By Courtenay Trinder
Was I so desperate to be loved? Was I so starved for the bonds of family that I would seek out captivity, and make myself a slave?
20 years ago, I quit my job as a phone psychic to go to America and marry a man I had met while travelling. My boss, the witch Kerry Kulkins, called me to say farewell. And, as witches are want to do, she said out of the blue, “It’s about time he married you.”
Pretty impressive, as I hadn’t said where, or why, I was going. “Do you know about past lives?” she asked. I admitted I didn’t. “He took you as a slave,” she said. Perhaps that should have been warning enough. But I didn’t believe, or understand.
Living in an abusive relationship makes life strangely simple. There’s no space to think for yourself, because all your energy is focused on dancing on egg shells, trying always to be one step ahead of the lightning strike of his temper. If you can only keep him happy, then everything is all right. The world shrinks to nothing but him.
There are no choices to be made, no feelings that he doesn’t dictate. Happy, sad – these are gifts he bestows. He might as well be God, because he controls everything you are. There is only one mirror in which to see yourself – and it is him.
But I had a secret place in which I could hide, my imagination. And I began to write. The words so casually spoken as I left my homeland, became a safe place I could explore. Before I met my husband, I had gone to school and studied Late Antiquity at the end of Rome. And that was where I went in my mind. I went to 420 AD.
Rome had been Christian for 30 years, and it was 15 years before the first Nicene council codified the Christian Bible. Galla Placidia, the Emperor’s mother, was funding bishops to preach on Mary. She built Santa Maria Trastevere, a church dedicated to the Mother of God, right in the middle of the river. Anyone who crossed from one side of Rome to the other had to see Mary’s basilica. And in seeing Mary, see Placidia, still holding on to power. Just.
On the other side of the Mediterranean the same polemic war being fought from Constantinople to Alexandria by Aelia, Flavia, Augusta and Honoria. Emperor’s sisters, aunts and mothers could see the patriarchy was marginalising them in the New Faith.
They fought with all their wealth and privilege to ensure there was a woman’s face amongst the pantheon of Father, Son and Holy Ghost.
The bishop Cyril preached, “Where sin was, grace abounded even more,” stubbornly insisting that woman was not just Eve the temptress, but also Mary the mother.
And me, I would never be a Mother. He said he loved me so much, he couldn’t stand to share me. And I knew I could never be so cruel as to inflict life with him on a child. But I imagined a girl called Aisling, Ash-- my daughter.
I knew a little about my grandmother’s people. They were the Walloons, the ethnicity of the agrarian south of Belgium. And I discovered that they were the descendants of the tatters of Vercingetorix’s army. Defeated by Julius Caesar, they had fled the carnage that followed the Celtic defeat. It’s estimated 7 million Celts were slaughtered in the aftermath of that war. And 3 million were taken as slaves. Gaul: it meant milk skin. So Ash became a Walloon from a lost tribe of Gaul, a precious commodity by 420 AD.
And slowly my novel became fleshed out. In my own world, slavery was a very personal story. The worst slavery of all, liberty of mind. When he hit the walls, and said he had to let it out, he had a stressful job… I really only remember the first time. And even that memory is a blur. I hid.
When the shouting stopped I came out and said that was terrifying. But somehow he always had the words, events got twisted, and somehow the way he saw things was the way they were. And after five years, he’d convinced me I was crazy. He never hurt me. He said so. So it must be true. Words, twisting things, they shape the world. Lies are the truth; they hold us down.
And Ash, I realised, must be a word thief. Who could defy Rome? What kind of person could defy slavery even if she found herself in chains? I was 14,000 miles from my family, and my friends. In my loneliness I made Ash the outcast of her tribe, she stole their songs and stories. And that was how she could steal Latin from her captors and learn to speak. She could remember. The Celtic bards could recite poems that took three days to tell. Ash could remember when I couldn’t.
As the outcast she was Omega dog. I learnt that in wolf packs the Alpha and the Omega are generally litter mates. They are the two strongest wolves. The Omega eats last, and is the joker of the pack. The Beta dogs take out their aggression on the Omega, so the pack can live in harmony. If the Alpha goes down in a fight, it is the Omega who launches in to defend the tribe. The Omega can think for herself, while the Beta dogs mill around, asking themselves, “Well, who is the leader now?”
After five years of living with him, it was Urzhuli Freda, the Vodun Goddess of ardour, Venus, who sent me a reality pill, sugar-coated in the shape of a hot, 21-year-old mechanic. It was lust at first sight. And it was my passion, my new mirror-man that showed me a new self.
And that woman, that vamp, she fought back. I started screaming and I punched a wall too. But unlike my husband’s, my fist went straight through the plaster board. And that was my revelation. He never left any signs for anyone to see what was happening in his house. But, in one punch, I left a gaping hole. I knew in that instant that he never lost control. It was a lie. His temper was always about frightening me into submission.
The fight went on for weeks. My cat hid in the walls, now peppered with holes. I said, “Don’t push me.”
He said, “I’m not pushing, I’m not pushing,” in a sing-song voice, waving his hands theatrically. Another revelation.
It wasn’t just my Mother’s voice he was using, her belittling sarcasm, her way of tearing down my subjective reality; it was even her manner. I’d seen that sinister, comical dance before. And suddenly I knew why I was there with him. I’d married my Mother.
But the vamp I’d become, she held on. She knew she’d been pushed, and his words couldn’t undo that. “‘I’m not pushing’ is not an appropriate response to ‘Don’t push me,’” I said, pouring acid into every word.
He got out one of his guns, the magnum 45. They’re bigger in real life than they are on TV. Cameras don’t make guns put on ten pounds. He didn’t seem to understand that the life we had together meant nothing to me after I’d known the heat of Urzhuli, after wrapping my body around another man.
I walked right into that gun. I climbed into his lap and said, “Make it a clean shot.” I called his bluff. He was a coward, and a bully, and I knew it. If he pulled the trigger I didn’t care. I just wanted to know he’d be covered in my blood and brains. I wasn’t afraid anymore.
That girl never came back. She died in that house. She haunts me.
Twenty years have gone by, and I realise my longest relationship is with Ash. She has gone through the darkness with me, and she taught me how to hold on when all hope is gone. She showed me the beauty of the world, and the wisdom in an acorn and a salmon swimming upstream. Her gods are mountains, the wind, the rain; she is a Pagan and it is the beautiful green world that is her religion.
I fleshed out my research. And going home to Australia, I watched my Mother die of dementia and leukaemia. And I understood, I forgave.
We assume we can speak love. But I certainly don’t think I was born knowing Swahili, for instance. We speak the love we learn. And I know she did the best she could, from her childhood of horrors. And as she died, I accepted that we are animals dreaming we are gods.
My Mother was never my Mother. But Ash taught me about the Goddess, and all her faces. She is within us all. There is in every woman, something sacred, magic. We are the creators, the gardeners who grow a man’s seed to fruition.
I have been reborn. As they held my son up for me, he opened his eyes and they crackled with electric blue fire. Drunk on the pain of birth, I looked up at him, and he seemed ten feet tall, enormous, a deity. Then this creature, who had been yanked from my body with forceps, let out a gasp, a cry of bewilderment.
In that instant, we were the only two people in the world. All questions, with no answers. I was transformed: I became the Mother. I left Eve behind, and chose Mary.
And finally I had the end of my novel. I left my dream life, closed the page. I typed the last word, and stepped out into the sunshine, to raise my son in the real world. Ash is always with me, her lessons:
This place I came from was nowhere like the places you know. There were no cobbled streets, or marbled piazzas. No town square, no town. Just the Long House surrounded by the village, hidden amongst the trees. Trees that stretched on unbroken to the mountain’s peak.
Our paths were made by the tramp of constant feet, and the deer we hunted. Not by clever men and slaves who tamed rock into roads.
Then the bear men came, mercenaries hired by Rome. They slaughtered the Lassuni. They kept only us alive, the children. They call us Gauls, milk skins. They plan to sell us into slavery to pay their wages.
But I am Tchona. I am the outcast of my tribe, the daughter of the Standing Stone Cairn Egroagh Bragh. I am a word thief. I have spent my whole life stealing stories and songs. I will steal the language of my captors.
I do not concede that my people’s war is lost, until I stop fighting. I have found myself in chains, but I will never be a slave.
~Excerpt from The Weight of Lies, © 2013 Courtenay Trinder
About the author
Courtenay Trinder completed her B.A. in Art History and Curatorship in 1994. Since then, she has worked as a phone psychic, a dog walker, an art teacher for pre-schoolers, and at the Canberra Theatre. The Weight of Lies, her first novel, took twenty years to finish, and is available here. She lives with her whippet Tinker, a Rabbit that looks like Hitler, and a beautiful little boy who has taught her everything she knows about love.
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