The Strangeness of Skin. Part Two
October 17, 2013 § Leave a comment
The second of three parts of my contemporary interpretation of a Northern European myth. To be concluded tomorrow.
‘Why did you give me this bad name?’ Hepzibah screamed at her mother. ‘It doesn’t come out from my mouth right. Everyone laughs at me.’ The child’s tongue was stubborn, and made her speak with the hiss of a snake.
‘What’s your name?’ sang the other children who lived in the cave – and so Hepzibah told them. Again and again they asked, and again and again she answered until she grew tired of their teasing. Soon, they too lost interest as she learned to look straight through them. Then they ignored her too. Hepzibah became invisible.
‘I don’t remember who named you,’ replied Phoebe. ‘It just came to me. Perhaps it was the sea.’ Then she remembered where she’d heard the hiss before: from the fisherman’s lips. He had whispered his passion with a lisp.
‘I cannot trust words,’ he said. ‘They don’t say what I want them to say.’ His body had been more eloquent than his mouth.
‘And I don’t trust eyes,’ said Phoebe, closing them tight as he kissed her.
Phoebe, it was agreed, was a beautiful woman. She had the dark eyes of the seal pups that came looking for their mothers in the shallows. Her hair was as silky as kelp, and she wound it around her head and fastened it with twigs. Hepzibah had never seen any other part of her mother’s body, for she hid it day and night with high neck dresses in the shape of a sack with long sleeves that kept her fingers warm, and skirts that dragged in the sand.
‘What’s wrong with your mother?’ the children teased. ‘Why does she hobble? Why can’t she run like the wind? Why doesn’t she swim in the sea like our mothers?’
Hepzibah hid from the teasing behind her mother’s skirts, but Phoebe pushed her away.
‘Your mother is a cripple,’ they taunted.
‘She is not,’ said Hepzibah quietly.
Phoebe remained silent.
One day she crept up behind her mother as she plucked the soft down from three fat puffins, and felt for her legs through the cloth of the thick dress. The flesh felt smooth and soft and rounded. Phoebe swung around and the feathers filled the air like flakes of snow.
‘No!’ her mother cried, her face twisting itself into an angry knot. ‘You hurt me girl. What are you wanting?’
‘They say there is something wrong with your legs,’ said the child. ‘They want to know why do you not like the water. I want you to teach me how to swim.’
Phoebe rubbed her body gently beneath her skirt. ‘My mother didn’t think it was right for me to go in the sea; and the rocks say there are bad creatures in there which will hurt us.’
‘What creatures, Mother?’
‘I have never seen them, but the rocks tell me they are there.’
Hepzibah ignored the taunting after that because Phoebe said the rocks whispered more sense than they did. ‘Can you teach me how to hear them?’
‘Tomorrow I will teach you how to listen.’
Hepzibah listened hard to what her mother said, and soon she began to hear the sounds. But they made no sense.
‘They speak in a foreign tongue.’
‘Then every day,’ said Phoebe, ‘you must climb high into an empty eagles nest, and wait until you know the words. You must be careful you don’t fall.’
The child grew her nails long, and threw her shoes away so she could grip the rocks with her toes. She tied a stick to her back to protect herself from the eagles. But the birds kept away, and in time, Hepzibah learned to climb and understand the language of the ancient cliffs.