“The Woman With Too Many Mouths” by Cathy Sweeney

I met the woman with too many mouths in the plaza at the start of summer. The night was warm and smelled of melted grass. I would not normally have noticed such a woman, but I was in a mood where each step took me further into that realm where even the drift of a stranger’s cigarette smoke suggested life as it should be and not as it is; and it was in this mood that the woman caught my attention. She was not my type; a crooked nose, legs marbled with muscle, gulag eyes. But as I saw her on that night of warm grass, she seemed to possess a strange beauty. Only subsequently did I discover that the woman had too many mouths.
In life you rarely get what you want; you desire brown eyes so you marry a girl with eyes of sky. The woman with too many mouths was almost ugly; her beauty depended on the angle of the moon, her perception of my perception, and so on. But her mouth, it must be said, had no truck with subjectivity. I spoke to her that night on the plaza. It’s a lovely evening. She answered and rain came from her mouth. Nothing unusual there, you say, and you are right; and it was ordinary rain, soft and season less. I was dispirited. And that is why, some weeks later, when the woman, lying beneath me (we were picnicking in the land), breathed hay onto my white linen shirt, it was so unexpected. I had ironed the shirt with great difficulty, the linen having been left too long in the sun, and watched transfixed as the fresh hay, reeking faintly of cattle and fertilizer, billowed against it before being carried away in the breeze.
I planned to end the association with the woman. She was, as I have said, not my type. But some nights later, moths, not two but twenty, the ones you think are butterflies until someone says otherwise, flew out of the woman’s mouth and around my bathroom. The woman had gone in there to douche. When she screamed I thought there must be a spider in the closet and it was with irritation that I uttered I’m coming, I’m coming and finally turned the handle on the door. In distress, the woman was strangely beautiful; each moth flew from her mouth unique, blue and timburalis, magenta and phosphorena. I put my arms around the woman and we stood for a long time shadowed here and there by tiny flickerings.
The woman asked me to hit her. Again, nothing original in that you say, and you are right. I have of course hit women before, as hard or as soft as they wished, but when I went to strike the woman I lost all strength in the surface tension of air. I was shaken – not to be able to hit a woman is as bad as not being able to make love. I said to myself, Dimitri, you are thirty two years old, you have yet to publish your great novel but you are on the path to greatness. This woman is but a fleeting glimpse at life. The world will always want servants but what the world needs is writers. These thoughts – of writing and of greatness – filled me with such a sense of destiny that I slept for days and when I woke I had forgotten all about the woman with too many mouths.
Weeks passed. I visited my dear friend in the city. We met as students. I was studying military history but had, in truth, no interest in the subject; military history was my father’s obsession and, having encouraged me in my early years, he had grown to resent what he called my leisure. My dear friend was studying Greek but signed himself in at the library each morning as student of life. We met in a bar in the old part of the city, and for years afterwards I believed that meeting to be the most significant event of my life. It was a wonderful time; night and day opened and closed each other in swishes of velvet and muslin. I remember smoking cigarettes and drinking wine on balconies at dusk, staring out over the city, watching clouds darken until only a slice of the moon remained; destiny like a tiny wing beat in my hand.
In the city my dear friend was absorbed with a pretty countess and I with money or, more correctly, the lack of it, and there were times, drinking coffee in the morning on the terrazzo, waking through the boulevards in the first cool of the evening, when I had nothing to say to my dear friend and he nothing to say to me, and so when the countess invited my dear friend to summer with her in her chateaux it was without sadness that we parted. To write my great novel I needed to think cold thoughts; I almost wished for winter.
I returned to town and took a job as a typesetter and, because I knew nothing of typesetting, it was consuming. I learnt quickly and got on with the other men, particularly a young man from Irkutz. We shared our cigarette breaks and took to drinking schnapps in the bars along the quay when the shift was over. The young man kept his money in his trouser pocket and when he stood up coins fell to the floor. He had thick black hair which he pushed from his face when I spoke to him, but left hanging when he spoke himself. I liked the young man, I liked the job, and the rest of the time I slept; if it wasn’t for destiny flapping in the background, I might have been happy. And then, in one week, I received two telegrams: My dear friend had married the countess and my father had died, leaving me enough money to write my great novel.
I have not yet described to you the town in which I lived. It was a dead place. The surrounding countryside was flat and offered no vantage point from which a vision might arise; instead the town projected itself in recurring images of black and white. What little architecture existed was built from porous stone; in sun it glared and in rain it took on the appearance of sediment. Each street was an endless square around which people walked in straight lines, their faces dry from dry bread. I tell you this so that you might understand; it was not a place to inspire a great novel, and so I accepted an invitation from my dear friend to visit him and his new wife in their chateaux.
I could expend many pages recounting my time at the chateaux: ten pages on scenery and mood, at least four on the charms of the countess, two on philosophical musings on the subject of friendship; but you would become bored and worse, you would forget all about the woman with too many mouths. In summary, the countess was the kind of woman who enticed people into her world with ease and soon all my thoughts were one question: were her breasts, swaddled in heavy damask, as small as they appeared to be? I was infatuated. My dear friend understood everything and found everything amusing, and so life at the chateaux was a vagary of fat and thin emotions until the countess announced she was with child. I returned immediately to the town and found that, despite the hospitality of my hosts, I had very little money. All those evenings at the card table, watching the flattened breasts of the countess rise and fall, had been expensive.
I resumed my job as a typesetter and days again smeared into each other. The young man from Irkutz bought a wallet and developed a habit of taking it in and out of his pocket when he was nervous. I saw less of him. At night I sat at my typewriter drinking wine until thoughts were a frozen sleep. And then I saw her again, the woman with too many mouths. It was a cold night and the rain was endlessly vertical. In lamplight her nose veered to the side and her arms were sinewed from carrying heavy buckets. We walked together through cobbled streets and each time my hand brushed her hers, berries fell from her mouth; black and blue and crimson.
In my room the woman took off all her clothes and drank red cider until her mouth was swollen and her breath was sticky. Again, she asked me to hit her and again I could not. We slept for days, far away from each other in the bed, and when I woke the woman with too many mouths was gone. Months passed. My dear friend, who was wintering in the city, came to visit. He had grown fat and suffered from heartburn. The countess was still luxurious he told me, but always with child. At night we sat in the lounges of hotels drinking cocktails and smoking cigars. One evening I took comfort in a metetricious young girl from the countryside but, at a crucial juncture, I could not proceed; the downed hair of the girl’s back had the texture of hay and her skin reeked faintly of cattle and fertilizer. The experience of loss is not a sloped gradient. It is random black dots on an endless linear. At times, drinking with friends in cafes, laughing at the absurdity of this or that, questions would print themselves on my brain Did I love at all? Who can ever be sure whether he loves or not? And I would forget all about the woman with too many mouths until, the flickering of butterflies or the reds of berries or the smell of hay poured once more as rain inside me.
And then I saw her again. The woman with too many mouths. They say coincidence is only for stories, and I am sure they are right, but the night I saw her smelled of melted grass and I was again in a mood of strange ascension. I sat down in the café beside her. The waiter fluttered by and I ordered a pastis. I raised my eyebrows but the woman shook her head although her glass, I noticed, was almost empty. I lit a cigarette and drew my shoulders in. A passing stranger, glancing at the woman, could not have told from her body that a man was close beside her. The smoke from my cigarette wafted into the woman’s hair and she began to speak. As I listened, the tiniest flakes of whitened grey released themselves from her mouth, so light and casual, I thought I was seeing things. But I wasn’t; as I inhaled, the woman exhaled. I squashed my half-smoked cigarette into the ashtray and the woman stopped speaking. The waiter arrived with the pastis and I drank the sweet liquid in one mouthful, stuck a note under the sugar bowl, and walked out into the night. The woman, to my surprise, ran after me and in my room anchored herself to me, making waves of our bodies until I could no longer tell man from woman. I kissed her mouth and ink came from it, staining the bed sheets and soaking through to the mattress. Again, she asked me to hit her and I slapped her on the mouth, harder and harder, until ink and blood were one, and the woman disappeared.
Years passed. I wrote my great novel. I could write a hundred pages about writing my great novel, but no one would read it. My novel was published. The reviews were favourable. It sold within expectation. And then nothing. What else is there?
I hear you say There are far greater torments than this! What about death or no money for boots or the violence that accompanies each age? I hear you say it and do not turn by back when you spit in the dust and stamp on it.

Biographical Note:
Cathy Sweeney has written a collection of short stories entitled Stories from the Entrance to Hell. The three stories reproduced here form part of that collection.

We are as forlorn as children lost in the wood. When you stand in front of me and look at me, what do you know of the griefs that are in me and what do I know of yours? And if I were to cast myself down before you and tell you, what more would you know about me that you know about Hell when someone tells you it is hot and dreadful? For that reason alone we human beings ought to stand before one another as reverently, as reflectively, as lovingly, as we would before the entrance to Hell. Franz Kafka

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