The Closet

by Josephine Livingstone


I don’t know if you know the story of Beowulf. It is long and most of it bears no relation to the matter at hand.

Beowulf was a great hero who came to a land in great trouble, a land suffering from attacks made at night by a monster. The monster could hear the people having fun inside the hall; he was alone outside, so he went in and ripped their arms and legs off. But then Beowulf ripped his arm off, and nailed it to a wall. Ha! How’d you like that. The monster’s mother then came to take revenge for her armless (but not harmless) son who was by now dead of armlessness. She killed everybody sleeping in the hall. In retaliation, Beowulf then went to the lake she lived in, swimming for an impossibly long time down to the bottom of it. There, he knifed her with a sword whose blade melted as soon as it has done its work. (The hilt of the sword was very ancient and bore an engraving telling of the creation of the world.) Beowulf lived for a long time in happiness after that. He had got rid of the weird haunters and everybody loved him. But as in life, so in stories: the monsters never run out.

One day, a robber decided to break into a nearby cavern full of treasure and steal from it. Unfortunately, the treasure was enchanted — guarded by a dragon! The dragon, contractually obliged to wreak havoc on the local area, did so. Beowulf put on his clangy old armour and lumbered back out. But he was too old. Just as he managed to slay the poor dragon, the dragon got his fangs in Beowulf. Pain boiled and bubbled in Beowulf’s chest until he died. The end.

I told you this interesting story because I can’t explain being closeted with reference to an actual closet. I’m not even sure what an actual closet is. Is it those clothes cupboards in which victims hide from murderers in films, the light landing in stripes on their faces? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter because the closet is a feeling, not a place. More specifically, a feeling or sensation you get when you get near the edge of the closet, close enough to be collared and yanked out or forced by the nature of your own enchanted monstrosity to flip out and then get murdered by the townsfolk. The closet is being the dragon.

The second fact is that the closet is porous, it has no visible edges, and you don’t just go in and out. Like a very, very old story in a very, very old book, every old edition of you still exists. They’re just as alive as you are, and you can’t kill them. You always leave yourself inside the closet, even if an exact mirror-image is outside of it. Your memory contains every iteration of you. The hidden edition can feel all the realer in contrast to your present-self, in fact. (Who would guess, that coward was you! Who would guess, that coward you remain.) The more of yourself you don’t or won’t understand, the more stays in the closet. I don’t even know what parts of me are in or out, these days. The closet is the mouth of a cave.

Contemporary English contains within it many mutilated gobbets of the English spoken by Beowulf’s author. Modern children still dream about dragons and people still have their arms and legs ripped off and die of limblessness. Vengeful mothers and loping thieves. Nothing changes. Hack at every monster that comes along but they’ll never run out. Why try to leave the cave? The closet is the inhuman.

Like a dragon snoozing in its cave, I only emerge in increments and then only to hurt somebody; raging against those who would wrong me or my people or steal my awful private treasures, I lash a measly old claw about at my opponent and then — look! — the villagers see me a bit. It isn’t my fault, it’s a contract I’m under. One day, maybe some chivalrous creature in clangy old armour will come along and manifest us both into oblivion. But until that time comes I’m going to stay here and gently tread near the mouth of the cave, hoping nobody breaks the charm.

And that’s it, that’s the closet. You can’t see it from the outside. Nobody sees the whole of the beast, nor will you — unless you happen to catch the fatal battle, which may never come at all.

Grendel illustration via Wikimedia

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.