Authors: P.G. Lengsfelder
to the Bone
2016 by PG Lengsfelder
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, without prior written permission.
Montana, United States
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
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Beautiful to the Bone/ PG Lengsfelder. -- 1st ed.
ISBN 978-0-9972513-0-2 (Paperback edition)
ISBN 978-0-9972513-1-9 (eBook edition)
For Brooke and Linda,
and people of compassion everywhere.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
what you look at that matters,
it's what you see.”
Henry David Thoreau
If I had been a real mermaid, all the other darkness might have been beside the point. Dark water would have sufficed. But I was caught between —neither land nor water— unable to know my natural origin. Which was Momma’s point from the very beginning. And what the encyclopedia could not tell me was what it was like out
, beyond the wetlands and mazy waterways, where I was dangerous to others.
But I couldn’t help myself. I had what every mermaid has had since the beginning of time. Look it up. We appear of good intention
we’re ravenous. Many would say we’re predatory. But, as I said, I wasn’t a real mermaid. I wasn’t sure what I was.
“Come with me.” Momma cracked open the door to our ’67 Dodge.
I jumped, I giggled. “Really?”
“Get in the truck,” Momma said. As if a gun was at her head. “You smile, you got craters in your cheeks.”
I sat back, the coil of the bench seat poking through, stinging me where Momma’s cigarette had charcoaled and blistered open the seat. Layers of dust settled behind us as we drove past our rusted caboose and bounced out of the clearing, the rutted road rattling and shaking me till we hit the Route 15 asphalt. Momma was taking me away from the farmhouse. For the very first time: an adventure. “Where, Momma, where?”
“Keep your head down, look at the pretty people in the magazine.” Momma pulled the jacket hood onto my head even though Minnesota’s August lay hot and thick on my skin. She shoved a tattered copy of Life & Style Weekly into my lap. Brigitte Bardot looked up at me.
My excitement lasted till the doctor’s office when everything changed forever.
“It’s genetic. Is there anyone else —in your family? Is the father albino?” Dr. Childress smiled pleasantly at me. His boney face caved in at the cheeks. An angelic face. I sat quietly on the examination table. At four years old what else would I do? I smiled back. Al-bi-no? Even then my snowy eyebrows and hair were striking on a palette without pigment, except where the blotchy brown birthmark divided my face under my left eye all the way to my chin.
“We don’t know the father, but no, I would never . . .” Momma’s voice was husky and irritable. “She’s so . . . white.” The room was white. Doctor’s uniform was white. Before momma peeked my way, I felt her pain. I remember thinking, I’m stabbing momma again.
“Any other children?” asked the doctor.
Momma straightened, still seemed unnaturally bowed. “Oh yes, Carly —my younger daughter— and a son. They’re normal.” She hesitated. “Different father than Eunis. They’re great, healthy. Carly’s quite beautiful. Some say she reminds them of —”
“Eunis is healthy,” said the doctor. “It’s only a pigmented birthmark, nothing malignant.” I lifted my head and smiled at him again.
“You have lovely dimples,” he said. “Like crescent moons.”
The October sun streamed into the office. I blinked hard. The doctor stepped to the window and drew the shade. Momma eyeballed me then away, but not at Dr. Childress.
“She’s so —you know. Will she be dumb?”
Dr. Childress’ cheeks sucked closer to his cheekbones. I imagined he could be sucked inside out. What would a person look like sucked inside out? Would I look better that way? He took a deep breath without turning to me. The room tightened. Astringent was in the air cutting at my nose. I studied the dull gray linoleum, hoping to become invisible.
“Mrs. Kindsvatter, your daughter is fine. You and her father had genes –”
“There’s no fault here . . .”
fault.” She showed pitted teeth.
“Eunis is healthy and probably very smart.” He glanced at me but I twisted left and right, straining against a current that began dragging at me. I counted small black squares in the cloudy gray floor one after another, hoping they’d never run out, hoping they’d keep me afloat.
“I guess you can’t help me.” Head down, Momma swept me off the table. I peeked up into her panic.
“Please, Mrs. Kindsvatter . . .” I heard the doctor in earnest. My chubby left leg whacked the door on the way out. Lightning bolted through me, ankle to shoulder. I knew better than to cry, I knew better than to draw the attention of the waiting room patients.
I began to create lists. My first one was this:
“Stop fidgeting!” Momma shoved her knuckle into my spine, straightening me up. “Be brave like Freyja, the mermaid, the goddess of beauty. Or Karen Carpenter.”
“Freyja is a mermaid?” I asked.
“Yes, she is. Sit still.” She finished combing my hair, the same long, white corn colored hair that’s always followed me around. Her hand was stiff and jerking. Like she was stabbing me back. She glowered across the mirror at me. I looked away to the clippings taped and framing the mirror, photos torn from Momma’s celebrity magazines. And laid out on the mahogany vanity in front of us, a forest of bottles all sizes. Pink, purple, gray, brown. “Better than the beauty shop,” Momma told me. “Maybelline and Revlon made a fortune offa me. Max Factor too, thanks to you.”
I can do anything, I thought, I’m five years old! I’m smart. The doctor said so. I can be blank if that’s what Momma wants. I can be brave; I can be Freyja.
Momma paced behind me like she didn’t know what to do with herself, like she could hit me or something. I peeked at my reflection. My eyes, same as now: pale pale yellow, twitching side to side.
, Momma said, meaning
. Then my features: oversized, especially my nose and mouth. She shook her head.
“Let’s see what we can do.” Momma reached for the first bottle, sniffing it. “Farrah Fawcett has hair kinda like yours. Nicer, fuller, but let’s try this, give you a tan. Farrah’s a beauty. A Texas gal. You know she was an angel.” Momma shook the cream-colored bottle, started dabbing the color onto cotton balls and then onto my face. A burning, synthetic smell. “Don’t move a muscle.”
I’ll be good, Momma
I watched the clock. Never took my eyes off it. Within an hour Momma had added long imbalanced eyelashes, ghoulish eye shadow, and a streaked uneven tan. The result was even more terrifying than the original: I was a miniature gargoyle, part Frankenstein monster cobbled to a badly scarred crash victim. Barely human.
I didn’t want to, but tears cut across my pudgy cheeks adding the appearance of mutilation.
“Damn you, Eunis, you ungrateful little piss. Now look what you’ve done.”
I clutched the seat. I kept my big fat ugly lips tight. I didn’t breathe.
“I’m trying to help you and you’ve ruined everything. You got any fuckin’ idea what this shit cost me? Goddamit, get the fuck outta my sight. You’ll always be what you are, and lookin’ like that what use are you ever gonna be to anyone? I ain’t gonna try helpin’ you no more.”
I hid in the hallway closet under the stairs. Sobbing. Knowing I’d let her down. Feeling smaller and smaller. Drifting. Until I almost disappeared. Until . . . for the first time, completely alone with my body, darkness became a quiet, dissectible space. My breath steadied.
I leaned against the wall’s recycled wainscoting, aging cedar came to my nose. My back warmed as if another body was leaning back-to-back into me, supporting me. Perhaps Momma’s enchanting mermaid, the goddess of beauty, combing her golden hair. Perhaps combing mine too.
I didn’t move a muscle. Imagining, I suppose. It was easy, basking without light for an hour or so, as if underwater, numinous. When finally I heard Momma ascend the stairs above me, I moved to the closet’s center and settled easily into that space. A flutter, a ripple? Giggles? Titters of a water nymph? The joy of hiding? It wasn’t
laughter. It was leftover from something or someone else.
Not long after that Momma decided to keep me out of view so as not to ruin
. Momma had friends, after all, and needed a social life too, especially with my half-sister and brother starting to demand this and that, and Momma’s husband, my step-dad Papa Karl, off at the rail yard or somewhere down the tracks.
So when people were around I was told to go to Carly’s room, the small creaky room on the second floor over the back porch. There, at least, I could plan explorations.
I could be invisible
; invisible people can still
. I’ll see. Like Freyja: I’ll explore. I’ll slip into the woods. I’ll read books. No one has to see
. I’ll learn beauty. I’ll do it, I’ll surprise Momma; I’ll make her proud. I can even be useful. She won’t hurt anymore.
All I had to do was lift the window quietly — the screen fell off years earlier and still lay rotting in the yard where it had fallen — shimmy over the roof and carefully hug the drainpipe on the way to the ground.
But she discovered my escape route one afternoon while entertaining in the kitchen.
“I’m a de-tec-tive, Momma. I’m in-ves-ti-ga-ting.”
“There’s nothin’ to investigate. Stay inside. And if I catch you again—”
“Then can I go to school?” I’d heard Sarah Pooley asking if Momma planned on sending me to kindergarten. “I won’t be around to bother you. Can I, please?”
For weeks, I explained the benefits of kindergarten to my mother. “Badgerin’,” Momma called it, but I saw something in her eyes, like she was investigating too. Then, on a raw afternoon when the clouds closed a fist around the sky and wolves set the wind howling, Momma finally understood the logic in it and gave in. Or maybe, given the way she looked at me, she thought it was
wind threatening her. Maybe she just figured it gave her time to enjoy her morning soaps and read her Star and People magazines in peace, as long as most folks didn’t fully make the connection between her and me. And how many people did Momma see anyway doing alterations? (Not many, I heard Margaret Wheeler say under her breath, seeing how Mary Louise Kindsvatter wasn’t very good at it.) I’d learned how to use Momma’s needs to suit mine. And she’d be happy later because of it.
In class, I was asked to sit in the back so I wouldn’t distract the other children who mostly kidded me at first and then lost interest. It helped to stare straight ahead. Even so, at recess I was restless to join the other kids.
“But Mrs. Olson, why can’t I?”
Olson wouldn’t face me; she peered into the sunny schoolyard. “You’re sick, child.” The school doctor told the teachers and Momma to keep me out of the sunlight.
“I want to play with the other kids. I feel fine.”
“But you’re not.”
“Please, I need to go out now, it will rain soon. Hard. There’ll be lightning.”
She frowned. “No dear, I don’t think so. Anyway, you still can’t go out.”
Within a half hour the sky went black and it poured. The kids came screaming in; claps of thunder shook the classroom. From a far corner, Mrs. Olson studied me.
Momma dropped me at the church. “Pastor Thomas is expecting you.” She drove off, leaving me dwarfed by the cloudless sky and the towering rock steeple and cross. She was an infrequent parishioner, going only when Papa Karl was home or when it suited her needs which included a host of seemingly unconnected events, until I began to understand her crude marketing for sewing and alterations, her penchant for male attention, and sometimes the convergence of the two. But I was never invited to attend those Sunday congregations even when Papa Karl “strongly encouraged” my participation. He didn’t win those battles. Or many others with her.
When I asked Momma why I was visiting the Pastor, she was vague, saying he wanted to get to know me. But even at that age I had the sense that I was being evaluated. Again. And that Momma was hoping for some sort of holy absolution, something she and Papa Karl argued about frequently.
I had difficulty opening the great dark wine-colored doors and when I stepped in, the temperature dropped and darkness pooled around me. My legs seemed to weaken. The door swung shut behind me sending echoes bouncing off the stone walls and stopping me in place. I expected a musty odor, but instead it was the hint of melted wax. Past the twenty or so pews to the large cross, backlit against the arched window, there was a simple Martin Luther rose of stained blue, white and red glass.
“And you must be Eunis,” came a voice, not from the altar but from my right. A bald man, young now that I think of it, although at the time I thought he was old, perhaps forty. He wore a chasuble of vermillion and white crosses, and I thought he looked grand. “Please sit.” He shuttled me into the nearest pew. “You’re a little early,” he said. Then patting his garment, “Do you like it?”
I’d never seen anything so beautiful. I nodded.
“I was just fitted.” He lifted his head; a car skittled across the gravel parking lot out back and drove off. Then he fell silent and watched me with soft eyes and an almost smile. He sighed. “I hear you’re in school now. Do you like it?”