Ancient reclamations of womanhood
by Hannah Fleming; illustration by Emma Kearney
Heat rises. That must be why everyone looks up in a crowded subway, but in vain, trying to escape the inescapable. Attempting to breathe the freshest circulated air because whenever they look down it’s the stuffing of bodies and smells that are both overpoweringly pleasant and unpleasant, which makes it all equally unbearable. It’s human flesh. On a crowded subway, human faces underwhelm passengers just trying to get from one place to another. Perhaps that is the most difficult task they face every day—touching one another. They look up, they look out. It is strange to be looking down.
Heat rises. The condensation of sweat makes the lower half of the train moist. My hair stands on end, and I feel the palm of a large wrinkled hand on the top of my leg. I look down. My eyes level with his: drooping at the edges, old, melting before me. His pasty smell makes blood rush to my face. The subway stop comes at last. The doors open. The passengers are flooded with sudden space to take a deep inhale. Fewer people. I move to the other side of the train and the imprint of his hand remains. My insides drift in a vacuum. How many more stops? I ask in emptiness.
The doors close. The train moves again. These are new trains in Athens, not creaky, but efficient, swift, silent. In comes a man who moves to the pole in front of me. I am pressed up against a panel that isn’t a door. He reaches his arm behind him as though he’s stretching. He is wearing a puffy black jacket and has black hair sprinkled with grey, a bald spot swirling at the top. It doesn’t matter. He is ugly. There is some part of me that knows what he’s going to do even before he reaches a few of his fat fingers to the delicate edges of my dress and underneath he feels the lace of my underwear. That part of me, that precious part of me, is distant and in paralysis. For a brief moment I wonder if I shuddered. If he loved the lace itself. What if I hadn’t been wearing it: Would he reach up and smell his fingers? Would he lick them? I wish I could poison him.
No headspace, just heat. I press his arm away and he looks back at me with a searing how-dare-you, let-me-touch-you, and my eyes level with his, accusing this time, but perhaps I am nothing against what—in that moment—is as large and dark and menacing as a black veil to the beyond. I turn away and he’s still reaching underneath. I become desperate. I say exasperated words to my friends and they look as if they’re deaf, or maybe they don’t respond because I’m not making sense.
We are the subway passengers looking up in order to ride on the subway in peace. Blanket statement: some of us are suffering. The train car is comfortable, light and clean. It is also inviting, but no one feels propelled to say anything. When our stop finally arrives, I don’t spit in his face or quench my desire to feel the crunch of his bones underneath my boots. I run. I run because some sympathetic god decided that legs were for both men and women.
The night before, I had a dream about a man I knew for a brief stretch of time, one who’d enjoyed violent sex. He had parked in the front yard of my parent’s house in Atlanta, right over my mother’s flowers (Sappho has a similar line about this, flowers being trampled). He’d come to find me—somehow, he knew my address. I couldn’t figure out why. I begged my brother that if the man came to the door, not to tell him I was there. My parents were fast asleep, dead or absent. My brother was young and confused. I should have known that the man would get in, one way or another, and there would be no repercussions if he did. The man got inside, and the rest of the dream was a series of fearful flashes.
There were similar sensations, living in my parent’s house as a teenager, embracing the marred darkness. I slowly had the epiphany that I wasn’t in control of my partners, but being used by them—silently at the mercy of a wild world that reigns itself in, slates the rules against women. This world held me and my beauty with pedestals to be knocked down and lofted me with strings to be cut. It undressed me and spoke about me to an audience of men as it pleased him, the creator—any of the creators that are “him”—to make me.
When I entered a museum that day after the subway, I observed more of the same molds of woman. There is always a need to describe the woman in carvings or paintings or sculptures with a little extra wording, perhaps to mirror the extra padding on their bodies. Verbs are reserved for men.
During the last two years of high school, it dawned on me. My second epiphany: If you’d like to be safe, you’re foolish believing in the (post-partum) new millennium that you can be a woman who is free to appear as a sexual being or anything else, really. You shouldn’t celebrate womanhood, you should be something else entirely. My mother explained the phenomenon with card-trick language as “the double standard” stacked against me. I took matters into my own hands, and began starving myself instead. The goal was not only control over my own destiny but to strip myself of sexuality. Could I be thin, dry and airy, liberated as a man could be? A major motivator was self-protection. To have less desire for others so they, in turn, could have little to no control over me.
In Ancient Greece, menstrual blood was abhorrent, the dirtiest version of earth. The woman itself: wet. A wet soul, drunken and damaged from birth as Heraclitus feared for humanity. Eventually, my period disappeared and I was no longer a fertile thing. Perhaps I could float away into androgynous nothingness if I lost more weight. Become a God, like the double humans of Plato’s myth. I remember watching my hair come out in clumps in the shower, horrified and delighted a little more each time it did. I was closer. My skin was paper, my veins—a memory of water.
The third epiphany: Paper is for making into something, for printing. To others, to men, my skin was still a blank slate, and their words were filtered through the world until they became permanent ink. Still, I believed that force fields were objects of magic that I possessed. But as a woman, still a woman, I was a portal, beckoning. Deflection doesn’t exist.
Years later, I would read Anne Carson (namely, an essay entitled “Putting Her in Her Place: Woman, Dirt, and Desire”). She wrote that women in Ancient Greece were regarded along with foreigners, strangers and guests. A complex mythological anomaly. The female, apparently, presented Greek society with a slew of problems the society never quite solved. Even Artemis pictured in the Athens Archaeological Museum, a goddess of motherhood and earthly gifts, has a thousand breasts and fierce havoc-wrecking independence that is testy for men. After reading selections of classic philosophy and Sappho, I’m not sure whether I believe Carson less than I ever have, or whether I believe her entirely. “What is the connection between wantonness and wetness?” she asks. Wetness makes women more vulnerable to Eros’s onslaught in the “psychic form” than men. I could sink my teeth into that statement. Rip apart the fragment cited from the poet Arkhilokos which says:
She came carrying water in one hand, the tricky-minded female, and fire in the other.
Take another selection of descriptions from the museum that day: “Female funerary statue, Marble. Found on Delos. The female figure is rendered in the type of the small Herculean woman. She wears a full-length chiton and a himation that covers her entire body.” Copy made in some year. Never matter. All the same.
After the museum I walked past squares in Athens I hadn’t seen, large markets and rows of knockoff purses and refugee children begging in the streets. I didn’t take anything in singularly. Perhaps this was due to the lack of boundaries in my body that had somehow eeked its way into my brain. I simply didn’t have any space. It was entirely me, surging.
They should all fear me, fear my sexuality and all that it exceeds. The fire that is my hair against any backdrop of stone or graffiti, the power that is my legs walking, the constant that is my mind while I’m still alive—I can write. One of the forces that brought me back was the way that my older friend Chrissy had intuitively known what happened, and told me to channel the energy of Artemis, of independence, of the mother. It is not a cold, wet, dark, weak earthling, the mother—it is the strongest thing a being can aspire to be.
And yet I am still a woman walking down the street in Athens, and I feel like a violation with feet. Pairs of eyes tell me that my existence hinges on attention, but my livelihood depends on averted eyes, my instinct to walk faster. I walk faster. The meat market seems to spill out of the run-down buildings, yet the men seem to hide behind knives and the haunches of dead animals, they whisper “come buy.” There are echoes of traffic and the endless supply of take take take, the violation that fuels the world’s engines. I am thankful that I am not the lamb brain on the table or the scapegoat that somehow ends the cycle of violence.
And yet, I am a part of it. Let it be known that America, more so than Greece, is a meat market. There is something beautiful and comical about the brief respites from terror when I can recognize that.
Eros, cheapened as “the sex drive” by Freud, has a similarly terrific power that modern notions of erotic love can hardly touch. In its purest form, Eros is legitimate, mind-body devotion. But what we often experience as “Eros” today occurs below the belt. It is less like immortality and more like mortality withered away. What’s left? Nothing. Desire without reason or regard for humanity and sheer destruction. It took a million moments of youth and weakness, of losing and regaining, up until that moment to discover the nature of my own power. I knew that I would lose it again—and again. But with practice, it would come back quickly. Remember the ancient knowledge: poetry is water, springing from the earth. Life is also water. And thus, poetry is life. Inspiration. Everything. According to ancient knowledge, poetry and water mix to make a woman’s body.
I, too, came carrying water, born by the fire of Eros and armed with whatever I will to be. I have the power to live with my memories. And why would I want to exist in the clouds and the mists of other gods when I belong to the first god, Earth and to the second, Love.