Three short stories: redirecting the gaze

 I haven’t written for a while. I’d like to tell you that I haven’t found time or space, or that I was letting my ideas mature at their own pace. But the truth is that my inner critic paid me a visit and overstayed her welcome. She sat on my shoulder and mocked me like the evil angel in cartoons. And she wouldn’t stop talking. But in the rare moments when she fell silent, my words began to coalesce to form thoughts and sentences.

 When I can’t write I turn to all kinds of things. First of all, I talk to myself. I also bake, and I found myself launching into a detailed study of Queen Victoria’s baked goods (scones, to be specific). I walk for hours, attempting to escape my inner critic and hoping I’ll lose her as I turn a corner.

The gaze. I’ve been thinking a lot about gazes and glances lately. I’ve probably spent too much time reading critical theories: Edward Said, Gilbert and Gubar with their madwoman in the attic, Homi Bhabha, Gayatri Spivak, Yehuda Shenhav, Hannan Hever, Louise Bethlehem – and Foucault for dessert. Reading so much literary criticism leaves you helpless in front of the text, forcing you to dive in and trust the text, and trust too in your own ability to wrap it around your finger, knead and sense it, and declare that you’re beginning to understand. So I’ve been preoccupied by the definitive, suffocating, restrictive power of the gaze, and by the strength that comes when we deflect our glance to one side. I’m busy writing stories around this theme.

 The Queen and the Mirror

The queen looked at herself in the mirror, suddenly gripped by a sense of weariness with this daily ritual. Again asking who is the fairest of them all, and again hearing the answer that she already knew in her inner heart. She isn’t the fairest of them all – there are others fairer than her. There always were and there always will be. For some time she has been aware that the bored mirror was already turning its glance to others. Sometimes she asks herself why she doesn’t simply break the mirror and have done with it. But that’s not what she’s going to do today.

She missed her daughter Snow White. She understands why she had to move so far away from her and away from the cursed mirror that ruined their relationship with its irritating beauty contests and its incessant judgmentalism.

 She removed the heavy velvet cover from the mirror and looked at it, rather than at her image reflected in it. “Though fair ye be…” the mirror began to recite its familiar sentence. “I didn’t ask you,” the queen remarked as she continued to examine the mirror. The mirror was confused, uncertain as to how to react to this new information. Uncertain that it had anything to say other than repeating its well-worn phrases about who was the fairest and such like. The queen drew a determined finger along the decaying wooden frame. “You’re full of dust,” she declared indifferently. She continued to look at the mirror with the same piercing glance it had cast in her direction all these years. “I don’t like it,” the mirror said, like a five-year-old boy who has been chastised for some offense. “Really? You don’t like the way I’m looking at you? You feel exposed, vulnerable, somehow diminished?” The queen inquired in a tone of artificial empathy. The mirror was really scared now. It knew how powerful the queen was. As hard as it tried to catch her in its gaze, she always stayed strong. She could move mountains if she wanted to. But over the years he had always managed to deflect her own gaze and her powers away from himself. He had managed to convince her that Snow White was the enemy. He knew how to flatter her and offend her, and how to send her away to take out her rage on Snow White. But Snow White was far away now. Only the two of them were left, and she wasn’t afraid of him anymore. His comments didn’t bother her. And her gaze was fierce and piercing.

 Jack. Jack and the Beanstalk for you

Eventually Mom stopped being mad at me, after she realized that in return for our only cow I had gained the whole kingdom of the evil giant. Not bad for Jack. Dumb Jack, they used to call me. Because I was a bit different, like the people they talk about at school on special days when they teach us about the proper attitude toward “the other.” Those were the only days when I didn’t get beaten up in recess. At first I believed everyone when they called me dumb, because they really did seem different from me, and they were in the majority. But no-one dares to call me Dumb Jack anymore because I beat the evil giant. Everyone believes that I expelled him for ever after climbing the magic beanstalk up to the clouds, fighting and tricking him and winning all his treasure. Now everyone wants to be friends with Dumb Jack.

It’s true – for a long time I believed them. If people tell you something enough times, eventually you begin to believe it. All the time I heard them saying “he’s got ants in his pants” and wondering whether “a different framework might be better suited to him.”

But like I said, everyone wants to be friends with dumb Jack now. Because if I was so successful and managed to get to rich and powerful, then they must have been wrong about me and I’m actually a big success story. And all this thanks to the giant.

 When I got up there to his palace in the clouds, he gave me a long, hard look.

“Who are you?”

“Jack, Mister Giant. Dumb Jack.”

“Dumb? You certainly can’t be dumb if you’ve made it all the way up here. I’ve been waiting for years for someone to have enough sense to take the dry beans, plant them, wait for them to grow and then climb up here. You’re the first person who had what it takes to do that.”

“What it takes?”

“Come on, do I really have to spell it out for you like the moral at the end of a fairy tale? You had the imagination, the hope, the faith, the patience, the courage… In a nutshell – all the qualities of the hero in a story.”

 No-one had ever spoken to me like that before. No-one had ever looked at me in that way. I completely lost my fear. Moving forward, I sat next to him.

“So what happens now? Why was it so important for you that someone would come up here?”

“Because I want to quit. I’m tired of frightening everyone. I never imagined how much damage frightened people can do.”

“So why did you keep on frightening them?”

“Because it was a very powerful thing, it was hard for me to give it up…”

 So basically the giant and I had this long chat. It’s not like we became friends or anything, but the way he looked at me changed my life. For the first time someone was looking at me and didn't laugh or scold me when I looked back. Actually he seemed to need my glance, as if he hadn't seen himself for a long time.

 In the end he did good by me, that giant. He agreed that I could tell everyone that I fought him and won so that they’ll all think I’m a hero and they’ll realize that I’m not dumb. I think this giant was actually my good fairy, because as soon as he had finished his task he vanished.

 Since then, I get invited to all kinds of places to tell my story. Every time, in every school, I look around for those kids. The ones who get put next to the teacher so they don’t disrupt the class. The ones who seem to be dreaming instead of listening. The ones who hope that today, because it’s “Different Children’s Day,” they won’t get beaten up in recess. I look for their eyes.

 redirect2

Illustration by Daniel Gouri De Lima

“The glances,” she says, “were what caused me the most pain”

“One day I went to visit her in that place where they put her. They said she was suffering from mental exhaustion, but I knew that she had lost her mind because of everything that had happened to her. Every day I used to walk in the cold and rain and snow. I tried to bring some little object with me that might make her eyes see me again. But nothing worked. The glances people cast at her were the worst. Knowing glances. Glances that burned wounds of shame in the skin. And she wasn’t there to tell me that neither I nor she had anything to be ashamed of, because she’d stopped looking. I guess it was just too painful.”

Every so often she looks up at me, checking that I am recording every word she says. Checking to see whether I look pitying or ashamed. Whether I am glancing at her or looking away, lest I be infected by any of the terrible pain she has carried alone for so many years.

“Their glances… I will never forgive them for their glances. Because they knew and they remained silent. Because they didn’t do anything when she cried out until she was broken. They went inside their homes and closed the windows and doors, and they kept on looking out from behind their closed windows as if what she has, or what I have, is infectious. As if looking at me like that means that they are okay. That they are protected.”

She curls up in her armchair in front of me, a small, childlike woman. She signals to me to stop writing and to come and sit next to her. I go toward her and she holds my hand firmly. Her own hand is withered, bony and small. “Promise me! Promise me that one day you will tell her story. Promise me that you will see that justice is done to her. Everyone must know that she wasn’t to blame for anything. It was the cruelty that broke her. Everyone’s cruelty – those who hurt her and those who abandoned her.”

She looks straight at me, searching in my eyes for what she has sought in vain in the glances of those people. I know she is looking for the rage in my eyes. For the pain, for the cry she cannot shout out herself. I know that she is looking for the tearful smile that will let her know how grateful I am for having her in my life.

Translated from Hebrew by Shaul Vardi

אודות Hamutal Gouri

יועצת ומנחה לשינוי חברתי. מנהלת קרן דפנה - נשים מחוללות יחד שינוי - מספרת סיפורים המאמינה ששינוי מתחיל במקום בו השתיקה נשברת. Consultant, trainer and storyteller for Social Change; Executive Director of the Dafna Fund - Women Collaborating for Change. Believes that change begins when silence is broken
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