For the first time in weeks, I’m alone in the house. Gran’s out talking over the garden wall with one of the neighbors; Mam’s hanging out the wash. Me, I’m sitting on my bed with our best kitchen knife, running the edge over the hard points sticking out beneath my fingernails. It should hurt, but it doesn’t; the skin parts just a bit, bloodlessly, and there’s the grating sound of metal scraping bone.
I press harder.
It started six weeks ago last Sunday, the day after I turned fifteen. When I went to bed that night, it was insidious, a little niggling almost-itch behind my kneecaps and in my wrists. But my knees swelled under my skirt when I trudged dutifully to school the next morning, and writing notes in my lectures just made fire blaze down my right hand in waves. The next day, it was both hands. Within a week, I was sneaking aspirin from the kitchen cabinet in handfuls, stuffing them in my skirt pockets, biting down on the bitter discs so I wouldn’t sob from the searing ache twisting me inside out. I did that at home, at night, into my pillow.
It took Mam a full ten days to notice: “Ellie, you’ve shot up like a poplar.”
She didn’t smile. She grimaced instead, and backed me up against the edge of the half-wall between the kitchen and dining room, plopping the family Bible against the top of my head and marking the paint with a pencil before fetching the measuring tape. “Five feet and eight,” she pronounced, wide-eyed, when she pulled the tape away. “Are you taller than me?” Mam demanded, and crowded so close my nose touched between her eyes. “Jesus, you’re taller than me. And since the first of the month, too.” She turned to look over her shoulder at Gran. “Is this normal?”
Gran shrugged, mouth tight around her cigarette. “Some girls get their height early, all at once. I did.” She stood five foot four in bare feet.
It was Gran who sat at my bedside that night, patting my aching hands and balancing ice packs on my oversized knees. “Growing pains,” she said, though her gaze narrowed as she eyed the length of my legs. “Best to get it out of the way now. Don’t worry, it’ll be over soon.”
But in the night I woke screaming, my nightgown spotted with blood. My ribs had expanded and grown sharp-edged, tearing my skin from the inside. Mam yanked the fabric up and stared at me while Gran sponged me off with stinging alcohol, and this time there wasn’t puzzlement in my mother’s eyes. There was fear.
The doctor they took me to the next morning glanced at my knees and hands and ribs, took some measurements and jotted notes, muttered to himself and gave Mam a prescription for something with codeine in it. He never said a word directly to me. Growth spurt, he called it, and mumbled something about long bones and inflammation of the growth plates. It would pass, he said. That was the end of it.
That afternoon the pain in my knees came back, jabbing and twisting so bad I could almost see my shins bowing inward. So I begged Mam for one of the pills, but she only said, “Not yet. Let’s see how you are after school tomorrow.”
I woke up next morning with my mouth throbbing. My cheekbones strained the contours of my face; I could see fissures forming in the skin. My teeth had become longer; my lips stretched when I formed a bite. Mam measured me again. I was another three inches taller. Gran looked up at me and whispered, “Swear to God, her bones are growing out of her.”
I could barely get out of bed that day, despite hanging over it. There was no school. There was no school ever again.
The next week kept me changing, growing. My neck stretched with crackling noises. My jaw and elbows locked and loosened at odd times. Going through the doorways in the house meant bending nearly double, sleeping on my bed took folding myself in half, and the biggest shoes Mam could buy only fit on my feet a few hours. Gran crossed herself and swore and fed me aspirin, codeine, whiskey. None of it touched the pain. I lay on the floor and howled till the neighbors’ dogs barked.
This morning, Mam needed a stepladder to measure me, and her tape wouldn’t reach in one stretch. Six feet. Seven inches. I watched tears roll down her face as I tried to steady my too-long, agonized legs, and felt the ceiling against the top of my head.
Now I sit on the end of my bed, legs mostly on the floor, and I draw the knife over my fingertips again. They split entirely, and it’s relief enough to make my eyes water. Tentatively I press the knife point into my thigh, where the outline of my femur is broad and plain, and push in. My skin rips with a noise like tearing tape, and there’s no pain, no blood, only a release of pressure that makes me stuff my bulging knuckles into my too-wide mouth. Only a great glistening white expanse beneath the stretched crepe of my skin.
Gran was right. My bones are growing out of me. I take a few breaths and stick the knife in again.
If they want to escape, I’m setting them free.
~ Scarlett R. Algee
© Copyright Scarlett R. Algee. All Rights Reserved.
‘Your Winnie,’ she mutters, pressing harder with the face wipe. ‘Your dragon, your beautiful dragon girl…’
Sitting before the mirror at her dressing table, she doesn’t recognise the woman staring back at her. There is familiarity in the face, as there is familiarity to be found in anything if a person is subjected to it often enough, but that is all. Still, she keeps looking. She must look, every night, before Seth turns in for bed, desperately studying the features that emerge from beneath her makeup. The ritual of recognition is on-going.
The bedroom is dark, save for the light from the first-floor landing, which spills through the open doorway. It is easier when the bedroom is dark, as though that makes it all right; as though it is acceptable that she cannot properly see herself when she can barely see anything else. Canned laughter carries through the house, and the sound of audience applause, as Seth’s own evening ritual comes to its close. Soon he will ascend through the house, as if chasing the vestigial laughs, the sound of company, until they lead him into the bedroom and are silent.
The evening had begun like any other. Dinner was ready for when Seth returned home from work. She had cooked lamb, rubbed with rosemary and a selection of other herbs. She ate silently while he told her about his day. She nodded when encouraged, smiled when he smiled, laughed at his jokes.
He told her the lamb was nice, that his ‘dragon’s done herself proud with this one.’ They drank wine; his white, hers red. He said the white went with the vegetables. Her palate favoured the red; rich, velveteen flavours in her mouth, against her tongue. She agreed with him regardless.
Seth loves it when she agrees with him. He says it shows their unity, that they are two made into one. ‘In sickness and in health. Till death do we part. My Winnie, my fierce, beautiful dragon girl.’
She turns her attention to her lips next. Pulling a clean tissue free from the box to her right, she dabs it to her mouth, as though kissing it gently good night. Her lips have not kissed anything gently for a long time now. Seth does not like his love gentle, and on the occasions he does press his mouth against hers, it cannot be called a kiss. Once, before all this, he might have kissed her in the proper sense. There had been tenderness then; enough to tempt her from her family home into his arms.
She presses harder, then begins rubbing, until all of the lipstick is gone. Underneath, her lips are thin, and slightly raw. The tissue comes away red and streaky in her hand.
When they had both finished eating dinner, the dragon washed up while her white knight took the wine into the front room. Heat seared her hands as they dipped in and out of the sink. Drowsy with wine and the silky, sudsy water on her skin, she thought things that she had not dared to think before. ‘What ifs’ uncoiled themselves in her mind; fiery thoughts roused and riled.
Staring into her bright, shining eyes in the dressing table mirror, she remembers every slight, every wound, every wicked word intended to belittle her. This is not love, she thinks. She dares to think it again, giving voice to the doubts that have for a long time now been hatching in her head. This is not love. It was never love. She is no better off than when she left home; lost and lonely and unloved by a world that does not know the meaning of the word.
She remembers the feel of his hand against her face, the sound it makes; a ringing slap that sinks beneath the skin and seems to burn. His dragon, scorched!
She thinks of all these things, as she had thought of them at the kitchen sink, her eyes fixed firmly on the wedding ring by the taps. Her hands had moved automatically through the water, her mind caught up in a twister of realisation. So much pain, she thought, so much upset for so little; a small piece of jewellery and their names on a certificate. God, she was sure, played no part in this; an ancient force dead to the modern world. But there were yet more ancient forces, not dead but sleeping, and they stirred now, suffused with heat and hunger –
Tears cling to her long, black lashes, before breaking free and running down her face. Most of her make-up is removed now but she does not stop wiping. She covers all her face from her forehead to her neck, and with every wipe she feels more familiar, less false to her own eyes. And what eyes, she thinks, reaching to rip off her fake lashes. The lids come too, peeled clean above her sockets, revealing mad, majestic orbs underneath.
Silence falls suddenly over the house. As her opened eyes regard themselves in the mirror, she hears Seth at the bottom of the stairs. He comes perhaps to slay her with his lance, to penetrate the folds of her flesh, to pierce her in her most vulnerable place until she is stilled beneath him, and he spent.
She wipes harder, with less care, and it seems to her that every movement sloughs skin from her face. Her flesh smears like concealer, revealing new skin underneath. The tissues tire quickly, turning red and rancid in her hand. Their remains litter the dressing table, and in the mirror, her new face; sharp and scaled. His dragon girl, a woman!
He reaches the top of the stairs, and she senses him on the landing. Then she sees him in the mirror, a silhouette in the doorway. His body blocks the light.
‘You’re cold again.’
‘I’m fine,’ she says, still staring in the mirror.
‘Come off it, I can see you shivering from here.’ Seth moves into the bedroom, his silhouette reappearing by the window. The cross-framed sheet of glass stands open; the bedroom exposed to the black sky, the silver stars swallowed by that blackness so that they barely seem to shine at all. ‘What have I said about leaving this open at night?’
He is still talking but she does not hear. Time seems to stop as she considers him; not Seth but a silhouette, featureless and without meaning. He is nothing. It is nothing. She feels herself shaking as she considers what she has given to him. Every smack scalds her skin, embarrassment sears her cheeks, abuse burning between her thighs until she can barely contain the heat inside her. Her mouth stretches into a silent scream, jaws wide, like the dragons of old. Lipstick and lashes, for lamb!
‘– to make an effort. You know I love you, Winnie? Your knight in shining –’
She rushes at him through the darkness. They stumble into the en-suite, half in and out of the bedroom. His head hits the smooth white of the wash basin and he lies still beneath her. Heat spills from her mouth in hurried words.
‘Lamb,’ she breathes hotly, ‘lipstick and lashes, for lamb!’
His eyes flutter, head lolling on the linoleum, and she wonders if he can see her, if he recognises that she has changed now. Her breath rattles in her throat; a beautiful, crocodilian croak, which seems to say I am a woman and you have wronged me. Then her mouth closes around his face, jaw loose, like that of a great snake. Her teeth sink into his skin and he burns beneath her, this modern knight, this meat, this man.
~ Thomas Brown
© Copyright 2013 Thomas Brown. All Rights Reserved.