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an electronic publication
(issue #19) 



Rachel Swearingen

Woman in Blue



FURY BROUGHT ME ALIVE, not the artist's stitch. Nine months I spent in the womb of Frau Moos' hands, my swan skin pricked and stuffed, my tongue and sex shaped, and all the while dumb and void. For that unknowing, I am grateful, although I dream sometimes of a journey in a crate of wood shavings, my unmuscled legs cocked around my ears. I never did fit, not the crate, nor his fevered visions of her, his unrequited, his Alma, his Murder, Hope of Woman. Make her perfect. Make her luxurious, covered with hair. Certainly, not of feathers. Poor Frau Moos, in my dreams I hear her singing Leise, leise, leise, and then Leide, leide, leide, as she nails down the lid. My mother-to-monster send-off-to Dresden, to a soldier-artist with a head shaped like a shovel.

To be Kokoschka's insipid courtesan? His silent player of elaborate erotic charades? His effigy of hate? Always and only to be, never to possess, not even a beating pulse of shame, not even the love of the Göttingenerin servant girl he hired to attend me. My Hulda. Dare I call her mine? Life bringer, dress buttoner, hair brusher. She possessed me, if only for those moments when we were alone and she twirled me about his cold room, kicking my misshapen legs so that I too could dance. Hulda, my child-woman with the brown skin and the light steps of a village Tänzerin.

Don't look at me like that, she says, one day when K. is out to the cafe.

She has unbuttoned the maid's uniform he dresses her in for our games and pulled the muslin down on her still growing breasts. Look, she says, look what I have done. She turns me from my chair in front of his easel. I miss nothing. My eyes are painted forever open, my lashes are spiders that threaten to march away. She is not nearly so silly when K. is away. She has carved his initials, O.K., into her skin with his pocketknife. The gashes are caked with drops of brown blood. Soon, she tells me, soon he will see. He will trace the scars with his fingers and know that I am his. He is unwohl, she says, in her best high German, her stiff hat slipping from her braids. He has foxhole dreams. You must play along. I will dress you beautiful.

Listen, I tell her. I am the horror of silence stuffed into a boneless cocoon; you are the marvel of youth baked in a hard peasant's loaf.

She works silk undergarments up my fraying legs. She never listens. How they talk about you, she says. She wrenches a Madam's gown over my frizzy head. He has been paying her to spread rumors at the market. Mad Kokoschka. He hires a carriage and takes his Puppe into the country for fresh air. He dresses her in Parisian finery and escorts her to the opera.

She grows coy when he enters the room with his hard shoes, his blue-stained hands. A tea party, he says, for me? He pours two cups-one for me, one for him- and raises his brow at Hulda. 


How many sugar, Madam? she asks.

Listen, Listen, Listen . . . I am the Reverse Pygmalion. Kokoschka has taken woman and reproduced her as a feather-clad sham. Alma, Alma, Alma, he sobbed once into my cheek, and then disgusted, never uttered again. He calls me Polar Bear, not good enough for a bedside rug.

Madam is fasting, Hulda says. She must fit into the blue dress before dinner.

Well, K. says. We cannot let good sugar go to waste. He tosses a brown cube into the air and Hulda catches it and pops it onto her thick, pink tongue.

How he looks at you, Hulda, and how beguiling you have become, timing your baths in the fountain for his evening walks, casting him the sidelong glance.

See how he makes you stand just so under the lamplight, your arms hugging your limp painted doll to your cheek. That thing cannot be what I am. It is just a swollen rag with two dead eyes and a charcoaled mouth.

This is your naughty baby, Hulda says, pressing the tiny doll between my arms. She takes my hand and makes it stroke the pillowy head. He is captivated. He is the insect at the end of your thread. Can you feel my hand, Hulda? The small, electrical pulse? Do not let me go. Say that I am yours. Call me your sister, your lover, your friend. Please do not forget me here in the dark at the table, your dolly on the floor at my feet, your tea cold in my cup, your quiet breathing behind me in Kokoschka's sad bed. 







Rachel Swearingen's stories have appeared, or are forthcoming, in The Kenyon Review, New Stories from the Midwest 2012, Agni, Mississippi Review,Witness, The Literary Review and elsewhere. Recipient of a 2012 Rona Jaffe Writer's Award and the 2011 Mississippi Review Prize in Fiction, she lives in Kalamazoo, MI, where she earned a doctorate in creative writing from Western Michigan University, and is a visiting assistant professor at Kalamazoo College. 



Woman in Blue  was published in our Spring 2010 issue, How to Read Music. 


Loss Control

The new issue of TLR is out.

Loss Control, with new stories by
Percival Everett, Christine Sneed,
and Ben Stroud. Poems by
Alex Dimitrov, Stephen Burt, and
ra Kasischke.

We hope you're enjoying our newsletter. These special edition issues of TLR Read More feature stories and poems from past issues that we particularly loved, and really want to make sure our readers get a chance to read. read more ...


With our best wishes,


Minna Proctor

Editor, The Literary Review

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About The Literary Review


The Literary Review is an international journal of contemporary writing that has been published quarterly since 1957 by Fairleigh Dickinson University.