This piece was submitted by Eliane Brum as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
My arm’s laughter. Blood oozing through my arm’s mouth. How many times have I cut myself?
And my mother’s voice on the other side of the door. Laura. I slash another mouth. My blood sprinkles on the bedroom floor together with her voice.
Laura. My mother has always been like this. She always knows what I’m doing.
I start writing this book while my mother tries to break down the door with her old-woman’s nails. Because it’s too much reality for reality. I need a chance. I want a chance. So does she.
When I write the first word there is still blood on the teeth of my arm’s mouth.
All of my arm’s mouths. After the first word I don’t cut myself anymore. Now I am fiction. I can exist as fiction.
This is the story. And this is what happened. At least for me.
I think these metaphors of yours are rubbish! Her boss yells at her, outraged by the metaphor resting on the sheet of paper. She looks at him with eyes wide with hurt.
She notices that he has a blue tail. Blue and phosphorescent. And it isn’t a metaphor.
It really is a tail, reptilian. Slimy and slippery. There, three adjectives in a row for the boss’s lack of substantive. At the very second in which revulsion rises in her throat she hears the siren. Insistent. They’ve discovered the boss is a blue lizard. She feels pleasure in the form of sweet vomit. The siren gets louder and louder. She wakes up.
On the bedside table inherited from the grandmother she never met, the phone rings. What time is it? Light is coming through the holes in the Persian blinds of the bedroom. The clock says 8:43 in the morning. She answers. The voice on the other end is a woman’s. Who is it? She hates it when people call asking her to identify herself. The cheek. Who do you want to speak to? she says. The voice, or the voice’s breathing, huffs and puffs. Is that Maria Lúcia’s daughter? That’s not the credential she usually uses to introduce herself. But it’s her. You need to come to your mother’s flat now. Who is this crazy woman waking her up with orders over the phone? I’m sorry, could you repeat that? Your mother isn’t well, we can’t open the door. Who’s speaking? It’s Alzira, from the spiritualist centre. Are you in my mother’s flat? I came here because Maria Lúcia hasn’t shown up for a long time and we got worried, but I can’t get in. Your mother won’t open the door. She can’t. The condominium manager has called fire and rescue, but if you have the key it’ll be quicker. And we think you should be here anyway. You’re her only daughter.
Her mind still insists on retaining the blue image of her lizard boss, but reality shakes her with a greater insanity. She can understand a boss with a tail, but not that phone call. I’m on my way, she says. And she lets the phone slide from her hands.
It dangles there like a hanged man. A woman. She’d like to hang Alzira-from-the-spiritualist-center, perturbing her with her unavoidable reality. Why can’t it be the opposite? Her lizard boss real and her mother locked in her flat a nightmare from which she can always be woken up by light coming through the holes in the Persian blinds? Damn life, damn mother, damn woman-from-the-spiritualist-centre. Darn people who meddle in other people’s lives. What’s this Alzira doing at her mother’s door anyway? And how did she get her phone number? Where’s the damn dratted key to her mother’s flat? She’s had the key stashed away for so long without ever having needed it because she always rings the doorbell to get into her mother’s flat. She doesn’t want any surprises when she goes in there. She still remembers her mother handing her the key to have in the event of an emergency or if she needed to spend a few days there. And her telling her mother that she doesn’t want the key, she doesn’t want any key that takes her inside her mother. And finally, indifferently stuffing the key in her pocket, ignoring her mother’s made up hurt, and then tossing it in some deep corner, where? She tips out the contents of the bedside table drawer on the bed. Condoms, probably past their use-by date, a red lipstick, really red, but broken, so that’s where that silver earring she thought she’d lost got to, a ticket to a play that made an impression on her, a man on the parapet of a bridge, a woman, a soggy chocolate bonbon, rubbish rubbish rubbish. The key is nowhere to be seen. She wants to tell busy-body-Alzira-from-the-spiritualist-center that she doesn’t have a key, to figure out for herself the problem of the door that her mother doesn’t want to or can’t open, that she has to be somewhere, that she needs to work and take care of herself instead of worrying about the crazy ideas of that mother who insists on hanging around when she doesn’t want her anymore, that mother who pretends it’s not too late for them. But that dratted-busy-body-Alzira-from-the-spiritualist-center didn’t leave her phone number, and she refused the telephone operator’s caller ID service because she thinks it’s an outrage that they want to charge her for something that should be free.
She doesn’t shower. She pulls on last night’s clothes smelling of cigarettes and applies lip-coloured lipstick without brushing her teeth. She catches a taxi on the corner and gives the driver her mother’s address. Now that the blue-tailed boss is only the memory of another life, she feels a tightening in her intestine, which is anger toward her mother and apprehension for her mother. That mother who insists on continuing to exist as a reality for her. Even more alive because she hates and loves that mother with the same intensity, although she only tries to hate her.
What is her mother up to now? What’s all this about not opening the door? If she’s playing the victim she won’t stop by to see her even at Christmas. She wants to hurt her mother with her nails until she sees her bleed, she wants to break a nail on her mother’s bone. Then she feels remorse, the dratted remorse that always comes like an uncomfortable feeling in her stomach. Her gastritis has a name, surname and was once called womb.
The driver has forgotten to turn on the taximeter. The old trick. She throws a 20-real note at him and doesn’t wait for the change. It’s close, after all, her mother’s place. Too close, too far. She gets a fright. What’s all that commotion out front there? The filming of a sensationalist TV program? Fire and rescue, military police, an ambulance. Where’s the helicopter? If her mother isn’t dead she is going to kill her for exposing her like that, she who slinks through the corners of her tiny world, of her tiny organized world that she has managed to build in spite of her mother. The old doorman is already waiting at the gate, worried. They’re all there, they’re going to break down the door. She takes the stairs to the sixth floor, running. Her heart gets out of tune from exhaustion, from the effort and the feelings she doesn’t want. She needs to start back at the gym if she wants to keep taking the stairs after 40. There’s a crowd in the entry hall that her mother shares with a neighbour. What’s going on, she asks. Everyone looks at her. I’m her daughter. And she doesn’t like the confession or the witness-for-the-prosecution stares. What do they know about her, after all, deceived by that smooth-as-arsenic old lady?
When was the last time you saw her?
What kind of question is that? I think I spoke to my mother on the phone three or four weeks ago, maybe more. You think? They don’t pay her any more attention after a look of mutual understanding. She hates looks of mutual understanding. Now she is the ungrateful daughter. They’ve already judged her and found her guilty, and now they ignore her. Maria Lúcia, yells the one who must be the now accusing-busy-body-Alzira-from-the-spiritualist-centre, with her mouth almost glued to the door. She hears the panting on the other side almost like a silence. And the voice that can’t be her mother’s, that she doesn’t recognise as her mother’s, but is. Laura, is that you? Dratted mother, exposing her like that, revealing her to all those dratted people who don’t know how much trouble that mother has caused her. And the noise of the door giving way under the strength of the biceps and triceps of the young fireman who would never consider shagging her because he’s disgusted by her because she’s a bitch for not wanting to know how her mother is for she doesn’t even know how long. How can he know that she isn’t a bitch at all, that she doesn’t want to be a daughter and that that mother doesn’t want to be a mother and why does she care what the clichéd fireman thinks anyway? Why is it that all firemen are clichés of firemen? Are they already clichés before they become firemen or do they become clichés in order to become firemen? The noise is an explosion now, and she feels her bones stick to the peeling grey wall, the mould cramming itself through her nostrils and embracing her lungs with claws she knows she can’t escape.
The door is open. She is slow to understand that the door is open. Where is her mother? She can’t see. Something brushes her right shin almost imperceptibly.
Her mother. The mound of flesh on the ground is her mother. When the recognition reaches her brain like one of those bullets that splinter into millions of shards on impact, she screams. And for an instant she is at the bottom of the pool screaming in the silence as the water fills her lungs and takes her somewhere without suffering. And her mother pulling her to the surface by her hair because she will never let her leave.
The pain stinging in her lungs now and the salt of her tears mixing with the chlorine streaming from her eyes. And she is there again, at the surface, breathing in spasms in the most complete silence because words have always been so insufficient for her pain that she doesn’t even bother looking for them. This time, however, it is her voice that screams at the sight of the mound of flesh at her feet. The scream trapped there is finally released. And she thinks that the scream will never end, that the scream is forever, a scream for all of life and beyond life. Because now she has arrived at horror in its entirety. And screams are things that don’t become words, words that cannot be said. There is no escaping her mother’s flesh. The womb is forever.
That’s not what I dreamed of writing. Books have always been the window through which I escaped this mother who now, as I write with my blood dripping, lies in wait for me behind the door. I’ve been like this since I was a child; when I open a book I am no longer here. It’s not a metaphor for me. Maybe my lizard-tailed boss is right. I don’t know how to create metaphors because I don’t understand metaphors. I take everything literally. Like my arms embroidered with scars from all my attempts to separate myself from my mother’s body. For me there has never been an umbilical cord that could be cut. Just the pain of being mixed up with my mother’s body, being my mother’s flesh. This ritual that now drips from me like a failure. One more. I cut and I cut and I still don’t know I exist. I still don’t have a body. And she’s out there, afraid I’ll leave, pretending she doesn’t know that I can’t leave. I’ve never been able to. Because I drag her body around with me; her body that engulfs and swallows me.
But I diverge.
I’ve always been afraid to write. Of the moment of making my blood a symbol of blood. I was afraid because of the unknown pain which might come, which I could almost touch as a certainty. Even though I bleed with blood, this ritual I know. It makes of me the little I have of me. It’s a constitution. I constitute myself through the cuts in myself. Not words. What will they make of me?
Will words kill me? The question that envelops me like a blanket of fear as my mother keeps watch over me from behind the door is if there is life after words. Or life without blood. I’m betting all my chips on it now. I write in the hope that words may free me from blood. From my mother’s body. But what if there is no me beyond this mixture of flesh of mother and daughter? I feel myself slide into the black hole of her body, where I am blind and my knife is poised in the air. I hear her laboured breathing behind the door. I know she wants me to hear her.
I wonder if she knows that I’m killing her? Not like the other times, but once and for all? A death beyond death?
But I diverge.
What perturbs me now is less dense. I don’t write as I’d like to. The sentences that come out of me have no quality. Do they contain at least one truth? If I am nothing but this tortured body that isn’t even possession, but extension, what do I have to say that is mine? The words that slither out of me like fat blood worms make me suspect that there isn’t a subject who speaks, there isn’t a self. So, who speaks?
Whose are the words that make me uncomfortable?
I hear the breathing that scratches at the door. And I fear.
But I continue.
The novel One, Two is forthcoming from AmazonCrossing, and will be released in Fall 2014.