The Women

Sommer Schafer

Back when I was alive, people in my town could go days without seeing each other. Passing, they’d look straight at you and not see a thing. In the cafes they’d descend upon their mugs of coffee, in groups of people just like them. The ones in brown found the ones in brown; the ones in bright colors found the ones in bright colors. The ones in dreadlocks found the ones with nose piercings; the ones with pink hair found the ones wearing purple ruffled bands across their foreheads. The ones sewing their own sails for their own boats found the ones wrapping animal skins around their own kayaks; the Tlingits who hated the whites found the Tlingits who hated the whites. The fat female bullies found the fat female bullies who rode their men and their meek female colleagues just like bitter wizened old Southern white men growing ever uglier in their hatred towards animals and women and blacks and themselves. Together, though, they laughed like children not caught playing a nasty trick, or like kings and queens sharing a glistening rump of lamb.

When I was alive, people called each other all sorts of names. There were loners and stuck-ups. The out-going; the shy. The stupid, the brilliant. The God-fearing; the God-loathing. The oddballs, the straight-laced. The exciting, the boring. The leaders, the followers. The organic eaters forbade their children to eat with the non-organics; they’d scrape off those play dates like yesterday’s hardened food. The ones living with the earth in their huts decaying into the ground by the ledges of licheny rocks hovering over the ocean, thought themselves above those living in their poorly designed modern houses with wrap-around decks built by strangers. The ones living in their boats, riding the moody wakes of the ocean day after day after day, hunkered under layers of specialized gear and thought themselves so much more in tune with nature and themselves than those who drove to gyms and strip malls and watched night-time TV.

The ones who rode their bikes felt more important than the ones who did not. They were positive it gave them an advantage to happiness, goodness, well-being.

The ones with gardens hacked imperiously out of the ashen ground and rock, with wee little vegetables growing spitefully out of the impossible soil, took photos of those babes and posted them around town, shared them with friends and gloated over them in front of enemies. Those ignorant veggies became like prized children: gorgeous or amazingly talented or conspicuously precocious or running for the state Senate.

Back when I was alive, everyone was so eager for their own happiness and fame. They clawed after it. They came after it with saliva dripping in strands from their hot mouths. They came after it calm-seeming, but with itchy skin, restless hands. They wanted enlightenment or they wanted love. They wanted themselves over and over again, this way and that; improved or reduced. Matched-up and fully realized; independent and Zenfully free. They wanted themselves unwanting, without thought. They wanted themselves driven, full of thought.

And so it was, in my town.

When I was alive, I started a book club in my town for all names, but only for women. For our second meeting, they rolled in, those women, acquaintances, friends-of-friends, names, no-names, into my house. I was excited. I welcomed them into my modest home, built poorly out of wood on the muskeg by the mountain, but still a beautiful home that kept me happy and warm. I had lit candles and baked a white cake; set out wine and sparkling water. There was a fire tumbling in the wood stove.

They carried blond-haired babes in hand-made slings. Their babes suckled continuously from nipples slipped expertly through slits and folds in their clothes. We don’t shave, they nodded at each other. How could one! They mutually agreed. They wore their hair long down their backs or short above their ears like boys. You have a wood burning stove, they said to me. Yes! I said. Please, come in and sit down! Help yourselves to food.

They stared at my food and nibbled at the cheese. The one with the two-year-old on her breast stood to sway him as he remained stuck to her tummy like a soft-shelled limpet, occasionally turning his head to one side or the other as the sling allowed, his large blue eyes trying to see anything at all. The candles reflected orange light from the small mirrors I had collected from garage sales and had placed atop my mantel. The candles by the windows shone into them and immediately back out again, their flames bright against the night. The women and I were there too in the windows, reflected there in the circle of my living room, with its cream-colored wool rug and leather couch, the light of the candles all around.

Oh, you have a TV, said one to the screen in the living room atop the antique cabinet. I hardly watch it, I said. The occasional movie, I said. And where’s your child? another asked, her long hair cascading over her shoulders and down her back. She had moved her daughter to her hip; her daughter’s chubby three-year-old legs hung loosely down the woman’s front and back. The daughter stared at me like a judge. Downstairs sleeping, I said. I have him in bed early. In his own room? she asked. It just worked out best that way, I answered, though at that moment was wishing we instead shared a natural bed splayed out upon the green carpet of the bedroom. Oh, she said, and began pulling up part of her wool sweater and baggy organic cotton shirt underneath. A large brown nipple was suddenly there, then, which had reminded me of all those times I had struggled with nursing my own child who had cried and cried for the milk that wasn’t there. His poops for weeks stayed orange from bile instead of turning the greenish-brown of the well-fed. I pumped those breasts every hour, and when the milk came in drops, it assaulted me like a miracle. The long-haired woman effortlessly pulled her three-year-old across to her nipple, and as her child slid along her mother’s waist, she held my eyes with her large blue ones until turning to the nipple and taking it into her mouth, sucking it with eyes wide open.

Mothers need a room of their own, I had said eagerly at the first book club one month ago. A chance to get away. You know what I mean? The motherless one with the short brown hair, who loudly proclaimed her feminist ideals, had suggested we first read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. It seemed as if this club would be, at last, a true place for those who weren’t interested in names, a place to get rid of the silly names we already had in our town. Instead, a place for ideas and openness; appreciation and true unadulterated thought. A break from that town outside where I used to be alive.

Those women looked at me and stared. But women are natural caregivers, they nodded. Why would they need a room of their own? They have the whole house! Yet, I thought of those women I knew who were not caregivers; who were bored by its tediousness and boredom; didn’t want feeling needed and clung to all the time. And I thought of those men who snuggled with their children and cried more readily than their wives. I thought of all those boys and girls to come who would be forced by their mothers and fathers, their teachers and aunts and uncles and godfathers and godmothers, to inhabit a name, “boy” or “girl,” and their accompanying adjectives: “energetic” or “mature”; “wild” or “motherly”; “technical” or “sensuous.”

Without further delay, they began to move in towards each other. And for those moments, even as they slowly moved closer together, away from my spot, I felt the beginning of it; knew they would eventually come to me. Still, I sat there, speechless and afraid.

The brown-haired one, then, led the group with loud guffaws as truly liberated women are meant to do, as if proclaiming their freedom to be sensual, loud, feminine. The women took their cues and laughed just like her. They opened their mouths and screeched and bellowed like animals. They laughed loosely as if they had just been set free or were in the throes of a sexual awakening. They bellowed with their toddlers suckling who only momentarily rose up to look at their mothers, gaze with wonder upon their mothers’ wide open mouths and closed eyes. I couldn’t laugh that way. I tried. I smiled.

Now, I welcomed them into my candle-infused home, the mirrors upon the mantle reflecting the orange light; the fire in the stove effusing the warmth and love and togetherness that I thought all people had, could have, wanted. Please eat! I eagerly led them to the food to draw their attention away from the blank TV screen presiding over the living room, from the fact that my young child was already in bed in his own room, distant by a floor from me.

The woman with the three-year-old astride her body wore a long dress that brushed the floor. Her hair, not styled, fell free. She looked at me without smiling this night. She had a slice of my cake on her plate and said, Your cake is very sweet. I usually make mine with whole wheat flour and molasses. The brown-haired woman’s short hair made her cheekbones look like miracles.

As I grew accustomed to them in my house, eating my food, it seemed to me that they were particularly edgy tonight, these women I had hoped would become friends in our no-nameness and open-mindedness and love. They came together in twos and threes and talked quietly. They ate little of the cake, and took little of the cheese and crackers, the store-bought vegetables and smooth, beautiful organic grapes I had splurged on and washed one-by-one.

The brown-haired woman found a place on the floor in the living room where she sat cross-legged. She pulled the hoody of her sweater over her short hair, stuck her hands into her sweater’s one large front pocket, and sat there, face stern, waiting. The other women took her cue and went to the living room, finding their places on my comfortable leather couch, the extra large ottoman I had maneuvered into the circle of seating in front of the stove, the leather armchair with its wooden arms. The mothers with their nursing toddlers found places on the ground and laid their children upon their laps. Those kids were so big, though, that they hung over the edges of their mothers’ laps like extended slinkies. As the one eased down, her blue-eyed girl popped off her breast to look around, leaving a trickle of yellowish milk on her mother’s nipple and dribbling from the corner of her mouth down her round fat chin.

I had signed up to choose the night’s book, one that I had previously read and had found bewildering, interesting, and well-written. It was a book about a child-like young man who spies on his family and family visitors via a series of tunnels he has dug out underneath his family’s large country estate. There are several funny things he sees, but he eventually runs across a morally corrupt man who is in the process of corrupting a young man, both workers at a local fair. The young man is bewilderingly corruptible and innocent; the older, evil man is ruthless and disturbed. There are two shocking scenes: the older man makes the younger man smash a nest of eggs, and the older man makes the younger man watch as he rapes a young woman, the child-like man’s sister, on the country estate. The man sees all of these things from his “hide” and doesn’t really comprehend them, but at the same time maybe does.

I joined the circle of women in my cozy living room and sat cross-legged upon the wool rug I loved so much. In my hand, a glass of red wine. In front of me, a slice of the iced cake. It would be a great night, I thought. Yet as I looked around, I could see them taking their cue from the brown-haired one who still sat there with her hood over her head, obscuring her face, darkness accumulating in the spaces between head and hood. Well, this was my book, I began. I like it because it brings up interesting questions about facing our own evilness, and what people are capable of. Interesting issues around watching instead of acting.

The women stared at me, and for the first time I saw fire in their eyes. I saw disgust and hatred. I saw incredulity. The brown-haired woman, with her hood pulled over her hair and her hands jammed into her pocket, seemed ill. She had rounded in upon herself as if her stomach was hurting. She stared down at the wool rug and occasionally her body would convulse. Her hood shaded her dark, large, beautiful eyes. I stared at them and tried to recover from the silence.

I mean, I could relate to the older man and the younger man, and the watcher! I could relate to sometimes feeling those inexplicable urges to do wrong or not do anything at all when seeing something wrong. Really deep down, sometimes there are those tinges. You know what I mean? The silence settled like a stone in my stomach, and I knew, by that stone, that it was already too late. It was far too late to take any of it back. I seemed to find some resilience, or was it the stupidity of stubbornness?, and pushed on. Facing our own dark side, I continued into the silence, though hearing the snaps of burning wood from the stove, coming to terms with that. Right?

One woman shook her head. The others stared at me as if I were an abomination. Their silence unnerved me. I felt my very center begin to give way. I felt my stomach grow hot. It was the brown-haired woman who spoke first.

I felt like vomiting, she spoke to the rug, slowly, quietly. She raised her hooded head. This book is sickening. Awful. It made me sick. The women nodded.

Yes, another said. Who is the author, anyway? one of the long-haireds asked.

It’s a terrible book, another said, whose toddler had dislodged from her breast and was now walking cautiously, wobbly, in the middle of the circle of women.

I had so many faults when I was alive. If I hadn’t had them I would probably still be here in my town.

I was silly. I couldn’t bear to be hated. I was ignorant. I was suspicious without understanding why. I was nervous. I thought too much. I had no sense of humor. I preferred reading for hours. I didn’t exercise enough. I needed more gumption. I was not pretty. I was not curvy like attractive women. I was hard and pungent like old cheese. I was not good at making fun of myself. I took myself way too seriously. I tried to talk truthfully. I respected everyone. I wasn’t a fun-loving person people liked being with. I was too quiet. I had no jokes. I didn’t know what to do with my hair. I was the butt of jokes, of family sarcasm. I never spoke back. I was not cool. I played too straight. I didn’t drink. I had never done pot. I listened too attentively. I was too thin. I let things happen to me. My response time had always been too slow. I had learned not to show anger. I tried to never, ever be angry. I stayed in my hide. I had watched and said nothing. Out of innocence, stupidity, unrealization, I had let things happen to me all the time. I could only see the beautiful, in the end. I would only remember, only speak, the lovely.

There was no order to my dismembering. The women went at it as if they had been pent up for decades. One snarled as she barred her teeth, jumped forward and knocked over the glass of wine by her foot. It spilled across the cream-colored wool rug, turning it magenta. The plate of food on her lap slid to her feet and she stepped into her crackers and cheese; the grapes popped under her bare soles and splayed out drops of sweet juice that I noticed, miraculously, just like the drops I had seen once in India, falling, post-monsoonal, from banana leaves into a tiny pond in the jungle where I was living. She fell into me and knocked me into the TV. Her hair was all over. The back of my head hit the TV’s cold hard surface, and I felt the impact ricochet inside my head. She thrust her chin out and pushed my head to the side. She sank her teeth into my ear and ripped it right off. I felt the blood before the pain; the heat of my blood startled me, eased me, like a hot compress. She put both hands atop my chest and shoved me to the floor.

I thought I could fight her off. I kicked without seeing, my arms over my head, my tongue tasting the wool rug. But then they were all there upon me like ravens. I felt the pressure and pull of my shoulder; the twisting off of my arm. It seemed so effortless. They dug their nails into my back and started peeling my skin, down to my waist. They turned up a source of heat I had been unaware of when alive, there, always, under. You were silly for taking life for granted, I remember thinking at that moment. For not wholly realizing how alive you were. They plunged their skinny hands into my back and took fistfuls of my muscles; grabbed them like ropes and pulled and pulled until they came right out.

They were so strong, those hearty mothers and loud-laughing women. They pulled those muscles right off my bones. Inside my ears I heard them tear and explode. I heard the gush of liquid. I felt something hot and wet under my cheek, and as it spread into my mouth through my closed lips, I tasted salt; I tasted the life of my blood and held it there, in my mouth, as if I could hold my life thus, forever.

Once they had ripped my muscles and laid them in heavy, wet strands outside of me, as if the petals of a flower forced open, they pulled out my rib bones, one-by-one. Crack! Each crack shocked me; I heard them, again and again, deep within my skull where they stayed.

The two toddlers, breast milk still dripping from their chubby lips, organic wool dye-less shirts hardly covering the rise of their tummies, moving joltingly like poorly tuned robots, started pushing against my arm, their little hands coming into my body like rocks; poignant, pointed, careless. They laughed and gurgled. The mothers cackled with delight and took their cue. They all kneeled and shoved me right over onto the emptiness of my back, at which point I felt the pain. I felt it like a tidal wave. It sunk me and resurrected me, and over again until I only wished to be sunk; to remain sunk forever. At which point I could feel only the desire for nothing, assuming not even the attitude of having been, alas, satisfied with a life half-lived.

In between, I watched them. Watched them sucking on my gray, red bones, strands of life still hanging optimistically from them, as if each one could be put back together again to make me whole. I saw them bite down into my bones, suck out the marrow and swallow it down leaving behind mouth corners glistening with blood and fat and cholesterol. They bellowed with happiness; they released boisterous laughs into the candle-infused room.

The wool rug was wet, my blood, which I saw then is really black, bubbling from their footsteps and knees and elbows as they rolled around, bones and muscle and tendon and fat hanging from their mouths, sometimes falling out during hysterical laughs, bursts of loud joy. The mother with the long, red hair, the homemade sling tied around her waist and hanging down her back, strode over, collecting bits of me in her wake, and stood over me, looked down into my lidless, wide open eyes. She frowned at me, You taste awful. She dangled my life above my nose. It dripped onto my face, slid down my nose, onto my cheeks. I reached out my tongue as I felt the drips slide down, wanting to catch the last of it, the last of my life. But they escaped onto my neck and fell into the gash the women had opened there; descended into my lungs to warm a growing cold spot.

Back when I was alive people were so silly. They hated so easily. They made fun and killed with sarcasm. They hoped it would make them feel better. But it made them angrier and hungrier and more scared and made them feel even more right. Back when I was alive people ate each other all the time.

Back when I was alive I felt God in the woods, among the birds and water and animals. In every falling snowflake and drop of rain. In the sunshine falling to the forest floor illuminating mushrooms and decaying branches giving life to baby trees, and lovely scurrying beetles and slow-moving slugs, and invisible one-celled animals twirling in their tiny pools of water.

The women had me in their mouths and partitioned, cracked, broken, strung out upon the floor. They were howling in laughter and busy with each other’s reaffirmation. They had so many names for me that when they spoke it sounded like the speaking of tongues. I couldn’t recognize anything. But steadily, the bloody, shocking whirling around me turned into a delightful, hazy hum. It seemed to be the quiet undertones of God, coming to me finally like pure, true, selfless, loving language. I watched the candles flicker like fairies in the mirrors upon my mantle, felt the heat from the wood burning stove, saw the books upon my bookshelves, knew the exact one I’d bring out to read next, thought of my beautiful son asleep downstairs in his smell and heat; and even then, destroyed, dying, in parts upon my lonely, bubbling floor, even then, felt the love of my life.

About the Work

Sommer Schafer

Sommer Schafer’s fiction can be read currently and forthcoming in Glimmer Train, Barge Journal, Eleven Eleven, kill author, and Fiction 365. Last summer she received a MFA from San Francisco State University and a scholarship to attend the Squaw Valley Community of Writers. Part of the story published here was performed in the Bay Area series, Action Fiction!. You can watch it here.​

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