MY MOTHER ONCE TOLD ME
My mother once told me—before my sister died or after? I can’t remember—that she believed in ghosts. She believed in ghosts she said because when a person dies the energy that animated their body has to go somewhere, and it can’t disperse like the ashes do when you throw them to the wind, it can’t break up and redistribute itself among the blades of grass, the yellow flecks of acacia wattle sneaking hayfever into eyes and noses, no: it goes bigger, it goes into the earth, the rocks, the rivers.
I feel like my mother must have clung to this, in the days that came after. That all the atoms of my sister’s energy left her body and stayed together, in one unit, the unit of energy that was my sister and is now a current or a breeze, a bough shushing outside the bedroom window late at night, a radiant beam thrown across the bedclothes in a stripe, illuminating knees and fingertips. When the earth moves—when small parts of its grand old narrative make themselves known to us—when the wind lifts the hem of her skirt my mother closes her eyes and leans into its caress, thinking, this is her touch, this is a message she is sending me, and because of this belief my mother lives in a world that is dedicated to her, that is written for her as it happens, a world that belongs to her grief and exists to hold it.
When you’re a writer and a sore little piece of yourself breaks off and crystallises you name it and you write a world for it and it becomes a story. This is how Jeannie comes to be. She falls, fully formed but miniature like a figurine, from the part of my consciousness where I hide all of my wounds so that I don’t have to inspect them.
Let’s say Jeannie is like me, but not enough like me that if you met her in the supermarket or down the pub you’d think she was me. I mean like, physically she’s similar but not the same. Let’s give her dark hair, because I’ve always wanted dark hair. Let’s give her dark eyes because I don’t have those, but let’s her and I share my small hands and soft belly and childish flat chest, because I can only write, in that sense, what I know. Let’s give Jeannie the fierce will to move forward that it took me years to develop—let’s give her that from the outset, as a gift.
Jeannie and I share a childhood, at least partially, because it’s easier that way. What that means is this: Jeannie has a younger sister whose name is Harriet, which is not the name of my sister but will do for Jeannie’s, and the two of them grew up in a big white house in the foothills where they spent their afternoons climbing, barefoot and skinned-kneed, in two tall pine trees that grew at alarming acute angles to the back lawn. Jeannie remembers summer nights sitting in the triangle of sunlight falling through the sliding glass door, wrapping the spiral telephone cord around and around her index finger, heart drumming, listening to the dial tone as her best friend connected a secret three-way call so she could talk to Jeannie’s first real crush about Jeannie, who he didn’t know was listening, and allow him to reveal the irrevocable truth that he didn’t really like her, not like that.
Jeannie sees her body as a problem. This part’s too lumpy and this part too flat, this part lopsided and this part she hides under very baggy clothes no matter what. Jeannie tucks her hair behind her ears because she knows it makes her cheekbones look dramatic. Jeannie has braces for the entire duration of high school, and in the professional photo from her graduation ball, which her parents have framed on their mantelpiece, there is a big green piece of broccoli from the three-course dinner stuck in them that nobody told her about and she will always be kind of mad about that. Jeannie’s sister Harriet died when Jeannie was seventeen. She drowned in a backyard pool. This is also what happened to my sister, and I am lending that story to Jeannie for a while, mostly so that I don’t have to keep on carrying it by myself.
THE UNPALATABLE SYMPATHY OF STRANGERS
Sadness is a process written into Jeannie’s DNA, into everyone’s DNA, like the process of laughing after cumming or the process of salivating before throwing up. It’s a process awakened, unfolding for the first time, and Jeannie watches from inside of her own body with a distant interest. Her sadness is prophylactic, protecting her from itself. A thick translucent pillow clouds her vision so that only a few images will ever remain. Like her dad, hunched sobbing over Harriet’s old homework, the small neat rows of handwriting—the careful way she used to hold the pencil with her tongue poking out of her mouth—a mouth like her mum’s mouth, and her mum’s mouth a thin line now where it used to be (once) a full one, curving. Jeannie tucking her snakes behind her ears and watching from inside herself, deep inside. A plate of food that doesn’t look like any food she’s seen before. A casserole made by Mrs So-And-So, like who the fuck are all these women? They keep showing up uninvited with ceramic dishes covered in teatowels, full of lasagnes and macaroni somethings, even though it’s forty-two degrees outside, even though nobody could possibly eat.
Jeannie wonders why people throw casserole at grief like they think the casserole will smother it. Watches plate after plate of casserole pass her by untouched. The overcooked noodles and the greyish mince and peas. The unpalatable sympathy of strangers. There’s no hole in her prophylactic sadness through which this food could pass. Grief’s too solitary for that, you know? Grief isolates, quarantines. It’s a demarcation by the self and of the self.5 A reflexive turning away, in the face of loss, from all that isn’t loss itself6 and so a turning in, a turning in. Jeannie looks, from far away but also from very very close up, at her deepest self. It’s a duality triggered by trauma.7 She can’t get a good picture. She can see herself whole but really small, or close-up but in tiny pieces. Alone, neither image makes sense, but she just can’t put the two together.
Jeannie watches time pass on the colour of her skin. It darkens and it pales. Her fingers wrap around tinnies for some months and cups of tea for others, with the teabags hanging out. Their labels flapping on little strings. Jeannie’s body a marker, the only marker; the rest a monotony that slides around her as unresisting as water.
To melt into the big city Jeannie gets a job at the library. She stands on the peak-hour train and when it rounds the curve at the creek she likes to watch all the passengers sway together like a school of fish, expressionless, unaffected by the bend. She likes the deep quiet and the carts of books, running her fingers down their spines, some of them untouched here in the belly of this building for months, years. Her touch perhaps longed for, missed. She turns their pages, smells their pages, compares them in her mind to small bodies, lodged as they are in their shelves, with their neighbours unmoving, numerically ordered.
The books’ small bodies speak to Jeannie in a way the human bodies of the city don’t. Sometimes the closeness they have to one another in their snug, quiet shelves opens up a yearning in her own, real body and she feels a hollow heat in her cunt that throbs harder than her thoughts do. When this happens she will go into the toilets and wait until there is nobody else in the cubicle next to her and hump her closed fist until the throbbing goes away.
One time Jeannie put her hand down her pants in the Natural Sciences section but in that moment of her vulnerability the books changed from beautiful objects to judges, watchers, and Jeannie became afraid of them and of her own desire. She could smell herself on her fingers and she wanted to mark those cruel paper bodies, mark them with herself so that they would acquiesce, and so that when they were carried out of the building a small part of her deepest sex would be carried, too, and so she smeared her slime in a glossy streak along the spines. Now she sometimes kind of just does this whenever she gets a chance.
Jeannie shows up for work with a messy ponytail and with holes in her stockings and nobody really minds. Nobody really sees her. She is becoming very clever, my Jeannie, at not being seen. Nobody looks at you when you’re in a bubble of sadness—when you could look back at them out of it with a gaze so tortured it could turn them to stone.
5. Kristeva J. Powers of Horror. Roudiez L (trans). 1st ed. New York: Columbia University Press; 1982. ↩
6. Freud S. Mourning and Melancholia. In: Strachey J, Strachey A, Freud A, Tyson A (trans). The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud: Volume XIV. 1st ed. London: The Hogarth Press and Institute of Psychoanalysis; 1957.↩
7. Butler J. Foreword: Bracha’s Eurydice. In: Ettinger, B. The Matrixial Borderspace. 1st ed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press; 2006. ↩
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #33. Get your copy here.
Emma Marie Jones is a Melbourne-based poet and writer. Her work has appeared in Seizure, Meanjin, Scum Mag, Alien She Zine, Stilts, Shabby Doll House and The Lifted Brow.