The white hiss of a possum and crickets in the weeds and the woods cacophonous with all the nocturnal. A house, tucked into the hills, made soft with moss. Snoring from crowded, sleeping bodies. The airless sun porch, where little Emmeline sweats on her broken camping cot – a twin bed is not forthcoming anytime soon – and inside her mouth, a cradle of torture, creaking its everlasting wheel. With small snaps, pink orthodontia tugs each tooth of her overbite into the right kind of smile. Her gums puff and swell, the bone of her chin forced back, back. Her new lisp keeping her days wordless, her jaw throbbing, lips cracked to bleed, her parents pleased. Every three weeks, a man with a tight face tinkers in her mouth, tells her to say, Ahhhhhhh, approves of this procedure. Emmeline is aware. She’s heard the phone calls. She knows her orthodontia will be repossessed soon. His condescension and his cruelty are metonymic for the reasons she wishes she lived underground.
Emmeline turns to her comforts on her windowsill: her paperback Bible, a tube of acne cream, and a thunderegg she found in the desert while on a camping trip east of the Mountain. Her father had it cut and polished as a birthday present. Blue opal churning inside a star-shaped cut in the knobby rind of an otherwise drab, brown rock. Her father says this rock is rare, made from the thickest kind of lava. She rubs it against her crooked lips when she needs soothing; the thunderegg comes with her wherever she goes, little geode companion. She kisses it, reverent.
Now she straps her braces with rubber bands, clicks on a pair of overalls, tucks the thunderegg in her pocket, and climbs out her open window. The possum scatters, the crickets fall silent. It is Saturday. Dawn has yet to break. Her brothers will soon be in front of the small screen that dominates the living room, playing with the cable they’ve spliced illegally into the neighbor’s line until they flick or twist it to make it work. Her uncle will make turkey bacon and eat Twizzlers he bought on SSI. Her father, a logger, will stay asleep past noon, hot water bottles soothing the aching curve of his spine. With instant coffee and a wordless hum in her mouth, Emmeline’s mother will depart for the first of her two weekend services at the Seventh-day Adventist Church, where she will pray in tongues for her only daughter.
A tapestry of Till life. Threads of comfort, blocks of beige and brown. Emmeline is often forgotten by these people. This suits her.
Emmeline is out. Down through a creek behind the house, along a path pressed into a meadow, and up once more into the furred edges of the woods that cover the backside of the western hills. Emmeline likes to pretend she is personally acquainted every fern and white star of trillium sprouting from the earth, and nods at them on occasion as her thick boots clomp by. She knows when to hold her breath so she won’t breathe skunk cabbage stink wafting from that one bog. She lets her fingers linger on knots of tree bark and in holes made by the keen beaks of woodpeckers. At times, she finds herself about to crush the speckled, resplendent body of a banana slug, and leaps last minute – no deaths on her watch. The winter morning is still dark enough that rabbits give her sidelong glances before continuing with their breakfasts of blackberry. Emmeline climbs. Trees offer roots as handholds. Mossy loam cushions her falls. A blue heron stands on one leg in the center of a pond and contemplates the cage around her face. A blue tarp tied to a copse of birch, the camp of a homeless man, is kept safe from interruption. A tree rots. Beetles and moss and white ghosts of fungi grow in the spillage of its intestines. This is the world of Emmeline Till: wild and rotting and grotesque and silent.
When she crests the knoll, Emmeline can see the entire valley stretch out before her, the folds of forest fabric and the blue ribbon of river and, beyond, the city, tiny, toy-like. She strides over a trail and back into the underbrush. Turning to the left to sidestep a scattering of deer droppings, she walks a hundred more yards until she reaches the body of a known pine tree. Emmeline clutches the ropes of ivy – a parasite in this forest, a dangerous weed – and begins to lower herself down the other side of the hill, ignoring her teeth that throb with her heartbeat. If she hugs the bracken, she can spot her cave. It is spongy and green and girl-sized, a hidey-hole for the frightened, a haven carved into rock. Dragging her feet down loose soil, Emmeline slides on her backside until her feet hit the rim of the darkness. First her feet, then her shins, then her knobby knees and her pelvis and her flat chest and her sallow arms and her masked face, and now Emmeline is swallowed into the earth.
A complete kind of hiding place: the mouth of the cave gapes a foot above the top of her head. Nothing has lived in this cave in a long while, or at least not since she was first bridled. Emmeline believes she has been thorough enough in her self-education to understand what the scent of fresh urine smells like, and this cave has only ever smelled like cold, old rock. A smell that made her neck hair rise, when Emmeline crawled in after a day trapped in the handicapped stall of the girl’s bathroom, Holly Hill yelling, “Braceface!” and spitting into her eyes while Betty U. and Liznely held her by the headgear handle to keep her from running away. Rocks. Thank you, rocks.
Emmeline reaches into the pocket of her overalls and removes her thunderegg. Her mouth on the opal, she pets the wet walls. Cave bugs skitter over her fingernails – millipedes, small spiders, wood beetles. All harmless, ugly darkness dwellers. She lets them rub their bodies against her skin and wonders if there’s going to be another earthquake. She loves earthquakes. She loves that stone can become violent. Meteorites above and tectonic plates below: stone is all violence. Her head lolls back, and the crown of her headgear clanks. Her tongue stills within the thunderegg. Her hand moves idly over the dark fabric of the subterranean stone while her thinking slows to a trickle. Her heartbeat steadies. She breathes in and breathes out. This is as close to sleeping as she will get this week.
Slowly, Emmeline comes to realize that something feels different. She moves her fingers back an inch and strokes what is there. Beneath her hand is something softer than rock. There is pliancy to its surface, an undulation that rock cannot make. Emmeline touches it again and feels scales. She should know the feel of that kind of body. Her head rises. Her tongue twists in the thunderegg. She looks down, but here she is just another blind creature, and the black is impenetrable. Her fingers run the length of a cold, reptilian form that spirals down between her legs to the tips of her heels. At the head, she discovers the form branches into small knobs of flesh. She is barely touching now, holding her breath, her lungs tight with dread. She counts one skull knob, two, three – they seem to be multiplying. Her pinky pricks on something sharp. A tooth. A flicker at her skin, a tasting. Many somethings tasting her.
Emmeline thinks, Gartersnake sharptailsnake nightsnake kingsnake whipsnake gophersnake racersnake, but cannot recall a single snake native to the forest caves of Multnomah County. Then come the teeth.
Her skin sears. A burst of light. A second bite cleaves the curve of her thumb. She gasps, but air has somehow turned into water, and she chokes on it, she paws at the slick walls of the cave, thighs trembling – a third bite finds the soft lower belly of her palm, she is lifting herself – a fourth bite, a fifth, along the seams of her knuckles – the unseen, unknown beast dangles from her hand and weighs her down – a sixth, a seventh at her wrist – cave cream clogs her fingernails – with a sigh like a scream through her metal mouth, Emmeline brings down her thunderegg onto what she prays is a head. A bone cracks.
Emmeline, Emmeline, Emmeline the Small.
Her punctured hand drifts, weightless and numb, more and more toxic with every second. Emmeline twists her head, but the voice scatters against the walls and shatters in her ears.
Emmeline the Brave, Emmeline the Queen.
A flash of lightning from outside the cave, a brief illumination: snake heads, so many snake heads, swaying inches from the tip of her nose.
Emmeline, the heads say together in a language not legible above ground. O crooked, ugly Emmeline: you are blessed.
Emmeline screams with what little of her voice remains.
She heaves her body out of the cave into the watery light of the forest. From her mouth spews last night’s Spaghetti-O’s. Three teeth remain buried in her skin. Her veins blacken. Rain slaps the heads of leaves, pocks the red heap of vomit before her. She unlaces her left boot and wraps her wrist with the ragged lace, tight, to cut off circulation to the infected hand. She cannot cure a beast bite, but she knows how to keep it from spreading.
The eternal game of Four Square resumes. Two bounces of red ball on black asphalt. Coughs, puffs of breath. Twenty-one pairs of saddle shoes scuffle: girls toss packets of candy in a pile and get in line.
“Winner gets everyone’s Sour Patch Kids.” Holly readies for the opening serve, then pauses. “Emmeline, come on.”
Somehow, though no one understands how the maneuver was accomplished, Emmeline has positioned herself in the square directly across from Holly. She stands, her hands dangling limply at her sides.
Holly tucks the ball beneath her armpit. “You can’t play,” she says firmly. “You’re the worst at this game. You gave Jenna R. a concussion last time.”
Emmeline tips her head, opening her mouth a fraction of an inch. To the rest of the girls, she seems on the verge of either speaking or vomiting. Holly waits as long as her patience can last, which is fifteen seconds.
“Oh my God. Go away. Go stand by Scary Mary,” says Holly. “You can, like, keep score or pick food out of your braces or something. Betty U., you’re up.”
A murmur: the feared punishment has been awarded. Betty U. removes herself from the front of the line and saunters into Emmeline’s square. She plants her feet and glares, first at Lily Nicoletti in the square in front of her, and then at Sara Kinzel, who is obliviously yanking at the training bra her mother made her try on in the middle of Nordstrom’s Junior section yesterday (she made sure to tell the tale to everyone twice). Betty U. turns and touches the tip of her nose to Emmeline’s.
Emmeline winces, presses a palm to a hot cheek. Then she slinks out of the square and into the wisteria to hide beneath the monolith of the Virgin Mary. A few of the girls at the back of the line look over at her, nervously biting their lips or chewing on the ends of their hair, but no one argues with the laws in motion.
“Weirdo,” says Betty U. again.
“Shut up,” says Holly. “Game on.”
Holly lofts the ball into the air and lifts her arm.
The pulse of the day suddenly slows. Thin clouds, gaunt and gray, cloak the sun. On each child’s arm, hairs lift to standing. Cheeks flush. Thighs quake. A blue heron passes over the black top, its shadow a slender arrow pointing west.
At the same moment that Holly slams the ball into Betty U.’s square, Lily Nicoletti grabs her stomach and bends forward. The elastic of her white scrunchie snaps, strands of hair dripping around her freckles. She clutches at the fabric plastered to her body. Her jaw falls open. Her fingers scrabble at her skin. Her eyes widen.
“Lily,” says Holly. The ball rolls away from the court. “Is this a joke or something?”
“I, I, I,” Lily gasps.
“What’s she doing?” says Betty U., her voice thick with suspicion.
“Hey, are you okay?” the other girls say. “Are you okay?”
Lily cannot answer. She writhes. She flattens. She cries out like a wounded animal. The girls form a circle around her. They can see up her plaid skirt to her white underwear, which has been soiled by a dark red stain. Thrills run up and down their bodies. Lily’s pelvis thrusts. A dark bruise flowers on her wrist. Moans trickle through her clenched teeth.
“Sister Agatha, oh my God, Sister Agatha,” the girls call, and how delicious it feels to yell for emergency’s sake. They kneel down around the body. Her nipples have hardened, and because she is not quite within the doorway of puberty, she wears no bra: everyone can see the dark circles beneath the rising and falling blouse.
Sister Agatha tears across the blacktop, basketballs falling silent and jump ropes drooping in her wake. Her face looks full and stretched and strange. She is frantic; she is almost to them. This is their last chance to touch the transformed body. Reverent and humming, they run their hands up and down Lily’s legs, a pounding loud within their loins. And Lily, besieged with holy ecstasy, thrashes on the asphalt until the backs of her thighs bleed.
“Girls, move,” Sister Agatha says, pushing her way into the heart of the circle as the students who were playing basketball join the crowd. She crouches down beside Lily’s form. “Lily,” she says, “talk to me.”
“It hurts!” Lily cries. “It hurts – I can’t breathe – make it stop – please!”
The girls watch Sister Agatha press a long, spindled finger into Lily’s side. “Does it hurt here?” she asks, but Lily shakes her head no and grits her teeth. “Not the appendix,” the girls hear their teacher mutter. They each think to themselves that it must be a dazzling thing, to understand the map of a body in such a way that one can know exactly where to press to achieve knowledge.
The hem of Lily’s skirt rises another inch. Sister Agatha looks down.
“Lily,” she says, “it’s only your period.”
The circle purrs, becomes a horseshoe, as they all crane to gaze upon the plasmic princess. Nine girls have already gotten their periods, and those girls nod to one another – elders in a throng of novices. Shock walks across each face; groans of disgust and wonder echo in the cold spring air. Sister Agatha gives up on order and tells Tina Stewart, who got her period last year in the middle of Pre-Algebra, to get a maxi pad. The others look on in envy as Tina Stewart proves herself important and useful to Sister Agatha in this moment of female crisis.
Only Holly hangs back, her arms folded tight. Liznely steps out of the crowd. She touches the back of Holly’s elbow.
“I haven’t gotten mine yet, either,” she says in a low voice.
“I got mine three months ago,” Holly snaps, pulling her arm away. Liznely hesitates, but decides not to press the issue. She tucks her hair behind her ear. Then her eyes widen. She points.
“Look at Emmeline,” says Liznely.
Holly follows Liznely’s gaze to Emmeline, who is still beneath Scary Mary’s extended arm. The statue’s blank, white eyes and Emmeline’s blank, dark pupils watch one another inside the tangled grotto of dead plant. It takes a moment for them to realize that Emmeline is muttering something through the tight gap of her harnessed teeth. If she is attempting at words, they are of a tongue foreign and without Latin roots.
“What the hell is she even doing.” Liznely shivers.
“It’s like she’s communing or something. Ew, why is her hand that color? God what a creep.” Holly pauses. “And I did get my period, you know.”
“Okay. If you say so.”
“I do say so.”
“Okay. But. I just, I don’t think you should feel bad, like you can’t control when it happens. Just, like, I don’t know, it’s okay? You can’t force it?”
Liznely puts a hand on her harm. She is trying to be kind, she’s trying to talk about Brianna L.’s birthday without really talking about it, she’s trying to say that Holly doesn’t need to pretend she got her period at another girl’s birthday party or at any other time or event because it’s a special moment in a girl’s life and the flower is unfolding and the beauty of womanhood will soon be upon her so she needn’t worry for soon she’ll join the legions et cetera et cetera et cetera. Holly glares at Liznely’s hand. A shame knot is thick in her throat. Thick, the shame. To get caught stabbing one’s own vagina with a steak knife in Brianna L.’s mermaid-themed bathroom, catching the blood with one’s outstretched underwear. She looks at her best friend and hates her.
“Whatever,” says Holly, “at least I shave my cooch.”
“I shave…that,” says Liznely, her head snapping back.
Holly doesn’t seem able to stop herself. “I heard fingering you is like fingering a Muppet,” she continues. “A hairy one. Oscar, maybe.”
“Wh-what? Who said that?”
“I don’t know. People.”
“God, who cares? You know that’s a lesbian thing, right?” This next part will hurt her, and Holly is thirsty for injury. “So what are you now, a big old hairy dyke? Are you a dyke, Liznely? Is that what you want to be? Because dykes” – she leans closer – “dykes are disgusting, Liznely. And you’re already disgusting enough.”
“Alright, girls, recess is over,” Sister Agatha calls over the frenzied girl din. “In numerical order, please.”
They rejoin their class, Liznely wiping her cheeks and Holly clenching and unclenching her fists. The horde promptly dissolves into a neat line of individual ponytails. Still tittering, they are led back inside the building. It takes thirty-five minutes for anyone to notice Emmeline is not at her desk, and Holly, ever generous, volunteers to go back out into the strange chill to retrieve her from her post.
Bridget Brewer is a writer, teacher, artist, and performer living in Austin, TX. Every month she dumps her period blood onto drawings of Trump’s face, which feels somewhat productive. Her work can be found at bridget-brewer06.com.