I met the woman with too many mouths in the plaza at the start of summer. It was a warm night and smelled of melted grass. I would not normally have noticed such a woman, but I was in a mood where each step took me further into the realm where even the drift of a stranger’s cigarette smoke suggested life both as it is and as it should be; and it was in this mood that the woman caught my attention. She was not my type; a crooked nose, legs marbled with muscle, gulag eyes. But as I saw her on that night of warm grass, she possessed a strange beauty. Only subsequently did I discover that the woman had too many mouths.
In life you rarely get what you want; you desire brown eyes and marry a girl with eyes of sky. The woman with too many mouths was almost ugly; her beauty depended on the angle of the moon, her perception of my perception, and so on. But her mouth, it must be said, had no truck with subjectivity. I spoke to her that night on the plaza. It’s a lovely evening. She answered and rain came from her mouth. Nothing unusual there, you say, and you are right; it was ordinary rain, soft and season-less. I was dispirited. And that is why, some weeks later, when the woman lying beneath me (we were picnicking in the land), breathed hay onto my white shirt, it was so unexpected. I had ironed the shirt with great difficulty, the linen having been left too long in the sun, and watched transfixed as the fresh hay, reeking faintly of cattle and fertiliser, billowed against it before being carried away in the breeze.
I planned to end my association with the woman. She was, as I have said, not my type. But some nights later, moths, not two but twenty, the ones you think are butterflies until someone says otherwise, flew out of the woman’s mouth and around my bathroom. The woman had gone in there to douche. When she screamed I thought there must be a spider in the closet and it was with irritation that I uttered I’m coming, I’m coming and finally turned the handle on the bathroom door. In distress, the woman was strangely beautiful; each moth flew from her mouth unique, blue and timburalis, magenta and phosphorena. I put my arms around the woman and we stood for a long time shadowed here and there by tiny flickerings.
The woman asked me to hit her. Nothing original in that you say, and you are right. I have of course hit women before, as hard or as soft as they wished, but when I went to strike the woman I lost all strength in the surface tension of air. I was shaken—not to be able to hit a woman is as bad as not being able to make love. I said to myself, Dimitri, you are thirty-two years old. This woman is a fleeting glimpse of life. The world will always want servants but what the world needs is writers. These thoughts—of the world and of writing—filled me with such a sense of destiny that I slept for days and when I woke I had forgotten all about the woman with too many mouths.
Weeks passed. I visited my dear friend in the city. My dear friend was absorbed with a countess and I with money, or more correctly the lack of it, and there were times, drinking coffee in the morning on the terrazzo, walking along the boulevard in the first cool of evening, when I had nothing to say to my dear friend and he nothing to say to me, and so when the countess invited my dear friend to summer with her in the chateaux, it was without sadness that we parted. To write my great novel I needed to think cold thoughts; I almost wished for winter.
I returned to the town and took a job as a typesetter, and because I knew nothing of typesetting, it was consuming. I got on with the other men, particularly a young man from Irkutz. We shared our cigarette breaks and took to drinking schnapps in the bars when the shift was over. The young man kept his money in his trouser pocket and when he stood up coins fell to the floor. He had thick black hair which he pushed from his face when I spoke to him, but left hanging when he spoke himself. I liked the young man, I liked the job, and the rest of the time I slept; if it wasn’t for fate flapping in the background, I might have been happy. And then, in one week, I received two telegrams: my dear friend had married the countess and my father had died, leaving me enough money to write my great novel.
I have not yet described to you the town in which I lived. It was a dead place. The surrounding country was flat and offered no vantage point from which a vision might arise; instead the town projected itself in recurring images of black and white. What little architecture existed was built from porous stone; in sun it glared and in rain it took on the appearance of sediment. Each street was an endless square around which people walked in straight lines, their faces dry from dry bread. I tell you this so that you will understand; it was not a place to write a great novel, and so I accepted an invitation from my dear friend to visit him and his new wife in their chateaux.
I could expend many pages recounting my time at the chateaux: ten pages on scenery and mood, at least four on the charms of the countess, two on philosophical musings on the subject of friendship; but you would become bored and, worse, you would forget all about the woman with too many mouths. In summary, the countess enticed me into her world with ease until soon all thoughts were one question: were her breasts, swaddled in heavy damask, as small as they appeared to be? I was infatuated. My dear friend understood everything and found everything amusing, and so life at the chateaux was a vagary of fat and thin emotions until one morning the countess announced she was with child. I returned to the town and found that, despite the hospitality of my hosts, I had very little money. All those evenings at the card table, watching the flattened breasts of the countess rise and fall, had been expensive.
I resumed my job as a typesetter and days again smeared into one another. The young man from Irkutz bought a wallet and developed a habit of taking it in and out of his pocket. I saw less of him. At night I sat at my typewriter drinking wine until thoughts fell into a frozen sleep. And then I saw her again, the woman with too many mouths. It was a cold night; the rain was endlessly vertical. In lamplight the woman’s nose veered to the side and her arms were sinewed from carrying heavy buckets. We walked together through cobbled streets and each time my hand brushed hers, berries fell from her mouth; black and blue and crimson.
In my room the woman took off all her clothes and drank red cider until her mouth was swollen and her breath was sticky. Again, she asked me to hit her and again I could not. We slept for days, far away from each other in the bed, and when I woke the woman with too many mouths was gone. Months passed. My dear friend who was wintering in the city came to visit. He had grown fat and suffered from heartburn. The countess was still luxurious he told me, but always with child. At night we sat in the lounges of hotels drinking cocktails and smoking cigars. One evening while my dear friend lay slumped in an easy chair, I took comfort in a meretricious young girl from the countryside but at a crucial juncture I could not proceed; the downed hair of the girl’s back had the texture of hay and her skin reeked faintly of cattle and fertiliser.
The experience of loss is not a sloped gradient; it is random black dots on an endless linear. At times, drinking with friends in cafés, laughing at the absurdity of this or that, questions printed themselves on my brain. Did I love at all? Who can be sure whether he loves or not? And I would forget all about the woman with too many mouths until hay poured once more like rain inside me.
And then I saw her again. The woman with too many mouths. They say coincidence is only for stories, and I am sure they are right, but the night I saw her smelled of melted grass and I was again in a mood of strange ascension. I sat down in the café beside her. The waiter fluttered by and I ordered a pastis. I raised my eyebrows but the woman shook her head although her glass, I noticed, was almost empty. I lit a cigarette and drew my shoulders in. A passing stranger, glancing at the woman, could not have told from her body that a man was close to her. The smoke from my cigarette wafted into the woman’s hair and she began to speak. As I listened, the tiniest flakes of whitened grey released themselves from her mouth, so light and casual, I thought I was seeing things. But I wasn’t; as I inhaled, the woman exhaled. I squashed my half-smoked cigarette into the ashtray and the woman stopped speaking. The waiter arrived with the pastis and I drank the sweet liquid in one mouthful, stuck a note under the sugar bowl, and walked out into the night. The woman, to my surprise, came after me and in my room anchored herself to me, making waves of our bodies until I could no longer tell one from another. I kissed her mouth and ink came from it, staining the bed sheets and soaking through to the mattress. Again, she asked me to hit her and this time I hit her on the mouth, harder and harder, until ink and blood were one and the woman with too many mouths disappeared.
Years passed. I wrote my great novel. I could write a hundred pages about writing my great novel, but who would read it? My novel was published. The reviews were favourable. It sold within expectation. And then nothing. What else is there?
What a ridiculous story, I hear you say. There are far greater torments in life than this! What about death or no money for boots or the violence that accompanies each age? I hear you say this and yet I do not turn my back when you spit in the dust and stamp on it.