The following excerpt from Orpheus Girl by Brynne Rebele-Henry is reprinted with permission from Soho Teen:
Orpheus Girl excerpt
Part One: Above World
Every night Grammy and I watch Mom in the TV. I always thought Mom was a silver screen kind of beauty because of that picture of her in high school: blonde, dimples, all clean-looking. But in this show she’s dark-sexy, her hair colored a deep brunette, silky bedsheets held up around her neck with gold ribbons. Mom left Pieria when I was a kid. Grammy would say it was because she needed to go be Aphrodite in the TV. I know that it’s because she was tired of it all, of the town and the people. So she disappeared one night. She only told Grammy as she was walking out the door. I was two.
In the car on the way to church this morning, I write Sarah’s name on the condensation on the passenger’s window, then wipe it off before Grammy can see.
The car is a worn-down blue Volvo from the seventies. It’s a miracle it’s still running. Every time Grammy slides the key in the ignition and it actually starts, she thanks God under her breath. The seat belts are frayed so much that they could snap if you pulled too hard, so we stopped using them. I have to hold onto the car door to keep from falling out of my seat every time Grammy brakes. She drives like a maniac. Runs over mailboxes on a regular basis, hits curbs, mows down shrubs. Once she ran over an abandoned lemonade stand. She never stops to deal with what she’s run over, just keeps going, like she’s late on her way to somewhere really important.
I get through the service like I always do: running myths through my head. Ever since I found my mom playing Aphrodite on that soap opera, I’ve been memorizing them. I know it’s stupid, but I’ve always thought that one day I’ll open the door and she’ll be there, and I’ll need something to talk about. And since my mom’s Aphrodite, I might as well be able to talk about myths. During the service I think about Persephone, how the girl was pulled away from everything she’d ever known and taken to a strange world. Or Atalanta. In these myths, girls are always being changed or taken by men, their voices, their protests ignored. And the queer girls, like Atalanta, are forced to become something else.
Grammy’s always talking about how one day I’ll have a normal life, with a husband and two kids (a boy and a girl) and a brick house with a white picket fence and a big yellow dog who’ll run around the yard. She says my husband should work so I don’t have to, and I’ll stay home all day and make cookies the way she taught me and go to PTA meetings and church. Whenever she talks about it, she gets a misty look in her eyes and twists the gold chain of her cross necklace between her forefingers, and I know it’s not my life she’s imagining, that secretly she’s wondering what would have happened if her own husband hadn’t died in a car accident at twenty-seven and left her with a two-year-old girl, if her girl hadn’t gotten pregnant senior year of high school only to run off three years later.
Instead, she still has a job arranging and delivering flowers for weddings and funerals and baptisms, continual reminders of her own wedding and her husband’s service, and she makes me go to cotillions and dance with boys, refuses to let me wear pants to school and makes me go to church three times a week and Bible camp in the summer and try out for cheerleading every August.
Every fall since fourth grade, she’s bought me a new pair of shiny green pom-poms. She takes the day off work to come to the tryouts with me. I walk into the gym with a lump in my throat, but I never can kick high enough or land lightly enough, and every year we drive home together in disap-pointed silence. When we get home, Grammy always says she has a “headache worse than Satan,” and she goes upstairs to lie down and change out of the “Go Team!” sweatshirt she wears just for tryouts. We both know that her head’s not hurting, that she just doesn’t want to have to pretend not to be let down yet again, but I always nod and don’t say anything.
This year, before she went upstairs, she said, “You were supposed to be my second chance.” But she said it so quietly I think I wasn’t supposed to hear her.
Since then we’ve never talked about tryouts again. I think maybe she finally just gave up.
ONCE THE service ends, I heap pastries and the little water-cress and pickle and peanut butter tea sandwiches that the church ladies make onto my plate, then sit down on the coffee-stained couch outside Preacher Sam’s office and eat until I feel sick. Every time I go to Sarah’s dad’s church I get this sinking feeling, like something’s wrong with me and if they find out, when they find out, it’s all over.
Most nights I dream that Sarah and the choir boys and Preacher Sam are peering down at me. I’m wearing another girl’s clothes but I don’t know why. When Preacher Sam hands me a crucifix, my skin starts burning and wings burst out of my back, and I’m trying to get the wings to stop sprouting from my back but they won’t, and soon I’m screaming and burning and they’re whispering “freak” and then they’re yelling it.
The dreams started when I was eight, shortly after I real-ized I was different from the girls I went to school with, but I didn’t yet know how, just that there was some strange and invisible barrier separating me from them. Often, at after-school church camp, I’d watch the girls running around, skipping rope or drawing on the pavement outside the church, and my back would ache for reasons I could never discern. On those days, I tried to pinpoint the difference, the thing separating me, causing me to feel like every movement I made was an act, a dream that I would wake up from, like a fortune-teller sifting her tea leaves, trying to gather together some foreign objects and principles into a crystalline answer. But for years the bowl would come back empty, nothing more than water and stray oolong straining to reach the surface.
When I was born, I had two small, misplaced vertebrae sticking out of my back. They looked like wings. The doctors took pictures, then set the vertebrae back in place. Now I just have two bumps and a line of scars on my back. Sometimes at night, I run my fingers over the bumps, try to imagine what the wings would have looked like. The doctors made the first incision in my vertebrae, so the worst of the scars are low on my back, though the scar tissue maps all the way up to my shoulders in a messy sprawl. The doctors said I healed better than expected. They’d thought I’d be disfigured. But I just don’t wear bikinis like the other girls, always make sure my tops don’t slip down past my shoulder blades. It’s not that the scars are ugly; it’s just that I don’t need anyone else thinking about my being different even more than they already do. I don’t want to cause any suspicion— at least not any more suspicion than being motherless in a little town already creates.
The only time that Grammy ever acknowledged my scars was once when I was ten. I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror staring at the faded-to-pale lines, watching the ruined skin ripple when I moved. I remember trying not to cry when I saw how ugly it was, how the marks of what was once a wound, a defect, covered me. I’d never paid much notice to the scars before, had always just considered them a part of me, normal, but the day before, Sarah and I had gone swimming, and when she’d crouched at the edge of the pool before diving in, I saw the smooth stretch of her back, her unscarred shoulders, the skin taut and gold from the sun, and a hard lump of something akin to shame worked its way into my throat and made it hard to swallow.
Later that night, alone in the house, I prepared to try to find a way to make myself beautiful too, to try to rid myself of the ruined thing inside of me—the constant gnawing feeling that I was hiding something, that some part of my girlhood, and my body itself, was defective, wrong. But there was no way to get rid of the scars, no way to remove the proof that I was different than the other, unmarred girls I grew up with.
I remember clawing at the scars, as if I could scrape the ugliness away, as if I could cleanse it out of myself from the outside in. When that didn’t work, I scrubbed at my back with a washcloth I’d covered with dish soap. I was getting hysterical by then, my face screwed up with panic. My skin was flushed with shame and I was crying so hard that I didn’t hear her come in, but when I looked up she was in the doorway, watching.
Grammy knelt down on the bathroom floor so that we were at eye level, and she grabbed both of my hands in hers. My fingers were bloody from scratching the skin around the scars, and the blood smeared into a faint red on her palms. She stared at me for a minute, like she was trying to remember something she hadn’t recalled for years, and then she cleared her throat. “Raya, this is God’s doing. He makes everything in his image, you know. And so he gave you these wings, like an angel. You know, when you were born, the parts of your back they had to take out looked just like a baby bird’s. He made you in his image; he made you like him. And you need to accept that.”
Though I never put much weight in God, from then on, whenever I saw the scars, that feeling of disgust that had always risen up in my mouth like bile whenever I saw my body was replaced with a kind of grudging acceptance: Grammy said they were beautiful, that I was marked for some reason, that maybe my being here wasn’t as much of an accident as I’d always felt like it was, and I thought that maybe that could be enough.
NOW, AT church, Grammy is talking to Mr. Paul. A widower. He’s got two grown girls and a boy in college. She’s flushed and, I notice, she’s put on lipstick. It’s the first time I’ve seen her wear it in years. The lipstick has smeared off on her front teeth, leaving a red streak. Sarah appears at my side so I sidle up to them, crossing my legs then uncrossing them again, as if I’m so impatient for her to leave that it’s making me piss myself.
Grammy notices. “Raya, go get more banana bread.”
I shuffle off, ignoring Sarah even when she sticks her tongue out at me.
Ever since Rosie from our school saw her kiss me, I’ve been avoiding Sarah, saying it’s because it’s summer and I’m busy keeping Grammy company. I remind her that it’s August, the month that Granddaddy died all those years ago. Grammy doesn’t sleep so well, just stays up late and listens to the cicadas shrill their last mating calls of the season. But we both know the reason is because we got found out. I tell myself we weren’t doing anything real. Sarah was just practicing for Bryce, the boy she pretends she likes when other girls ask who her crush is, the boy she’ll probably date until she gets out of here, goes to the Bible college in Houston that her dad went to.
Rosie screeched when she saw us, her lips a tight white line and hands clenched into shaking fists.
Later that day Sarah put her hands on my back, and I know she felt the wing-bumps because her eyes got wide, but she didn’t say anything. She’d seen them before, of course, despite my trying to keep her from noticing, twisting my back when I changed in front of her in an attempt to hide them, but she’d never touched them before, had never felt the ridges of scar tissue that mark my back like a messy landscape—terrain that even I, after all this time, have a hard time bringing myself to feel.
Sarah finally corners me outside the church, in the backyard. “Raya?”
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Are you ignoring me?” She narrows her eyes. “Because we didn’t do anything wrong.”
I look around, make sure no one’s watching. “Yeah, we did.”
“What did we do?”
“Rosie saw us.”
She flushes. “We were just pretending.” “That’s what I told her.”
She shrugs. “Then we’re not in trouble.”
I see Grammy walking up to me. Her cheeks are pink. She’s holding a card with what looks like a phone number written on it.
Sarah puts on her best Good Girl smile, shifts her weight onto one hip. “Hi, Mrs. Lewis.”
She grins. “Hi, Sarah. You should come over later. I’ll make my famous bread pudding. You know, Raya’s birthday is coming up soon too.”
“I’d like that.”
“Of course. Come over any time you like, hon.”
“Thanks. I will.” She gives me a look, the same look she gave me that day under the bleachers at school, about a few minutes before Rosie stopped us, but it was already too late. We were already gone.
Brynne Rebele-Henry was born in 1999. Her poetry and fiction have appeared in The American Poetry Review, Rookie, and Blackbird, among other places. Her writing has won numerous awards, including the Louise Louis/Emily F. Bourne Award from the Poetry Society of America. She has two books of poetry: Fleshgraphs and Autobiography of a Wound, which won the AWP Donald Hall Prize for Poetry and was a finalist for the Audre Lorde Award for Lesbian Poetry. Orpheus Girl is her first novel.
Original music by CatLofe