MOM CAVE

“Mom has been acting a little strange lately. We can all agree.”

Suzanne stood on the talking stool in the centre of the treehouse. The talking stool had three legs and wobbled dangerously if you didn’t spread your weight right, but when you stood on it, nobody dared to interrupt you. It was for serious business, and in a house with six kids, sometimes you needed to take a risk to be heard.

Suzanne was still wearing her school uniform, and one of her pigtails had come out, giving her a dangerous, unkempt air. She was standing under the flashlight we’d hung with a shoelace from the ceiling and it cast dramatic shadows across her face as it twirled. The second-youngest kid, Arthur, was a little afraid of her, so he was hiding behind the frayed curtain that covered a big crack in the wall. The baby burbled stupidly in the corner. The rest of us sat in a circle around her, on upended crates that had once been filled with apples. Suzanne was one of the middle children, but she had the respect of even the eldest, because she could talk like a grown up. Most of us murmured our agreement, there was something different about Mom.

“Hmm, I don’t know. Is she really acting that weird?”

That was David, another middle child. David had wispy hair and watery eyes, and he liked to say the unpopular opinion, but was always surprised when we beat him up for it, or locked him out of meetings. Suzanne gave him a withering look.

“You’re stupider than the baby if you haven’t noticed a change. Haven’t you seen her, walking out to the car at night and just sitting, locked in there for hours? Or that she comes home later and later each evening, smelling like beer?”

If any of us had failed to notice those things, we weren’t about to admit it. We nodded along. Suzanne seemed to grow taller.

“And haven’t you seen her going down to the basement with tape-measures and IKEA magazines? Do any of you realize what she’s up to?”

“Maybe she’s finally building us a play-room?”

“She’s putting the baby’s room down there?”

“She’s buying more bookshelves?”

Suzanne held up a hand, and we all stopped talking.

“I heard her talking on the phone to Marissa Claire.”

We groaned. Marissa Claire watched us all from under her pencil-thin pointy eyebrows whenever she came to visit. She was always making jokes about how nobody could’ve convinced her to have so many kids.

Suzanne continued, “Mom is creating a Mom-Cave downstairs. We won’t be allowed down there anymore. It’s going to be a space just for Moms or Marissa Claires.”

We all stared at her. This was news. Mom wanted a cave? Why?

“I have a theory,” she said, “I’ve been reading and I think Marissa Claire is a vampire.”

Under the dangling flashlight, with the sun already set and the wind gently tugging the October branches, Suzanne looked deadly serious. I felt myself shiver; someone coughed. Arthur sprang out from behind the curtain and leapt straight into the eldest’s lap, almost knocking him over.

“There’s no such thing as vampires, is there?” he asked in his warbling four-year-old voice.

But the eldest simply looked to Suzanne for the answer.

“I know you’re afraid of me, Arthur,” she said, “but you’re old enough to know now. I’m not what you should be afraid of.”

We all watched her with wide eyes.

“Marissa Claire isn’t our biggest problem either. The reason Mom is acting so strange, is because she’s slowly becoming a vampire too.”

Now that was harder to believe. Mom, our Mom? The same Mom who taught us to ride bikes and tie our shoes? Who went to our parent-teacher nights and coached our soccer games? 

Suzanne continued,“Think about it. What else needs a cave but a bat? What else goes out at night, and hangs out in dingy places looking for prey? Mom is under a curse, and once she builds the Mom-cave, the transformation will be complete.”

“What should we do?” I whispered.

“We have to reverse the curse. And banish Marissa Claire from the house forever. And most of all, we can’t let the Mom-Cave be built.”

The next day, Marissa Claire came over, and she and Mom sat in the living room with stacks of paint swatches and home decorating magazines. Us kids were supposed to be watching TV, but we took turns spying on them instead.

“It’s going to be so great to get away from the old nag once your basement is finished. You know I’m going to be hiding out here all the time,” Marissa Claire said.

“Yeah, I mean, I think I deserve a little recognition. It’ll be nice.”

“Women need to be able to be women, even in a family.”

Marissa Claire handed Mom a rolled-up poster. She unrolled it halfway, and I saw the naked torso of a very muscular man in a firefighter uniform over her shoulder. My mouth dropped open. 

Mom gasped, “Missy! You’re terrible. You know my husband would throw a fit.” 

Mom tried to push the poster back into the woman’s hands.

“Well, who says he’s allowed down there? It’s supposed to be your space.”

I raced upstairs to report back to my siblings.

“It’s time for phase one,” Suzanne said.

We asked Mom if we could go to the playground, and trooped out of the house soon after. Mom didn’t make sure we wore scarves, even though it was a chilly day, so the feeling in our little group was morose. The eldest zipped our jackets up to our chins, and insisted that David wore a hat, but it wasn’t the same. Luckily, Mom didn’t ask us to bring the baby.

We arrived at the church, and Suzanne passed us each a Tupperware before she walked up to the front and tugged on the door. It was locked. We split up, each looking for a door or window that would allow us inside. David found it and we all raced over to a stained-glass window that was slightly ajar. Suzanne pushed it all the way open, and we tumbled inside one-by-one. We hadn’t been to church since last Easter, and I was immediately hit by the familiar heavy-perfume-and-dust smell that seeped up from the carpets.

“Find the Holy Water and the free rosaries!” Suzanne ordered.

We knew that the church gave out white plastic rosaries sometimes, and assumed they would be up for grabs somewhere. The Holy Water was easy to find, it was in a big bowl at the front of the church, for dipping your hand into. We each filled our Tupperware until the bowl was empty. The rosaries were a challenge though.

“We need them, to tie Mom up and reverse the curse,” Suzanne insisted.

We split up and looked everywhere, on each pew, in the supply closets and under the kneelers. I decided to check the altar. I climbed the steps and checked beside the mic stand, and then under the white cloth. Then I saw the gold box where they kept the communion. There probably weren’t any rosaries in there, but I decided to open it, it couldn’t hurt to check.

“Stop! Thief!” a voice boomed through the church.

We all tried to scatter. David dove under a pew, Arthur shimmied behind the statue of Mother Mary, the eldest shut himself in a supply closet and I sprinted for the open window. Only Suzanne stayed calm.

“We’re not stealing. We’re looking for the free rosaries.”

So, the priest sat us down, and we told him all about the Mom Cave and our vampire theory.

“This sounds very serious. You kids were right to come to the church, you’re not safe.”

My heart sank. So, it was true.

“We’re planning on tying her up with rosaries and sprinkling her with Holy Water,” Suzanne said.

The priest nodded his approval, “I can see you’ve done your research.”

Suzanne was right. Mom was turning into a monster.

The priest gave each of us a rosary and sent us home with the reminder to pray more often.

A few nights later, Suzanne woke me up and we slipped away from the others to watch Mom through the front window. She had a suitcase with her, even though there was no trip planned that we knew about. We watched her load the suitcase into the back of the car, turn it on, and sit inside without driving.

For some reason, my eyes were filling up with tears, “Why doesn’t she just go?”

“That suitcase is full of Marissa Claire’s mind-controlling tokens. Mom is just trying to get rid of them,” Suzanne assured me in a whisper.

Another voice spoke before I could, “Or maybe it’s full of empty vials of blood, because she’s already a vampire.”

David was standing behind us in his rumpled pyjamas. Something about his pouty mouth and stupid slippers made me angry. I lunged for him, but Suzanne held me back.  

“We have to be strong,” she said.

“We should have done the ritual sooner. What are we waiting for?” I snapped.

“Tomorrow, it’s a harvest moon,” Suzanne said.  

Phase two of the plan was capturing and overpowering Mom, tying her down with rosaries and sprinkling her with Holy Water. But things did not go according to plan. That morning, Dad went off to work as usual while Mom made breakfast. We were all supposed to go to school, so we walked to the bus stop with our backpacks, but as soon as Mom drove off with the baby we snuck back inside the house. It was time to create the trap.

I can’t tell you exactly how the trap was supposed to work, it came right out of Suzanne’s imagination, but it involved laundry baskets, Christmas lights and white sheets. She ordered us around for an hour, assembling it, and then we heard footsteps approaching. Someone rang the doorbell. Did Mom forget her keys? Did she know we were at home? Arthur wandered over to the door, despite our collective “Noooo,” and opened it.

A man in a bright yellow polo shirt was standing at the door. He glanced into the chaos inside our house, and smiled brightly at Arthur.

“Is your Mommy or Daddy home?”

Arthur quaked with terror at his mistake. We could all hear Suzanne’s mind whirring with fury.

“I’m here to deliver some furniture. Hello? Is there an adult home?”

One wrong step from the IKEA man could spring the whole trap. Suzanne popped out from her hiding spot, causing the man to jump.

“She wants it all on the front lawn.”

“The front…?”

 “You heard me.”

The man must have recognized the same dangerous power in her that we had, because he unloaded everything onto the front lawn, and had her sign for it even though she barely reached his elbow in height.

“This stuff must all be for the Mom Cave,” the eldest said.  

“We’ve got to get rid of it!” Suzanne raced onto the lawn, beckoning to the rest of us “quickly, we have to take it to the pond and sink it.”

We dragged the red wagon out from the garage and got to work stacking the boxes on top. It was heavy work, but if Mom came home and IKEA was on the front lawn she would know something was wrong. Once we had stacked it all, we wheeled it carefully down the driveway.

Mom was standing on the sidewalk, holding the baby. Her car was parked a little bit away. For a moment, we stared at her, and she stared back at us.

“What are you all doing? Why aren’t you at school?”

 We were caught. It was over.

 “What is all of that stuff? Is that… is that my IKEA order? What on earth?”

David started to cry. The eldest picked up Arthur, who buried his face in his jacket sleeve. I could’ve sworn Mom’s teeth were so long that they were poking the top of her lip. Mom wiped her cheek with her sleeve. Had she been drinking blood, and she was trying to wipe it away? Only Suzanne remained calm.

“We thought they probably delivered to the wrong house, you know how sometimes the neighbour gets our mail,” she said.

Mom’s face became a mask of fury.

“That doesn’t explain why you aren’t in school.”

None of us could explain that, and none of us could explain the mess we’d made inside. Mom identified Suzanne as our ringleader, probably because we kept glancing at her for instructions.

“Suzanne, I should’ve known. Go upstairs and wait for me on my bed. The rest of you had better help me clean all of this up.” Mom said.

Without Suzanne, we didn’t know how to use the trap. Mom made us bring the IKEA boxes downstairs, and put everything back where we’d found it. Worst of all, she found the Tupperware’s full of Holy Water under our beds, and rosaries stashed in the bathroom cabinet. When we didn’t answer what they were for, she dumped the water down the sink and tossed the rosaries into the trash, then locked us in our rooms. That evening, Mom didn’t make us dinner and we could hear her and Marissa Claire playing loud music in the basement while they assembled the Mom Cave. I looked out my window at the harvest moon, which glowed orange while my stomach growled. Someone unlocked my door. It was Suzanne. Everyone else was standing behind her, and she was even holding the baby.

“It’s time to go. We tried our best,” she said. 

We were about to reach the front door when we heard Dad’s heavy footsteps behind us.

“What are you kids up to?”

We looked at him over our shoulders and said, “Nothing!”        

He shrugged and wandered into the kitchen, probably looking for a snack, wondering when it was time for dinner.

Photograph by Edward Steichen

Cork

Snakes are fingers, snipped off. Dangling from the car window, when a truck speeds past or with a whoosh, the window lazily slices shut. The fingers, snipped off, roll down the side of the road, curving past the tires, tumbling through the rocks and foliage. Sometimes separated, scattered, villaged, unmethodically grouped, the finger stubs nestle into the dirt. Nurtured by pests, driven out by boredom, snakes emerge. An important decision weighs on their bald little heads– where does their passion lie? Strangulation, spitting, making tiny hollow eggs, scratching scales on bark, mimicking the voice of the croaky seen-it-all rogue character from daytime television? To see more of themselves, doubled, tripled, heaped in full piles seemed to be the usual choice of ambition, although tedious and morally messy.

Then a kid rolled down. The snakes came together in a crowd and asked, “But where are your fingers?” The kid pressed two stubs together. He’d gotten it confused, done it the whole other way around. Spinning and jostling around in the back, off his fingers went, in the faded maroon sedan. Oh, well, the snakes had that thing – patience. They had seen it in a roll of paper that also said ‘hospitale’ and on the exposed backside of a hurried man dressed in red and mint. The snakes, perhaps unanimously, or perhaps one or two of them gone rogue, said, “We’ll wait for his ends to grow back.” Then, right after, “When do trees know when to branch off? What if they continue on, unbent?” The snakes asked together, to each other. A rosy one swayed off-beat, glided away.

Between whiles, the snakes watched, carefully lathering the uneven crown of the kid’s hand in spit, pushing crushed leaves into the kid’s mouth. The kid was worried he’d sweep the floor with his new arms, he had liked them at pocket-length.The bronze-y snake most in charge of the kid’s empty fist coiled around the wrists, its own snake body hanging limply off the ground.

At some point, something small and soft thumped against the kid’s heels. Turning at the hips, the kid carefully observed the fresh finger. “Tadpole,” the kid said. The finger buried itself into the ground without further flair.

Yanked back around, the kid faced the bronze-y snake whose tail now flicked on the dirt, before slowly and surely fixing itself around the trunk of a tree.

It wasn’t for nothing. Although, half of it was. The kid was pleased to note that his arms did not stretch or drag, just hung in empty fists, swinging around from time to time. “Well, you’ve got to do something,” the snakes would say with their eyes and the tenseness of their necks; their mouths were close to dry from trying to nurture the kid.

There was another thump at the heel, followed by a weak squish. “You owe us,” the snakes said, as an ensemble or one by one.
So, the kid ambled along, parallel to the road. There was no waiting on the job, not that a break was warranted. Within moments, stretched out hours, the kid would find a plump bunch that formed along a small dip. Bending down and clasping them with the elbows, they would be gathered and transported. “Spaghetti,” kid said as the fingers squirmed their way out. Some time would pass. Kid’s chin was awfully good at rolling the fingers along the ground, deeper into the forest, back to softer soil.

At nighttime, a muddy, childish face was nuzzled and climbed by worn out snakes. It was as if the kid was a soft, smooth rock. Even staying very still, some would stagger, plummet, nosedive, fall down. The soil let out a quelch. This all gave the kid an idea.

“Home,” kid expressed, spread out close to the trees. The little ones got the message and blindly crawled their way in the dark, torpeding, carving, diving, or something gentler, sinking. The little nooks of his skin, once off-putting, became inviting. In the morning the snakes formed a crowd and said, “a baby person is perfectly porous for that kind of occupation.”

“You can stop here.”

The man was bleeding still. The woman stopped dragging him across the forest floor, to breathe. Mouth agape, she pressed her five fingers together slowly, condensing them as closely as she could, bringing them to her face.

“Shut it, stop it,” the bleeding one said, “thought I told you.”

The woman looked down. With one small movement, her fingers edged beneath the mint smock, dipped into the small wound at the man’s hip. Then, with great zeal, she edged in her wrist.

A gust of air, the wind’s tail crept along the man’s face. He shifted his neck away from the dancing grass and sighed weakly.

“Good for you,” the woman told him. The last of her sleeve was vanishing inside. “A pit-shaped pit,” she said. She looked up from that inconvenient angle, gazing mostly into the dark underside of the man’s chin. “They’re on their way, I can’t stop now.”

The man that was leaking shut his eyes, regretfully.

“Why don’t colors mix? In real life,” she said. The mint green was opening up, the red was coating it completely. “This doesn’t even look like a gown, why is it called a gown? Patient smock.”

A squelching noise, the woman shimmied her shoulder into it.

“Easy,” the man’s gritted teeth told her.

Rustling in the forest, a group of five others found their way again, but the woman was gone. Only the tip of a finger stuck out of the man’s left hip. The leaking, bleeding man let out a sigh. Taking off the first layer of their medicine uniforms, they followed suit, one by one slowly sinking. A commotion of expanding, shrinking, elbows nudging, a staticky something, and muffled apologies. It was almost all worth it, the man was thinking, for the look on the last man’s face. Swirling around, churning, cuffed around the neck, eyes rolling and rolling, fitfully and gracefully jostling.

Artwork by Matt Leines

Paula Rego’s Delightful Violence

The Pain and Wonder of Childhood in Paula Rego’s Peter Pan Illustrations

Underneath a sky of milky stars and a doubled moon, Paula Rego imagines a mermaid drowning Wendy; the beloved “little mother” who was first written by J.M. Barrie in 1904 and then appropriated by Disney in 1953. Wendy half-floats, her body sprawled and still visible through a transparent black sea. She is not resisting the violence being enacted on her, and the mermaid doesn’t seem to be using much force. If Wendy is not dead already, she has accepted her looming death with a sad kind of nobility. This scene never occurs in the original novel. By situating a drowning inside a beloved and well-known children’s tale, Paula Rego reminds the viewer of an uncomfortable truth: childhood is not a landscape free from exploitation or violence. Rego’s Peter Pan illustrations are an exploration of the danger of childhood: a danger that is present in every adaptation of this text, even if it is forgotten or ignored. Rego makes explicit the trauma already lurking in this story, but she also manages to maintain the magic of Neverland, an element of this series that is often forgotten by scholars of her work. Fairy tales like Peter Pan do not create idealized, safe places for children that Rego is simply destroying by bringing in danger from the “outside” world; fairy tales have always been fraught with a danger that Rego brings to the forefront.

Academic Jack Zipes argues that Rego’s images “suggest that the world is discombobulated, and that childhood is a period of abuse and danger for children.” The mermaid lagoon is not free from the dangers that adults face, and neither is Wendy. The mermaid is larger and more powerful than her: she has two strong tails, a broad muscular back and rippling shoulders. Wendy, by comparison, is limp and lanky, only half the size of the mermaid, and is being pushed down into a black sea with nobody in sight to rescue her. Zipes calls this image of the mermaid drowning Wendy “brutal,” and in her monograph, Paula Rego, Fiona Bradley refers to this mermaid as having a “savage determination,” to kill Wendy. Critic Rosenthal argues that “Wendy for once is a helpless child rather than a solid nurturing female… Rego’s version of a siren of the deep is about as unalluring as she could be.” Yet all three critics neglect to address the calm beauty of the image, the nuances of the violence being enacted and how the characters are reacting to it.

At first glance and partially because of the title, we know the mermaid is drowning Wendy. She is undoubtedly being pushed down into water by a threatening figure. So we expect to see something brutal or savage. But Rego subverts that expectation. There is no splashing, no struggle, no fear. The sky creates a starry backdrop that looks sublime and peaceful rather than sinister. The mermaid is strong, but there is no anger on her face, her expression rather oscillates between sadness and grim determination. Her mouth could be firmly closed with a concentrated brow, or her mouth is open and grimacing with sad, upturned eyebrows, expressing regret or worry. It depends on how the viewer sees the image. If Wendy was cropped out, the mermaid could merely be doing manual labour, or massaging a lover, based on her posture and expression.

Wendy is not fighting for her life, either because she is already dead or because she has no desire to fight. Her left arm rests against the mermaid’s tail, and her right arm floats upwards, her hand awkwardly bent out of the water. Her face and ears seem to be out of the water, leading to the question of why the mermaid isn’t pushing her down by the head. Wendy seems oddly reliant on her murderer to stay afloat. Her legs are spread in a way that resembles some of the women in Rego’s “Untitled. The Abortion Pastels” series such as the one below.

“Untitled,” Paula Rego

Wendy is vulnerable specifically as a young girl. The more the viewer looks at the image of her and the mermaid, the more maternal the mermaid seems. She transforms into a mother who is simultaneously pushing her daughter down and keeping her alive. She doesn’t seem to want to kill Wendy — she easily could if she wanted to — and if Wendy is already dead then the question becomes: why is the mermaid still holding her up?

Behind the two figures, the pole on Marooners’ rock is the only sign of a male presence, where the pirates will later tie Tiger Lily in an attempt to murder her. This conveniently phallic object looms over both women like a flagpole, looking down on them. Not only is Rego pointing out the existence of trauma in a child’s world through this drowning, she is depicting its nuances. Sometimes it is beloved, trusted figures who enact violence on children. Sometimes one kind of violence is the only way to spare a child from another worse kind. The image of abuse can also be painted as hauntingly beautiful; throughout the Peter Pan illustrations, however, Rego shows that pain and beauty can coexist in one moment.

Jack Zipes argues that art made in reaction to fairy tales serves to undo their imagined utopias. Artists such as Rego use the fairy tale “to pierce artificial illusions that make it difficult for people to comprehend what is happening to them.” But I disagree with the assumption that fairy tales seek to create a utopia, or “soothe an anxious mind,” as Zipes calls it. In fact, much of what is explicit in Rego’s mermaid image is implicit in both Barrie’s and Disney’s versions. In Barrie’s novel, Wendy and the mermaids do not have a good relationship– they present a threat to her, “she never had a civil word from them… they utter strange wailing cries; but the lagoon is dangerous for mortals then.”

In the play version of this story, also by Barrie, Peter warns, “They are such cruel creatures, Wendy, that they try to pull boys and girls like you into the water and drown them.” Their threat to Wendy is distant under Peter’s protection, but it still lurks. This fairy tale specifically warns against groups of women who live together outside of a patriarchal structure. Wendy is better off being a “young mother” than risking the unknown amongst the mermaids. The Disney adaptation picks up on this fear of autonomous women and makes it more explicit by heightening the mermaids’ threat: they grab Wendy’s clothes, try to pull her down, and splash her. When Peter tells them to stop, one mermaid declares, “we were only trying to drown her.” Rego takes this fear of autonomous women, embedded in the original text and the film, and uses it to show how women fear each other and hold each other down.

In her article “Paula Rego’s Sabotage of Tradition: ‘Visions’ of Femininity,” academic Gabriela Macedo points out how Rego violates the invisible boundaries that demarcate what can and cannot be criticised: “Rego’s career has been devoted to crossing into forbidden territories (fascism, Catholicism, patriarchy); while her rewriting of national memory aims at exorcising fear, as well as exposing guilt and hypocrisy… makes it at the very least difficult not to see.” I would extend her argument to include childhood and fairy tales as other forbidden territories that Rego violates. Childhood is treated like something sacred, and adults expect children to behave in certain ways because of their own imaginations of what it means to be a child. Fiona Bradley argues, “Rego’s subjects refuse to conform to what might be expected of them, courting ambiguity so that their situations remain mobile… tender embraces are easily confused with violent struggle.” It would be nice to imagine childhood as a period of simplicity and tenderness, but Rego uses ambiguity to violate this imagined utopia that is dreamed up in the minds of adults. In the Peter Pan series, Rego makes explicit what already anxiously lurks in fairy tales. And she violates tacit understandings that we all collectively imagine childhood as something pure, and free from trauma.

In Rego’s illustration “Tiger Lily Tied to Marooners Rock,” a young girl in a loose white dress calmly allows herself to be bound to a rock that will soon be deep underwater. Her body is relaxed and her eyes are closed, but we know that she is awake because she squats against the rock rather than sprawls against it. Her captor is an unsmiling male figure who is emerging from the strange black shape around them, presumably Marooners Rock itself. Both he and the rock are black: parts of his body are disappearing into it, and he appears more statuesque than the other characters, creating the impression that he is a part of the rock coming to life, or has been carved out of it for the purpose of binding captives.

Two boys watch Tiger Lily’s demise with curiosity, and two mermaids do nothing to come to her aid. Similar to “Mermaid Drowning Wendy,” the violence of this image is doubtless. Tiger Lily is trapped on a rock where she will eventually die, and nobody seems interested in rescuing her, even though they easily could. Yet Rego once again subverts expectations about how violence is supposed to look, and what it can mean.

Tiger Lily, like Wendy, does nothing to resist the violence being enacted on her. Her captor has no true legs to chase her with, and he is just about to finish tying her up. So how did he force her into that position in the first place? If someone else brought her there, then why isn’t he tying her himself, and making sure that she doesn’t escape? Tiger Lily looks neither scared nor sad about her future death, and her expression remains peaceful, perhaps even joyful. If she wanted to escape, she could have easily wriggled away from the animate rock-man. So it seems that she has decided to allow this violence to happen. Maybe she even sought it out herself; maybe she enjoys it. This intersection between pleasure and pain is not supposed to occur in children’s stories because it is usually seen as disturbing or sexual. Seeing a young girl getting pleasure from violence is a violation of our collective imagination of childhood. Macedo writes about Rego’s violation of Catholicism and patriarchy, arguing that, “Whether ‘the mater’ confronts directly gender or games of power, social and political hierarchies, it always ‘defies the pain’ and gives the viewer no solace, but… a tantalizing sense of pleasure and threat.” Tiger Lily, as a child, experiences both pleasure and threat in a violent world. She is playing a game that we usually think children are exempt from.

In the background of this illustration, at a strangely small scale, a silhouetted male figure points a rifle at a mermaid tail, which is diving into the piece of land he is standing on, or into the water behind it. The presence of the mermaids to the right of the picture makes it clear that the tail is a mermaid and not a very large fish, so it is definitely a female being hunted. The image is easy to miss, but it presents a foil to Tiger Lily’s behaviour. She may have sought out the violence she is experiencing, but the mermaid runs away from it.The viewer then returns to wondering why Tiger Lily is so complicit in her own trauma.

It is possible that she desires this pain and enjoys it, but that does not make her passive or powerless. Rosenthal argues that in this image, “Rego depicts her [Tiger Lily] as just another helpless female, which is doubtless legitimate considering her plight. One would, however, have enjoyed seeing what Rego might have made of this feisty Redskin woman warrior… had she chosen to depict her in one of her more militant moments.” Rosenthal doesn’t acknowledge the power of Tiger Lily’s choice in the face of violence. Instead of being afraid, she embraces trauma and appropriates it for her own use; Rego could have illustrated this female warrior in a fight, but she chose to depict a more nuanced situation where Tiger Lily remains somewhere between freedom and constraint, despite literal bonds. She is not “just another helpless female.” Her decision to find pleasure in trauma is an act of resistance, an alternative to militancy, and a representation of how some women and girls find freedom under immense patriarchal constraint.

Tiger Lily and Wendy are both young girls who are threatened by violence. It is a threat that is implicit in Barrie’s fairy tale and exists in the lives of real children. It would be wonderful to imagine that childhood is a utopia free from trauma, but fairy tales have always hinted at the vulnerability of children and the horrors they face. Rego draws out the danger that lurks in Neverland: where female monsters drown children, men tie little girls to poles, boys shoot girls out of the sky, and a grown man is obsessed with capturing and killing a young boy. Rego’s work complicates and amplifies the anguish of childhood, whilst maintaining another seemingly paradoxical truth, which is that fairy tales, childhood and trauma are often also beautiful.

References
Rosenthal, T.G. Paula Rego: The Complete Graphic Works. London: Thames and Hudson. 2012.
Grey, Tobias. “Paula Rego’s Dark Fairy Tales,” Blouin Art Info.
Macedo, Gabriela. “Paula Rego’s Sabotage of Tradition: ‘Visions’ of Femininity,” University of Wisconsin Press.
Peter Pan (film). Walt Disney. 1953.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan, Or The Boy Who Would Not Grow Up. The Folio Society. 1992.
Barrie, J.M. Peter Pan. Aladdin Paperbacks. 2003.
Zipes, Jack, The Irresistible Fairy Tale. Princeton University Press. 2012.
Bradley, Fiona, Paula Rego. Tate Publishing. 2002.
Miller, Sandra, “Paula Rego’s Nursery Rhymes,” Print Quarterly Publications. 1991.
Rosenthal, T.G. “On Art and Essays” Andrews UK. 2014.
Fortnum, Rebecca, Contemporary British Women Artists: In Their Own Words. Taurus & Co. 2006.

Mermaid Drowning Wendy, Paula Rego (1992).
Tiger Lily Tied to Marooners Rock, Paula Rego (1992).

Cover art by Paula Rego “Captain Hook and a Lost Boy”

incessant

my head’s not in the clouds it’s in second hand smoke rumbling the remains of a mute blast of a bomb i do not recall when or where going off when or where what went wrong rattling my hardened stone block of brain which was once the color and vigor of blush pink turned into onyx black ink bleeding through hazy eyes the asphalt rattles the cage of my skull ringing the impact is null nothing hits me shifts me i’m at the bottom of the ocean sitting with my legs before me like a rag doll crane my heavy head to look up a hint of sun twinkling through the far surface there’s no one there was no thud i’m not sure how i got here but i landed like an anchor

Artwork by Mona Hatoum, Image courtesy of The National

Doris Salcedo’s “Plegaria Muda”

“Plegaria Muda”:  An Anti-Memorial for Young People Who Experience Daily Violence and Trauma

        The teacher pulls the blinds down, covers the small glass window on the door with black paper, and twists the lock shut. The lights are off. The class stands together against the corner of the room closest to the door. One student wonders whether black paper would really fool a shooter into thinking a classroom is empty. Another is secretly relieved to be at the centre of a huddle of bodies. But this is only a drill, a regularity in North America since the Columbine shooting in 1999, and it will be over soon. The same cannot be said for youth who experience regular violence in their country or community.

        In her work, “Plegaria Muda,” which loosely translates as ‘silent prayer’, Doris Salcedo brings together gang violence experienced by youth in Los Angeles, and violence experienced by youth living in the rural parts of Colombia. Whether the victim is a student crouched in a classroom, or a teenager hiding from the Colombian army, the sound of a shooter’s footsteps leaves them powerless to do anything but say a silent prayer. These experiences result in trauma and loss that may look the same to an outsider. The number of victims in each scenario is overwhelming. Salcedo confronts the desensitization that occurs when there are so many victims by creating an anti-memorial.

Traditional memorialization is not empathetic because it converts victims into numbers and representations of a circumstance that is over, a move that leads society to forget the individuality of those who have suffered. When a viewer has not actually experienced the circumstances being represented, memorials become distant and easy to walk away from. But it is much harder to turn away from a human story. Salcedo’s work mourns these victims, but it also creates a deep discomfort with the idea of collectivising their experiences, insisting that we remember each of them singularly, and dig for the humanity in familiar images of tragedy.

        “Plegaria Muda” is made up of a series of hand-crafted tables, one resting normally on the ground with the other placed on top on its back. Between the two tables, there is a layer of soil with seeds of grass planted, which grow up through the wood over time. The immediate impression is that of a graveyard, with coffins buried in a transparent ground. The viewer cannot step over the graves but must walk half-sunk among them. However, there is another image that gets screened onto the viewer’s imagination as she walks through the space. Each sculpture also looks like one desk piled on top of another for a long school break. The viewer can either imagine herself in a graveyard or an empty classroom. Like in her other works, Salcedo does not pair the tables with chairs. The table is then stripped of its function, and the absence of the chair creates a question of what else is missing. Where is the student who sits there? While desks bring youth, education and potential to mind, coffins connote the end of those potentials. In the imaginary space between the desk and the coffin, there is the nameless, faceless child buried in the soil.  

The number of graves is overwhelming, and as the viewer meanders through them, the path becomes less clear and the journey across the room more convoluted. At first the coffins may seem like identical replicas representing a massive tragedy, and in one sense they are meant to portray a magnitude of suffering. However, the desks are not identical. Each one is hand-crafted, and while they look similar they are actually in various shades of colour mixed by Salcedo’s team. In the face of senseless violence, it is easy to become desensitized to individual suffering, but her work insists on maintaining nuance.

The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” in Berlin uses coffin imagery to overwhelm the viewer, and may seem similar to Salcedo’s work. It is also a kind of maze that the viewer is plunged into and must navigate. Upon entrance, the coffins begin waist-high, and from the outside it seems that they are all this height. Then they rise as you walk towards the middle of the work, creating the feeling that you are sinking. Each grave in the memorial is the same, aside from their differing heights. Once the viewer understands the message of the work, it is easy to walk away because there is not much else to look at, there is no individual detail on any of the graves, and the story that is being told creates a single sweeping narrative. There is no human story, no nuance. The victims are converted into their circumstance, one that the viewer understands fleetingly while she sinks, and then sets aside.

The Berlin Memorial tries to put the viewer into the metaphorical state of the victim, sinking into inescapable sky-less entrapment. But putting the viewer “into the victim’s shoes” is not how empathy works. Salcedo’s work comparatively urges you to stop and look at the differences and details, reminding you that each coffin contains an individual. The initial image that her work creates is familiar — you are in a graveyard. Once you are drawn in and comfortable, the differences between each table become apparent. It is much harder to walk away from a piece that challenges you to discover the hints of humanity in an otherwise desensitizing experience. To pay attention is a true act of empathy, and it’s one that her work demands in juxtaposition with the traditional memorial.

        “Plegaria Muda” was born out of Salcedo’s realization that the victims and perpetrators of gang violence share socioeconomic circumstances that result in a lack of empathy from broader society: the victims are faceless gangsters, who bring violence onto themselves. In an interview with art historian Tim Marlowe, Salcedo states, “These young men, before they were physically killed they were socially killed because they were living in marginal areas… and we don’t mourn them because we think they are gangsters … We ought to mourn every single life.” Salcedo also visited mass graves in Colombia and interviewed the mothers of young men who had gone missing. By putting these two tragedies in conversation, the work points out their similarities and problematizes the ways we think about the “other” in relation to violence. Youth in parts of L.A. have been deemed unworthy of help or empathy; they are imagined as an island apart from the America that society pays attention to. Similarly, Colombian youth are marginalized because they come from a country that has a history of violence so people have become numb to their tragedies. The work accuses society of thinking of them as incapable or inherently violent, and refusing to pay attention to their potential.

        The grass that grows through each piece has a double meaning similar to the tables themselves. It reminds the viewer of tenacity and strength. Salcedo calls each blade a miracle. It seems so unlikely that a delicate plant could find its way to the light through such heavy and unyielding material. Yet Salcedo points out that it also resembles the grass that grows around the walls of a ruin. While disenfranchised groups of people survive trauma every day and somehow continue living, that does not negate the loss of those who do not survive. North American youth in affluent neighbourhoods may be bored or made nervous by lock-down drills. Violence does not often creep into their backyards, but society empathizes with their fear. The potential in young people who are less privileged is destroyed every day, and Salcedo’s work demands at the very least, a restless discomfort with that fact.

“Doris Salcedo: Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer) 2016” Nasher Sculpture Center, 2016. (Youtube)
“Doris Salcedo on A Flor de Peil and Plegaria Muda,” whitecube.com, 2012.
“Plegaria Muda,”Grynsztein, Madeline and Rodrigues-Widholm Julie. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2015.
“Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda, 2008-10,” Brinson, Katherine. guggenheim.org, 2015
“Doris Salcedo: Plegaria Muda at MUAC,” Vernissage TV, 2011. (Youtube)


The Wheel

This story was originally published in NYU Gallatin’s platform, Confluence.

The year was 2005. The summer was hot, the tourists were stupid, and Coney Island spun like liquid sugar in a cotton candy machine. Andy was twelve and her brother Marcus was ten. He was tugging her by the wrist towards the Ferris wheel. Everything was bright and winking as they passed a carnival game with a man trying to convince customers to play.

“Three tries to get this ball into a bucket. Three tries and you can win a big prize!”

Andy felt a trickle of sweat slide from the back of her knee down the soft fuzz of hair on her calf.

She glanced at the prizes, which were a series of dead-eyed stuffed animals in a net hung above the man’s head. She longed to cut them down and set them free; it had been a while since anyone had won that game. She could smell the dust. Even if she’d wanted to play, she didn’t have any money to waste. At the next stall, a girl wearing a plaid mini-skirt was selling temporary tattoos and pumping Missy Elliot.

Automatic, supersonic, hypnotic, funky fresh (Ha!)
Work my body, so melodic, this beat rolls through my chest (Yup)


Beside her, Marcus sang along loudly, proud that he knew the words well enough to say them on time. Andy hated his singing, and hated the eyes of the people who watched them as he got louder. She told him to “shut up!” and he pinched the inside of her palm as a response, so she jerked her hand away.

Marcus teased her as they walked.

“You’re scared, you’re too chicken for the wheel. You know I heard one time someone shook the carriage so much—”

Andy turned her head and tried to walk away from him, but still heard when he added,“that it swung off and smashed to the ground.”

Andy pictured a can of tuna she’d seen on the side of a highway once. That was back when her parents still took them places. Now they were always exploding into fights when Mom wasn’t sleeping or staring at the TV. You haven’t moved in three days. You need to shower Lydia. Are you listening? Dad was always working. He had barely answered when Andy asked for his permission to go to Coney Island alone with Marcus, but he’d left them some money on the table before leaving that morning, so they had taken that as his blessing.

Andy looked at the wheel and felt nauseous. There was something evil about it, the way it loomed over everything, like a clown that had once towered over her when she was little. It looked rusty. Every so often a shriek pierced the air. She didn’t feel as confident as she had when they left that morning.

“Can’t we just go to the beach?” she pleaded.

Marcus shook his head. She knew she was doomed to ride, especially when they arrived at the ticket booth.

“Two tickets!” Marcus said, pushing his half of the money through.

The money disappeared and two green pieces of paper slid out on their backs, pushed by long fingertips. Marcus snatched them up and he and Andy joined the line to the wheel.

“Still scared?” he teased.
“No!”

Andy refused to talk to him after that, so Marcus struck up a conversation with a group of older kids standing in front of them.

In front of them, a woman with roses twisting along her forearm in a faded tattoo bounced a toddler on her hip. The line shifted forward. A man, maybe the baby’s Father, stood behind them and made faces at the baby, who periodically reacted or squirmed towards him to be held. Eventually the woman gave in and passed the baby over; it immediately grabbed a fistful of the man’s hair. The woman, the man and Andy all laughed. When the couple looked at her, Andy’s breath caught like a hard stone in her throat and she turned on the spot to stare at a poster. The line shifted forward. Andy didn’t turn around until she felt that the heat had safely faded from her face. Marcus glared at her because he hated not getting attention. Andy looked pointedly at the floor. The line shifted again so Andy, Marcus and three older kids were finally at the front.

Marcus handed Andy one of the tickets when the gate opened again.

“I’m gonna ride with these guys,” he said, and then he sprung into the carriage with them. The ticket collector closed the gate behind him, so Andy would have to ride with three strangers.

It was the meanest thing he’d ever done to her, and she felt a cresting wave of weight funnel into her throat and push with a deep ache behind her eyes. From the carriage, Marcus looked at her, and she could see regret already on his face when their eyes met. They both knew he wouldn’t shout a “sorry!” in front of those older kids though.

Andy threw him her angriest look as the carriage moved up and then she walked through the gate into the next one. She slumped in the corner and three girls climbed in after her. They were sisters, and they were bickering about something. When they noticed Andy, which took a surprising amount of time, they got quiet and this was much worse.

From the top of the Ferris wheel, which always felt like it was rocking dangerously, Andy looked down at the carnival. The airplanes on a nearby ride rose and fell and whizzed below. Things were brightly painted and swaying. Rihanna’s new song, Pon De Replay, was carried to her ears and then left soon after on the wind. On the beach, people were tanning or swimming or playing volleyball. The ride seemed to stretch on forever as she edged further from the strangers beside her.

Andy finally stepped off the wheel with an attitude prepared. Anger had surpassed betrayal now. She was too angry to cry, so she would shout at him. She would threaten to tell Dad, unless Marcus came to the beach with her and stayed there all day. Dad didn’t like to hear their whining voices after work. He would yell, and Marcus did anything to avoid Dad’s yelling.
She would take his cotton candy money too. She glanced around the exit and felt another surge of irritation. Marcus wasn’t standing there. He was supposed to be standing there. He was supposed to be leaning on the grate looking bashful and sorry. She whipped her head from side to side, her anger growing. Surely, he wouldn’t have left with those older boys for the whole day? What was she supposed to do? She leaned on the grate, not wanting to look stupid standing there. She hated him. Hated.

Andy looked around, feeling more stupid by the second. There was no way she could have gotten off the ride before him. There were no other exits… she glanced around to double check. No, this was the only place he should be. She felt a bubble of something other than anger, but shoved it down. She was angry. It was right to be angry.

Andy stomped over to the cotton candy machine and stood in line, waiting. He would see her here, when he came back with his tail between his legs. It was still close to the wheel. He would see her.

She ripped the cotton candy into pieces and let it melt on her tongue. She waited. She walked circles around the wheel. She bumped into the woman with the rose tattoo. She recognized one of the older kids who Marcus had ridden the Ferris wheel with, but she was too embarrassed to ask where he might be. How long had she been waiting?

Andy wanted to ask her parents for a watch for her birthday. Not an expensive one, just a kiddy one so she could tell the time. She envied her older cousin Lily’s cell phone, which could call and text and tell time, but she was way too young, and her family was way too poor, to ask for that. Marcus would remind Dad about her birthday, Marcus was good at remembering birthdays.

Another bubble of something rose in her chest and she pushed it down again. Marcus would jump out from where he was hiding soon. He’d apologize. She had the strange urge to shout for him.

Had she missed him somehow when she went to buy the cotton candy? The sugar glass burbled in her stomach like a witch’s brew. She felt green. She went up to the ticket booth.

“Excuse me have you seen my brother?” she gestured to the place where the top of his head landed when they stood side by side to compare heights. He was as tall as her temple. Her voice sounded weak.

“What does he look like?” the ticket seller asked Andy, a little impatient. There was a line forming behind her.

“Curly hair. He looks… like me, but he’s a boy. He’s funny and… maybe he wanted to go on the haunted house ride?”

The ticket seller shook her head, “I don’t know, I’ve seen a lot of boys today.”

Andy noticed a beetle edging its way across the window of the ticket booth. It twitched its wings and it paused when it reached a dead fly crusted into the sill. Someone pushed past her to shove his money through the window. “Five tickets”. Andy allowed herself to be moved aside. Or maybe she stepped aside herself.

She walked to the front of the park, in case he was waiting for her there. Had they ever set a place to meet if they got separated? They might have said the hot-dog stand. She checked there. There was a boy with curly hair. Marcus! She stepped forward, and then he turned around. He wasn’t Marcus. She imagined her guts crawling up into her mouth and splattering on the ground. Everything was too loud. She kept thinking about Marcus’ story of the rocking people who got smushed at the bottom of the wheel, like tuna run over by a transport truck.

I’ll take you to the candy shop (yeah)
Boy, one taste of what I got (uh-huh)


The sun was much lower in the sky now. She thought of what her Dad would say if she showed up at home without her brother. She pictured a home without him. No. Marcus was already home, trying to wake Mom up. Sometimes he got worried about Mom and crawled into bed to watch TV with her. He said he was trying to make sure Mom didn’t forget about them. A group of tourists crowded around her. Andy could tell they were tourists because they blinked slow and stupid. If they’d been from New York they wouldn’t have dressed up so much for Coney Island. What if she couldn’t find him all night? Where was he?

Andy felt a surge of sick heat hit the backs of her knees and she sunk to the floor in front of the hotdog stand, with the pigeon poop. She was supposed to go tell someone now. She pictured Marcus’ face, his laugh. She smelled blood. People were looking at her. She stood up.

“Are you okay, honey?”

Andy gulped, she didn’t want to cry in front of a stranger. She couldn’t say the word ‘brother’ or the word ‘missing’. Across the road a man was stumbling around in a long black trench coat, slurring nonsense words and shouting.

“I’m good, thank you,” the words came out in a gasp. She’d find him herself. The stranger’s eyebrows came together and Andy sensed the adult’s impulse to intervene. She smiled. One corner of the mouth, then the other. She willed her lips not to shake.

“Where are your–”

Before the adult could finish that question, Andy sprinted back into the park. She kept the smile on her face, but people still looked at her funny so she slowed to a walk. She passed the same mini-skirt girl. She wiped her wet cheeks.

And Sugar, we’re going down swinging
I’ll be your number one with a bullet …


Marcus liked Fall Out Boy and Marcus liked macaroni. Marcus liked transformer toys. He liked Kim Possible and The Proud Family. He liked watching Prison Break with Mom when Dad wasn’t home to tell them no. It’s fucked up that you’d let him watch this crap, Lydia. Are you listening? Did you notice that your son was watching that? Andy passed two strangers talking to each other in low voices, their hands exchanged a small clear bag with something in it, and a wad of money. Marcus knew how to make scrambled eggs. Marcus learned how to ride a bike before Andy did and he could ride it with one hand. Marcus could whistle and blow bubble gum. Marcus hated cucumber and he could get Mom to eat on the days when everyone else gave up. Marcus liked hot wheels and his tamagotchi had only died twice since he got it. There was a needle mixed in with the broken glass on the pavement.

Andy stumbled into a man who smelled like pee and dodged under his arm and his leering grin. She found herself on the beach. She wanted to go somewhere that nobody would look at her or hear her. She couldn’t say those words. My brother is gone. My brother. My…

A woman shouted in Andy’s face when she knocked into her. Andy stared back blankly until the woman walked away. Andy closed her eyes and walked into the water still wearing her tennis shoes. Marcus liked to swim doggy paddle. Marcus with those stupid goggles that stretched his stupid face. Mom taught them both how to doggy paddle before she stopped going outside. Andy walked in the water towards the pier. It got too rocky so she clambered up the beach and into the shade. There were fewer people here. Someone was asleep under a tarp. It smelled like rotten fish.

It was her fault. She was the one who had been so sure that the money on the table was for Coney Island. Dad never actually said it was okay. Dad didn’t talk much these days but she should’ve made sure. She should’ve known it wasn’t safe for a little kid like Marcus. He was just a little kid. The sun sank lower in the sky and the waves bit at the shore.

When bad things happened at home, Marcus always slept in her bed, and the sound of him sleeping made it all easier. When they woke up things were usually better. When Dad forgot to buy food and didn’t come home, Marcus went around to the neighbours asking for leftovers. The sand was crusted on Andy’s shoes. They would be hard to wash. Dad would be angry.

The man under the tarp woke up and looked directly at her with pure black eyes. Andy felt sick. Her and Marcus were supposed to be home now, Dad would be home now, and she should have gone to a police officer. She couldn’t stand it. She scuttled backwards towards the pier when the man wasn’t looking. She crawled into the dark space underneath the pier and listened to her own breaths. It got dark outside. She realized she wasn’t alone under there.

Andy fell asleep and woke up crying and cold.

His face with a smile on it. Gone. Lost kid on a milk box. Eggs in a bowl with a fork. Hot wheels. She shook. What if he was. He liked those toys. Dead eye prize in a net. He can blow gum and snap. Can you hear me you bitch? He fed Mom. He rode his bike with one hand. He liked shows. Your son saw that. A bug on the sill. Gone.

If he was gone her Mom would die and her Dad would leave.

Someone was calling her name.
Dad?

It was so dark and she was very cold. She could not go home. Not if he was gone. More voices. Under the pier was rustling with other people. Angry shadows around her. Shadows like people on the prison break show. Her teeth felt glued together. If Dad found her she’d have to tell him. She felt the sharp jab of a finger in her back and she ignored it.

“Andy!”
“Andrea!”

A voice that sounded like it was full of sand spoke right behind her ear, “Are they looking for you?”

In her head she screamed. Run! Towards her name and away from the sharp finger. She couldn’t move. It was like her whole body had pins and needles.

“Andy!” another voice sounded closer.

A hand grabbed her by the hair and lifted her into a sitting position. The hand smelled bad.

“I said are the police fucking looking for you?”

She didn’t answer.

“Hey! We can’t have some missing kid here. Do you know how much shit we could be in?” the voice said.

Andy tried to squirm away from the face so close to hers, but the hand was tangled in her hair.

“Andy, please!”
That was Marcus. Marcus’ voice. Marcus.
He was safe. He was here.

She opened her mouth and screamed.

Pearl Eyed People

She placed the cleaver
between its lips, cracked
the clam open and
I don’t know why but
I started crying
as she plucked pearl seeds
from its pink belly
ripped like shredded
satin dresses of inner cheeks,
it never bled.

If I were motionless
unmoved on the bottom
of the ocean, I’d sleep
hands over chest
my hair swaying above me
tickling the fish tummies
who pass me by
and work my life
to occasionally opening
my eyes, fermenting
from the inside,
would I learn
how to cry?

Artwork by Carla Fuentes