I come from marshland in a corner of Black Kentucky. It was flood-prone territory German settlers didn’t want. In the 1800s formerly enslaved people farmed and built homes here, the bog of my birth. Here, I fell under a lurid enchantment. Because when I was 10 years old another girl child whispered, “Bloody Mary” in my ear, casting a spell on me.
Katrina told me that Bloody Mary was waiting for me in the bathroom mirror while the rest of the house slept—and since she was a worldly 11 year old, what could I do but believe her? At first, all I had to do was not chant “Bloody Mary” thirteen times in front of the mirror, because she would come when called, creeping from her looking-glass lair, rendering me into ribbons as red as she was. But later, Katrina warned that staying safe wasn’t as easy as all that. Now I needed to avoid peeing in the dark, my bladder a tight drum of silence all night.
It was inevitable that Bloody Mary would slither from her mirror-cave in search of me, so she could scratch my eyes out even if I was cowering in the closet. I could no longer sleep in my room alone. My older brother, grumbling, was enlisted to drag pillows from the couch so he could sleep on my bedroom floor. That helped. For a while. Then, I couldn’t sleep at all. With my brother snoring on the floor, I kept watch over the Cabbage Patch Kids calendar on my wall. What if those chubby dolls were in cahoots with bony Bloody Mary, their rounded innocence a Trojan horse she could hide in? I knew that her sausage curls were actually entrails, and tricky though she was, I could still smell them from my bed.
I was losing my mind.
“Enough,” my mother said finally, probably looking like a horror-movie heroine herself, a sick husband, a disgruntled son, and a sleepless daughter in her care. She drove me across town to my aunt. Aunt Minnie was Holiness, some flavor of Pentecostal, unlike my lapsed-Baptist mother. All my mother knew was that while she couldn’t afford a child psychologist, my private terrors had become too expensive for the household. Our mystic Minnie would have to do.
I looked more like my Aunt Minnie than I did my own mother, us being frequently mistaken for mother and daughter. While I was always happy to go to her house, I wondered why I was being driven there during the school day? It must be bad. I must be bad, I thought. I waited in Aunt Minnie’s living room as she got ready—ready to do what?—my stomach roiling as I watched Rocky on her big ancient TV.
Aunt Minnie emerged from the back room, and although she was usually gentle with me, she started hurling incantations my way, her voice harsh, alien, defiant. “In the name of King Jesus! I call you out, evil spirit, to be driven from this child!” she thundered, applying warm oil to my forehead. “By the power of the blood of the Lamb! Through the Son I crush your head, cunning serpent!” I relaxed, a little, under her ministrations now learning that she wasn’t yelling at me.
This is an exorcism. But am I demon-possessed, or is she? My honey-mild aunt must love me so much, to risk mounting the steed of hell, slapping his rump and riding him out of my body.
And then she was done. My mother put the pile of stunned me in the car, and we drove home. That night, I went to sleep alone in my room, and made it to the next morning undisturbed. That demoness, who had crouched in my bathroom for months on end, hasn’t haunted my nights since. Such is the power of blood, the power of prayer, the power of my aunt, hellcat healer.
But perhaps I should have remembered Katrina’s warnings. Because one evening, the old monster bitch must have oozed out her cage of mirrors: she must have seeped into my pores while I dreamed, unknowing.
Monster descends from the Latin monstrum, meaning reminder, warning, instruction, divine omen. When I was 12 years old, I became a cautionary tale myself.
I was in Ms. Smithton’s 7th grade class, and went by LaVon then. Maybe that’s why I was sitting next to LaNeisha, because the tribe of Las had to stick together. Our white teachers tangled LaToya, LaNeisha, LaShonda, LaVon, La’Brea, all of us La girls together, called each of us a string of wrong names before landing on the name our mamas gave us. “They the ones that be looking alike,” we grumbled.
But LaNeisha didn’t want to be stuck with me. I knew that because my eyes, errant, wandered over to the spiral notebook she was scrunched over. Her handwriting wore a pink plastic charm necklace and jellies; it was 80s bubbly, cute, defanged. But her words bore tooth, claw.
It could be worse, LaNeisha wrote. I could be LaVon.
That would forever teach me to keep my eyes on my own paper. My stinky swampy bullied life was LaNeisha’s whetstone, sharpening her appreciation for the relatively minor trials her days held. My body, my being, scared a child. I was the bedtime story that mothers read to children to make them come to heel. La Llorona and her ilk—now that was the band of Las I really belonged to.
So began my consciousness as an ogre-girl.
Maybe I should have been aware earlier. In 6th grade, during our daily allotment of free time, I was in the back of the classroom spinning the carousel of paperbacks to see what books I wanted to check out next. Sweet Valley High or Choose Your Own Adventure? I was deep in the decision-making weeds when I became aware of a small crowd of kids gathered in the doorway of the classroom.
“There she is,” announced Deondra, pointing to me. “Look at her.”
Her hair was Salt-N-Pepa asymmetrical, and she wore stonewashed Guess jeans, crisp girl-jerseys, and denim jackets with holes that broadcasted desirable, not poor. In other words, Deondra was one of the flyest dressers in my class—she didn’t wear homemade clothes like me. She was also one of my chief tormentors, and now, she was a tour guide.
To my dawning horror, I realized that Deondra had brought over kids from other classes—kids I didn’t even know—to show them the circus of me. I looked down at myself. Where was the freak show? My mother’s well-crafted but label-free jumpsuit adorned my 11-year-old body. True, it was obscenely yellow, because my mother didn’t ascribe to the philosophy that big girls had to dress like disappearing acts.
“Yeah, we call her LL,” she explained to the group, in the age that belonged to LL Cool J and I Need Love. “It stands for ‘Large LaVon.’”
No, it stood for laughter, laughter.
Years later I discovered that 19th century taxonomists used “monster” to refer to “an animal of extraordinary size.” But Deondra, the ethnographer of T.T. Knight Middle School had already taught me that.
The bus rides to and from school also hosted humiliation ceremonies. One day Jessica offered me a piece of candy. Moved by this uncharacteristically kind gesture, I put the sweet in my mouth without noticing the entire bus was death quiet. It was then that everyone fell over in laughter—the candy had been on the floor, dumbass. Of course a nasty girl would eat nasty candy.
A more consistent ritual was Jay getting on the bus, and just before he passed the seat I shared with Tiffany, he would invariably lob a crack my way. “Is that your grandmother?” he asked her every single time he passed us. And without fail Tiffany would titter like the around-the-way maiden she was. Their courting ritual embarrassed and confused me, the pre-teen crone. She and I were the same age. Was it my too-soon breasts? My face, that had known rivers? Later, much later, I would deduce that part of what he was honing in on was my old-soul bearing. But back then, I received the insult as Jay intended it. I was more ghoul than girl.
The initiations took on greater heft, grew physical. Kids on the bus started throwing trial-size soap and deodorant at me, although I washed daily. Sure, our shower stayed broke throughout my childhood and sometimes we had to heat water for our baths on the stove. But my mother would have never tolerated a smelly child in her house, so I can only conclude it was Bloody Mary again. Wafting from my body no matter what I did, stinking of shit and meat gone bad. And, apparently, vengeance.
When I was 14, a six-hour bus ride took me from Louisville to Chicago for my first grown-up trip. All of us on the bus were branded “at-risk youth” and this chaperoned weekend away from home was for “cultural enrichment.” Us kids would share hotel rooms without adults! I was so excited. There were four girls to a room, two to a bed, with our chaperones in rooms of their own down the hall. My mother had even sewn for me a new long nightgown just for the occasion, seafoam green with lace frothing at the breasts. It was as if she made bridal sleepwear for me, only I was betrothed to a hazing. Was it the nightgown that whipped up the whirlpool of girls? Did they sense that I had crushes on girls that I couldn’t acknowledge or explain, even to myself? Maybe they had unacceptable crushes, too.
The three of them fell upon me, banshees in t-shirts and shorts. Or was I the banshee, screaming at full strength while they grabbed the gown, and at me. I didn’t understand. Did they want what I was wearing? Did they want…… me? The more I howled, the more they pulled at the silky fabric while laughing their asses off. I got the sense they wanted to see how terrified I was of being naked, of being overtaken. We just playing, they said without saying. Just a bit of after-dinner rape theatre.
Finally—adult rescue never came—they tired of the game. My nightgown, in tatters. I was shaking and sniffling, but they wanted to hit the sack. Attacks are exhausting, yo. They went to sleep and eventually I did as well, aching all over. Confused, until I landed upon a knowing—something in me people wanted to tear. Something in me was so monstrous that it drew out the monstrous in others, like heat summoning pus from a boil. Maybe they just saw their reflection, and it had to be ripped to shards.
I took to never meeting eyes in conversation. I couldn’t bear to see people seeing me back. I resumed my childhood practice of avoiding mirrors—an unspeakable creature lived there. I convinced myself that I had perfected the art of washing my face and arranging my hair sans reflective surfaces.
When Vicky, my college roommate, learned that I brushed my teeth while I strode across the campus green, she said affectionately, “You’re so quirky.” She had no idea that I brushed my teeth in odd places because I was scared of bathrooms and the mirrors that lurked there.
When my penpal from Tennessee came to my Kentucky college to finally meet me, I hid in my dorm room all day despite our agreement to meet in person. She could bang on the door all she wanted—and she did—but I wasn’t about to be beheld. What had preceded me—my words, my letters—were the best of me. Tear me open like an envelope and there is no princess-prize inside. My beauty was beast even at the end of the tale.
There are stories that unravel you—being the other, the omen—and there are stories that gather you. To survive, I had to be more than merely ugly. Ugly is orphan, the spell that casts you out. Monsters have lore, lineage. Admit me, dynasty of Black femme monsters. I graft monster onto my skin, assimilate it, eat it, submit it to the alchemy of my own gut. Where there is poison, there is antidote. Like poison sumac grows near the jewelweed that salves it.
I am finding the myth and medicine I need in the monster wound.
Today I call myself a fairy marsh monster, a nod to my origins and my multitudes. A marsh is a liminal creature, land and water stitched together. Hybrid like the monsters described by 14th-century taxonomists. Beings of junkyard parts. Head of a man with a horse-body. Selkie, centaur, satyr. Even a fairy is monstrous by this definition, being humanoid with wings like a dragonfly.
The monster won’t settle, is a riddle, is riddled with asymmetries. Is that a girl or a grandmother? A queer sista-friend asked me once, meaning no harm: “How can you be femme, when you dress like that?” But how can I dress the part, when I carry so many parts? Fairy. Marsh. Monster. My face is as scarred and rough-hewn as the moon but with none of its light, sewn to a body they called a wasteland, a wetland, brackish.
But I didn’t re-story myself alone.
I did it with the help of Ana, my psychotherapeutic bodyworker, who sat on the floor of her office with me while I snot-cried about my gargoyle self. She took my face, enemy of mirrors, in her hands. She snared my gaze, not permitting me to look away. She said, “You’re the most beautiful monster I have ever seen.” I did it with my hermana María, who I knew was kin as soon as I learned of the art she made with dripping goat hearts. We would go on to co-create River Aria/Aria Del Rio, a short film and performance ritual, which incorporated sacramental cutting. She cut me, and I cut her, and our bloodlines ran feral together.
While sitting on creek rocks, María rubbed the red on my forehead, and I anointed hers. I am more fearsome than they had ever warned me. We rose from the water and stalked the empty streets of the city, darkening; crouching on the sidewalk, we smeared our blood on a mirror shard. Look, it holds something holy: a mosque, and the rumor of wild things roaming the night.