Anatomy of Womanhood
- On feet: “Your feet must be small and soft,” they say. “You must move quietly, like the slightest breath, and stay on the marked path.”
Kiki doesn’t move quietly. She runs. And she is swift, swifter than the boys in her neighbourhood who drop from her peripheral vision one by one until all she sees is sky blurring by and all she feels is the pistoning of her legs, the earth traveling upwards through her veins and bursting behind her eyes.
The mothers soon stop that. They cluck over her, muttering that her legs are too muscular, like a boy’s, that she must walk, like a lady. They bind her feet in small patent leather shoes. The kind of shoes that reflect nothing but pitch – the color of the darkest night without stars.
Except the men on the corner, they see something in the reflection of those shoes they like. They sit and sneer as she passes. As quiet as a mouse, she fears their sharp gazes on her, their phlegmy snickering. She says nothing when they flick at her dress straps with their fingers or pinch the hem of her skirt. She stays still, feeling the bottoms of her feet itch.
But on the night when Mr. Azikiwe corners her in the alleyway, hands insistent, pressing her down, she moves like lightning. Her brother once told her lightning does not come down from the sky. “From the earth, Kiki,” he said, sighing at her fourth-grade ignorance. “It comes up from the earth to meet the sky.” And so that is what she is; neither quiet nor small nor soft – she is a lightning storm blinding him as she darts away from Mr. Azikiwe’s grasp and out into the street where she screams until the police come running.
That night, after questioning, in the darkness of her room, she takes off her shoes and looks at the long bones of her feet. The lightning there sparks and gutters. Still there, for the next time she needs it.
- On cunt: “Your cunt must be pure,” they say. “You must be clean and well-groomed – bare and sweet like a peach. But not too sweet, so boys know you are not to be picked.”
Magda has overheard the boys talk in class, sitting with shoulders hunched, elbows on knees, voices low and laughing.
They list off names of girls they’ve kissed up against the brick wall behind the cafeteria, exchange information about which eighth grader won’t complain if a hand slides up her skirt an inch too far, or which teacher will turn his eyes away if he stumbles across them while smoking his daily cigarette on the football field. These are the important things, things she hears over and over. She could practically recite them in her sleep.
Sometimes, she relays these secrets to Lily as they lounge on the window sills in the bathroom, passing a lollipop back and forth. “Skanks,” Lily scoffs. “Don’t they know you’re suppose to make them work for it?” Magda feels as though she should protest, speak up for these girls she’s known since kindergarten – Mary, Lakeisha, Jasmine. Her cheeks bloom with such hot joy at the sharpness of Lily’s language, at the sight of her cherry-colored lips on the lollipop, that she says nothing.
It’s when the boys in her class talk about how a girl smells, how it all depends on her hygiene, how the briny, fishy smell sticks to them, stays on their hands, that’s when Magda feels sick to her stomach.
She’s always liked the way she smells, a private, secret pride. Sometimes, in bed at night, she slides her hand across the warm, giving skin of her stomach, down between her thighs, twisting her fingers in the curls there. Carrying that hand to her nose, she falls asleep, comforted by the smell. She dreams of salt-skimmed ice and flying fish that break from beneath, soaring up against the moon.
On the night Lily wakes her with a pebble against her window. They stride through the darkened streets towards the playground, laughing in murmurs with hands held between them. Magda almost tells Lily what she’s heard, how she feels. She imagines a night when, at a sleepover, she might tell, her head bent against Lily’s own brilliant red hair. She would hear in that space before sleep Lily’s soft agreement as she slides her hand down between Lily’s thighs into the warm, bristly heat.
At the playground, someone waits beneath the glare of the street lamp. Magda cannot see them clearly, but the boy-shapes are big and dark. Lily ignores Magda’s question, allowing one boy to reach out and pull her against him as they approach. “Don’t,” she murmurs, but the word dissolves into a giggle.
Magda perches on a roundabout, trying to ignore the soft sounds coming from the end of the slide where Lily is smothered beneath a boy-shaped shadow. “Hey, wanna make out?” the other boy asks, scuffing his foot across the grass. “Sure,” she responds because – why not? His mouth is too pliant, his tongue hard and insistent and she’s about to protest when he worms his hand into her pants, then jerks it back. “Yuck, girl! Don’t you shave?” he exclaims and, from the slide, a responding snigger. Encouraged, he continues, “Just like a bramble down there.”
Magda has time to say nothing because it is a bramble – a briar of thick vines woven from hair. Those vines slither up around her, forming a labyrinth from which deep, blood-red roses bloom. Roses that smell of the ocean. The last thing she sees before the vines enclose her is Lily’s face, wide-eyed and staring, and the last thing she hears is a boy hissing from between his teeth “Whoa…”
They come to see Magda, the boys from her class. The girls, too. Sometimes, on a dare, they attempt to penetrate the briars but only scratch and scar themselves on the thorns. The vibrations reach Magda deep within where she lies nestled amongst roses. She could tell them: no sword or stone shall reach her.
It will take a princess with fiery red hair.
- On breasts: “Your breasts must be pert,” they say. “Round, like a lemon, but not as big as a melon – that’s too ungraceful. You must uncover them only for one who has paid for their beauty. They will offer milk to your marriage, calm the squalls of your children.”
Dia’s breasts get in the way, and so she binds them.
“Amazons, yo, that’s what we are,” laughs Cortez, pinching out her cigarette. “Can’t no breasts ruin our aim, eh?” Dia sometimes wants to say: our aim is shit, sister, but this would earn her a smack across the mouth, so she keeps quiet.
Quiet like a fox – that’s what Cortez says, on account of when Las Zorras jumped Dia in she didn’t make a sound, even though they left bruises that bloomed for weeks. “Knew you was one of us, Di,” she throws away the words with a sideways sneer, but Dia gathers them up and carries them inside her heart. “The boys, they respect a girl who keeps her mouth shut.”
Dia wants to point out no one is louder than Cortez when Los Lobos are around, loping down the sidewalk, a pack circling the girls, sniffing at them. Cortez slys her eyes, lets her fingers linger a little here, laughs a little too loudly there and when Jester slides his hand beneath the hem of her shirt, she does not brush him off. “They status, Dia,” she says, later. “You gotta let them catch you now and then. The streets aren’t scared of us, y’know? We just girls. But the boys – they got real hardware.”
Dia wouldn’t know. When the boys are around, she doesn’t say a word, just tries to fold in on herself, pull her tail in, bind her breasts tighter, make sure there’s nothing they can hold onto. She is proud of being in Las Zorras, but Los Lobos are a different breed – she’s heard stories of what they do when they’re disrespected. Their hands on Las Zorras are temperamental – one minute petting, one minute sharp as blades to skin you alive.
“Hey, puta got what she deserved,” Cortez declares and the other Zorras nod. “She knows the price, man. You run with Los Lobos, you playin’ with the big dogs.”
Rumors on the street is, Lulu’s barely alive, collateral in the hazing of the gang’s newest member. When she returns, a month or so later, she’s sullen, until Cortez confronts her – “Sister, you knew what you was getting yourself into. That’s why you learn to shoot.” – as she pats the 9mm tucked in her waistband. “They get too fresh, you go all Amazon on their ass,” and she throws back her head to laugh. Dia does not point out the Amazons were a myth. She does not say ‘my heart is not mythical and magical. It’s soft and breaks easily.’
She keeps her mouth shut.
The night Los Lobos come for Dia, she tries to slither, boneless from their grasp. She has mostly gone unnoticed in their rituals, but she knows she cannot escape their hazing forever, even using her binding as armor. In the shifting shadows of the streetlamps, they’re a route of shadows that grunt and murmur as they tug at her shirt, at her pants, pull her from herself. The concrete is rough against her ass, someone fumbles with the bandages around her breasts, uncoiling them and then kneels between her legs. The night air, cold on her skin, makes her gasp. Her voice is unleashed. She yaps and hollers, biting when someone places a hand – salty and stinking of metal – against her mouth.
“Yo, someone’s gonna hear. Bitch ain’t worth it man,” she hears amidst her noise.
Then, the gunshot. She explodes into darkness.
They give her the bullet, later, at the hospital, flattened out like a penny on the A-train track. “Oddest thing,” the doctor tells her. “I’ve never seen anything like it. Your breast bone and your ribcage – for lack of a better explanation – are impenetrable. Like steel. The bullet bruised you. There might be internal damage.”
Dia smiles. She knows the truth of that.
- On mouth: “Words must fall from your mouth like petals,” they say. “You must practice a pleasant and rich tone so that you will not sound shrill. A woman’s purpose is not to scold. You must be measured, not harsh or too emotional – emotion is a woman’s weakness.”
“Speak to her,” they tell Jo. “She can hear you.”
But Jo doesn’t know what to say. Her mother is ensnared in a tangle of wires and beeping monitors, perhaps no longer there at all. After all, even though Jo hears the shrill tone of her mother’s heartbeat, when she places her hand on her mother’s chest, she feels nothing.
Jo was not present when her mother fell, lecture at the local University interrupted mid-word. She only knows what happened because she heard the nurses whispering, saw some of the students milling about in the waiting room.
“Excuse me,” one of them say, as Jo passes on her way to the vending machines. It’s past midnight. “Can I just say that Professor Hoffman is an inspiration to me. She always has been. I’m just so devastated about what happened.”
A young girl. No more than twenty-one, bright-eyed and fresh out of the package. Jo doesn’t bother to say she lost her mother years ago, before she wrote The Wyldwood. Before she became an entry in Time magazine as one of the Decade’s Most Influential People. Before she was awarded an honorary doctorate and began teaching. Back when her words were whisky-soaked and wild.
“She always told the best stories, in class,” the girl continues. “It must have been amazing growing up with a mother with such a vivid imagination.”
Vivid. Jo’s can’t pinpoint exactly when she realized her mother was different. She does remember her mother’s first attempt to commit suicide, one weekend in the cottage by the lake, remembers finding her slumped in a patio chair, murmuring to herself with a bottle of JD in her hand, an empty bottle of pills on the table next to her. Her words spilled out, half-formed, dark, seeping like ink. Terrified, Jo ran from them where they pooled on her mother’s chest, shifting like a cancerous growth. She ran into the trees, stumbling over roots. That’s where the ambulance driver found her.
She was seven.
It was then Jo stopped talking, overwhelmed by nightmares that her words, like her mother’s, might writhe out of her mouth, alive and insidious. For years, she remained silent. And then, fifteen, tired of her mother’s blackouts, she learned words could be weapons. She could use them to cut and maim. “I hate you!” she screamed, in that last argument. Her mother’s outstretched hands, bleeding at the palm. “I hope you fucking die.”
The last words she spoke to her mother.
“I’ve missed you, ” Jo speaks softly. The hospital is asleep and dreaming, lights low, hallway mostly empty. She wonders how many people in this hospital will wake again. “They say you can hear me.”
She hesitates, uncertain. Searching for strength, she curls a hand against her stomach.
“I remember, Mama. I remember the stories you told me when I was young. Before…” The stories that later became the property of the world, but which, at first, were hers and hers alone. “There’s a lot of other things I remember, too. I’m still mad at you about that.” Tears spill onto Jo’s cheeks, burning hot. She swallows the fire, feels it pool, molten, inside.
“Mama, I remember Wyldwood?” The word itself – Wyldwood – exhales in a glittering curlicue of gold. Fireflies. They cast light on her mother’s face, across the forest of wires that surround them. “You need to come back, Come back to me. I love you.”
At that word – love – the fireflies burst into a shower of tiny, gilt petals that, spiraling through the air, catch against her mother’s lips, her cheeks and settle on their hands, entwined on the bed.
And with that, Jo settles in to tell the story that was, once upon a time, the way her mother found a path in the dark, tangled forest of their life.
Once upon a time, there was a girl…
- On hair: “Your hair is your crowning glory,” they say. “It must be long and lustrous, perfumed so that you may bathe your lover in its beauty. But it must be covered, for it will tempt the men around you – ‘it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man (1 Corinthians 11:7).”
“Not too short,” the barber scolds when Stella asks for a trim. He weighs the length of her brown hair in his palm. She watches it slide through his calloused fingers with the odd feeling of witnessing a private joy. “Too much like a boy,” he barks and his colleague, who sweeps hair from the floor into spiky little piles, laughs too.
Stella thinks of her bureau covered in expensive bottles of dry hair shampoo, waxes, balms, mousses and the hour and a half it takes her to get ready every morning. She thinks of Heath, how he stands in the bedroom doorway each evening, silhouetted against the hallway light, as she brushes her hair in the mirror. How, when he leans down to kiss her neck, he carries the scent of someone else.
“All of it,” Stella says, the sudden decision a flame catching in her chest. “I want all of it gone,” and the barber mutters and moans as he shaves it down, taking the money she hands him afterwards with begrudging grace. Before leaving the shop, she winds her head up in a grey scarf, carefully.
Heath has recently engaged in an affair with one of the girls from his troupe, a young supporting actress with impeccable dramatic timing and extraordinarily long blond hair. Stella constantly finds these golden hairs around the house – caught in the drain, in the underwear drawer, between her socks, in the soup she prepares for supper.
“You’re so busy,” Heath said, when she confronted him about it, hissing in whispers off stage left. “Your work keeps you away from me, Stel. You’re not who you used to be.” and he turned away from her, towards the group of actors huddling, awaiting his direction. As though that was the end of it.
And perhaps it is. That night, after her hair is cut, watching him from furtively from beneath her eyelashes over the dinner table, her head still covered, she wonders if this is all her fault: the long hours at the office, the grey in her hair, the way their conversations slowly became only about the house or the fertility treatments. Even their love-making has become rare and mechanical, a means to an end. She remembers those first few months of marriage spent lazy and love-swollen in their bed. They only left to eat. She cooked him meals wearing nothing but her combat boots.“My star girl,” he called her, unfurling the words into her ear. “My spitfire. You burn me,” and sure enough, he carried the marks of her on his body. She let him claim her, make her fire cool to his touch.
“I’ve changed my hair,” she says, now, unraveling the scarf. He pauses in his meal, blinking.
“What the fuck, Stel?” He spits. “Don’t you think you’re a little old to be a hipster? You look like a dyke.”
Anger flares in her, but she quells it. Stands, throws her dishes into the sink and retreats to the bedroom. There, she sits at her dresser, staring at the dark space of her face in the mirror. After a moment, she sees a spark. Just one. A quick glint that blinks out. Startled, she raises a hand to her scalp but finds only the satisfying bristle against her fingertips.
The next day, avoiding the sideways glances of her colleagues, she leaves the office at lunchtime, wandering through the side streets of the neighbourhood. She still feels odd about the hair – constantly catching herself reaching up to feel it, and so she avoids the windows. It doesn’t take her too long to find a tattoo parlor.
“Lady,” the tattoo artist, a thin young man with snakes curling up his arms, whistles as she perches on his chair, “I love the hair. Bold.” She thanks him, pointing out the star she’d like inked onto the nape of her neck. It takes only minutes, the needle’s lick scalding her skin. “There ya go, sister,” the artist concludes. “With that hair, and your tattoo, seems like you might need to get yourself some new threads.”
It’s opening night, and she’s ahead on her paperwork, so Stella calls into the office to tell them she won’t be returning. Instead of frequenting her usual store, a place that sells high-end collections that always seem to be in muted, work-appropriate shades of grey, she meanders into a small thrift shop just around the corner. The place has always caught her eye, with brightly-colored displays, but she’s never had the nerve to enter. There, she picks out a second hand dress the color of soot, studded with shimmering golden paillettes. “A night sky,” the woman behind the counter coos. “With your hair, you are a constellation. With stars on your skin.” And sure enough, when Stella reaches to touch her tattoo, it simmers beneath her hand.
It is late – she’s lost track of the time – and so Stella refuses a bag, instead keeps the dress on. As she’s paying, a pair of threadbare combat boots catches her eye. She buys them too. She walks the several blocks to the theatre, with each stomp feeling the anger in her at Heath’s betrayal unfurl and loosen in her chest. People who pass turn to stare at the anger and then fierce joy rising from her, a trail of embers that spiral on the breeze.
At the theatre’s front doors, reaching for a door handle, Stella catches sight of her reflection. Her hair has ignited, a nest of flame that lights her whole face. Shocked, she reaches up and finds stars hidden in the bright strands. Stars that gutter in the palm of her hand.
Ignoring the people that stare out through the glass at her, she throws her head back and releases her laughter up against the moon. Then, turning, she keeps walking – through the streets into the luminous dark, hand cupped against her stomach.
She will call her Esther, this white-hot star inside her. Together, they will be a galaxy.
Sera Flynn lives at the edge of the world with her husband and two beasties. She tames high school students for a living and in her spare time likes to collect folklore and swim with sea monsters.