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  • Spread, and: Mermaid, and: Borne
  • Elizabeth Johnston (bio)


“How Mademoiselle Reisz would have laughed, perhaps sneered, if she knew!”

Edna before her death by suicide in Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899)

“Each photo in the spread is captioned with the name of the author depicted, her dates of birth and death, and cause of death. And the fashion credits for what the model is wearing.”

—Jezebel Magazine June 17, 2013, about “Last Words,” Vice magazine’s fashion spread featuring models dressed as women writers who killed themselves

Put your clothes back on.

Two feet in already, but her rasping voice behind me.Sour crone’s breath. Stupid parrot.What? I turn, guilty as Eve. Like I don’t know what she’sgoing on about. I was just going for a swim.She knows better, stands there eyeingme, picking at her teeth with one of those bird-wing bones she’s scavengedfrom the beach.

They’re hollow, she told me once,reaching down to scoop a feather from the sand.Pneumatic. Makes them light so they can fly.Then she coughed, the hacking kind that makes you wish they’d justget it over with. You know, keel over. Kick the bucket.Shut up.I imagine her old bones beneath those clothes, hollowlike a pipe. How they’d snapbetween my fingers, crack. [End Page 244]

She thinks she knows so much.

That’s not the way to do it, she tells me now,hair cobwebbed in the wind.Washed up. Sure, you look hot now—tits perky and pink.But a few days in the water isn’t good for the complexion.You’ll be bloated. You’ll stink.Bet you haven’t even considered the fish.Toes nibbled, earlobe chomped.It’s the eyes they go for first.

I want to explain, tell her what I’ve seen—the world breaking wide. The sputtering light.And, oh, its voluptuous and pricking sting.But already the momentis receding, slipping into its pursethe musky pink, the sycamore and bees.

Better ways, she sneers as I button my bodyback into its corset, force the ringover my knuckle, step into the petticoats.Don’t go sticking your headin an oven. Silk stockings?—seems sexy enoughbut then they find you danglingin the living room, puddle of piss.

I start up the beachscrape of seashells, muck of seaweed.In the yard, I shrinkinto the hammock’s netting.Above the stars wink out, one by one,like the sky’s a giant house, a shadowmoving through it, damping candles.

Even now, no solitude.The old crone has followed, leans over, whispers.Immolation might do the trick.You’ve got to get it just right, burn the whole to bone.When I shudder, she grins and hisses:What? You think death’s a fashion spread?

          “Spread,” croaks the parrot          flapping clipped wings.          Spread. Spread. [End Page 245]


After Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl” (1978)

“If you wish you were a mermaid but are unsuccessful in your attempts to become one, at least you can make people think you’re a mermaid.”

“How to Make People Believe You’re a Mermaid,” Wikihow (2011)

Wash your hair with coconut shampoo and let it air dry; wash your skin with coconut oil and apply shimmery lotion; grow your hair long; don’t soak your legs when people are watching; wear lots of sea-foam; buy clam-shaped bras and sea-shell necklaces; when on a date, hum “Under the Sea” and order seaweed sushi; weep when your date orders lobster or crab; is it true that you sing to sailors?; always eat with your fingers; appear confused by modern technology like forks, Common Core math, and ESPN; try to swim like a mermaid and not like the siren you are so bent on becoming; don’t sing to Sailors; you mustn’t speak to wharf-rat boys, not even if their ships are sinking; don’t ever look like you just stepped out of a salon because mermaids don’t go there; but I don’t sing to sailors at all and never at...


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pp. 244-254
Launched on MUSE
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