Author Archives: michelle augello-page

the handless maiden

The Handless Maiden by Ericka Lugo

Once upon a time, a miller lived with his wife and daughter at the edge of the forest on the outskirts of a beautiful kingdom, miles away from the village. Generations earlier, a special path had been cleared for the Queen’s horses through the wood, and for many years it was the exclusive mill of the entire kingdom. However, a new mill had been erected in the village with the latest technology, employing not one but several millers, and within only a few years, the new mill had grown so large it overshadowed the little mill by the forest. The miller even lost his account with the Queen.

Hard times fell upon the miller. He had once been prosperous, even wealthy, but now he was very poor. He had once pampered his wife and daughter, and they had an esteemed position in the village. He had hoped that his daughter would marry one of the king’s court by the time she was of marrying age. Now, even the lowliest villager would not take her. His wife and daughter foraged for food in the forest and picked apples from the trees behind the mill to sell at market. The miller’s wife begged him to take a position at the new mill and put his skills to use. But his pride was too great, and he refused.

When the miller’s wife grew hot and bright with fever, there was no money to bring her to the doctor. The sickness spread throughout her body and within a week, she was dead. The miller’s daughter had tried in vain to nurse her mother back to health. At her bedside, she had solemnly promised her mother that she would take care of her father. Through her grief, she took over all of her mother’s duties, and she still foraged, cleaned, bought and made household goods, and sold apples at the market. She cared for her father the best she could, but he was inconsolable.

The miller took to drinking sour mash, and spent his days in a drunken stupor. He cried and prayed for his fortune to change. One day when his daughter was at the market, a strange visitor knocked on the door.

“Whaddya want?” The miller slurred.

“I want to help you,” the stranger answered.

“You want to help me? You can’t help me. Can’ya bring my wife back? Can you bring my mill back? Can you restore what has been taken from me?”

“Yes.”

The miller roared with bitter laughter. “How?”

“Give me what is behind the mill.”

“And then what?” The miller asked, thinking of the rows of apple trees behind the mill, their only source of income.

“Then you will have a new wife, a new life, and all the riches you desire.”

“Sounds like you want me to make a deal with the devil.”

“Only if that is what you want.”

The miller and the stranger looked each other in the eye for a good few minutes, as if trying to read the others thoughts.

“Give me what is behind the mill, and you will have your heart’s desire.”

The miller thought about his daughter, and the back-breaking work of picking and selling the apples. He imagined her good, sweet face, so much like her mother’s.

“Okay,” he said.

“It’s a deal,” the stranger said, extending his hand.

The miller took his hand, and for a second, he felt a hot jolt course through his arm. Their handshake was hard and firm, binding.

The stranger bowed, “thank you, Sir. I will go collect her now.”

“Her?” The miller asked quickly, but too late. The stranger turned on his heel and was already out the door.

The miller ran after him. His daughter was under one of the trees with the bushel next to her. His heart dropped. He watched as the devil approached her.

“No,” he shouted, running towards them.

The miller’s daughter turned around in alarm. She saw the stranger approaching her. She saw the pain and anguish on her father’s face as he rushed toward her.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“My dear, your father has just given you to me,” the stranger said, smiling.

“No I didn’t!” The miller shouted.

“We just sealed the deal with a handshake,” the stranger reminded him, and the miller’s hand flashed as if on fire.

“No …” the miller said weakly, clutching his burning hand to his chest.

The stranger reached for the miller’s daughter, but when he tried to take her hand, he realized that he could not touch her. She was too pure; she was protected. He growled with anger, then turned and walked away.

“Cut off her hands!” he instructed the miller as he rushed past him. “I will be back.”

The miller sunk to the ground.

“Father, what is going on?” his daughter asked him.

“He asked for what was behind the mill … the apple trees … in exchange for … in exchange for …” The miller couldn’t continue. He broke down crying.

“What?”

“I won’t let him take you. I won’t.”

“Who is he, Father?”

“The devil.”

The miller’s daughter shuddered. She knew that her father was in a bad sort these days, but now he thought he was making deals with the devil? She was very worried about him. She brought him into the house and made a pot of tea. She consoled him in the ways that she had watched her mother console him, with food and drink and nonsense words, then she put him to bed like a child. She found his stash of sour mash and threw it away. Her father’s drinking was out of control.

She replayed what had happened over and over again in her head. None of it made sense. She decided to stay home and watch over her father instead of going back to the market. She had returned early because she sold all of the apples she had brought and wanted to get more. There was much to do at home anyway, and she began her household chores. She checked on her father regularly; he was sleeping like a baby.

Hours later, another visitor knocked at the door. The miller’s daughter started, afraid that it was the same stranger from earlier that day, but it was not. It was a local man from the village, come to talk with her father about business. He explained that the mill in town had an overage and he wondered if her father would be interested in contracting some of the work.

“Yes,” the miller’s daughter answered for him. “He will be ready to begin tomorrow.”

The little mill on the edge of the forest prospered, and the miller and his daughter fell into a comfortable routine, the visit from the stranger long forgotten. The miller’s daughter had grown to enjoy selling apples at the market, so she continued, even though it was no longer necessary. Day after day, the miller’s daughter grew more beautiful, rosy and healthy. Sometimes the miller watched her and was reminded so strongly of his wife, he felt his heart swell. Sometimes, as he hugged her good-night, his body responded before his mind, and his erection was swift and hard, pressing.

Months passed, and the miller became obsessed with the idea that his daughter was his wife’s replacement in nearly every way, except one. She looked so much like her, she could have been her twin. She loved him, she cared for him, she cooked and cleaned for him. He loved his daughter, but he desired a wife.

The miller’s daughter began to feel a little uncomfortable under her father’s hungry gaze, though she did not know the reason behind it. She was a young woman, no longer a little girl, but she was still innocent. There was a man she had met at the market who said he loved her. Once, he kissed her on the mouth, and she felt her soul sing. He wanted to ask her father for her hand in marriage, but the miller’s daughter wanted to wait. She wanted to make sure her father would be okay without her.

“Father, when do you think I should get married?” she asked one sunny morning after her father had awoken in a particularly good mood.

“Do you think you are ready?” the miller asked, his brow starting to furrow.

“Yes,” his daughter answered.

“Are you telling me that you met someone?”

The miller’s daughter’s face flushed.

“Where?” he asked sharply, his mood quickly turning.

“At the market, father.”

The miller’s face grew dark. He left, returning to his bedroom. After a few moments, his daughter knocked softly on the door. He opened the door angrily, his face contorted with rage. He grabbed his daughter by the arm roughly and pulled her into the room. She stood, shaking with confusion, as he held her by the shoulders and kissed her hard on the lips. The miller’s daughter shook her head, trying to get away from the terrible kiss.

“Did he kiss you like that?” the miller said angrily.

“Stop, father. Please …” she said, caught in his tight embrace.

He pushed her onto the bed and his full weight fell on top of her. He removed his belt with one hand while holding her down with the other, then he used the belt to bind her hands above her head. She rolled from side to side, trying to get away, but he was too strong, he overpowered her. He pushed her skirt up with one hand while unbuttoning his pants with the other.

“No …” she cried, moving her body violently, bringing up her knees to kick him. He staggered from the blow, and she rolled off the bed, hitting the floor with a thud. With her hands still bound, she used them as leverage to stand, and then she ran, out of the room, out of the house, and into the woods, as far and as fast as her feet would carry her.

But she was off balance, and she tripped and fell on the path. Her father caught up with her, and found her lying helpless on the forest floor. He bent over her, and grabbed her arm. He held her steady, her hands still bound. With his other hand, he pulled the belt around her wrists higher, immobilizing her outstretched arms. In one swift motion, he drew a long sword from the sheath on his back, the sharp edge glittering briefly in the light before it fell upon her wrists, slicing through skin, blood, bone.

“Let the devil take you,” he said.

She was stunned by the blow, in shock from the loss of blood. She did not scream. She did not make a sound. A murder of birds in the surrounding trees flew up suddenly, releasing a cacophony of shrieks and caws, leaving a throbbing silence in their wake. Her hands gone, the belt loosened and fell to the ground with a dull thud. Her father released his grip on her arm, letting her fall among the dirt and dried leaves.

She cried and cried, her tears cleansing the wound. And when there were no tears left, she cried more; she was wounded, her soul blindsided, her heart broken. The devil hovered around her, but still he could not touch her; her tears had washed away even the sin inflicted upon her, and she was still pure. At one point she gathered enough strength to stand, but she could barely walk; she staggered piteously until she got caught in the thorny bramble that had overrun the path, and she tripped again, and fell unconscious.

Perhaps it was the scent of the blood, or the hand of fate interceding, but the prince’s dogs led the hunting party astray. They had been down the ragged, unused path for over an hour, and it seemed that the dogs had taken over the expedition. A sense of urgency had replaced the hunting party’s earlier joviality, and one of them wondered aloud if they should turn back.

“No,” the prince said.

“But, there’s no game in this part of the woods. We’ve been out here for hours … soon the light will be gone …”

“Keep going,” the prince said, his sense of desperation growing. His dogs had never acted like that before, and it was making him anxious.

Far ahead on the path, the dogs started barking.

“Finally!” someone shouted, and the hunting party ran to see what the dogs had found.

None of them were prepared to find a human body among the tangled bush. None of them were prepared for all the blood.

“Is she dead?”

The prince stepped forward, carefully clearing a path through the thorns and bramble as he advanced. He knelt next to her, trying to find a pulse before realizing that the young woman’s hands had been brutally chopped off. Blood had soaked through the front of her dress, but there seemed to be no other wounds. Her heartbeat was weak, but she was still alive.

“We need to go back. We need to get help,” someone said.

“I won’t leave her …” the prince said, tearing off pieces of his shirt to make a tourniquet for her wounds.

Another member of the party came up with a quick plan, and they dispersed. Two would search for the village doctor, another would alert the Queen to prepare for their return, and the last would herd the dogs while the prince carried the young woman back to the castle.

Each day, the young woman grew stronger. Each day, the prince loved her more. She was so sweet and beautiful; she was a child sent to him downriver in a bulrush basket, and he promised heaven and earth that he would love and care for her for the rest of his life, if only she would love him in return. He needn’t have worried; she had been cast from her home and into the dark forest, left for dead, then rescued by a prince. She loved him so much she thought her heart might burst.

Within a few months, the prince and the handless maiden were married. As a wedding gift, the prince commissioned a pair of silver hands to be created for her. Though her silver hands were not functional, they were amazingly beautiful, as delicate and light as a piece of lace. She imagined that they were like a piece of jewelry, an adornment, and she loved her husband’s heart for thinking of the gift. With time, she was able to manipulate the appendages like a simple machine, and she could pick up and move some items using her silver hands, albeit clumsily.

In marriage, the handless maiden and the prince loved each other fiercely. Each night, she fell asleep in his loving arms, safe and protected, thinking this must be what happily ever after feels like.

The Queen was overjoyed with the union, and the entire kingdom rejoiced when only a couple of months after the wedding, they announced a pregnancy. In the far away, fairy tale kingdom, true love ruled the minds and the hearts of the people. Outside the kingdom, however, war loomed. Though the prince wanted to stay for the baby’s birth, it soon became a necessity for the prince to oversee negotiations with a hostile neighboring kingdom. The Queen promised that she would care for the handless maiden, and write him immediately after the baby’s birth. The prince left, promising the entire kingdom that he would stay until a peaceful resolution had been reached, no matter how long it took.

After the baby’s birth, the Queen did as promised, and sent a message to her son, telling him that the baby was a beautiful girl, and that both mother and child were fine. A messenger was sent directly, but it was a long trip to the neighboring kingdom, and the messenger stopped mid-way at the crossroads, seeing a shady tree that would be perfect for a short rest. Unbeknownst to the messenger, the devil was waiting there, and while he slept, the devil changed the message to say that the baby was hideously deformed.

Upon receiving the message, the prince was surprised; however, he sent another message back immediately, saying that he loved his wife and child, no matter what. Again, the messenger took a brief respite under that same shady tree, and again, the devil was waiting to switch the message. After the note had been delivered to the Queen, she sent for her most trusted advisor. When he entered her rooms, he found the Queen in a debilitated state. She shakily handed the note to him. He read it quickly.

“This is not from the prince,” he said.

“It has his seal.”

“He never would have written those words.”

“It is his hand.”

“Something is very wrong.”

“I know,” the Queen sobbed.

Early the next morning, the Queen told the handless maiden that it would be best for her to leave the castle until she figured out what was going on. Right now, both her and the baby’s life were in danger. The Queen packed a bag of provisions, and placed it carefully on the handless maiden’s back. Then, she swaddled the baby and strapped her to young woman’s chest. They would be safer in the woods.

“A week, my sweet child,” the Queen said with tears in her eyes. “Hide well.”

“What if he can’t find me?”

“He will find you. His love for you is true. I would swear my life on it.”

“I’m afraid,” the handless maiden said.

“You are stronger than you know,” the Queen said. “I would swear my life on that, too.”

And with that, the handless maiden was cast into the woods once more. The baby was breast feeding, so she did not have to worry about her nourishment, but the handless maiden grew weaker as the days passed, and she began to run out of provisions. After two weeks, she stopped counting the days. She walked and walked, stopping only to find shelter for the night. She rarely stayed in the same place for more than one night. She was lost in the dark forest with a baby strapped to her, not knowing where she was going or what she would find when she got there.

Days, she felt brave and free, and she sang with a chorus of birds to the baby, enjoying simple, quiet moments with her child under the sun dappled canopy. Nights, she burrowed with her child close to the ground, their shelter camouflaged under bushes. Though it offered no real protection, she tried to feel safe, and she pressed her baby to her breast, her heartbeat strong and loud. Never had she seen such a quiet, happy baby; it was as if she understood that it was best to be quiet in the dark forest, to hide until it was light again.

One day, the handless maiden was feeling especially weary. She had been moving through a dry area of the woods, and had not had anything to eat or drink for days. She did not know that the devil was watching her relentlessly. He had only three chances to take her, after the deal he had made with her father, but he could not take someone so pure. Because of that, he had already lost two chances; he was biding his time, waiting for the final opportunity to present itself.

When the handless maiden came across a small pond, she nearly cried, she was so thirsty, and she bent over the fluid surface to drink. The baby, swaddled and attached to her chest, saw something shiny in the water, and lunged forward to reach it, falling head-first into the pond. A pain she had never known seized the handless maiden as she plunged her useless silver hands into the water, to save her child. When she pulled the baby out from the depths, the handless maiden nearly fainted from shock; her hands were no longer silver, but flesh and bone.

She knew that no matter what happened next, she would survive.

When peace had been restored between the kingdoms, the prince returned home to find his wife and child missing. He searched the woods day and night, but he could not find them. The weather began to turn, and dry leaves fell from the trees. He found one of his wife’s silver hands washed up by the edge of a pond, and he began to fear the worst, but he would not leave the dark forest without them.

He had found her once before, unconscious, wounded and broken. He would find her again. But when he saw the apparition before him on the path, a beautiful young woman singing to a baby, alive and whole and happy, he thought he must be dreaming. He approached cautiously, but the woman sensed his presence and looked directly at him. She was no longer the handless maiden, or the miller’s daughter, or even the prince’s wife. She did not need to be saved. Everything had changed. Still, he reached for her hands, and brought them to his lips, kissing her palms and the tips of her fingers. Nothing had changed; her heart was the same heart, and he loved her.

He picked up the baby, took his love by the hand, and together, they left the dark forest and returned to the castle, where they all lived happily ever after.

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the handless maiden by doncella mancaThe Handless Maiden by Doncella Manca

 

The Handless Maiden, Retold © Michelle Augello-Page, 2015

 

 


how the raven stole the sun

RAVEN11

 

“How the Raven stole the sun” is based upon Native American creation myths, specifically the Haida story, in which the Raven is responsible for bringing light (the sun, the moon, and the stars) back to the world, and is transformed in the process.

 

In the beginning, the world was in total darkness.

But it was not always that way.

In the beginning, the world was filled with light. All of the animals, the trees and plants and flowers, and the whole of the earth, thrived. In the beginning, there were no human beings, save for a man and a woman who had lived together from the beginning of time. What the woman longed for most in the world was a child; however, she could not conceive. The man and the woman grew old as their prayers for a child went unanswered. The woman’s sadness was so great that she could not share a world of light when her own world was so dark. One day, in revenge or anger or disappointment, the old man took the light from the world and hid it in a box, thinking that now the world would share their pain.

After some time, the earth began to die. Nothing could grow in the absence of light. The eagle had seen the old man climb into the sky, so they knew he was holding the light. All of the animals had a great meeting, to discuss the ways in which they could persuade the man to return it. The light that they could make, fire, was not enough to illuminate the earth, and too much of it would burn the world. They had pleaded with him, begged and cried, told him that their families, all of the trees and plants and flowers, and all of the life on earth, was in danger. But the old man said that he did not know where the light was. They tried to break into the humans’ home, but the light was so well hidden that not even the smallest insect could find it.

Finally, the Raven stepped forward. She said that she would transform into a human infant, since what the humans wanted most was a child. Perhaps then, if she lived as one of them, she would be able to find the light. And so the Raven changed, and the animals wrapped her in a nest of dead leaves, and left the baby at the old man and the old woman’s door.

When she was found, they cried with joy at the unexpected gift, and took her in. Years passed, and the baby grew from an infant into a child. The child was curious, always getting into things, but she filled their life with joy. The old man and the old woman loved the child so much, they promised that they would give her anything her heart desired. One day, the child stumbled across a locked box, and she brought the box to her father and asked if she could open it. Because he loved her so much, he could not say no, and the old man said that he would open the box, but the child could only take a peek inside.

After releasing the lock, the old man lifted the lid of the box slowly until a shimmering sliver of light filled the room. The child gasped, a look of absolute wonder crossing her face. Suddenly, the child transformed into a giant white bird, the Raven, and she quickly seized the ball of light in her beak and flew out through the smokehole in the roof towards the sky.

Higher and higher she flew, the ball of light hot in her mouth, slowly charring her snow white feathers black. Still she flew, and a piece of the light broke off, staying fixed in the sky as the sun. She kept flying, even though the light was scorching her, burning her; she flew halfway across the world, and another piece of the light broke off, staying fixed in the sky as the moon. Still, she flew, only a third of the light left, held fast in her beak. As she crossed the great ocean, the last bit of light fell, and shattered into tiny pieces, bouncing off the reflected water and into the sky, punctuating the darkness with stars.

And this is the story of how the Raven stole the sun, and brought light back to the world, though it turned her snow white feathers black as the darkest night, forevermore.

 

raven-steals

 

The photos in this post are from ‘Raven Steals the Sun’ – a collaboration between photographer Jeff Elstone, scarf designer Taiana Giefer and artist-milliner Selina Elkuch, based on the native Haida myth of how the Sun came to be. For additional photos, please click here.

 

How the Raven Stole the Sun, Retold © Michelle Augello-Page, 2015

 

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“i stand here ironing” by tillie olsen

1.

 

“I Stand Here Ironing”  by Tillie Olsen

 

I stand here ironing, and what you asked me moves tormented back and forth with the iron.

“I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I’m sure you can help me understand her. She’s a youngster who needs help and whom I’m deeply interested in helping.”

“Who needs help.” … Even if I came, what good would it do? You think because I am her mother I have a key or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me.

And when is there time to remember, to sift, to weigh, to estimate, to total? I will start and there will be an interruption and I will have to gather it all together again. Or I will become engulfed with all I did or did not do, with what should have been and what cannot be helped.

She was a beautiful baby. The first and only one of our five that was beautiful at birth. You do not guess how new and uneasy her tenancy in her now-loveliness. You did not know her all those years she was thought homely, or see her poring over her baby pictures, making me tell her over and over how beautiful she had been – and would be, I would tell her – and was now, to the seeing eye. But the seeing eyes were few or nonexistent. Including mine.

I nursed her. They feel that’s important nowadays. I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood. I did like the books then said. Though her cries battered me to trembling and my breasts ached with swollenness, I waited till the clock decreed.

Why do I put that first? I do not even know if it matters, or if it explains anything.

She was a beautiful baby. She blew shining bubbles of sound. She loved motion, loved light, loved color and music and textures. She would lie on the floor in her blue overalls patting the surface so hard in ecstasy her hands and feet would blur. She was a miracle to me, but when she was eight months old I had to leave her daytimes with the woman downstairs to whom she was no miracle at all, for I worked or looked for work and for Emily’s father, who “could no longer endure” (he wrote in his good-bye note) “sharing want with us.”

I was nineteen. It was the pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression. I would start running as soon as I got off the streetcar, running up the stairs, the place smelling sour, and awake or asleep to startle awake, when she saw me she would break into a clogged weeping that could not be comforted, a weeping I can hear yet.

After a while I found a job hashing at night so I could be with her days, and it was better. But it came to where I had to bring her to his family and leave her.

It took a long time to raise the money for her fare back. Then she got chicken pox and I had to wait longer. When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pock-marks. All the baby loveliness gone.

She was two. Old enough for nursery school they said, and I did not know then what I know now – the fatigue of the long day, and the lacerations of group life in the kinds of nurseries that are only parking places for children.

Except that it would have made no difference if I had known. It was the only place there was. It was the only way we could be together, the only way I could hold a job.

And even without knowing, I knew. I knew the teacher that was evil because all these years it has curdled into my memory, the little by hunched in the corner, her rasp, “why aren’t you outside, because Alvin hits you? that’s no reason, go out, scaredy.” I knew Emily hated it even if she did not clutch and implore “don’t go Mommy” like the other children, mornings.

She always had a reason why we should stay home. Momma, you look sick. Momma, I feel sick. Momma, the teachers aren’t there today, they’re sick. Momma, we can’t go, there was a fire there last night. momma, it’s a holiday today, no school, they told me.

But never a direct protest, never rebellion. I think of our others in their three-, four-year-oldness – the explosions, the tempers, the denunciations, the demands – and I feel suddenly ill. I put the iron down. What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?

The old man living in the back once said in his gentle way: “You should smile at Emily more when you look at her.” What was in my face when I looked at her? I loved her. There were all the acts of love.

It was only with the others I remembered what he said, and it was the face of joy, and not of care or tightness or worry I turned to them – too late for Emily. She does not smile easily, let alone almost always as here brothers and sisters do. Her face is closed and sombre, but when she wants, how fluid. You must have seen it in her pantomimes, you spoke of her rare gift for comedy on the stage that rouses a laughter out of the audience so dear they applaud and applaud and do not want to let her go.

Where does it come from, that comedy? There was none of it in her when she came back to me that second time, after I had had to send her away again. She had a new daddy now to learn to love, and I think perhaps it was a better time.

Except when we left her alone nights, telling ourselves she was old enough.

“Can’t you go some other time, Mommy, like tomorrow?” she would ask. “Will it be just a little while you’ll be gone? Do you promise?”

The time we came back, the front door open, the clock on the floor in the hall. She rigid awake. “It wasn’t just a little while. I didn’t cry. Three times I called you, just three times, and then I ran downstairs to open the door so you could come faster. The clock talked loud. I threw it away, it scared me what it talked.”

She said the clock talked loud again that night I went to the hospital to have Susan. She was delirious with the fever that comes before red measles, but she was fully conscious all the week I was gone and the week after we were home when she could not come near the new baby or me.

She did not get well. She stayed skeleton thin, not wanting to eat, and night after night after night she had nightmares. She would call for me, and I would rouse from exhaustion to sleepily call back: “You’re all right, darling, go to sleep, it’s just a dream,” and if she still called, in a sterner voice, “Now go to sleep, Emily, there’s nothing to hurt you.” Twice, only twice, when I had to get up for Susan anyhow, I went in to sit with her.

Now when it is too late (as if she would let me hold and comfort her like I do the others) I get up and go to her at once at her moan or restless stirring. “Are you awake, Emily? Can I get you something?” And the answer is always the same: “No, I’m all right, go back to sleep, Mother.”

They persuaded me at the clinic to send her away to a convalescent home in the country where “she can have the kind of food and care you can’t manage for her, and you’ll be free to concentrate on the new baby.” They still send children to that place. I see pictures on the society page of sleek young women planning affairs to raise money for it, or dancing at the affairs, or decorating Easter eggs or filling Christmas stockings for the children.

They never have a picture of the children so I do not know if the girls still wear those gigantic red bows and the ravaged looks on the every other Sunday when parents can come to visit “unless otherwise notified” – as we were notified the first six weeks.

Oh it is a handsome place, green lawns and tall trees and fluted flower beds. high up on the balconies of each cottage the children stand, the girls in their red bows and white dresses, the boys in white suits and giant red ties. The parents stand below shrieking up to be heard and the children shriek down to be heard, and between them the invisible wall “Not To Be Contaminated by Parental Germs or Physical Affection.”

There was a tiny girl who always stood hand in hand with Emily. Her parents never came. One visit she was gone. “They moved her to Rose Cottage>” Emily shouted in explanation. “They don’t like you to love anybody here.”

She wrote once a week, the labored writing of a seven-year-old. “I am fine. How is the baby. If I write my leter nicly I will have a star. Love.” There never was a star. We wrote every other day, letters she could never hold or keep but only hear read – once. “We simply do not have room for children to keep any personal possessions,” they patiently explained when we pieced one Sunday’s shrieking together to plead how much it would mean to Emily, who loved so to keep things, to be allowed to keep her letters and cards.

Each visit she looked frailer. “She isn’t eating,” they told us.

(They had runny eggs for breakfast or mush with lumps, Emily said later, I’d hold in my mouth and not swallow. Nothing ever tasted good, just when they had chicken.)

It took us eight months to get her released home, and only the fact that she gained back so little of her seven lost pounds convinced the social worker.

I used to try to hold and love her after she came back, but her body would stay stiff, and after a while she’d push away. She ate little. Food sickened her, and I think much of life too. Oh she had physical lightness and brightness, twinkling by on skates, bouncing like a ball up and down up and down over the jump rope, skimming over the hill; but these were momentary.

She fretted about her appearance, thin and dark and foreign-looking at a time when every little girl was supposed to look or thought she should look a chubby blond replica of Shirley Tmeple. The doorbell sometimes rang for her, but no one seemed to come and play in the house or be a best friend. Maybe because we moved so much.

There was a boy she loved painfully through two school semesters. months later she told me how she had taken pennies from my purse to buy him candy. “Licorice was his favorite and I brought him some every day, but he still liked Jennifer better’n me. Why, Mommy?” The kind of question for which there is no answer.

School was a worry to her. She was not glib or quick in a world where glibness and quickness were easily confused with ability to learn. To her overworked and exasperated teachers she was an overconscientious “slow learner” who kept trying to catch up and was absent entirely too often.

I let her be absent, though sometimes the illness was imaginary. How different from my now-strictness about attendance with the others. I wasn’t working. We had a new baby, I was home anyhow. Sometimes, after Susan grew old enough, I would keep her home from school, too, to have them all together.

Mostly Emily had asthma, and her breathing, harsh and labored, would fill the house with a curiously tranquil sound. I would bring the two old dresser mirrors and her boxes of collections to her bed. She would select beads and single earrings, bottle tops and shells,dried flowers and pebbles, old postcards and scraps, all sorts of oddments; then she and Susan would play Kingdom, setting up landscapes and furniture, peopling them with action.

Those were the only times of peaceful companionship between her and Susan. I have edged away from it, that poisonous feeling between them, that terrible balancing of hurt and needs I had to do between the two, and did so badly, those earlier years.

Oh there are conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting, taking – but only between Emily and Susan, no, Emily toward Susan that corroding resentment. It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious. Susan, the second child, Susan, golden- and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not; Susan, not able to resist Emily’s precious things, losing or sometimes clumsily breaking them; Susan telling jokes and riddles to company for applause while Emily sat silent (to say to me later: that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan); Susan, who for all the five years’ difference in age was just a year behind Emily in developing physically.

I am glad for that slow physical development that widened the difference between her and her contemporaries, though she suffered over it. She was too vulnerable for that terrible world of youthful competition, of preening and parading, of constant measuring of yourself against every other, of envy, “If I had that copper hair,” “If I had that skin …” She tormented herself enough about not looking like the others, there was enough of the unsureness, the having to be conscous of words before you speak, the constant caring – what are they thinking of me? without having it all magnified by the merciless physical drives.

Ronnie is calling. He is wet and I change him. It is rare there is such a cry now. That time of motherhood is almost behind me when the ear is not one’s own but must always be racked and listening for the child cry, the child call. We sit for a while and I hold him, looking out over the city spread in charcoal with its soft aisles of light. “Shoogily,” he breathes and curls closer. I carry him back to bed, asleep. Shoogily. A funny word, a family word, inherited from Emily, invented by her to say: comfort.

In this and other ways she leaves her seal, I say aloud. And startle at my saying it. What do I mean? What did I start to gather together, to try and make coherent? I was at the terrible, growing years. War years. I do not remember them well. I was working, there were four smaller ones now, there was not time for her. She had to help be a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper. She had to set her seal. Mornings of crisis and near hysteria trying to get lunches packed, hair combed, coats and shoes found, everyone to school or Child Care on time, the baby ready for transportation. And always the paper scribbled on by a smaller one, the book looked at by Susan then mislaid, the homework not done. Running out to that huge school where she was one, she was lost, she was a drop; suffering over her unpreparedness, stammering and unsure in her classes.

There was so little time left at night after the kids were bedded down. She would struggle over books, always eating (it was in those years she developed her enormous appetite that is legendary in our family) and I would be ironing, or preparing food for the next day, or writing V-mail to Bill, or tending the baby. Sometimes, to make me laugh, or out of her despair, she would imitate happenings or types at school.

I think I said once: “Why don’t you do something like this in the school amateur show?” One morning she phoned me at work, hardly understandable through the weeping: “Mother, I did it. I won, I won; they gave me first prize; they clapped and clapped and wouldn’t let me go.”

Now suddenly she was Somebody, and as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in her anonymity.

She began to be asked to perform at other high schools, even in colleges, then at city and statewide affairs. The first one we went to, I only recognized her that first moment when thin, shy, she almost drowned herself in the curtains. Then: Was this Emily? The control, the command, the convulsing and deadly clowning, the spell, then the roaring, stamping audience, unwilling to let this rare and precious laughter out of their lives.

Afterwards. You ought to do something about her with a gift like that – but without money or knowing how, what does one do? We have left it all to her, and the gift has as often eddied inside, clogged and clotted, as been used and growing.

She is coming. She runs up the stairs two at a time with her light graceful step, and I know she is happy tonight. Whatever it was that occasioned your call did not happen today.

“Aren’t you ever going to finish ironing, Mother? Whistler painted his mother in a rocker. I’d have to paint mine standing over an ironing board.” This is one of her communicative nights and she tells me everything and nothing as she fixes herself a plate of food out of the icebox.

She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will find her way.

She starts up the stairs to bed. “Don’t get me up with the rest in the morning.” “But I thought you were having midterms.” “Oh, those,” she comes back in, kisses me, and says quite lightly, “in a couple of years when we’ll all be atom-dead they won’t matter a bit.”

She has said it before. She believes it. But because I have been dredging the past, and all that compounds a human being is so heavy and meaningful in me, I cannot endure it tonight.

I will never total it all. I will never come in to say: She was a child seldom smiled at. Her father left me before she was a year old. I had to work her first six years when there was work, or I sent her home and to his relatives. There were years she had care she hated. She was dark and thin and foreign-looking in a world where the prestige went to blondness and curly hair and dimples; she was slow where glibness was prized. She was a child of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth. I was a young mother, I was a distracted mother. There were the other children pushing up, demanding. Her younger sister seemed all that she was not. There were years she did not let me touch her. She kept too much to herself, her life was such she had to keep too  much in herself. My wisdom came too late. She has much to her and probably little will come of it. She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear.

Let her be. So all that is in her will not bloom – but in how many does it? There is still enough left to live by. Only help her to know – help make it so there is cause for her to know – that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.

 

*

 

  1. photo by Samuel Kravitt


eros and psyche

1.

 

The Myth of Eros and Psyche

The myth of Psyche and Eros is probably one of the most beautiful Greek myths; it has been told and retold in several different versions and it has inspired artists all over the world.

Psyche was a woman gifted with extreme beauty and grace, one of the mortal women whose love and sacrifice for her beloved god Eros earned her immortality.

Psyche became, as Greek word “psyche” implies, the deity of soul. In modern days, the myth of Psyche symbolizes a self-search and personal growth through learning, losing, and saving pure love.

Living an ordinary life, Psyche became famous for her beauty. Being jealous due to men’s admiration for Psyche, Goddess Aphrodite asked her son, the powerful master of love, Eros, to poison men’s souls in order to kill off their desire for Psyche. But Eros also fell in love with Psyche and was completely mesmerized by her beauty.

Despite all the men coming her way, Psyche stayed unmarried, because she wanted to marry the man she would love. Her parents were worried about her destiny and became desperate. They had no choice but to ask for an oracle, hoping that they would manage to solve the mystery and give a husband to their daughter.

Eros guided Apollo to give the oracle that Psyche would marry an ugly beast whose face she would never be able to see, and he would wait for her at the top of the mountain.

It was not what Psyche’s parents were hoping for; on the contrary, they were completely devastated, as their daughter was not supposed to have such as fate, but they decided to go on and arranged the wedding of their beloved daughter with the beast.

After the wedding, Psyche was able to be with her husband only at night. His tenderness and the enormous love he showed to her made Psyche happy and fulfilled beyond her expectations and dreams. She talked about her happiness with her sisters and confided in them how sad she was that she couldn’t see his face.

Hence, the jealous sisters persuaded Psyche that her lover was not only an ugly beast but also a monster who would eventually kill her, advising her to kill him first to save herself.

With an oil lamp and a knife in her hands, Psyche was ready for murder, but when the light illuminated the face of her beast-husband, she saw a beautiful god. Caught by surprise, she spilled the oil on his face. Eros woke up, horrified. He flew away telling Psyche that she had betrayed him and they could never be together again.

Psyche was bereft and started searching for her lost love. She begged Aphrodite, who had imprisoned Eros in the Palace, to see him. Aphrodite gave her three impossible tasks to accomplish in order to prove her love.

Driven by her desire to reunite with Eros, she was fearless. After accomplishing the first two tasks, Psyche had to go to the Hades (Underworld) and bring the box with the elixir of beauty to Aphrodite, who ordered her not to open the box. Instead of the elixir, Morpheus (the god of sleep and dreams) was hiding in the box. The curious Psyche opened it, and she fell into a sleep from which she would never awaken.

When Eros found out what happened, he ran away from the Palace and begged Zeus for help to save Psyche. Amazed by their true love, Zeus went even further – he made Psyche immortal so that the two lovers could be together forever.

View this website for the full text of the Eros and Psyche myth, and for wonderful versions of other Greek myths.

2.

 

Psyche and Eros, revisited by Veronica Verai

Psyche was a Greek princess who was so beautiful that Aphrodite, the goddess of love and beauty, grew jealous of her. The goddess sent her son, the winged god of love Eros, to strike the young princess with one of his arrows, making her fall unhappily in love. But when Eros saw Psyche, he fell in love with her himself and could not obey his mother.

As a gentle breeze he lifted Psyche and carried her to a secluded palace. Eros would come to his beloved every night, after dark; he was very kind and loving and she soon returned his feelings, although she was never allowed to see her lover. The god warned her that he would have to leave her for ever if she sees his face.

Later on, Psyche’s sisters came to visit and convinced her that she must see her lover, as he might turn out to be a dangerous monster. So Psyche saw Eros’ face by the light of a candle, while he was sleeping, and discovered that he was not the monster she feared but a magnificent god. After that Eros left her and she was very unhappy.

Desperate to bring him back, Psyche went to Aphrodite to ask for her help, but the goddess remained indifferent to her suffering and gave her impossible tasks to fulfil. However, Psyche succeeded in all of them, as Eros was secretly watching over her and helping her. In the end, Zeus decided that the lovers proved their devotion for each other and united them for eternity, granting Psyche immortality. They lived happily ever after and a beautiful child was born to them, whose name was Voluptas (Pleasure).

This is an allegorical tale with many levels of meaning. It is about the union between Eros (masculine principle, erotic passion) and Psyche (feminine principle, the soul), that at the end engenders bliss.

There is also a lot of truth about relationships in it. While they love each other and defend their love, Eros and Psyche grow and develop, becoming more forgiving (Eros), and stronger (Psyche). Thus, through their relationship they overcome their own weaknesses, evolving into better and complete personalities.

Although Greeks emphasized physical beauty, as a symbol and quintessence of all virtue, the story shows that true love goes beyond the superficiality of physical attraction (Psyche falls in love with Eros without seeing him). Love requires trust (Psyche is forbidden to see Eros) and once the trust is broken it is difficult to get it back.

In relationships, one should not let other people interfere (such as Psyche’s sisters) but make one’s own decisions. Where there is love, there is forgiveness also (Eros is still watching over Psyche, after she disobeyed him). Joint effort can create strength to solve even insurmountable problems (the impossible tasks set by Aphrodite).

To Greeks, romantic love was the single most important ingredient of human happiness. In their view, true love should be rewarded, so at the end of the story the union of Eros and Psyche is blessed and protected by the gods for eternity.

 

3.

 

Images

1. Photograph by Ed Snyder, copy of the famous Antonio Canova sculpture “Eros and Psyche”, atop a tomb at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Hollywood, California.

2. Photograph by Himadhu Kottege, Cardova’s “Eros and Psyche” at Musee du Louvre

3. Sculpture by Antonio Canova, “Eros and Psyche”. 1793


“the firebird’s nest” by salman rushdie

Now I am ready to tell how bodies are changed
Into different bodies.
– Ovid, The Metamorphoses

And so, “The Firebird’s Nest” by Salman Rushdie begins.

It begins with language, painting the landscape with words, allowing us to feel dry heat settling and stagnating over the barren land, and immediately connects the land to the body, defining the land in terms of gender, knowing that the body is always political.

It is a hot place, flat and sere. The rains have failed so often that now they say instead, the drought succeeded. They are plainsmen, livestock farmers, but their cattle are deserting them. The cattle, staggering, migrate south and east in search of water, and rattle as they walk. Their skulls, horned mile-posts, line the route of their vain exodus. There is water to the west, but it is salt. Soon even these marshes will have given up the ghost. Tumbleweed blows across the leached grey flats. There are cracks big enough to swallow a man.

An apt enough way for a farmer to die: to be eaten by his land.
Women do not die that way. Women catch fire, and burn.

Then Rushdie drops us into the story; we are travelling over the landscape with Mr Maharaj, a prince, and a yellow haired American woman who is presented as his bride. It is the beginnings of a fairy tale.

Here Mr Maharaj is still the prince, and she, his new princess. As though she had entered a fable, as though she were no more than words crawling along a dry page, or as though she were becoing that page itself, that surface on which her story would be written, and across which there blew a hot and merciless wind, turning her body to papyrus, her skin to parchment, her soul to paper.

It is so hot. She shivers.

Rushdie draws strong connections to the body, and directs us towards the physicality of “story” as told through the body. He alludes to books, tangible words, pages and papers in which a story is written, leading us to the actual story being written, our present history, our present fairytale. “It is so hot. She shivers.”

The fairytale idea also continues when they pass a wedding party. The American imagines that “they have found this happy ending” and is surprised that the wedding is between an old man and a young virgin from a distant village. She is even more surprised at the talk of dowry, the economic exchange of brides and money, and panics as transsexual dancers and chaos surround the vehicle after recognizing her as an American.

Then the story begins to present the characters in a more complex way. The yellow haired woman is a financial advisor, a “rainmaker.” She is America, the “american dream”, an embodiment of the physical country. Mr Maharaj is India, old India struggling to survive in this modern world.

The body, once again, becomes the stage in which this plays out. And all of a sudden, the story is no longer about these two characters, but about these two countries, and ecomomic realities dictated by money, the terrible divide between the poor and the rich.

Once upon a time in ‘America’, they had shared an Indian lunch three hundred feet above street-level, at a table with a view of the vernal lushness of the park, feasting their eyes upon an opulence of vegetation which now, as she remembers it in this desiccated landscape, feels obscene. My country is just like yours, he’d said, flirting. Big, turbulent, and full of gods. We speak our kind of bad English and you speak yours. And before you became Romans, when you were just colonials, our masters were the same. You defeated them before we did. So now you have more money than we do. Otherwise, we’re the same.

The American then guesses that “he came from a place unlike anything she had ever experienced, whose languages she would struggle to master, whose codes she might never break…” She enters the crumbling palace of Mr Maharaj, and is woken in the morning by the sound of drums and dancers. The lead dancer is Miss Maharaj, Mr Maharaj’s sister. The American faces her, asking

What are you doing?
A dance against the firebird. A propitiatory dance, to ward it off.
The firebird. (She thinks of Stravinsky, of Lincoln Center.)
Miss Maharaj inclines her head. The bird which never sings, she says. Whose nest is secret; whose malevolent wings brush women’s bodies, and we burn.
But surely there is no such bird. It’s just an old wives’ tale.
Here there are no old wives’ tales. Alas, there are no old wives.

Again, the body. The dance inhabits the body and gives it power, weaving movement and intention; the dance becomes a ward and protection against the firebird; the firebird’s touch is the touch of men, the annihiliation of women. Later, Miss Maharaj tries to explain to the American:

Without noticing its beginnings, so that we did not resist until it was too late, until the new way of things was fixed, there has occured a terrible, terminal rupture between our men and women. When men say they fear the absence of rain, when women say we fear the presence of fire, this is what we mean. Something has been unleashed in us. It’s too late to tame it now.

Miss Maharaj goes on, trying to explain the meaning of the firebird in another way, a simpler way. “Once upon a time there was a great prince here…” Here, Rushdie engages fairytale again as another method of truth telling. “And the villagers said that the old prince, consumed by rage, has been transformed into a giant bird, a bird composed entirely of flames, and that was the bird that burned the princess, and returns, these days, to turn other women to ashes at their husband’s cruel command.” The American asks her if she thinks the story is true, and she responds:

Do not mistake the abnormal for the untrue. We are caught in metaphors. They transfigure us, and reveal the meaning of our lives.

And that is the crux of what I love so much about this story, that it spins and spirals and reveals itself in all of its many facets, by connecting the body to language and love and sex and enviornment and politics and economics and mythology and history.

The story expands again when the American becomes pregnant, and culminates in a confrontation with the firebird. I am not going to transcribe or summarize any further, only to say that this is an amazing piece of work, important and devastating and brilliant, and deserves to be read and shared and reflected upon.

I found this story in the anthology “Telling Tales”, edited by Nadine Gordimer, an overall excellent collection!