“Washer Woman” by Scott Lambridis

I first encountered Scott Lambridis in his role as one of the founders of innovative publisher Omnibucket, and apart from his contribution to their launch title Brainchild this story from Black Static #10 is the only example I’ve seen of Scott’s work.

The story was inspired by an illustration from artist David Senecal, which accompanied its appearance in the magazine and, although the situation is never pinned down, it appears to be set against the backdrop of the Vietnam War with a group of American GIs as the protagonists.

The viewpoint character’s name is Frank, but the story focuses on Minks who ‘taught mythology before he was enlisted’.  Minks sings to himself, and his singing appears to be some form of early warning system of an enemy attack, just as with the protagonist of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, albeit sex was the signifier in that case. His fellow soldiers are growing increasingly wary of this, almost as if they feel he is somehow responsible for the attacks – ‘”How come every time you sing we get raided?”‘. Minks has no answer, except vague mumblings about a washer woman.

Frank finds the Celtic myth of the ‘Washer Woman’ in a book that Minks has. She washed the blood from her husband’s armour before battle, and because of this he stood out on the killing ground and was slain, as ‘only an officer’s armour glints like that in the sun’. And so the woman visits the camp of the enemy and washes the armour of the man who killed her husband, so that he too becomes a target in the conflict. Even though killed herself, the washer woman lives on as a spirit of vengeance. Accompanying the story are the lyrics and tune of the song Minks keeps singing.

Minks himself claims that they have fallen foul of some local variant of this story – on arrival in the area they killed the family of a woman, and she now washes their uniforms to mark them out for death, the washing symbolic of the way in which a corpse is prepared for burial. Minks claims that he can see the laundered uniforms, but the other men are more materialistic in their outlook; they know Minks is visiting the nearby village and returning with fresh milk, and so they suspect that he is betraying them in some way.

Regardless, the men keep on dying, and even Minks himself claims that his uniform has been cleaned, though as far as the others concerned all that’s happened is he’s fallen in the river.

Minks is killed.

Frank has visions in his sleep, but he cannot pin down the song of the Washer Woman. He writes to his wife, a farewell note of sorts. The story ends with the line – ‘I look down at my boots and the river mud has been washed away.’ In this he sees a presentiment of his own death.

The story brings to life the anxieties of men fighting in a war far from home, the ways in which superstition preys on their minds, but underlying that is a warped sense of justice, the concept of forces in the universe that take note of our sins and omissions, and mete out vengeance. Whether this is actually the case, or simply a manifestation of the guilt Minks (and others) feels for the actions taken by himself and his comrades is open to conjecture.

And yet vengeance is a double-edged sword. Frank has a wife back in the States who is carrying his child, and in the telling phrase ‘entering the house and seeing my child’s clean diaper, and feeling my heart shatter’ the real horror is revealed as the concept of the curse, of revenge playing out down through the years and imposing its demands on each new generation. No letting go.

The original Washer Woman brought misfortune down upon herself when she washed her husband’s armour. She embraces vengeance rather than confront her own culpability and attain a state of acceptance. That is why she is to be feared and how we too can become monsters.

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