The Fourth Face of Eve
– Fiction by Theresa Moritz –
As seen in issue 14 of Dreamers Magazine, available for purchase in digital or print here.
“Of course, it didn’t determine everything about me. Never mind what your competitor published. That was an abuse of trust. It was summer. I was sleepy, and I wanted the little girl they sent over to go away. Featherheads. First, they reduce me to a clutch of clichés—Jungian imagery, settings in Switzerland and on circus trains, obsession with small acts of childhood violence—and then, they attribute to me an even grosser reduction, in which supposedly I revealed the defining moment of my life, the moment that also happens to completely explain my work.
“I was being ironic. Doesn’t anyone understand irony anymore?
“Judge for yourself. I’ll tell you what I know, but bear in mind that I am getting sleepy, and that I was so young when it is supposed to have happened that we must all distrust the vivid memories I have of it. Maybe I am only describing the photographs Mother used to show me. You can’t see them. They got lost somewhere between here and Florida the year we took her down. Snowbird. The lovelier the word, the uglier the thought. The word: See them fly, see them come and go with the weather that suits them the best, it is so natural, like the birds. We miss them, but they will be happier and live longer. The thought: We will live longer if we don’t have to look at them rotting upstairs.
“Anyway, this is what happened. My mother was lifting me up so that I could kiss my grandfather in his casket. I had never kissed my grandfather while he was alive, and she didn’t like to think that I had missed my chance.
“Why she counted it as a real opportunity, I don’t know. But then we all do it. Haven’t there been things you wanted that you let slip away again and again? And then, when there’s no chance to have the thing you want, don’t you want it terribly? And an apparent opportunity to get it, can’t it cause you to forget all of your old misgivings and reach out, only to find you’re grasping at a shadow of a shade?
“Anyhoo, as Uncle Lionel used to say, my mother and the rest of the family had always wanted me to kiss my grandfather. Maybe they thought he was really a handsome prince, and that if I kissed him, he would be transformed from an inexorable propounder of God’s laws into someone who liked them and who cared about their hair and clothes, or how much their husbands made, or whether the furniture in the drawing room was brand new.
“I attribute my sexism to all of them, but I suppose especially to Grandfather. What might they have been if he had organized his household differently? Because he did organize the household, even if he left it to my grandmother to carry out the orders. Do you suppose they might have been her orders and not his all along, and that she only said they were his to shift blame from herself for the mindless exactitudes she required of her daughters? Wouldn’t he have complained if he didn’t like the way the house was operating? Unless, of course, the tyranny under which he lived was so complete that he did not dare complain.
“The women around him always talked of obeying him, which leads me to wonder what his views might have been about this kiss. If he had always wanted me to kiss him, then wouldn’t I have already done it before he died? Was my mother experiencing the exhilaration of freedom, acting out something she had always wanted, that I would kiss him? Was this her last chance, and she didn’t want to miss it?
“After all, she was free of the father who had hounded her and her two sisters, trapped them in those old giant dresses and in the restraints of the parlour and genteel kitchen duties, kept them in ignorance of as much else as possible, and, whenever something really interesting was about to happen, sent them into the harem like seclusion of their bedrooms upstairs. It was a wonder that any of them produced children in wedlock. I can understand how fertility might have followed on forbidden sex, but how could such padlocked, incensed and sentimentalized bodies ever have been coaxed into anything so coarse as breeding? But then, my expectations in this matter have always been fantastical. I never wanted to be a lost prince. I wanted to be a bastard.
“Instead, I am the only grandchild he ever had who lived more than a few hours, and I was legitimate. I was the frail, lone standard bearer of this man who, as I say, was dead when I first was given the opportunity to kiss him.
“That was what they used to tell me, my mother and her two sisters. The two of them lived in town. They were like the bookends which propped up the volume of stories which was my mother. Everyone said the older one really looked younger. Maybe she did once. Or maybe it was just one of those things you say in the face of such emptiness, a lie that just comes out of your mouth. You say it, and everyone grasps hold of it and repeats it, maybe for your sake, for the sake of the original lie, because it so obviously needs some kind of scaffolding around it or it will just fall down, boom. Or maybe you say it just to have something to say. Maybe I spoke because she was a vast emptiness to me, a silence so deep that I thought there would be an echo. Anyway, she had never married. Maybe the talk of her youthful appearance was a remnant of all the years the family had tried to convince each new acquaintance that she was still a desirable marriage prospect.
“The other, the younger one who looked older, they said, because she had suffered so much, had brought one child after another to life only to have them die. She had followed so many caskets the size of shoeboxes to the cemetery, that it was no wonder that she looked so old. And yet, she was small herself. And despite all those babies dying, she never seemed so empty to me as the older one did, on the long afternoon visits we still made back then.
“So, really, it was the three of them, not just my mother, who didn’t want me to miss my chance to kiss their father. There was something symbolic for them, I suppose, in the juxtaposition of the corpse and the rosy-faced little boy —a little self-love showing through there, eh? Leave that in, it makes me look human, that I loved myself as a child. Still, I was a handsome child, and warm. I could generate so much heat that there was always damp in the hair on my forehead and a flush on my white cheeks. You can see it in all the pictures of me. They took a lot of pictures of me. I don’t know why for certain. My mother never would say when I asked her about it, but I suspect it was because she thought I was very likely going to die, and she wanted some sort of evidence of my existence for around the house.
“She disapproved of the way Aunt Julie, my younger aunt, was always walking back and forth to the cemetery. I used to think Mother was angry about it for my sake, especially during Aunt Julie’s pregnancies, when the visits always went on almost to the very last day before the labouring to bring forth, each time, nothing. ‘Isn’t it just simple science,’ she said to me, when she thought I was still too young to understand. ‘All that hard work of walking and then the air that rises from the graves, it can’t be good for the little one.’
“For years I was sure it was me Mother was talking about, since many people called me ‘little one’. And among them all, in their
formal clothes and with their excellent posture, I must have seemed rather unusually small. Sometimes one of them would pick me up and press me against her shirtwaist, and I would not cry, unless a pin happened to scratch me, as it frequently did, because I knew this was love. I couldn’t understand why my aunt, whom I was told repeatedly loved me and I loved in return, would risk my life in this way. And I would try to detect the signs of decay in me, the signs of the air that rises from the graves. When they comforted Aunt Julie, they would say, ‘The good die young.’ And so I was afraid: I must die or live the proof that I was evil.
“I turned six just a few days after Aunt Julie’s last lying-in, and I resented my little stillborn cousin, because Mother and Aunt Iphigenia, the third sister, decided that I wouldn’t want a party after all. But I did. I do. I still want that party, that particular party in that grim house, in that dying garden, in that Christian little town. I want that party. I spent the birthday walking up and down the street in front of Aunt Julie’s house, along with many other people, most of whom I didn’t know, listening to her singing inside. She knew she was dying. The doctor couldn’t stop the bleeding. While she waited for her life to siphon out of her, she sang, hymns mostly. One especially I remember, with the words, ‘I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free.’
“But that’s the story of another funeral. I mean to tell it someday. My grandfather’s death was really only a prelude to what happened in Aunt Julie’s parlour when the last visits were being got through. I have always thought Sartre’s dictum should be amended. It is not your death but your funeral which defines your existence. I am reminded, too, of Dostoevsky. I know the story of a saint, and then I tell you, as a prelude to it, a story of a sinner, and the prelude grows and grows until there is no life left to praise Alyosha or my poor Aunt Julie.
“I remember exactly what it was like. I see Grandfather before me. But wait, I should say that I am seeing my own face there, on the body in the casket in my vision, the face I see in the bathroom mirror in the morning that sets me musing on the truth of evolution and the simian cast of the brow and the jaw.
“He is in the casket, an old man who looks very much like me, hair combed, eyes sewn shut, lips sewn shut, suit pressed, hands folded, nails clipped, little satin coverlet tucked in over him, as if he were but sleeping. Around him the parlour choked with people and flowers. My mother, not a tall woman, always dominated terribly by the grandiosity of her clothes (you needed to be a big woman like my Aunt Iphigenia – the one who never married despite how well her physique suited the clothing of the day – to look good in them), my mother lifts me up from the floor where I had been fooling with some small thing, a bit of stone or paper I had discovered in my pocket when I was left alone just for a moment. She picks me up in the hands and knees position where she found me and holds me away from her body because I have on heavy boots, and I often enough have kicked her with them, even then, when I was not quite four years old. I fly suspended through the perfumed air, in my black mourning suit with the short pants, fat thighs and knees and calves folded up, arms extended and two sweaty fists formed, the sweat in my hair and on my forehead beginning to drip down. “I was quiet, I am sure of that. I hear the words, ‘Kiss Grandfather, little one,’ and Mother begins to maneuver me into position. I reach down to steady myself, and my hand touches one of the neatly folded hands, and Grandfather moves. His right hand comes loose, and his arm slips slowly down the satin coverlet until it comes to rest, fingers extending up over the side of the casket, pointing toward heaven.
“Mother screamed and dropped me. I landed on Grandfather’s chest, and his loosened arm flew up and then down over my back. I am sure I remember the smell. It was the scent of chemical roses.
“From the chair they moved me to, I watched as the three sisters screamed, ‘He’s alive!’ They meant Grandfather, of course. It was evident that I was still alive. I hope their shades will forgive me for commenting that I don’t believe they were entirely overjoyed at the news they were proclaiming that their father wasn’t dead and on his last visit to the parlour.
“They insisted that efforts be made to listen to his breathing and to raise his eyelids, but his lips were sewn shut, of course, and so were his eyelids. They berated my father, Jim, and Uncle Lionel, who had been out on the porch steps smoking and came in when Mother screamed. All of them berated the men, especially Aunt Iphigenia, berated them for being absent in the crisis and then for siding with Mr. William Henderson, the funeral director, when he explained about embalming fluid and what it did and what it meant. For a long time after that, I would close my eyes at night and pretend Mr. William Henderson was trying to sew them shut, and then my eyelids, the window shades of the soul, would snap up fast the way I liked to do with the shades in my room, which my mother was always adjusting, it seemed to me, for morning and late morning and early afternoon and before dinner and after dinner and early evening and the night darkness. And he would be the one who screamed.
“I read very early, and I owe it all to Mr. William Henderson, who made me want to know why we embalm the bodies of our dead relatives, and then put the bodies in the parlour. In books, I went looking for the door to the house of the dead. I knew I could not ask my teachers. I knew I could not ask my minister, my parents or even my older cousins. Books seemed a more reliable and less interfering source for the information I was after.
“My collections of funeral narratives soon expanded to include the sorts of things other exotic religions like the Church of Rome do with their dead bodies. I remember especially a memoir of an old woman about a childhood trip to Florence, where the uncorrupted body of St. Raymond de Fiore was on display in a glass-walled open casket. When she went, at the turn of the century, St. Raymond had only just been overhauled, or at any rate, his shrine. She was hoping for a miracle for someone back home, an aunt perhaps, or a beloved pet. And so, when no one was looking, she reached down and touched the hand of the saint, which moved. She screamed, the way my mother screamed, and everyone expected some further sign. But there wasn’t one, except that the shrine preservation society decided to put a glass covering on the bier as well.
“I have never found the door into the house of the dead, but I found the door into the house of psychoanalysis, Freud and Jung and the crew. In all of it, there has been no more glittering instance than the story of the woman with multiple personalities whose repressed memories reveal her to be another child like me, being carried forward as an offering at the shrine of the family shades.
“I thought, when I first heard of the book, she has stolen my life. The title was the phrase I had looked for all my life to name the aspect of motherhood I beheld there next to my grandfather’s disarranged body: The Three Faces of Eve, screaming. Have you ever seen one of those paintings of the moment just before original sin takes hold, when Eve still has the apple and Adam is puzzling over her suggestion, and the snake is pictured with a human face? For me, what I see always, in place of Adam, Eve, and the snake, are the three sisters of my fate, Mother, Aunt Julie, and Aunt Iphigenia. And it is always Mother who is wearing Adam’s beard.
“Over the years, though, I came across more and more bits and pieces of my story: the reaching out for a miracle by touching the dead, the homage to departing power at the graveside of a hated parent, the loving child who leans briefly in the back of the church against the coffin on its wheeled support, only to have it skitter away and thunk loud and hard against the back of a wooden pew. Whose story is it? I wonder whether I might be just one of the multiple personalities of a being so large, so extensive as to comprehend all of us. Have I any right to say of anything I find in my hand or in my mind that this belongs to me? Did my mother lift me up to kiss my grandfather in his casket, and did his hand move? Was it my aunt, my poor Aunt Julie, who died in her upstairs bedroom, reclining on a chaise longue, singing, ‘I sing because I’m happy, I sing because I’m free’?”
About the Author – Theresa Moritz
Theresa Moritz is a Toronto writer and retired university professor. She has published short stories in literary magazines, including the Windsor Review, Queen’s Quarterly, Prairie Journal, and Dalhousie Review and was shortlisted for the Malahat Review novella prize in 2022. She has co-written biographies of Stephen Leacock and Emma Goldman.
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