Property Law and the Body of the Beautiful Daughter
A king had a daughter, and he loved her very much. Her body smooth as polished stone, but smooth also as water, her inviolate purity, her filial piety. She was his, for all her mortal life, until somebody else laid claim to her, and the king thought it might be a prince but instead it was a goddess. For the king had not only a daughter but a brother, and the brother had a wife, and then the brother no longer had a wife but a war, and the king had a duty.
The king also had a love of hunting, and one day he hunted that which he should not have — overreached the boundaries of his authority — and killed a deer, its body smooth as polished stone but smooth also as water, beloved of a goddess. And the goddess wanted a fair price for the loss of that which was dear to her, and the king had a daughter, and then he did not have a daughter anymore.
Even by the furthest stretch of the imagination, I am only an amateur classicist. I am, however, a professional dead daughter. The girl-child my father wanted, biddable and beautiful and pure, is nowhere to be found, but here I am. My father had a daughter once, and now he does not anymore. I killed her first when I began to grow, and was no longer the child he could carry on his shoulders, and I killed her again when I began to think, and was no longer the child he could overrule, and most recently I killed her when I told my father that he had never had a daughter in the first place, but he could have a son, if he was willing.
He wasn’t. We sat in a coffeeshop and discussed his feelings about his loss, and his guilt over his failings, and his feelings about himself, and then he told me that he had asked my mother — who wove sweet words in the day to keep him happy, and undid them by night, when she could speak plainly — whether I looked the same. Over food and drinks, bread and salt, he said this to me, when we were both guests in the establishment of another, and my spirit lifted out of my body, which became polished stone and smooth water. I could have been one of the statues in the Met, perfect and caught lifeless between one moment and the next, as if waiting for a cue to live again.
I had spoken to my mother first, because such lineages are important. In another coffeeshop, at another table, I had introduced myself anew, as she wept over soymilk and fumbled her pronouns, and all the while my father had been wondering, it turned out, about my marble-veined body. Better an arrow to the flank, or a knife to the throat, than any self-directed violation. Better a dead daughter than a live son.
When I was very small — perhaps five or six, far too young to have died yet — my father, who was helping to tie the laces of my ice skates, knelt in front of me and pulled my leg up until the hamstring strained. When I was less small — eight or nine, already slipping away — and sprained my ankle, my father made me run down two flights of stairs though the joint would not bear my weight. When I was already dead once over — fifteen or sixteen — my body learned to recognize the sound of his approach, the specific way he opened and shut doors, the particular pattern of his footfalls. A fawn learns to stand shortly after it is born, walks an hour after that, and can outrun a man in another five days. By the time I was eighteen, I lived in a perpetual half-leap, skittish and deer-footed, ears pricked for the hunting horn.
By the time I was twenty I was dead again, living a sort of half-life, waiting to follow my own shade out of the dark.
There was a king, and he killed a deer, and for that transgression he had to kill his daughter as well, but that isn’t always how the story goes. Sometimes the goddess replaces her with another deer or cloven-footed beast; sometimes the daughter is transformed into a goddess herself; sometimes she is merely spirited away and saved for a different name and a different life. In every story, what matters is that the king looks at his daughter, and he looks at his war, and he thinks: Which of these is more important to me? And he chooses the knife.
His daughter’s life for a fair wind on which to sail to war: the king deems this a fair price, or at least one he is willing to pay. His daughter’s life so that the heroes’ epic may continue as scheduled; his daughter’s life so that his world continues to turn on its self-centered axis; his daughter’s life for the blood of a deer. The only good daughter is a dead one, to the king. If she had lived, he tells himself, she would have grown and flown, and she would not have been his any longer; dead, she is immaculate.
By the time I was twenty, I was adrift. My body was no longer my home, but neither was my mind; somewhere, somehow, I had gotten lost, a labyrinth with no monster at home. I thought that if I could just get the maze right — the clothes, the hair, the face I presented to the world — then perhaps the contents would follow. Even if they didn’t, perhaps the shape would be enough; for all I knew, perhaps everybody got through the day buoyed by the thought that, in the evening, they could come home and take off their skin, a shade once more. Maybe that could be enough.
It was, for a while. For a long time I thought myself into being every morning, building up a repertoire of outfits and interests and mannerisms that were close enough to something real that I could subsist on them, and for a long time I was not happy, but I was not miserable. I was satisfied because I could not imagine any alternative, and nobody questioned me because I did not want them to. I had worked out how to elude such examination.
What broke me, in the end, was happiness. It is difficult to be happy in every other way and leave such a glaring omission. When one is seen and known, it induces the desire to fight back — to offer up the worst parts of the self, the most inexplicable, the parts that one cannot accept or love — and to see if they are, after all, possible. If they are not, after all, as life-ending and world-breaking as one thinks. So close to the land of the living, the land of the real, I could not help but turn to look at that which I was convinced would cost me everything in an instant.
Is it better or worse to live through something like that? It is better to live, always, in theory, but consider this: In your house there is a closet you have never opened, because when you were a child somebody told you it was haunted, or cursed, and a terrible fate befell all those who looked inside. And one day you bring the person you love most to your home, and show them all your disorganization, the truth of yourself and how you live, and you think: I could open the door. I could look.
There are other stories about dead girls and closets that must never be opened. The husband gives the wife a key and asks of her an impossible promise, and when she breaks it, tells her that she must pay for all those dead does with her own blood. He tells her that it is a fair price, because the only way to preserve her in that moment — halfway between realization and horror — is in death. Polished stone. Running water. A deer, half-poised to leap.
So: better or worse to live? On the one hand, life. On the other hand, life means that one must live, that one must chip away the smooth marble an inch at a time, that one must perform an excruciating autopsy on the self. Do you know which parts of yourself are true, and which parts are performance? Do you know who and what you want to be, and who and what you are, and the difference between the two? I am my own harshest critic, and was; as I examined myself, I reduced myself also to rubble, but something survived. Something withstood the refiner’s fire, and stood up, and said: Here I am.
But the body remembers, and the body clings, and the body said: Here I am also, perfectly good. Have I not been strong for you? Have I not carried you? Am I not enough?
Good questions. It was indeed a perfectly good body, and it had carried me through much, and for a long time I had thought of it as a mutual burden: My body bore me and I bore it. Smooth as polished stone, smooth as water; it was a perfectly workable body. I received compliments on its form and function, and knew to a penny the price that others would pay for access to it. But no, it was not enough, because nothing I did — no starvation, no training, no mode of dress — ever made it more than a temporary home to me, waiting for the breath of life, for some sculptor to carve it away until I came to light.
I once cried at the thought of throwing away a bed, a flat-packed lofted item that was only big enough for one, and was constantly in danger of collapse, and made distressing noises whenever I shifted in my sleep. It had been a good bed, a functional bed, and it had seen me through so much, and the thought of discarding it brought me to helpless tears.
But it’s served its purpose, my partner said, two states away, dialed in as moral support for my furniture dilemma. It’s served you well, and now it can’t do that anymore, and it would be happy to know that you found another bed to do what it cannot.
The fact that I thought of my body and myself as separate entities was probably indicative, in retrospect; regardless, I applied the same thought. This body has served me well, and now it will change, as it always would have, to serve me better, and perhaps in the process we will find a way to bridge that gap, my body and I, to find an easier peace with each other.
My body and my name, both given to me by my parents, both burdens I thought it was my duty to bear with good grace: the nature of inheritance.
There are names we don’t give girls anymore, because they carry too much of an inheritance already. Lolita. Elektra. Iphigenia. Never mind that she was Dolores; never mind that a name makes no difference to a rapist, a murderer, a father in need of a fair wind. List the name my parents gave me among them. Bury it in some forsaken place, or leave it for the carrion birds. Plant a seed in its heart so that a tree will sunder it; strike it from the history books; make it never have been. Whisper it into a bottle and seal it with wax and throw the bottle into a well. Write it on a match and strike a flame. Take the name that my father still calls me and lay it on a cliffside altar; cleave it with a dagger, so the blood runs clean; offer it up, so my sails may fill as the horizon clears, so I may seek my own story, an unwilling daughter no longer.
Rowan Morrison is a writer and editor based in Cleveland, Ohio, where he tends to the houseplants he and his partner have adopted, tweets far too often, and thinks about trauma, trans identities, and storytelling.