THE BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO MATRICIDE
After a certain age, killing your mother becomes passé: you must do it while you are still young and handsome (or beautiful). Otherwise it is an ugly thing done by ugly people. When I killed my mother, my hair still smelled of lit gasoline. Back then I was suffocated by savage arrogance, and I cauterized my wounds with apathy. A young woman is a terror to behold.
Now I am an ugly person, but not because I killed my mother. I am ugly because I sing off-key in the shower, because I leave cookie crumbs in my bed sheets, because I cannot translate French while drunk. I am ugly because in second grade a girl with perfect blonde hair asked me why my eyes were so slanty and I could have killed her.
I do not remember much of what I was like as a child otherwise, or even what I was like a few years ago, except that I quit smoking cigars to take singing lessons and was madly in love with Friedrich Dürrenmatt. I suppose I was melancholy when I was young, but I remember this in the way I remember seeing a Mozart opera with an attractive man sitting next to me—which is to say not very well at all.
My Japanese professor, ever eager to practice new grammar, once asked if high school was difficult for me. I said, Yes, I wasn’t very pretty. But I conjugated it wrong and accidentally said, Yes, I am not very pretty. Yes.
My childhood is defined by the suicide of history. When I was quite young, I lived in a Chinese orphanage that had a ninety-percent death rate. In the 1990s the orphanage in Nanning had “dying rooms”, where they would leave the sick babies to die alone. When I read about this, I first thought that perhaps there was another Nanning in another country that had eaten its progeny. But there is only one Nanning, and there is only one orphanage with one unfortunate girl who looks very much like me but is not quite so perfectly vicious. Thus I tell myself that this little doppelganger cannot be me, a woman who has incinerated her younger self with cigars and profanities, who has never read Barthes but still quotes him with lachrymose condescension.
I do not know why I survived. This is the arcane tragedy of my birth: what remains of me grew up in the shadow of an unfinished murder. And ever since, I have been searching for my would-be assassin, the woman who could not finish the job. The woman who exists only as a reflection, shattering across the surface of the Yangtze.
When the sun is low in the sky, I imagine her singing to herself in the rice field. Her back is always turned; she could be as dazzling as one of the Great Beauties. She could be as ugly as I am.
The past is a foreign country: they speak Mandarin there. But I am doomed to speak only one language and to watch Rome burn, incandescent, gorging myself on betrayal. And though I cannot build boats, I will drown my mother, or she will drown me first in the Zuo River, before I learn how to speak Japanese and before I learn how to swim.
In honeybees, supersedure naturally occurs near the end of the summer. Beekeepers may hasten this process by clipping off the leg of the reigning queen bee. Her workers will detect that she is no longer suitable, and prepare a queen cell for the impending regime change. Eventually, a virgin queen bee will emerge from the new cell.
During supersedure, the worker bees will surround the old queen in a procedure known as “balling”. They will sting her until she dies. The virgin queen will watch, her antennae high.
Bees do not feel emotions as humans do. This is true. But the bees of Virgil’s Georgics must sing their threnodies in beautiful Latin, must write their epics in honey and the second declension.
Supersedure and matricide are both derived from Latin roots.
Worker bees can only sting once before they die. But the queen’s stinger is not barbed, so she can kill as many times as she desires. A virgin queen will use her stinger to kill her sisters, the pretenders to the throne.
There is a reason why certain young women are called “queen bees”.
I have no sisters.
I did not become a woman gently, with a cotillion or an ill-fated betrothal. I think sometimes that I have not become a woman at all, but a palimpsest, a corrupted text desperately in need of emendation. At nineteen I had a greyhound body and wrote mediocre poems about mediocre things. On a few occasions, I crawled out of bed and studied Ancient Greek. On even fewer occasions, I crawled into bed and studied Japanese.
With impending womanhood came an unbearable sadness. Once I turned twenty, I could no longer be a teenage girl in the technical sense, the kind of girl who knew everything (or at least pretended to). I have failed in many respects as a young girl, and am continuing to fail as a young woman. So far, I have not managed to murder my birth mother. Though sometimes I dream of it, with fire and sword and hatred. I am the snake that Clytemnestra birthed, with coiling black hair and a smile like a knife wound.
My friend shares a birthday with me, leading us to argue incessantly about which mythical siblings we might have been in another life. After deciding that Romulus and Remus were too obvious and that neither of us knew archery and thus could not be Apollo and Artemis, we settled upon on Eteocles and Polynices. The two sons of Oedipus, they are fated to kill each other as they contest the city of Thebes, their joint inheritance. Eteocles drives Polynices from the city, who returns with six friends and attacks the seven Theban gates. Thus Aeschylus has his Seven Against Thebes; thus Statius has his Thebaid.
My dearest Polynices’ parents, unlike mine, are Chinese.
In the end, it is as it should be: he is Orestes. I am a lacuna.
You must kill your mother in the aorist tense. You must kill your mother before the finale of the symphony, before you are no longer a young woman and have instead found yourself obliterated by age. You must kill her before she buys a labrys at the hardware store and reels in your father with a fishing rod. If you do not do this, she will kill you first. Or perhaps she will make your father do it with an ancient sword, ten fists long. Perhaps she will speak to your father in the language of Murasaki Shikibu. Perhaps she might even cry.
When people ask what city I am from, I say I was born in Nanning. But sometimes I feel as though I am talking about a Lagrangian point near Jupiter, a single speck in the vast ocean of space. Asteroids at Lagrangian points between the Sun and Jupiter are named after characters from the Iliad. I read the Iliad for the first time in the ninth grade.
I did not understand it. What thirteen-year-old girl would understand the weeping of Achilles in his tent, or Agamemnon’s spite? The narrator asks the Muse to sing of Achilles’ terrible wrath, that brought so much grief to the Achaeans—the closest thing to true rage I had experienced by then was the murderous anger at my birth parents, which I had meticulously redirected to a frenzied, undisciplined writing style.
My freshman year of college, my poetry professor said he enjoyed how “wild” my poetry was. I was told my writing was “baroque” by other students, and in one case, “too Chinese”. I do not scatter references throughout my work to prove how intelligent I am—my ceaseless arrogance already tells me what I want to hear—but because this is the only way I know how to write about myself, through a glass darkly, with Greek and Latin and Japanese and classical narcissism. My desire to write is obsessive beyond comprehension, just as is the desire to kill what is left of my history.
There is no other way to describe the woman who has gouged herself into me. Only with Rococo chairs and bright sea windows, and Electra’s bitter rage. I have translated parts of the Iliad, though I still do not understand all of it. But when Hector sees Astyanax on the wall of Troy and weeps: I know.
André Breton says beauty is an infinite train that is always exiting the Gare de Lyon but can never truly leave. “Beauty will convulsive, or it will not be at all,” he writes at the end of Nadja, which is less about Surrealism than it is about an extramarital affair. I read it one summer spent in New York City translating Ancient Greek, and some of the lipstick I was wearing rubbed off on my thumb and then onto the pages of the book. Then I wrote my friend a several-paragraphs-long email complaining about Breton’s treatment of women, which he received with good humor.
When I say that I want to kill my mother, I am only expressing a primal desire toward abjection. If I kill my mother, she cannot have any more children. The train will never exit the Gare de Lyon; it will stay suspended forever on the last paragraph of Nadja. She will never replace me. This is all I have ever wanted.
When I say that I find Breton’s writing about gender subpar, I am really saying: I would let you be André Breton if you wanted, if you asked, and we could wait for a train that will never come at the Gare de Lyon together, me with my collection of pretentious books, you with your razorblade distaste.
I returned Nadja to the library. I am sure it still has my lipstick stains on it. This is how I write history, littered with disfigured books.
When we fought, I told André Breton that my mother left me and so I have come to understand that I will always miss the train at the Gare de Lyon. I expected nothing better nor worse from him. Our stories are like all of the other stories—this is the glory of intertextuality.
André Breton and I have since reconciled. I will not be his Nadja, although perhaps it is best never to be anyone’s Nadja at all, and to make other women your Nadjas instead. And each will be like all of the other Nadjas, hungry and convulsive, a rather limp afterthought to The Magnetic Fields.
Parting will be convulsive, or it will not be at all. When I cannot sleep, I think of the moment the 1 train pulls into the 125th Street station, and you can see the edge of the sun.
The narrative of matricide is really about self-immolation. If Deianira dies, then so do you. I have come to know this after reading Sophocles and Tacitus, who taught me nothing about the real world except that I would be very pleased if I were never forced to read Latin again. The death of Nero’s mother was nefas, not because it was evil but because it was inelegant. Kagutsuchi did it the best of all: setting himself aflame in the birth canal, how clever. History is unkind to amateurs.
I think about the technicalities of murder while absentminded in class. I do not care about my father very much, beyond hoping that he too has also died. Once I dreamt about his death, which was satisfying in a melodramatic way. I do not know how he died except that he paid Charon two obols and fell out of the boat. Cheap Athenian revenge is the sole purview of undergraduates—Ph.D. candidates have the distinct luxury of nailing Cicero’s hands to the Rostra.
I slept excessively when I read Cicero in the original language, just as I slept very little when plotting the murder of my mother. I cannot afford a flight to Nanning—she may be living elsewhere. She may be poor or rich, married to my father, a widow, have more children, have no children besides an ill-fated daughter. Perhaps she bought herself a high, high tower and eats wild peaches dipped in honey. Perhaps she lives in a small house by a river, and if she had turned back I could have married a village boy and died hopelessly young.
I will never have children. Matricide runs in the family, I’m afraid.
What did Alcmaeon say when he unsheathed his sword?
What did Kagutsuchi say to his father’s whistling blade?
What did Medea tell her children, with her bloodied hands?
November is National Adoption Awareness Month. The only thing I remember about National Adoption Awareness Month is that I was translating The Women of Trachis for my Ancient Greek exam and writing a paper involving Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations. The paper received a B+ for a mediocre analysis of classical reading, hastily welded together and salted generously with Bourdieu.
I know more about Cicero than I do about my birth mother. He married Terentia and then divorced her, and his daughter Tullia died in childbirth. He wrote a treatise about friendship, and so we know of his closest friend, Atticus. Mark Antony had him killed in 43 BC.
I have been told you can find out everything you need in the world from books. I have read multiple tragedies in Ancient Greek, several hundred dull lines of Ovid, and a few asinine picture books about the joys of forgiveness. But I know that there is no joy in forgiveness. There is only the slow satisfaction of watching Agrippina drown. Not even all the water in the Pacific could satisfy me; not until my history has become marginalia, my mother apocrypha.
When Tullia died, Cicero was consumed by grief. He wrote his Consolatio for her, which has since been lost.
When I kill my mother, I do not think I will be consumed by grief. Perhaps it is better to be vengeful than grieving, especially when you are a young woman. You can still cling to the afterthought of your beauty. You can still sprout wings and join the Furies.
All roads lead to Nanning. They have paved over the ones to Rome.
I have lied to you, terribly. I apologize. I cannot write a guide to matricide, because I have not yet killed my own mother. I am too much of a coward to face her. I will be a coward until I die.
Sixteen days after my twentieth birthday, it was announced that China was planning to repeal the one-child policy.
The best part of me died twenty years ago in Guangxi Province. And I will live with that knowledge for the rest of my life.
To find your mother, you must go to the forest and buy a bell from the prince of foxes. It will cost one eye; you must cut it out yourself. Then you must ring the bell and throw it in front of you. The road will rise up through the earth to greet you. You must ride a white charger east until you find a glass tower, and then you must climb up a dead girl’s hair to see your mother speaking to a silver mirror and eating wild peaches dipped in honey. You cannot look her in the eye. She will turn you to stone. Or you must hold her down as she transforms from a lion to a harpy to a bear and back again, until you realize that all the fairytales were written by the hands that strangled the king and turned his daughters into swans.
And you have lived through this story before, hundreds of times, but you utter the same words and you carry the same blade and you ride the same horse. And over and over again at the base of the tall, tall tower next to the red, red tree you will see a beautiful dead girl with beautiful dead hair, and you will hear your mother singing in the same mutilated language. You will want to say, Your child has come to fulfill the prophecy spoken by the winds and the moon. I must kill you now in this tall, tall tower with the glass door and the red tree.
But all you will be able to say is, It’s me. Goddamn you, it’s me.
Kailee Marie Pedersen is a senior Classics major at Columbia University. She was adopted from Nanning in 1996. Her work has appeared in Strange Horizons and Identity Theory, and is forthcoming in TRACK//FOUR. She is the recipient of a 2015 Individual Artist Fellowship in nonfiction from the Nebraska Arts Council. She spends most of her time working on her in-progress essay collection, singing opera, or playing video games. Her favorite Greek tragedian is Euripides.