An Ode to Sylvia Plath
fiction by Nafiza Azad
“The Tongues of Hell”
. We specialize in lies and silver hearts made from crystallized sodium silicate at a hundred and fifteen degrees Celsius. The hearts are liars too. With a twinge of mercury in their azure depths. We have tongues red with the raspberry flavoured lifesavers we eat during the fifteen minutes we get between each lie that we tell.
. We would say we are grateful for the lives we lead but we would be lying. We soothe problems between a husband and his wife. We tell her he loves her and we tell him she doesn’t think of the man next door when she is making love to him in the dark of the night. We tell a mother that her child is safe, warm and snug – thinking of her – and we tell the child that his parents will never hurt him.
. We speak a dozen languages. Sometimes we don’t know which ones we are speaking but we speak and we lie and because we are children, everyone believes us. No one expects innocence to speak in the tongues of hell.
. Amy left her baby in a trash can in the alley behind the restaurant that sold food in little white cardboard boxes.
. She was only seventeen. How could anyone expect her to care for a child?
. Her parents would disown her.
. Her boyfriend would leave her.
. She would be cast out.
. So she gave birth in the dark, dirty alley that smelled like urine and noodles. She wiped the blood that smeared on the inside of her thighs with the serviettes the restaurant gave away so liberally. She cut the cord that bound her to the baby, a girl, and didn’t even wince at the pain. She wrapped the wrinkled little human in a scarf she had thrown around her shoulders carelessly – it was a chilly night – and left her an offering to the cats.
. What was Amy thinking?
. She was thinking that her friends may have noticed her missing and wondered if she smelled like she had given birth.
. Someone may have heard the baby’s tinder cries but there was a club beside the restaurant and its music drowned out the discordant notes.
. Isadora’s scarves and Isadora’s curves. Isadora’s songs on the radio till dusk comes calling. Amazing Grace remade as a pop song and oh the bliss of the madness on streets in the rain in feet bare as the day you were born.
. She left her world for his, she left her light for his darkness and he, with cigarettes that smelled faintly of cardamom, killed her.
. With a smile, with a kiss, with words that had thorns hidden in the consonants. Mercy would have come sooner but death took some cajoling.
. She held on to his arm, his waist, his fingers and then he peeled her away from him and she was left with the skin that covered the surface of his life and she was told to let that warm her through.
. It was winter. It was cold.
. There was a moral in here somewhere, she thought that morning, when she looked at the bed messed from the hurried moments of sex. He didn’t even fuck her in the present anymore. Her climaxes were already in the past tense.
. She kept it in her mind as she prepared that cup of tea in the cup that had little daisies painted on the side. Her life and Isadora’s scarves. She took out the vial, unscrewed the lid, and added a droplet to her tea, maybe two, any more would be overkill. Then she picked up the cup daintily and saluted the air, the bedroom with its unmade bed and the smell of sex. She took a sip of the tea. And then another.
“Yellow Sullen Smokes”
. He expects his breakfast at exactly eight on the dot. One cup chai, steaming. Two rotis and whatever curry I make. I sacrifice vegetables daily at the altar of his stomach. He expects me to smell like flowers even though I spend two hours in the kitchen, sweating in front of the stove for him. He wants flowers in my hair and my neck bared in case he wants to show affection in a kiss. My sari must be unwrinkled and bangles must chime with my movements as I make the roti.
. He will stand in the doorway of the kitchen and pause. I have to turn, look at him and smile slightly to show my interest. Then he will walk further into the kitchen, go to the fridge, open it and then close it. Not that he takes anything out of it. He never does. He just needs to complete that action.
. He doesn’t say a word. Not a single syllable. But the promise is there. In the way his knuckles grasp the edge of the table as I serve him. The way his eyes follow me as I put exactly three teaspoons of sugar in his chai. The knowledge of the words that rest in his mouth, the potential of pain in his hands. At a quarter to nine, he will get up from the table. I will hand him his briefcase, straighten his tie and keep my eyes lowered.
. Yesterday, I almost let him go, I almost let myself go. I looked into the yellow fire that burned in the stove, imagined the yellow smoke as it would wind around him, his face when he couldn’t breathe, his eyes without his soul but it was a momentary dream. I am yellower than the fire, yellower than the smoke.
. She was crazy, she was, Old Beth Monsoon. Wore a dress the colour of crushed grapes for four days a week and she screamed when it rained. Folks said she was a hothouse baby, coddled too much and now life had gotten to her. Gotten in her head and made her the colour of crazy she was. An orange amber crazy.
. She wasn’t a bad sort. Would give you those two sweet lollies they sold at the drugstore for two pence. She’d share and then giggle at the birds. The pigeons had no patience with old Beth Monsoon. My Aunt Mulberry said Old Beth Monsoon, she was the result of sin. I wonder if sin is red and delicious like the licorice I stole from my aunt’s larder.
. Old Beth Monsoon, she liked marigolds only she couldn’t grow any because she had no seeds. And if she found seeds, they were the wrong sort and the earth; it doesn’t like the wrong sort of seeds. We played hide and seek once. She warbled a song about tomorrow and today and black current pies as she went off to hide behind in the trees behind the farmhouse.
. She hid too well, Old Beth Monsoon. It rained that night. And it was only when I woke up the morning after that I realized that I had never found Old Beth Monsoon.
. I never did find her again.
“Three Days and Lemon Water”
. Three days and lemon water, one cup betrayal and eye water. A sentient forest and holes in the night sky. Red Riding Hood, she took off her shoes and gave away the basket of baked goods to the wolf in exchange for his sharp teeth. And he, poor shmuck, struck as he was by her sweet smiles, obliged. In his defense, Red Riding Hood was much more dangerous than everyday household wolves of the colour gray.
. Her grandmother, she left to the elements. Old women didn’t particularly interest Red Riding Hood. Especially ones who smelled like talcum powder and expected her to behave. Red Riding Hood, she took off her red hood and became a girl. She took the wolf’s teeth and fitted them in her mouth and paused for a moment to admire the shadow she cast on the wall of the house she used to call home.
. Then the girl who used to be Red Riding Hood took three days, some lemon water and that one cup betrayal, mixed it together with the wolf’s sharp teeth and carved herself a name. The eye water she left for her mother because pretend tears are expensive and her mother didn’t have much money.
“Old Whore Petticoats”
. “Spread your legs for him. Let him see you spread in front of him like a banquet and you’ll win him, body first.”
. Our mothers believed in practical advice. They didn’t whisper so much a syllable that could be construed of as a word of love.
. “Let other women speak those poison words. Your business is with your body and his. Make music not love.”
. We drank on evening dew because we never could wake up early enough to sip on the morning. My sisters and I hunted amongst the jaded because innocence left a bitter taste. Time, that old enemy, passed and our skin became elastic in our attempts to fight it.
. Now we decorate the roads to absolution, trussed in our old whore petticoats while our daughters turn green eyes to their own flavor of sin.
All quoted phrases and words appear in Sylvia Plath’s “Fever 103.”