by Kate Perris
‘You need to work on your posture,’ said my mother, pulling me upright and piling books on my head. ‘Walk to the other side of the room and back.’ I tried to stand the way she had taught me, pulling back my shoulders and keeping my neck straight, but it was no use.
I tried, I really did, but as I turned the books collapsed in a heap at my feet. On my feet in one case, which made me shudder and my mother shake her head.
‘How are you going to do it in heels? If I can even find them in your size.’ Her face was twisted in disgust, and she turned from me, as if she could not bear the sight.
I was not the girl my mother wanted me to be. She had loved me only when I was small and she could dress me up and show me off. Then I grew bigger: everything about me was large, from my hands that could not wear her rings, to my belly which she constantly urged me to suck in.
‘I’m going to keep you in a box so you don’t get any bigger,’ she used to say. But she hadn’t, and I had.
‘I’d do anything for you to be little again, just for one day,’ was what she said now. I knew she kept my baby teeth in a bag in her bedside cabinet, and imagined her rattling them as a talisman to call up the spectral image of my smaller, more pliable self.
To her, my body was now a crime scene, with so much to be policed. No one could ever know that I bled between my legs, or that my crevices had odours. My blemishes were squeezed. My fat was pinched. She was at war with my body hair, tearing it away, leaving my skin red and raw.
Puberty made an infant of me; I had to learn everything anew. I had to learn to walk again on platforms, to learn to eat once more – but this time, without ever sating my hunger. There were so many new ways to fail.
My mother waved me away and I retired to bed, under which I kept a hoard of snacks. As I licked salt and fat from my un-dainty fingers, I remembered what it was like before my body became my mother’s enemy.
What I needed was to be able to split myself in two, one self to give my mother what she wanted and one for me. I longed to create a comely girl in her image, with no ugly defects. Someone to do the grooming and perform womanliness, so that I could eat, breathe and walk freely, all of the time.
I only knew one adult woman who seemed comfortable in her own body: my uncle’s widow. She had ample flesh which seemed part of her, and which she refused to rein in. She had worn black when married, at the funeral, and every occasion in between. I could only imagine that she was a witch.
I was not wrong.
“To her, my body was now a crime scene, with so much to be policed.”
I went to see her. She lived in a small house full of cats and mirrors. Widowhood had given her a white streak running through her grey hair. My uncle’s ashes sat on the hearth. She invited me to hold them, and I cradled the urn in my arms while cats circled my feet.
Seeing me shun her many mirrors, she turned me towards the largest and with her hands on my shoulders, asked me why I feared my own image. Her eyes in the mirror were pearly and kind, and my eyes met the reflection of her gaze.
I told her that puberty had put me at the mercy of my body, and how my mother saw it as a problem to be solved. She listened carefully, stroking the hair on her chin.
‘I can’t live in my body any more. I wish I had a second body for looking at, and one for being.’
She plaited her fingers together and bit her lower lip, deep in thought.
‘That isn’t,’ she said, ‘a bad idea.’
She told me that I could make a second self from the earth. I would have to give my blood, sweat and tears to give her life but above all, I had to build her out of my rage.
‘Your anger has a life of its own. If your mother wants a living doll, you make a doll and give her that life.’
I put my faith in my uncle’s widow. It sounded simple enough, though she assured me it would not be easy. I would have to labour alone to give birth to my creation.
To put together my double I gathered the hair from my hairbrush. I knew that if the mannequin was to please my mother I needed the materials to meet with her approval so I chose clothing my mother had given me that I hated to wear: white, frilly, uncomfortable. I hid these, too, in my secret hiding place under the bed until I had one girl’s worth of trappings: my creature to be.
I needed to wait until it had rained enough to generate sufficient mud to make my duplicate. After school, I walked into the woods with my stolen goods in an old doctor’s bag my uncle’s widow had given me. I swung it from my hand, moving carelessly, the way I used to. I sat down just as thoughtlessly, crossing my legs, like a boy. If this worked, I would be free to move like a boy – or rather, like someone who was not thinking of their body at all.
I rubbed my hands together with glee.
My shoes were gloriously muddy, and I was soon covered in dirt as I began creating my creature from mud formed under the tallest tree. My uncle’s widow had taught me that nature was my only true mother and she could be cruel, but if I approached her in the right spirit, she could be giving.
I looked to this nurturing Mother Nature, and took the mud from around the roots of her tree, shaping it into a girl.
A girl who was tiny, dainty and perfectly formed. I covered her in makeup, all of it perfect. I covered all of her in foundation to make her creamy white with rosy cheeks. I gave her my raven black hair, but only on her head and her tiny eyebrows. I couldn’t have her smell of earth, so I used perfume to scent her. My creature was beautiful and flawless. I gave her false nails in delicate pink. I filled her mouth – a perfect bow – with the baby teeth my mother had saved. She shouldn’t miss them: I was using them to give her what she wanted, after all.
I created my double to lean daintily against the tree, sitting with her knees together and her hands folded, her eyes looking upwards, ready to provide a sympathetic audience.
I question whether I even need to bring her to life or whether immobile, she wouldn’t suffice. She only needed to appear perfect; did she even need to say anything? But I knew even a captive audience needed to show some animation to please my mother, and please her my doppelgänger must.
I had sweat copiously enough in the act of creating her, but only now the tears fell. Were they tears of sadness that I had never been enough, or tears of joy that I might be free at last from trying? Even I could not say.
I knew I had to bleed to give her life, like a real mother does. I had many small cuts from the labour of making her but I knew I must give her more. I took a knife to my thumb, without wincing. I draw in my breath to see the slash in my flesh, the first bulb of blood emerging in expectation.
I opened her mouth and put my thumb between her baby teeth. I had made her tongue out of a roll of candy, so it was rough to the touch. I waited until she began to suck, slowly at first but then more insistently. I knew now how my mother felt, giving me life from herself. But unlike my mother I would never turn on my creation. She was my not-quite-human sacrifice, and I would love her forever if she bought me my freedom.
I whispered in her ear everything she needed to know to live as a girl under scrutiny. I passed on all of the theory of how to be the perfect girl, although I’d never mastered the practice. But I knew my double would have the grace and poise I lacked, the manners I could never master. Her tiny fingers fluttered as she came to life, showcasing the rings my own had outgrown. She rose to her feet without stumbling. I took her hand and led her to my former home. She made light work of walking in heels and did not stumble over the steps, or the threshold. I positioned her at the front door to await my mother’s return and made my escape through the back.
I slung my bag over my back and sat in the tree in front of my former house, swinging my legs and eating. I watched through the window as my mother arrived home to ensure she was happy with my replacement. The body double mirrored her every move and her mouth moved only to agree with my mother’s every word. She would be perfect. I would be free.
Kate Perris | @mskateperris
Kate Perris is a librarian and writer living in London. She is a member of the Write Like a Grrrl community.