by Alison Bundy
This is the opening
of a story that will be published in Don Berger's magazine My Friends.
I wrote it over the course of a month, listening compulsively to Dawn
Upshaw sing Gorecki's "Third Symphony." I was wondering what
really alters in us, with time, and whether there isn't some part, given
certain circumstances, that remains as it was years and years ago. The
story is a dream about that, I suppose.
THE CHILD'S TALE
was born an infant, a child I became, and a child I am now, after these
thirty-six years of life. Why
I have not developed as others have, why this body has remained the body
it was some thirty years ago, and whether I will die a child still in
a childish smocked dress, red shoes --, these things I do not know. I
have read many books and have not found the answers there.
Years ago, physicians spent much time ministering
to me, in vain attempts to cure; scientists much time attempting to discover
the laws of the science which operates somewhere within me.
I lay quietly then beneath their hands and knives,
saving my tears, and time passed as they tapped and probed, rolled me
on my table through long fluorescent tunnels; time passed as their needles
drew blood, gave fluid; and in time I saw their curiosity and awe change
to frustration, dislike, perhaps even disgust: time passed and their white
coats drooped at the shoulders, the learned heads bent, they did not now
look into the blood and bone with the same close verve they had once exhibited;
now, they turned their backs and closed the steel cases bearing the calibrated
instruments, and now they sighed, and the light in the room was dim, and
it hurt my eyes to keep them open, and
whereas once these men and women had spoken clearly now they mumbled,
and they no doubt thought of home, as we all do when tired, and of their
families, the children whose limbs grew correctly on schedule, whose bodies
thickened and thinned in the proper places, and they looked forward to
stepping into their houses, that evening, they looked forward to resuming
the difficulties of life en famille, as they say in a foreign phrase.
Look at me now. I have been called dwarf,
midget: I am neither. I have not so much aged as been carried impeccably
forward by time; you will find no lines on my face or hands; my fingernails
are the thin iridescent nails of a young child. In this country which
adores youth I am young beyond adoration; it is as if the country went
to sleep and dreamed badly, and I stepped out of the dream.
It is many years now since I allowed myself
the words: What if it had been... what if I.... One must somehow live.
Yet from time to time, against my will, those phrases present themselves
without being sought, like a melody that appears suddenly after years
and years, carrying with it, it seems, another time....
knew my mother as the sole member of my family, and she attempted various
schemes, while she could, to draw comfort from the calamity of my person,
generally preferring, of course, her comfort in the form of dollars. In
a large blue Chrysler we set out one summer, touring on exhibit. I was
twenty-one; public interest in my case had waned some long time ago. We
drove toward the middle of the country, as my mother had the impression
people there were ill-informed; she appeared to believe television and
newspapers had never passed the great frontier plains of Ohio: she believed,
in short, that I was news for which people would pay.
At the western edge of Ohio we stopped
in Fort Recovery, a town which did not live up to its name, and she found
on the single, tattered outskirt of that place a sign painter who agreed
to paint my portrait, full-length, upon each of the car's two doors. He
took a photograph of me, not without some trouble: my mother had the idea
that I should be painted from life, as she kept saying. Will it
cost more to do her from life? I'd like them really to see
what she looks like. Aren't all the good portraits done from life?
Now look, if I stand her here....
He waited until Mother paused to draw breath
and then he held up the paint-spattered camera and said sullenly, This
is from life.
He worked for two days on the job. I am a rarity
but I am not pretty, and the man's art did not improve my looks. The faint
ridge under the car's windows defined the top of my head as a square;
my long braids were rendered as leaden pipes; this narrow face became
longer set on the curve of the door, and although the painter told me
to smile when he took my picture and I did, the portrait showed a person,
or rather, child, whose wit had departed days ago and who now stood dully,
mouth open, as if listening to incomprehensible commands.
Next to this character, who sported a pink
frothy dress (a figment of the painter's imagination -- he must have grouped
all feminine trappings under the heading Bubble Bath), waved a gold banner
on which was lettered in black gothic script the motto of my mother's
brainstorm: UNAGING MIRACLE .
She must at some point have recounted the
drama of my condition, for when the job had been approved and the painter
had his money in his hand, he winked at me. I guess we're all stuck someways,
he said. He picked up a jar from the board holding his paints and took
a long drink. Thank him, my mother said in a stage whisper, and she opened
the car door and pushed me in.
Indiana Mother parked at the edge of a strip mall and pondered the mystery
of theatrical space, how to create it. She had sung in a choir as a girl,
up on the stage of the school auditorium, but that event had not prepared
her for the venue she now considered. She determined in any case that
what she lacked in experience she would make up for with enthusiasm, and
drapes: in a yardgoods store lengths of shiny sky-blue material, of scarlet,
were purchased. With a hammer and tacks she hung the blue in the back
windows of the car: the loose, looping folds hinted strangely at canopy
beds, powder puffs, enticing privacies of the boudoir or, perhaps, of
For the attraction itself, she paid to
have fabricated a stand of rather ingenious design, whose square platform
lifted, telescoping out into three tiers of hinged wood. From the bottom
tier rose four retractable poles, and from a line running through the
tops of these my mother hung scarlet satin flocked by lines of velvet
fleurs-de-lis. Where she came by the money for these elaborations, I do
not know. It was not, in any case, for me to ask questions, it was rather
for me to be silent and stand on the platform, hidden by the dense cloth
that surrounded me, separated from my public and cooler air until that
time when I heard my mother proclaim, I will now unveil,-- and
she paused-- the world's only Unaging Miracle, and then she drew
back the front panels, and I opened my arms and turned, with a gentle
tapping of my white patent-leather shoes, in a circle first one way and
then the other while my mother told the story of science's failure to
follow my body across the frontier it was traversing. She wove into my
story other tales of the unknown: aspects of the planet Pluto which no
one has ever seen; her own mother who was born without an appendix and
upon whose lovely arms and legs hair had never sprouted; then on to her
lack of suspicion during my seventh and eighth years when she and my teachers
thought I was "just a bit" slow; famous hospitals I had frequented; moment
of stupendous realization; mysteries of the atom; failure of menses to
occur; this monologue ending with finesse on a list of questions designed
to stir her audience to a consideration of all they did not know: what
happened to the dinosaurs? how did Jesus arrange the loaves and fishes?
where is the end of the universe? if a dog could talk what would it say?
and, finally, what is the nature of a dream?
My mother was naive but intelligent, and
I always appreciated her refusal in this speech of the chicken or egg
conundrum. Her reliance on matters involving the planets, however, made
me dizzy. I stood in the heat, there on the platform, imagining the endless
dark of space, how one was tinier in comparison than the smallest speck
of the finest dust, how one could fall into the dark, and fall irretrievably,
life lost, all connection severed except the primary one, the one between
body and the void, that connection from which comes all instruction and
all anxiety, and the faces of my public wavered before me, the children
in front with open mouths and trusting eyes, the large, polite, blond
women and men, and my knees went weak and I stuttered in movement as I
tapped a thank you and gave a curtsey, and then the curtain was replaced,
and I stood alone, staring at the fuzzy scarlet fleurs-de-lis, while my
mother answered questions.
She encountered, of course and as I had
predicted, a serious problem: resembling a normal six-year old, being
in no overt way a freak, I made a better story than spectacle. The miracle
did not show itself in the moment, so to speak, but over time, and many
mild, skeptical voices rose that summer: How do we know she's not just
a kid? She looks like a kid to me. I had suggested I be allowed to
answer questions; my mother felt that would complicate matters, and tried
instead to allay doubt by exhibiting a birth certificate; she held up
newspaper articles documenting the case, and pinned to a folding easel
a series of dated photographs which seemed worthless, for there I was
in each, wearing different clothes but otherwise unaltered, the whole
sequence suggesting a primitive fashion show rather than time's progress....
Perhaps if the pictures had been taken outside, by trees, showing the
season....Or if Mother had stood next to me, aging across the years while
I remained, like a figure more plastic than human, as I was, as I was,
as I am.
But this was in the Midwest and only once
or twice did anyone press my mother beyond the initial, questioning exchange.
Bundy is the author of three books of prose: A Bad Business (Lost
Roads Press), Tale of a Good Cook (paradigm press), and DunceCap
(Burning Deck). She has also published in numerous journals. She lives
in Providence, RI.