Contemporary LGBTQ+ Fantasy

In the stories we tell, the body is a place of violence. 

We don't think about that, do we? The wolf-man, great dark eyes like the ocean and snapping slashing snarling teeth. The grandmother in his stomach. The huntsman and his rough hands and rougher axe. Strings of severed hands cast around the statues as warnings. 

There is more, I think, for me. The body of the woman. I have Medusa's snakes for hair, writhing on the back of my neck, cheeks and chin splattered with the two-pronged red sting of the viper bite. My skin stretches every which way in the mirror. I squint and the reflection is a funhouse nightmare, a freakshow of skinny wrists and bulging belly and loose flaps of skin on my neck. Nausea crawls through my gut at the sight. 

There is little space for a monster in the cul-de-sac where I live. White block houses, shallow dull grass, the bone gleam of the road signs - I struggle to see it as home. Many nights I go wandering in the yellowed glow of the street lamps. I leave all my house lights on and walk and walk until I can look back and see it, a boat on an ocean of darkness. An oil slick gleaming gold. 

I murmur of my discomfort to my neighbour. Our heads are bent close together over the fence, trimming the roses. Quietly, shears clicking, he says that there is a witch in the area who could help. A bruised rose-head tumbles to the grass. He adds, A sea-witch. 

I am dubious. Witches are a coin toss between cruelty and kindness. She might eat me alive, might offer advice, might feed my brother to the wolves. Either way, people will say that I should have known it and prepared myself. That I would have asked for it, standing on a witch's doorstep and asking for transformation like a werewolf trapped in the wrong form. I know this. I know this, but I look in the mirror again and resolve to visit her. The caffeinated dregs of my stomach would be bitter to her, if she chose to eat me, and my brother lean and stringy enough that the wolves would have a poor meal indeed. 

Under the cold, empty light of day, I go to the sea-witch. Her cottage has no oven to cook me in and no broom except the one leant against the kitchen wall, cobwebs in its bristles. Her door is not locked. I step over the threshold as if I am stepping into an abyss. I expect to feel the falling jolt in my stomach. 

There is no jolt. There is the hint of jasmine in the warm air, from the flowers curling over the door, and a richer, deeper scent like woodsmoke. I step inside, and nothing comes to devour me. 

The sea-witch is leaning over her cauldron, stirring slowly. Six strokes clockwise; six strokes anti-clockwise; six strokes clockwise. I want her to be old, hairy, all crooked nose and warts. I want her to be evil. To remind me I am bad for wanting this. 

She is not old. Her nose is crooked when she turns around, but her smile is true and honest. A soft grey blanket is draped around her shoulders as a shawl. 

Pots on the shelves and the sea-wind on the breeze. Jars full of shells white as bone. Sea glass smoothed into colourful pebbles. My feet root to the floor. 

She says, "I heard you were looking for help," and although her voice rocks like the waves, there is nothing cruel or icy there, nothing as hungry as what gnaws inside me. I must be monstrous indeed, to face a witch with no fear. 

I say, "I am," and describe the nature of the problem like I am in a doctor's office. There are no leaflets on the wall, though, and no faint reek of bleach, and no crowding white walls. A bee is buzzing peaceably outside. 

The witch doesn't offer any advice, but she takes card, so I go home and wait. 

Eight long days pass in silence, and I am beginning to lose hope. But on the evening of the ninth I come home from work to see the witch on my doorstep, placid as a lamb,  eyes the brown of fresh-tilled earth. 

She gives me something, and I think for a moment it is a mirror to make me see differently, a potion to reshape myself, any number of the magical creations I have heard whisper of. 

I look down. In my hands is a plain black swimsuit. 

"You should move to the coast as well," the sea-witch says. "The water reflects things differently." 

I think that she's a fraud, but it's a fraud I've paid for, so I do what she says. I don't look in the mirror in the morning. I put the swimsuit on and go to the sea. 

I am hot with humiliation by the time the waves are lapping at my feet, arms crossed over my stomach to hide myself, but I am determined. If the witch is wrong, I will prove it, and go back to her with my sharp teeth and big eyes and show her I cannot be helped. 

I haven't been swimming since I was a child in the deep end of the pool, clawing for thin air, sinking in weightlessness. In the moment before I was snatched from drowning by a watchful stranger, I remember such strange shocking heat. Such strange shocking clarity. 

There is no heat when I wade in. A distance draws up between myself and the shore. There is a nothingness in between. Salt in my mouth that scrapes at my throat like sandpaper; the burn of muscles pushed to their limit; the gulls cawing above. And when I put my head underwater, silence. The intense awareness of my own breathing. 

I turn on to my back and let myself sink, fingers reaching up to the light like a child reaching to God, and the water takes me. 

It is a different woman that crawls out, panting, to the cold sand. The first creature to reach dry air felt this rebirth. The shudder in its flesh that said, life is changing. I lie on the damp sand and breathe and breathe and breathe. In my ears, the waves echo. 

My hair is salt-crusted, salt-smelling now. I line shells up on my shelves; this one green, this one blue, this one pink as a soft sunrise. This one was plucked from the ocean floor at sunset. This one was spotted at midday, lodged between two rocks as the tide washed out. I put my hands in my pockets and sand rustles, crab shells click. 

I find a soft contentment. My calves are hard with muscle. My stomach no longer seems bulging when the mirror finds me. I am toned, yes, but more than that: I have found functionality. I have new scars on my thighs from sharp rocks, but I smile when I see them. These white marks are nothing more than proof that I touched the sea, and it touched me back. I would keep them, if given the choice. 

I flag down a passing sparrow one evening at home when I have a cake in the oven, and give it a handful of sunflower seeds to deliver a message to the sea-witch. I don't really expect a reply, but when I open the door the next morning there she is. 

"Hello," she says. 

We go walking on the beach, our feet bare, waves licking at our ankles. The wind pulls hair loose from her braid and sets it whipping around her face. 

"A monster is not such an awful thing to be," she says. "You should accept it, rather than fighting it. People cannot change their nature." 

The birds circle, cawing. "I know that now," I say quietly. "I didn't want to be- different."

"But you are." 

A crab scuttles onto her foot. She smiles and bends down to pick it up. It runs over her hands, cupped carefully so it doesn't fall. Its shell is the dusky pink of sunset. 

I used to get the urge to step on them, to grind their thin carapaces to dust. It was an oddly self-destructive desire, protected as I was from my worst urges only by a delicate layer of denial and self-hatred. But she holds it gently, allowing it to skitter from finger to finger as it will, and I smile too. 

Sometime in between the water glimmering sunset-red and the water glimmering night-black, she tells me that the word monster is from a Latin root. Monstrum: a portent, a sign of divinity. The lighthouse above the breakers, both shelter and warning at once. 

"There are worse things to be," she says, "than a monster."

I look at her. Her skirt ripples around her legs, hair needle-sharp on her exposed shoulders. With the sharpness of her face in profile, I see it at last. The harsh lines on her brow tell me how many times she stared into the same mirror as me, and saw the same contorted ugliness shining back. 

I wonder what her story is. I want to know how she quieted that roar in her heart. How she came to offer that shelter to me. Then she glances towards me, and I am struck silent by the swan's curve of her neck, the shocking sweetness of her expression.

I take her hand. 

She smiles at me and squeezes my fingers. We walk on. The water beneath us shatters and reforms, crashes and shines. 

And, at last, the mirror crystallises into something new. 

July 03, 2021 16:47

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