Bewildered Physical Spaces
There is a famous poem called “Punishment” by Seamus Heaney, one of a group of poems inspired by the bog people of Northern Europe. The poem is about “Windeby Girl,” whose body was found with a half-shaved head. For a long time, the shaved head was presumed to have been a punishment for “Windeby Girl’s” presumed adultery. Also, there is a famous girl named You. You grows up in a girl’s body and reads this poem. You finds a photo of “Windeby Girl” in a book. You is a girl, learning, who becomes a woman, learning.
You. You lay your love down in the bog. You lay it in thick cuttings of peat. Chilly water laps at your ankles. But you’re not standing here, in the north of Germany, between some gnarled weeds. As visceral as you are, nothing supports your stance. Nothing supports you from the armchairs of history. You consider the well-known corpse from Windeby, punished for the crime of adultery. How the girl had been dug up in the fifties, eyes bound to darkness by a blindfold, head half-shaved. You lay down your throb, your smashing heart and your impure heart, to this execution in the bog. You find what is unearthed. What you discover is a warning whispered to you through the mind drawn out across millennia. As if consequence could be a patina smeared across the criminal body. A body capable of misdeed, where misdeed was grounded in bone and gristle.
You do adore the human form. You treasure the patella and clavicle, the umbilicus and mons pubis, generosity and cruelty, the cephalic vein, remonstrance. Also, there is the rush to judgement and the way judgement sweeps away all notions of measure. You love human sympathy, human eyeteeth, human catharsis. One cold morning that terrified girl was led out of her hut and drowned in a bog. Others watched her die, or they held her down beneath the surface with birch branches and a large stone. Maybe some last, fleeting bubbles twisted out of her mouth. You lay your long sight in this bog. Your vision is this pure because of its distance from any real evidence. Your vision is neither mitigated nor strained. You hold this sight to you with bold devotion from your seat in the living room, or wherever else you might happen to be. Maybe you are waiting in line at the grocery store. Maybe you are clutching a tin of pineapples to your chest.
Le Sigh. Yet another moment in US politics. Of course we are talking about women’s sexuality, about birth control, about what constitutes rape, and of course a certain kind of man is more than willing to do the talking. Slut. You remember that the plaid uniform skirts were to measure one inch below the knee. Little vices and virgins. Of course, he was laughing when he said it. Bayer aspirin between the knees.
You grow up in the cadaver of this girl.
Also, you remember when you were fourteen, standing with Him #2, in the forest preserve. The way his fingers skimmed your tense parchment. He grazed the surface of your bra. You got wet but no way were you going to scold the surface of your underpants. His hand on you felt good.
Throughout your life, you have excavated sex. Now you look at what you exhumed over the years. Your indiscretions, your waywardness, your untruths and half-truths, the petty sensuality of your youth. The way you woke up in the wrong bed on New Year’s Day one year, or some other such undeniable proof of the vagueness of the human heart. During one of your sterner moods, you imagine yourself being torn against the dirt of the path to the bog. Your fingernails scratch at underbrush, to anything where you can catch hold. You want to moor yourself to dry land. Now you lay that in the bog.
You lay your childhood in the bog. A long time ago, you were only ten. You lay down your curiosity and your intrigue. When you were ten, you learned something very potent about human behavior as you stared at the glossy color photographs. Your father had brought a volume about the bog people home from the library and spread the book open on the dining room table. Although you could never eat or think of eating as you turned those pages. One wizened, shriveled carcass after another. The burnt copper of their hair, bog flame. You returned to the page of the half-shaven adulteress again and again. That page is a slander—in time, DNA testing will reveal that “Windeby Girl” was actually a boy—but you didn’t know that when you were ten. You just knew that sex was growing slowly in your body, that sex in your body would be full-blown in a few years. Those energies were going to scatter like the fluff blown off dandelions in strong wind. You. You were going to become a sexual being. The stalk of the weed where the core of sex would be held in your body wasn’t going to give way to any trowel. Or it might, but it would grow back, stronger and sturdier than ever despite forced visits to the confessional, because masturbation is a sin. The way you pretended to mutter those prayers you were assigned as penance under your breath in the pew against the tyranny of hellfire. You were always impure. Impurity, in your life, was a lozenge to be sucked constantly.
You remember the way Him #5 told you that you got the best bed-head. You wanted him in a very forthright, teenaged way. The pure way, a bouquet without lilies.
As a girl, you inhaled the volumes of history. You swallowed the writings of the Roman chronicler Tacitus as if his words tasted sweet and cold as the cold and sweetest sort of water. The way water flows from the tap in the bathroom in the early morning before the daylight temperature warms up the pipes. As a young woman, you read his ethnography of the German tribes. You know what he wrote of adulterous women. Adultery was rare among Germanic peoples, according to Tacitus, but harshly punished. An adulterous woman was punished by her husband and shorn of her hair. Now you are no longer a girl. You lay your fidelity down in the bog. Why were those words sweet to you? You no longer know. You do know that as a young woman in your twenties, your fell into bed with young men with the casualness of your timeframe. You never gave the girl in the bog a name like Julia or Elisabeth, because there was no need. There exists no reason across time or space to name what peers at you from mirrors. You know even now that the young men replied with vigor. You remember that one of the young men was certain he saw you with so-and-so at the what-and-what although you had told him you were going where-and-so with so-and-such. But he didn’t rub at your scalp with a sharp stone to get the hair off. You did that to yourself in your head.
Really, you wanted to have sex with Him #5. Badly. You could feel this like your own pulse, but the two of you agreed not to since you never had before and you were leaving for school soon. Then, a few months later, there was your first time, with Him #6. You were too drunk to remember it, which changed some things for a while. Not knowing exactly how to say ‘yes.’
Welcome to the twenty-first century, where it is possible to scale a man like a tree. To straddle another form until your shirt comes off and bare torsos are pressure and your arms are entwined and your clothes tangle and eventually. Externality meets internality, you say, although not out loud. But look at you. The hollows of your collarbones are sweating in this lamplight.
Lamplight. You wonder about the intersection of morality and sexuality. About who agrees to what and where these constructs begin and end. You mull over law and carnality. You ask yourself if fidelity is the most important attribute to unending love or if unending love suffices. As you progress through your womanhood, you put your body through experiments. You thread your limbs through the fabric of different emotions—joy, pain, sadness, anger. You return the emotions to your body like water on some churning wheel. You do know this. Throughout your life, your sex has been dangerously apparent to you. You’ve read about honor killings, about jumping on a funeral pyre to be consumed by flames. You know she was ‘asking for it.’ Just look at her short green skirt. Sets of circumstances run through your consciousness like spooling silk floss. Or like that mouthful of water when he pushed you under the surface of the municipal pool one summer day for fifteen seconds. There you were, struggling for air in the slimy bog. All this time you’ve been laying your wantonness into the peat.
At some point in your life, you read a certain poem by a certain poet, the scribe of the bog people. The girl in the poem is an adulteress and the wind has hardened her nipples. You spent some time after reading that poem in a state of arousal over being a dead woman. You, a dead woman who has misbehaved sexually and screwed yourself into being a dead woman. You made a choice to enter that dank oblivion, either in clandestine, tallow light or behind a copse of trees. Now you lay this poet into the bog and weave him and his voyeurism a garment of guilt. For your whole life you’ve held this guilt—this Julia or Elisabeth or no-name-needed who stares at you from every polished mirror—nestled in your skull. You’ve given her your pale skin and your gray-blue eyes, your soft hair untreated by the chemicals in peat. You even give her your cheekbones and your arthritic knee. You hold death and sex in you like a wild fuck, against a doorframe. You. You, who now often comes home to supper ready at the table. The light is at a comfortable level and sound from the television leaks out of the background. Maybe you’re having spaghetti with homemade Bolognese sauce. Iced tea to drink. You—you settle down into your muscles and bones and behold the one person who stands before you at the stove roasting red peppers for the salad. Then you really do lay down your indiscretions, your untruths and half-truths, and become a woman saying: this; you.
I ought to tell you I am watching you (I).
I ought to tell you I adore your stature and your mouthy way of speaking when the lights are turned out near the bedside and the books are put away and you just mumble something about what a day but of course I say nothing because I’m mute and you don’t know yet who I am. But what I wanted to tell you as you drifted off to sleep last night was simply that there are so many of us (you) and that we have animals in our hands that make us wild. There was never any reason to purge what I felt for this Him or that Him. I wanted to tell you about the thoughts behind the wildness. About our feral groping through the rooms we live in as if we hurry through an overgrown outdoor maze, the hanging sun blocked out by massive foliage. We don’t know the way out—should we leap forward or hold back, should we satisfy our cravings or sublimate our desire—but we have to find the path all the same. Each of us needs to defend the parameters of our lives without transgressing the boundaries of others. The maze as bruised and sore, full of leaves bent off their stems. Snapped twigs. Now you read the scattered, broken shrubbery like tea leaves. They tell you that you want to reach out your arms as wide as possible to catch everything.
Slut. So maybe we are being purged after all. Among these cadences of righteousness. Le Sigh. Again. The girls didn’t raise their hands when asked if they agreed with the basic principles of feminism. The teacher felt aggravation, not because she thought the girls were treacherous, but because she was worried. The future was coming. The future was coming on a speedy chariot driven by gynoticians. They hurl weapons forged from forced ultrasounds and consternation about birth control. It is all really too much.
Now you look at “Windeby Girl’s” hair, splayed just so from one side of her neck. You look at your own hair, splayed just so from one side of your neck. You do it. You lay your every in the icy water of the bog. You lay your plenty and your several in the bog along with all the words you have for quantity. In quantity lies capacity but within capacity you find a more intangible increment. You can’t measure this. Now you look at her blindfold. You feel yourself blindfolded, yourself drowned. You have been judged and now you’re held under the water. Your lungs fill quickly. First there is your necessary struggle but then the epic fade to black. I’m just sitting here telling you not to peel off your clothes and not to hurl your body through the weeds and grasses until you fall through the glassy surface of the water. Now wind sings in this grass although you’re nowhere near the bog, in terms of either time or place. You’re flipping through the pages of a magazine. You’re reading about bog people. Old obsessions find you everywhere. Somewhere, wind rolls like a lullaby through heather and clover, ribwort and sheep’s sorrel. You wouldn’t notice this disturbance unless you thought to look.
This is a crime novel. This is detective fiction. You’re Chief Inspector You. This you looks at what you have learned from school, books, poems. You examine what you have carried inside yourself for so long. It resembles a heavy stone.
You find in the magazine a glossy photo of your most familiar victim. There’s the blindfold again and the half-head of snaking, scald-orange hair. You read the printed matter. Small black type marches across the page like an army of stationary ants. You really bend your eyes to this text, expecting as always to meet your old ghost, the teenaged adulteress. You remember being fourteen. After Catholic school let out for the day, you climbed over the fence to the cemetery with a friend to make out with boys from the public school. This is what girls do who experiment with their bodies. Anyone could know this. You touch the page of the magazine in front of you. Your whole life you have held this girl’s death inside of your body. This girl, who has the DNA of a boy. Slowly, a lesson changes its name.
He’s a slip of a youth. Maybe sixteen. The hair wasn’t shaved off but has disintegrated. Even the blindfold was merely a hairband that may have slipped over his eyes. He may have died of a tooth infection. He suffered from malnourishment. Maybe he was placed in the bog because the living did not want him to return to them. I told you: there are so many of us, so many reasons. Like wind in damp hair. Like preservation. Like our strong, modern teeth. Now is when I tell you, implicitly, of how I crawled into your bedroom last night and watched you turn out the light and turn to the man nearby with your whole mind and your whole body that all the vectors of your life have gathered to a single point.
You learned to do this originally in that one bed. Him #5. A light humming. His fingers inside of you. Not going ‘all the way.’ Soon after that, losing the way. But you find it again.
Even when the vectors scatter briefly and dance upon surface, upon the surface of the body of the man beside you in the bed, you watch the beautiful light and do not stray. Why you stay is such a compendium of emotions and sensations and lessons and the taming and the re-wilding of the animals in our hands. It is the lovely bright red of the roasted red peppers arranged atop the salad that will wait on the table, passive as new milk. It is doing what you want (fidelity) out of why you want it and not out of fear or out of the strange synergy of the bog girl staring droopy-eyed from the mirror hanging from the bedroom door and your face also staring. She was in your head for such a long time. Like a symphony imagined but never written onto paper. Now you are writing these notes, these chords and harmonies, onto the paper.
Rain pummels the skylight. The rain is very much like the weather of northern Germany, near Windeby. The rain falls as a smock against the cobblestones and deepens the color of the bricks. Your head spins from the dizzy light drifting from the candles on the table. Who has lit the candles? You’re not sure. Should they be snuffed out now or later? I’m still here. I’m watching you. I observe you as you move through time and space. I know that you feel relief even as the relief comes with some difficulty. You’re not porous. Not completely. To get this girl out of you, you’re going to have to turn yourself over and really shake her out.
I’m telling you. Look into his (our) eyes. I’m telling you I died two millennia ago, dated to pottery shards in a strata of dirt. I’m telling you I was carted out of the earth in 1952. Grains of soil were brushed away from my leathery skin. I was put on display in museums, photographed for books, written about by poets, investigated by scientists. The whole time you ate me through the membrane of whatever possible memory formed from your own imagined future. To you I was sex and sensationalism and sex and titillation and sex and punishment. I was denial, abandonment, and guilt. I was even the fantasy of physical pleasure and contentment. But I was never your girl sprinting across the lawn of the cemetery to be home in time for supper. I was never your girl wondering how far I could twist myself into fornication, as an act both inseparable from and separate to my body. I was not a girl in one of history’s traps. I never cried out because of use or abuse or feared the yoke of being raped in a barn or of being married to an owner who thought he could write out a book of my behavior on the surface of my body’s ample paper. No. I was just a boy. Sickly maybe, who didn’t get enough to eat, who was buried in a bog. You went wildly after me into my afterlife. That place was dank and full of weather. Now you lay my boy’s life in the bog. You walk into the kitchen, magazine trailing in one hand, where you drink a glass of water before returning to the living room. I’m sitting in the armchair closest to the window. I see you seeing me. You start to ask me a question but then change your mind. This is what happens right before I disappear.
Jenny Drai is the author of two collections of poetry, Wine Dark (Black Lawrence Press) and [the door] (Trembling Pillow Press), as well as two chapbooks. Her novella, Letters to Quince, was awarded the Deerbird Novella Prize from Artistically Declined Press. She lives in Germany and has just finished a novel.