Today’s instalment from Hot Milk by Deborah Levy concerns Sofia and her mother, Rose, driving to a local market. They have come to the baked out, rocky coast of Spain to consult the famous doctor/quack, Dr Gómez, about Rose’s paralysis of the feet. In characteristically perverse style, Rose is suddenly able to drive a car, whereas 25-year-old Sofia is revealed to have failed her driving test four times.
Feet and hands are especially important in the symbolic history of women, and books like Women Who Run With the Wolves contain many of the stories such as “The Red Shoes” and “The Handless Maiden”, each of them spelling out the ubiquity and consequences of women’s learned helplessness.
In my own life, I think of the thing I was forbidden to do as a child and teenager, and that was to express anger. My mother would shut it down before the words “How dare you?” were out of her mouth. Looking back now I can see she was terrified of her own rage being awakened. Instead it expressed itself in migraine headaches and the nightly near-severing of her fingers on the newly sharpened knife over the detested task of the evening meal.
“I looked down at my mother’s foot on the brake. Her toes moved off and then landed on it with delicacy and confidence. ‘I can imagine you walking the entire length of the beach,’ I said.
In reply she started to sing the words to a hymn: ‘And did those feet in ancient time/ Walk upon England’s mountains green.’
If only. My mother’s feet are mostly on strike, but I’m not sure what she is negotiating for or what the deal breaker would be. Her feet are an English size nine. Her jaw is large. Our ancestors developed a protruding jaw because they were constantly fighting. Grievance is very strenuous. My mother needs her jaw to see off anyone who will separate her from her stash of resentment.”
Image: Deborah Levy
Hot Milk by Deborah Levy continues to be exhilarating. I’m going to share some over the next day or two. Here’s a section from the scene called “Boldness” in which Sofia finally takes action after Dr Gómez observes she lacks strength as a young woman. She needs “more purpose, less apathy” and he prescribes stealing a fish from the market to make her bolder, “It need not be the biggest fish, but it must not be the smallest either.”
Often, I think I need to steal a fish too …
“The first fish to snare my attention from the point of view of a thief was a monkfish with a monster face, mouth gaping open to reveal its two rows of sharp little teeth. I lightly poked my finger into its mouth and discovered a world that was totally unknown to me, like Columbus discovering the Bahamas. The cashier, a fierce woman in a yellow rubber apron, shouted in Spanish not to touch the fish. Already I had made myself visible, when the point of a thief is to slip unseen into the night and not into the mouth of a fish … I considered the whiskery langoustines … they were the professors of the ocean but they did not make me feel bolder. A huge tuna lay on a bed of ice … It was the most precious jewel in the market, the emerald of the sea. My hand reached towards it, but I couldn’t follow it through. A tuna was too ambitious, not so much bold as reckless.
… I looked away and that’s when I saw my fish. It was looking straight at me and its eyes were furious. It was a plump dorado in a rage. I knew it was destined to be mine.
… To steal the dorado, I had to conquer my fear of being found out and shamed … Very slowly, I moved closer to the dorado, and with my left hand I touched the price tag on the langoustines to distract the cashier from my right hand, which was sliding the grumpy dorado into my basket.
As far as I could make out, this was the model that most politicians had adopted to run their democracies and dictatorships. If the reality of the right hand is being messed up with the left hand, it would be true to say that reality is not a stable commodity …”
Image: Man with sailfish