“And the Women Said” by Kelly Grace Thomas | Rattle: Poetry
AND THE WOMEN SAID
“And the Women Said” by Kelly Grace Thomas | Rattle: Poetry
AND THE WOMEN SAID
I am swaying back and forth over the steam . . . praying to the God of salt in boiling water who keeps the eggshell from cracking.
Today I woke in a country of unconscionable choice. My friends and I text a roll call to see who is standing and how. My dog Nessie wants walking but I’m not sure anything’s got legs anymore, certainly not the popular vote.
Mail just dropped through the slot in the box just like any old day. Maybe somehow it won’t be as bad as we fear. There are still so many good things.
I make of list of happinesses:
Elise got engaged. Brianna’s little Oliver is a week old now. Andrew called from Ireland to remind me of my daughter’s heart. Cybelle got that job at Western. The feeling of my son’s earlobes and the center of his forehead. Gregorian Chants. Bagpipes. To be on the last part of the last chapter and know I’ll make my deadline. The expensive lotion from Taylor. The mermaid stone from Jane. The bird candle from Suzanne . . . the birds in Jill’s office . . . the birds in the airport. Yesterday’s lunch to celebrate my daughter’s first vote in a presidential election that included a woman’s name on the ticket.
Here’s to those huevos, and here’s to celebrating before they were broken. And if I bake bread or write thank you notes or make soup, then oxygen will start to flow through this bag of bones again.
Outside my kitchen window, there is a geesyness of sky and November’s leaf music. The sun still rose over a world that has seen far worse, I tell myself.
I place the three eggs in the pan. I add more salt to the water, less to the wound.
© L. Seaver 11/9/16
Of the field and fall
from grace we yield
the summer-sated grasses
and the golden-hour lasses . . .
Letting go the season
has come to pass
What wouldn’t I
do to spare you?
The Earth drops her gown
from green to gold to ground
but the last thing She’ll see
is blue . . . remembering
a world She once knew
. . . all the women do.
© LGS 9/14
(Bolstered by my writerly colleagues at http://www.lakeeffectwritersguild.com, I post this for my girl, and for all us girls)
Last night, Kit and I went to the Full Moon Drumming, which was particularly wonderful during this, the Blood Moon. There was a big turnout. Instruments of all kinds were spread out on the ground for any newbies (like us) to borrow—fully engaged participation is the unspoken expectation. Interspersed were various art supplies that had presumably been used to put up promotional posters about the event, at least that’s what we figured the markers, scissors, etc., were beside the tambourines and maracas. Yet there was a tin can, fly swatter, knitting needles, and a knife sharpener, so who could be sure?
I’m not a musician but I can keep a beat, at least I thought I could. Then the tattooed guys with pony tails started beating rhythms out of the congas, snares, steel pans and African drums that were powerful and primal. Everything I tried to sync to that skewed highchair-baby-with-spoon. As soon as the first session winded down, I switched to cow bell and spent the next session trying to keep Will Farrell/SNL images out of my mind.
Maybe the fourth or fifth “drum conversation” in, I was finally getting the hang of it. I had settled at last on the triangle because…well, I just didn’t think you could mess up on the triangle. It always sounds nice. After a while, Kit gave me a look that inferred otherwise.
“Play something different,” she hissed.
“This is the only song I know on the triangle,” I replied.
“No, I mean a different instrument…anything…like a skein of yarn.”
She looked around desperately then handed me a glitter-glue stick, but I just tuned her out.
melting the ice with the fiery ladies of Bell Book & Canto
(this photo shoot was so fun!)
Early in her amazing career, my friend Leslie spent some years in New Guinea teaching English quite unsuccessfully to remote villagers, the Papuas (the fuzzy-headed people). Over a lovely dinner at L’Ybane last week in NYC, she described the difficulty of finding a way to bridge their pigeon English to its proper mastery. It wasn’t that they weren’t capable of the cognition, she explained, it was that she found herself not wanting to change the way they expressed their world. They said “mouth-grass” instead of mustache. She didn’t want to alter that, and found herself adjusting to their way instead.
The papuas didn’t adopt new words indiscriminately—they would jerry-rig something they were already familiar with to the essential meaning of some new thing. For example, they were familiar with 1) the shape of the blades on an electric mixer, and they knew that 2) the white man’s Jesus lived up there in the sky somewhere. So when a certain hovering aircraft made its first appearance over the island nation during WWII, the locals referred to it as a “mix-master-belong-Jesus.” That said helicopter to them. Whenever she corrected them, they would nod sweetly and affirm the circumstances of their lives relative to the object: yesyesyessss, mix-master-belong-jesus bring medsin. That was all they wanted to know about helicopters.
Nowadays Leslie is a consultant to federal asylum program based in DC. She works with foreign victims of horrific torture—usually young women—helping them learn English and adjust to life in the states. She tells me those years with the papuas helped her develop a skillset she now relies on daily to avoid common word-triggers including “darkness” and “men.” She says a creative vocabulary is also essential in understanding what the women are trying to say to her. Knowing how “push-me-go/pull-me-come” translates to handsaw helps Leslie comprehend what she is hearing from these women who were brutalized in ways that words can’t contain. Leslie said that under certain circumstances, some of these women still bleed sometimes . . . and will bleed for the rest of their lives.
© L. Seaver 3/13
It seemed that Igor learned English from watching porn. He mastered (and I use that term loosely) “take off clothes,” “turn over,” “hot, very hot now,” “would you like harder?” “come…come” and these were the only phrases he knew or really needed to say to his clients. He always got his point across with hands as thick and commanding as his Russian accent. Igor could make you feel good, real good…but believe me, you were going to suffer for it. Very few American “vimps” could endure his deep tissue massage and the intense heat of “The Only Authentic Russian Banya in America.”
Igor and Irena Bosynkorov, whose dramatic leave of Moscow in ’95 was a story Irena told us over dinner, insisted that we all come try their Banya. It was the least they could do to repay us for sharing our Thanksgiving with them, their first in this country. Irena insisted we let them return the hospitality Russian-style. None of us knew what it meant to try the Banya. We’d seen the quaint, ornately carved wooden cabin that sat unexpectedly in front of a ‘60s ranch hemmed in by sprawling commercial growth southeast of the city. It was utterly out of place—a fairy tale next to a strip mall. I drove past it daily on the way into the city. A couple times I’d stopped for lunch at the Bosynkorov’s Russian Restaurant nearby, which is how I met them. I was always the only customer, so Irena and I got acquainted while I ate Borscht, which she wouldn’t let me pay for because “now ve are friends.” Naturally, I had to invite the Bosynkorovs to Thanksgiving dinner, the first I ever made entirely on my own.
So, over pumpkin pie, Irena explained the Banya, adding that Igor built it himself (without benefit of building code or permits, I would later learn) as her eyes looked heavenward, “It is like massage, but more more more than massage.” Her English was considerably better than Igor’s but still lacked some vocabularic essentials. My folks were in town for the holiday, and dad was already out of comfort zone because I made the turkey dressing different than mom. Dad politely, but instantly, declined the idea of another man touching him. My mother’s and my exceeding politeness left us wide open for what happened next. Tom pushed the point, “why don’t you and your mom go…you two would enjoy that.” Irena clapped her hands happily, so the deal was done.
This is how I came to be sitting buck-naked beside my mother on a roughly sanded bench in the ante-room of said quaint cabin the very next morning. We had taken off clothes and jewelry as directed. Then we waited glum as prison inductees for Igor’s return. We were not at all sure we would enjoy this. In fact, I was pretty sure my mother was already disembodying in the way of people going into shock. She doesn’t do naked. She’s the sort of modest woman who sews a swatch of fabric across the bodice of her swimsuit so her cleavage won’t show. I hadn’t seen her naked since the day I was born. But there we were el buffo, deshabille…our eyes strategically averted from one another, searching intently for anything else to look at…like those lizards with eyes that work independently. She sat mute as I justified mushrooms in my turkey dressing recipe and dawdled on other topics akin to what you say when you’re waiting for the doctor to call you in from the waiting room for test results you know won’t be good.
Finally Igor appeared. He was nearly naked, sporting only a tiny tight red swimsuit of the sort worn by the burly-man-kicking-sand-in-the-face-of-the-puny-guy-on-the-beach in those ads in the back of old comic books. His thighs were blunt and strong; his chest two heaving pectoral hills. He held out his hand to my mother who hesitated, then rose, trance-like, and followed him into the steam room, a look of “lie back and think on Mother England” resignation on her face. I breathed a sigh of relief at not being taken first, but about that time Sergei entered the tiny room and that’s how I met Igor’s 19 year old son. That’s also when it first occurred to me that they really should provide towels in this joint, and have age-requirements for staff. Idiomatically-challenged but enthusiastic Sergei announced, “I vill do you today.” His father, Sergei explained, had been a sports trainer for the Russian Olympic gymnasts in the ‘80s, and was now teaching Sergei the art of deep tissue massage. But I shouldn’t worry, “Iz not my first time,” he assured me.
The next thing I knew, I was flat on my back on a raised wooden platform in the steam room. The kamenka, a small woodstove, hissed a few inches from my toes, prompting the question I would ask later, and how I learned of the aforementioned lack of building plans, permits and code violations. I couldn’t see well through the steamy white haze, but I knew my mother was just an arms-length away across the skinny aisle where both Igor and Sergei competed for space. They bumped and jostled each other as they worked, Igor grunting impatiently at his son who didn’t have the routine down yet.
First, we were fileted with Dubovny Veniks, leafy oak branches drenched in a ten-gallon bucket of scalding water and smacked on our screaming skin. Sergei switched me head to toe as I lay there, eyes pinched and body wincing during this warm-up exercise. I guess I’d been holding my breath, because as soon as it seemed the beating was over, I gasped for air. It came in like a fire hose. The steam room was so hot I couldn’t breathe. After a few sputtering, searing attempts, I figured out how to pull tiny hits of air into a shallow space at the top of my lungs, my lips parted thinly and stretched tightly so my teeth wouldn’t catch fire. I heard my mother bleat TOO HOT and Igor cracked the tiny window near the ceiling. Then Igor barked “turn over.” And we obeyed.
Sergei smoothed oil gently down my back and arms. I figured the worst was behind me, now we’d get to the good part. Two feet away, Igor slapped and kneaded oil into mother’s body. His style was decidedly more vigorous than Sergei’s. My mother’s body was jumping on that table like she’d been shocked with electric paddles. I peeked through my lashes and saw her arms stretched out in front, her hands trying to brace against the logs of the wall, her skin the color of candied carrots. Then I turned my head and look away…there was nothing I could do for her. It was every woman for herself now.
If Igor was deep tissue, then Sergei was more like pass the tissues. He was as self-conscious and uncomfortable as I was about his hands on my body. He chastely thumbed the ridge of my backbone between the shoulder blades down to the waist, then relocated his attention to my calves and feet. I was beginning to feel gyped. I said, “Ummm, I could take it just a little harder, please.” Taking this as a challenge, Igor instantly switched positions with Sergei, and began separating my muscles from tendons, my ligaments from bones. He concentrated torturously on every nook and knot in my body. Other than during childbirth, this was the only time I ever used Lamaze breathing. Then I felt something hot and thick pouring across my lower lumbar, just above the dimples. I assumed my back had broken and this was the feeling of spinal fluid leaking. But Igor was ladling honey over me. It liquefied almost instantly and splashed as he coated me (“turn over”) with widespread hands, front and back. Honey dripped from me, it was actually sort of delightful and I was giggling as he pulled me to my feet, “come….come.” Ummm, come where?
Igor directed Sergei in Russian, and Sergei took the buckets of oak switches and went outside. As we followed, I stole a furtive glance at my mother whose arms were folded mummy-like over her breasts, legs crossed, eyes shut, face blank. I hoped she had lost consciousness before Sergei laid a blushing, embryonic finger on her, so at least she would be spared that future hour of psychotherapy.
We emerged into broad daylight in his front yard, blinking like moles, Igor walking backwards and leading me, still naked, by my hands. Of course, this meant my hands were unavailable for any attempt at modesty. But at this point, Igor at seen it all and, for that matter, he had rubbed it all, too. One could only hope that the decent citizens driving by were not seeing us through the scrubby juniper hedge that stood between me and public humiliation.
“Sit,” Igor ordered. So I sat on a small stool while Sergei came around the cabin with the first of several buckets now full of frigid water out of the hose. Igor hefted one onto his shoulder, then nodded at me, “Oblivanye?” Was he asking me a question? If so, he certainly didn’t wait for the answer, which, to my shrieking surprise, I learned soon enough. Ohhhh, Oblivanye—the Russian word for dumping buckets of ice-cold water over a person’s incandescently hot body, a practice that can actually shatter stone—that Oblivanye. Bucket after bucket, steam roiling off my body, I experienced a heat extraction process that took me cataclysmically through the stages of volcanic to cryogenic.
Igor would be waterboarding mom next, there was nothing I could do to stop it. In a brief moment of lucidity, I wondered if she would survive Oblivanye, assuming she hadn’t already drowned in honey. Maybe she’d be left with just a mild impairment—nothing serious—just enough memory loss to forget that the Banya ever happened. If the topic ever came up again, she’d do that forgetting-thing she does with unpleasantness in general and nakedness specifically. As for me, I blocked out every Thursday evening for the rest of my life for Igor.
~ © L. Seaver 2012