Short Story: ‘Sue: A History of Tongues’ by Sheelagh Russell-Brown

Sheelagh Brown with TSS Publishing

Sheelagh Russell-Brown has been a lecturer in English literature and a writing tutor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. Her interests are in nineteenth and twentieth century British and European literature, the portrayal of the Roma in art and literature, and the foregrounding of marginalized female roles in neo-Victorian fiction.  She has had work published by The Fem, Tales from the Forest, and Abridged (to appear June 2017) magazines, has won second prize in the first Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Short Story Contest, and was shortlisted for the second Irish Imbas Celtic Mythology Short Story Contest and the 2016 Fish Publishing Short Memoir Competition. She is also a regular contributor to Backstory e-magazine and a reviewer for Understorey e-magazine.


Sue: A History of Tongues

I’ve washed the smell off me, that sour, goatish, old-man smell rising from his hair and skin, the sheets besides.  Carbolic won’t scrub off the redness on my shoulders though, the signs of his mastery on what’s below, those parts he will not name but chose to work last night, where whiskers brushed against my pallor. He worked his tongue to wear off the rough edges of my marbled flesh.  But no amount of scraping down of stone will restore its pristine innocence, restore to it its wholeness.  By next week’s grappling, it will all have faded, my purity returned again though I am but a whited sepulchre to him, until he turns his face and more besides to me on Sabbath eve.  A weekly seal upon our marriage. 

            His thinning, grey and greasy hair is all I see, his back now turned to me as he snores on.  I picture satisfaction sitting on his thin lips, the smirking of the righteous.  He’s done his duty, as I have done mine.  We now can join the congregation in a few hours knowing as much.  No matter if the creed we utter is long out of date and out of mind.  It still binds us.  Conjugal duties, from iugum or yoke.  The lingual history that other he had taught me is useful here at least.  An unseen yoke about my neck and I the sacrificial beast who’s weekly (weakly) slaughtered.  Given by the other.  Fatherlike and kin, though never like a father. 

            I’ve washed and now I quickly dress, lest he may turn and see my nakedness displayed.  I’ve done my duty and wish to do no more than dress, descend the narrow stairs, and pray in words they’ve written for me as if I had no language of my own.

***       

            When I’d first met that other man, the man who’d shared my blood, I’d had enough of praying.  I’d sat and kneeled in churches, had sat at desks in schools as well, and heard the words that branded me and all my sex as sinners.  We’d led the men astray, they said, though we’d turned our backs on being followed.  I would not lead, nor would I follow, but make my own path, speak my own words, though they would put their own transgressive meanings on them, translate us for their use.

            Trangress, from the Latin trangressus, a stepping over, going beyond.  So I’ve been taught.  

            And yet we followed, whether we would or not—but followed what?–traced out our footprints on the dusty roads that led us to the gleam that only he could see, the halo round his new Jerusalem, and back again.  That’s led me now to sweaty grappling on the sheets. And with the gleam of light at dawn I rise again, though no triumphant phoenix, from the bed of sacrifice.  Perhaps I am become a female Prometheus, destined to suffer weekly though not weakly for bringing fire to the limbs of man, for kindling their desires.

***      

            At first I’d followed him, that other he, before we first had converse with each other.  But we were kin and had been warned about each other.  At first I’d followed him, had seen him working at the stone, his strong and dusty hands forcing the rock to yielding.  He’d seen me too, in prayer at church, though such prayers were for appearance sake alone.  And so we’d made false idols of each other.  He would have me churched, would try to use those strong and dusty hands to mold, chisel away the sharp and awkward bits.  I would nothing of it.

            I’d sat among the other girls, watched over by stern discipline, tracing and colouring in the words uttered by another, long dead.  I’d sat beside the window when no one was watching, held my hands up to the light to see it shine through flesh, the veins bright blue in ivory skin like veining in virgin marble.  He’d later said that we two were too thin-skinned and that was why we saw beneath what should have been mere empty words into the hidden traps below.

            Yet here I am, churched at last, pummeled and molded by hands not his.  The sharp chisel of his body pierces me.  I am become a vessel for what grows inside me.             

***      

            I light the fire in the grate.  Though my skin still burns from last night’s coupling, one part of me stays cold.  My books are there upon the shelves, now mingled with his as my limbs had been.  Cheaply-bound, translated volumes.  I’m bound as well, translated too.  Upon this shelf my Bible sits.  I know it by its pages rimmed with gold, now worn by long unwilling hands, its words now worn away by tears.  I’ve turned its face away from Sappho and from dark Lanyer, away from all those profane whores who do not know their duty as I do mine.  He turned his face away from me.  In narrow beds in narrow cells, we turn our backs upon each other.

           ***                   

            The towers of the town ring out their promise of forgiveness, of new days starting from this day on. But not on that he who shares my bed, the talk of school affairs, the weekly sweats, the morrow’s pretended ignorance of all that went before.  He too has known the pain of hopes long lost.  He’s gained me, though.  The bishop’s license, the Government stamp, and the chamber officer have seen to that.  Weekly and weakly in our upstairs chamber on the premises, a martyr to their laws, I submit myself to binding.  The vein that’s cut to bleed the meat—conjugal, iugum, jugular.  I’ve learned the fleshly conjugation well.     

            That other, he worked out his problems too upon my body. Writing on the margins of my being as on the plaster-white pages of a book, where I am hardly flesh at all.  Do I exist?  Am I a gift?  If so, a gift bestowed by whom?  Am I thus licensed to be loved? Can I not bestow myself, withhold myself if I so wish? 

            Oh that I had been taught the meaning of such acts, that licensing to love upon the premises means no more license for the freedom of my limbs, weekly or nightly spread upon the sheets, but only license for my thoughts.  And they are cold and bleak despite the lighting of the fire.  

***       

            At times I would I were an anchorite, my services to mankind withheld, withdrawn.  I’d read and pray alone.  At times, on Sabbath mornings, his smell and hands still fresh upon my body, I don the mental habit of a nun, retreat to count my beads in silence. 

            An anchorite is what I’d be, my body tamed, reined in, and hidden, my mind set free.  Not a divinity but woman.  Not anchorage like he’d once said I was.  Not a safe harbour for his thoughts, not restored nor repaired, not clipped and pruned into unnatural shapes.   Like Hildegard I’d tend my own small garden.  I’d sing my songs so loudly they’d put the bells to shame.

            Or maybe I’d become a true Susannah, refusing my body no matter what their laws.  Woman and not Woman, Susannah only I would stay.  I have a self.  It’s mind alone.  I am no defect of the womanly.

***      

            On coming to the town, he’d said he was a species of Dick Whittington, seeking for glory among the towers.  Am I then become his cat? My task to keep away the thoughts, like mice, that trouble him, and then my body passed on to another for his use?    

            He turned his back on me as well, and more than once.  I was an unsolved mystery, a problem all the books could not explain.  And yet he’d once told me that there was no life so long that one could work out its problems like those of Euclid.  But a man, he needs explaining, needs exposition as I crave safety.  He’d pin me down like some intriguing specimen, my wings spread out, deprived of flight.  He’d have me labelled with a name that’s not my own.  He’d pin me down in bed as well, legs spread, and sometimes willingly, I’ll give him that at least.  But he must talk, must solve, must adumbrate the whys and wherefores of my case and his, must spout his dogma with his seed.  I am an unsolved formula, an equation with missing parts.

            I’d spread my wings if I had space, not birdlike snared and trapped inside a cage crafted by custom and by law, forbidden to sing out my own songs.  My language is one of strange declensions, my naming changing at their will.  So I must decline in power with their naming.  But soon I will take on my subjective form, object no longer.

            I am a battleground, a site of war, where flesh and spirit both inflict their wounds.

***         

                He’d turned his back on me and on what women know that he does not.  That bodies once breached cannot be kept for us alone.  That we must share not only beds but bellies, blood, bones, and breasts as well.  That we belong to strong demanding mouths that suck from us our willingness. 

                I am not woman, but purely womanly, not a defect of nature but nature itself.  If Mother Eve had had her way, I’d be a plant, a harmless plant that twining about the trees would people Paradise.  And yet they’d still work on their pruning, would perfect their clipping.

                A woman’s creation is not her own.  She is created on by others.  A page of print that waits the ink.  A block of stone, of pure and stainless marble that needs, or so they think, the sculptor’s hammer and chisel to take its intended shape, to soften all sharp angles.  And if the stone resists, half-formed, and tries to take back its

    virgin shape?  It was not what God intended, and he does the work of God.  I am inscribed, inscribed on, my hands accept and give only what he and other he’s decide.

            I’m not a work of stone, in need of rescuing from change, restored to repeat past wrongs.  I will preserve myself, will leave my own history, my traces on the world.  I’ll bear my own witness, will not let them renew me in fresh materials, as my name is freshly inscribed in licenses and laws.

                I have a voice though they would take it from me.  They’d tell their tales, with me a part of the narration, but only part, moved about by their words, exhibited as in a stained glass window, a palette of a few stark hues, no shading, each segment outlined in syllables as if in lead.  He told me that I seemed to him like a woman painted by the Spanish school—in fact, engraved, at two removes again from life, preserved in ink.  I have no history, no story of my own, but am become a scene in their own tragedies, portrayed in stations of their unending journeys towards my martyrdom.  

***       

                

Yet I am adamantine in my core though outward shaped and softened.  I do not have the tongues of men.  I am not an adept in divine enthusiasms.  I was not schooled in other words than what I know from my own tongue.  My mother tongue that does not ring out from Sabbath bells in towers.  Instead it whispers in my blood that monthly flows, reminder of my sin in being woman.  Of my sin and my mother’s and her mother’s before her. 

            I am a sign become a word, a word made flesh according to his and his own logos. They’d read and written more upon my margins, thinking the secret cipher they had made would grant them entrance.  Yet all the variorum readings of my scripture give them no further access.

            I live in a strange dialect that baffles all translation.  Translation of the flesh in sacrifice, in blood and bread.  It is no language made by men unfit to body woman’s soul. If I could have my tiny cell, could be thus islanded from translation—I’d have no needs except my own to tend to.  Uncarnated.  Not word made matter. 

***       

           I hear his foot upon the stairs, return the book, compose myself.  It is the Sabbath and I, a sinful woman, have tempted him to sin, to do what he will not admit he’s done not just last night but weekly now for months, for years.  I have become, in their own words, a sort of trap to catch a man, a mere domestic gin.  Their licence means that the licence of my mind and body is taken from me with the signing.  I am all body. 

            He takes down the Bible from the shelf.  He reads the verses chosen for the day aloud to me, schooling me in my devotion as he had once schooled me when I was still a child in knowledge, though with a body verging on womanhood, who knew not of such things as we had done last night.  When I thought only that he’d stretch my mind, pass the seeds of learning on to me. 

            I busy my hands in washing down the meat we’ll have for after service.  A rabbit cruelly caught in one of his snares as I was caught by him and by the first him as well.  I hear its cries as I had not heard my own children, trapped as well by snares I’d set to free them from this life.  My sons if they had lived would follow learning to its end and write their lines upon the women in their path.  I’d teach my daughter, whose tottering steps were already leading her on a path away from me, what I have learned.  Would all my words suffice?  And what of the infant not yet born, taken from me like the baby rabbit from its nest, barely formed, its eyes not yet opened on the world?

            I wash the poor torn and skinless body, cutting its limbs away, keeping my eyes fixed on the words I see inside my head, turning away from the innocent flesh of it.  He’d stripped it of its coverings, unclothed as I too have been. 

            “Pigs must be killed,” she’d told that other he when they were wed.  And like the hapless pig, those that are wed must offer up their bodies each to each, conjunction wielding in its very flesh the knife that cuts us sunder.

            And like the pig as well, once we are cleansed and purified with pain and prayer, we return to wallowing in mire.

***       

            He’s done his reading now, his lessoning of sinful flesh.  I wipe the knife and cut our bread. 

            And now he prays over this our food.  I hear the cries, the wheat torn from the stalk and cruelly ground to make the flour, the pig who’s bled upon the snow to give us lard and bacon.  Like she-ass or she-goat, I have been given to him by that other, a mere

domestic animal.  And now I turn away, I cannot eat, the thoughts rise up like bile into my mouth.  I turn away, escape the room, and vomit in the snow. 

            He’s closed the prayer book when I return.  His mouth chews on a crust of bread as it had mumbled over my breast last night.  The other he, he’d said of me once that wifedom had not yet chewed me up, had not digested me.  Was I then to become one of the sayings of the saints, set to be read, marked, learnt, and inwardly digested?  And what of me now?  I am chewed up, digested, and spit out again.

            I pity him.  He lives in fear that I’ve once more distracted him, torn him away from the living word in offering up the sacrifice of my lifeless body.  He lives in fear that one day I’ll withdraw myself as well.  He has not, like the other, limned my body with his words, encircled me with a halo, for all he tries to reach me through my skin.  My self, though, is not in skin, in limbs, in orifices.  It’s locked in words, cannot be touched except when I will it.  But he and also he, they fear to touch such words, my dogma.          

            I have no longer pride nor hope, but only gladness that some end might be.  With all memory destroyed, I’ll take back from them my naming.

***

            I build a burrow understairs, take into it my books, my bed, a light.  I dress in Nature’s shades of red and brown that take me back into the earth.  No hunter here can find me, no traps snare me.  An anchorite within her cell eluding the priest who nightly seeks her.

            They’ve built old houses out of words, words that they would use to father us, to child us too, words in which I’ll never find a home.  Unheimlich it’s called in German—unhomelike, strange.  At least to them.  Heimweh, Heimweg—the pain that comes from use of us as their sure way to home. 

            Outside, the primeval forest is taking back the house.  The ivy whispers as it climbs upon the stones, tapping at the windows to be let in.  The moss between the stones slowly loosens their grip upon each other, inexorable and patient as I will be.

            The spiders build their webs above my head.  They do their work as I do mine.  They trap their food but make no nets to snare me.  He’d seen me once as one who’d brush aside his superstitions with but a word, like cobwebs set to capture him.   

            I fear the self, the soul that grows inside me.

            A maidenhead once taken cannot return.  A bridehead once given is weekly torn.

 

END


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