Winner, 2016 Contest for Creative Nonfiction
The first story is never more than a whisper.
It echoes in the water dance of a mother’s womb and travels through a universe of umbilicus. It beats in time with the quick-quick slow tango of muscle which pushes life into the world.
Even before my breath was my own my mother’s tribe had sung me a lullaby. Before the swish and scent of my mother was sucked from my nostrils, I was already scarred with sin.
You are born of woman.
As soon as my tiny, kicking legs were pulled apart to reveal the small, pink folds of my sex, the first story already had an ending.
From the beginning, you are marked as girl.
When I was tall enough to stare into the bathroom mirror, I pulled the thick bangs which fringed my forehead to the side. I was searching for evidence, a lightning bolt or mark.
This sin, I asked my mother, was it something I could scrub off like the grass stains on the knees of my jeans? Would it stand out like the white bands of flesh under my swim suit, skin hidden from the summer sun?
Don’t be silly, she said, it’s not like that. It’s only a story.
Born of woman.
I couldn’t ride a bicycle without wobbling to the side or tie my shoelaces in double knots, but I was already sullied. She had marked me with her mother’s blood—not upon the door of our house, but on my very soul.
At six, I saw nothing and let my hair fall.
But others saw. On Sunday pews and pulpit steps. When the priest damped his thumb in oil I was absolved, but the sin of being born a girl can’t be erased. The sin of being born a girl meant I would pass that invisible scar along, like chicken pox; mother to child.
The sin of being born a girl doesn’t bleach in the August sunlight or fade with lemon juice.
No, the markings that set us apart only grow darker over time: A body spilling with curves and breasts, a song of hip and sway. Marks worn like scarlet letters pinned to our chests.
At eleven I was bony where I wanted curves, flat where I wanted hills. I was impatient and longed to burst outward, like violet petals unfolding toward the sun. The women I knew sometimes promised me glimpses into their secrets, the ones held in pots and bottles, their witch’s brews of potion and perfume.
In my grandmother’s house there was a back room, lined with windows. The sun pierced the glass panes like javelins, sharp and straight.
“The light is better out here,” she said. “Come.”
I leaned backward into the cradle of her arms. Her hands were rough, dry with decades of work. A delicate band of gold sat trapped below her arthritic knuckle. In the kitchen a pot of a Sunday something bubbled away, red sauce for macaroni, escarole soup.
Her fingers stretched the skin around my eye taut. She leaned, her breasts close to my face, her skin smelled of talcum and Lemon Pledge. Without warning, she started to rip the small, dark hairs from below my brow line, from the delicate skin between my eyes. When small beads of blood rose to the surface she used a tongue-moistened fingertip to dab them away.
The pain was unexpected and serrated. It lodged like a bone in my throat. My grandmother smoothed the ridge above my eye with the pad of her thumb.
“It hurts to be pretty,” she said, handing me a mirror.
The stories you hear of beauty are the stories told by men. They are the tales told in bold, black words across a white page.
The stories passed down by women are different. Those stories are the lessons which lay between the lines. Women’s stories of beauty are not born of desire, but of survival.
Scheherazade pushed words through the sieve of her teeth to keep her head attached to her body. Cleopatra serpentined her tongue around the language of her lovers, telling them what they wanted to hear, her mouth swollen with seven languages worth of words.
It is how women have survived, finding a crack or a crevice in which to fold themselves. Find a story, a sentence, a flattering word. A truth passed down from mother to daughter.
Beauty is not what keeps us alive.
At thirteen, another mark to bear: The scarlet stain of womanhood on the inseam of my jeans.
That final ripening was reduced to a few secrets behind cupped hands, whispers buried in a pink-tiled bathroom stall. At home I kept a box of maxi-pads at the back of my closet, hidden under a pile of old blankets and outgrown toys. I sneaked them to the toilet in the pages of a glossy, girly magazine and wrapped any evidence of blood in cocoons of toilet paper, wedging them down below the waxy q-tips and tissues stiff and peaked with mucous.
It wasn’t always this way. We used to celebrate the threshold from girl to woman, wrapping our blood magic in stories of power and destruction, life and death. The Apache honored a newly bled girl with ritual and feast, four days of joy and gift. Women of the Kalahari could bring down lightning upon any man who insulted her when they were bleeding. The blood of a Cherokee women held the power to defeat her enemies.
Magic and charm, power and purity.
Women of the red tents were feared and revered, not because they were unclean, but because staining the soft flesh of their thighs was the power of life. Unclean was only the story men left behind when they tore down the tents.
Our stories are different.
Sometimes our stories get passed like Chinese whispers, warnings from girl to girl, mouth to ear. Stories of girls and women who stand, eyes blackened, a ring of finger-mark bruises fading like a winter sunset on the flesh of their upper arms. Where there should be a lasso of gold, an Isis armlet, there is instead a wreath of bruises purpling like plums.
For women, keeping your head down is not always an act of cowardice, but of survival.
At fifteen and sixteen we sat in a booth, greasy slices uneaten before us on a scarred, red tray. Melissa sat in silence as pizza cheese congealed to something shiny and plastic. When she finally spoke, it was in a low hum.
Her boyfriend pushed her. He slapped her with open palms. He hit her with words that hissed and spat from his mouth, landing like embers at her feet waiting to catch her alight. He threatened her when she didn’t answer the phone, when she glanced in the direction of another boy, when she did a thousand and one things any of us might do during the course of a high school day.
He was still a boy, his fists had not yet reached their potential.
At seventeen Josephine’s boyfriend held her pinned against a car, her arm twisted behind her back, up high near her neck. They were chaperoned by nothing more than pools of lamplight in the shadow of a baseball diamond. He was a good guy, a ball player.
At twenty Robin stood on the threshold of my door, bloodied and bruised from a metal box hurled at her face. X marked the spot where the box met her vertebrae, slamming into the knobs of her spine. She fed quarters into a pay phone because her boyfriend didn’t allow her to use the one in their home.
“Why does he want to hurt me?” she whispered down copper wires.
We were the girls told we could have it all. The moon, the sky, the stars. The world and the heavens were ours if we wanted them badly enough. We were being beaten.
All the reasons they will find to bruise the soft flesh adorning our arms, beat the ripe curve of our bellies. The excuses to blacken an eye or shatter a cheek bone. There aren’t enough nights to list them all.
Sometimes the ones who protect you with one arm are beating you with the other. We are the weaker sex, they tell us, forgetting we have survived millennia of men who want to kill us simply because we are born girls.
Women tell each other stories to connect. We recite a litany the way you recite a column of spelling words or the lines of a prayer. Lips moving in silent cadence around a rosary of girls.
Remember the grandmothers and mothers, sisters and aunts who came before. Not only the ones whose blood flows through your veins, but all of them.
Remember the girls who disappeared, the ones pulled into back alleys and bound with rope or muscle, the ones raped and bloodied and shred. The girls whose knees were forced open in order to satisfy a fantasy, a revenge, a fear.
Remember the girls forced to bed grizzled and ancient men, the ones crammed into rooms rank with the sweat of a hundred who came before them. Given in marriage, sold into slavery, handed over like so many sacks of wheat.
Remember the girls beaten and burned to satisfy a man’s honor, the girls whose skin sizzled under a shower of acid, the girls with dents in their skulls, broken by stones to appease a God.
Remember the girls whose bodies are cut, the way they’re held down and sliced by rocks, no comfort save a hard muscled arm to keep them still.
Remember all the girls who lay on their backs at night simply to gain one more day.
Remember the ways they are killing us softly with laws and lies. Remember the ways they are killing us loudly, with fists and guns.
Remember the way our secrets travel from ear to ear, girl to girl, generation to generation.
There were four of us: Three boys from hallways and high-school classes, from parties with kegs of beer and half-drained pints of Peppermint Schnapps. And me. It never occurred to me to be afraid as I crawled into the backseat. I was not soft and cheerleader curvy. I was not the kind of girl boys tried to coax into backseats.
They were just boys I knew, headed in my direction.
On a dark road outside of town one of them kissed me and I kissed him back. But there were too many hands on my body, creeping up my thigh, reaching under my shirt. There was an extra body in the backseat, two now, forcing me against the car door. Their hands groped and grabbed at my body, pinched at my flesh. Their fingers looked for a gape in my clothing that would let them in. Their breath, beer-laced and hot, was on my face. Where my shirt rode up, the upholstery pressed into me, hard enough to leave marks like grooves across my skin.
In the rearview mirror, a lone pair of voyeur eyes glowed like a cat’s in the night.
In the shower later I scrubbed the smell of their hands from my skin, the stench of their fingers from my hair. My nostrils were filled with the scent of their too-close breath.
It never occurred to me to be angry. It never occurred to me to be anything but thankful they hadn’t forced themselves into me.
At seventeen, it never occurred to me I’d done nothing wrong.
It’s one of a thousand and one stories just like it, stories of compromise, of justification, of silence.
Sometimes the stories are love stories. Love between girls is not always rooted in desire or arousal, but merely in magic and possibility, confidence and strength.
Christine rose up into my life like Venus on the half-shell. We were inseparable, conjoined friends, hardly a breath between our dreams. She drew an outline around the girl I thought I had to be and blew, until all that remained was chalk dust hung on the air. She sprinted fast and far from what was expected and I breathlessly followed, never stopping to leave a trail of breadcrumbs behind me.
Standing on the edge of conformity, she pointed to the shimmering mirage of a woman in the distance. The woman I could be, if I would meet her halfway.
Christine gave me the map. In exchange I gave her my heart, wrapped tightly in knots of friendship.
She broke it. But folded in the tissue of that heartbreak was a pair of wings to fly free.
I sat, hunched over a desk, my back bared. My shoulder blades were sharp with young womanhood and righteousness, ready to sprout the wings I carried with me. The skin that stretched across my bone was pulled taut.
At twenty-two, under the glare of a hundred-watt bulb, I chose my own mark.
The great myths of creation portray snakes as gatekeepers to the spirit world, tricky and hostile, deceptive and dangerous. An Ouroboros: creation and destruction, life and death. Myths of Christianity symbolize the snake as temptation of woman, the downfall of men.
Under the whine of a tattoo gun, I reclaimed the serpent as my own, eating sin. Instead of swallowing it, I spat it on the floor.
It hurts to be pretty, my grandmother said. As the needle dragged over my back, ink and blood congealing upon my skin, it hurt to find a symbol of strength. Given the choice, I chose strength.
We women, we keepers of magic, we goddesses each and every one.
Listen and I will sing you a song of name.
Sojourner, Harriet, Elizabeths all. Sally, Indira, Isis and Rosa. Golda, Kali, Freya, Simone. Marie and Susan B, Germaine and Maya. Adrianne, Catherine and Salome too. Benazir, Amelia, Georgia and Eleanor. Margaret, Sandra, Abigail, Ruth and Eve.
I watched my belly dance under the heat of my husband’s palm.
If I have a daughter, I said, we will whisper together, head to head, no more than the breath between us. I will sing her a song of women. I will write her a love poem in verses of magic and couplets of mystery.
If I have a daughter, I said, we will dance between the lines of stories passed down from mother to daughter since time began.
The story of woman, the story of women. The story of me, and her, of all the things they’ve taken and all the things they’ve left behind.
Like Scheherazade I will tell her a thousand and one tales which I have saved for her, written on my heart.
The doctor wore a guard over her face, the kind you see on newsreels and inky front pages, meant to protect her from the splatter of blood and body fluids, the rush and gush of life.
An oxygen mask was pressed onto my face, my knees bent toward my ears. My husband fed me ice chips from a paper cup. Later he told me he had to pull his hand from the dry hollow of my mouth where my teeth tried to gnaw into his flesh.
The hands on the clock moved from one hour to the next and still my belly rocked. Nurses moved me, like a marionette, from one position to the next. Legs akimbo, arms outstretched in a pose of crucifixion. “I need to cut you now,” my doctor said, “to get the baby out.”
If there was a splatter of blood freckled across her face shield as she cut me I didn’t see, I was turned away. There was nothing gentle. Nothing calm or serene. It was warfare, blood and guts. My child was wrenched and yanked from the folds of my body.
But in those final moments the bridge from maiden to mother was paved slick with strength. All the first stories, the ones whispered in the womb, came rushing out in a river of fluid and blood, of life.
I was soaked, exhausted, my eyes a kaleidoscope of burst capillaries. And yet everything within me trilled with power.
This is what they can never take away from us. In the gush and swish of fluid and blood, there is magic. There is life.
My husband sliced through the cord that kept my heartbeat singing to my child’s for forty weeks and five days.
“It’s thicker than I thought it would be,” he said. It was thick—a lifeline, braided and corded with love and desire, plaited with the voices that came before, knotted with the songs I sang, the promises I whispered. It was hardened with all the stories I had saved up to tell my daughters.
“It’s a boy!” he said, beaming.
In Egypt the goddess of magic and life was slowly eclipsed by the sun god Ra. In the north countries the earth goddesses of fertility were replaced with the gods of war. Over history and time men have hijacked our rituals and kidnapped our myths. They hobbled our warrior women, suffocating their strength with dependence.
Our stories of the everyday, of hearth keeping and child, of gathering and sacrifice—they were hidden under an avalanche of battle tales, subsumed by feats of strength and dominance. Our journeys, the journey from girl to woman, from maiden to mother, they became small and unimportant next to theirs. Less than.
Men lopped the ess from she the way they slice the sex from those small, pink folds.
They’ve altered our past and erased us from their books. They’ve consigned us to the spaces in between the words.
But they will never take our magic. They will never take our stories.
A thousand and one tales written on our hearts.
Between my two sons were twelve weeks of a tiny, blinking heart. I watched it, pulsing on a screen, imagined it beating deep within the cushion of my womb.
I lay while the stiff, white paper rustled beneath me. The doctor moved the ultrasound wand from one side to another, pressing and searching. She stared at blurry images, frowning. This time there was no plastic face guard to distort her expression. She turned to me.
“I’m so sorry,” she said.
I dressed, the slick of cool gel sticky on the inside of my thighs. Despite the clutch of rough brown paper I used to wipe it away, it stayed there for most of the day, a reminder.
They knocked me out while my womb was scooped clean like a melon rind. Carefully they scraped out tissue and cells, all that was left.
When all the tests came back I had an answer.
A girl. A daughter.
I thought the stories tattooed on my soul were meant to be sung from mother to daughter.
You are born of woman, I would whisper, and you are meant for greatness. I wouldn’t mark them with sin, but with song. We would be part of the same tribe, that heaving, teaming mass who hold the promise of hope within our bellies and our hearts. We keepers of magic, we myth makers, we women.
But when my babies slid forth from between my legs, slick with mystery and with me, the ending to the story was different. From the beginning they were marked as boy.
In the moment before I brought each of them to my heart, I mourned what could have been. Yet by the time their slick bodies were placed on my breast, by the time the swish and scent of me was sucked from their nostrils, I knew my stories were meant for them all along.