She was known as the girl born with a caul. Delivered intact in a sack of amniotic fluid. The tale was told before the mother had emerged. Before even the midwife, some say. More likely it was midwife prattle. Crowding outside the house the villagers genuflected and blessed themselves and blessed each other. Inside the house the midwife burst the waterbag and peeled it, second skin, off the infant, that the child might draw its first breath. She slipped the caul onto a piece of card to preserve it, propped the slip of soul on the mantelpiece and whispered some words in the mother’s ear. The waterlogged child breathed, the cord was clamped and cut, she was helped onto the mother’s chest and the midwife packed her suitcase and closed the door behind her.
When, still little, the child came to walk and they saw her in the village, her milk skin, water-grey eyes and pale hair, the villagers again blessed themselves, and again blessed each other.
Whether the story of her fortuitous birth reached her ears is unlikely. Although rare to be born in a bag of water it was not unheard of. Mother and daughter didn’t stay long in the village. The mother being apt to move on, to scatter, bestow or bequest any belongings, to fling her home into the past once it became familiar. Likely it is that the caul, talisman protecting against death by drowning, was bartered or sold to the first sailor the mother encountered. Likely that the tale was held only in spoken myth in the village of her birth.
One day the mother stopped. Abruptly. Stopped moving and settled in a house in the country. The burnt landscape in winter yellow and brown suited her. The limited palette of ochres and umbers matched her eyes and skin. The whitepainted house, long abandoned, was blackening with mildew. Its yellow shutters were the only touch of cheer in the winterscape.
Stopping was like gathering and much that had been deserted on the way followed her there. A woman of no belongings, no place, was all of a sudden suffused in belongings, in place.
The large house was soon cramped. The doorway clogged with shoes, the chairs stacked with books, each marked where left off with a coloured ribbon. The downstairs loo piled with old magazines, newspapers, buckets containing rolls of wallpaper, bags stuffed with curtain fabrics. Photo albums surfaced. Dust fell.
She modelled herself on Brueghel’s peasants, tied in an apron, bundled against the landstripping winds. Dug a garden and housed some chickens. Spent her afternoons composing her funeral. Although kitchen cabinets spilled with crockery and the larder was stuffed with foods, the mother used but one bowl to eat from, and kept to a sober regime: porridge, soup, bread, cheese. In winter, whisky; summer, gin. Apples when they fell. Eggs when they laid.
Having always been by her mother’s side, the now grown girl discovered she was no longer welcome. They said goodbye. One looked out onto her plot, her stunted apple trees, her chickens. The other out the opposite window, along the slow road, away. One long tear ran down each of their cheeks. As the girl went away the mother called after her:
Bury me as I am. Don’t dress me up. Bury me in my old clothes. I want to be comfortable under the earth.
Elsewhere. A girl walking city streets, begging a job. Bar, café, café, bar, restaurant. All too clear: those white hands. Not done a day’s work in her life. A girl huddled in the embrace of her mother’s shadow. Never left her mother’s side. She encountered her slight self in the mirrors behind the bars, in the toilets, and saw what they saw: all that was hefty about her was the shadow. Jobs were hard coming by then, she hadn’t the stature of a worker and was barely humoured on displaying her hands. Wash the dishes for a meal, clean the place for a bed. She had thought. Even that was hard coming by.
In one café she sat down for a cup of coffee. The place reeked with the odour of a party just missed, a scene just departed. She noticed a man beckoning her. The café was thick with smoke, tables not cleared. No, we don’t need a waitress; no, no work. Thick with smoke, the dregs of long-gone customers, drinking coffee, no work and through the bleary air, a man beckoning. He was older, drinking coffee too, and writing in a notebook. No, not writing, sketching. Indistinguishable music streamed in the background. Silhouetted against the glare of lights behind the bar the barman leaned, crook-eyed, bored. She approached the man.
I overheard you’re looking for work?
The walls of the studio were clad with sketches, newspaper cuttings, pictures torn from magazines. The floor bright, swept clean. The overdressed walls recalled her mother’s cluttered house. The familiarity was cosseting. She took to her job.
The artist sculpted her, stood her carved image on plinths around the studio. Occasional groups of students came to draw her. At first she had felt disembodied beneath so many eyes. Then she found the gaze solidified her. It calmed her, she grew. Expanded into her body, grew lungs. Her lungs swelled. She breathed. Her mother’s shadow was dragged off her. In the studio space she became aware of herself. In the cafés, the mirrors, she had felt naïve, formless. Being drawn gave her shape. She began to concoct an identity collage of the myriad depictions of her image.
Of the pictures on the walls she composed role models. These were archetypes, female selves to shape herself to. One showed a woman carrying laundry helping a child up some steps. Her arms were thick from washing, her sleeves rolled, her hair wrapped in cloth. Behind her spread a white town, below her a river. In another, a shard of light stretched across a forest. The sky and land were deep grey and the light illuminated the forest’s shadows from where a woman was emerging. She carried a bundle of sticks under her arm.
But outside of the studio, stripped of shadow, she felt hollow again, formless. She searched for her reflection in shop windows, and found herself envying the artist’s sculptures and the solid arms beneath the washerwoman’s sleeves.
A letter came. It had been redirected via various addresses. She read it while walking by the river. The letter told of her mother’s death. With words like: peacefully, in her sleep; village graveyard; small number of mourners present; no flowers; it told of the funeral. A sombre affair. As her mother had desired. Any money had gone to buying a coffin, a gravestone, paying for the burial. Chickens had been housed by a nearby neighbour. Everything else was being dealt with by a solicitor. Unable to contact you.
The letter was dated six weeks previous. She wondered whether her mother had been buried in her old clothes. At first she felt nothing. Then tears welled up and spilled out of her. She clutched for that shadow, shelter, remnant of her mother. She tore open the envelope for some trace of it. Her tears dissolved the last penumbral shades leaving only wet smudges on the paving behind her.
The river is the green of avocadoes. It is the green of the slim membrane that sits between the dark outer skin and the paler flesh. Her tears capture the river’s green, the sky’s grey. Green tears roll and crack onto the cobbles beneath her feet. She looks into the river for her reflection, but it only shows her her green-grey tears.
Where the slabs of stone lining the river descend to meet the water level the girl steps off the bank and sinks quietly, appeased, into the river, a pool of tears warm as the womb.
Three days later, three days downstream, a girl’s body was dragged out of the river. Milk skin, water-grey eyes. The body was lain on a table in the morgue. It was not identified.
The pathologist, aesthete, poet-at-heart, was moved by the ethereal countenance of the girl. A slight smile on her lips, in her translucent cheeks; her water-grey eyes touched almost to a close. He had a plaster cast made of the unknown face, serene in death. Then she was buried, unidentified, in the common graveyard.
The plaster cast came to be reproduced. Enigmatic, it captured the fancy of a generation. It became an accessory, a morbid trinket worn or displayed in the most fashionable houses. It is said that women of the era modeled themselves on the unknown girl. They whitened their cheeks, lightened their hair and imitated the strange smile, the part-closed gaze. Copies of the death mask can still be seen today hung as amulets on the doorposts of certain houses in the city.
Writer and translator Olivia Heal has had fiction published in The White Review and The Literateur. She was shortlisted for The White Review Prize 2013.