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It starts with the body of a lion. Cheryl stretches on Aunt Bridget’s lawn, away from the fenced-off garden. Her ribs jut out. She shakes her wild mane and wishes she could feast on something, could ingest her entire family and pick her teeth with their bones.

A goat head rises from her back, horned and patient. She sprouts a tail, the end tip a serpent’s head. It has a slit in its tongue and pinkish scales that flake off in the sun. Cheryl embraces her cold-bloodedness, the fact that she is a chimera, the fact that she is mythic. And she is electric in reaction. She licks rocks, can taste the difference between rundlestone and red shale. She chews horseflies, never swallows. She can draw blood from anything with her claws. She is made fast. She is made able.

How nice it is to smell the meat of people and do nothing about it, to be in control. How nice it is to have two gnarled horns should she decide to charge and ram. How nice it is to have a tail for balance that can hiss and see.

Cheryl spits bile and breathes fire out her small, red mouth. When she looks down at the glass patio table, she sees herself, sees a storm.

• • •

Aunt Bridget is very pregnant and very beautiful. She loves to press her thumb into Cheryl’s palm when they hold hands. She loves to feed Cheryl stories, but only Aunt Bridget’s eyes light up at ones that cliff-hang. Most evenings, Cheryl stuffs lasagna or meatloaf into her pockets while Aunt Bridget stirs over the stove. Cheryl often excuses herself to spit chocolate milk in the bathroom sink. Her stomach does not roar, she swears. Only animals do that.

The thing is, Aunt Bridget cares for Cheryl. Cares enough that when Cheryl’s electrocardiogram results showed her heart had slowed all time in her body and her arm hair thickened in feral warning, she told Cheryl about when she was young—a try-hard ballerina in her twenties.

Everyone called me Ani. You get why, Cheryl?

Cheryl clicked her wrists in defiance. Annie’s a nice name, Aunt Bridget.

When Cheryl began to fit into smaller clothes, her mother phoned Bridget. They told Cheryl she needs to weigh the same as a healthy girl before she could rejoin her friends. A healthy girl, Aunt Bridget and her mother define, is a girl who can eat a bagel with no second thought. A girl who runs for fun, not to burn. A girl who dances without worry. A girl whose clavicles are not daggers. Cheryl’s clavicles and breastbone make her family nervous. They are the ripples that make her a river.

Cheryl would rather live with a kind woman than with her mother who places spaghetti in front of her and watches. Back home, her mother would go down to the basement and turn the circuit breaker off so Cheryl would be unable to watch her exercise videos. She learned to squat and bend and sweat in the dark.

Aunt Bridget sends Cheryl’s mother photographs to show Cheryl’s “progress.” In the photos, Cheryl wears sweatshirts and lowers her head to flesh out her face. She poses sitting so her legs are hidden.

In the yard, she is herself again, no longer mythic. Her hands are covered in the remnants of a boxed purple hair dye called Deep Velvet. She has her hair wrapped tight in a white towel so Aunt Bridget will find the mess in the hamper and scream. She will scream more because the towel is monogrammed than of Cheryl’s mousy hair gone thunderstorm. Ice cubes melt on Cheryl’s tongue and her whole body heaves forward in shivers. She hacked up her hardboiled egg and oatmeal an hour ago. The ice soothes her throat.

Aunt Bridget has reserved a plot in the garden for Cheryl—for the tomatoes she dreams of. Sure, she can get them from Aunt Bridget’s fridge and slice them over iceberg lettuce, or she can squeeze a bit of ketchup on a saltine, but she dreams of tomatoes of her own. She dreams of their sturdy vines, their stems succulent and unruly, and she dreams of slicing them up like her own heart, passing them around, doing something right.

Aunt Bridget uses the tomatoes as incentive. She says Cheryl can plant and tend to her tomatoes, can lie in the garden all day if she gains two pounds this time.

Two pounds I can do, Cheryl said.

She spent a week dollaping, globbing, and glumping ranch dressing onto white rice. With each forkful, her elbows grew numb. Aunt Bridget smiled at the progress. But Aunt Bridget does not know of the Baby Bell cheeses Cheryl pretends to eat and then hides in the piano bench. How Cheryl thinks about them before bed most nights and almost goes downstairs to ingest them. They would taste like wet hot rubber but they would make her fuller.

Cheryl looks in the cracked mirror above the birdbath. She wipes her forehead with a cloth hanging off her uncle’s barbecue. He’s used it to wipe sawdust off the cabinets made for the baby’s room. The cabinets are strewn on the lawn and they look unfinished and the grass is splashed purple because of them. Cheryl takes her hoodie off and shakes it. Dust falls to the grass like a swarm of dead shagflies. Her knees hurt. They’re bruised all over. Her hoodie is her brother’s from home and it says Step Aside Coffee This Is A Job For Alcohol.

We’re weighing you today.

Aunt Bridget closes the screen door and rubs her hands over her swollen belly. She scoops strawberry yogurt into her mouth, her wrist flicking out sorry, sorry, sorry. Then she looks at Cheryl. What on earth did you do to your hair?

Aunt Bridget, please. Would you please go fuck yourself.

Cheryl runs inside, slams the door to the nursery, slides into her sleeping bag. The mobile her uncle attached to the ceiling spins slowly. It is Noah’s Ark with chipmunks and squirrels hanging from strings.

When you get so good at starving, everyone wants a piece of it. Your discipline is admired and feared. No one knows what to do with you except sneak butter into your tea, into conversations. Every conversation with Aunt Bridget now drips with fat.

Aunt Bridget follows her in without knocking, saying she isn’t pissed about the towel. She simply says my friends are over for lemonade. Then she tosses Cheryl a nickel and sends her to the garage for the penance neither of them believes in. Cheryl wants to thank her aunt but doesn’t.

The garage is where they keep the swear jar, started at the request of Cheryl’s mother. Aunt Bridget and her husband both swear like sailors, but Cheryl obeys—she wants her seeds. Cheryl grasps on the string attached to a light bulb, pulling four times until the whole space is alive with light. My baby was born with blue lips, is all she hears from the other room.

The talk of babies has not yet driven Cheryl mad but it has been her existence since June. She’d helped her uncle paint the nursery taupe until her arms hurt. It’s only a two-bedroom house, so Cheryl is sleeping on the nursery floor until the baby’s due date—mid-September. By then, maybe she will have fat lining her body and can go home.

The day they painted, she breathed in so much paint venom at night it put her to sleep. She did not think or dream of being a chimera—she did not need to. She’d slept the best she’d ever slept. Her uncle had warned her to crawl into their bed or take the couch if the smell became too much. That’s your first problem right there, Cheryl thought—stop giving me the choice.

Cheryl hears the shrill voice of Aunt Bridget’s friend. She’s rail thin, Bridget. A goddamn twig, Bridget.

She pictures Aunt Bridget kneading her temples, her belly wedged uncomfortably between the chair and dinner table. She isn’t in the danger weight. She’d rather be here.

Cheryl knows what her danger weight is, and if she gets there she will embrace it. If her body becomes a tree, she will simply live longer.

The garage is humid with summer. Cheryl loves the way her arms drip with sweat. Aunt Bridget’s beat-up Mazda sits alongside shelves of tools—a saw hangs from a hook, wrenches lay flat in order of size. Cheryl’s uncle only began to build after he found out he would be a father. Empty toy chests lie there and spiders have started to weave their homes inside. A folded up stroller, second-hand with a hole in the top, waits to be patched. An unfinished crib rests tomblike. 

Cheryl finds a roll of duct tape in an open toolbox. She lifts her hoodie and tank top and tests a strip on her stomach. It sticks perfectly against her waist.

She lifts an orange wrench above her head. Not heavy enough. She grabs her aunt’s hand weights that she lifts during her walks around the block. She tapes one to her stomach and lowers her sweater. It sticks out like an extra limb and Cheryl smiles thinking of the serpent head of her chimera, how it whispers and wants. She reaches into her pocket and finds the nickel, tosses it into the half-full swear jar. It makes a healthy clink.

Cheryl’s arms and legs become furry and stretch. She shakes her head and her mane emerges. Painlessly, out of her back, sprouts the head of the goat, kind, observant. Her serpent’s head-tail strokes the headlights of the Mazda.

Her aunt’s friends begin to leave. She hears them crunch through the grass beside the laneway. Then Cheryl is herself.

She will be called in soon. Aunt Bridget lets her wear her hoodie during weigh-ins, deducting its weight. Aunt Bridget lets her do almost anything and almost nothing. Cheryl pulls a sturdy line of tape over her tank top, just under her belly button. She cinches the tape tight like a belt and feeds the swear-jar coins down her shirt, spreading them flat. She will get her seeds.

Cheryl goes into the bathroom and waits.

Okay honey, on the scale. Aunt Bridget has paper and pencil in hand. She takes the scale out of the closet. Cheryl steps up carefully so the coins do not clink. Aunt Bridget looks down at the number and they wait in silence as it loads. The blinking of the zeroes feels slower than Cheryl’s own heartbeat.

That’s only one pound, honey. I’m sorry.

Aunt Bridget has neglected her garden. The dahlias look sick. The tulips are not quite dead and they’re begging her.

Honey, I’m so, so sorry.

Cheryl can become a lion in the garden. She can climb the rocks like a mountain goat, drink from the fountain, and slither in between the bushes away from the neighbors. She can watch her tomatoes bloom and she will eat them and eat them.

Aunt Bridget, can I still have my seeds?

Aunt Bridget shakes her head. You need these things—things to work toward.

The coins on Cheryl’s stomach burn and move. They feel like scales.

No change. Almost no change.

Aunt Bridget rubs her fat belly. Cheryl wants to gnaw at her slowly, wants to venture up a mountain, wants to watch rivers beneath her ebb and flow and change.

She lifts her shirt and rips off the tape. The coins rain down. Cheryl can feel her body growl and growl, but it is not her stomach. The chimera is shrinking.

This is what I have to do now, Aunt Bridget. This is what you make me do.


Mallory Tater is a writer from Ottawa. Her work has been published in PRISM International, CV2, The Malahat Review, Petal Journal, Poetry is Dead and is forthcoming in Carousel, Room, Cede Poetry, Canthius, Arc & carte blanche. She was short-listed for the Arc Poem of the Year Contest in 2015 and recently received an Honourable Mention for CV2’s Young Buck Poetry Prize. She is a member of CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts) and an editorial board member for PRISM International. She lives in Vancouver.

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LF #093 © 2016 Mallory Tater. Published by Little Fiction | Big Truths, April 2016.

Edited by Vanessa Christensen. Images from The Noun Project.



by Mallory Tater
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