Thievery: Amelia Magdalene
2nd Jan 2017 in Thievery
This month I’m doing a mentoring special to celebrate all the talented and diverse writers I’ve been lucky enough to work with through WoMentoring. First up is Heather Parry – and trust me, you’ll be seeing her name much more in the future.
It was a blessing when my blood came. At school they said it would be spots and strings but to my surprise it was a steady stream, dark red, pouring out from the corners of my eyes and puddling on the tops of my battered brogues. I held back a retch and when the urge to faint passed, I shouted for Daddy, excited, from the top of the stairs. Squinting into the light from the landing, he said: God bless us, Joyce, it’s a miracle. My mother, hunched over like she’d been screwed up and thrown away, strained to look up at me and screamed. As she fled back to her overcooked potatoes, Daddy took the crusty hanky from his back pocket and wiped the blood across my nose and cheeks, making more of a mess than there was before. He shoved the hanky into my hand. Grinning, grateful, I took in the acrid smell and pocketed the soaked cotton. As Daddy strode into the kitchen, I heard his giddy voice rise:
Hospital? She needs an agent, not a hospital.
There were to be no doctors. Daddy’s word was always final, not because he was the stronger of the two, but the weaker. My mother’s twisted spine—she’d been that way all my life—brought disability benefit into the house and gave her a quiet dignity; Daddy’s consistent inability to find work, despite trying, only made him more pathetic. Yet he ruled with a ceaseless sense of enthusiasm that nobody could bear to wrench from him. My first thought when I looked into the mirror and saw two trickles of scarlet running from my eyes had been Daddy is going to love this.
That night, he watched me over dinner, wads of old tea towels taped to my cheeks so the blood wouldn’t drip onto my eggs. My mother fretted over the creeping red cracks in the whites of my eyes but Daddy just stared. Sometimes he smiled, and sometimes I smiled back.
What’s the most disgusting thing that you can possibly think of?
Subtlety does not enjoy a very prominent place in my life. I’m a big fan of the gross and the grotesque, especially when it comes to films, art and literature. Give me Rosemary’s devil child and his terrible eyes; give me Francis Bacon’s screaming pope, his face ravaged into a pleading grimace; give me a Katharine Dunn’s Binewski family, its children torn and twisted by the efforts of their parents, its parents bent and brutalized by their own insane combination of love and logic. Give me all of this, please, with a gentle slice of lemon drizzle and a mildly sugared tea.
And yet, artistic forays into the disgusting are never about what they seem to be about. The horror of Rosemary’s Baby is not in the baby’s image; it is in the position in which a young woman can find herself. The terror of Bacon’s portrait of the pope is the ethereal sense that the scream existed under the pope’s face all along. The grossness in Geek Love rests not on the physical forms of the children, but in the mental tortures that Arturo inflicts upon his family, and the hate that the outside world inflicts upon him. The director / painter / writer in all of these has stunned us with a shocking image then pulled the rug out from under us, to show us that the horror exists, in fact, right beneath our very feet.
A few years ago, I bought a 2001 Honda Civic with a broken clutch and electric windows that wouldn’t go up and drove 6000 miles around Europe. One day, in order to avoid those ever-present French tolls, I took the long way around and found myself driving through the foothills of the Pyrenees, close to Lourdes, the city
famous for sharing a name with Madonna’s daughter. I’ve always been fascinated by collective acceptance of unlikely “truths”, so I had to at least stick my nose into the place and see what I could find.
In the 19th Century, Loudes was just a small market town. In 1858, however, the town was catapulted into infamy when a 14-year-old peasant girl, Bernadette, reported to her mother that she’d seen a small woman dressed in white, holding a rosary with two gold roses at her feet, standing in a small cave. The woman invited Bernadette to pray. Over the next few months, the apparition appeared 18 times to the girl. Each time, she had a larger audience. In 1860, the local bishop declared, in surprisingly decisive terms for such a subject, that, “The Virgin Mary did appear indeed to Bernadette Soubirous.” From then on, pilgrims flocked to Lourdes, and Bernadette was made a saint in 1933.
Lourdes welcomes 5 million pilgrims every year. On the day that I visited, tour groups huddled beneath yellow umbrellas. School classes walked in hand-holding lines. Hundreds of carers pushed believers in bright blue wheelchairs, on the last leg of their long and expensive journeys from Ireland, Italy, India and beyond. Many believe that a pilgrimage to Lourdes will see them healed. Of the 200 million visitors since 1858, 69 have been cured in a manner deemed “miraculous” by the church. Some, however, aren’t seeking miracles. Some are just there to buy sugar effigies of the Virgin Mary and take photos of the gold crown of the basilica, shuffling past homeless beggars as they go to collect their Lourdes water.
Of course, there is exploitation in this story. But the root of the cynicism is unclear. Did Bernadette spin a successful yarn for the infamy it gave her? Did her parents push her into saying she saw a miracle, and make her keep on saying it until everyone was listening? Or did that girl really see something, and did the structures of authority around her raise her up for the whole world to see, taking a young girl and martyring her for the sake of their own interests?
This story sprung to life when I asked myself the question above: What’s the most disgusting thing you can possibly think of? I thought of the last remaining physical taboos, and of the vulnerability of eyes, and of the metallic acidity of the taste of our own blood. But I also thought back to Lourdes, and those endless snakes of blue, ferrying the hopeful. ‘Amelia Magdalene’ is a gross story, but it is not gross because of the uterus lining that pours from Amelia’s eyes. The true horror lies elsewhere.
‘Amelia Magdalene’ is published in the Winter 2016-17 edition of the Stinging Fly.