By Stephanie Dickinson
In the beginning of my second life my hair was short. I had to grow my brunette hair shoulder-length; the scar wouldn’t show as much. I needed to be able to hide my cheek, the place where the pellets went in, buckshot from a 12-gauge shotgun blast that made a hole, took jawbone and teeth, formed a zipper of scar. I imagined a white crane spreading his flight feathers and those would be the white sutures, the marks and dents in my face. I pictured black cranes roosting on my paralyzed left arm, on the pieces of shot and each of my fisted fingers.
I am used to feeling singular having met only one other one-armed girl. She too had two arms, but one was paralyzed. So I will think about Mary and try to remember her. I’ll conjure up the year after graduate school when I’d signed up to become a Volunteer in Service to America, a VISTA, and moved to Colorado Springs where my assignment was to organize a Disabled Rights Coalition. The scar is part of my soft underbelly, the dent in my cheek, and the more scar under my hair. The scar runs like rickrack from the corner of my mouth over my jaw where the bone is gone and then divides into two trickling streams on my neck. Shrapnel still inside my left eyelid make its own purplish shadow. The wounds themselves don’t forget the blast, they do not age.
I sit in the passenger’s seat watching Michael, our project director, comb his wispy beard with the fingers on his right hand while steering with the fingers on his left hand. We’re on the road to Salida, a mountain town on the front range. I am not really watching him anywhere but in my mind’s eye and I can’t tell you all the rich details I’ve forgotten. Michael has the look of a winner, newly married but still sporting his campus look, a jacket over a t-shirt, jeans, and the reddish beard. We head west through Manitou Springs passing dry lakes rimmed by boulders in tenuous balance. Sometimes the landscape makes a deeper impression than people, scenery can gouge a hole in you and fill it with pleasure or pain. Each boulder pitched at angles. The foothills. Mushroom-like rocks rise on elongated stems into caps while others rest on stocky trunks and finish in a flourish of tabletop, magpies nesting in them. I am bringing Michael back as I am bringing myself at twenty-three forward. I will start here and work my way to eighteen, the first year of my mutilation, the hardest. The year I was eighteen seemed to last forever, I could not turn nineteen until I spoke again with the angel of death. That is why I am telling you about twenty-three, I am telling you about twenty-three because it’s so much easier.
Eighteen was the darkness spread over the river. The year of lying curled in the dirt and rocking myself. The year my breasts ached, they felt like a milk can had filled them, they could bleed through the front of my shirt. It was the year the literal and metaphorical fused, no minnows or earthworms, only spit on a bare hook. What might I catch with pieces of my own flesh? Cut bait. Dangerous currents. Eighteen was the year of rocky crevices sheltering blasphemers and rapists. A year of blue ice and hot nights and the monsters sleeping like babies in wife beaters and stocking caps. The year of a mouth wired shut and bone-deep grief. The struggle to keep my spirit inside a shattered self. So you see how much easier is age twenty-three.
Age eighteen she was coming back to life after a hard winter. Maimed for three months—first hospital, then rocking herself in her aunt’s closet, imagining she’d somehow bring back the girl who was. She was halved—wet feathers lopped in goo and brine, a second birth, waiting for teeth to break from her gums, for ears to understand sounds that had not yet become words, or thoughts scoured from the bramble. She awoke here, sensed a toughness to this land that ran feral like the numbness in her cheek and chin, the metal in her jaw, the shrapnel scattered in her lungs, the tubes forced down her windpipe.
“You’re going to really like Mary,” Michael says “You have a lot in common. You’ll really get to know her in Denver at the conference.” I know she’s another raw recruit tasked with scraping up the disabled and making them into a coalition. We’re picking her up and then driving to Denver for the symposium. I know Michael has used the suspect word really, twice in three short sentences. I recall that obscure detail because I scribbled it down. “She has the use of one arm like you.” He assumes the one-armed will embrace like sisters. Compadres. I want to ask how she became one-armed, stroke, accident, birth but am shy and busy lighting another cigarette between swallows of Coke.
A cigarette goes well with gazing out the window at the passing junipers, their limbs and branches spare like the soil isn’t strong enough to feed them. Something about my supervisor feels weak as well. So ardent, smart, and a believer in human rights causes, yet too shiny and successful, as if he hasn’t been kicked in the face or bruised enough. The snowcapped Rockies rise on the horizon, each peak, a strange god. The country becomes more scrub pine and wind-scoured. We reach the edge of Salida and the Loyal Duke Lodge beckons travelers…
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