As the third work in a collection curated by Shann Ray, featuring the works of Vanessa Kay, Mary Jane Nealon and Shann Ray; this short story by Alan Heathcock explores theme of “Light and Darkness” from the perspective of Isaiah 61:3:
and provide for those who grieve in Zion—
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the Lord
for the display of his splendor.
by Alan Heathcock
The other girls shot their fists in the air, kicked high, went seamlessly through the routine. Shell couldn’t remember the cheer. Her mind was a mess. A buzzer sounded from the scorer’s table. The boys broke their huddles. Shell knew all those in the green uniforms: Lester and Billy James and Harold and John Censia and John Defenthaller. She’d kissed the lips on three of these faces. The other girls clapped and shouted, now off the court and by the double-doors. Shell ran from center court, bumped through the green jerseys and towards the cheer line, and Mrs. Marlene shouted her name, then grabbed her elbow and dragged her from the gymnasium.
“What’s going on with you, Shell?” Mrs. Marlene asked.
Shell touched her own lips. “I don’t know.”
“You on your moon?”
Mrs. Marlene glanced downward. “Your moon?”
Shell shook her head.
“You’re just acting so strange.”
“Oh,” Shell said. “Well…” She looked back into the gymnasium. The teams positioned themselves for the jump-ball. She knew she couldn’t say what was on her mind because cheerleaders don’t speak of such things, but she couldn’t shake the woman’s face, darker than her own and scarred from acid. Her husband had thrown acid on her. Shell didn’t know why the husband had done what he had, because she couldn’t bear to read to the end of the article. Why didn’t matter. People always wanted to know why. Shell had seen the woman’s face, the blood and bone where the skin was gone, even her bold eyes shot through with red. It all terrified Shell. She shut tight her eyes and closed her hands into fists.
Why, why, why…
“Good lord, girlie,” Mrs. Marlene finally said. “Whatever it is, you’d best go shake it off.”
Shell walked the vacant school halls. At the end of the building farthest from the gymnasium, a cold breeze wafted out from an open classroom. Shell turned into the cold, pushed in through the open door. The room smelled of formaldehyde. She switched on the lights and there were rows of high tables with burners and sinks. A skeleton by the blackboard wore a red and white cap. A far window was tilted open. Wet snow blew in from the darkness outside.
Shell crossed to the window. On the ledge by the window sat a terrarium coated in frost. She stuck her face in the frigid draft, lifted off the terrarium lid. One lone frog–no bigger than her fist, yellow spots on its brown body–lay on a bed of glistening cabbage. The frog didn’t struggle in her grasp. It was cold and hard, very much dead, its eyes black pebbles flecked with gold. Its slick skin was beautiful, sparkling almost, the muscle of it hind legs so gracefully curved.
What a magnificent creature, Shell thought.
“How do you work?” she said to the frog’s tiny face.
The frog’s miniature organs were the color of burlap. It wasn’t at all as she’d imagined. It had been an impulse, a strange inclination that had overcome her, and Shell stood, scalpel in hand, and thought cutting the skin of a living creature should be more difficult. How does a frog ever live a day with such thin skin? How does anything live a single day? She could hardly imagine it had once hopped and croaked and eaten flies. Maybe it thought, too. Of course it did. It had to know pond water felt nice, flies tasted good. But this thing, this lifeless fragile thing on the table was so different. Shell pictured herself on the table, just her body, her delicate skin and organs. Just a thing. Sometimes people are things to each other. Then Shell remembered the woman’s scarred face, a face of ravaged clay, like something melted, and she sobbed then her body shook and she began to weep because she never wanted to be a thing to anybody, or to treat anybody like a thing, and she left the frog flayed on the table and quickly shut the window and dashed out of the classroom, arms pumping, her sneakers padding on the hall’s checkerboard tiles, faster, faster.
The fieldhouse steamed with sweat and breath warmed in the guts, the noise of hands clapping, feet stomping bleechers, air forced out of lungs and into screams. Boys running, jumping. John Defenthaller drove to the basket, leapt and dunked the ball. He landed and pumped his fists and howled. The crowd howled.
Shell wiped her sweaty brow, set a palm against her thumping heart. There’s such a difference between something alive and dead, Shell mused, and in that moment she understood that difference as mostly being everything that is you that is not your body. That’s what makes you alive. That thing in you that says to howl, to want and love. That thing no one can touch or harm. You’re never a thing if people know that part of you. Shell felt herself stirred, potently aware of that thing brimming behind her eyes, what her mother might call a soul, and an eerie accompanying feeling of her body being nothing beyond bones and blood and skin.
Mrs. Marlene came beside her and put her arm around Shell’s shoulder. “You okay, girlie?”
Shell smiled, nodded, and ran off clapping to join the others.
From the Artist:
I watched a documentary about a man who lived as a prisoner of war for a number of years, each day bound in a little hut, very little daylight, very little human interaction. How did he survive? He survived by the strength of his inner life, and that made me contemplate the fragility of our bodies versus the power of everything that is us that is not our bodies. The garment of praise overcoming the spirit of despair in this case is the recognition that our strength cannot not be diminished by physical means, as that place of truth that resides behind our eyes cannot be touched or slapped or maimed. Instead of a prisoner of war, I decided to use a cheerleader as the vehicle for this story because I felt people often separate themselves from the exceptional despair of the world, as if that POW has nothing to do with them and their lives. But if a cheerleader could be touched by despair then it could touch anyone, which, of course, is as true as anything else I could write.
Alan Heathcock’s fiction has been published in many of America’s top magazines and journals. VOLT, a collection of stories, was a “Best Book 2011″ selection from numerous newspapers and magazines, including GQ, Publishers Weekly, Salon, the Chicago Tribune, and Cleveland Plain Dealer, was named as a New York Times Editors’ Choice, selected as a Barnes and Noble Best Book of the Month, as well as a finalist for the Barnes and Noble Discover Prize. Heathcock has won a Whiting Award, the GLCA New Writers Award, a National Magazine Award, has been awarded fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, and is currently a Literature Fellow for the state of Idaho. A Native of Chicago, he teaches fiction writing at Boise State University.
All materials are copyrighted by the artist and used here by permission.