Open Me by Sunshine O'donnellOpen Me by Sunshine O'donnell

Open Me

bySunshine O'donnell

Paperback | September 2, 2008

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Mem is a wailer, a professional mourner hired to cry at funerals. One of the few remaining American girls in this secret, illegal profession, Mem hails from a long line of mourners, including her mother, a legendary master wailer hired for the most important funerals in her hometown of Philadelphia.

Though Mem is eventually to become a renowned wailer herself, she at first struggles with her calling. She is a girl who cannot make herself cry, and though her mother loves her fiercely, she must use ancient, emotionally abusive, cultlike rituals to train Mem to weep. When Mem emerges as the greatest wailer that the profession has ever seen, her infamy brings with it unwanted attention, especially from the authorities.

Interweaving poetic prose and artifacts spanning six thousand years and seven continents, Open Me is an utterly original novel about mothers and daughters, dark underworlds, and the play between fact and fiction.
An award-winning poet, essayist, and educator, Sunshine O’Donnell teaches experiential workshops in creative writing, visual art, and quantum physics to children in poverty-stricken schools and youth residential facilities throughout Pennsylvania. O’Donnell lives in the Germantown section of Philadelphia with her husband. Open Me is he...
Title:Open MeFormat:PaperbackDimensions:240 pages, 9.77 × 5.55 × 0.67 inPublished:September 2, 2008Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385665725

ISBN - 13:9780385665728


Read from the Book

1“Do you know what you look like when you’re crying?”The little girl and the old man who paid for her are standing beneath the deep green grave canopy when he asks her this. It’s the same question she is asked by most people, along with a battery of other questions she will never be allowed to answer. Is it true your mother tortured you to teach you how to cry? Is it true you worship goddesses and never went to school? Do you know that it’s illegal? How much money do you make? The little girl does not answer any of the man’s questions. They stand on opposite sides of the casket, waiting for its slow drop to end so that the little girl can begin. While they wait, the little girl picks at the edges of her handkerchief and watches the sleek brown coffin that is dropping, the shrinking gap between the casket and the hole, while her mother stands behind the real mourners, counting the money and turning away. On top of the canopy, big drops of rain fall like a sky-full of beads shaken out of a sheet. The little girl listens to them burst against the taut canvas tent and knows that the rain wouldn’t taste like tears, it would taste like metal and freshly dug dirt. She imagines this taste, wishes she could sit in the playroom at home and watch the silvery buds cling to the storm windows as they grow and loosen their grip, melt into each other and desperately roll. They still call it a playroom, even though she is now a star without much time to play. Instead of toys, the small room is crammed with pieces of furniture that need to be fixed: a cracked plastic sewing table, her Aunt Ayin’s mirror, exhausted-looking cardboard boxes. A heavy cream curtain, its edges scalloped with rust-colored stains, hangs against one wall to hide the hot-water heater. “Come a bit closer for me,” says the old man, gently. “A bit closer to the grave.”Is the young minister still talking? The little girl can’t tell, can’t hear much but the sound of her stiff black lace rustling against itself, the rain, the sound of her heart in her ears. She knows what she’s supposed to do and how to do it. She’s been training at it for years. It’s what she does best, better than anyone, better even than her own mother. At least that’s what the widows say: A professional, a lady, a legend, a star. She tries to be sad but she doesn’t feel sad now. What she feels inside is the ghost-self growing, curled at the edges, gray and unstable as burnt paper. A scorched wisp.She moves closer to the grave. I am stupid, she remembers. I am worthless, I am disgusting. The grass by her feet is fake and bright green, fringed with frail shards of gnarled brown leaves. Of all the months, the girl likes the smell of October best, even better when wet, she loves to watch her feet walk through the leaves and their just-before-dying smell. In her townhouse development, the October air carries smells the way cloth does, it touches her and is gone, a flash of dead leaves, fabric softener from the dryer vents, rain, exhaust fumes, fire. Today the wet chill doesn’t cling to her, though the leaves are wet and cling to her shiny black shoes like little drowned men. By November the smell will be gone. It will get dark and cold and it will stay dark and cold for a very long time. She can feel the old man staring. She knows what she looks like, the white face, the famous black dress, and she feels dulled by a veil of dust. When she was younger the newspapers had called her gaunt, but this was because of an old Wailers’ trick, putting a thin girl in a thick dress too large and long for her frame. Now she feels as if she is wearing a flesh suit instead of a body. Behind the long hair, the little girl’s face looks scared.“Don’t be scared,” the old man says and, with some difficulty, he walks closer to where she is and stands behind her, clamping his hands down onto the shoulders of her dress. His fingers shake as he leans forward, whispering into the little girl’s hair. What does he whisper? At first she can’t tell, the rain is beating its glass fists against the tent. She closes her eyes and pretends she’s under her secret salt tree with leaves like thin tongues of glass. The old man’s fingers press and squeeze. She thinks he says, Look at yourself, aren’t you lovely? She keeps trying but the tears won’t come, she only sees white, white on white, something she can barely see the shape of, like a reflection caught in a puddle of milk. She doesn’t want to leave the salt tree but it is too late, the man’s whispers reach her even there, his not-white sounds, his wordless noises navigating toward her through the salt wasps and dry flowers. What does he whisper? Unbearable. A hot breath, damp and loose. Unbearable. A wet smoke. If you don’t cry for me I will turn your mother in. She opens her eyes and looks at her hands and sees the color gray. The little girl feels his fingers squeeze, his breath get thick, his dank gray whisper. The ghost inside her is whisper thin. The old man doesn’t know her name. He whispers, gently, into her hair, Start crying. – 1922 A.D., London, England – Author UnknownTHE OBSCENE ARTS: MATERIALS TOWARDS A HISTORY OF WAILING WOMENand Other Professional Mourners1922PART III.TRAINING THE NOVICE.–Continued.__________D. METHODS OF ABUSE.On The Importance of Self-LoathingUsed properly, the silent repetition of humiliating comments about oneself is often the most practical method a novice can implement in order to arouse sudden weeping. For instance, the traditional prompts I am stupid, I am worthless, I am disgusting, have been indispensable for generations of professional mourners who would otherwise have found themselves dry at graveside and thus unable to perform for their wage. Be warned that this technique must be handled with great skill and delicacy, as it can be dangerously mismanaged by the naïve and may result in suicide or the permanent disordering of the brains. On this point should be mentioned the value of a mother’s role in the fabrication, penetration, and reinforcement of such statements which, although seemingly painful to absorb, will ultimately serve the novice once they are remembered at appropriate times (e.g. at gravesides or while procuring contracts). Some suggestions include disturbing comments concerning the girl’s intelligence, talent, worth, and virtue. It has been proven unwise, however, to berate a novice about her appearance, as a girl’s confidence about her ability to charm will play a critical role in the acquisition of new clients throughout her life. If, by the time the novice has completed her apprenticeship, she is still unable to discern between her true feelings of self-worth and the poor esteem she must draw upon while coaxing tears from her eyes, she will eventually find herself unhinged and perpetually weeping without cause. To avoid this most appalling condition, a mother must determine whether her daughter is of an especially weak or inconsolable constitution before beginning a regimen of verbal assaults. However, if it becomes clear that the novice will be unable to perform without abuse, by all means employ whatever practices are necessary. Although not ideal, it is, after all, more profitable to have a daughter who weeps all of the time than one who must be abandoned because she cannot weep at all.2“Is it true you worship goddesses and never went to school?”Mem was six years old when she was finally allowed to see her First Corpse. It was something she had looked forward to for a long time, although she didn’t like the sound of the word corpse. She loved, instead, the word deceased. It sounded like the first few seconds of water surging from a faucet, or the beginning of a song, although her kind didn’t know many songs, they weren’t allowed to listen to the radio or watch television. Mem was not supposed to want to have anything to do with the outside world, and she wasn’t supposed to desire things. She had been taught that the things she touched or thought she owned–like the new metal swing-set in the backyard, the bright stack of Letter People books (Mr. P with a Purple Pillow, Mr. M with a Munching Mouth), the wall-to-wall confetti-colored carpet under her feet–would exist long after her body had liquefied, and then even those things would not survive the next flood, asteroid, or ice age. The slow burn of oxygen would chew chemicals and atoms to smaller bits and then these would also be pried apart, revealing something even smaller but just as fragmented and temporary. To the unprofessionals, tangible things seemed to promise immortality, proof, a permanent record, but even as a little girl Mem knew that permanent was a fairy-tale word. Like the end. Or forever.Of course this never stopped Mem from wanting things. When she and her cousin Sofie were very small and just starting their apprenticeships, all Mem wanted was a pink dress frothy as a whipped dessert, a grit-filled Big Wheel, a dog, a cadre of friends who wore Band-Aids like badges. Mem and Sofie sat at the tile-topped table in Mem’s mother’s kitchen, swinging their legs under the chairs as they shared a packet of butterscotch Krimpets. Here is the first Lesson, and the first secret you must keep. They nodded, dreaming of dogs and dresses, scraped the icing off the plastic wrappers with their teeth. By the day she saw her First Corpse and worked her First Funeral, Mem had memorized all of the Lessons. She could recite her maternal ancestry all the way back to ancient Rome, and she knew every step of her history. Her favorite part was during their wailing glory, in England, when the kings sent black cloaks and baskets of berries before each funeral parade. The Wailers then only ate berries that bled. They needed them to make their mouths red, a glistening and conspicuous health next to the powdered pall of their dull white flesh. On the streets, at their cue, two thousand mourners would wail as they stumbled and caterwauled through the cobblestone streets. Their wigs fell off, they moaned in grief. Emotional decadence! Voluptuous suffering! A carnival of exquisite woe! The others stood to the side, breathless, holding their applause. Before this was Rome and the sprigs of rosemary they’d sewn, like brides, into the tightly tucked hems of their shifts. There they howled over fresh graves and snapped their own finger joints like asparagus tips. There once were white saris and platters of salt, then togas with bloodstains and garlands of thorns. On the islands they tore through their ear lobes, knocked out their teeth, and poisoned the dogs. They chanted and carved their own scalps with shells, their unbridled and nut-brown breasts swinging with each slice.The unprofessionals said Savage orgies. Decrepit display. Ostentatious grief. As always there were flowers.Mem loved learning her history but what she was made to learn best was that she had been born, like all of the women before her, to become a star. She would easily have sacrificed all of the other things she thought she wanted in order to become a legend like her mother. Each day Mem watched her mother prepare for work, painting her face and buttoning her doole, the traditional black dress hand-made for mourning. Mem could not wait for the day when she too would have those long black coils of glossy hair, the deep green eyes, and breasts so big she would have to lift them up to wash underneath. While Mem’s mother and Aunt Ayin, Sofie’s mother, sat at the table and taught the girls their Lessons, Mem would look at her mother and feel her heart crack open with love. Mem’s mother was tall and broad, an unbroken surface, heavily outlined and magically backlit by light like the paintings of saints. Her bones were strong. Her mouth was lush. She was powerful enough for herself and Mem and all the space in between. She was massive but compact, a spoonful of dead star that no one else could lift. Mem looked at her mother, the wide red lips and blue-black hair oiled into snakes, and inside of Mem’s chest thrilled a love that whirled in a small hurricane. “These are the Lessons our kind has been handing down for six thousand years,” Mem’s mother said to the girls. “You may never reveal the Lessons to the unprofessionals, no matter how much they might beg you.” Mem cannot remember how old she was when she first realized that she was part of a kind. Until they were older, Mem and Sofie thought that playing Funeral was something all children did. They watched the other children who lived in Mem’s townhouse development come home from their schools and play their games, and during these games someone always died. The players argued endlessly about whose turn it was to stagger and moan, then fall and slump to the ground. But all of these pretend deaths were temporary, and none of them went so far as to be mourned. When Sofie and Mem played and argued about whose turn it was to die, they were playing legendary Wailers, and corpses who were already dead. Mem’s favorite game was called Open Me. One player pretended to be their legendary great-grandmother, whose public name was Ruth, and the other pretended to be the undertaker who split open her belly and found a lifetime of treasures hidden inside. Open me was what the famous letter had said, the one that Ruth left on the bed-stand for her daughters to find when she died. It was a sacrilegious request, but it was a last request nonetheless, and one particularly fitting to Ruth’s history. As a baby, Ruth had been cut out of a deceased mother who was unearthed from her casket when a servant heard moaning coming from the freshly-interred grave. The infant Ruth survived this ordeal, grew to be a beautiful woman, bore seven girls of her own, and became the most celebrated Wailer in Italy before she was forty years old. But the peculiar theme of premature burial stayed with Ruth throughout her life. During her professional prime, premature burial had become so common that preventative handbooks were distributed all over Europe, and each year new techniques and detection-devices were created to better ascertain just how dead a body really was. It was not unusual to see caskets being dug up while services were performed across the way. As a result, hundreds of exhumed bodies were discovered to have been buried alive, most found face-down in their caskets with broken fingers, deep teeth-marks sunk into shoulders and arms, and winding sheets shredded and soaked through with fluids. When Ruth was a young mother, a gang of Ressurectionists stole one of her clients’ corpse just hours after he was buried and sold it to local doctors for educational dissection. After the first small incision had been made in his chest, the man sat up on the table, mumbled something, and swooned. When he woke the next morning he explained that what he had been trying to say was I am not dead. He described how he had listened, in horror, as his family discussed burial plans, and later how he had heard his small son clapping with glee at the prospect of inheriting his horse.Because these dark mistakes occurred frequently, Ruth was often well paid to wail twice for the same man, and she soon earned enough to bring her children to Philadelphia. She lost two girls to cholera during the boat trip, but she had deliberately given birth to many daughters in the hope that at least a few might survive to adulthood and fame.Once in America, Ruth adored two sets of things: her beautiful wailing daughters and her silver, the first set anyone in her family had ever earned. She lavished her girls with silk mourning gowns and polished the silver herself once a week. When Ruth suddenly died at the age of eighty-six, she was found fully dressed in her bed, holding two dozen gleaming spoons against her chest with both hands like a bridal bouquet. Next to her body she had left a note, with two words written in her well-schooled calligraphy: Open me. Before the opening, the undertaker was surprised to find Ruth’s stomach unnaturally lumpy and enlarged. He carefully prodded and poked from the outside, then slit the organ open. Inside he discovered a hoard of things that Ruth had managed to swallow. The small spoons, brooches, brass keys, and bracelets were removed and boiled and then given to Mem’s grandmother, who later sold most of the cache during the Great Depression. Mem’s mother inherited one of the bracelets. It hangs above the mantel in Mem’s house, behind glass, with the clasp part tacked down, one of the few artifacts left from six thousand years of ancestry. Three of the milky white beads dangle from the bottom like loose teeth. When Mem was little she would look longingly at the bracelet, knowing that someday it would be hers. She couldn’t wait to remove it from the glass and wear it, she wouldn’t care if it broke. This is what things were meant for, she had learned, to be used until they fell to pieces. “As an apprentice just starting, you must model yourself after Aurora, Roman goddess of the dawn who every day wakes to weep morning dew,” her mother explained in her deep, steady voice. “Aurora was the first Wailer, from which we all came, and she still works every day, all over the planet, waking each morning to remember her murdered son and then cry on cue. As always her veils are deepest black. And as always there are flowers.”