TREES, MONSTERS, WITCHES: FRAGMENTS OF BEING A GIRL
Taylor’s cute and kind. He’s seventeen, I’m sixteen. He’s the valedictorian, I’m the weird girl with the dead brother, dead from AIDS, back when so many gay men were dying. One night, we sneak out and meet each other at a park. We walk through the tall grass next to a golf course. A policeman pulls into the nearby parking lot, and shines his lights across the field. We collapse into the weeds, among the tiny bugs that have been nipping our ankles. We flatten ourselves, our backs in the earth, as the bright white light sweeps over us, barely missing our bodies. The cop eventually drives off. Probably doesn’t want to bother with two kids or the overgrown grass. When we raise up, my hair has dirt in it, tangled flecks of green, and I worry about how I look. How Taylor sees me. The day before, he said that he preferred girls who didn’t wear make-up, and so, on this night, my face is clear, no eyeshadow, no lipstick, no coverup, nothing at all. In the night, under the distant streetlamps, I wonder if he notices. If he thinks I look pretty, if he understands this transformation is for him.
Metamorphosis is the action or process of a person (the meta, the self) changing forms, usually by supernatural means. No wonder men think they are little gods.
Perhaps, I’m Daphne, daughter of a river god, friend to animals, adoring of the leaves on the trees, and the babbling water of creeks, chaste, like the goddess Diana. It is my body after all. But then there’s Apollo, thick muscles, all brawn and brute, and his gaze lands on me. I feel it, the weight in his look, the intention, the violence, and I run. My legs pump, my calves ache, Apollo, so close to seizing me, his fingers close to grabbing my flesh, and I open my mouth and cry out to my father, the river god, and plead that he change my body, transform me into something other than girl. I stiffen into a tree.
My senior year in high school, unpopular, Taylor, the cute boy, now off at college in another town, and it’s common knowledge around my school that my father is a drunk. The jock boys and my history teacher constantly pick on me, call me names, point at me in the hallway, whisper slurs about my brother who died. I fall in love with the riot grrrl movement. In an edgy teen magazine, I read about the riot grrrl band Bikini Kill. The pic is of them on a beach, but they aren’t sun-kissed with blonde hair and perfect bodies. One of the grrrls, Kathleen, has jet black hair with bright red fringe bangs. Tobi has a short red punky bob. Kathi’s blonde but pale and wears her hair short. Kathleen, in a bra and black skirt, tattoos on her arm and stomach, leans against Tobi. I buy all their records from a local shop, and listen to each and every song, and read each and every word in the liner notes. I learn about riot grrrl.
On a fall night, mere months after discovering them, Bikini Kill performs at small punk dive bar in my town. I dance around and sing along. Kathleen, the lead singer, wears a short dress with an image of a beefcake man on it. She’s notorious for her clothing. Sometimes she performs in a sequined top and black panties, and when her midriff shows, the word “slut” appears on her belly in black magic marker. Sometimes she wears her hair in pigtails like a little girl and howls their song, “Suck My Left One.” Their music makes me feel visible, makes me feel heard. Kathleen distorts what it means to be a girl. She has become something other than girl, other than the social construction of what a girl is. A rebellion of semiotics, she alters the symbol, and controls the signification. I stop shaving my legs and armpits, though, I start to wear make up again, black eyeliner, and bright red lipstick. At the same time, I cut off my long brown hair with a pair of dull scissors which mangle any consistent length, and I dye it black as coal. A dissonance between girl and me—a becoming—now, grrrl.
Older, in a college level lit class studying Metamorphosis, I realize that most women are changed into animal or tree in order to either escape violence from a man, or as a punishment for being the victim of violence from a man. I google the word morph and my browser suddenly takes me to morphe.com which features a colorful palate of eyeshadows on its home page. How appropriate, another way that women morph. Remember the you tube make-up tutorial, the one showing women how to shade their cheekbones, and the woman cackles, “wait until they find out we can shape-shift” but they, this masculine they, a patriarchal they, have always known. I mean, women have always burned for being witches.
At twenty-eight, I pile into Becca’s old Toyota, the small boxy kind from the eighties, the kind that doesn’t dent so easily, or fold in like plastic. Becca’s newly sober, like me. Both of us loud. Both of us lost with longing, unable to yet know what sobriety will transform us into. Both of us so delighted to not be in the twenty-seven club with Jimi, Janis, and Kurt. We are on our way to stalk, something Becca has talked me into. We think one of our friends, Kim, the nurse, the one who loves to dance and stick her tongue out, has snuck off with the guy I’m dating. We drive past Kim’s house first, and it’s dark on top of the little hill where her house, the one she’s renting in an attempt to offer her daughter some stability, quietly sits surrounded by freshly mowed grass. Kim hated mowing the yard, the way it slanted, and she always cursed over and over as she pulled the mower along the incline. Her house is dark and lonely up on that hill in the glow of Becca’s headlights.
Becca and I head to Rod’s apartments. We smoke cigarettes and blast music like we’re teenagers, and not women. We circle the parking lot of his apartments, and don’t see Kim’s car. I feel relieved, and silly, and a little embarrassed. Becca and I laugh at ourselves, and then let the guilt of doubting a friend sink into us. Becca turns onto a side street, and suddenly I see Kim’s black car, the one with the yellow paint on the bumper from where she backed into a pole.
“Stop!” I yell. Becca hits the brakes and stops parallel to Kim’s car. A fire surges through me. I don’t even care about hot Rod. I can’t believe Kim would do this to me. I want to find a brick and smash Kim’s windshield. I want to kick her car doors until they dent. I want to key “traitor” into the paint. I want to unleash curses on her. Sadly, I still want Rod to want me.
Becca asks, “What do you want to do?”
“Go,” I yell, and Becca’s tires screech as we pull out of there.
Or could I be Circe, born ugly in a family of beauty, but with a knack for magic spells, and I use my power against Kim as Scylla, causing dogs to bark where her legs once opened. All because of jealousy over a man. The gods banish me to an island, my own paradise over-run with animals, seafaring men who I transform into beasts, into lower creatures. On my island, I hold the top position of the hierarchy. I was forced out of society, yet, men still find their way to me, and one, Odysseus, tames me to his desires. My might no match for him. My sting gone.
When I’m twenty-two, a man rapes me. I transform into even more of a drug addict. I dive deeper into addiction, and pulsate with a need to obliterate. I don’t want to be more of an addict, I want to be gone. I feel gone. No longer grrrl, not woman, an absence where there was once meaning. The ultimate abjection of the self from the body. I steal my mother’s credit cards, and I rock shut, like Sylvia, until someone has to pick the bugs off me, so close to death, like all women who can’t be who they are and have to change. Is this our only means of survival? Like a caterpillar to a butterfly but more violent, a gross leaky woman into a junky with bruises on her arm.
Now, I’m Medusa, the one the goddess Athena turns into a monster with snakes for hair. My hair hisses and writhes, and my face turns men into stone. A woman turned monster as punishment for being raped. Yet, instead of a snake biting me, or tricking me to eat an apple, I am now the snake. Now, men can’t look at me. If they do, they will turn into stone. What wonderful powers! What if Apollo had been turned to stone? What if the man who raped me had stiffened in this way, limbs turned to rock, unable to move, when he first saw me? But if men can’t look, if men can’t control you, then you become monster.
When I’m twenty-five years old, I check myself into a long term rehab facility. When I arrive, I look sick, yellow skin, and dull eyes. After a month, my skin tone blooms back, my eyes bright and alive, healthy. My mother brings me new clothes to wear. Tops and jeans that fit me and aren’t falling apart like the clothes I had brought with me. The rehab is coed. The men on one side, the women on the other. We all share common spaces, but aren’t allowed to speak to the opposite sex. I’m young, thin but curvy, and the men stare at me in the dining room, in the day room when I play ping pong with another woman, and during group time.
One day, the director, Ms. Nola, takes the women for a walk around the neighborhood. She’s an older woman, and has been sober for twenty years. Her voice reminds me of my grandmother’s. We walk on the sidewalk, past the run down bungalow houses with shutters that hang lopsided around windows, porches held together by splintered wood. Ms. Nola tells us young women, “You know the men will look.” And I look at the leaves on the trees whose branches we pass under. “They will look, and it is your job to keep them from looking.” I only half pay attention to what she says. I am more enchanted by the way the wind rattles through the trees. One of the trees has white buds blooming, and I wonder if I’m really done with drugs, done with the life I had been living, done with being the addict I had become. Ms. Nola suddenly grabs my hand, and says, “Your momma has to bring you some oversized t-shirts, until then, you can’t be in the common areas with those men.”
I sit on the floor of Becca’s living room. We sit on the dull blue throw rug, an ashtray for cigarettes in between us. Becca flips tarot cards to tell me my future. “Oh, Miss Kitty,” she says, using the nickname my mother called me, and intentionally adding the Miss as an allusion to the prostitute on Gunsmoke. We love fallen women.
“I see hope,” she says as she points to the Empress card, “This is you.”
We stay on the floor. Read more cards until we get the answers we want. The ones that make us happy. Make us forget we are both newly sober. Barely hanging on. Her card, the Queen of Cups, the blonde ruler, full of intense emotions. Loud. Outspoken. A Katharina, still a shrew, still at the beginning of the play. That night, we both have futures.
Katharina exclaims, “If I be waspish, best beware my sting.”
Married to the man who responds, “My remedy be to pluck it out.”
Katharina goes from a woman with a fierce spirit to a woman beneath her husband’s heel. Her final speech at the end of Taming of the Shrew places me on the edge of tears, a knot in my stomach, as Katharina renounces her former strength, and calls for all women to stay in their lower places because their minds are as weak and soft as their bodies. Total obedience and submission to her husband, “thy lord, thy life, thy keeper,/ thy head, thy sovereign…” But why does a play, a fiction, one often labeled as comedy, cause me to cry? Because the beliefs contained inside Kate’s speech are still present today, still firmly planted in the mainstream. Because my name is Katherine and I’m always being told to simmer down. When I was little, I heard of Kate the shrew, and I couldn’t wait to read the play, to see this fierce young woman raise a ruckus. Then I read the play. Katharina is abused. How comedic. How funny. We all know the common joke:
What do you tell a woman with two black eyes?
Nothing. She’s already been told twice.
Years later, just before Thanksgiving in 2018, Becca’s husband shoots her, and then shoots himself. They both die. No one knows what happened. But many speculate. Almost everyone believes that Becca ran her mouth, snapped at her husband, possibly hit him in the head. A woman, a mutual friend says, “You know how Becca could be.”
Perhaps, Becca is Eurydice dancing with nymphs. Imagine them all beautiful among the flowers, the sun in their hair, arms reaching out and up to the sky, not a care in the world, that feeling of freedom as wind blows through them, the pollen kicks up dust like swirls of confetti. In another version, a man sees her beauty and chases her, a woman running through fields, fleeing from a man, her feet tapping earth as she runs. In both, a snake bites her, and she dies. Her husband Orpheus descends into hell for her, and woos Hades with his lyre playing. Hades allows Eurydice to follow her husband out of the underworld. Hades warns that Orpheus mustn’t look at her. Almost out of the underworld, the light from the world filtering in up ahead, unable to hear her footsteps, Orpheus worries she is no longer behind him. He turns to look at her, and as his eyes see her, she disappears. Did Hades suck her back in as mere punishment for not following his directions? Or did Hades know that while Eurydice was still a shade, not a fully corporeal form, she wouldn’t be able to withstand his gaze? Perhaps the point is that the male gaze causes women to cease to exist.
Becca is no longer here because of her husband.
Or maybe Becca is Medea, full flight in a chariot, the sun god chasing her across the sky.
I’m five years old, and I run with a whole pack of kindergarten girls, Medusa, Eurydice, Katharina, Circe, Becca, Kim, girls with ponytails and pigtails, and Velcro tennis shoes, rays of sun hit our faces, small beads of sweat form on our temples, and all of us girls, little goddesses, panting in pursuit of a fifth grade boy. The boys do it to us. The kindergarten boys. They chase me almost daily, and when I cry, I’m told that the boys just like me. So none of us girls understand what’s wrong with our lungs pumping, legs running, little arms reaching out to the older boy.
We’re scolded. We sit in punishment atop the hot asphalt, the heat stings through my jeans. Circe complains, tells them that they will all be sorry. Medusa and Kim hiss at the teachers. Becca and Eurydice ignore everyone and braid each other’s hair. Katharina kicks one of the boys in the shin. Teachers, red-faced, shout, point, and condemn us girls as un-ladylike.
The next day, Timmy chases me, reaches out his leg and trips me, and as I fall, I see the clouds in the sky, hear the babble of the creek behind the playground, almost touch the edges of the stiff tree so close to where I land. No one comes to yell at Timmy, no one comes to tell him not to chase me, not to trip me, not to make me fall face first in dirt and split my lip. After all, boys will be boys.
Kat Moore has essays in Brevity, Passages North, Diagram, The Rumpus, Entropy, Hippocampus, Whiskey Island, Salt Hill, New South, Split Lip, and others, as well as forthcoming in Image Journal, and Hotel Amerika. Her fiction can be found in Cheap Pop Lit, Hobart, and Craft, An essay of hers appears in the anthology Bodies of Truth: Personal Narratives on Illness, Disability, and Medicine.