She had no memory of her childhood. This troubled her, somewhat, when she would take long walks by herself. Everything so empty and open. I had no life before I met you, she told him, and she meant it. Do you need company? the man would ask and try to follow along with her but she said No thanks. She would not let him into her sovereign circle. He mumbled something about snakes and thorns and the sudden dark but she would be undeterred. She liked to pick the tiny red fruit that stained her hands and think her thoughts undisturbed. Who am I? she would wonder on these walks. Her name was ‘WOMAN’ she was told. He named everything. There were names she disagreed with—‘SWAN’ was succinct, long-necked, although ‘ELEPHANT’ conjured up size but not a childlike nature—but she knew better than to argue. She knew he didn’t like to be disagreed with. One time he complained Why do WOMEN have to chatter on? (she wanted to debate the meaning of life) and she became silent and suspicious because he had used the plural. Life as she had known it was composed of twos.
This called into question her existence. Where was WOMAN #1 banished? Or did she disappear by being the unspoken? Later on she heard buzzings in the garden that the first was made of clay, and she was made of bone. She wondered if this made her stronger or more fragile. He like to sit in silence but she liked to talk. He said that they were connected but he didn’t want to actually connect. Lovely weather she would say—to say something. Yet the weather was always nice, like Southern California, so this became monotonous. Eventually she grew silent as well and on the surface they seemed happy. He liked to say she was created in his image, and this made her wonder if he was a narcissist. He had to undergo surgery to create her, his other half. ‘My better half’ he would call her sometimes with a slight mocking tone. Once she wondered out loud if he was also her father, since she came from him, and he gave her a look and told her not to be an idiot. Who thinks of such things?
He fell asleep within minutes but she didn’t sleep so well. She would lie in bed and wonder what was out there. Perhaps she was worried if she fell asleep it would all go away. Perhaps a part of her wanted to cease living. But she didn’t want to end her life, she just sometimes didn’t want to be living. You should be happy he would say to her, when she was in one of her moods. You have everything. But she wondered who she was before. She wondered what was out there, in that realm she was not supposed to enter. And one day she wandered out too far and didn’t come home until very late, and the dinner wasn’t gathered, and the fire wasn’t started, and he was hungry. On her walk she forgot that she even existed. She felt so separate from him, and it was exhilarating.
When she finally remembered who she was it was too late. She had never seen him so angry. She was in danger of becoming the past. But strangely he forgave her. We will not speak of this again he said. And then he called her the beginning, as a symbol of starting over. But he never really forgot. That night he pierced and penetrated her body, and knew her for the first time. The next morning he was distant and withholding. And this new woman found herself hungering for him all the time, and he was now the one to take walks by himself. Days she would wake up and sink into the hollow he had left for her. He would leave her and her sons would leave her and she would stay, subdued, pinched and punished with sorrow. She only had the thirst for him. She forgot what she had once thirsted for.
She was not the first he had known but he told her it was all the more proof that she was chosen. Once there had been hundreds of other hopeful women lined up outside his residence at night— he buzzed them in, one at a time. She had once been among these watchful and waiting, overrouged and still, accompanied by zealous guardians. She knew her wealth was in her face—young, wide, moist. She tried to swallow her ache and appear aloof yet approachable at the same time. The crowd narrowed to one. She had won the contest—and the judge was the prize. She had aced the evening competition, which gave her an edge over the more obvious candidates. There were a few fumbles in the dark but he said later she made up for it with sheer ardor. Anyway, she was no amateur. Although she thought it strange the elaborate cleansing ritual she had to undergo, the tips of her fingers soft and wrinkly. She wondered what it was he was trying to wash away.
He had given her a new name—Star. She tried it on and decided it fit her new, more glamorous persona. It made it easier to forget her orphanned past of soiled heels and robes carefully hung open. He lived entirely in the present tense. The past is past! he would trumpet. He would not speak of his, of his first wife who had disappeared one day. There were no pictures of this other woman hung up in the house of endless halls. She would think about the walk-in closet of beautiful dresses, all magically her size. He liked to select her gowns to accompany him to official functions, smiling and greeting dignitaries. At night she would lie alone in her queen-size bed and wonder what would happen if she ceased to please him, and where she would go, what life there would be in which to return.
She was afraid to be alone with herself, and did not wish to return to the shadow of her childhood. It was easier instead to go automatic through life, to be reduced to numb and nothing in the enormity of everything. She craved to be swallowed whole by a force that was tremendous. She was searching everywhere for a mother figure who could navigate her through the grayness. She asked a traveling woman if she could follow her on her journey, for she didn’t know what to do but stand still, or to wander without object. The woman said okay but she would have to earn her keep, if necessary, eying the girl’s ripe bosom unpulled by complaining teeth. She acquiesced of course, because she did not want to make waves. She had found it is easier to agree, to slip through the cracks and disguise any desires of her own, than to retrieve herself and go about the tremors and terrors of existence. She offered herself up as a sacrifice, only slightly used.
They set off on their journey. She followed after the stranger’s sparrowed certainty, becoming a swiftly traveling body, a stilted, tripping body, a muttering body, an uncomfortable body, an exhausted body. Finally they came upon a new land and the woman decided they should stop. They pitched tents on the wayside, as there was no money for a hotel. She longed for a hot shower but knew better than to complain. She was aware, always, of living on borrowed graces. The next morning they found work gleaning in the fields. When they went to talk to the farmer the woman told her to smile and look pretty, and say nothing. The work was hollowing yet she was grateful to allow her mind to go blank. One day the farmer came over and spoke to her. He was ugly and sunburned yet she was grateful. The woman noticed the way the farmer looked at the girl and began to plan. She told the girl to follow her instructions, and soon they could move into the big house with the shower. The girl went to the farmer when it was dark and all the other hands had left. She took off her clothes and laid down on the threshing floor, which was cold and scratchy. He also undressed as if he was expecting this to happen and laid down on her, heavy and grunting. She stared at the ceiling, and waited for it to be over, counting her blessings.
Kate Zambreno is the author of two novels, O Fallen Angel and Green Girl. Heroines, a critical memoir centering around her obsession with the wives and myths of modernism, will be published by Semiotext(e) in the fall.