Kira Messell is a Danish writer currently living in Berlin, Germany. Until 2013 she spent five years in Malaysia, where she wrote a collection of speculative fiction set in South East Asia. Kira holds an MA in Comparative Literature from University of Copenhagen and University of Edinburgh. Her stories have been published in Rose Red Review, Empty Oaks, and The Fat Damsel.
The world gets so much more interesting when blurred. Trees become giants, stray dogs become monsters, and streetlights become UFOs landing. Egg often forgot to put on his glasses and constantly squinted. He explored the world around him with the remainder of his eyesight, fearless and brave. And what could a sixteen year old possibly fear after surviving a brain tumor and aggressive chemotherapy? Except for snakes! Their scaly nakedness gave him the creeps. That’s why he threw a stone towards the brown snake wiggling its way down the tree trunk in front of him.
“AAUUCH, what did you do that for?” Egg squinted and recognized the talking snake as two brown legs dangling from a branch. So that’s where she was.
“So sorry, I didn’t know this tree had a spirit.”
“Go away and leave me alone,” the voice said. To chase Egg away, the girl threw a banana skin at him.
“Thanks for sharing, I’ll use it as a sun hat.” The boy placed the sticky peel on top of his bald head, its limp yellow arms spread like clumsy sun rays painted by a child.
Egg squinted again to catch a glimpse of the girl. He couldn’t distinguish between green and brown. He was lucky he managed to follow the path up the hill to the big tree. Her tree. Behind the hill was the border to the dense jungle. If only she would come down so he could see her.
But Maari didn’t want to be seen. She was hiding from the world, contemplating what to do.
Only two days ago, she had hurried home excited by news that would surely make her parents proud.
“Look at me!” She twisted and turned, showing off the anklets. “Neeta gave them to me. To wear for the show.” Maari shook her legs and made the little bells chime. Arms stretched out to her sides, fingers bent upwards, her head moved from side to side while her eyes rolled from right to left, theatrical and wide open.
“Finally. Your big day,” her father laughed and clapped noisily. He turned to her mother: “Just goes to show them, doesn’t it?”
Shamini stared at the anklets while drying her hands in a tea towel.
“But the costume, Chandran, and the jewelry, how?”
“We’ll find a way. Don’t worry. My little dancing monkey shall have the most beautiful sari for her Arangetram Bharatanatyam. Just imagine, her first real performance.” Chandran’s eyes were shining. Shamini smiled while wringing at her tea towel.
That same night, Maari heard whispered fragments from her bed.
“People will be shocked…we must protect her,” Shamini said.
“Please Shamini, she should be given a chance like everybody else, you know how she loves to perform.”
Maari had always entertained with her clowning and dancing. Such a talented child and so funny. That was what her parents, aunts, and uncles saw when they looked at her.
“We have to try…Chandran, the time has come,” Maari heard her mother’s shaky voice say from behind the door, “at least once…to see her real face.”
Maari tried to piece together the hushed fragments. She had sensed for some time that things were changing. Her mother looked more worried, her father had stopped tickling her, her arms and legs were getting too long. And now her parents wanted to give her another face.
Chandran and Shamini only have Maari, because what if it happened again? After the initial shock of seeing their newborn’s face resembling that of a monkey baby, they had done their best to love her even more for her difference. Doctors were consulted and Chandran and Shamini were reassured that it wasn’t their fault. Their daughter suffered from a rare disease caused by mutating chromosomes. One doctor had come all the way from the US to examine her. Such an exceptional case! Such a wonder! He had smiled and joked while taking blood samples, hair samples, saliva samples, and photos. Once he had found a cure for male baldness, he had assured them, she would be the first to benefit. Because it was the same really, just the other way around. He had roared with laughter and smacked his fleshy thighs with his palms.
Shamini had listened to the doctors and tried to understand. She had memorized congenital hypertrichosis and tried to obey her husband who told her she should listen more carefully to what the doctors were saying. Shamini had accepted the doctor’s diagnosis and pretended to believe him. But inside, she knew the extent of her guilt. She knew why her baby daughter had come out with a monkey’s face.
Pregnant women should never look into the eyes of a wild animal, something of the animal may slip into the unborn child and make it beastly, be it furred, scaled, or clawed. With the new life growing inside her, Shamini had been careless and thought herself invincible. As she stretched out her hands to pat the cute silverleaf monkey, their eyes had locked and she hadn’t withdrawn her gaze. She had crossed the line separating man from beast and been punished accordingly.
But Chandran wouldn’t hear any of this.
Now Monkey Girl sat in her tree to hide and think. If only Egg would leave instead of annoying her with his silly talk. Maybe the treatment has damaged his brain, she thought. She had heard about his struggles reading, his almost blindness. She had also heard that he refused to give up poring over books and magazines, even though his parents feared it would destroy the little light left in his eyes.
“Oh young maiden, let down your hair and help me get up,” he shouted to the dangling feet. Why must he mock me? she wondered, throwing part of her lunch, a brown and hairy coconut, at him. “Leave me alone and go away.”
“Thank you, Monkey Girl, should I use it as a helmet or a wig? And for my next gift, can I have a photo instead?”
Monkey Girl was not amused but she couldn’t help peeking out to catch a glimpse of the nasty boy. But dusk had swallowed his features as he slowly circled the tree.
Last night she had again been kept awake by discussions not meant for her ears. Neeta had been summoned and Maari, in her bed, had eavesdropped. Couldn’t she see, Shamini had asked Neeta, that Maari couldn’t possibly perform like that? Nobody would see her gracefulness or talent behind the fur, only her difference.
“It has to come off,” Shamini said, “otherwise she cannot go.”
If Maari could have seen through the wall, she would have seen her father hunched in his chair, rocking back and forth as he stared at the floor. Shamini was standing in the middle of the room, hands placed on her hips, for once looking unflinchingly at Neeta.
“But there will be talent scouts present,” Neeta paced the floor. “This might be Maari’s big chance. They could offer her an education and a career.”
Neeta refrained from mentioning that she didn’t see any other possibilities for Maari, since it was her difference that made her attractive for the show. Neeta understood that Maari was both a rare gem and a curiosity, and at the end of the day, yes indeed, a freak. And why deny that only a freak can inspire that special mixture of awe and shame in the spectator? Why deny that Maari’s dance would be a spectacular marriage of high culture and brutish beastliness? Ever since their first meeting, Neeta had been excited about the possibility of making Maari a star. Imagine a production with the Monkey Girl dancing as Hanuman! Imagine what that would do for Maari. The time was ripe for her to leave the safe cocoon of her parents’ protection. The life of a dancer could be so short. Like butterflies, they must flutter their wings during the short time they’re given.
Instead, Neeta explained to Shamini and Chandran that she never had a more talented pupil than Maari, and that the world shouldn’t be deprived of watching her dance.
“Maari seems quite comfortable in her pelt.” Neeta’s lively eyes shone in her wrinkled face.
Shamini crossed her arms in front of her chest.
“We can’t leave her the way she is and exhibit her on stage. It would be like…”
Neeta bit her painted and usually smiling lips. Everybody, except Maari in her room, knew what Shamini couldn’t bring herself to say. How could Neeta explain that Maari’s attraction was her otherness? And didn’t Maari simply throw the concept of normality right back at her onlookers?
“Be proud of who she is,” Neeta said carefully, “let her show herself to the world. Show her she has nothing to be ashamed of.”
Maari, back in her room, rooted for Neeta: She is my ally. She’s the only one who understands me. And to think her parents wanted to strip her naked and display her on stage!
Maybe the prospect of success will soothe the parents, Neeta thought. Maybe if she told them about Maari’s proud predecessors of bygone days, the parents would understand the extraordinary gift their daughter had been given. So she told them about the Siamese twins, Yan and Dang, quite a spectacle in 19th century Paris. They had earned a fortune and never dreamt of leaving one another. And how about The Bearded Lady or Lionel the Lion, both with the same tendency to hairiness as Maari? Or The Lizard Man and the Tallest Woman in the World, all actors and artists exhibited on stage for the sole purpose of being looked upon?
When the last freak show was shut down, the audience withdrew their gaze and the artists avoided instead of celebrated (not that Neeta mentioned that). Suddenly, The Tallest Woman in the World was unemployed and tucked away in her tiny mother’s dollhouse. Hidden from the gaze of others, she shriveled.
“Leave her as she is. And please don’t hide her.” Neeta knew how it feels to be discarded, knew that beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder. Withdraw the gaze and the beauty disappears. As a dancer, Neeta too used to feed on the gaze of others. Now, as a teacher, she was worried that her favourite pupil, deprived of exposure, would simply wither away. If Maari’s parents wanted to squeeze her into normality they were bound to fail, because she would always be the other, strive as they might to ignore it.
To boost Maari’s self confidence, Neeta had once shown the girl old black and white photos of Madame Clofullia, the bearded lady of Genova, and one of the stars of P.T. Barnum’s Circus. She too was covered with fine dark hairs from birth and understood how to turn her misfortune into fortune. In nineteenth century France, she fashioned her beard in the style of Napoleon III and was given a large diamond in return. Maari could even continue the line of illustrious Indian curiosities, like Prince Randian, the Human Caterpillar, another exceptional discovery by Barnum. Despite being born without arms and legs, he was famed for rolling and lighting his own cigarettes and eventually became a film star.
But Neeta sensed that neither Swiss circus artists nor Indian cripples would serve her cause with Shamini and Chandran. Instead, she suggested that Maari should choose for herself.
Shamini slowly unfolded her arms and let out a sigh.
“Still, the fur has to go now. She is thirteen. We must think about her future. She’s almost a woman.”
That morning when Monkey Girl silently exited her room to disappear to the safety of her tree, her parents were already waiting for her, nervous and excited. Chandran was stirring a big bowl of soapy water. Next to it, on a crisp white towel, a pair of scissors and sharp razor were laid out. Broom and dustpan waited against the wall. Reluctantly, Maari approached the hard wooden stool set out in the middle of the room like a throne or an electric chair. Her father smiled and patted the stool, encouraging her to step nearer.
“It won’t hurt,” he promised, “it’s only hair.” Maari sat down with the feeling of having reached a scaffold.
“Now we’ll see your real face,” Shamini said. “To see whom our little girl has turned into. So big already.”
Chandran carefully applied soapy water to her pelt and started cutting with the scissors. The worst part was around the nose. The hair tickled and made her sneeze. At least that made her father laugh, just like he had when she was little and he used to tickle her on his lap. But today, Maari wasn’t giggling along.
After the scissors, the laborious job of shaving off the rest started. Out of the corners of her eyes Maari watched as layers of her soft fur fell on the tiles, covering their hard whiteness with a soft brown carpet. Shamini circled around the two of them, picking up the fur and caressing it.
“What if it grows back coarse like a man’s beard, all scratchy and stiff? What if she has stubble?”
“Not now, Shamini,” Chandran hushed her.
Chandran was patient and careful. He was humming and chatting, while Maari sat with her eyes closed. What if her naked face was hideous and she couldn’t bear the sight of it? Shamini’s breath quickened as more and more skin was revealed. Whether this was a good or a bad sign, Maari wasn’t sure.
“Eyebrows, Chandran, try again,” she heard Shamini whisper.
Maari felt how the razor blade repeatedly glided over the area between her eyebrows. It made a scraping sound.
“It must be the skin,” he murmured, “the colour is different from the rest.”
Finally, her father gently dried her face with the towel. The transformation was complete. Maari slowly opened her eyes and saw her mother approach with a mirror, reluctantly handing it over. In it, she saw her father’s sorrowful eyes behind her. She saw his stubble and wondered why he hadn’t shaved and then caught a glimpse of her own bare face and quickly put down the mirror. This wasn’t who she was supposed to be. Her skin looked red and patchy, and instead of two separate eyebrows, she had one broad plank hovering over her eyes, knitting her brows together and lending her a peculiar look somewhere between worry and plain ugliness.
“Maybe we should take her down to the barbershop?” Shamini suggested.
Chandran took the mirror from Maari’s hand and held it up in front of her, “You’re still the same. Look. Still my Monkey Girl.”
Maari pleaded with her eyes. No barbershop. No more. Barefaced and ugly, she felt frail; her thin hide stretched too tight over cheekbones and jaw. The soapy water had left her skin sore and dry. She was certain that if she smiled her face would crack and reveal even more than her naked skin. Better not move then. The worried expression her new eyebrows lent her seemed to seep through the skin and take up residence inside her. Maari yearned to become Monkey Girl again. If only she could reverse the whole process and grow out her fur. Coarse or soft, it wouldn’t matter as long as she was covered.
Her mother tried to put moisturizer on Maari’s skin, to relieve the redness and dryness, she said. Then she tried to powder the dark area between the eyebrows making Maari sweat and the powder clump. Maari couldn’t bear to be touched. The unprotected rawness of her skin made her flinch. The bareness hurt almost as much as the sight of her hideous face.
So Maari retreated to the tree on the hill. What else was left of her monkey life? Her parents followed her and circled the thick tree trunk, begging Maari to come down, assuring her she looked just fine. But Monkey Girl had lost the desire to be looked upon. For the first time in her life, she felt like a freak. They were my world, she thought, my entire world and I revolved around them, just like Ganesha whose parents represented the whole universe to him. Only, my parents have taken away my animal head and given me a hideous face instead.
“Look what I bought for your costume.” Under the tree, Shamini had held up an artificial black plait to be attached to her own hair, “I’ll make your hair. You’ll be beautiful. It will go all the way down your back.” How ironic to apply artificial hair to somebody like Monkey Girl, who had gone through so much trouble to have her hair removed. So Shamini’s arms went limp, her voice now void of hope and brimming with sorrow. It broke Maari’s heart to hear her mother like that. I have caused so much worry, she thought, while Shamini and the plait retreated to Chandran and the coolness of the house.
Egg babbled on. “I hear you’ve become quite the Apsara dancer of the village,” his voice cut through the leaves and into her solitude. “I’d love to watch you dance. Why don’t you come down and show me?”
The cheek, Monkey Girl thought, what does he know about me? Nothing! From her tree she could see his bald head and squinting eyes. She pulled back her head to hide from him. Stupid. So stupid. Egg rested one hand on the tree trunk while he tried to see her through the branches. On the branch right in front of his head a slim brown snake lifted its head, ready to strike. From Maari’s elevated position, the snake looked like his diminished mirror image. Why doesn’t he move away, she wondered, does he think he’s invincible?
“Watch out,” she shouted, “snake in front of you.” But Egg only looked in confusion to his right and left as he put on his glasses. Even with them, his poor eyesight didn’t allow him to distinguish between trees and venomous reptiles. Monkey Girl forgot she was almost a woman now and had a hideous face. Maari’s body remembered she was a dancer, agile and flexible, and swung down from the tree. With her long monkey arms, she quickly grabbed the small snake and smashed it against the tree trunk. It writhed and hissed before going limp in her grasp.
“Here you are,” she offered him the lifeless snake hanging from her outstretched hand. Egg frowned and bent his head to have a closer look. Maari smiled and coiled the snake up in the shape of a turban. “You could use it as a sun hat, for your bald head.”
Finally, Maari was standing right in front of Egg who smiled and blinked. Can he bear the sight? Maari thought, and can I? At first, she found it almost intolerable to look at him: His repulsive nakedness, the seemingly double set of eyes staring at her. When she tried to look into his eyes through the glasses, she saw herself reflected twice. This is not who I am, she thought for the second time in one day. Searching behind his specs, in the second pair of mirrors, she recognized a part of herself. She was born a freak, he had become one; they might not be so different after all. His bald nakedness overwhelmed her. To think he had wandered around all this time completely hairless and exposed. Plucked like a chicken. Like me. Maari wanted to run her hands over Egg’s smooth cheeks. This is what I should feel like, she thought. Egg devoured her appearance. What did he see? The stubble he might never grow?
“Shouldn’t you be practising for the show?” Egg finally said.
Monkey Girl hesitated and knit her brow, thereby forming an M as in Monkey or Maari. Egg considered reaching out to caress her blotched face or smooth out her connecting eyebrows. Maari’s left foot stepped back. Egg’s right foot stepped forward. Maari’s right foot stepped back, while Egg’s left foot stepped forward. Next step was a simultaneous smile, then both Maari’s arms shot above her head, her fingers bent outwards, while her head moved from side to side. Egg’s left hand clapped unrhythmically against his thigh. Maari giggled.