We Need a Dead Woman to Begin

Content warning: Domestic violence

‘We need a dead woman to begin. To begin (writing, living) we must have death. I like the dead, they are the doorkeepers who while closing one side ‘give’ way to the other. We must have death, but young, present, ferocious, fresh death, the death of the day, today’s death.’

Hélène Cixous (1993) Three Steps on the Ladder of Writing, Columbia University Press, New York, p7.
I read somewhere that Diego Rivera once tasted a woman’s flesh, proclaimed it the most sweet and supple meat in the world, and then went home to his harem of lovers and his lovely, lonely wife. I wonder if he chose her—his meal—beforehand. Did this mass of man, a planet in comparison, line up the youngest, most beautiful women, dressed in nothing but their skin? Did he stalk them, his shadow looming over the brittle boned canaries, as he salivated over their tender bodies, their hearts, their breasts? Or maybe she was simply brought to him, a large plump woman spilling out of her clothes, frothing with colour, sliced, diced, and served on a handmade ceramic platter. Steak tartare a la femme. Did he, like most men, lay eyes on her and proclaim her weak and malleable? Or was she strong, a threat to his masculinity that needed to be ‘taken care of’? I wonder if he bothered to ask who she was. Did he simply look at women and designate them flesh and blood and sex? Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe somewhere between debauchery and blackout he grew hungry and razed off a slice. Maybe he was lying. Maybe it was a story he told women who were too loud, too mouthy. 

‘If you don’t shut up and let me work, I’ll eat you!’ 

It is not something that really matters in the end. Whether or not he ate flesh, a woman—a nameless, voiceless, abused body—was consumed by a man with more talent and more potential than she ever had. Or so he told himself and everybody who asked. 

I started digging the hole the afternoon after. The house had been silent except for the sounds kids make when they’re trying to be quiet. It’s like their bones creaked louder as they tiptoed around the house, their whispers echoing down the hall. Children are not meant to be kept in silence. Ben sat and smoked and slept and drank. I waited. Violence wasn’t new in this house and there was a protocol in its aftermath. Silence comes first. Not any silence. Not the indulgent quiet of an afternoon off—a deadly, threatening quiet—like standing in the mouth of a cave and staring into the emptiness knowing there’s a bear inside. The kids crawl around on their bellies and draw on the walls. I stand and watch.

It had been hot all week, but that morning it began to rain. The water made the dirt heavier—or my arms were colder and felt weaker. I decided to begin. If you’re asking me to give an account of that day, I can only tell you I dug. I know, for a while, I pretended it was the foundation for a vegetable patch. I have always wanted a vegetable patch. A big messy garden with strawberries, peach trees, garlic, wildflowers, and a big hive with bees to make honey. Mum used to tell us a story of a house with a garden just like it. The family that lived there had a cat that once grew to twice its normal size while trying to hunt the bees. I don’t know where she heard it—maybe it was a dream she once had.

Ben spent the day watching me from the window, pacing and smoking. I would’ve thrown my shovel at him and told him to fuck off, but I was afraid he’d come out swearing and yelling with a bottle in hand. I could see from my spot in the garden the cracks in the kitchen window and I’d imagined his face distorted in the shards—a thousand scowling mouths shattering into dust when I hurled my fist at them. He would’ve been destined to lay scattered on my verandah, forever being ground into the concrete under my feet. 

My jaw hurt from clenching, but I’d forgotten how to relax it. Work like that makes you raw. Not just your hands, your tongue from biting down too hard and your skin from standing exposed to the sun and the wind and from crying into the mud. I dug into the night, my mind churning nonsense. My stomach burned from vomiting. 

The sun went down without a fight, inching below the horizon like a guest slips out the door after an awkward dinner. It turned its gaze from my bruised body, mumbled pleasantries and shuffled out of sight without a goodbye. The silence worsened in the dark. The rain had stopped and in the space between the thunk of my spade hitting the dirt and the spattering of loose mud onto the pile beside me, I felt the resounding nothingness. I wanted to break it, knock on the neighbours’ doors and ask them what they heard. Or maybe undress and run in the street banging a saucepan with a wooden spoon, a wild look in my eye, like the crazy had finally caught up with me. They wouldn’t do anything, even then. They’d only regress further into domesticated bliss. They’d blink longer so they could shut out more violence and tuck their children in tighter, telling stories of heroes slaying monsters while mine stalked me from inside the house.

Ben had lingered in the window, and I remember wondering which part of me he would choose to eat, if given the choice. I think it would be my liver. He wouldn’t eat it in one sitting, though. He would take a few slices at a time, leave me to regrow it, and then come back for more. What a prick. I think I would rip out his jugular or gnaw on his heart. 

He saw me looking and came out through the flyscreen to watch me from the verandah. The sensor had triggered the light and he was cast in its yellowing glow. He looked old, peeling at the edges like an aging newspaper. He sat on the mouldy couch under the window and rolled a cigarette. Watching me, watching him, his gaze was like a hungry dog watching a chop. The sensor flicked off after a while and he disappeared into the darkness. Just an orange cigarette butt remained like a warning sign. I went back to digging. He sat and smoked. 

Is it done?
It looks fucken done.
It’s not.
Get in and we’ll see.
Why don’t you go fuck yourself.
I heard the couch springs creak and turned to run but he pulled me back by the collar of my jumper, choking me. I felt the heat of his cigarette under my left eye. 

It looks done.
Yes, I think it’s done. 

His threats spoke for themselves. His last one was on the floor in the kitchen, just below that crack in the window. She’d been dead for nearly a day. 

He hadn’t bothered to cover her, even when he brought her outside. If the neighbours hadn’t already called the police, they wouldn’t at all. They wouldn’t want trouble or people asking questions about things they didn’t want to admit. 

‘Where were you the night of the altercation, Ma’am?’
‘I stood on my lawn in my dressing gown with a glass of wine listening in on the shouting.’ 
‘And did he ever give you reason to believe he was violent?’
‘Well Officer, he’s been beating her up for the last fifteen years, but other than that he’s a stand-up guy. He mows my lawn the first Sunday of every month.’ 

I remember how he used her feet to push the flyscreen open. Her body had stiffened and gone cold before I’d started digging. He’d dropped her in the mud at my feet and lit another fucking cigarette. She’d looked comfortable in the mud. Maybe because I couldn’t see her blood on the floor or the flickering kitchen light she’d asked to be replaced six weeks before or the dead flies accumulating on the windowsill—the one he had painted shut after that bad fight when she’d climbed out the window to escape him. She’d looked safer out there, dead in the mud, than she ever did alive in that kitchen. 

He started to nudge her towards the hole. A grave. I jumped down to guide her in gently, because I didn’t want the last hands to touch her to be his. I could feel the wound on the back of her head—a mix of congealed and dry blood. I held back the bile rising in my throat. I couldn’t bear to be there with her in a grave, the one I had dug, for a murdered woman. The walls slipped down on top of her, like the earth couldn’t wait to consume her. I had to crawl on my belly to get out, it made me think of the kids, frightened in the house—poor little geckos, watching from the walls. Ben started to push the mud on top of her. 

Let me. Please. I want to do it. 
I’ll check. 
I know. I want to do it. 

He left me there with her, entering the house that she had made a home. I covered her with my hands pushing mud down onto her legs and belly and over the mouth that had kissed me and told me stories. I took my jumper off and placed it over her face. I imagined the mud sliding down her throat, choking her, and wanted to throw up again. When I was done, I sat with her for a while, maybe an hour, until I heard the little ones beginning to wake up. I ran inside to silence them. 

In the years that followed, no one asked about my mum. I don’t know if they thought she’d left us and ran, or if they suspected what had happened and chose to remain quiet. Grass grew over the mound that was her grave, and I taught the kids to walk with their backs pushed against the walls, to disappear around corners and exist in the margins of the house. No one came looking for her and no one looked out for us.

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