This novel by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum is "a wonderful combination of Virginia Woolf and Freud and Jung, and Bynum's own gifts for imagery and wordplay," says book critic Alan Cheuse in his holiday roundup for All Things Considered.
Hush, Mother says. Madeleine is sleeping. She is so beautiful when she sleeps, I do not want to wake her.
The small sisters and brothers creep about the bed, their gestures of silence becoming magniﬁed and languorous, ﬁngers ﬂoating to pursed lips, tip toes rising and descending as if weightless. Circling about her bed, their frantic activity slows; they are like tiny insects suspended in sap, kicking dreamily before they crystallize into amber. Together they inhale softly and the room ﬁlls with one endless exhalation of breath: Shhhhhhhhhhhhh.
A grotesquely fat woman lives in the farthest corner of the village. Her name is Matilde. When she walks to market, she must gather up her fat just as another woman gathers up her skirts, daintily pinching it between her ﬁngers and hooking it over her wrists. Matilde's fat moves about her gracefully, sighing and rustling with her every gesture. She walks as if enveloped by a dense storm cloud, from which the real, sylph-like Matilde is waiting to emerge, blinding as a sunbeam.
On market day, children linger in their doorways. They hide tight, bulging ﬁsts behind their backs and underneath their aprons. When Matilde sweeps by, trailing her luxurious rolls of fat behind her, the children shower her. They ﬂing bits of lard, the buttery residue scraped from inside a mother's churn, the gristle from Sunday dinner's lamb. The small ﬁstfuls have grown warm and slippery from the children's kneading, and the air is rich with a comforting, slightly rancid smell.
Mme. Cochon, are you hungry? they whisper as she glides by.
Matilde thinks she hears curiosity in their voices. She smiles mildly as she continues on, dodging the dogs that have run out onto the street, snufﬂing at the scraps. It feels, somehow, like a parade. It feels like a celebration.
Once, as matilde made her way through the falling fat, she was startled by a peculiar but not unpleasant throb, which originated in her left shoulder but soon travelled clockwise to the three other corners of her broad back. She wondered if the children were now hurling soup bones, and made an effort to move more swiftly, but suddenly the joyous barrage slowed to a halt. The children stood absolutely still, lips parted, yellow butter dripping onto their shoes. They stared at her with a curiosity Matilde did not recognize.
Hearing a restless ﬂuttering behind her, she twisted about and glimpsed the frayed edges of an iridescent wing. With great caution, she ﬂexed her meaty shoulder blades and to her delight, the wing ﬂapped gaily in response. Matilde had, indeed, ﬂedged two pairs of ﬂimsy wings, the lower pair, folded sleekly about the base of her spine, serving as auxiliary to the grander ones above.
Leaping clumsily, all four wings ﬂapping, her fat, like sandbags, threatening to ground her, Matilde greets the air with arms spread wide open. A puff of wind lifts the hem of her skirts, seems to tickle her feet, and Matilde demands, Up, up, up! With a groan, the wind harnesses Matilde's impressive buttocks and dangles her above the cobblestones, above the hungry dogs, above the dirty children with fat melting in their ﬁsts.
Madeleine stirs in her sleep.
When madeleine sleeps, Mother says, the cows give double their milk. Pansies sprout up between the ﬂoorboards. Your father loves me, but I remain slender and childless. I can hear the tumult of pears and apples falling from the trees like rain.
Smooth your sister's coverlet. Arrange her hair on the pillowcase. Be silent as saints. We do not wish to wake her.
On dark mornings, when the church still lay in shadow, Saint Michel looked absent-minded, forlorn, penned in by the lead panes that outlined the sad slope of his jaw. She thought him by far the most heartbreaking of the saints, and occasionally yearned to squeeze the long, waxen ﬁngers that were pressed together so impassibly as they pointed towards heaven.
He had been a prince once, whose appetite was such that he could never quite keep his mouth closed. In deﬁance of medieval conventions, even his portraits attest to his hunger: his lips are always ajar, teeth wetly bared, as if about to bite into his tenants' capons or cheeses or one of their ﬁrm daughters. In his castle's feasting hall, he liked to stage elaborate tableaux vivants, resurrecting the classical friezes he had seen in his travels, himself always cast as the hero or the young god, a bevy of peasant girls enlisted as dryads, pheasants and rank trout imitating eagles and dolphins. Imagine the depravity, the priest whispers: women with nipples as large and purple as plums, birds molting, dead ﬁsh suspended from the rafters, and rising in the midst of them all, the achingly glorious Michel, oblivious to the chaos surrounding him. His vanity was unmatched!
And then a plague struck, a drought descended, and Michel found God.
While outside his castle walls the pestilence raged, Michel was struck by the face of the cruciﬁed Lord, preserved in a primitive icon that hung beneath the stairs. His fair face had been obliterated by tears and blood; His perfect body was desiccated and dotted with ﬂies. Wracked by self-reproach, the prince vowed to destroy his own beauty; he surrendered himself and his lands to the monastery at Rievaulx, where he spent the rest of his days inﬂicting torture upon himself.
He suffered through ﬂagellations, hair shirts, and fasting while the abbot meticulously chronicled his decline: Prince Michel can barely leave his pallet; his ﬂesh has fallen away; repeated ﬂaying has reopened and infected old wounds; his sackcloth has spawned monstrous lesions about his groin. It was as Michel wished. When he ﬁnally expired, his face was contorted in anguish, his loveliness effaced by tears and blood. The abbot washed the ravaged body and laid it upon its bier, but by morning the saint had been miraculously restored to perfection, his body whole and sound, his face ﬂawless and somber. This is the Saint Michel depicted in the cathedral window. Even the devout ﬁnd it difﬁcult to remember the suffering he endured.
I should have loved him more, she thought, if he had remained mutilated.
On a sunday in summer, a blade of empyreal light illuminated his once melancholy face, and she instantly recognized it as her own. Why, it's me, she said to herself, without wonder. I have been looking at myself all along.
And the face was no longer lengthened in sorrow, but bright and ﬂuid with color. She stood up from her family's pew and walked towards the stained glass, her eyes locked with her own. At the altar, she pivoted on her toes and faced the congregation. Look upon me, she said.
Stepping down from the altar, she approached a stout man sitting in the front pew, the collection plate balanced on his knees, and she touched his chest, with all the tenderness in the world. His stiff Sunday vest peeled away like an orange rind, and she grazed her ﬁngertips against the polished, orderly bones of his rib cage. Beneath, she found a curled and pulsing bud, and when she blew on it, it began to unfurl its sanguine petals, one by one. His heart unfolded before her.
She worked her way down each pew, gently touching and blowing as she went, and when she looked around she noticed, with pleasure, that the small ﬂowers she had uncovered were of a heliotropic variety; their delicate heads nodded to her wherever she went, following her movements like those of the sun.
Copyright © 2004 by Sarah Shun-lien Bynum. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.
Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.