them. She had a dream about an onion, the she that was an onion. It was a secret she told us and that night we too had vegetative dreams, the fetid earth heaving above us, our best loved selves dissolving in the slip of gray rot.
Her mother called. She danced for us at a party, partially on a tabletop, partially on a stage she created by using stacks of the host's books for a backdrop. She invited us to notice the way she used only the muscles in her thighs to express the narrative. It was a story about a swan, a lucky oat cake, a boat and an evening sky. The apotheosis was conducted through a series of facial exercises that were guaranteed to keep her looking ten years younger than her chronological age. “My cellular age is only seventeen,” she told us. Her mother called. She was invited to play the harp, a new accomplishment, at the wedding of a friend of one of our friends. The bride was enthusiastic. She was marrying on a golf course, beside a lake, in the country, at the end of a road lined with beeches. There was going to be a breakfast buffet. We were invited. We called our mothers. “This is not just some other tale of woe,” we told our mothers, “this is non-quotidian, unparalleled, unable to be surmounted by ordinary measure.” Our mothers are sometimes ferocious women, but all alive. Our mothers, at some point, guided our trembling fathers inside them and said it was okay, whatever they did next would be alright.
We thought this would be a sort of new beginning. We all moved to this town with some species of hope and had also started over a number of times before. At a party, we took the wrong
door out of the bathroom and ended up in her bedroom. She had a tapestry tacked to her ceiling which was red and black and gold and filled with hundreds of tiny mirrors like the hundreds of eyes of a watchful peacock. It was horrible to see ourselves in the peacock eyes of her bedroom. We had ingested something. Someone knew what it was. The rest of the house was lit with blue and green lights like the loudest place there is under the ocean, but her room was dark and still as if the air couldn't move without a tremendous effort of will. One of her secrets was that she had almost been raped. It was when she was in college, a school on the coast that was nevertheless very far from the ocean. She wrote a one-act play about it and performed it wearing a giant papier-mâché onion with holes cut in the bottom for her legs. There was also a hole for her mouth, so she could speak, and during the play she would walk and speak, lost inside the enormous onion which had sat too long in its pantry, was sprouting a viridian green shoot which bobbed tremulously from its crest. “From my window I could smell the sea, salt spray, whale bone, smell the boom Boom BOOM of the waves broken against the shore, all this wreckage, all this birth,” was one of the lines she shouted from inside the onion. We were in the audience, of course. We could not make ourselves just stay home. Every one of us had taken his hand and put it here, put it here. “Let's just get this over with,” we had said, and then nothing else for a long time. Her mother called. “I made up the part about the ocean,” she told us. “They were re-tarring the parking lot, so all I could really smell was asphalt. But everything else is true,” she told us. “Everything else is witness.”
Her mother called. She was performing body modifications, had split her tongue so it could lick and flit like a snake's tongue testing the air in the room. Her mother said, “Have you talked to the doctor yet? Have you put on some weight? Have you gotten a chromosomal scan? Have you examined your stool against a chart
showing optimum consistency and shape?” Our mothers once came into our rooms at night and sat at the foot of the bed. We were reminded again how much bigger we were than our mothers by the only very small creak of the mattress beneath their weight. Our mothers wanted to know if we'd made any decisions, if we knew how fast the time was passing, if we thought we could wait forever. Did we think we could wait forever? We were supposed to have the ability to start all over. Just one more time. Some of us had painted all the walls of the house green as an onion shoot. Some of us put his hand here and said, “Tell that to your wife.” Her mother called. At the wedding, she wore a dress made out of stinging nettles. She was so red with it her skin began to crack and weep a thin pink plasma. Of course, the bride was upset. From her room we had taken three little bottles of pills: blue pills, green pills, black pills with glossy coating. We mixed them together with some other things we had on our own. “Oops,” we told our mothers.
The bride and groom had rented boats shaped like swans for the wedding party to arrive in. It was supposed to be a stately performance, at sunrise, across a lake gently heaving with large-mouth bass and catfish and some kinds of game trout imported from more wintery climes. The groom was a great outdoorsman. He was a young buck. She played a kind of polka-beat she said she had learned from a Transylvanian aroma-therapist she met while touring the European circuit. Then, she moved into an atonal dirge. Her skin wept so much from the nettles she left a thick pink slick on the chair when she took a break for lemonade and a turn at the breakfast buffet. Her mother called. We were all such good friends. We hated each other. We spun at the end of the dock and broke our teeth when we fell onto the rocky shore. Put your hand here. Put your hand here. None of the boats capsized, but the ladies were still discomfited. It had taken a long time
to make it from once place to another. The day was steaming up from the lake bed. When the day reached the tops of the beeches it turned white, just like that. Her mother called. We had no shoes on. We had never had any shoes at all. Someone gave us a drink as pink as a berry, as sharp as a nettle. Nevertheless, at the end of the morning, they were legally obliged.
She set up a scaffold in front of the library. For awhile she hung there from a pair of gold hooks she inserted below her shoulder blades. She had bled herself pale, breasts flat against her ribs, hair receded almost to the tips of her ears where it flared like the shawl of an inky bird, the sort of bird that builds bowers. An architect bird we almost believed, at that moment, would take flight. Her mother called. One of her secrets was that she actually had been raped. She told us one night while we drank a juice made of nettles and dandelion leaves. We had turned over a new leaf, were cleansing ourselves by means of starvation and herbal unguents we rubbed on the soles of our feet so that everywhere we walked we left traces of our toxins. Our mothers thought we were taking things too far. “Who are you trying to prove this to?” our mothers asked. Meanwhile, some of us had gotten married. Our husbands had long torsos, blue veins, delicate hands and feet. We told them about the time we lay on her bed under the tapestry, what we saw, what we took. “He was a stranger,” she said. “I left the door unlocked.” She made a fetish doll with his features and carried it in her pocket everywhere she went. Her mother called. “What do you think this is doing to your father?” her mother wanted to know.
She was interested in the opposing impulses of Thanatos and Eros, Edo era pornographic scrolls, tribal dance, basket weaving, the intricate structures of the inner ear, past life revitalization, crystal theology, scribing through the entrails of freshly slaughtered beeves. Our husbands liked to turn us on our sides. They
knew how to direct things so we did not have to see them, could only feel the hand on our hip, on our breast. Our husbands inside of us pushed past us and into a place that was suddenly white, just like that. We were like babies, wet and small. Our husbands wanted to know what we were thinking, why we were thinking, what we were doing, if we'd held on to any of those pills? “When it was over I asked him to marry me,” she said. The doll had a wide mouth, always wet, always open. She touched the doll's face. Her mother called.
Listen, we knew it was cruel, but we had to have something. Our lives were not what we had been led to expect. There were things that had happened and kept happening over and over, like a hundred small mirrors in a dark room. She was interested in self-flagellation; she was documenting cases of scoliosis among teenage prostitutes; she had injected an ink in her eyes that turned the whites permanently black. Her mother called. For a terrible season we all dreamed we had given birth to an onion. We held it to our breasts, rubbing it back and forth on our breasts. Finally, we cut it up and made it into a soup. “This is the only chance you'll have,” our mothers said. “I didn't believe it either, but it's true.”
She told us so many things we couldn't keep track of what we didn't know about her. Our husbands might like us to have a baby. Our husbands think we should be mothers. Using an ancient Maori technique, she tattooed an exhaustive portrait of a man's back onto her front. The man's legs were spread over her legs, his back over her breasts, the back of his head with its thick brown hair inked over her face. The man was slimmer and taller than she and where his legs parted the pear droop of his sac obscured her pudenda. Her mother called. We said, “It's like she was raised by cardboard boxes. It's like she emits a ravenous void.” Our mothers matured into beautiful women. They paint their nails a coral
color, let their hair gray. When she talks her words come from the base of the man's brain, where his breathing is regulated, where his body remembers only itself. Oh, oh! From her room we took pills and a sense of darkness, a stack of letters she had addressed but never mailed. We wrote a letter to her mother. Our husbands put their fingers in our mouths and our ears. We asked them to. “Put your hand here,” we said, but they were not always ours to command. Sometimes our husbands had the tusks of a boar or a single swan's wing. Sometimes their tongues were made of jade, their hands of thorns, their cocks trembling bundles of lilies still tightly furled.
Of course, we were right and hardly knew it. At the party, she danced for us. She left the doll in an empty space on the bookshelf as an audience. There were many delicious snack foods served. We were eating for two, had to go to the bathroom almost all the time. On her back she had tattooed a man's front. When she is coming, he goes with wide eyes, a simple expression. We clung to our husband's shirtfronts. We were delirious, dizzy. There was a knock at the door. She showed us how the narrative was contained by the gesture of her upper lip; she unrolled a scroll from her mouth; she pulled out the last of her hair and scattered it like feathers. Some of it fell into our water glasses where it floated, feathers on a river, caught in an eddy, going nowhere. We answered the door and it was her mother. There was a strange feeling inside us all the time. Inside us was a white day, but we could not go there, could not remember it. We had a sense we were standing at the end of something like a dock, something else spread out flat and fathomless before us. Our husbands honked and flapped their wings.
Her mother was a cardboard box. On her mother's side was stamped This End Up and Fragile in red block letters. On her mother's open flap someone had written her address with a black,
felt-tip pen. We didn't know what we expected her to do. All the lights in the house were blue and green. Nothing had changed; the music was too loud. Right at that moment our mothers were calling our homes, trying to get a hold of us. We hadn't thought it through. She came. The man went. Her mother was on the porch. It was raining and her mother was getting wet. There was a sound like droning, a sound like wings beating against the water. “Mother Box,” she said. “Mother Box,” she said. “Mother Box,” she said. Her mother didn't say anything. Absentmindedly, we continued eating the snacks. After all we had been through, after all we had done. “Put your hand here,” we told our husbands, but they had gone out through the back door. She went to her mother and crawled inside her. She turned around three times like a dog. It was a terrible place to be, to remember. “What WEEP,” she sang. We don't know when she fell asleep, or when we all did. In the morning, when the sun reached the tops of the beeches, we were surprised to discover that nothing had changed.