The JRB presents an excerpt from Inside your body there are flowers, the new collection of short stories by Diane Awerbuck.
Inside your body there are flowers
Karavan Press, 2023
You don’t expect annihilation in the afternoon. What was I doing when the call came? Scrambling to finish writing my history book before the new term started, or changing another volcanic nappy, or scraping my foot along the skirting boards to catch the endless dog fur that rolled there like tumbleweed.
I have been thinking about volcanoes since I was a child. When I first saw the plaster casts of the dead in YOU magazine, I understood that history happens to ordinary humans. Vesuvius erupted two thousand years ago at the end of one heat-filled summer, and killed more than a thousand people in Pompeii and Herculaneum. Molten rock, scorching debris and poisonous gases erased princesses and poets along with the proletariat—disaster is the great equaliser—at temperature surges of three hundred degrees Celsius. That heat kills people in under a second: their organs were vaporised. One woman’s brain was turned to glass. It took twenty-five hours for the area to be abandoned, buried but intact, until the excavations of the 1700s: the ashfall muffled sound down the ages.
We still don’t know the full tally of the dead. The settlements around it were also obliterated; the surviving paperwork doesn’t record the details of foreigners, migrants and slaves. But most of the inhabitants seemed to have escaped: some of their names we know. As an adult I wanted to write about Vettia Sabina, who died years later in Naples, the word HAVE inscribed on her family tomb. HAVE is ‘welcome’ in Oscan, a dialect spoken narrowly and in Pompeii. The word is usually set in a mosaic at the threshold of houses there: a welcome mat. Thank Venus Pompeiana, the city’s patron deity, for whatever is left for the rebuilding, but Pompeii and Herculaneum, as they once were, are gone.
I was so close to finishing my book. If I could get it prescribed in government schools, I would have a breathing space for a couple of months before writing the next one. When the phone rang, I cursed it. The landline was only ever the fire alarm of duty: my partner’s mother, usually, who had a hard time liking me, so I was extra polite. I heaped the hot coals of kindness on her head.
In my defence, I was tired. There is a kind of burning fatigue that women bear: by that stage, I was being woken seven times a night. Sometimes it was for breastfeeding, the baby’s ridged mouth at my nipple struggling like a fish; often I woke to the snoring stranger beside me in the bed, his skin damp with the alcohol that breathed through his pores, his lungs extraneous as my objections. Volcanoes form along convergent or divergent plate boundaries far under the earth. Or they form over hot spots. They enlarge over time, and the pressure builds under the crust.
The phone kept squalling, and I gave in. I set the baby down safely in her cot and ran to stop the ringing. In my hand the receiver was light, porous as pumice. A man on the other side asked me if I was the wife of Jan.
Oh, here it was. I knew this trouble. I was braced for it. I straightened my spine made crooked with child-holding and bore up to him.
‘What’s this about?’ I was a teacher. I didn’t allow sideshows. I only allowed facts.
‘Do you know,’ the man said loudly, and sniffed—shame, I thought, he has a cold—‘do you know that your husband is fucking my wife?’
‘We’re not married,’ I said, even as my heart cemented, and cracked, and settled, split, in its caste. You can’t cry. I felt my underarms weeping through my shirt.
‘He is, though,’ the man insisted. His voice was rough, and rising. Calm him down, I told myself. Talk him down and find out what’s really happening before you feel anything. ‘She just told me everything!’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Can you tell me exactly what’s going on? What’s your name? And who is your wife?’
He told me, and the names didn’t set off any bells, for recognition or for funerals: they were the ordinary names of white people, and I didn’t know who they were. I’m so tired, I thought, and I’m so tired of all of this. My eyes were gritty with ash.
‘Tell him to stop,’ said the man. ‘You have to tell him to stop! If you don’t, I’ll, I’ll send some people around to your house, and then you’ll see that I’m serious. I know where you live.’
‘Oh,’ I said. Fatigue and outrage were blunting me. ‘You’re going to hurt me and my children? Is that what you mean?’
‘I know people in the Hell’s Angels,’ said the man.
He kept talking. He had me—how had he found my number? I still don’t know—and could finally unburden himself. Sometimes he wept. I stared at my own wall, dry, and listened as he sobbed. What had possessed me to paint the room this shade of green? Later, I would discover that there were received titles for all the players in this sorry scene—the Affair Partner, the Wandering Wife, the Betrayed Spouse—but for the time being, none of them applied to me. I had an aerial view. They were tiny figures cast in plaster, their remains atomised. Here was this man, crouched in the foetal position. Here was his wife, her mouth stretched open in supplication where once it had been open in desire. All of us ordinary, going about our business, moral and immoral. And who was I to judge? Maybe my partner had found his soulmate. Maybe he would finally leave me and the children, and the two of them would go off and live together. There was some relief in knowing that the infections he had been passing on to me from her insides weren’t only in my mind. She had changed the balance of my internal flora. The itch in my archaeology was real …
- Diane Awerbuck is a prize-winning writer, reviewer, editor and teacher. She writes femme/goth thrillers (Home Remedies); memoirs (Gardening at Night); pandemic cowboy thrillers (South, as Frank Owen; North, as Frank Owen); doctorates on trauma (The Spirit and the Letter); holy-wholly poetry (As above, so below); and short story collections (Cabin Fever; Inside your body there are flowers). She hopes you are sitting comfortably.
‘Mesmerising, at times shocking, and teeming with honesty, wit, razor-sharp prose and gasp-inducing insights, it’s no exaggeration to say that this is the finest and bravest collection of short stories I’ve ever read.’—Sarah Lotz
What do I know?
I know white people. I know loss. I know arrogance and disaster, natural and unnatural. I know the mythical sometimes crosses in and descends on us in our extremity like heat mist, like haze.
Let me write my story about the man Malan, who is contracted to build a dam in Zimbabwe.
Let me write about the collapse of our projects, of our expectations and desires, and about the things that are given to us in their place. The gifts of suffering. The gifts of apocalypse. Let me write about his little boy who died before him, about mermaids and sour worms and the great snake, Nehushtan, about all the creatures who crowd around us unseen on the earth.
All you red-faced men of my youth, with your moustaches and your beer boeps and your vulnerable eyes: here is your story.