Sabrina Orah Mark’s monthly column, Happily, focuses on fairy tales and motherhood.
I have a dream my mother is standing at my front door crying. Her hair is wet and tangled in seashells. She’s read a story I’ve written. “How could you,” she says. “Your own mother.” She opens her coat and out march my husband, his daughters, my brothers, my sons, my father. I try to run away but they catch me by the collar. “How could you, how could you, how could you?” they chant. “Your very own mother! Your very own us!” I’ll stop writing. I’m sorry. And I do. I stop forever, and instantly my lips and hands are dotted with mold. White threads spread across my face where mushrooms begin to swell. I grow wild with silence.
“Oh, for god’s sake,” says my mother. “Forget it. Enough with the drama.”
“But my silence is real,” writes Maurice Blanchot. “If I hid it from you, you would find it again a little farther on.”
Of all the silences in fairy tales, the most pronounced is the Little Mermaid’s. For a potion that will turn her into a human, she pays the sea witch with her tongue. In Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid” the sea witch lives where no flowers or sea grass grow, where “all the trees and bushes were polyps, half animals and half plants.” It’s the sea witch’s silence, her exile, her house built from the bones of shipwrecked humans, the toad feeding out of her mouth, and the snakes sprawled like illegible cursive “about her great spongy bosom” that is the silence of poets. It’s Blanchot’s silence. It’s the silence of outsiders and mothers. Once kept it will run ahead, and wait for all of us to catch up. And as it waits, it will grow.
The Little Mermaid’s silence is the silence of children. But the sea witch’s silence is the silence of an old woman with a story no one will ever know. The first silence is soft and lovesick and melancholy like sea foam. The second silence surrounds you like water surrounds a drowning woman, transparent and cruel.
It’s been a difficult year. My stepdaughter moved in for seven months and then moved out. She left Mavis, her pet tarantula, behind. My husband and I argued more than ever. My grandmother died so I couldn’t call her up to ask her advice. In an act of grief I bought a yellow rotary telephone for my desk. It’s plugged into nothing. Sometimes I just hold the receiver up to my ear and listen. Sometimes I talk.
As the date of my stepdaughter’s departure grew closer, I practiced politely biting my tongue. There was so much to say, but I said nothing. I bit and I bit. “Peace,” I once wrote in a story about daughters, “is what pain looks like in public.”
Like Blanchot promised, my silence returned “a little farther on.” A tree began to grow right in the middle of my house. Instead of seeds, its fruit had sharp little needles. I don’t know what this fruit is called, but it’s no fruit you want. I pushed my thumbs inside and split the flesh. I rinsed the pulp off a sticky needle, and thread it. In my own house I said nothing and then more nothing, and the tree thickened. And now it’s winter and my house has grown a tree, and this tree bares fruit, and with its needle-seeds I begin to sew. I make a sewing. It’s not a dress. Or a shawl. There is nowhere for a body to go inside this sewing. It’s a long and narrow thing. It’s the cold path home if the rest of the fairy tale were missing.
“Hi.” I show the sewing to Mavis, the tarantula, because I probably shouldn’t show it to my husband and my grandmother is dead and my stepdaughter has gone back to her mother’s and my sons should be spared and also it’s imaginary. Mavis is crouched over a live cricket struggling in her web. Mavis is too busy with her own silence to look up. And even if she did look up, she’d probably just blame me for having been left behind.
I can hardly bear to look at Mavis, and yet I can’t stop looking. “Good morning, Mavis. You okay?”
“I don’t want to hear one word about that tarantula,” says my mother. “Not one word.”
“I felt it shelter,” writes Emily Dickinson, “to speak to you.”
“Oh my god, Sabrina,” says a dear friend. “Set the fucking thing free.”
I feel for the sea witch. To whom can she talk other than the bottom of the sea? On the flight back from my brother’s home after Thanksgiving, I watch the 1989 Disney animated feature, The Little Mermaid. It’s lousy with ideological traps. It’s empty of what makes Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales so dark and alluring. No lavish agony disguised as piety. No cultish suffering. In Disney it’s all big, bright eyes and high hopes and too much singing. The sea witch has a name: Ursula, which means “little bear” even though she seems to be an octopus. She wears a gold nautilus around her neck, and this is where she keeps Ariel’s voice after Ariel signs her voice away with a fishbone. That the sea witch had once ruled the kingdom has been added to the fairy tale. But why she’s been banished remains untold even though she’s marked all over by her banishment. Eli, my six-year-old, begins to watch with me but grows bored and plays a word game instead. There is rough air. My water slides off the tray and spills. Eli keeps asking me to help him unscramble letters to make words, but the plane is shuddering through clouds and I’m holding his hand too tightly. “Mama! We’ll either die or we won’t die. Just tell me one word.” And I do. It’s “stop.”
A student asks me if I ever wonder if I should just stop writing. “Is it really worth it,” she asks. “All this vulnerability? All this exposure? Possibly hurting everyone you love?” I tell her language is what I have, and I think without it I’d grow tentacles, and sharp little teeth would poke through my skull. She laughs. “I’m serious,” I say. “If I stopped writing I’d go sea witch.”
“But shouldn’t certain things be left sacred?” she asks. “Like your children?” The word “children” floats above my head like a magnificent cloud about to burst. And when it bursts I will be drenched by them. All day I am drenched by them. A holy water. Why, I wonder, should the sacred be unsayable? How can I write about motherhood without writing about my children? Who would play their part? The birds in the trees? A stranger? The shadows?
“Why,” asks my stepdaughter, “did you write about me?” Another cloud. I look up. It’s in the shape of a heart, no, a mouth. I want to say something about repair. About fixing us. About love, and fear, and hard work. About wanting to help her. But instead I say, “this is my life, too.” And the cloud thins.
The nautilus shell Ursula wears around her neck is hollow. The shell is a living fossil, like a fairy tale. Like a fairy tale, it’s an ancient casing that once held a breathing thing in place. A similar spiral is encrypted in the inner ear and hurricanes and spiderwebs and the uterus. It is proof of where a story once lived or tried to live, and marked by the same elliptical orbit that makes it practically impossible to tell where one thing begins and where it ends.
“It is true,” writes Lucie Brock-Broido, “that each self keeps a secret self which cannot speak when spoken to.” I’ve been teaching my secret self to speak. It bleats, hungrily. Its legs are spindly and its heart is ancient. It was my husband who once helped me build it a room with stained glass windows, and a bed for waking up and dreaming.
Many years ago, when I was around my stepdaughter’s age, I burned my arms with cigarettes. I can still count on my arm how many times I did it: twelve. A collection of full, white moons. A lit-up path down my left arm that hasn’t faded. I was twenty and I loved someone who was cruel. I became silent and gaunt, and wrote little down. And so the answer I gave to my student is wrong. If I stopped writing I’d be covered in moons. Their light would be so blinding I’d barely be able to see my children. Or my mother standing at my front door crying.
“When I was little,” says my six-year old, Eli, “I thought the moon was following me.”
“Me, too,” I say.
In 1978 two young scientists studying 500-million-year-old nautilus shells discovered that the number of lines on each chamber was consistent with the time it takes for the moon to revolve around the earth. Today’s shells have thirty lines on each chamber, but shells from 420 million years ago have only nine lines per chamber. Which means the moon once revolved around the earth in nine days. Which means the moon was once closer. Which means silence was once closer, too. We hide and hide our silences. And yet, like the moon, they’re still here. They’re just a little farther on.
Sabrina Orah Mark is the author of the poetry collections The Babies and Tsim Tsum. Wild Milk, her first book of fiction, is recently out from Dorothy, a publishing project. She lives, writes, and teaches in Athens, Georgia.