Dirt by Jane Flett
short story

That was the summer I finally grew into myself, fitting into my skin like a hand in a tight cotton glove. All summer long, I ran my hands across my life, marvelling. I could feel the neat, tucked seams. The stitches.

We spent our afternoons at Eva’s house, because Mrs Siegell was not like normal mothers. We were left alone to eke out the day, draped across the back porch, a pitcher of water and mint leaves by our side. As the light turned a loose, spilled orange, I’d press the glass to my forehead and feel the beads of condensation against my face.

My house never had space for such languid afternoons. If I ever tried to make time, my mother would call me to help with the laundry or my brothers would clatter through the living room, shedding dead leaves and yelling about battle lines, or my father would try and interest me in his latest project—a glass cabinet of dragonflies, a model train line, a jotter of perfectly realised anatomical cross-sections of frogs.

Eva’s own father had died when she was four, and I tried not to be jealous. Her house reeked of women: a cloying, soft smell that sank into those summer afternoons. With the insurance money, none of them had to work, the maid took care of the chores, and time was there to be filled however one wanted. So we sat around, lazily picking at scabs, painting our nails lilac, drawing tattoos on each other’s skin with biros. While the sun set, we lay on our stomachs and listened to cassettes of country and western singers lamenting the men who had left them. We turned the porch into our clubhouse, a place of secrets and codes written in invisible ink. And I waited for Eva’s sister to pass by.

illustration by Nami Nakano

Perdita was two years older than Eva, but somehow it was Eva who held all the condescension. Perdita never ducks her head under in the river. Perdita shrieks at worms. One week a month, Perdita turns into a total drip.

I laughed because it was true and because Eva was laughing. I didn’t let my fascination spill. But when I found a moment alone in my room, I kept coming back to the same game. Barbie raises a small plastic hand to her forehead. Barbie capsizes onto a pillow with a sigh. Barbie lets herself sink like an invalid into plumped feather cushions. Tempestuous furies rush over her, and subside into foam. Barbie screams at the other Barbies, and they give her space to suffer. The other Barbies understand.

That summer, I watched Perdita mercilessly. She had skinny white legs that turned out at the ankles. The crooks of her collarbones were stained blue like a bruise. No matter what she was doing, her wrists never seemed to have the sturdiness of bone.

While Eva and I hitched ourselves into tree forts and encouraged frogs to race across the lawn with sharpened birch sticks, Perdita was preoccupied with some other narrative — the one inside her notebook, maybe, or in the slim paperbacks that draped from her fingers. Sometimes she’d sit with her mother, packs of frozen peas pressed against the napes of their necks, sighing with the heat as a whole afternoon sloped by.

I tried to mimic her pacing, ignoring the thing inside me that twitched and darted like my father’s dragonflies. I thought if I could just secure myself with a thin steel needle, I too could exist as a woman in my own skin. But I didn’t know how. All I could do was watch her from a distance and slip small Perdita items into my pockets, to take out afterwards and place in the corner of my room.

That was how it started: a discarded tissue; a clip from her hair, still tangled with pale, grey-blond strands; the shoelace from her grubby left sneaker. These objects, all impregnated with her DNA, formed a small perfect shrine that the Barbies observed from a distance, cautious, ready to give me all the space I’d need.

On one of those afternoons, when the air hung thick with gardenias and the sun had turned us lazy and besotted, I went further. Perdita slipped out of the bathroom, leaving half moon puddles from her heels, and I went inside. It was white and cool and tiled, and I wasn’t even paying attention as my hand moved to the silver flip-top bin, opened the lid, and pulled out a crumpled pad thick and crusted with blood. The blood had already started to brown and I closed my eyes and grazed it against my lower lip. A buzzing noise rushed into my ears. I was deep under water, feeling the currents rush by. I don’t know how long I stood there, beaded with sweat, letting the dark metallic smell wash over me. Then a door banged, a dog in the distance barked, and I came to my senses, wrapped the pad in tissue, and put it in the pocket of my shorts.

After that first time, it was easy. I never took so many that Mrs Siegell would notice, but slowly, as the months passed, I gathered enough of a collection to line the alcove by my desk. I pinned each one to the wall and sat cross-legged on the floor and inhaled. I felt the buzzing in my ears. I pictured Perdita, so pale and loose and clean, Perdita, squatted over the toilet, Perdita filled with thick brown dirt.

illustration by Nami Nakano

When I saw her—in the real world, on the porch—I was quiet. I didn’t know how to explain this thing that bound us together. I wasn’t sure, if I did, that she would even understand. But in my room, in my corner surrounded by dolls and rust, I told her everything. I listened for her response and she told me it was going to be okay. You’re doing fine, she whispered. You are a creature who is capable of love.

You’re probably expecting this story to end with some major revelation—she found me in the bathroom, nose-deep in her blood. I was banished from the house, ostracised at school. Nothing happened like that. Eventually, summer wound to a close, trees shed their leaves in tatters, and life edged its way back into my days. Distracted by biology projects and misspelled notes from the boys, I went round to Eva’s house less and less. Sometimes I would see Perdita in the corridors, surrounded by swollen girls with harsh November voices, laughter echoing against the walls. I’d squint and, as her face blurred, I would try to catch a glimpse of the summer Perdita. But she was no longer the girl I knew.

Though after she died — a freak current in the river, she should have been more careful — I kept seeing her in my dreams. She wore a long white dress that drifted around her ankles. She gazed into the middle distance. Between her legs, a choked stain of crimson uttered in the breeze. I reached out to it—ready to sink into a buzzing red universe—but when I touched it, my hand and I both slipped straight through. As if there was nothing there. As if there was never anything substantial at all.

illustration by Nami Nakano

This story was first published in MOM #3. You can find out more about Jane Flett on her website janeflett.com.