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Authors: Joyce Carol Oates

Mudwoman

Mudwoman

Joyce Carol Oates

Dedication

For Charlie Gross,

my husband and

first reader

Epigraph

What is man? A ball of snakes.

F
RIEDRICH
N
IETZSCHE
,

Thus Spake Zarathustra

Here the frailest leaves of me and yet my strongest lasting,

Here I shade and hide my thoughts, I myself do not expose them,

And yet they expose me more than all my other poems.

W
ALT
W
HITMAN
,

“Here the Frailest Leaves of Me”

Time is a way of preventing all things from happening at once.

A
NDRE
L
ITOVIK
,

“The Evolving Universe: Origin, Age & Fate”

Mudgirl in the Land of Moriah.

April 1965

Y
ou must be readied, the woman said.

Readied
was not a word the child comprehended. In the woman’s voice
readied
was a word of calm and stillness like water glittering in the mudflats beside the Black Snake River the child would think were the scales of a giant snake if you were so close to the snake you could not actually see it.

For this was the land of Moriah, the woman was saying. This place they had come to in the night that was the place promised to them where their enemies had no dominion over them and where no one knew them or had even glimpsed them.

The woman spoke in the voice of calm still flat glittering water and her words were evenly enunciated as if the speaker were translating blindly as she spoke and the words from which she translated were oddly shaped and fitted haphazardly into her larynx: they would give her pain, but she was no stranger to pain, and had learned to find a secret happiness in pain, too wonderful to risk by acknowledging it.

He is saying to us, to trust Him. In all that is done, to trust Him.

Out of the canvas bag in which, these several days and nights on the meandering road north out of Star Lake she’d carried what was needed to bring them into the land of Moriah safely, the woman took the shears.

I
n her exhausted sleep the child had been hearing the cries of crows like scissors snipping the air in the mudflats beside the Black Snake River.

In sleep smelling the sharp brackish odor of still water and of rich dark earth and broken and rotted things in the earth.

A day and a night on the road beside the old canal and another day and this night that wasn’t yet dawn at the edge of the mudflats.

Trust Him. This is in His hands.

And the woman’s voice that was not the woman’s familiar hoarse and strained voice but this voice of detachment and wonder in the face of something that has gone well when it was not expected, or was not expected quite so soon.

If it is wrong for any of this to be done, He will send an angel of the Lord as He sent to Abraham to spare his son Isaac and also to Hagar, that her son was given back his life in the wilderness of Beersheba.

In her stubby fingers that were chafed and bled easily after three months of the gritty-green lye-soap that was the only soap available in the county detention facility the woman wielded the large tarnished seamstress’s shears to cut the child’s badly matted hair. And with these stubby fingers tugging at the hair, in sticky clumps and snarls the child’s fine fawn-colored hair that had become “nasty” and “smelly” and “crawling with lice.”

Be still! Be good! You are being readied for the Lord.

For our enemies will take you from me, if you are not readied.

For God has guided us to the land of Moriah. His promise is no one will take any child from her lawful mother in this place.

And the giant shears clipped and snipped and clattered merrily. You could tell that the giant shears took pride in shearing off the child’s befouled hair that was disgusting in the sight of God. Teasingly close to the girl’s tender ears the giant shears came, and the child shuddered, and squirmed, and whimpered, and wept; and the woman had no choice but to slap the child’s face, not hard, but hard enough to calm her, as often the woman did; hard enough to make the child go very still the way even a baby rabbit will go still in the cunning of terror; and then, when the child’s hair lay in wan spent curls on the mud-stained floor, the woman drew a razor blade over the child’s head—a blade clutched between her fingers, tightly—causing the blade to scrape against the child’s hair-stubbled scalp and now the child flinched and whimpered louder and began to struggle—and with a curse the woman dropped the razor blade which was badly tarnished and covered with hairs and the woman kicked it aside with a harsh startled laugh as if in wishing to rid the child of her snarly dirty hair that was shameful in the eyes of God the woman had gone too far, and had been made to recognize her error.

For it was wrong of her to curse—
God damn!

To take the name of the Lord in vain—
God damn!

For in the Herkimer County detention facility the woman had taken a vow of silence in defiance of her enemies and she had taken a vow of utter obedience to the Lord God and these several weeks following her release, until now she had not betrayed this vow.

Not even in the Herkimer County family court. Not even when the judge spoke sharply to her, to speak—to make a plea of
guilty, not guilty.

Not even when the threat was that the children would be taken forcibly from her. The children—the sisters—who were five and three—would be wards of the county and would be placed with a foster family and not even then would the woman speak for God suffused her with His strength in the very face of her enemies.

And so the woman took up a smaller scissors, out of the canvas bag, to clip the child’s fingernails so short the tender flesh beneath the nails began to bleed. Though the child was frightened she managed to hold herself still except for shivering as the baby rabbit will hold itself still in the desperate hope that is most powerful in living creatures, our deepest expectation in the face of all evidence refuting it, that the terrible danger will pass.

For—maybe—this was a
game
? What the spike-haired man called a
game
? Secret from the woman was the little cherry pie—sweet cherry pie in a wax-paper package small enough to fit into the palm of the spike-haired man’s hand—so delicious, the child devoured it greedily and quickly before it might be shared by another. There was
splash-splash
which was bathing the child in the claw-footed tub while the woman slept in the next room on the bare mattress on the floor her limbs sprawled as if she’d fallen from a height onto her back moaning in her sleep and waking in a paroxysm of coughing as if she were coughing out her very guts. Bathing the child who had not been bathed in many days and mixed with the bathing was the
game of tickle
. So carefully!—as if she were a breakable porcelain doll and not a tough durable rubber doll like Dolly you’d just bang around, let fall onto the floor and kick out of your way if she was in your way—and so quietly!—the spike-haired man carried the child into the bathroom and to the claw-footed tub that was the size of a trough for animals to drink from and in the bathroom with the door shut—forcibly—for the door was warped and the bolt could not be slid in place—the spike-haired man stripped the child’s soiled pajamas from her and set her—again so carefully!—a forefinger pressed to his lips to indicate how carefully and without noise this must be—set her into the tub—into the water that sprang from the faucet tinged with rust and was only lukewarm and there were few soap bubbles except when the spike-haired man rubbed his hands vigorously together with the bar of nice-smelling Ivory soap between his palms and lathered the suds on the child’s squirmy little pale body like something soft prized out of its shell in what was the
game of tickle

the secret game of tickle;
and amid the splashing soon the water cooled and had to be replenished from the faucet—but the faucet made a groaning sound as if in protest and the spike-haired man pressed his forefinger against his lips pursed like a TV clown’s lips and his raggedy eyebrows lifted to make the child laugh—or, if not laugh, to make the child cease squirming, struggling—for the
game of tickle
was very
ticklish
!—the spike-haired man laughed a near-soundless hissing laugh and soon after lapsed into an open-mouthed doze having lost the energy that rippled through him like electricity through a coil and the child waited until the spike-haired man was snoring half-sitting half-lying on the puddled floor of the bathroom with his back against the wall and water-droplets glistening in the dense wiry steel-colored hairs on his chest and on the soft flaccid folds of his belly and groin and when finally in the early evening when the spike-haired man awakened—and when the woman sprawled on the mattress in the adjacent room awakened—the child had climbed out of the tub naked and shivering and her skin puckered and white like the skin of a defeathered chicken and for a long time the woman and the spike-haired man searched for her until she was discovered clutching at her ugly bareheaded rubber doll curled up like a stepped-on little worm in skeins of cobweb and dustballs beneath the cellar stairs.

Hide-and-seek! Hide-and-seek and the spike-haired man was the one to find her!

For what were the actions of adults except
games,
and variants of
games.
The child was given to know that a
game
would come to an end unlike other actions that were
not-games
and could not be ended but sprawled on and on like a highway or a railroad track or the river rushing beneath the loose-fitting planks of the bridge near the house in which she and the woman had lived with the spike-haired man before the
trouble
.

This is not hurting you! You will defame God if you make such a fuss.

The woman’s voice was not so calm now but raw-sounding like something that has been broken and gives pain. And the woman’s fingers on the child were harder, and the broken and uneven nails were sharp as a cat’s claws digging into the child’s flesh.

The child’s tender scalp was bleeding. The hairs remaining were stubbled. Amid the remaining sticky strands of hair haphazardly cut and partly shaved were tiny frantic lice. By this time the child’s soiled clothes had been removed, wadded into a ball and kicked aside. It was a tar paper cabin the woman had discovered in the underbrush between the road and the towpath. The sign from God directing her to this abandoned place had been a weatherworn toppled-over cross at the roadside that was in fact a mileage marker so faded you could not make out the words or the numerals but the woman had seen
M O R I A H.

In this foul place where they had slept wrapped in the woman’s rumpled and stained coat there was no possibility of bathing the child. Nor would there have been time to bathe the child, for God was growing impatient now it was dawn which was why the woman’s hands fumbled and her lips moved in prayer. The sky was growing lighter like a great eye opening and in most of the sky that you could see were clouds massed and dense like chunks of concrete.

Except at the tree line on the farther side of the mudflats where the sun rose.

Except if you stared hard enough you could see that the concrete clouds were melting away and the sky was layered in translucent faint-red clouds like veins in a great translucent heart that was the awakening of God to the new dawn in the land of Moriah.

In the car the woman had said
I will know when I see. My trust is in the Lord.

The woman said
Except for the Lord, everything is finished.

The woman was not speaking to the child for it was not her practice to speak to the child even when they were alone. And when they were in the presence of others, the woman had ceased speaking at all and it was the impression of those others who had no prior knowledge of the woman that she was both mute and deaf and very likely had been born so.

In the presence of others the woman had learned to shrink inside her clothing that hung loosely on her for at the time of her pregnancies she had been ashamed and fearful of the eyes of strangers moving on her like X-rays and so she had acquired men’s clothing that hid her body—though around her neck in a loose knot, for her throat was often painful, and she feared strep throat, was a scarf of some shiny crinkly purple material she had found discarded.

The child was naked inside the paper nightgown. The child was bleeding from her razor-lacerated scalp in a dozen tiny wounds and shivering and naked inside the pale green paper nightgown faintly stamped
HERKIMER CO. DETENTION
that had been cut by the giant shears to reduce its length if not its width so that the paper nightgown came to just the child’s skinny ankles.

A paper gown to be tracked to the Herkimer County medical unit attached to the women’s detention home.

In the rear seat of the rattling rusted Plymouth which was the spike-haired man’s sole legacy was the child’s rubber doll.
Dolly
was the name of the doll that had been her sister’s and was now hers. Dolly’s face was soiled and her eyes had ceased to see. Dolly’s small mouth was a pucker in the grim rubber flesh. And Dolly too was near-bald, only patches of curly fair hair remaining where you could see how the sad feathery fawn-colored hairs had been glued to the rubber scalp.

Seventy miles north of Star Lake as remote to the woman and the child as the farther, eclipsed half of the moon, the shadowed mudflats beside the river.

So meandering and twisting were the mountain roads, a journey of merely seventy miles had required days, for the woman feared to drive the rattling automobile at any speed beyond thirty. And urgent to her too, that her obedience to God was manifest in this slowness and in this deliberateness like one who can only read by drawing his forefinger beneath each letter of each word to be enunciated aloud.

The child did not fret. But the woman believed, in her heart the child did fret for both the children were rebellious. No comb could be forced through such snarled hair.

In harsh jeering cries the crows reviled God.

Jeering demanding to know as the (female, middle-aged) judge had demanded to know why these children have been found filthy and partly clothed pawing through a Dumpster behind the Shop-Rite scavenging for food like stray dogs or wild creatures shrinking in the beam of a flashlight. And the elder of the sisters clutching at the hand of the younger and would not let go.

And how does the mother explain and how does the mother plead
.

Proudly the woman stood and her chin uplifted and eyes shut against the Whore of Babylon there in black robes but a lurid lipstick-mouth and plucked eyebrows like arched insect wings. No more would the woman
plead
than fall to her knees before this whorish vision.

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