At first glance you might be mistaken into thinking he was a man, with his moustache proudly perched on upper lip and his broad shoulders. But look at little closer, at the nervous eyes, at the twitching hands, the thinness of the jaw, and the eyes. Especially the eyes. He’s just a boy. He’s just pretending until these clothes fit him.
He calls me a “modern woman”
And I am not stupid enough to take this as a compliment.
What he means is this:
I do not fit his view of the traditional woman.
The traditional woman is demure;
She blushes prettily when complimented.
She submits to her husband.
She does not have strong opinions
And never disagrees with him.
She will let him take the lead
And she will follow wherever he goes.
She is a beautiful work of art
For the husband to admire the shape of
But she lacks personality. She lacks
Me? I am the modern woman.
When he is wrong, I tell him.
I disagree with him.
I tell him off.
When he tells me he is a better driver because he is a man, I tell him that he is sexist.
I know that I am loud, headstrong, and unwavering in my beliefs.
I am rude. I break rules. I don’t understand boundaries.
He tells me there is something unattractive about women like me
And on some days, I believe him.
I worry that I am corrosive, aggressive, intense.
I feel the weight of this body:
Broad shoulders. Thick thighs. The fat lying across my hips.
This body jiggles.
It does not fit nicely in dresses.
Some days I leave the house
Only to retreat because my body tells me I am too ugly to go outside.
Some days I hate myself.
Some days I think that I am too strong
And that no man will ever love me
Without wanting me to change.
But there are heroines who are like me
There are women who give their opinions freely
Who stand up for themselves
Who will not submit to this idea of traditional.
There are women who challenge other
With their words, their actions, or their fists
They are women who do not choose tradition
But choose passion, career, excitement, adversity – the harder path.
These women can be found in books and on screens
In poems and on the city streets
In rural villages and in hospitals
These women have existed throughout history
And their endings were usually written for them.
So yes, my body jiggles.
It is imperfect and a bit broken
It causes me pain
I try to love it like a Christmas present given by an obscure not-quite-relative
That I will hide beneath the bed for years
Before letting out into the light of day.
My thighs are large
But they are also strong
When I’m running I don’t feel so ashamed of my body
Because I feel powerful.
He says he wants a woman who will submit to him.
I say I want a man who is my equal.
If I am strong, let a strong man love me
Let him know I am a modern woman.
I’m walking to my meeting with her and the wind is blowing and the noise the trees make is enormous and overwhelming. I walk fast, head down, hair wild. When I’m nearly at her building I stop and look back at the path I’ve taken.
On either side of the path is a tree. A solid evergreen stands to the left; it’s branches are solid and unmoving, leaves barely swaying. On the right is a birch tree, bending, buffeted by the winds, branches bending perilously until they look close to snapping.
I go to my meeting.
“How are you?”
“Tell me about your day.”
There’s nothing to tell. But I think of the trees and that image of the two of them, side by side, separated by the path. I tell her about them: about how one stood firm while the other wavered. I tell her I am the tree on the right. I am emotional and buffeted and close to breaking.
She nods, takes a sip of tea, considering.
“In a storm, which tree do you think is more likely to survive?” she asks.
I think of the way the silver birch swayed.
“A solid evergreen tree that can’t bend might end up snapping. A bendy, flexible tree could move with the storm and survive.”
But the strong tree provides shelter. People could stand beneath it when it rained and stay dry. People could climb into the branches in summer. Nobody wanted the silver birch; nobody chose the silver birch over the evergreen.
“Being affected by things around is not a weakness. You can come alongside people when they’re sad and cry with them. You understand people better because you’re moved by them. A silver birch might look delicate, but it’s still standing. And think about the roots of the tree: in evergreens, they’re close to the surface. You can see them coming up through the grass. You never see the roots of a silver birch – they go deeper than you think.
“You are stronger than you think.”
Maybe I’m like the silver birch.
Maybe that’s okay.
The penny was beautiful. The copper shone just right in the sunshine, the bronze gleam looking like treasure. He’d stuck it in vinegar and scrubbed it ’til it shone. It was the perfect offering.
Clove climbed the steps to the shrine, panting a little as he got to the top. They didn’t design the giant stone steps for little legs. He rested a second at the top, feeling the wind muss up his hair and the cool tingle of sweat evaporating. He’d learned all about sweat and glands in biology. He loved it.
The bubbly bubble of the fountain was magnificent and his jaw fell open in delight. The penny gleamed as he flicked it, sending it twirling end over end until it landed in the water with a very satisfying ploink.
Clove sighed. He knew what his biology teacher would say about wishing – that it was all made up. He was a boy on the cusp of something, a balancing act between belief and knowledge, between imagination and facts. He felt too old for wishing fountains but too young to give up on miracles. People at school were beginning to get cynical and spend too much time building reputations and not enough time day-dreaming. Clove felt just a little bit torn in two.
“I’ll tell you what, kid – that’s the best penny I’ve had all year.”
He thought he’d been alone. Clove wiped snot on his shirt and sniffed three times in quick succession.
“It’s just so shiny!” the voice continued. “I appreciate the effort, kid, I really truly do. I’m so fed up of people tossing in their loose change. It can make a fountain feel kind of worthless. But that – that was a penny worth wishing over.”
Clove’s eyes widened to the size of tennis balls.
The girl sat by the fountain had hair the colour of his penny, and skin like the rippling water of the fountain, and the smile of sunshine breaking over clouds.
“So,” she grinned from ear to ear, “What did you wish for? I can tell it was an important one. I felt it in my stones.”
“Who,” Clove asked, completely breathless, “are you?”
The little girl grinned. “You can call me Penny. But stop changing the subject! Your wish, now – what did you wish for?”
He twiddled his fingers. “I wanna tell you… But what about that thing? That people say? If you share your wish it’ll never come true?”
The girl snorted like a pig. “That’s froth! People tell me their wishes all the time. I’m the one that makes them come true!” Her eyebrows did a little nervous dance on her forehead. “Well, okay, not just me. I help the family. I pass it on to mother Oak, and she gives it to brother South Wind, who takes it to – hey!” She stamped a foot, and the sound was like two rocks cracking together. “Stop changing the subject!”
“Um. What was the subject?” Clove asked cluelessly. His jaw was hanging loose again.
“Oh.” He shuffled. “Well.” He coughed into his hand, rubbed his head, scratched his nose. “I wished that I would always be me.”
The girl from the fountain looked at him with understanding, her voice soft like the patter of rain when you’re warm in bed. “I hear you. Everything is changing, right? And you’re worried that the best time of your life has already happened, and that you don’t like the way things are going now.”
Clove nodded. He couldn’t have said it nearly so well, but she just took all the difficult feelings he’d been wrestling with and made them easy. “Yeah.”
“Sometimes, we go through hard times. The sun sets and everything is cold. But you’ve got to look back and look forward, and know that things won’t always stay this dark. You’ll get through this night.”
Everything went a bit misty. Clove blinked, the front of his t-shirt getting increasingly wet. “I don’t want to grow older.”
“Me neither. But saying ‘no’ to growing older means saying ‘no’ to a lot of lovely things that haven’t happened yet. It means friends you’ll never meet, music you’ll never hear, birthdays you’ll never celebrate. You have an adventure ahead of you, Five-Leaf Clover. Be brave. Get ready for it!”
Clove hugged her tightly. “Thank you, Penny!” He turned and struck a heroic pose, his hometown speed below him like a map. With his hair mussed by the breeze, he bellowed “I’m ready to do this! I can handle it!”
There was no reply from Penny: the girl had disappeared as suddenly as the sun on a cloud-studded day. But as Clove ran down the shrine steps whooping loud enough to startle the birds, the water in the fountain bubbled and laughed.
Definition: the volume of air taken in with each breath.
My ribs move out, my chest expands
The water rushes in
This is the tide of my breath
Waves crashing up the beach and sweeping back
The rattle of pebbles in the current
This is the tide of my death
Stranded in that bed, I dream of beaches
When beeping machines drown everything out
I meditate on sand and summer and you
And just as the tide is moved by the moon
So you orbit my bed and fret
We don’t kiss
My lungs expand, the water rushes in
These pebbles scrape the seabed.
On an aside,
Do you remember the story of the King who tried
To hold back the tide?
And my darling, I lied.
I won’t survive.
I wake early and with a sense of excitement, my blood singing in my ears.
What, what day is it? I can’t find myself. Is it Christmas? The first day of the holidays? My birthday?
I feverishly run through a list of dates in my head, searching for the puzzle piece.
Valentines Day, Thanksgiving, New Years Eve…
Then I remember, and my excitement fades away to nothing.
Today is Harry’s birthday.
Memories float to the surface of my mind. This day, repeated back through my life; of cake and candles, of parties and presents. Of his choppy blonde hair, of his obsession with tractors. His swing set in the garden. The love I saw in his eyes when he looked at me.
Of him, toddling around the house, creating wonderful chaos. Without him everything is so cold and echoing.
When will this pain heal? When will this hurt fade? Not yet – it’s still too fresh a wound.
But, one year, I want to be able to wake up on this day and only see the loveliest of lives… and not the hole he left behind.
A young child waits alone in the dark
His duvet pulled up to his chin
He waits for his goodnight kiss
But his mother forgot about him.
He can hear her voice, drifting upstairs
She giggles, gossips, drinks tea
And while her son waits alone in the dark
She laughs, obliviously
While upstairs her son is alone in the dark
Thinking, “She doesn’t love me.”