“On Transmutation” by Haley Yelencich

on-transmutation
“Hrabove 7-14” by Pat Zalisko, 38×38, Acrylic on canvas.

Look. My wall is cracking open. The ancient plaster is splitting, creating a fissure from ceiling to hardwood, sending pieces of yellowed paint sailing to the floor. Look at the dark divide grow—how the wall crumbles to chalky dust as it separates. Hold on … do you see it? Right there in the middle of the chasm. It’s a book bound in buckram cloth … I think it’s for you. Metamorphoses: Book IV is written on the spine. Reach in. Reach in. Do you know that story? I have a decaying memory of it. What does it say?

But wait. Let me tell you a story that I just remembered. It may disintegrate before you bend that antique binding, and it may be important.

~

I was nine when I cautiously watched an uncle of mine from the swing set that was placed in a clearing of the woods that surrounded my childhood home. He and my sister were standing near the house, away from the others, and I watched her discomfort as he wrapped his arms around her and reached for the back pockets in her light cut-off jean shorts. She shrugged him away. It was her thirteenth birthday.

Grasping onto the snake-like chain that was covered in blue plastic, my body casually wavered back and forth, but my mind walked around them. I saw his thick mustache move above his thin upper lip, and I heard him tell her that if she wanted her birthday card she would have to let him put it in her back pocket. Otherwise, she wouldn’t get the money that waited inside.

My eyes turned to ice and my stomach turned to stone as she stood frozen. He put his heavy arms around her, and slipped a white envelope in the back pocket of her jean shorts. Hate raged through me and shook the tree tops.

This was our initiation.

~

Oh, but Metamorphoses … I only remember a little of it. Ovid, right? There are three women who weave stories of immobilized love—women who reject Bacchus as a god and are punished for their lack of worship.

Their burdensome fabric consists of a woman who has sex with the sun and is buried alive because of it, while another, who is in love with the same star watches the golden light stream from the sky and beat on the grave until she silently transforms into an inanimate plant. In between those strands lives a girl who prays to be with the boy she loves until she melts into him, losing her independent identity.

But wait … you’re not paying attention.

Why do you act so disinterested? Don’t you think that this is important? This is what we’ve clothed ourselves with, the leaden stories we’ve worn for years and years and years. These are our heavy uniforms, the words we cover ourselves in, the things that drag us down.

~

Let me tell you about something you might find more intriguing. Outside, over there somewhere, I left a friend’s house on my way back to an apartment that I rented. It was nighttime and winter. The city lights stained everything in hues of orange and purple, including my diaphanous breath that dissipated into the frigid air.

It wasn’t too late, but it was late enough. I trudged past an alley that was lined with trash cans and peppered by three men who seemed quite a bit older than myself. As I walked past, I glanced sideways at their silhouettes, outlined in a subdued burnt orange, shining violet light irradiating from between their arms and legs. And at that same moment, they spotted me.

There are moments where we can see ourselves, and very quickly I saw myself for what I now was: a young woman in an old ill-fitting peacoat and sluggish boots with holes wearing in the soles, walking alone at night. I was, from outside myself, unknowingly an invitation.

The men walked out of the alley behind me. I kept my pace, quietly counting down the blocks until I would reach the train. One of them hurled some words at me, which I ignored. I could hear them laughing, but I refused to look. Back straight, head high, with my heart trying to tear out of my body, I walked. Counting three, two-and-a-half, two.

My hands were in my pockets, and I hoped that they would think that I was holding onto something sharp, when finally one of them threw, in a sing-song voice, a phrase that actually hit me. Out of the purple gelid air in a sweet melodic tone came the words—with the last two drawn out for dramatic emphasis: “We’re going to rape you.”

I knew that he thought he was joking by the way he crooned it and by the way his friends laughed, but I, alone, in my cumbersome boots and jacket-one-size-too-big, also knew what happened to women like me in situations like that, and finally my pace, every so slightly, quickened to reach the train station.

As I sank onto a seat in the fluorescent-lit train car, I looked up to see that a different man was hovering over me, holding onto the bar in-between where I sat and the door. He was staring, and he would not stop.

~

Are you watching as the split in the wall grows, as the dark line snakes and weaves around the window-frame and the doors? I’ve watched this wall crumble only a few times, and never as much as right now. This will have to be a big repair.

Do you know how to fix a plaster wall? It helps to know what lays underneath, because if you simply cover the gash it will reappear at some time or another, often when you least expect. Inside the wall, beyond what you can see, behind the paint, the outside color and solidity, are laths of wood that hold the whole thing together. Somewhere in there lay strips of wood layered on top of each other that the plaster rests over and creates the wall that you see. In order to prevent future cracks, you have to reacquaint the plaster with the laths. You have to recognize the invisible laths existence, and then affix what is visible to them. That’s the only way to make sure this thing stays whole.

~

I used to know less about walls and more about what goes on out there, but certain events recurred at such an alarming rate that I decided to abandon my mindless exterior explorations and turn indoors. You see, it happened again on a different night on my way to the same apartment that I’ve mentioned before. I was standing outside of the building and talking to a friend on the other side of a phone because I didn’t want to lose her on my way up in the elevator. I wrapped my arms around the loose-fitting white tee-shirt that I was wearing—(this, if you’re not aware, is a detail that many people may find important)—and watched as drops of rain cut through the luminescence of the light in the lamppost above me.

Again, three men somewhat older than myself approached me. Again, they were laughing amongst each other. Again, I acted as if I was unaware of their presence. But this time was different, and not only because of the rain or what I was wearing or who the men were. This time, they surrounded me. This time, one of them leered over me and repeatedly asked, “How much? How much?” despite my best efforts to ignore them all into non-existence. This time, one of them wrapped their fingers around my arm and dragged me towards him.

“Don’t touch me!” I heard my voice cry from someplace deep within. It seemed to have stemmed from my stomach and shot up through my throat, sprouting higher and higher into the damp night. My friend, somewhere further away in the city and on the other side of the phone, expressed her helpless alarm.

Two of the men stepped back, but the other reached towards me again. A rage, one that I was not altogether aware had been germinating within me, shook my every limb. As it grew, I felt myself become lighter and lighter. I could feel my face contort and my self transfigure in fury. The city seemed to spiral around me. I thrashed the man’s hand away and shouted, “Get the fuck away from me!” For a moment, he paused, and my hand clenched into a fist at my side. I watched as he slowly backed away. My whole being was alive and twisting in and around itself. Every particle was sparked with indignation.

But then all three were laughing. And as they walked away from me the last one said, “That’s exactly what I wanted.”

~

To reject a person is often a troublesome and hazardous thing. The three women weavers in Metamorphoses know just how difficult defiance can be. They refused to refer to Bacchus as god and, as punishment, their threads were transformed into tangled vines and their bodies were turned into those of bats. But – pay attention – their resistance was the cause of their metamorphosis. And the result was not as unfortunate as some would like you to believe; their thin membranous wings carried them away.

Do you know who else you’ll find in that book? She is not exactly a character as much as she is a memory. Perseus, the protagonist, only refers to her existence to explain how he destroyed her. He only tells her story to relate how she came to be worthy of execution.

Medusa, he recalls, was not always a horrid monster that stalked through the fields with her hair of snakes and fatal stare. Once, she was beautiful, and Perseus deduces that this was the direct cause of her rape by Neptune in Minerva’s temple. (Today, they might say that he “had to” do it. That he “could not help himself.”)

As a punishment for desecrating her temple, the male poet Ovid tells us through the male hero Perseus that Minerva transformed Medusa’s alluring hair into an angry nest of snakes and cursed her so that any potential suitor would turn to stone after setting his eyes on her. Minerva then set Medusa’s image on her breastplate to fill her enemies with fear.

Through Perseus’s words Medusa is woman, desecrator, monster. She was one part of an aggressive sexual act – the victim – and so we will punish her for centuries. We will push her away into the fields, angry and afraid of her, and we will leave her there to her fate and death.

Meanwhile, Neptune will be free to rule the seas.

~

You see, I stay within these walls because it’s comfortable. I can safely stand right here and watch the tree branches cut across the sky like wrinkles in an old woman’s face. I can watch the sun bathe over them. I can watch them slither in the wind. And I can dream that one day I’ll see what they see. These walls may separate occasionally, but I can always patch them up. I can always fix what happens inside of them. But out there I may find myself in a situation that I can’t get out of, one from which I may never return. People have ways of grinding you into the ground. It may be a fault of mine, but I much prefer to sit up here in this room with you—the person I’ve let in.

~

He was someone that I did not feel thoroughly comfortable with, but I was more uncomfortable with being alone. My insecurity did not arise from any feeling of risk or hazard, but instead from feelings of inadequacy. You see, I was young, and still unlearning the things that I had been taught by uncles and strange men.

He was physically non-threatening and had a soft voice. His dark eyes shone a light from deep inside. He was well-liked and friendly and a little bit shy. We were interested in the same things—art, books, oddly beautiful things. I was unsure if I was good company, but I knew that I was good enough.

He invited me over, and I took the train an hour away from where I stayed. I calmly watched as the electric lines cut across the starless night sky, and wondered where exactly I was going. When I arrived at his apartment I discovered that there were four other people living within it, so he invited me to watch a movie in his room where we might be more alone, and conclusively, more at ease. His room was sparse with various little trinkets set upon the windowsill and a bookshelf, and his desk was littered with sketches and books. I don’t remember what movie he turned on, but I do remember discussing and agreeing that we would unquestioningly not sleep together that night.

Soon, the lights were off and his arms wrapped around me. We rolled over each other and our mouths pressed together and other things happened that sometimes happen in dark bedrooms when you’re nineteen and twenty-something or older or younger—things that happen no matter how old or young you are, or what you look like, or who you are, or where you’re from. These are the things that take place in all of our lives to certain degrees whether we like them and want them or not.

After these things that I was OK with transpiring had occurred, I heard him reach into one of those shining little trinkets. Then the sound of his long fingers fumbling with the plastic wrapper of a condom reached my ears. I sat up. “We agreed we weren’t going to do that,” I reminded him.

I don’t remember whether he seemed tense or tranquil, serene or excited. I don’t exactly remember what he looked like in that moment, other than the blue light of the TV screen shining over his thin frame. I don’t remember what I anticipated, or even if any solid thought was traveling through the folds of my brain. What I do remember are the words, “I have to fuck you,” emitting from his mouth and his hands pushing me down and burying me into the mattress. I remember the sounds outside the door. I remember not saying anything, and not feeling much at all.

~

Sometime before, the sky moved slowly. Slunk back on the hill by the house and slurping sun-soaked iced tea and orange slices, I watched the occasional car as it barreled down the dry dirt road, kicking up dust. The sky steadily drifted away, skimming the tops of the trees where the leaves swung and saw things differently.

The house that I grew up in was surrounded by oaks and maples, but there was only one tree that I could climb – only one branch that I could reach on tiptoe in my jelly shoes and hand-me-down sundress. Tiny calves flexing. Small fingers reaching. Pulling myself up as my feet clambered one over the other on the shaded ground. I needed to be further up and away. I needed to hide in the tree-tops, be swept up into the clouds. I dreamt of scaling to the top and flying off into the wind, weightless and free. But one day the only branch that I could reach broke off of the dying trunk, and I snapped awake. I realized then that it would be a difficult time trying to get all the way up there with everything else trying to keep me on the ground.

~

It all reminds me of the time when an older cousin of mine found me playing on the floor in our grandparent’s bedroom. A soft winter light streamed into the dark room as I leaned intently over a colorful toy of some kind. I suddenly felt a dense weight fall over me, and a heavy hot breath blow into my ear. He had bent over and wrapped his arms around my small frame constricting his large arms tighter and tighter until I felt suffocated.

“Let me go!” I shouted. My body was pushed so that I was hunched over myself. My knees pressed into my chest. His body held me down, crushing me towards the hardwood floor. He laughed and said something in a teasing manner, but he did not let go.

“Let me go! Let me go! Let me go!” My arms jerked behind me in attempt to hit him in the stomach, and still he laughed. He pressed me further into the ground, and still he did not let go.

~

And there was another time, one much later, a different “he” held me down on his rich friend’s expensive couch as they drank in the next room. “You think you’re so strong,” words seethed from gritted teeth. Golden light dripped into the room from the hall, and crept upon his face, distorted his drug-addled features. An overpriced clock ticked from above. “You think you’re so strong.” He held my arms down to my side, and hate streamed from his eyes as I struggled to get out from underneath him.

How did it happen? Did something spark through his mind and transmit behind his eyes so that he could see what he was doing? Or did he fall into a sudden stupor? The latter, it seems, is more likely. Although I can’t recall exactly how it ended, I know that it did so abruptly. And the next moment, I was waking up from an uncomfortable sleep with his body laying calmly next to mine.

~

I can see that you think this is excessive. You seem to be in a state of disbelief, but I promise you that stories like this are alive and flourishing and they do not stop just because you wish them to. I understand if it makes you uncomfortable, but I do not apologize.

For too long we’ve heard the story of the woman or girl as seductress or femme fatale or succubus, no matter how young, and it’s come time that you and I and everyone around us begin to listen to other stories. They’ve been trying to be heard for years and years, but somehow they get buried underneath other words. The tales and myths that have blanketed us for centuries are old and tired—and the interpretation of them is often the same. It’s time to listen to new yarns, and perhaps the myths that we do know would do well to be reexamined and told from a different perspective.

Take a look at that book that you hold in your hands, the one that you found hidden in the walls. The story of Medusa might’ve been transmuted while in there. Instead of a young woman who is punished for being raped, a plot-line that we sadly still allow both in fiction and reality, you might find someone different. It will still be Medusa, and she will still have serpents as locks, but you might find the reason for transformation different.

Neptune still commits his crime against Medusa in Minerva’s temple, and Minerva still witnesses that crime. But instead of reshaping Medusa’s image out of wrath and anger, Minerva changes her appearance in order for her to express and exert her agency. Minerva gives Medusa the means to protect herself from others who would commit the violent act she experienced (and by now, I hope you agree that we can surmise that there would be others). The gaze of misguided men and potential male aggression is now stopped and turned against them.

In this way, we will no longer treat the assault survivor with hatred and disgust but as living beings, and recognize the power that they innately have. And we will no longer allow each other to be held down, but we will turn those who like to bound us to the earth into stone.

~

I’ve watched this wall so many times. White light hits the plaster and exposes its rough features, every bump and wrinkle. White light shines from the curtain-less windows where, outside, beautiful trees reside. More and more are being planted each day by strong hands and even stronger voices, and we can watch them grow.

Don’t worry. I have not given up the idea of one day living in those top branches, where things are viewed differently. The women who weaved their stories rejected the old male god and they flew away. They were rid of him and they flew.

 

 

Haley Yelencich was raised in rural Michigan and grew up in Chicago, IL where she obtained a B.A. in Creative Writing from Columbia College. She currently lives in New Orleans where she writes, draws, and sings to her cat, Shark.

 

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