On Becoming a Writer

By Julie Gibson-Stenberg

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When she took off her clothes for the world to see, she expected the arrows to pierce her skin. Her face grew tight, her jaw set itself for the crack of knuckles, and the tiny hairs at the back of her neck stood like hackles on a stray.  She refused to look around for the stares she was sure were there.  The juicy mouths gnashing on the offal of gossip were disgusting and ravenous.

“They are tits!” she cried, looking down at her used up, inadequate breasts that hung with cobwebs, edged in slivers of ice.  Their blue veins travelled furiously across the pale flesh and made bruised intersections over puckered silver stretch marks.  She refused to be ashamed.  ‘Let them stare and mock,’ she thought.  This is the death she expected.  Still, she was shocked as the first stone hit the knife of her clavicle. Her head jerked involuntarily to see the offender.  It was Jamie, her friend.

“Stop staring with your ice blue eyes,” Jamie hissed.  “You are a superficial whore!” She pursued her, ramming her thick, large-breasted body against her naked back, biting at the skin of her scapula, raking her teeth against the points of her shoulder.  She did not stumble, did not flinch, but absorbed the abuse as she knew it would come.  She stood taller, strode on with purpose, vowed not to turn and face her attacker.  Soon Jamie fell away, her vile insults sluicing through the air like tomahawks.

The crowd waited, peeling aside as she stormed.  Her thighs twitched, ready to spring.  ‘They will see my fear,’ she thought, willing her hamstrings to a low vibration, breathing in calm despite the acrid scent of betrayal in the air.  She blinked dry and tortured eyes, dry from tears shed day after day, dry from starvation of kind words, dry from seeing hateful hearts beating in the chests of respected citizens.  She was thankful to no longer be invisible.  But the daggers and rapiers of former friends and family members had perfect aim, and her flesh was human and forgiving as God created it.

Like the crack of a whip, her ankle was caught in a snare, the stored energy of the disloyal snapping her leg backward and her naked body forward as she lurched to the ground.  The tiny stones punctured her knees like black lies sharpened to shards of steel.  She knew they stood over her, staring at her exposed buttocks, laughing at the dimples and sagging skin that covered her muscles.  ‘Let them look,’ she raged. ‘Let them see.’  She fought the urge to wrangle her foot free, knowing that any struggle she gave would be rewarded with a tighter noose around her ankle.

She ignored the jeers and writhed carefully toward the sinew of the strap that held her.  “Look at her, showing off that way,” said an unknown woman in the crowd as her fingers patiently loosened the snare.  Her newly sharpened cheekbones ground into the soil and stones.  She inhaled the grit but refused to choke and she rose to her feet.  She denied them the sight of her battered body resting on its knees and she sprang from a plank position to a crouch, brushing the rocks and gravel from the peach of her belly.  The scar above her pubic bone which drew her in half slightly imperfectly reminded her to rise.  No matter what, she must rise.

As if drawn by a wire, her head leveled, her eyes focused, her shoulders squared.  She took the bloody scrapes, the fractured clavicle, the shredded hip points, the branded ankle, and threw them into an unseen backpack.  Darts rocketed past her ears, but she refused to hear them.  The muscle memory of quadriceps and Achilles stepped forward, then again, then yet again.  Her mind cleared, her determination renewed, and she turned to look.  She saw their eyes on her naked body.  They probed the sweat of her armpits, the shell of her ears, the crease of her glutes.  She did not look away.  She stared right into them, the ice blue freezing them, their words hung unuttered, leaving the sour yellow bile swirling in their own mouths.  “Here I am,” she said.

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