Excerpts


Mise En Abymeboysgirls_cover

The Politics of Metamorphosis

Her Mother’s Mother Was a Machete

Cyclops

The Devil’s Face

How to Tame a Lion

The Hierarchy of Freaks

The Boy With One Wing

The Inventor of Invented Things

A Brief Interlude for Seduction

Doldrums

The Invention of Love

Mise en Abyme

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People were forever falling for the girl with a mirror for a face. And why not? They think, not unaware of the irony. Of course, one has to be careful in direct sunlight. But just imagine: if stranded on a desert island, who could resist the siren song of the girl with a mirror for a face? Rescue would come posthaste!

One morning a passerby notices her sitting high over the city in the morning light. Her face is a map more beautiful than the most exalted cartographer’s. In her face, it’s so clear that the city provides, provides, provides. Its spires plunge upward. The bald appear follicular: the paunchy slender. The city commissions a portrait of the girl with a mirror for a face; then orders all past images of itself destroyed.  After viewing the portrait, even the most skinflint of the council members vote to begin building a metro based on the veinwork of the human body. A policy like that can make inroads surprisingly quickly.

The girl is glad that people love her, happy to have something to reflect, for she had felt most intimately anguished, attenuated as she was to the nuances of nothingness. For have you ever looked into a mirror with another mirror? Nothing reflected back into nothing. An infinity of nothing.

Still, if given her druthers, the girl with a mirror for a face would give up all her notoriety and wish first for a mouth. She reflects on all the mouths made for devouring: bee-mouth, moth-mouth, the mouths of months and time, babybird beaks, the liquidating straw-mouth of the seastar, the lamprey’s round edgy electric hole. But it is men she finds most beautiful. To watch men eating something difficult, something with bones, is to watch an animal testing himself against chips, cracks, and breakage. Some eat for power, some for beauty. Sometimes food is not food at all, but stones, or words, or angry bees disguised in honey. The tongue is the guardian of the body, the teeth most precious and necessary, the lips the last line of defensiveness. The girl with a mirror for a face would like her own mouth, so as to be less empty. The girl with a mirror for a face would like to be full—of homely peanuts, pitted olives, octopus ink and fillets of thin white-boned fish.

On days when she feels hungry, when there is no one around to reflect, she takes comfort in this fact: the number zero was invented to act as a placeholder in calculations, indicating the degree of loss or gain. And so I am not only empty: the girl thinks—I also contain multitudes.

The Politics of Metamorphosis

Although generally you will not find it to be so, in this village, the girl’s belly is held in high esteem. Her husband, dead after his tractor ran over an unseen rock and capsized, left his seed there. They crowded her to protect her from the sight of his death, for she was almost ready to give birth. The child! The child! they whisper, pressing against her with their somber sweaty hands (for her husband was a loved man, a powerful man). They crowd her in the hopes that she will birth something better than they are. Suddenly she is a part of—what? In stories, girls are changed into cows or trees or rivers, or they are made to lie with swans and bulls and rivers. Even eating an innocent berry on the forsaken moor can get one pregnant by some vegetable god.

They say that the girl has ripened, is about to produce fruit. Her husband would not have fruited, ripened, even if he hadn’t died. And so the girl has learned that the location of her metamorphosis is her womb. But what does the girl want? And what the womb?

The girl cannot breathe. The child moves like an earthquake within her, shows its handprint, its footprint, through the skin of her belly. The girl wants it to wrap its hand around her finger. She wants it out. She wants be alone. She wants nothing more than to steal chocolates and crouch someplace alone, hidden, alone, to eat.

The girl runs. She runs until she feels a warning spasm in her back. She stops at the graveyard. She can see that the last season of digging found the same old dirt buried beneath the new ashes, the new bones, beneath the midden heap and the broken crockery, beneath the stories that couldn’t change, beneath the this and the that of the words the villagers speak. It is clear, she reminds herself, that a bone is a bone, no matter where it’s found.

boysgirls_coverHer Mother’s Mother Was a Machete

Her mother’s mother was a machete. For her sixth birthday the girl received her mama’s pelt, laid down like the skin of a selkie, and a room in her grandmother’s house.

Every morning, the girl picked her grandmother up by her red splintered handle, cradling her silver head in the crook of her arm, and carried her to the kitchen table, where she sat and smoked with gale force while downing cups of coffee. The girl didn’t know where the smoke went, but she spent her days mopping the floor from stove to refrigerator. They listened to Christian talk radio. They supported themselves making dolls from straw: the girl split the strands against her grandmother’s well-honed blade.

Sometimes the grandmother let the girl sandpaper her handle, or re-glue her haft. On such occasions she made the girl turn her in front of the mirror, murmuring “Aren’t you delightful. I used to be a beautiful blade. Look at me now. I used to be beautiful.” After they watch the moon rise, the girl carries her grandmother back to her bedroom, lowers the blinds, pulls the covers up around her shoulder’s blade. Heads back to her own room. Opens her Bible to Ezekiel. To Job. Ruth. More of that strange mourning. But the grandmother doesn’t die, and doesn’t die, and doesn’t die, until she does.

Cyclops

The maker kept making her, long after she was finished. The girl had an overcooked quality, singed brittle round the edges. Separate things—toes and fingers, eyes, lips—had run all together. Stumps for arms. Stumps for feet. Mute for mouth. Cyclops. She looks like a lumberer, but her passages are soft, as is her eye, colorful as a whorled marble.

The scientists come from everywhere to make a study of the girl. She pirouettes in hospital gowns, is the gracious acceptor of injections and prodding fingers, trembles charmingly before their photographic lenses. She loves to hear them say her name, loves the circular sound of Cy-clops, psyclops eyeclops, like a horse galloping over their tongues.

The girl holds out both dry palms, so, and between them there is air, and this is the shape of loss. The girl lectures the scientists on the Manners of Loss, the Occasions of Loss, the Style of Loss, even, with appropriate palettes and tailoring. Her lectures have been published in the House of Infinite Loss in the unmappable Infinite City, (picture, if you will, the sideways-slanted 8 that signifies that which has no beginning and no end. For loss has no beginning and no end.)

Scientists are interested in Loss as a subject matter, but much more interested in the girl. She has so many seams— between toe and toe, finger and finger, the place where her earflap would have met her head.  Her head so smooth and hairless—no strangely shaped cartilage, no Roman bridge or fleshly earlobe. Just that eye, blue and green and brown, roaming moist within its socket. No pupil, no white sclera: all iris, all rainbow. The girl lived on only one thing, that thing that must not be named.

We near the end now, perhaps she can break the spell. She leans over, paints it on the back of your hand. Your mouth curves in a derisive smile. Of course. But you watch her fade away and feel suddenly old, tired of this irony, your only companion. It has come and gone. Let it. Now begin.

The Devil’s Face

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The girl has been learning how to shit on the devil’s face. It is a slow process. First of all, one has to take into consideration the setting. In order for the devil to get a hard-on, he must be surrounded at eight points.

To the north, above the Devil’s head, a soul writhing in eternal agony. On his right hand, a man with infinite bowels being disemboweled, infinitely. At his feet, a vain woman looks into a mirror where boils rise continuously to the surface of her face. To his left, a quiet old man masturbates. To the northeast and southeast, solemn demons. Northwest and southwest, fallen angels snivel. It is difficult, he explains, after millennia of existence, to get off.

The girl finds it hard to move her bowels properly under the circumstances. She is constipated, seized up, she anticipates the look of disgust on the face of the masturbating man; the angels in their chains rattle in a most distracting manner, and the castor oil has not yet kicked in. She bears down, she changes her position to a squat, she balances herself on the shoulders of one angel and one demon. The devil looks at her with the familiar look of a man about to come, who needs just one more, just one more thing.

The girl has been taking 25 mg of hydroxyzine, an anti-anxiety medication, to deal with her difficulties shitting on the Devil’s face. She feels it a personal failure; she has never failed to fulfill a man sexually. She doesn’t think to blame it on the fact that he has never been a man.

She blames herself but also the fetish and moreover the look on the devil’s face, possessive and mocking under his thin beard, as if daring her anus to discharge. The next time the situation is arranged, the dais well-lit, the tortured man mocking her with his ropes and ropes of loosened bowel, she mounts the devil, then turns to face his horny corny feet. He grunts, he is displeased. She turns to leer at the masturbating man; noticing for the first time how lopsided he is—how massive his right arm, how puny his left! He turns away, ashamed by her frank stare. And it is this, this mutual shame, this turning away, which finally moves her.

How to Tame a Lion

No coy Leo, he. Who comes toward the girl on great crushing paws, each deadly scythe sheathed in membrane and muscle. He stinks of blood and bison and clean cat sweat. The girl knows she mustn’t look him in the eye.

He circles and she scarcely breathes, though her breath is quickening, though her feet are preparing to quicken, and wouldn’t it be glorious to run through the mazy cobblestoned alleys with this great tawny feline in powerful pursuit, her threatened blood throbbing thrillingly in her veins, his nose wide abrupt and square in his untamed face? The girl is no lamb either, with a rifle in her hand and the eye to use it.

Instead he stretches, opening his mouth, clean as a cat, and licks her from top to bottom. Nipped in the nape (thankfully draped with her thick hair), she feels the gloss of teeth on the back of her neck. Where his fur is thin he is pink as a man.

(And what to do with them now, in this semi-truce, this brief glorious interlude between the chase and what is to come? Her adrenaline has come and gone, his paws are heavy on her shoulders and his rich damp breath against her neck begins to sickify her, make her dizzy, nauseous. And yet there is something metamorphic about this moment, no? Like a god, then, we decide: let them be, close the door, turn out the lights. For once, just for once, goddamnit, leave them to their privacy.)

The Hierarchy of Freaks

It is a bad day and age for the kind of freaks we used to be: tattooed ladies, fat women, rubber-faced babas, those mermaid girls with sweet webbed feet. Melancholy freaks, wistful in our gauzy dresses or our striped unitards, every hair in place with a ready song or a line of verse. Before every man was a mark, there was an etiquette.

Now we want more! Better! Gills! Pinheads! Hermaphrodites! There are specialists of all sorts, with no skills to speak of. Just simple insults to the eyeballs. We used to want to educate our freaks, have them perform moonlight sonatas, play games with the children, woo our women with their tender hearts. Now we watch them on the television, isolated in our own wards, providing no entertainment except in their very formities.

And the state of the freak show? No one takes pride of place in the bally, all the good mikemen have gone the way of the buffalo. It’s irony that’s ruined this country, the people in it. You treat your freaks as if you’ve seen it all before. No anomaly, no matter how exotic or fundamental, can turn your heads.

I don’t take these things lightly, you know– if a tear happens to spring from my ductless eyes, what of it? What care you wandering by the fleabitten stadium with our threadbare plush? After you’ve knocked a good tip into some carnie’s pocket for your girl? After you’ve slummed in the sugar shack and taken a ride on the ferris wheel to cop that first feel. It’s heavier than you expected, isn’t it?

I remember it as if it were yesterday, my first day on the box. “Worm Girl” was emblazoned everywhere in royal purple and gold, arrows all over the show pointing down to me and they came to me with wonder in their eyes and they touched me, the places where arm or leg would have been. Wriggling for them was the necessary evil. But the looks on their faces when I sang an aria from Carmen, or the national anthem (I knew several: I had travelled the globe), the way their eyes filled—it was as if they didn’t even know what they had come looking for.

The Boy With One Wing

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He stands on a beach and tries to resist the wind in his feathers. Painful now, wrenching, the wind on the wing. Twisting wing away from body. Rising wing above the body, the body heavy now, no longer light with hollowed bones and flight. A halfway boy. The Boy stands at the water knowing he’s no longer a boy, knowing; he hasn’t been a boy for a long time. Knowing he will always be a boy.

The Boy looks around. The Boy thinks he is alone. He tries a few half-hearted, embarrassed leaps off the smaller boulders on the beach, hoping to glide for at least a moment before he lands back on the earth, but he just jars his knees with the weight of his landing.

Still, the women in the town are compelled by him; the rise of his shoulder and cheekbones, his half-winged awkwardness. Imagining only the stroke of feather across skin, her arching back, not the difficulty of cleaning a wing without a beak.

Swans mate for life, don’t they? whispers the cheerleader later, the roundness of top and bottom bursting like proud and ruffled feathers from her uniform, pressing up against him quick in a hallway pressing her words to his ear, setting him to burning as she plucks one molting feather and leaves as quickly as he comes.

Times are hard for dreamers, people whisper, watching him. He would like to turn back. Not a dreamer, he would tell them. The dream.

The Inventor of Invented Things

He is an inventor of invented things—light, for instance: the printing press, three different types of scopes (micro- tele-, and laryngo-). He invented collard greens and beet greens and dandelion greens; olive oil and sea salt and finely aged vinegars decanted into elaborate systems of spouted and handled glassware; he invented soft sides of risotto, sweet forest mushrooms, knew how to change chemistry into biology, though he soon forgot. Not to be confused with a scientist (when the Inventor of Invented Things looks in a mirror, all he sees is silvered glass), he scratches himself with springs as he puzzles over diagrams. Astounded by pipes; the fulfillment of their curve, a cylinder within a cylinder, he works for years on a prototype that will never be realized.

Over the course of twenty, thirty, forty years he averaged four, then ten, then twelve inventions a year. He invents things out of order, for practicality’s sake; the ballpoint before the quill. Then again, his planning hasn’t always been strategic—sexual intercourse came too late in his life for children, and floss too late for his teeth. He cannot distinguish the value of things: internal combustion motors, wheel-spokes, the violoncello. He invented his own life, they say. Never growing old. People ask. He answers. He has never figured out how to make bread. He may die trying.

A Brief Interlude for Seduction

One night, a woman stalks the Boy with One Wing with the confidence we freaks feel before other freaks. She runs, stumbling on cracked sidewalks, smelling the approaching rain and lilacs of early summer. Frightened of her heavy breathing and the sounds of her shoes slipping on the damp grass, the Boy with One Wing hides behind a gravestone, holds his breath, says an apologetic prayer to the dead.

She slides in a mud-track laid down by some landscaper’s truck, ends up on her back where she laughs, makes as if to get up, then falls back with a sigh. She counts stars. She feels the seep of cool water. He watches her breasts rise and fall and feels a stir. The Boy with One Wing has lived too long in the imaginations of others.

He stumbles out from behind the gravestone, looks down on her. She looks up. They are very still. Above them, somewhere, a meteor shower. Bright streaks of light. He goes down to his knees and sloshes over to her, one knee before the other, holding his wing up out of the mud. She watches the feathers tremble in the breeze, settles herself more firmly into the earth. Both minds seem as undisturbed by thought as they are by the inevitability of this action, as he lowers himself, propped on one arm, over her. Lips meet, the usual struggle ensues. When he rolls away they look up at the sky. Still, no words are said, and the Boy with One Wing begins to wonder if he’s forgotten how to speak.

Doldrums

The Boy with One Wing stands freely swinging his arm in the doldrums of this utter night, his joy a burning thing. He’s heard of a man who makes flying machines a man who has flown. The Boy with One Wing has known love, and he has known flight. He would give one up for the other. He has made his appointment.

boysgirls_coverThe Invention of Love

The Boy with One Wing sits in a waiting room, watching people enter, leave, examine the waitlist, attempt appointments. They carry their most precious, destroyed things. The medicine that worked, that no longer works. A beloved, putrefying pet. Many marriages sit broken, waiting for repair by the Inventor of Invented Things. He invented penicillin and Prozac, and is said to have an open mind about inventing poultices, places, and prostheses. Marriage was in fact the Inventor’s first invention, but he does not consider himself a counselor, a pet cemetarian, a revivalist, or a pharmacologist. Occasionally he has his secretary drive everyone out of the waiting room, but they all come back, waiting for sometimes weeks without eating anything other than what’s in the vending machine.

The Boy with One Wing has been here for a month. Can barely lift his head to look when he hears that inner door open. He is weak from dehydration, from living off sips from the water cooler, but when the Inventor sees him for the first time—gaunt, molting, humped in his seat toward the heavy wing—he can only will his flaccid diaphragm to move.

The Inventor of Invented Things opens his eyes, finds himself cradled in the Boy’s One Wing. He does not consider the implications of his momentary unconsciousness, does not ask the gravitational consequences of his weight on the boy’s hollow bones, does not question the curious melanation of the Boy’s eyes. He feels only what he feels. The Inventor has not invented this. What is this?

© Copyright Katie Farris