Thursday, 17 April 2014

Pool of Sorrow

In the kingdom of the Lady with the Horse's Head, a young woman had drowned with her hair unbound. Her body was found lifelessly floating in the Pool of Sorrow alongside a indescribably small reed boat. The woman's lips were curled in a poignant smile as if in risking her life she'd performed her motherly duty: protected the tiny, but stillborn child.
The tiny reed boat was perfectly formed as was the dead babe it contained inside; the reeds were tightly weaved and the child with its fine features and full head of dark hair had been swaddled. The drowned woman, presumed to be its mother, in contrast was fair. Her skin had a sheen and her unbound hair was burnt copper. She was obviously a foreigner, a Westerner, but everyone who saw the male infant agreed it was definitely Chinese.
How was it possible they were mother and son? He so classically Chinese and she so fair with white skin and fiery hair.
Not mother, not son.” People said mournfully shaking their heads when they viewed these two placed side by side in the Weeping Willow Pavilion.  
The kingdom's ministers were unsure what to do. If what was suspected was true and the woman was not the child's mother, then their souls were not meant to lie or progress to a new life together. What confusion this would cause the gods to find them tied to one another!
To delay vengeance of these gods and to prevent these lost souls from hungry wandering, every household was ordered to bring sweet and savoury offerings, and wailing women were hired to keep vigil. Candles were constantly lit and scrolls with calligraphic script were hung around the pavilion.
This was a huge undertaking since the kingdom was extremely poor and what's more was suffering from an epidemic of cholera. The people barely had enough to feed themselves, but riddled as they were with disease, they were even more superstitious, especially with the rapid heaps of decaying bodies. Those who were fortunate had bought their own coffins, which they kept in their cramped living quarters or propped them up against an outer wall. People were more self-assured if they knew they could be buried, but those who died too soon or had no living relatives could not have such rites performed. If the drowned woman and the stillborn infant hadn't been so peculiar they too would have been left to decompose in these same heaps.
In the days before cholera, their situation would not have been seen as strange. It wasn't uncommon for desperate women to commit suicide and for babies to be shamelessly abandoned, which had led to this once tranquil lake being renamed the Pool of Sorrow. Lonely people went there to mourn or to put an end to all their sorrows.
But now, the people thought: Why choose to purposely die if death was coming? If it was steadily advancing towards you? Staring death in the face made people want to live.
These latest Pool of Sorrow deaths were different. The western woman's, they said, had to be accidental; and why put a baby already dead in a reed boat on a lake? It must have been a mistake.
An amah keeping vigil told of an old island custom: When she once worked for a couple whose child died at birth, they put it in a little reed boat and floated it out to sea. For two days and nights they sat and prayed for the boat to carry the child to a kingdom on the other side of the sea, where it was hoped it would breathe as new life was bequeathed and return to them. Islanders held to this practice, but she often saw outsiders try to save these tiny, sinking reed boats struggling to stay afloat on the sea. Her recollection of this, she ended with, “This, same thing.”
It was clear they would never discover who the drowned woman was or who the infant belonged to, so they followed the supposed traditions of the two dead: floated the babe out to sea and buried the drowned woman with a western ceremony. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The Bird, Caged

How does a wild bird behave when it's caged? Mad, I tell you!
Birdie was that way. Despondent, then volatile. Hitting the walls, tearing holes in her clothes and pulling out strands of her brittle hair. It was hard to be there, witnessing these acts of self-destruction.
But what could I do? That's what I was paid to do: nurse, guard and bring her to her senses. Calm her by putting my arms around her and stroking her thinning hair. She was always a fragile child and entering womanhood made her more so, but as a child she'd been less tucked away. She could run, she could play, before a hasty marriage and madness claimed her. Property that's what women are.
Birdie was my pet name for her, although I never thought her wings would be clipped and she'd never be free, or I'd be her keeper. In the days before she was caged she was impetuous, but oh, she could sing like a nightingale! Then her uncle, her mother's brother, arranged her marriage. A most unsuitable match I must say. He was a good fifteen years older and so staid; his first wife eloped with his cousin and drowned at sea before he could divorce her for adultery. What a blessing! Some said. No man wants to have his name dragged through the courts and the broadsheets, and now he was free again to wed.
I ask you: What does a young girl of seventeen want with a man of thirty-two? Her sweet soul got sold and that callous man bought it! Her uncle made a business trade: Eighty acres, one eighth of a square mile, in exchange for a pretty wife. A very good price for an unwanted niece. And that bad man knew it.
Barely had they been introduced, they were married. Birdie in a trailing white dress with a sheer veil and her head filled with wild romantic notions; him looking severe in a top hat and tails. Her nightingale voice shrilling the consecrated vows while his remained grave and toneless. The rice confetti feebly thrown outside the church and the groom's gruff rebuke to his bride's childish joy. He refused to whisk her away on a honeymoon, instead they left in haste for his estate on the Dorset coast. Engaged as her trusted maid, I travelled with the driver, but occasionally when we slowed I heard him scolding her. He disliked the way she bit her lip or her shrill exclaims over passing scenery. My poor little bird was trapped in that carriage!
But oh, I did not know the worst was yet to come... Captured by a married life that had only just begun.
On arrival, she was imprisoned in a neglected wing of the house and I with her, and apart from me, she was allowed no other servants. The Master, as I had to call him now, visited erratically, but when he did he wore her down with his manipulative behaviour. Day was night and night was day; by day the moon was the light in the sky and at night it was the sun. He told her if she was hungry and what she was eating: chicken was pork and pork was chicken and her drinks were laced with opium. He broke her spirit, but not the wildness in it.
She may have lost interest in life, but opium did not reward him with a biddable wife. She flew into rages and her nightingale voice was stripped away to grunts and wailing. I chuckled when one day she rushed at him and clawed his frightened face, (you deserved that you scoundrel!), until I grabbed her in a firm embrace. I turned my beautiful Birdie towards the open window, which Master had unfastened, and released her. Dazed, she paused and then propelled herself forward with outstretched arms and streaming hair.

*Sparked by Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Jack-in-his-box

Jack sat in his box on an impossibly high shelf; out of bounds of the working class, middle class, wealthy and the dregs of society. He wasn't above them or beneath them, but was forgotten. There was no defined place for a man with quirks; quirks which meant he couldn't interact or hold down a regular job. But Jack being a gentle and contented soul made the best of what he was and didn't mind being on the periphery.
Even as a young man, Jack had never felt he was 'all wrong' as he'd been told and put what skills he had to good use; made up for what people said were his inadequacies. He worked in spurts: six months repairing bicycles, three months in a bakery, two months loading and unloading stock in a warehouse, and a month of Saturdays delivering newspapers, and between each job he took a break for the world he found himself in taxed him. He had to concentrate ten times more than the average person or he'd misread its cues. It was exhausting!
People thought him odd and avoided engaging with him, but while this hurt, it released him from trying to be what he knew he could never be: a fully integrated member of society. He would never work like that and preferred to be a part-timer: there, but only sometimes seen. And it was comforting to have his box, at all times, around him.
Then, when Jack was 46, everything changed...
He got given a brand new box, a new label, and was moved to a lower shelf, which brought him closer to 'normal' people. There, he found others who had for many years coped with life like him. Some were ecstatic at this new positioning, some were cross at being newly labelled, and some were still processing the fact that what they thought was normal functioning had been wrong.
Now everyone wanted in: to say they had this, had that, which was why they couldn't do such and such and which explained their inability or unwillingness to be social. Quirks were no longer just that, they had deeper reasons and were strategic mechanisms.
Jack hated his new box because instead of reassuring him, it made him feel more vulnerable. When he tried to engage, people automatically made assumptions and therefore didn't treat him as equal. What's more the new spectrum was so broad, everyone presented symptoms or tried to prescribe them to other people. Yet again, differentness was being lost and not being valued.
With so many people picking their boxes and placing themselves on this sliding personality and behavioural scale, Jack mourned the loss of his uniqueness. He had been robbed of what he had seen as his traits and twitches. And although, he shied away from saying the magic word, (the term of his diagnosis), somehow his likes/dislikes were accounted for and his needs were accommodated. But instead of feeling functioning, Jack felt more disordered.
He determined that he would abandon this classified box that said ensconced in here you can be you, and left the lower shelf he'd been moved to and where he was told he must sit. Relief surged through him as he ripped off the label so recently given him.
He'd always known who and what he was; he didn't need a box or a label for society to recognise or accept him. If Jack ever went back in his box, it would be one of his own making.