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Assia Wevill The Paper Tiger Empress
It is early days yet. I need proof.
Will a village life be enough for us? I am planting the unsaid. There is no childhood for me anymore. Write me a poem. We are not just a marriage of two likeminded individuals but two souls. I cannot change what does not move me, what I do not desire, what I do not need. I am your apprentice and you are the master of this household who lifts the veil of my great loneliness, my attractive mask, my costume. I know that you think of my image as sensual. I cannot give that up. I too have a place in this world. Pull up a chair and sit at my kitchen table and eat. Eat this German Jewess’s food, her recipe for seeds and shoots and wings and things. Eat my chicken. Drink from the glass of water I bring you now. I feel useful now. If you want me to peel the potatoes then I will peel the potatoes.
Sylvia is just a dead spot now, but who knew that she would shortly become a stain multiplying, multiplying, and multiplying like rain. I am farming and you are a nomad. I will prepare the house for us to live in, look after the children, cook, clean, prepare the meals, set the table with the proper shiny knives, forks and glasses feed the children, teach them German, play with them as if they were my own. You are my dream. I am your dream. In your own words, ‘I am and always will be your exotic Assia.’ We will prosper. We will build gods in this ghost house, little Buddha’s, with fragrant oil on our hands we will burn sticks of incense, their perfume will fill the room. I will not harm you.
When I am in your arms your tenderness is like madness. Your lovemaking is like madness too and afterwards I will feel rapture. Pleasure, what pleasures? Oh, it feels as if I have returned from oblivion.
My mother was my father’s first lover. But I come to you with regret, lovers past and present, three husbands, discontent but clothed or even in my nakedness you can see the real me. Was I promiscuous? I don’t know what the meaning of that word is. When men sleep with women are they promiscuous? When they take a woman to bed do they feel pity, self-pity, no, little or low self-esteem or anguish? All they feel is the sexual impulse. But I am the woman who is made of a much harder substance. To be significant is difficult. And you are the most significant person that I know, the most famous person that I know of Ted Hughes. My Ted, my Ted, my glorious and infallible Ted. In childhood my innocence went kaput.
Don’t even look at me I should have said now when I think about it in retrospect. Don’t tell me how sorry you are. You’re evil. You’re pure evil is what you are. Don’t touch me. I know you have been with someone else. I know you have been with another one, another woman. Another one got in the way. Did you touch her the way your touched me? Do you even know what the word intimacy means? Coward! Fool! Cad or do you prefer scoundrel, rat! Get out! Do you even know what those words mean cheat? I carried two babies for you, aborted one but you felt nothing. I tried to recover from that. You’re nothing but a butcher. Was she very thin? Was she very sad, did she have brilliant sayings, a brilliant mind, did you love her conversation inside and out of the bedroom traitor? Did you kiss her neck or did she remind you of your Sylvia? Hit me. Hit me jailer. I know you want to. I should have said all of those things but I didn’t. Something held me back. Perhaps it was something in his eyes and how he refused to make contact with mine. I hated him at that moment. I loved him at that moment too. But all I was thinking about was that it had all been for nothing. The abortion. My son. A son. My daughter. A daughter. My body and a spirit caught between two worlds like a butterfly in a jar, and I had a sensibility that a profound freedom was calling, a thought of what it would take to build a Christ, the vision of a love affair in the eyes of a girl.
‘Do you write?’ he asked me. Ted Hughes asked me in the days before he was Poet Laureate.
‘Some.’ And he smiled. ‘Is that funny?’ I asked.
‘No. It’s just that you’re so young and beautiful I thought you would have other things on your mind, other things to fill your time. Your husband for example. Peeling potatoes. I already know you find no allure in peeling potatoes. I thought, oh well I don’t really know what I was thinking. Forgive me. Your English is exquisite. And tell me what do you write? Poetry. Prose. Short stories.’ And he looked at me for the first time as if he could really see me.
‘I write poetry.’
‘And you have a diary?’
‘Don’t all writers have secret diaries?’
And Ted Hughes smiled again. ‘Not to my knowledge. So let us have a drink then to secret diaries.’
‘To secret diaries and abandoning marriages, running out on spouses and adultery.’
‘To adultery. Where are the glasses Assia Wevill?’
‘In the kitchen.’ And I got up and made my way to the kitchen for the wine glasses kept for special occasions. I did not want to see David cry. And when I came back I knew I just had one question on my mind. I had to ask it of him. I couldn’t breathe you see as I stood in the kitchen wondering what exactly I was going to embark on and what he was sacrificing.
‘Ted, are we going to have an affair?’
‘No Assia Wevill. I think I am in love with you. I think I want you to be my wife and the mother of my children. I think I want to spend the rest of my life with you.’
‘What will all your friends say, your family? All of those people who are loyal to the ghost of Sylvia Plath, to Ariel, all of those people who shadow you in London, at launches and cocktail and dinner parties. Ted they will never accept me. You know that. I know that.’
‘Children make all the difference in the world.’
‘I’m losing my looks. I’m getting fat. I thought I saw Sylvia the other day.’
‘Don’t talk like that Assia. You couldn’t have. You will make me think thoughts I do not want to think.’
‘You’re not responsible for her death.’
‘But don’t you see. I do feel responsible. I feel her presence everywhere I go. In our home. In the faces of our children. In our house where we first lived as newlyweds. Where we were so happy, so productive, so creative. God, can’t you see what I’ve done. I am the depressive and it is not the women in my life who are sad, who suffer, who are manic and silent about the sickness, the insanity of it all, the suicidal illness. I knew she was taking sleeping pills, waking up pills. I knew she was going for therapy.’
‘It was all her own doing. Accept that Edward and you will find peace. I don’t think that it sounds cruel.’
‘Beautiful women are always highly strung, emotional, and cruel. Women are crueller to women than men are to women. Assia tell me. Do you think I should have come round today? Maybe it was a bad idea. Do you think we should be alone like this?’
‘You’re not encouraging anything. I made advances. You made advances. Nobody is taking advantage of anyone in this situation. David won’t be home for hours. We have the flat to ourselves, champagne fizz. I think it was a perfect idea you coming around. Forget her now. I am here.’
‘The perfect woman in every way. When I look at you I see the woman I saw who awakened something inside of me. The filthy exotic dreamer wearing her orange silks with golden bangles at her wrists. Voluptuous.’
‘But am I intelligent? But do you like reading them?’
‘I think Assia your poems show great promise.’
He means to put me in a cage. He thinks I have no skills to speak of. And if he loved Sylvia so much and grew to worship not only her but her writing to some degree why did he leave her and make his way to me? To me a cage means the kitchen, her kitchen. Perhaps it is stupid for me to think this way but all I want to do is to please him. Is that so wrong? Who built the universe that way, constructed it so that women can please men before they can please themselves and their children? And hidden somewhere in there are pets and children. Children stroking fur, licking out bowls, holding out their hands for chocolate, who press themselves against you. I am stupid. I longed for him. Pain is like the sea. Deep. You wouldn’t want to go swimming there when it is raining in case there is as storm or lightning. In case you won’t you make it back to the shore because of the current or in case you drown. Scrawling-scribbling-and-the-naming-of-parts. Boyish I-love-him-to-death-till-us-part. I-look-after-the-children, keep-house, proofread his work but still-it-is-never-quite-enough. He does that in his hut all-day-long. He never calls me the interloper but they do. He never takes my side. It is always there’s. Mama’s boy. But I am always intrigued by what he is writing and how quickly his mother seems to recover whenever he is at her side. How am I supposed to interpret that? When I take my meals alone with our little Shura how baffled she must be? What do I say when she looks at me and asks me, ‘Where is papa, where is Frieda, where is Nicky?’
Guts. Space. Breathing room. He is making me look very foolish as if I am running after him (but in the beginning it was the other way round) yet I feel exhilarated when I wake up and see him lying next to me in the mornings. Personal space he certainly seems to need it more than I do. Once upon a time I was so confident, so attractive to both men and women, so clever and now, now this. What he sees, what women of his generation call and want so badly ‘domestic bliss’? I have never wanted children but perhaps it is not too late. And then again what about my verse, what about my poetry, my literary pursuits? Stubborn, ungrateful, unappreciative of my efforts, arrogant but if I leave him now (kaput). All of his London friends think I’m too foreign. His family blames me for Sylvia’s death. Poor, fragile Sylvia. I think she was quite mad. I hate her. I hate her. I hate her and she hated me too I think. I think back to that weekend when they invited the two of us, David and me down to Devon. Of her taking off her shoes and sneaking up to me and Ted in the kitchen. It was him that started all of this not me.
Lifted. Fated. He can’t see what he does to women but I can. All his women, these women who are madly in love with him, clearly besotted, half-smitten, blinded by his creativity, his mad good looks, his seductive charm. I am already losing him. I can see that now. He can see that. And that is not to say that he is not a good man. Ted is a good father but why can’t he accept Shura and me. Why does he shut me out? Why does he make this odd list of do this, do that, run my household, teach my children German, play with them for an hour a day, and introduce a new recipe every week? I must be a terrible housekeeper, and an even worse mother, step-mother. They say he’s a tyrant. If I withdraw then I’m becoming just another version of Sylvia. I can feel this cloud of doom coming over me. Swiftly sweeping the exciting London life as I knew it away, away, so far away and the Assia I once knew doesn’t exist anymore and her ghost. Sylvia Plath’s ghost will she always come between us? Will she always be there? I have never wanted to be a domestic goddess. Goddess yes but there was never anything domestic about me. Monster but wherever he goes I will be sure to follow in his footsteps in this lifetime and the next.
‘Come to bed Ted.’ I pouted.
‘I’m writing Assia.’ Was all that he could bring himself to say. I’m writing. Leave me alone. I must be left alone to my own devices now that I have you he could have been saying. I must be everything to him. Yet, but I’m a failure in every department. I’m crumbling. My spirit is no more and no one has a kind word to say about me, the adulterer leading the very willing man in this picture to the slaughterhouse. I am made out to be the woman who took an already crazed woman out of her mind to her death. I AM NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR THOSE CIRCUMSTANCES OF EVENTS AND HOW THEY PLAYED OUT IN THE END. But who cares right? I am just another one of Ted’s women, the assassin with his potent words that are and always will be his weapon. I have no friends to speak of. Perhaps it would help this situation if I had friends. I could invite them over to the house and it would not feel so hostile. You can sometimes cut the tension between me and his father with a knife. I did not hold a gun to Sylvia’s head that fateful night. How was I to know that me and little Shura would soon follow her, that I would murder my own daughter, my beautiful daughter and that I would take my own life and afterward all anyone would say in his circle of friends, and neighbours she had it coming. She only has herself to blame after all. Assia Wevill destroyed Ted Hughes. And the arguments. All those bitter, bitter telephone conversations that I wish I could take back but now I never can.
One day I felt brave enough to ask him, to stand my ground. To finally look him in the eye when I thought he was at his most vulnerable, not surrounded by his friends, his family and especially that sister of his who adored him and who could see that he could do no wrong.
‘What about my work Ted?’ And he smiled as if he was looking at Frieda and after that the conversation became a blur. There was no reality. There was no longer the dream of having a life together. Normal. Was this normal? To always be treated like a slave, always slaving away, cooking meals, scrubbing floors and one day he had the audacity to rub his finger along something I don’t remember what and turn around to me with Frieda in his arms and ask me, ‘Really Assia, is this what is meant by cleaning house?’ I did not know what to do. I only knew I had to get away, get some fresh country air in my lungs and then I began to cry once I was away from Ted and the children and his beloved Frieda who he treated like a pampered doll. Shura often forgotten. My little one. What have I done I have often thought of bringing this child into this world? I thought perhaps he would come and find me and comfort me, apologise and say, ‘Silly me Assia it meant nothing.’ I was working all day while he was plotting against me to get away. I was tired. Three small children with so much energy. So of course I was out of my depth sometimes but I wanted him. My Ted but then again there were my hands. My once beautiful hands with their manicured nails were rough now. I had started to bite my fingernails. And the tantrums had returned that I had left behind in Tel Aviv. I had just become another version of Sylvia Plath’s ghost. My hands they felt like Braille.
‘What about your work?’ he answered in return. ‘Whatever do you mean by that? You wanted a family and have I not given you one. And one day we will find a house of our own to live in. Of course you will have to make that decision yourself. Things have not been easy for me either. You wanted children and have I not given you one.’ I have a dead wife. I have a dead wife. No, that is what he was telling me. What have I done? And was it I Assia Wevill who created the scandal. It was him who asked me to accompany him to that house, that ghost house that morning.
No, no, no I wanted to say. I wanted to scream in his deadpan face because I could see deep down he did not care for me anymore. You were the one who gave me two children, two flowers, two forget-me-nots butcher. I proofread your work Ted. I think you are brilliant but I am nothing like her no matter how beautiful I speak English or write I will never replace her.
‘What about my work. My poetry. Does it not interest you that I write too?’ But how soon he forgets me. I’ve become fragmentary in the same way that Sylvia Plath was doomed to become.
‘But all he said was this in return and I knew I was doomed and Shura was doomed too.
‘You have your hands full with running around three growing children Assia, keeping this house, my house in order. What more could any woman your age (and I thought when he said those words ‘any woman your age’ I thought I would just die on the spot. He was killing me. Striking me again and again and again but I had to take it because this was love and this was the life I had chosen).
So I write to my sister in Canada who has three children of her own, a home, a family and I ask her to come and visit me because the loneliness is killing me. Ted Hughes is killing me and the behaviour of both his parents towards me is shocking. Wasn’t it enough for me to escape Nazi Germany with my family, to hear and see and glimpse up close the laughter, the boots, the handsome blonde, fair-haired and blue-eyed SS soldiers walking up and down and then up and then down again on the train. We escaped the concentration camps, and Hitler. I could not ask for more trauma for trauma in childhood is enough to damage you for good, for a lifetime. I thought that we could build a life together. Ted and his Assia. Assia and her Ted. We were made for each other. I could not take my eyes off him since the very first moment we met.
Rain is pouring into me like liquid sun. My moods go up and down like a pendulum swinging back and forth. And every night she hovers at the foot of our bed as if she has a right to be there by virtue of being the dead wife. Ted falls asleep immediately as soon as his head touches the pillow. I lay awake for hours thinking of our dream house in the countryside. Get here as soon possible my dearest sister because I think I have had enough of his mind games and of him controlling me. I never thought he could be this cruel. I never thought he could be this brutal. His brutality washing over me and my little Shura. Frieda and his Nicky are his two angels. Sylvia’s angels. AM I ENOUGH? I am afraid I will never be. I have changed so much. All he wants to do is write and write and write and I am afraid he wants me out of his life. I am waiting for those words on his lips, ‘You do not belong here anymore.’ I am so afraid. Help me. Only Fay seems to understand. My only friend and I cherish the moments we spend together. I confide in her over tea whenever I am I London. I think she wants me to leave him but how can I do that when I have already invested so much in this relationship. Sometimes I think I could just murder him in his sleep, put a pillow over his face but he is a strong man. I know he will fight back. He, everyone they ever knew as a couple have now put Sylvia Plath on a pedestal and they worship her. He won’t even read my work and I won’t show him anything that I have written to him anymore because he is too critical of it and sometimes I catch him smiling as he is holding my papers, my verses in his hands almost as if he is thinking to himself that I of all people think I can replace her, that I bewitched him and not the other way around. There’s an inflated cut that eats my guts. A wound and I wonder if there is a cure for it. I read S.P.’s work. Brilliant, bold word for word and know that I can never catch up to her. Her love medicine was her children. Her mother was as far as I know a Pandora’s-magic-box sealed shut. I know this, that she did not leave a trail of a layer of clothes on her bedroom floor. Her poetry, her short stories, her sonnet was her conversation with rapture. I tell my sister I need proof. Ted is in the garden now. We have a patch of garden where we grow beet, leafy green vegetables, all kinds of things, herbs and I watch them from the kitchen window forlorn and in despair. This man is killing me, killing me and soon I know he will retire to his hut, to his writing and he will not feel forlorn or despair tormented by the past as I am. I already know that he has chosen Frieda above Shura. Is this love? What is the matter with me? All I know is this, and that is I cannot survive without him, without Shura at our side. People are cruel, women crueller. Is it because I have won? I’m afraid he doesn’t respect me anymore and it is all my fault, he’s pushed me to one side, there’s another beauty in the picture now. A beauty who looks like Marilyn Monroe. I think it has something to do with my childhood and background. I think it has something to do with his childhood, his father, his mother who must have adored him since birth, his background, and his good looks. This Marilyn Monroe lookalike keeps showing up at the house. He tells me she is just a friendly neighbour concerned but he must think I am stupid, dumb. Does he not know he has already sabotaged us? Our telephone calls from London to Yorkshire are bittersweet. We fight, tigers in the night and then we make up, make plans for a life together. We bloom but I am rotting even in the dark. It is only Ted who sleeps soundly. I have no shield. I have my suspicions and every day they are vast and new, incomplete and they make me sick inside to have all these unpleasant thoughts. They are like a museum where my spirit plays. The dead spot of S.P. I cannot get out however hard I try and rub it out. Ted knows nothing of this. I am tense all the time and am convinced that this Marilyn with her blonde crotch is a spy. I am weary. Perhaps I should go back to Vancouver. Go back to school. S.P. wrote about bees and villagers and now they praise her but Ted does not tell his friends I write too. There’s too much history here, too much growth and mourning. I make jam now, and breakfasts. I speak in German. It is on the list. It is on the list. He talks about my curves, that imaginary zone less and less and less now. Women are merely an artist’s sexual object.
I should have burnt that hut to the ground that he wrote in but then again there wouldn’t have been much difference between Sylvia and myself if I had done it. I am also charmed by women but I want to kill them all if anyone of them comes near Ted. How he enjoys their attention and it pricks my imagination, and my subconscious. I know he mocks me sometimes, makes a joke out of me in front of his circle of male friends. They are wise. Women are not. But I still give myself up to him even in my grave as he stands at the mouth of it. I remember when he flirted with me, our love letters and how he erased me and Shura out of his life. In Ireland the fields were beautiful and our love, our family life was the best sensation that I had ever felt in this universe. The world was full of flowers, of a green feast in his garden patch, this kind of life of a landscape was meant for a poet, a writer. There were perfect scrapes but we got through them and I felt catapulted into the air. Pity that the sky was blue every day. I loved the rain although sometimes it made me feel sick, troubled, and depressive. And I would look at the knife on the table and I would think to myself is now the time? Perhaps he would look at me, finally look at me with bandages at my wrists and see me but then I would think of Shura. I knew he did not love me anymore. We were not invited for Christmas in Yorkshire.
This bold and shocking creation that choked me until I couldn’t breathe and then my darling Shura began to cry as I did, began to feel as confused as I did as to why her father couldn’t love her as much as he loved his Frieda. I don’t know why I couldn’t love David Wevill, my third husband anymore. I only knew I had to get out now. It was done. Shura and I was done for and then perhaps then I was the traitor. I wanted to scream. We had a German au pair. So I sent her out and then the deed was done in Clapham Common and we were erased forever from his life. Gas, Gas, Gas. When you discover a traumatic incident like a suicide does it live with you forever? I will never know. My soul is still fertile. His betrayal. My betrayal. Snow falling not self-consciousness, as detailed as the gods, the noises of a mother clinging to her daughter, her eyes shut, heart stopped beating as if by a stray bullet, what was my weapon of choice? It was a glass of water and headache tablets, a mattress dragged into the kitchen. A copycat murder. And then there were tears, of course there were tears for my Shura. I had such a mind-blowing headache that I thought it was a headache after that first deed. I should have told Ted that he did not know what love was. He could not love women. He could only undermine them. He could only love children and wanted Frieda and Nicky to grow up in the shadow of Sylvia Plath and not Assia Wevill and Shura. And now it is my turn to execute myself.
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