As long as she could remember she had known she could never be a woman. She was born female, and would always be female, but she could never be a woman for a man, or for a child, or for anything else. If she were such a thing, she would not have been born with wretchedness deep-rooted inside. She would be able to yield not only in flesh and in tongue, but in mind. Her contempt for life would not have been so stirred.
It was her private curse that they could not see this. Instead, they saw a woman for them, and better than others. And though she was born beautiful, she would not always be the way they wanted—it was never said, but she could tell by the way they fervently marked and photographed and pried her apart that the cherished pieces may well be gone by sunrise. They seemed to feel as though there was something to be revered that was hidden. They dug accordingly.
Sometimes they would fold her eyelid up to touch her brow, one of their hands holding the skin taut so that countless more could stroke its smooth pink of the underside with abandon, taken by her reflexive attempts to blink their efforts away. Certain to be counted first, a lash was taken each time, and they would all marvel at the pale head of the follicle, the dark fiber dipped in milk. Other times they would press into the sockets of her limbs and listen for the gags and dry heaves of joints and muscles, a body protesting as a voice stayed silent, pliance gauged in a resolve breaking down, a failing resistance over time. And they measured her always, in particular the way her hip bones sharpened the less she was fed, those crags surfacing more each day like the water in her flesh was draining, like the doomed sign of something about to cross a horizon line, like the mast of a ship coming up from Hell. It came in millimeters.
Unless eyelids were being tugged she kept hers firmly closed. She would never look. When they left and she remained, she would see, suddenly, and sight revealed a world that was a cot and a ceiling. She swam in that ceiling. It always seemed a different shade, and each night a small defeat was suffered in knowing it couldn’t be kept still any longer than she was awake. She was never able to hold onto its color until tomorrow, whereupon it would be inevitably changed and the stains would seem more jaundiced, maybe, or its grays darker. Like measurers, ceilings did not stay the night. Like measurements, they did not last.
She did not know how old she was. She did not remember much of her life before and beyond this. But she had grown old enough to feel differently, and this small sense of inner change was the only indication time had moved at all, leading her to the conclusion that she was not meant to be this way, that they had made a mistake with her. And though she was told she would become useless by menses, she suspected this uselessness would never arrive—because menstruation meant life, so much so that it spilled out, and she had so little, and her veins were so dry. All her excess was taken with diligence. It was categorized.
There was punctuality promised by the medicines in her suppers, and in the morning she awoke to teeth scraping her scalp, the cold fingers of old women and their murmurs of pity quickly hushed. Brushing was done firmly so that fallout was collected evenly. She was lifted from sleep by these women, whose arms were comparatively fatter and warmer and whose eyes were unreservedly mournful. She woke inside them.
It was really her debris that they wanted. It became clearer over time. When she bathed, she was scrubbed with an intensity that left her flesh feeling singed, and they wrung out the water from the used washcloths carefully, collecting what spilled forth inside the mouths of mottled glass jars. She could sometimes see a shelf of them if she craned her neck far enough out of the cell. There was no way for her to watch closely, but as this water aged unmoving, bits of whatever shed off her flesh emerged like phantoms, flakes of dirt and fermented skin ghostly and thin like wet paper, barely perceptible. They floated without purpose.
Unbeknownst to all, she died on what would have been a birthday, in the morning, before she got to see the ceiling. The women with fat arms found her. They folded her hands over her heart and said a prayer for a debauched soul, and then they called in the men, who would later take her bones from the incinerator and crush them finely. They inhaled her one at a time. Each chewed the bitter sediment that drained from their nasal cavities down into their throats. They choked on the dust till tears sprang, and then they wept and mourned.
— G. Cameron Perry is a writer and bartender living in New York. Her interests include cetaceans and JRPGs.