The Ballad Of The Bearded Beauty
Content Warning: Self-injurious behavior
Ladies, gentlemen, boys, girls, step up here, step right up! Step right up and behold our latest addition to the Borgess and Bronson’s Cabinet of Curiosities! Don’t be shy, don’t be shy, just take a peek through that window set into the door. That’s right, little lady, now tell me, tell me what you see…
I can hear them, flitting up and down the hall. I know they’re watching, peering in through the little window set into the door, each eager for their peek at the freak. No privacy for me, no siree. They’ll peel away your layers and pull the beating heart from your chest and use it for a game of hacky sack.
“Come on out,” they say. “It’s time to meet the crowd! Time for group! Time to go perform in the Circlejerk Circus!”
No, I think I’ll just lay here and stare at the ceiling, thank you very much. You can have your window to watch your tangled marionette dance, but were the strings mine to hold…
… except you took the strings. You took them with the pen I used to sign away my own life. Can’t have me making myself a fancy new necktie to choke away my own life. Everything longer than twelve inches must go. So out came the shears, snip-snipping the strings from my pajama bottoms, snip-snipping away my dignity.
I run my thumb along my cheek, feeling the first bristles pushing up through the skin, and close my eyes to keep the tears inside.
Now isn’t that a sight to behold, sir? Hear how he gasps, ladies and gentlemen, oh yes, hear how the normalcy of the puff-puff-puffing of his lungs is no match for the weird wonder of her visage! Ah yes, feel the curiosity scuttle down your spine like so many click-clacking beetles! Now throw your silver into the hat and step right up to take a little looksie…
Later they come, with their clipboards, their clip-on ties, and clip-on smile; Dr. This, Dr. That, and Dr. Who-fucking-cares. Don't forget the apprentice stooge, trailing along behind like a kicked puppy and peeling me apart with hungry wolf eyes.
“Why didn’t you go to group today?” Dr. That will ask, the corners of his smile teetering on the edge of each cheek, threatening to tumble off.
And I, the obedient little songbird, will tweet out a pat reply: “I just wasn’t feeling up to it.”
“Ah,” Dr. This will chime in, “but you need to push yourself to succeed.”
I will turn a dim smile over and over on my lips. It's not like pushing myself didn’t snap my mind and drop me into the lap of great thinkers like Dr. Who-fucking-cares, with such penetrating queries as “Why do you think you’re feeling this way?”
Then I’ll leap from my bed and pace like a circus lion in my cage, my lip curled into a snarl. “Because the fucking idiot nurse wouldn’t let me shave!”
And then their eyebrows will arch, and the pens will scribble. The student will sit in hungry silence, eager for the day that he will have the chance to flay such juicy prey.
Dr. This will ask: “Do you think such harsh words are constructive?”
Dr. That will ask: “Surely the shaving is just a shield for something deeper?”
And Dr. Who-fucking-cares will smile a cool little smile, as if enjoying his own little joke that only he can hear.
The tears will stream down my cheeks, and I will hate them, with their white coats and white smiles. I will hate them because such debasement is the only way to get them to listen. I will hate myself for giving in and performing.
“It’s not that fucking complicated!” I’ll exclaim. “Don’t you bastards get it? I can’t be seen like this!”
“Like what?” Dr. Who-fucking-cares will ask.
“You know what,” I’ll say. But they’ll make me say it, make me roll around in my own delusion. “Like this,” I’ll say, running my arched fingers down my cheek, as if my ragged nails will somehow rend the hair from my flesh. “The goddamned bearded lady in your sideshow ward. All I wanted was to shave. ‘Not while group is going on,’ she said, talking to me like I was a toddler. ‘You don’t understand,’ I begged. ‘I want to go to group. But I can’t let them see me like this. I need to shave or I can’t go.’ ‘You can shave this evening,’ she said, and shut the nursing station door in my face.”
“I don’t understand,” Dr. That will say. “Why does it matter if you shave now or later?”
“Because then they’ll know!” The words will leap from my throat in a strangled cry. “Because then they’ll know what I am. They’ll know I’m a freak. They’ll know the dirty little secret that dangles between my legs!"
But of course, how can I say any of those things? How can I look at those false faces and expect them to understand the truth? And so, I won’t say any of those things. I don’t dare. I’ll simply sit on the stiff bed, holding my stuffed leopard, Chai, my reminder that once upon a time there was a world beyond these too-bright walls and that there was a girl who lived in it.
Now that girl sits on the bed, numb, because to assert herself would be to assert her insanity, to paint her life as a web of delusion.
So she will smile and nod and give responses that mean nothing. The doctors will smile down at her as she drowns in a sea of her own Judas chromosomes.
Knock knock, mind if I come in?
Forgive my little joke. Now, my furry little flower, tell little old me why you did not join the show today, hmm?
Look at me when I speak to you, or I’ll speak with my hand rather than mouth, boy!
Ah, that is better. Now, tell Dr. Borgess why you wouldn’t perform for the nice people today, hmm? They had to peek at you through that itty bitty window in the door. Not very nice of you I’m afraid. After all, those nice, nice people feed you with their nickels and dimes, hmm?
What was that? Do not mumble. Mumbling is the method of fools and loonies, and you wouldn’t want me to think you a loony, hmm? If you were, it would be so, so easy to get you the help you needed, hmm?
‘Yes, the poor boy’s brains are addled so that he thinks he is a pretty little girly!’ ‘Twould be a shame for the show to lose such a pretty little flower as you. Now smile for me, hmm?
Ah, yes. Such a pretty smile for such a pretty little lady—even if it is through a tangle of such wild hair!
Goodnight and sweet dreams, my furry little flower. I trust tomorrow you will prance and play for those nice, nice people, hmm?
God, I’m so thirsty.
The sink in the bathroom only runs hot, so if I want a drink, I’ll need to leave the room. I don’t want a drink. I need one. My throat is parchment and I can’t think straight.
(If I could think straight I wouldn’t be here in the first place. If I could think straight I wouldn’t have tried to slit my wrists in the bath and I wouldn’t be looking through barred windows out at a snowy hospital rooftop).
But that means leaving my room and going to the common area. Which means being seen.
I pace and pace, while my thirst scorches in my throat . Do I throw open the door and meet my fate? The Lady or the Tiger? Except in this version, the Lady is just as hairy as the beast!
I go to the mirror, running my thumb along the sandpaper skin of my cheek, where the garden of little copper wires blossoms and blooms. I wish for a razor. I wish for the sharpest razor there ever was, so that I might wipe this hateful skin clean of its genetic curse—and then to keep cutting, slicing, sliding the blade beneath the skin. That'll be the first thing to go. Then layer after layer shaved away, until only my pulsing, cankerous soul remains. I will arc the blade downward like a penny dreadful barber and then the thirst will end.
Except I don’t even have a BIC much less a straight razor, so buckle up buttercup, looks like I'm going for a stroll. I take my stuffed snow leopard, Chai, who was stuffed in a faraway place; a reminder of held hands and shared lips. Surely those memories belong to someone else, for haven’t I always been here in this ward? A shambling specter in slippers and bright orange Halloween pajamas? I shuffle out into the hallway with my head down, Chai held tightly to my chest. My heart beats out a wild tambourine solo as I cross the common room. There some of the other sad fucks sit and watch a Travel Channel show about strange pizzerias around country.
Stephanie sits at a table in the corner, her blue vein-painted hands shuffling the pieces of a puzzle. I see her there and I imagine her piecing back together her life with each matched jigsaw edge. So much has been taken from her. Yet she is still so gentle and kind, with a voice like rosemary, sweet and dry.
I pray she doesn’t look up from her puzzle. I pray she doesn’t see me. If she does, she will call to me, will ask me to sit with her. Perhaps, I think, she won’t notice the stubble. Perhaps, she will see through it. After all, has she not been the only one to really see me in this whole ward? Have I not found far more grace and hope within her cloudy blue eyes than in the pills the nurses dispense each night? Perhaps she won’t notice—or, I dare to hope, she won’t care.
I start to veer towards her, and feel my legs change course beneath me. I hear the rooster’s crow of denial as I turn from her. No, she wouldn’t understand. Couldn’t understand. How can I risk losing the one friend I have in these icy halls? My cheeks burn as I muse at the irony. Friendship? How can I pretend friendship when I am so afraid to even risk her seeing me as I really am? How can I call her friend when I am so sure that she would not see me as myself if she knew the thread from which I was weaved?
I fill a Styrofoam cup and gulp it down. Meanwhile on the television, two firemen struggle to finish a fourteen-pound pizza in under sixty minutes. I feel the others' eyes on the back of my neck. I flee from them in the common room as fast as I can, my slippers shuffling along the wood-patterned linoleum as the world tilts around me.
Then, I see it. There, on the plaque next to my room, is that name. That name that follows me like a ghostly pall, never letting me rest, never letting me be. Someone, some nurse or aide, has erased my name and replaced it with that nine-letter phantom I cannot shirk, no matter how I try.
Terrified of being seen, I wipe the name from the whiteboard and slip back into my room. Clutching the purloined cup like a holy chalice, I sit down on the unmade bed to ward off the tears that don’t even come.
Wakey wakey, my beautiful little girly! Lovely lady, wakey wakey! Today you dance for the nice, nice people. You put on this pretty white and blue gown and you show that furry face to the world, hmm?
Come now, don’t be shy! They love you! The ones who have seen you love you, and the ones who haven’t will learn to love you!
Today, I have picked out a nice, nice piece for you to read for the people. It is from the Shakespeare, the play we do not name, where the lady do fret and fret over the blood on her hands. You know the piece, yes? Good! You shall play for the people and dazzle that such a poor freaky freak may play with such power!
Now study the lines well, little flower. Your admirers await!
Stephanie’s leaving today, and I won’t even get to say goodbye. I saw her name on the whiteboard scrawled in the Discharge column as I fled back to my room with my lunch tray in hand. It’s not really goodbye, I tell myself as I sit down to eat. She lives alone, and we discussed my coming over one night to make her dinner.
“I’m not the best cook in the world but it beats the heck out of whatever this is,” I had told her at dinner, pushing some unidentifiable mush that claimed to be chicken pot pie around my plate. “Although, not to brag, but I make a mean pasta sauce.”
“Oh, that sounds lovely,” she said. For a moment I was afraid she was going to cry. “I haven’t had a real home cooked meal since my husband left.”
“Well, we’ll call it a date then,” I said. I looked at her, with her silver hair and her willowy smile. I felt an immense wave of gratitude wash over me. I wondered (and still do) if she knew what she had given to me. If she knew what it meant, in this cold and clinical world, to be reminded what it felt like to look into the eyes of another human being and see your own life refracted back at you.
And now I can’t even say goodbye.
She can’t see me like this, my face host to that wicked garden of hateful hair. Whatever hope I had felt the day before has fled. I’m sure she wouldn’t understand. Her words would be kind and soft, but her eyes and wrinkled cheeks would harden. The phone number I wrote down for her on a scrap of coloring book would go undialed.
I can’t bear the thought of her looking at me and feeling as if I had deceived her, as if the friend that she had made was nothing more than a dancing automaton to whittle away the time.
I’m so sick of dwelling in this body Iscariot, my very cells traitorous to my being.
I’m tired of treading the tightrope between X and Y. The delicate social cocktail that is cultivating my existence is a bitter drink indeed.
I look at myself in the mirror, reflected back by silvered sand, I see the edges of the face that has cut me so many times. I see the cherries in my cheeks, the broad expanse of my jaw, and I wonder what the world sees.
Yes, my little flower, you did very well indeed! The people, the nice, nice people, love your act! They give lots of silver, all the better to buy you pretty dresses, hmm? To dazzle them, so they will love you more and give more, more, more! You played well tonight, my pretty little one, yes, very well
Tomorrow you will do the Twelfth Night, yes? The little girl thrown to the waves, reborn as such a nice, nice gentleman: as such you shall delight the crowds, hmm?
Ah, goodnight, my little flower, goodnight, and dream of the roar of the people who love you so.
Now I sit me down to shave, I pray the Lord my soul to save. If I should slip and slit my throat, so long, farewell, th-th-that’s all, folks!
Except it would take either an inordinate amount of skill or ineptitude to cut my throat with a plastic handled razor such as this. The single blade razes my skin like Agent Orange, calling forth angry red splotches as the hair struggles to retain its grip.
I don’t look at the nurse, with her Tweety Bird scrubs and beady bird eyes. I don’t let her see the shame painted across my cheeks, don’t let her know how humiliating this simple act is. I want to throw up, but if I do they might decide that shaving is too stressful and take it away altogether.
It lasts no more than thirty seconds. It lasts for forty days and forty nights.
Not thinking, operating as if I were still a whole human being, I drop the razor into the trash can outside the bathroom. The nurse coughs, and my freshly shaved cheeks burn with shame as I realize my mistake. Feeling her eyes drill into the back of my neck, I bend down and pluck the razor from the trash and hand it to her. Her brow wrinkles, her cheeks painted with her annoyance at the inconvenience I have caused her, at my insistence that she sacrifice her time to such a menial, meaningless task.
I nod my head and mumble thanks as she takes the soiled blade, leaving me once again to dance with my reflection. I look at the shaved patch of hair near my temple, the undercut I had been so proud only a week before. I remember the laughter as my best friend rent the locks from my skull. I look into the grey-blue eyes, glassy with an exhaustion that sleep can’t cure, sad and beautiful. My eyes are the only parts of this damned vessel that truly feels as if they are my own.
I turn, walking across the linoleum to the wide, barred window and the sorbet sunset outside. The colors melt into each other, turning the sky into a carnival of peach and pink and periwinkle. I watch the great burning disc of the sun dip below the hospital building across the way, the only horizon in my small, encapsulated world.
I see my reflection in the window, bathed in those dancing colors. Once again, I wonder what the world sees. A homely woman? A broken and confused man? A freak, betwixt and between? I look at the woman before me, this stranger who I know so well, and I wonder at the power such a thin sheen of hair had held. I wonder whether it would have been noticed at all.
V.F. Thompson is a Mid Michigan-based writer of odd curiosities and curious oddities. Though she lives mostly in the realm of fantasy, she occasionally dabbles in real life. When not writing, she enjoys comic books, trying new recipes, and a well-brewed cup of Earl Grey. She currently resides in Kalamazoo, which she assures you is a real place. Follow her on Tumblr, Twitter, and Facebook.