Wilda whips herself with a clump of blackberry brambles. She can feel cold from the stone floor pulsing up into her cowl, chastising her animal body. She smiles. Each morning she thinks of the new penance.…
Women are by nature carnal, the Abbott said last night after administering the sacred blood and flesh. A woman’s body has a door, and opening that’s the devil may slip through, unless she fiercely barricade against such an entry.
Wilda’s body is a bundle of polluted flesh. Her body is a stinking goat. She lashes her shoulders and back. She scourges her arms, her legs, her shrunken breasts, and jutting rib cage. She thrashes the small amount of her belly. She gives her feet a good working over, flagellating her toes and soles. She reaches back to torture the two poor sinews of her buttocks. And then she repeats the process, doubling the force. She chases the filthy maggot of her carnality until she feels fire crackling up her backbone. Her head explodes with light. Her soul rejoices like a bird flitting from a dark but, out into summer air.
Guest editor T.C. Boyle described this story as “wickedly funny” in his Introduction to BASS 2015. Does that sound strange, in the light of the above opening scene? Not really – I mean, how else would you describe Wilda’s purple prose thoughts? One of my fellow readers through this volume (hi, Jake!) mentioned the straightforward language used throughout “The Siege at Whale Cay”. Here, we have just the opposite. Wilda’s thoughts are exhausting when she’s considering her evil carnality – but quite lovely when she’s in a more mellow frame of mind, smelling deeply the pomegranate juice and sulphur that serves as ink, “the happiest time of day – ink perfume in her nostrils, windows blazing with light, her body weightless from the morning’s scourge. But then the other nuns come bumbling in…”
Boy, do I know that feeling. Everything’s great until the other nuns show up.
The two Elliott stories I’ve read prior to this were on the science fiction end of the literary spectrum – that’s more or less where she hangs out in general – but this one made more use of psychology. I was intrigued by the idea of setting a story in the scriptorium of a medieval monastery. I’ve taken several recent MOOCs about manuscript creation, and it’s fascinating stuff. Wilda’s descriptions of the ink, the fine vellum used for special projects, the tedious, difficult, and physically wearing task of the scribe rang true to me. And it fits with the theme from that month’s issue of Conjunctions, which was:
Writing about writing itself and about the books that are home to the written word. A library of ideas about language and the book in all their forms, Speaking Volumes collects poetry, fiction, and narrative nonfiction on historic, forbidden, repurposed, mistranslated, imaginary, lost, and life-changing books—books of every ilk.
Again, a story about writing, about language, about stories, about storytelling.
But the story Wilda is telling is one set beneath – or is it above? – the material she scribes. In a marvellous scene that to me encapsulated much of the entire story, Wilda’s natural curiosity and intelligence leak out around the edges of religious repression when she copies a passage about bees:
Today she is halfway through the entries on bees… They begin as worms, squirming in putrid meat, and “transform into bees.” Wilda wonders why the manuscript provides no satisfactory information on the nature of this transformation, while going on for paragraphs about the lessons we may learn from creatures that hatch from corpses to become ethereal flying nectar eaters and industrious builders of pipes.
How do they get their wings? Do they sleep in their hives all winter or freeze to death? Two fresh swarms hatch from/each spring?
I think the story here is how Wilda finds the answers to these questions. She learns about transformations – and so do we, by following along with her.
If read as straight realism, the story fails as over-the-top, but those opening paragraphs are a clue: See what happens here. Yes, Wilda will continue to be over-the-top, but her thoughts will change, events will transform her, and the story. The slide from realism to surrealism is gradual; there’s no point at which I said, “Oh, now we’re off the grid” but by the end of a sequence of events of increasing absurdity, I was, along with Wilda, very off the grid, with no recollection of how I got there. All I can say is, it was a very interesting ride.