When I was young, my mother read me a story about a wicked little girl. She read it to me and my two sisters. We sat curled against her on the couch and she read from the book on her lap. The lamp shone on us and there was a blanket over us. The girl in the story was beautiful and cruel. Because her mother was poor, she sent her daughter to work for rich people, who spoiled and petted her. The rich people told her she had to visit her mother. But the girl felt she was too good and went merely to show herself. One day, the rich people sent her home with a loaf of bread for her mother. But when the little girl came to a muddy bog, rather than ruin her shoes, she threw down the bread and stepped on it. It sank into the bog and she sank with it. She sank into a world of demons and deformed creatures. Because she was beautiful, the demon queen made her into a statue as a gift for her great-grandson. The girl was covered in snakes and slime and surrounded by the hate of every creature trapped like she was. She was starving but couldn't eat the bread still welded to her feet. She could hear what people were saying about her; a boy passing by saw what had happened to her and told everyone, and they all said she deserved it. Even her mother said she deserved it. The girl couldn't move, but if she could have, she would've twisted with rage. "It isn't fair!" cried my mother, and her voice mocked the wicked girl.
Because I sat against my mother when she told this story, I did not hear it in words only. I felt it in her body. I felt a girl who wanted to be too beautiful. I felt a mother who wanted to love her. I felt a demon who wanted to torture her. I felt them mixed together so you couldn't tell them apart. The story scared me and I cried. My mother put her arms around me. "Wait," she said. "It's not over yet. She's going to be saved by the tears of an innocent girl. Like you." My mother kissed the top of my head and finished the story. And I forgot about it for a long time.
I open my eyes.
I can't sleep. When I try, I wake after two hours and then spend the rest of the night pulled around by feelings and thoughts. I usually sleep again at dawn and then wake at 7:30. When I wake, I'm mad at not sleeping, and that makes me mad at everything. My mind yells insults as my body walks itself around. Dream images rise up and crash down, huge, then gone, huge, gone. A little girl sinks down in the dark. Who is she? Gone.
I drink my coffee out of a heavy blue mug, watching the rain and listening to a fool on a radio show promote her book. I live right on the canal in San Rafael and I can look out on the water. There're too many boats on it and it's filthy with gas and garbage and maybe turds from the boats. Still, it's water, and once I saw a sea lion swimming toward town.
Every day, my neighbor Freddie leaps off his deck and into the canal for a swim. This disgusts my neighbor Bianca. "I asked him, 'Don't you know what's in there? Don't you know it's like swimming in a public toilet?'" Bianca is a sexy fifty-year-old, sexy even though she's lost her looks, mainly because of her big fat lips. "He doesn't care; he says he just takes a hot shower after." Bianca draws on her cigarette with her big lips. "Probably get typhoid." She blows out with a neat turn of her head; even her long ropy neck is sort of sexy. "I hate the sight of him flying through the air in that little Speedo, God!"
Sure enough, while I'm looking out the window, Freddie, all red and fleshy, with his stomach hanging down and his silver head tucked between his upstretched arms, vaults through the air and--wap!--hits the water like a bull roaring in the field. I can just see Bianca downstairs muttering "Shit!" and slamming the wall with her fist. He's a big fifty-something, with a huge jaw and muscles like lumps of raw meat just going to fat. His round eyes show one big emotion at a time: Joy. Anger. Pain. Fear. But his body is full of all those things happening at once, and that's what you see when he's swimming. He attacks the water with big pawing strokes, burying his face in it like he's trying to eat it out. Then he stops and treads water, his snorting head tossing and bobbing for a second before he turns and lies down in the water, like a kid, with total trust--ah!--face to the sky, regardless of the rain or turds.
Excerpted from Veronica by Mary Gaitskill Copyright © 2005 by Mary Gaitskill. Excerpted by permission of Pantheon, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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