“Mother and daughter I can have no longer, but wife I can and perhaps I shall find a better one.”
—Mircea Eliade, “Master Manole and the Monastery of Arges,” The Walled-Up Wife: A Casebook
The Walled Wife is a project that has haunted me for the past six years; it is my retelling of a story about a woman who is buried alive in hopes that her soul will hold up the walls of a church. “The Ballad of the Walled-Up Wife,” is a folk song at least 1,000 years old; it is one of the most famous in the world, according to folklorist Alan Dundes. In an interview Dundes explains, “the song has inspired more than 700 versions — mainly throughout eastern Europe and India — as well as countless essays by scholars.”
Countless, he says.
Countless, I questioned, and so began exploring the many cases of women being buried alive. I compared variations of a song sung across the globe. The lyrics go: a wife is buried so a structure can rise—it implies a room is worth more than a woman, and as a place she approximates value.
I started to wonder if the architecture of intimacy is dependent on violence—if art is the ultimate form of violence—if woman, especially in the role of wife, are worth anything (or nothing) at all? Countless being the inverse of priceless, it would seem that this ballad proves that we are not worth much at all. It shows that the easiest thing in the world to replace is a wife—it says a woman is a thing.
I wanted to know if it was true—am I worthless—are we countless. For six years I’ve been burying myself alive trying to answer these questions; I’ve been using different materials and contexts to understand how and why this happens. And yes, this does happen; just recently (as in, in the past three months—as in, in the United States of America— two women were buried alive in their own back yards).
I allowed my students to immure me in cinder block. I let my friends bury me in their backyard. I’ve put myself in situations that have stretched my comfort levels and distorted my understanding of reality—all to see if one life is worth anything at all?
Inside the grave I learned that life is worth living because it is countless—it is beyond commodification. It took the grave for me to understand this: life is worth living because I know how it feels to lie naked against the earth.
I attempted to write a book that freed the wife from walls; I failed. What I found in this story wasn’t freedom, but a love that surpasses time and space. Buried alive, the wife was able to love herself. I wonder, by her story, if anyone else will love her? I wonder if there are stories in this world, beyond all the stones told.
I cannot count the number of people who have helped me in this investigation, but I can name all of them. These include the women of AROHO. While at the 2013 retreat, I was able to work with filmmaker, Anita Clearfield. Anita graciously helped a group of us writers translate our work into visuals. In the months that followed the retreat, Anita and I worked with the very talented (and in every way beautiful) composer Silke Matzpohl to make the following film.
The First Hour Of Being Buried Alive In the Walls Of A Half-Built
Since death and events surrounding it are considered dangerous, it follows that those who directly deal with death both court danger and are dangerous. And, accompanying this dangerous status of women is power.
—Ruth Mandel, “Sacrifice at the Bridge of Arta,” The Walled-Up Wife: A Casebook
is eaten by clouds.
drops as shattered glass.
shakes from standing for flocks of feet.
is screaming as birds will yell—
cry before migration.
What was said—black bird to brown bird? What was it I saw?
A dirt path—
curious objects? Finches copulating while
swallows them. Fists for bodies,
stop beating upon each
implying melody—pounding to open
like doors. Finality.
I threw long ago, but windows
as an indefinable
light, exits from me.
First printed in Manor House Quarterly