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Expression Theory

 L drinks from a broken teacup and splits her lip.  She doesn’t wipe the blood with a napkin but sucks it away, glaring up at her mother with crooked eyes.

I don’t want summer eggs, L says.

You speak in irregular sentences, her mother says.

I have no native tongue, L says. What do you expect?

There’s a chamber pot on the couch and the house smells terrible in the heat.  A boiled egg sits on the plate in front of her; L cuts it open but doesn’t eat.  This offends her mother, she can tell.  She knows what her mother is thinking:  These eggs cost money. Her vegetarianism is stupid, idealistic.

L is choreographing in her head again, making mental diagrams:  the arch of a back, a lunge, a flexed foot.  Her own bare feet tap the floor of the rented flat.   She wants to stumble upon an invisible idea and render it with her body, amplify it.  She feels something savage and raw inside and wants to show it on the stage, or in the garden of a patron.  She wants to begin a discussion underneath the orange trees.

Her mother leans on the counter in her outdated, coffee-stained couture.  You need to empty the pot, she says.

I’m working.

Nonsense.

L’s imagination is back in Antibes.   She bathes in the Baie des Anges and dances in the woods with unshowered, muscular girls in tunics, loose hair tumbling down their backs.  They give nighttime shows, the flicker of oil lamps on their damp skin.  Her muscles were firmer then.  She spoke three languages.  She was on the verge of something.  Her thoughts were the color of moss and her head was teeming with them.  The ideas were crawling all over her body like the fat worms she used to feed the rooster after a rain, the lonely one who crowed in the city streets at dawn, the one who sought shelter behind an oily, fetid waste bin.

L, the pot.  Remember the pot.

But L remembers the olive grove and the moon.  Those are doorways in her imagination.  If you have imagined something taboo, she thinks, say your brother’s tongue, you must not let the image go.  You must let it unlock something for you artistically, because it’s part of the rhythm.  You must let the native tongue torture you slowly, make you ask what in the pit of humanity makes you want to turn away.  What does the moral filter look like?  What might the arm do?  The leg?

She taps her foot.

L, the pot is stinking up the room!  Stop tapping.

If you have fingered a blossom, she thinks, you know it is the shape of a clitoris.  You picture it between your teeth.  You squeeze it with your fingers.  How can I make the shape of that feeling?  What color is a lunge?  What does an arabesque sound like?

Why had she stopped dancing?  Stanchezza? Wahnsinn?  The string of broken engagements?  A wounded ego?  Last week, when she couldn’t answer this question, she went walking.  Her mother called it tramping but she went walking, stumbling through the streets with her dark hair unbrushed.  She was hungry, almost catatonic, until she found a man she could press up against.  A man who would give her bread.

The pot!

L stands up.  She grabs a chair and hurls it at her mother, who shields her face.  The chair lands on the floor, leg breaking.  How can the body be like the chair?  Who is watching?  Her life is a performance.

Aggression in a woman is ugly.  What color is it?

Last night the man who broke her heart walked into her father’s birthday party as if it was nothing.  As if her body had meant nothing to him.  As if she had given him nothing.  She was once a silver fish, her body swallowed in a costume of scales.  He had been in the audience, watching.

What if I bastardized a grand plié, assumed the position of birth, squatted down like a woman in the Amazon?  L thinks as her mother sobs.  Would that look useful?

L retreats to her room. Her walls are painted black and they smell like the woods at night.  Her curtains are made of punctured records and they sound like gunfire. She is a tree, and all her leaves are on the ground.  She is naked, picked clean.  She is a river, barren.

Megan Mayhew Bergman lives on a small farm in Vermont.  Her collection Birds of a Lesser Paradise was a Barnes and Noble Discover Pick, Indie Next Pick, and selected as one of the Best Books of 2012 by Huffington Post.  She’s finishing a novel, is a Justice of the Peace for her town, and serves on the board of directors for the Governor’s Institutes of Vermont.  She recently rescued a grumpy mule and on a good day spends more time mucking stalls than writing.

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Posted in Flash Fridays

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  1. [...] on Salon, as well as a story called Expression Theory in the Fall (online) edition of Tin House.  She also has upcoming stories in The Kenyon Review and [...]

  2. [...] * Megan Mayhew Bergman (who grew up in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, and attended Wake Forest, Duke, and Bennington) has a new piece of flash fiction up at Tinhouse [...]

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