by S. Miriam Merces
“If you get any bigger, your mother will have to sew feed sacks together. You’ll be too big for store clothes,” says my father on my right. His teeth scrape along his dinner fork.
On my left, my mother pierces a lump of flesh in gravy.
“Do you have to chew so quickly? Stop shoveling it in. Eating isn’t a race.” Her hand fists her napkin, and her eyelids squish tight. “I can still hear you.”
I am eleven years old, and I’m a walrus.
My younger brother, perched across the table, his eyes fixed on his plate, submerges a green bean into his mashed potatoes. His collarbone shows from the stretched neck of his T-shirt. His cheekbones are distinct. Above them, bluish-green veins demarcate the stuffed pockets beneath his eyes. He is a songless parakeet.
My mouth is shut. The intake of air disrupts the hair slivers in my nostrils, those small, dark caverns that I inspect with my head tilted back and chin jutted to the mirror. Somewhat regularly, I evaluate the anomalies of this exterior form: the dangling flesh at the back of the throat, the ridges of the ears, sprouts of hair at the temple, freckles, scars, bumps, the veins filled with blood along the hands and inner crook of the left elbow, and the long toes and feet, thin, unlike the rest of me. I let the breath out.
Again, I take in air through my nose, hold the breath, and let it out because I am trying to be quiet.
Mismatched forks and knives scratch cheap pottery surfaces.
I am weighed down. The feed sacks, as sandbags, press the tops of my sneakers, imprinting laces and metal eyelets onto bone, press the soles of my feet to the floor. Feed sacks contain fifty pounds of cracked corn or oats. In a corner of the barn, the oatmeal-colored sacks lean upon one another like quartered torsos. I cannot escape this body. Rats and birds everybody hates—noisy jays and numerous starlings—peck and tear at the taut sack skins. One kernel escapes. Tick. I am trapped in this body. Tap. A feed sack lands on my shoulder, suppresses my right arm and pins me to the table. My ribs expand to lift the weight from my back. I am weighted to my chair. My body is a locked cell with no door. I cannot flee. A bloated feed sack whips me in the back of the head, and my face sinks toward my plate. My sweaty palms fight to lift this body from the table. Ten-pound feed sacks hang from my arms, the strings tying them together cutting at my elbows. My body is a filled sack. Beneath its weight, I hide. I hide beneath this body.
A hollow emptiness stretches within this body. I am hungry.
My father’s pupils take in a spot beyond my mother’s head. His brow furrows as his jaw muscles clench. My mother’s right eyebrow cocks as she stares through the table.
The me within my mind commands. Eat slowly. If you gesture too suddenly, you will disturb them. My hand holding its fork nears the plate. Take only a little. A little. Pierce one bean. Try. Open your mouth hardly. Down. Up. Chew with lips shut. Down. Hunch. Be little. Slouch. Smaller. Chew slowly, fat girl, walrus-ogre. Tongue presses, gathers saliva. Not yet. Molar teeth connect to hollows. There. The paste filters to nothing-matter. Slow. The green liquid slinks down your throat into the pit within.
You irritate them. You upset them. You make them mean.
My hand drops its fork. Beneath the cobwebbed ceiling fan spinning wonkily above our heads, light glints off the tines. Ting. I will save them from my presence. The light from the fork reflects off a thing hidden beneath the constricting, gray coils in my stomach, and a spark flares. Wrong. I will save myself from them. Without a word, I let this bloated torso to the floor. The impact sends a rumble through my flesh, but I am numb.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
The narratives mix, becoming confused. The narrative confuses.
“Get back here.”
Walrus? Little girl? Dead weight. Argh. My flippers reach across the floorboards and pull, dragging my heavy blubber legs behind. Arf. My whiskered snout pushes the screen door to whine. As I flop against the farm road, a trench encroached on both sides by locusts, thorny sumac, and brambles, gravel embeds in my leathery skin with its sparse sprouts of hair like the warty epidermis of a fly under a microscope. My chest grunts. I am ugly. Salt-sweat trickles into my vision. My chest burns. The thing swallowed deep regurgitates up my throat into my mouth and out my eyes. The more I cry, the more human I become. I plod and find myself walking up the grade toward the hilltop fields. When they no longer see me, I run.
“Now, Sarah, you can have as many cucumber slices and celery stalks as you want.” “How about a carrot?”
I didn’t want that fucking carrot.
“You’re too big for the pony ride. Stand by the pond and feed the ducks.”
“Don’t worry. Someday you’ll find a big man to love you. Like a linebacker.” “She’s a linebacker. Look at those knees.” “She will have a pretty face. Maybe pleasant is more accurate.”
I wasn’t worried.
“You’re going on a diet. Take peas and plain tuna fish to school. They’re in the cupboard.”
I crouch to the shelves, their rows of metal cans coated with paper, and think of dog food. The cylinder weighs like a pond stone in my palm. I am in the second grade, and dog food is what I deserve.
“Her size? Ho hum. Junior? Plus for girls? She’s thirteen. That awkward stage.” Behind the partition of a changing room, I stand naked other than underwear bottoms. My mother is on the other side of this cell. As fluorescents buzz overhead, I focus on her feet, which are now smaller than mine, and think, “I’m ten.”
Judge, judge, judge. My aunts and grandmother on my father’s side won’t let up either.
“You must not cook right, Outsider.” Outsider is my mother. I retreat from the women circled around the kitchen table and feel bad for her. Their poor treatment is my fault. “Insider was bigger as a kid.” That’s my dad. “That big?” “My lord, no.” The words claw up my shoulders. I can’t scurry away. “Does she eat at night?” “Does she sneak food from the pantry?” “You could always padlock the fridge.”
My parents threatened to send me to fat camp. I knew they wouldn’t follow through because they were too cheap.
I watch cable television at my grandparents’ house and learn kids’ programs send participants to space camp. “You’re too fat,” I think. “You wouldn’t float in anti-gravity. You’d sink like a boulder.” I imagine myself in a white helmet and suit, two suits sewn together of course, as I stand in line with the freckled cadets being made to trust that they will twist and turn in the buoyant space. When my number’s up, I leap, flap my featherless arms, and fall. The other children lean over the shelf, throw back their heads, and open their throats. Though there is no sound in space, this is not space, so I hear them. Against the mock ship bottom’s knobs and plastic buttons, I am a flounder. My one eye rotates around to listen over my shoulder as it always will. Their voices within my ears are the slashes of vulture beaks.
I know the sound of children’s laughter.
“She did a somer-fault.” “Her cartwheel broke.” “She’s a beached whale.” Gym class.
“Are you going to have a baby? You look pregnant.” Lunch.
“If you were a Disney character, you’d be the hippo in Fantasia.” “With the ballet slippers?” “Better yet, Ursula the sea witch.” Bus.
“Sarah? Sort of resembles . . . Kathy Bates? No. Rosie O’Donnell.” Seven little girls in pink pj’s nod in unison. “Total Rosie O’Donnell.” Sleepover.
Ring ring. “For me?” My brother shrugs and hands me the phone, and I stretch the cord into the dining room. As I slide down the wall, my knees press against my stomach rolls. “Heyyy,” says a high-pitched, nasal voice. Let’s call the voice Miranda. “Do you like so-and-so?” The voice through plastic and wires slithers along my ear canal and into my stomach, churning the liquid bile to nausea. “Why?” She titters. “Do you? He likes you. He told me.” Hope mixes with the sickness spiraling, and against my better judgment, I say, “He’s all right.” “And?” “I guess he . . .” Under consideration, his crooked yellow tooth offers a sort of twinkle, and the knobs of his knees connect to purposeful muscles. Once, he held the door instead of letting it slam into my face. Perhaps there’s something pleasant about him. “I like him. Sure.” A hum through her nose predicts eyes and mouth turning into smile-slits. A canine pokes out. “But would you go out with him? If he said that he liked you first?” I am desperate. Hope is a curse. We skip through a field smelling of sprouted ladybugs and baby green daisies—he holds my hand—then, we float in a gondola underneath the stars and the sleepy fronds of a willow tree. “Yes.” There’s another voice like the squeak of a misaligned wheel. Uh-oh. “You think I’d like you? Ugly bitch.” “See, I told you that she would say yes.” “Gross!” Two coils enter my ear canal, one noosing my throat, the other constricting my heart like barbed wire. Three-way calling is a convenience for elementary school torturers. The rough, dark coils wrap around and around, stacking, tightening, piercing. The boy’s yellow tooth acts as a pickax. A flush of pain rising to my cheeks, I manage, “Goodbye.”
I actually said goodbye before hanging up.
Outside of a decrepit school converted into a haunted house, a boy as fat as me says I am pretty. “You have pretty hands,” he says. He smacks his lips, eyeing my fingers as if they are slender, delicious sausages. I look down at them, and for a moment, they just might be fingers, and pretty ones at that. I have pretty hands. “I do?” He brings my hands to his face. As if he smells a glistening sheen that tempts him to take a bite, he lowers his lips and kisses my index finger. His breath, a soft puff, leaves a warm tickle on my knuckle. “Thank you,” I say and blush.
He snorts, and my hands are flung so harshly, they may rip off at the wrists. “She believed me!” A group of girls beneath a banner of ghoulish pumpkins and limp bats cover their faces. He waddle-runs up the sidewalk. “She thought you meant what you said?” As soon as he is near, they turn their backs to giggle-whisper in their circle, and he kicks dirty glass and pebbles upon the asphalt.
They didn’t even give him a candy bar. He hurt me for free.
I watch movies where high schoolers walk around in sunglasses and bikinis, and I find my doppelganger. The popular girls give the fat freak sitting in front of her tray of cardboard chocolate milk and a splat of tuna noodle casserole a love note delivered from a boy across the room. His popped collar hides his smile and its teeth. He looks past his sunglasses lowered down the bridge of his nose and winks. The freak unfolds the note as if she sits tucked within her closet, hidden beneath tent dresses and grandma’s hand-me-downs, and opens a box of Danishes, as if each uncreasing of the folded paper predicts a soft bite into puffed and sugared pastry. “It’s a prank!” I yell at the television and her open, yearning face. “They’re making fun at your expense, you goddamn ogre.”
I am made a joke many times over. Each time it hurts. At first, it hurts a lot. Then, incidents in isolation hurt less. The underbelly of children, people, in total weighs upon my heart and roots me to the ground.
There are instances of kindness better described as pity.
My teacher, a frog-faced man with a comb-over and a frog-like slump to his shoulders and tobacco-stained fingers, asks that I stay in at recess, and my classmates snicker. After they have gone, he calls me to his desk. “Did you give me this?” My round face, framed in a frizzed-out perm, cheeses back at me from my one-by-two-inch school picture, one that I had gifted a friend. “I’m sorry,” he says, turning the photo over. My toes cringe in their shoes. Red hearts intersperse between bubble-lettered words like “love” and “mine” and “boyfriend.” I don’t want to be quiet; I want to disappear. “Here,” he says. “I’m going to the faculty lounge. I’ll be gone for ten minutes.”
His eyes had that downturned, dewy sadness about them that meant he understood in a way I did not yet understand.
When the door shuts, I dive into boys’ desks and flip over my picture. “I love you!” I open pencil boxes. “For a good time, call . . .” I toss aside wadded, crusty snot tissues. “Marry me, please? Please?” I seal the salvaged photos in my jacket pocket, and when I get home, I imagine poking holes through their stupid eyes as a sharpened pencil shakes in my fist. After the poking out of eyes, the fat girl would be cut into bits with scissors, and a flicked lighter would burn away that stupid smile forever. The celluloid would distort into a fuming blob of toxic brown and yellow. Just like I feel.
I burn a friend’s picture instead. I stab out this friend’s eyes and pin her to a dartboard. Ripping the photo down when that experiment proves tedious, the pencil jabs her over and over again into the carpet. A rash of pockmarks riddles her long nose and bucktoothed grin.
Still, the walrus developed.
And my parents gave up.
Walrus-me eats Doritos and drinks Mountain Dew. Doritos and Mountain Dew are the best of friends. Bright orange and neon yellow, salt, fat, crunch, slurp, and sugar offer me a seat at their table. At their party, I’m the guest of honor.
My parents stop buying me clothes, too. I have some clothes but not enough. I have to wear my mother’s clothes on occasion. My mother’s sweaters and sweatpants. One Christmas Eve, for midnight mass, I wear my mother’s dress. For a school performance, I wear my mother’s pleated skort and white blouse. Standing on the risers with the other junior choir members, it appears that I was successful at scrounging her closet for an outfit that would fit the event. I take in a breath. The cotton at the stomach puckers and the buttons pop outward. I open my mouth and sing louder than any other singers. The material bunches in the thighs. I even wear my mother’s bathing suit to the lake that summer. The boob cups sit like hollow cupcakes upon the bulky pie tins at my chest. Fat un-breasts, non-breasts. The bathing suit stretches in the middle.
I looked ridiculous.
I talk to myself the way that others speak to me, and worse. “You’re too slow. Move it, fat-ass.” “You better not climb that tree. You’ll look like King Kong. The wood will splinter.” “You better not ride the Ferris wheel. The bolts will creak, the rods will snap in two, and the passengers will crash, screaming toward their deaths.” “You better not jump on that trampoline. The fabric will stretch to the ground and stay there.” Everything will break. You will fall. They will laugh.
“You are an ugly child. Nobody loves you.” I stand before my mirror and feel empty.
I imagine that I am not their little girl. Because I belong to ugly people, I keep a suitcase packed beneath my twin bed. We live underground. We are moles with milky, blind eyes and crooked incisors. Or we are aliens, and a microscopic pod with my embryo inside rocketed to Earth and flew up my mother’s nostril and into her belly where I was to be birthed. My parents do not know that I am from another planet and my fat is an incubator. One day, I will be glossy purple with long, black lashes around my hundreds of eyes and strong, awesome tentacles. Only after I have transformed will my alien family take me back.
I tell my parents that other children should be their daughter. Lorelei. Camilla. Pretty children. I say this over and over.
Sometimes, I am a mermaid or unicorn. I am magic. Light sparkles from the follicles of my hair or forehead. Only the purest of heart can see what I truly am. Wherever I go, stardust follows my feet along with golden wisps of lilac and honeysuckle. Say the word and I will cast my spells. I will evaporate into air.
I run away from them.
Away from her family seated at that kitchen table in the world where work is struggle and mountains are gutted, the walrus is just a little girl who needs love. The girl runs in a field beneath the sky. There she is a living thing between green and blue. A little girl is all she is. She is, that’s all.
Before I learned to be ashamed and look at myself from the outside in, I was a force. I was bigger, so I was stronger. Roar! I was a beast. In a bedroom bordered with yard marks and footballs, I grapple other children and my brother. Fling! The boys like to wrestle, so I take them on. One jumps on my back. Two go for my ankles. I am their obstacle. I shake off my brother like he’s a sick cat, and the shackles below my knees grip tighter. A swift kick followed by another, and I hurl them like dried bones. Toss! I leap into the air and crash down like an avalanche on a mountain. Mwa ha ha. I am an opponent to be reckoned with. Unstoppable! They come back for more and bounce off. Pow! I grab two arms and spin, and we fall together. Ha ha. I laugh, too. Ha! Scepter in hand, I stand before my subjects and my fortress. I am a queen. Or I win the championship title. I hoist my broad, shining belt to my fans. They stand from the bleachers, cheer, whistle, hoot, and holler. And I smile. I am Sarah! Look at me!
I spring, zigzag, and twirl through space. I do not walk. At home on the farm, I vault over fallen fence posts, across the creek, and between furrows of earth with green sprouts like tiny umbrellas. And when people ask me what I want to be when I grow up, I answer paleontologist, talk show host, or doctor, and whisper “dancer” to myself. “Dancer,” I say to me.
I wear a pink tutu. It was a gift from an estranged family member. My backpack possesses a mint-green ballet slipper pin, and I wear a pendant around my neck. When I sit on the stairs by the big kitchen window, I remember that I keep a ballerina and retrieve her from beneath my shirt. The light, woven metal thread catches the sunrays coming through the glass. I love how it sparkles. My thumb caresses the figure’s fork-tine feet, dotted eyes, spider’s eyelash of a nose, and her cheeks, the soft purple of the flowers that peek beneath the tall grass and clover. I own something delicate. Look how special. I am five years old, and I am special. I, too, am beautiful.
“Can I take classes? Can I be a dancer?” The downturn and concern in faces says, “But the other children, those children’s parents, we must protect you.” You will be a foot taller. They’ll stick you at the rear. You’ll be the caboose on the train of dainty feet. You will embarrass yourself. You may embarrass us.
Perhaps I didn’t ask. What I remember are the ballets on tape borrowed from the library.
Boing go the couch springs, bounce off the armrest, and I am twirling from the adjacent rocker to the rug. I lift my arms and bow. Music from the boxy television speakers and light from inside my head enclose me in a warm cocoon. For hours, I see myself as a ballerina upon a stage, a swan with human features, a creature untethered and free.
I run. I am at the doglegged field, the highest point on the farm. I will carry myself away from that place where I am from. Back at the kitchen table, my parents sit like dead-eyed ventriloquist dummies. Their heads are cocked and jaws are flapped open, waiting to snap shut. The forks and knives in their fists stick with glue. These instruments are part of them, gouged into that time, always ready to pierce. The field bruises with shadows and, within the nearing night’s damp crevices, warty toads croak.
I run faster, faster still.
The dream I keep tucked beneath unicorn, mermaid, spell-caster, and dancer, my deepest down deep dream, is to be an angel in disguise. This was my most secret wish. I am an angel.
My sneaker-crunches over grass whisper as I near the tree line that divides the property. With each footfall, I am lighter. The evening air cools my face, and my weight recedes. I am light.
Someday, after I have endured enough, this body will burst wings and golden auras of sound, and everyone will see my true self. I will radiate power and energy and be a loved creature of God. Nothing will hurt. This is my body. I won’t feel pain. My insides will shimmer.
One day. I will run. I will fly away.
S. Miriam Merces grew up in an industrial river valley in the rural United States. She lives elsewhere. You may find her at www.smiriammerces.com.