This – rather Freudian – story was inspired by the horrrible mythological monster Medusa, who turned everyone who looked into her eyes to stone. I wrote it around 1985, and I seem to remember it was translated for a congress of gynecologists, unlikely as the story itself makes that seem.
It is told by another unreliable first person-narrator. In this case the distance between narrator and reader is fostered by the pain breaking through her indifference.
This morning 1 found a worm in my bed. The sort of worm you find in apples, pale, small, white, slowly curling. On what food had it grown fat? 1 haven’t changed the sheets in weeks. No, not this morning either. Disgusted, 1 picked up the worm between two fingers and threw it in the woodstove. No, nor did I look under the bed, where damp piles of dust have accumulated, because 1 don’t feel like lifting it up. If I lifted it, I would have to sweep up what lies there. Besides, I’m pregnant again, for the umpteenth time, and I don’t want to lose what I’m carrying inside me.
But I feel the pain of exhaustion behind my eyes that announces menstruation a day in advance, and the accompanying pressure on top of my skull. Couldn’t the headache come from something else? Hope springs eternal. I talk to it as I sit on the toilet: hang on, cling tight, little one, there are evil powers at work here, don’t let yourself be expelled.
At school one of the teachers once told us that Freud had remarked on how we address children with words like ‘litte mite’ and ‘worm’. How disgusting. What was the explanation? I’ve forgotten.
I would crawl back under the covers if I hadn’t got an appointment at the hospital. So I must take a shower -perhaps they have found something, perhaps they want to examine me again. But first a look at the sea from the attic window — barefoot up the bare stairs and across the splintery floor, noticing as always the awful smell here (just damp in the trunks with old clothes, or worse, a dead mouse?), wipe the cobwebs from the window: there is the sea. Calmer today than yesterday. None of Poseidon’s white horses today. Yesterday I told Klaas, who says he wants to marry me, why in mythology Poseidon is associated with horses: because a horse’s hoof has the shape of a crescent moon, and the moon is thought to control the water. Ebb and flood: the tide is going out now. But Klaas does not like mythology and that is as good a reason as any other not to marry him. Klaas fishes.
Stories, stories. I flap flap my bare feet downstairs and turn the shower on. My latest story: Medusa. I let the water run over my hair and face in thin streams. Medusa the Gorgon, from whose decapitated body sprang the winged horse Pegasus, the progeny of Medusa and Poseidon.
Medusa’s head, so hideous that anyone who looked at her was turned to stone. Perseus defeated her with a mirror — I dry my hair with a damp towel and brush it smooth, then I rub the curls back in.
Yesterday I tried to draw a Medusa mask with writhing snakes for hair. Meant for the door. Medusa masks were hung on temple doors for protection, and they were attached to the goatskin chastity tunics of Libyan girls: to deter all those who improperly sought access to the mysteries of the goddess, the triple one, in her roles as new moon, full moon and old moon or virgin, woman and old woman or spring, summer and autumn.
But I cannot draw, my mask is a failure.
There is nothing much I can do in fact, although at school I didn’t find things too difficult. Not difficult enough to keep on going there. Or perhaps difficult is not the right word: not interesting enough. There isn’t that much I find interesting. Reading books about Greek mythology, watching the sea.
Klaas said when he helped me to take possession of this empty house: at any rate we’ll be by the sea, ready if they drop the bomb. He is right, I would run straight into the water if that happened, but I don’t believe hirn. I am not one of these doom and gloom people —I often quarrelled with my friends in Alkmaar about that, well not real quarrels, but we didn’t agree. I don’t believe they will drop the bomb, I don’t think they will dare let it come to that.
But now I have to get dressed. My black trousers and blue poloneck, they still look all right, and if I hurry I’ll be just in time for the bus, otherwise I’ll have to walk fifteen minutes for the other one.
The bus is full, the only empty seat next to a thirty-five or so old Down syndrome. He is probably going to the institution further on the bus route. I’ve seen a group of them sometimes, mongols we called them at school, walking down the main road with that odd, swaying gait. I sit myself down next to him and see two women on the other side of the bus looking at me. Probably glad that they do not have to sit beside him. To needle them I start a conversation with him. ‘Look,’ I say, ‘do you see those yellow flowers at the edge of the road? Spring is coming, see?’ I talk to him as I would to a child, as I talk to the child in my belly, and I obviously strike just the right tone because he points outthe cows to me and I remark on his fine new shoes and he radiantly tells me he chose them himself and that he is very good in tying the laces. ‘Of course you are,’ I say, ‘so am I!’ We both laugh at that.
The two women, when I quickly check their reaction, both happen to be looking out the window on their side, so I pile it on a bit. I laugh more loudly. Besides, he’s not that bad at all. He rattles on so cheerfully about his weekend with Joke and Henk — as if I know who they are — like a child he assumes that his world is the same as mine. I ask what he had for dinner with Joke and Henk — beans and pork — and whether he will be going back to them for another weekend? Yes, he says, because he didn’t have to take the sheets off the bed. They would keep for another time, Joke had said. I nod and say at a volume aimed at the women that I often don’t change my sheets either.
Since I’ve let Klaas into my bed, I’ve been a few weeks late each month, and bleed worse than ever. Just why that happens is what they are going find out today. I know the routine: a blood sample first and then wait for the doctor.
‘Left or right arm?’ asks the sister.
‘Left,’ I say. From the body of the Gorgon Medusa the goddess Athene took two phials of blood to give to the healer Asclepius: the blood from the veins on her left side cured all diseases and raised the dead, that from the veins on her right side brought death and destruction. Well, I mean.
The Roman name for Asclepius is Aesculapius, which apparently refers to the mistletoe which grew on oak trees and which was thought to be the genitals of the oak, the juice of the berries being the sperm, and whoever had that juice could return from the kingdom of the dead. Still today the sign on doctors’ cars is a staff with a writhing snake.
This doctor is a woman, and on her desk she has my medical records as well as a book with pictures of strands of material that are joined together like seaweed. Chromosome strings, she explains, and if they are not arranged in a certain order, you get chromosomal abnormalities. She has a big nose, protruding teeth and no chin. Her name is embroidered on the left tit of her white coat, but I don’t want to remember it.
‘Fortunately those abnormalities are not usually viable, and that is what has been happening in your case up to now,’ she says. I do not tell her that I am pregnant again. That I am carrying one of those unviable chromosomal abnormalities.
The doctor looks at me inquiringly. She probably thinks I only half understand what she says, since I barely react. You know, didn’t finish school, supplementary benefit, that’s me, one of those, yes. I see her decide to leave it at that, and I get up and shake her hand and thank her. Because that’s the drill, you thank someone who has looked into something for you. Whereas it would be more just if I scratched out her eyes to punish her for what she has seen.
I left home because my parents and I could not agree about anything. I did not do what they expected of me, and they did not approve one bit of the way I lived. My friends, my clothes, the fact that I am on the dole and not the least worried about it. Standard dialogue:
‘And what about the future?’
‘I’ll see about that when it comes.’
‘But you can’t go on like this for ever. What do you want to do with your life?’
‘Nothing,’ I said — and so lost the right to speak. But you are allowed to do nothing, aren’t you? That is permitted, I hope, in this world? Can’t you not know exactly what you want to do twenty-four hours a day seven days a week for the rest of your days?
I would like to be able to draw or write but I can’t do either. I can’t make up new stories. I tell myself again and again the same stories that have existed for thousands of years — but no one is interested in those stories, not even my friends in Alkmaar really, except for the odd time when we were stoned and hanging out by the bridge in summer, only once or twice I managed to tell a mythological story in a way that made it far out or a gas — and Klaas doesn’t like them at all, but of course Klaas is a totally different type to the friends in Alkmaar. I met Klaas because I came here for a day to see the sea — to be precise, I wanted to see the sea to understand the image of the foaming reins of Poseidon’s horses — and Klaas was fishing on the pier and he showed me the house that happened to be empty and I went to get my clothes and my mythology books and now here I am. My hair has grown again since, I don’t think they would recognize me in Alkmaar if I went back.
When I get home I see one of the old zinc buckets by the door, with a layer of eels seething at the bottom. I pick it up and put it inside: Klaas has certainly chosen a suitably symbolic gift to console me for my trip to the hospital. Shall I tell him the result? In a sense I owe it to him: the miscarriages are not his fault, there’s nothing the matter with his genetic material.
The full impact of what I saw in that bucket — eels squirming in a layer of slime — only dawns on me after I have kicked off my shoes and fallen on the bed. I realize I cannot even cry: and then I see it, a nest of snakes in slime, lazily, voluptuously sliding, slithering, writhing, crawling beside and over each other…
Klaas quite often brings me live fish if there’s some over from his catch, but up to now they have always been flat and the most they have done was to flap their body up in the air a bit before I cut of their heads. These… what is that slime they wallow in for God’s sake? Without really wanting to I think of:
1. the joke that could turn my stomach at primary school: what’s the height of slipperiness? An eel in a jar of snot;
2. the scene with the eels and the horse’s head in The Tin Drum. And the way that afterwards Oscar’s mother devours fish more and more greedily;
3. a photo displayed at an anti-pornography exhibition — a woman’s cunt with an eel wriggling into it.
I sit on the edge of the bed and try not to think about it, about how by now the eels have probably crawled out of the bucket, they have crawled out, they are sliding down the hall on their way to here, they crawl and weave towards me and I hardly dare to look at the doorway for fear of seeing them there, pouring into the light, undulating and writhing over the squiggles in the Persian rug that I found dumped on the street, they’re coming in, they’re coming to get me.
To prove to myself that I am not afraid I get up, switch on the lamp by the bed — a wrong step that adds to the number of moving shadows instead of shedding light—walk towards the door (avoiding the Persian rug) and switch on the main light. Nothing. The rings in the rug lie motionless and blue in the yellow lamplight. Next step: down the hall and into the kitchen. Amazingly, they are still writhing as obscenely in the bucket as before, only the slime seems to be thicker and there is more of it. Gleaming snot.
I do something inexcusable. I fill the kettle, light the gas, never losing sight of the bucket with my left eye, and wait for the water to boil. Then, with my face averted, I pour all the boiling water into the bucket. In the same way that Heracles, who had to slay the many-headed Hydra, used a flaming torch to sear the spots where he had cut the heads off to stop new serpentine necks, new heads, sprouting from the holes.
I go inside and wait for a quarter of an hour.
I do not know how others, how older people do this: as a child I thought that grown-ups had an aim, a direction in their minds, and that when I grew up I would naturally know what to do. I don’t mean a job, since I don’t even want one, but the sense, when you wake up in the morning, that you know what you’re there for and where you’re heading. What do they hang on to, all those people who marry and have children and jobs — or who don’t marry because they don’twant to be tied down, don’t have children because the world is too terrible a place to raise a child in, don’t have a job because they don’t want to support the system. What is the secret of their knowing? Those who see security in progress and those who see security in decline and fall: both groups have more in common with each other than I do with either of them. I am angry, but I do not fight. I doubt, but I do not think. I like nothing and nobody, except perhaps mythology. I like mythology.
They are not dead! If anything they are livelier, more alive than before. Their constant writhing now looks a little like floundering, as if the process of dying has turned into its opposite and they are being born instead, as if my attempt to exterminate them has only strengthened their will to live.
Was I more right than I knew to think of the Hydra just now? Are these eels immortal?
I must not overdo it. I must try to laugh about this, come on — and I would laugh about it if I did not have this weird feeling that there is nothing to laugh at, the feeling in nightmares in which the thought of evil alone is enough to call it into being. I have poured boiling water on them and it has only made them pulsate even more vigorously. Like in horror films: the evil that is indestructible.
I take regue again, lying on my back on the bed but realize that I do not dare close my eyes. I cannot read a book either: the letters wriggle over the pages and besides, if I really want to read I would have to turn over on to my stomach and then I’d have my back to the door and the hall and the kitchen beyond…
I cannot relax. It’s as if that bucket standing there in the kitchen in the dark, with those snake-like monsters in it, is a menace in the house which, if I do nothing, will surely suffocate me. I try to dispell the danger with reasoned argument: eels die in the air, eels die in boiling water. But I know that it did not work like that, that it is not going to work like that. The longer I leave them there to go their slippery way, the more powerful they will become, and the more helpless I will be. And if I do not want to be completely paralyzed by helplessness, I must join battle with them.
I’m going to kill and gut those brutes right now. I will. I switch to automatic pilot, go into the kitchen and pull one from the bucket, feeling the same as that time I saw a woman on TV turn into a monster before my eyes and I had to go straight towards the horror to switch the set off: to stop the evil blasting from the screen into the room, filling the house with danger and contaminating me. I feel the eel undulating in my left hand, in my right hand I have the potato peeler I use to slash at the skin under its head. It feels warm like my own fingers and not clammy at all. Unlike when eel has been smoked, the only eel I’ve known so far, the skin is hard to get off and the job is not made easier by the eel’s vigorous thrashing about. (Image from a film about the crusades, I think, in which a heathen girl had the skin stripped from her legs, a scene the camera lingered on suspiciously long.) Slippery snot splatters my face and I turn the tap on to rinse off the glistening mess and get a better grip. To my horror now the writhing worm begins to produce thick clumps of opaque white stuff . It has the consistency of foam and comes in limitless amounts. The more I rinse, the more… what? Slime, froth, goo, semen. Superstitious fear turns my stomach and head to stone, but I go on cutting and skinning and try hard to blot out the knowledge that I am torturing a living creature.
Until with its skin off, it lies quietly in my hand, skincoloured, thin and innocent like one of my own fingers.
Now for the next one. I grab and chop its head off straight away but in vain, or perhaps I should have known, yes, of course I could have known: the production of the filthy foam is not in the least hindered by the beheading, and since I can get no grip at all now the eel jumps out of my hands and throws itself from the sink onto the fridge, leaving blobs of the white discharge: truly the evil that was at first just a squirming menace in the bucket is spreading now.
But this determines me even more to triumph. I grab it again and hack at it almost blindly until it lies naked and motionless beside the first.
Three to go. Now I begin to understand a little of what is going on here. With these eels I am waging a battle with my own fear and so all means, all, are justifled. The third eel is stronger than the others. He escapes me repeatedly, head and all, and after the sink and the fridge now the gas stove becomes contaminated by salty blobs of filth. I realize: my kitchen threatens to be taken over, eaten up, no amount of scrubbing or mopping will undo what has taken place here, neither chlorine nor alcohol can ever make this kitchen safe again, safe enough for food and warmth and living.
I know that I have lost the battle — had lost before it began — but I won’t give up half-way. There are now three skinned eels lying on a plate, the third in several pieces because that was the only way I could subdue it.
Number four. I remember a story told by a friend at school — last year, when I was not yet alone, in the days when I thought it was normal to share my thoughts with others and to experience emotions while surrounded by others — what a long time ago it seems — because Klaas does not count, Klaas hardly speaks and feels very little, Klaas is one big hump of body, at times I have wondered whether he is in fact all there… but he left school with his diploma, if only in the C stream, but still. The friend had been to England in the Easter holiday and because of the danger of an epidemic all the lambing ewes had to be slaughtered and gutted, in secret, in the yard behind the farmhouse. There she stood in her rubber boots, up to her ankles and elbows in blood and guts, dogged, her consciousness focussed solely on what had to be done, forgetting completely that they were sheep — the symbol of helplessness — and lambs — the symbols of innocence, because while she could not say exactly why (and perhaps because she loathed doing it, perhaps because of that) the slaughtering had become a battle in which the sheep were irrelevant, a detail, things that produced blood and slithery mess in endless amounts. Then, she said, then I knew what it was to be a Nazi.
I heard her story then and thought: yes, I know that, that’s a commonplace, the Nazi inside all of us. But only now do I understand, now I know that I did not understand it at all then, that it’s so easy to let the Nazi inside you take over. You just need to be angry or bitter or desperate or afraid, yes afraid, a victim of fear, petrified with fear you need only hate and hack, hack and hate and you cross the line, from kitchen to dissecting room to concentration camp.
In a stupor, I wrestle with the last eel. I am tired now. This one slips away from me more often than the others, four, five times, and briny foam covers my kitchen floor now, making it resemble the beach after the water has ebbed leaving patches of curling seaweed. It smells of rotten sea air, stale sex. I can’t go on. I’m up to my elbows in salty snot and the thing jumps out of my hands again, the slippery monster that ought to be dead twenty times over, into the bucket with the potatoes and onions which I might as well now throw away.
In the Middle Ages, if I’ve got it right, the word ‘worm’ was also applied to a dragon, so the association I have with the nineheaded Hydra is not that odd. The Lernean Lake, where the Hydra lived, was the place murderers went to be cleansed of sin. What could be more appropriate?
I rinse my worms in water as hot as my hands can bear. No, I can’t just throw them away: Klaas wouldn’t understand. So I squeeze them into a plastic bag and put it in the freezing compartment of the fridge. Then I take off all my clothes and go to work with disinfectant and cleaner and rags and abrasive sponges and cloths and white tornados and I don’t know what else until the whole kitchen is done. Cleaner than it was this morning, clean to the eye – but an illusion of cleanliness.
Exhausted, I sit on the dustbin and study my naked thighs. Sticky, heavy, fat. Thighs like these are not capable of reproduction. Soft, slack, flabby. I take a fork and prick it in, up to the pain barrier and then a littie further, so that red points appear in the clammy white skin. You can scrub as much as you like and fight as much as you like, but you’ll never conquer evil, because that is inside, it has wormed its way in.
I put my fingers inside and feel at the bottom of the labia, like the vertical mirror image of my clitoris, a pimple. I should put iodine on it, I learnt that from a nurse who shaved me there for one of these examinations. Iodine makes pimples dry out.
Not likely, Ithink. Because what you carry inside you is what you are. Or isn’t it?
From: Één keer over/ Once again, Contact Amsterdam 1986.