Every woman has known the torment of getting up to speak. Her heart racing, at times entirely lost for words, ground and language slipping away – that’s how daring a feat, how great a transgression it is for a woman to speak – even just open her mouth – in public. A double distress, for even if she transgresses, her words fall almost always upon the deaf male ear, which hears in language only that which speaks in the masculine.
Cixous, H 1976, ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’.
The woman stands at the front door, squeezing her hands, staring at the black birds on the telephone wire. When her brothers come she does not know what to do. She glances at her brothers and then wonders if birds have thoughts, if anything slides through their minds. The woman stretches out her hands and stares at the rain coming down. The way it gurgles into ashy grey gutters. It smells sweet, and she wishes she could go and sit out in it. Feel the drops on her skin. She sighs and studies her fingernails. They are chewed right down right down to the ends. Her brothers nod, moving inside and taking a seat at the table. They stroke their thick beards and twiddle their thumbs. Come on, she can hear them say, even though their lips do not move. She sets a faded brown teapot down and pushes cups towards them. There are words at the back of her throat, slowly shuffling to the front of her mouth, but she cannot get them out into the air. Everything hurts. Her face feels like it is full of pine needles.
‘You’ve dyed your hair,’ her older brother, Jack, says.
The woman reaches up to her scalp and touches it gently. ‘Yes,’ she says. At least that’s what she thinks she says.
‘It looks good.’
She nods. It does not look good. Black does not suit her. It makes her skin look too white, almost translucent but not in a good way. There is a dark stain on her forehead. She should have gone to the hairdresser instead of attempting a home job. Her hands have been stained with dye for days. The gloves did not fit properly.
‘We need to talk about the funeral,’ the other brother, Deniel, says. ‘We need to start planning.’
She nods again. Her fingers feel tingly, like they are full of fizzy lollies. She doesn’t want to talk about the funeral. She wants to go back to bed, to push her face into a pillow. She bought new pillows the other day. The firm kind. They will help her back. She wonders if she should also book in to see the chiropractor.
‘I thought I would give the eulogy,’ Deniel says.
The woman stretches out her hands and pulls the teapot towards her. She has been drinking a lot of tea recently. Green tea, black tea, herbal tea, teas with strawberry pieces and teas that smell like hay.
‘I agree. Deniel will be good at it.’ Jack smiles and his mouth looks stretchy and unnaturally red. The woman opens her own mouth to say something, to bring herself into the conversation but Jack keeps talking, his lips making ugly and unnecessary sounds. It does not sound like he is even speaking English. She listens until she is not listening and then she picks at the loose cotton hanging off her t-shirt. Winding it around her fingers.
‘I’ve picked out all the music we should play. All her favourites. Phil Collins and Bob Dylan and Paul Simon,’ Deniel says.
The woman looks up. Her eyes are watery. ‘Um.’ She picks up her cup of tea and tries to drink it. ‘Mum didn’t like Bob Dylan.’ It is on the tip of her tongue to say more. Don’t you remember, she wants to yell, Mum always hated Bob Dylan. Said Leonard Cohen was way better. A proper artist.
Deniel and Jack frown. They look at one another and shake their heads. Deniel slides his hand across the table. She does not like the way his skin feels and she tries to shake him off. His glare deepens.
‘Pretty sure she loved him. She went to his concert. Remember? At the winery?’ Jack coughs and gazes around the room. She follows his gaze, wondering what it is he is looking at. The walls are bare. She has not bothered with posters or prints or framed photographs. She has often thought about painting though, maybe a nice yellow or a light cream. Yellow is a good colour.
‘No,’ she says. ‘That was Leonard Cohen. Mum’s never seen Bob Dylan.’
Jack coughs again, this time a little louder.
‘It must be the grief,’ he says, turning and looking at Deniel. ‘She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.’ His eyes glitter and he pours himself more tea, leaning back in his chair. She stares down at his legs, at his fat, dimply knees. He reminds her of a baby. Of something that does not understand its actions.
‘It’s not the grief,’ she whispers. She wonders why she cannot speak up, why her throat is so constricted, why she cannot form proper words with her lips. Maybe her lips are broken, she thinks to herself. Can lips break? Can they fall off your face and then disappear? Where would her lips go anyway, if they did decide to disappear? She imagines looking for them, searching the streets, walking through thick darkness until the sun shattered the sky. She shakes her head and stares down at her hands. They are not grey yet, but as she looks at them she feels incredibly old and incredibly tired. It will not be long, she thinks. It will not be long until she is grey all over. In every crook and cranny. Her whole body covered. The colour of nothing. She does not want to get old. The magazines in the supermarket tell her she should not get old.
‘What’s that?’ Deniel says loudly. ‘Did you say something?’
She shakes her head. Feckless. She stands and moves into the kitchen. Her brown shoulders shrug up and down.
‘We’ve got a guest list too.’
The woman curls her lips up. Opens the dishwasher and places her cup on the top rack.
‘We thought it would be a good idea. You know, to keep everything organised. We’ll be sending out invitations soon,’ Deniel says.
She splutters, feeling something rise up from her stomach. ‘Invitations? Mum wouldn’t want that. She’d…she’d just want whoever wanted to turn up to turn up.’
‘We’ve picked out a colour scheme too. Blue and white. Her favourite colours,’ Jack says.
‘Mum’s favourite colour was purple! And why are you making invitations?’
‘Don’t worry. We’re taking care of it all.’ They nod, sipping their tea, smiling. The woman pauses. Her breath floats out of her mouth.
‘Do you ever, ah…do you ever worry about getting old?’ she finally asks. Her brothers do not say anything. They just look at one another. Slowly they tilt their heads back and laugh. She swallows. Listens to the rain throwing itself down against the glass windows.
Later, when her brothers stand to leave, they look taller than ever. She watches them stride out the front door and onto the driveway. They get into an overbearingly red car, and move quickly onto the street. The woman goes back inside, sits on the couch and fumbles with the television remote. She flicks through the channels, staring at the shapes before her, the men and their large, flappy mouths. They talk so quickly, as though what they have to say is of the utmost importance. She watches a man in a dark suit brush his hair to one side. Some American soap opera. The man folds his hands together, looks down at a small girl, frowning. Shaking his head back and forth. The woman wishes someone would tell him to be quiet, that someone, some fictional character would come along and sew up his lips. But nobody does, and the men keep coming, keep marching out of nowhere, and the little girl is scared, blinking and twitching. And then she looks like nothing, she might as well not even be there, and the men move past her. Her silence is not even silence. It is something more than that, something deeper, something that runs all the way down into the earth. The woman understands it, even though she does not know why she understands it. But she can feel it. In her bones and in her skin. Trembling all the way through. It is something that sits inside, at the bottom of her stomach, and curls. She wishes she could pull it up and destroy it. She does not want to be silent any longer.
The woman stands up. She rubs her face and switches the television off. She walks back to the kitchen, looping her fingers together.
‘Should I bake?’ she says aloud, wondering who she is talking to. She takes the flour out of the cupboard. The milk and eggs out of the fridge. As she begins to mix, she thinks about her mother. Her long brown hair, the way she always wore it in plaits. She used to hate washing her hair, used to say it took too long to dry. She was an impatient woman, she was difficult to impress, and she scoffed at most things, saying that the world was a crock of shit. She told the woman all the time that things weren’t going to get better so there’s no point trying. The woman remembers the way she said this, the way the words seemed to drip out of her mouth, slowly and carefully. There’s no point trying.
The woman bends down, opens the oven, and places the cake tin on the top shelf. It will be about an hour. What should she do for an hour? The bathroom needs cleaning. The drain in the shower is clogged with hair. She finds yellow plastic gloves and slips them onto her hands. On all fours, she stares at the drain, at the cream coloured tiles surrounding it. She imagines colours on the tiles. She pulls hair slowly, bringing strands up out of the drain and into her hands. Repulsive. Her hands shake slightly.
The cake is done. She can smell it. As she lifts it out of the oven, she is reminded of her mother again. Of all the cakes she never baked. I don’t believe a woman belongs in the kitchen, her mother would say, squeezing her eyes together as tightly as she could. She used to say it so many times, over and over, as if she was trying to convince someone of something. Women can do anything they want to do, she would say, but she never sounded quite sure, her hands dropping limply down by her side. The cake will have chocolate icing. Thick, gooey chocolate icing. The woman takes sugar and cocoa and butter. Mixes with a wooden spoon. The front door opens. Peter is home. Her love, her husband, her best friend. Her only friend. He has grey hair on his head. He does not dye his hair.
‘Hi honey.’ He carries a black bag under one arm, a bundle of paperwork in the other. She opens her mouth to say something but he cuts her off, setting his bag down and waving the paperwork frantically. ‘I’ve got a promotion,’ he says. ‘I’m going places babe, it’s all happening for me.’ He grins. She touches her face slowly.
‘Yes,’ she says. ‘I’m so happy for you.’ But the words do not come out right, they sound funny. They sit in the air between them and she stares at them. She swallows and takes a knife out of the drawer and starts to spread the icing over the cake, smoothing it out. He glances at the cake and then plants a big, sloppy kiss on her cheek.
‘And how are you?’ he asks.
‘Not good,’ she mutters, staring at the cake, wondering why she made the stupid thing in the first place.
‘Good, good,’ Peter says.
‘I said I’m not good,’ she repeats but he has already left the room. She picks up the cake and with one sharp inhale, throws it across the room. It hits the wall and slides onto the floor. Sighing, she picks up a sponge and starts to clean it off. From the other room, she can hear him whistling. The sound pierces the air.
Image: I’m Priscilla
Katelin Farnsworth is a writer from Melbourne. She has been published in various journals around Australia, including Offset, Tincture Journal, Verandah, The Victorian Writer, Voiceworks and others. She won the Rachel Funari Prize for Fiction in 2015. She is currently working on a novel and studies creative writing at Deakin University.