Z and I met when we were nine, and determined to make ourselves ugly in order to avoid the attentions of the Town’s men. We had few ideas and no money and not much of an imagination between us. So we harvested cigarette butts to rub on our faces, we stopped combing our hair, we limped and drooled, we chipped our teeth with hammers–these were the more trifling behaviors. I will not tell you the rest. Later, Z spent months touring the Town doing a poorly-received piece of performance art that involved humping the air and screaming while wearing a fluorescent skeleton suit and an upside-down cow mask. She still blames me for the damage she did to herself over those scant months when we were trying to take ownership of our flesh.
Today, we are flung out on her lawn like worms after rain, and I know that she hates me, a little, I know that she wishes I would die, a little, because I co-designed the body she has now and it is a body with much to hide. Z is painting her bathroom and has taken down her checkerboard shower curtains–we are lying on one of them. She’s wearing a moonstone ring–like her, it seems to aggressively resist being part of this world. In fact, both Z and the ring look like objects stolen by divers from an ancient shipwreck, and I am jealous of her long polished hairless body in its gold lamé bikini and cannot, as a result, stop staring at it and tearing up handfuls of grass.
When I am around Z I worry constantly about hygiene. I shave my arms and legs before one of our appointments, as if I’m preparing to have sex with a stranger. I select enormous sun hats that leave most of my face in shadow. I choose loose dresses made of the thinnest silk; they hint at my body without fully admitting to its presence within them. These dresses cost more than a week-long hospital stay and Z is the only person who sees them. Some women, it seems, have a knack for cleanliness; Z is one of them. She wanders over to her garden and eats a handful of nasturtiums. She seems to mostly live on flowers. On the windowsill she’s brewing one of her strange sun teas in a mason jar. I see lemon slices and feathery, celestial herbs.
Black squares, white squares, the spectacle of her body splayed over both. My body infecting the whole yard. You have less soul than a dog, I say to myself. What? says Z. She can easily hide her damage with makeup and tattoos, whereas I work from home and can only swim at night or while wearing a wetsuit. If you met me you would find me too effusive, because I desire so much to be accepted. I know people think I’m revolting; I watch them duck into shops and slide down alleys–everyone eventually retreats from my florid compliments, my wet eyes and close talking. Whenever anything I own is admired, I feel compelled to give it away. I press upon bewildered strangers my earrings, my sandwiches, my shoes.
I’d like to be able to choose the work I do, the hours I keep. I would like the cleanliness that I achieve only through great difficulty to mean that I am no longer distracted by the question of my own cleanliness. But in trying to exterminate my body I have, of course, rendered it more visible. I am marked over and over again by my own attempts to vanish.
Z is narrowing her eyes at me as she always does when she senses I am drifting. I want to tell her how difficult it is to concentrate on anything when I feel myself flowing over or shrinking from my clothing, protruding at odd angles, shivering then sweating. When I long to gather my stomach and my breasts into my hands and slice them cleanly off. But I do not have an attendant urge to appear less female. If I were capable of gentleness I would want my breasts to just fall off, like raindrops. I’d like to rise, and leave my body sleeping on the rubber sheets it requires: entirely oblivious, and made beautiful by my absence. I’d like to dissolve into substancelessness, like a bouillon cube dropped into boiling water. These are the kinds of stupid desires I form my life around.
The Town that surrounds us fills with snow and mist and the men in all of their despicable freedom saunter or skateboard right up against its borders. I want to ask Z: how do you manage to seem happy to be alive? But she will not let me get close enough to her scars to lift the edges and peer inside. The long slices down her face healed with barely a trace; her boyfriend the Chancellor terrorizes Z but he also funds many of her reconstructions. She will not speak of our time together. The more I see of her the more surely I know she has closed herself to me. How pitiful I was, how desperate and small, to have thought that we’d walk hand in hand to the door of this cage.
The Crown Prosecutor at the Farmer’s
The Crown Prosecutor had, at some point, flirted with everyone’s mother. He had countless spindly children–he was what you might call a hoarder–each with eyes bigger than the one who came before. The latest had eyes the size of limes for which she needed prodigious surgeries. The Prosecutor would walk down the town’s main street in a black wool suit that overspilled at the collar and cuffs with the froth of his white shirt. Mothers would duck into the credit union or the Triangle Pub, when they heard him coming. The Prosecutor lived with his children and his wife in a splitlevel bungalow that he nonetheless called Oak Manor.
The thing about him was, his wife kept having babies. Once a year someone would spot her at the farmer’s market, buying crocheted Celtic cross tea cozies, and you’d have to look carefully but there was nearly always a baby somewhere on her person. She would duck and weave when you spoke to her but eventually she would lift the corner of her coat and you would see the new child. Or was it the old one? Your eyes would move from her feet, which were always slippered, to her hair, which had gone from grey to white. The vendors would cast their eyes down and search for nothing in their tills until she passed. Sometimes she’d finger a beach glass necklace, or a jar of blackberry jelly. The Crown Prosecutor, picking up the rear, would pause at the SPCA cage, take off his gloves and stick his fat, clean fingers through the bars for the kittens to lick. Their children meanwhile would have scattered like roaches to enter the limbo contest.
Above the scene the moon scuttles into place like a silverfish. The farmer’s market features a bagpiper who is at this moment warming up in the corner, at tooth-loosening decibels. No one can hear what anyone is saying, least of all what the Crown Prosecutor is saying to his wife, as he leans over and tugs back her shawl (beneath which there had been some slight movements earlier in the day, movements that had since ceased).
What is the point of this report? Is it the predatory nature of the Prosecutor, the subservience of his wife, the complacency of the Town, the eyes of the hoarded children? Which child will be the first to challenge the Crown Prosecutor’s dominion? Or will they remain loyal to the universe of his making? Either way, they are lucky to be so young and flexible. Look at how deep their backs bend as they travel under the meter stick.
Sara Peters was born in Nova Scotia and was a 2010-12 Stegner fellow at Stanford. Her first book is 1996.