301 Moved Permanently

301 Moved Permanently


Anthem for a Thirteen-Year-Old Girl

Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke.

Illustration by Lauren Simkin Berke.


In a single heartbeat, traffic grinds to a halt and basketballs hang suspended in the air and echoes are no longer returned from the mountains. The universe holds its breath.

The boys on the playground cling to cold metal, anchor the toes of their sneakers in mesh and wait. They cast furtive glances to ensure no one has a better vantage. With arms and legs splayed, they are insects trapped in cobweb; they are floating corpses splattered on chain-link. When the earth begins to tremble, it mainlines into their developing chests like a lit fuse.

She meets none of the eyes that catch at her heels, her slight neck. In this pocket where time slows, she simply moves through space, but it is enough to generate a cataclysm; this singular action implodes the world.

The ruffled fabric beneath her chin is like a bouquet—a single black bow escapes the collar of her spring coat. The boys press noses through fence to catch the scent of flowers. A long finger of scarf falls from her shoulder and swings above one heel, and in the quiet of his mind, each boy grabs hold of the cascading train. They are uniform in their thoughts. They cling to fabric and ideas.

When she inclines her head in their direction, she meets the breeze; it stirs her lashes, lifts a curl of hair washed the night before with baby shampoo. Colour floods her cheeks like overturned perfume.

At the curb, the fathers idling their cars are more careful to disguise their glances. At the sound of the school bell, they track their sons to the entrance, but cast nets wide enough to ensnare her. Her foot- falls dictate the thunder at their temples, the pace of each inhalation. What they don’t know is that she is learning to release leg-hold traps, to break their jagged teeth with one hammer of her clarinet case.

The boys are meticulous observers, expert in their recordkeeping. They inventory celery sticks, bobby pins. They will tell you she looks up during science, but when the sonnets come out, her gaze remains fixed on the phone in her lap. Against the glare of the sunlight, they angle for a glimpse of the minuscule words on the screen. They will tell you she fidgets with the cupcake charm on her necklace when she is bored, zings it side to side on the chain—fly in the blinds. She pops it in her mouth when she is thinking and clicks it against enamel until their molars ache.

Like her, other girls loop scarves around their backpacks, covet the small belt at her waist. They watch for her overstuffed cosmetic bag, filled, they imagine, with plumping mascara and tiny tampons and neon condoms because it makes her ready for any- thing. When she enters the bathroom, they scatter like pigeons to offer her a place at the mirror. She turns her nose up at cigarettes and when she moves away, they mash tobacco fibres underfoot. In the lunchroom, she says she dislikes beer but has three favourite kinds of wine. The girls nod and agree that all beer tastes the same.

On her walk home, she kicks at acorns and lifts her hands to cherry blossoms drifting like pastel comets. She peers into rotting oak stumps, nudges caterpillar nests with twigs, tests whether her shoes will imprint dampened moss. More than once she has rescued a desiccated earthworm from a crack in the sidewalk, returning it to desperate parents sheltering in the shadows. Secretly, she longs to know how bridges are built, to be inside things, but she avoids the men in hard hats who aren’t interested in her dreams. She does not acknowledge horn blasts and tires that squeal at close range, only stiffens her spine, makes herself bulletproof.

In the kitchen, her mother’s shadow darkens her homework. After the standoff, tears cling to long lashes. When the flood subsides, she joins her mother at the sink, rinsing tomato cans and peeling labels from glass. Tensions are softened with ice cream.

At bedtime, her mother removes her crown, sets its pointy spires on a nightstand dotted with pink elephants. The girl insists on a dust cover so it will be ready again by morning.

The cars push ahead when the lights change. Children’s toys hit the pavement. The breeze flows un- obstructed through the gate. »

from subTerrain #70: Outsiders

* Broken Social Scene released “Anthems for a Seventeen- Year-Old Girl” in 2002.

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