…a love letter to an obstinate genre that won't be gentrified. It's a wild thing, this book, covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi, and borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror…Not since Karen Russell's St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves…has a debut collection of short stories from a relatively unknown author garnered such attention, or deserved it more…Machado is fluent in the vocabulary of fairy tales…but she remixes it to her own ends. Her fiction is both matter-of-factly and gorgeously queer. She writes about loving and living with women and men with such heat and specificity that it feels revelatory…But if Machado is strong on pleasure, she's better on despair, on our rage at our bodiesfor their ugliness and unruliness, their excess and inadequacy and, worst of all, their temerity to abandon us altogether…Fairy tales were meant to inoculate us against dread, or so the theory goes; to offer children controlled exposure to frightening things…Machado offers a more complicated solace. She doesn't contain our terror, she stokes it and teaches us about it. We see what her characters cannotthat some of the scariest monsters come from within. And learning to identify what to fear, and to fear the right things, can be a kind of power.
“[These stories] vibrate with originality, queerness, sensuality and the strange.”Roxane Gay
“In these formally brilliant and emotionally charged tales, Machado gives literal shape to women’s memories and hunger and desire. I couldn’t put it down.”Karen Russell
In Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blithely demolishes the arbitrary borders between psychological realism and science fiction, comedy and horror, fantasy and fabulism. While her work has earned her comparisons to Karen Russell and Kelly Link, she has a voice that is all her own. In this electric and provocative debut, Machado bends genre to shape startling narratives that map the realities of women’s lives and the violence visited upon their bodies.
A wife refuses her husband’s entreaties to remove the green ribbon from around her neck. A woman recounts her sexual encounters as a plague slowly consumes humanity. A salesclerk in a mall makes a horrifying discovery within the seams of the store’s prom dresses. One woman’s surgery-induced weight loss results in an unwanted houseguest. And in the bravura novella “Especially Heinous,” Machado reimagines every episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, a show we naïvely assumed had shown it all, generating a phantasmagoric police procedural full of doppelgängers, ghosts, and girls with bells for eyes.
Earthy and otherworldly, antic and sexy, queer and caustic, comic and deadly serious, Her Body and Other Parties swings from horrific violence to the most exquisite sentiment. In their explosive originality, these stories enlarge the possibilities of contemporary fiction.
Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado, is a love letter to an obstinate genre that won’t be gentrified. It’s a wild thing, this book, covered in sequins and scales, blazing with the influence of fabulists from Angela Carter to Kelly Link and Helen Oyeyemi, and borrowing from science fiction, queer theory and horror. . . . Not since Karen Russell’s St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, in 2006, has a debut collection of short stories from a relatively unknown author garnered such attention, or deserved it more.”Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
“Carmen Maria Machado has managed to have readers, critics and everyone in-between sitting on the edge of their seats for the chance to read her debut story collection. . . . Part science fiction, part fantasy and all fun, Machado’s stories deal with the sometimes unbelievable reality of being a woman in a way you won’t see coming; in a way that is entirely her own.”NBC "Today Show"
“[Machado’s] use of a vivid experimental lens to show women struggling for agency is startling.”The New Yorker
“An abrupt, original, and wild collection of stories, full of outlandish myths that somehow catch at familiar, unspoken truths about being women in the world that more straightforward or realist writing wouldn’t.”NPR.org
“[Her Body and Other Parties] is that hallowed thing: an example of almost preposterous talent that also encapsulates something vital but previously diffuse about the moment. . . . Machado is a master of such pointed formal play, of queering genre and the supposed laws of reality to present alternative possibilities. . . . Machado reveals just how original, subversive, proud and joyful it can be to write from deep in the gut, evenespeciallyif the gut has been bruised.”Los Angeles Times
“[Her Body and Other Parties is] written in prose so textured that you want to rub her phrases between your fingertips. . . . A muscular strain of feminism runs through this book, whose contemplation of the female body is bound up in sex, power, pleasure, pain, and the fitful struggle against self-loathing. Rarely is a writer as skilled as Machado at evoking corporeality: the myriad sensations of inhabiting flesh and bone, with all its messiness and ecstasies. . . . [Machado] blend[s] disparate, jostling elements to achieve a ferocious alchemy.”The Boston Globe
“The book abounds with fantastical premises that ring true because the intensity of sexual desire, the mutability of the body, and the realities of gender inequality make them so. . . . These stories stand as exquisitely rendered, poignant hauntings.”San Francisco Chronicle
“Cross-pollenating fairy tales, horror movies, TV shows, and a terrific sense of humor, [Machado’s] work reminds me at different times of such wildly divergent figures as David Lynch, Jane Campion, Maggie Nelson, and Grace Paley; which is a way of saying, Machado sounds like nobody but herself. . . . [An] imaginative and enjoyable collection, which charts dark territory with enormous style, wit, and storytelling panache.”John Powers, NPR “Fresh Air”
“Her Body and Other Parties is an astonishing debut, dark and glittering, like a night, or a knife. The stories in this book unroll like millipedes, smooth shells of lyric giving way to sharp joints and flailing, alien limbs.”Bookforum
“Machado’s stories . . . have reverberated among readers with the prophetic force of a soothsayer’s divinations.”Vulture
“Imaginative, unsettling, haunting stories.”BuzzFeed
“With supernatural flair, an engaging pop culture awareness . . . and an intimate, unrelenting style that grabs you by the throat and sinks its perfectly-polished nails in, Machado explores 'femaleness' in a way that makes women who evaporate or telepathically hear the thoughts of porn stars feel eerily, impossibly, like long-lost friends.”Harper’s Bazaar
“In her twistedly original and thrilling debut short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado blends both the terrifying and the horrible into a psychologically realistic and darkly comic mixture. . . . Simultaneously hot and chilling, these stories leave the reader enthralled and shaken.”Chicago Tribune
“Thrilling and page-turning, smart and fearless, and very likely the best book of the year.”Jezebel
“Machado brushes past taboo to treat women’s sexuality with frankness and lyricism. . . . These daring stories are deeply feminist, but never dogmatically so, slipping into the murky places where we begin to fear our desires and desire what we fear.”Slate
“Between its covers, we find ourselves inside a gorgeously warped reflection of the world in which we actually live. It’s recognizable as our own, but everything is a little more lurid, a little more queer, a little more violent, a little more magical than what we’re used to.”Nylon
“It’s rare to discover an author who can catalyze a reader’s laughter and fear in mere pages, but Machado succeeds again and again, placing herself alongside names like Angela Carter, Kelly Link, Helen Oyeyemi and Karen Russell when it comes to genre-bending fiction with a dark bent. . . . This gloriously engaging and utterly queer collection is necessary reading.”Paste
“With her first book Machado has already emerged a master of several beloved genres. . . . Her work could be placed in conversation with a host of fiction writers who inscribe the walls of such stories with fairy-tale magicAngela Carter, Kelly Link, Alexandra Kleeman, Aimee Bender, and Lesley Nneka Arimah come to mind. But there are stories here too that possess a courageous and indelible originality.”The Village Voice
“With Machado, everything feels razed and built anew. . . . [Her Body and Other Parties] feels determined to live well beyond annual prize-giving cycles, to become that classic misfit survivor that readers and writers keep returning to.”Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
“Machado’s writing is full of repressed physical energy and the raw juice of annihilating female fury. The body is the subject, the culprit, the innocent. Standard accessories like ribbons become frightful. She does unimaginable things with a prom dress. But these stories are also funnywhich really made me uneasybecause I could hear in my laugh that same squawk a tiny dog makes in moments of duress.”Louise Erdrich, The Millions
“Her success comes not just from the strength of her voice, but from the idea that by recentering classic genre stories on the women who haunt their edges, and diving deep into their subconscious, territory still ripe for exploration will open up.”Vox
“The stories in this book are of the finest quality: sexy and threatening, strange and playful.”Literary Hub
“Her Body and Other Parties is a masterful assemblage of tales that is at once luminous and dingy, sexy and terrifying, queer and mundane. These wondrous stories remind readers not only that the lives of women are full of paradoxes and contradictions, but that fiction as an endeavor is especially powerful when it takes as its task the examination of these ambiguities.”The Rumpus
“Machado’s first collection of short fiction is finally here for all to enjoy and marvel at. . . . Surreal and subversive, this debut standsout no matter the company.”W Magazine
“A refreshingand provocativeread.”The Nation
“She writes with a sincerity I didn’t realize I was missing until I found it in these pages; it’s rare to encounter an articulation of feminist themes that isn’t self-conscious of them. . . . Machado’s work, like her characters, is accessible and nuanced, textured without being overwrought.”Lauren Kane, The Paris Review Staff Picks
“Carmen Maria Machado is an Angela Carter for 2017: Both of them have a distinctively gothic, bloody, dark fairy tale sensibility, but unlike Carter, Machado is overtly queer, feminist, and body-positive. What’s most striking about Machado’s [Her Body and Other Parties] . . . is how insistently her women are embodied, and how clearly their oppression manifests itself on their bodies.”Vox
“Machado’s debut is the most blisteringly brilliant story collection of the fall.”Book Riot
“All good story collections are in some sense unified by a style or theme that binds the book together, but few cohere with as much force and energy as this book. . . . Her Body and Other Parties is an artful powerhouse and a writing textbook rolled into one. It is fearsome and fearless. It is a book that won’t be forgotten.”Los Angeles Review of Books
“Her work is brazenly unapologetic, or perhaps unapologetically brazen. Her fearlessness, combined with some spellbinding writing, delivers stories that are at once discomfiting and revelatory.”Washington Independent Review of Books
“Artfully structured stories. . . . [Her Body and Other Parties is] a vibrant collection that presents women in their vulnerabilities and strengths in relationships with men, in relationships with other women, and in reflection upon their own bodies as they sort through the social conventions that have long stifled their full expression of self.”Seattle Review of Books
“Her Body and Other Parties is as strong, and strange, a short story collection as any you’ll read this year. From story to story, often from paragraph to paragraph, Machado mixes and matches genresa fairy tale here and a post-apocalyptic vision there, a little science fiction sprinkled with a little body horrorreconfiguring old tropes and helping us to see what is at stake in them.”Commonweal
“Machado’s writing is embodied and sensuous.”Tor.com
“Her Body and Other Parties may be Carmen Maria Machado’s first book, but it’s one that puts her squarely front of mind as one of the most talented writers today. There are no rules in the stories she puts forth; instead, it’s all about buckling up and enjoying therideand boy, is it an enjoyable ride.”PopSugar
“The prose is inventive and unrestrained, with the deliberate precision of a spider that probably, usually, kills her mates. . . . Each story is its own, gripping universe, but perhaps even more impressive: Machado exudes a palpable sense of defiance on the page, slipping out of the trappings of what separates 'literary fiction' from erotica; 'serious' work from fantasy; love from lust. Her women often exist not as women with insatiable sexual appetites for the man or woman opposite them, but for sex itselfan idea so simple, yet radical in our present culture.”Girlboss
“Each [story] is clever, provocative and refreshingly new.”MPR News
“This book feels like meeting Angela Carter for a wild night of drinking and dancing. The experimentation with form is simply astonishing, and there is a directness in the treatment of sexuality and identity that is both refreshing and deeply affecting. I assume that I’ll reread this book every year for the rest of my life.”Rakesh Satyal, The Millions
“Her Body and Other Parties is compelling, gloriously weird, and, though some of the narrators are occasionally deeply frightened, the stories collected are nothing less than fearless. Genre and gender bending, erudite and steamy, Machado’s stories manage to defy expectation and be compulsively readable.”New York Journal of Books
“Machado melds folklore and fabulist images with the raw realities of love, sex, queerness and alienation, forging a poetic sensibility that's full and alive with possibilities in a way that narrower realism could never match. . . . Machado pulls everything together with bravura. . . . [Her Body and Other Parties] demonstrates that literature, when forthright and brave, can simultaneously dig deep within the self and reframe the greater world.”Shelf Awareness
“Machado is a revolution. She is at once a funny, dark, terrifying, uplifting anti-Lovecraft who observes in the everyday oppressions of heteropatriarchy and late capitalism what is truly horrifying, nonetheless finding release in the dark’s nooks and crannies. . . . Her Body and Other Parties is fiery, mischievous, and elusive. Like the worlds Machado glimpses: brutal and yet life-affirming.”World Literature Today
“Machado understands and commands the body so well it proliferates the text, and the reader is left with gasps and sighs. . . . [Her Body and Other Parties] is poetic and powerful, a profound call to action.”The Brooklyn Rail
“A surreal powerhouse of a book.”Vol. 1 Brooklyn
“Machado bends much more than genre in these brilliant storiesshe’s bending the very fabric of storytelling, working with new models of textuality, orality, and corporeality.”Ploughshares
“Reminiscent of the work of Shirley Jackson, Angela Carter, Kelly Link, and Mariana Enriquez, Machado remixes strands of myth, horror, and pop culture and gives us something uniquely her own. Her Body and Other Parties is as much a thrilling reading experience as it is a powerful and important exploration of women’s lives.”Lambda Literary
“A rich work of literary horror. . . . An instant classic.”The Riveter
“The world of Carmen Maria Machado is bright and bizarre, full of magic and haunted places.”Hazlitt
“Stunning. . . . What Maachado is doing here couldn’t really be done within the bounds of conventional SF or fantasy, but it couldn’t be done without it eitherand that’s part of what makes Her Body and Other Parties as important as it is exciting.”Locus
“This collection is brilliant, stunning and strangea wholly evocative read.”The Fold
“These are stories that listen more than they speak. . . . Machado, refusing victimhood, turns her relatively hidden position into a strength. She uses it as a form of protest, like her invisible girls in ‘Real Women Have Bodies’, to say that, although the world keeps coming up with new and interesting ways to convince us that some women are worth less, worth nothing, she knows better.”The White Review
“Within that crisp writing style are humor and sorrow and a seamless mashup of genres: from horror and fantasy to domestic drama. . . . The world of Machado’s heroines starts out just a bit divergent from the one we recognize, revealing twists and contortions that still seem bizarre but real.”Pasatiempo
“An original, stylistically cohesive, steadfastly queer book of stories.”San Antonio Current
“The best surrealist fiction resides somewhere between the eerie and the actual, and that’s exactly where Carmen Maria Machado feels most at home. . . . A stunning debut.”Los Angeles Magazine
“The collection unpacks queerness, the female body, feminism, and the fantastic with a surrealism that will leave you aching.”Philadelphia Weekly
“Her Body and Other Parties is a one-of-a-kind collection a potent blend of atavistic spookiness and hallucinatory modernity, told with verve, witchiness, and wit. This is the kind of book that will leave you haunted, and thrilled, by the possibilities of contemporary fiction.”Dallas Morning News
“Machado blends a heady mix of fairy tales, erotica and magic realism that toys with the readers’ expectations and lingers in the imagination afterwards.”San Diego City Beat
“A blend of horror, erotica and fairytale that makes for an original, stylistically cohesive, steadfastly queer book of stories.”Orlando Weekly
“These are weird, sexy, scary tales that thrum at the electrifying junction of fear and desire.”Indiana Review
“These stories are at once apocalyptic, timeless and brutally timely. . . . They are merciless in their prescience, hearken to the gothic and pre-gothic origins of magic, and are rooted in the brutality of womanhood. . . . Do not miss this bitingly clever, astonishing work.”Book Reporter
“This could be a book that changes how you look at the world, but that’s not necessarily Machado’s goal. Really, it’s for the ones who already look at the world with mistrust. For them, these stories say: I believe you.”Fiction Unbound
“Electrifying. . . . Machado moves from the surreal to the real and back again with incredible ease. This spellbinding collection marks the arrival of an impressive new writer.”BookPage
“Delightfully visceral, these stories invite the reader to witness and experience the various traumas and pleasures that women live in their day-to-day lives as they are translated into a generic cornucopia of horror, fabulism, surrealism, and more.”American Microreviews & Interviews
“Weird, sexy, funny and imaginative.”PureWow
“Genre and gender bending, erudite and steamy, Machado’s stories manage to defy expectation and be compulsively readable. . . . They launch the reader into a realm rarely seen in fiction, and the journey, at times discomfiting, is always exhilarating.”The Military Spouse Book Review
“Machado’s debut collection brings together eight stories that showcase her fluency in the bizarre, magical, and sharply frightening depths of the imagination. . . . The fierceness and abundance of sex and desire in these stories, the way emotion is inextricably connected with the concerns of the body, makes even the most outlandish imaginings strangely familiar. Machado writes with furious grace. She plays with form and expectation in ways that are both funny and elegant but never obscure. . . . An exceptional and pungently inventive first book.”Kirkus Reviews, starred review
“Machado creates eerie, inventive worlds shimmering with supernatural swerves in this engrossing debut collection. . . . Machado builds entire interior lives through sparse and minor details, turning even litanies of refrigerator contents and free-association on the coming of autumn into memorable meditations on identity and female disempowerment. . . . Machado’s slightly slanted world echoes our own in ways that will entertain, challenge, and move readers.”Publishers Weekly, starred review
“The writing is always lyrical, the narration refreshingly direct, and the sex abundant, and although the supernatural elements are not overt, every story is terrifying. These weird tales present a slightly askew version of the world as we know it and force us, no matter our gender, to reconsider our current life choices and relationships.”Booklist, starred review
“This brilliant debut compilation showcases a fresh literary voice. Machado’s originality and emotional acumen make her a match for Karen Russell or Kelly Link. Highly recommended.”Library Journal, starred review
Eight unearthly and imaginative stories comprise this debut story collection. "Especially Heinous" stands out as a peculiar and enchanting retelling of episodes from the TV series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU). With its malevolent doppelgängers mimicking both lead characters, while a host of girls-with-bells-for-eyes haunt the increasingly unhinged detective Olivia, this novella ensures that its readers will never watch reruns of SVU without drawing upon Machado's novella as a frame of reference. Collectively, the stories reflect the commonplace reality wherein women's bodies are not their own. Two pieces in particular make this grim connection. In "The Husband Stitch," Machado puts her own spin on an urban legend wherein a young wife struggles against her husband's persistent attempts to remove a green ribbon from her neck. In "Real Women Have Bodies," women have slowly begun to disappear, seemingly without widespread alarm. VERDICT Including stories previously published in such journals as Granta and The New Yorker, this brilliant debut compilation showcases a fresh literary voice. Machado's originality and emotional acumen make her a match for Karen Russell or Kelly Link. Highly recommended.—Faye Chadwell, Oregon State Univ., Corvallis
Machado's debut collection brings together eight stories that showcase her fluency in the bizarre, magical, and sharply frightening depths of the imagination.Each of the stories in this collection has, at its center, a strange and surprising idea that communicates, in a shockingly visceral way, the experience of living inside a woman's body. In "The Husband Stitch," Machado turns the well-known horror story about a girl who wears a green ribbon around her neck inside out, transforming the worn childhood nightmare into a blistering exploration of female desire and the insidious entitlement that society claims over the female body. "Especially Heinous" turns 12 seasons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit into a disorienting, lonely, and oddly hopeful crime procedural crammed with ghosts and doppelgängers. "Difficult at Parties" depicts a woman trying to recover from a sexual assault. She watches porn in the hope that it will help her reconnect with her boyfriend and discovers that she can somehow hear the thoughts of the actors on the screen. Women fade out of their physical bodies and get incorporated into prom dresses. They get gastric bypass surgery, suffer epidemics, have children, go to artist residencies. They have a lot of sex. The fierceness and abundance of sex and desire in these stories, the way emotion is inextricably connected with the concerns of the body, makes even the most outlandish imaginings strangely familiar. Machado writes with furious grace. She plays with form and expectation in ways that are both funny and elegant but never obscure. "If you are reading this story out loud," one story suggests, "give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb." With Machado's skill, this feels not like a quirk or a flourish but like a perfectly appropriate direction. An exceptional and pungently inventive first book.
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
- 2017 Kirkus Prize Finalists
- 2017 National Book Awards->Fiction Finalists
- 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award Finalists
- 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award Winners
- 2018 Dylan Thomas Prize Shortlist
- 2018 Lambda Literary Award Winners
- 21st Century Hispanic/Latino Fiction
- American Short Stories - 21st Century
- Elle's Best Books of 2017
- John Leonard Prize->National Book Critics Circle Winners
- Lesbian Fiction->Lambda Literary Award
- LGBT Short Stories
- Los Angeles Times Best Fiction of 2017
- O, The Oprah Magazine's Favorite Books of 2017
- Publishers Weekly's Best Fiction of 2017
- The New Yorker's Books We Loved in 2017
Read an Excerpt
THE HUSBAND STITCH
(If you read this story out loud, please use the following voices:
ME: as a child, high-pitched, forgettable; as a woman, the same.
THE BOY WHO WILL GROW INTO A MAN, AND BE MY SPOUSE: robust with serendipity.
MY FATHER: kind, booming; like your father, or the man you wish was your father.
MY SON: as a small child, gentle, sounding with the faintest of lisps; as a man, like my husband.
ALL OTHER WOMEN: interchangeable with my own.)
In the beginning, I know I want him before he does. This isn't how things are done, but this is how I am going to do them. I am at a neighbor's party with my parents, and I am seventeen. I drink half a glass of white wine in the kitchen with the neighbor's teenage daughter. My father doesn't notice. Everything is soft, like a fresh oil painting.
The boy is not facing me. I see the muscles of his neck and upper back, how he fairly strains out of his button-down shirts, like a day laborer dressed up for a dance, and I run slick. And it isn't that I don't have choices. I am beautiful. I have a pretty mouth. I have breasts that heave out of my dresses in a way that seems innocent and perverse at the same time. I am a good girl, from a good family. But he is a little craggy, in that way men sometimes are, and I want. He seems like he could want the same thing.
I once heard a story about a girl who requested something so vile from her paramour that he told her family and they had her hauled her off to a sanatorium. I don't know what deviant pleasure she asked for, though I desperately wish I did. What magical thing could you want so badly they take you away from the known world for wanting it?
The boy notices me. He seems sweet, flustered. He says hello. He asks my name.
I have always wanted to choose my moment, and this is the moment I choose.
On the deck, I kiss him. He kisses me back, gently at first, but then harder, and even pushes open my mouth a little with his tongue, which surprises me and, I think, perhaps him as well. I have imagined a lot of things in the dark, in my bed, beneath the weight of that old quilt, but never this, and I moan. When he pulls away, he seems startled. His eyes dart around for a moment before settling on my throat.
"What's that?" he asks.
"Oh, this?" I touch the ribbon at the back of my neck. "It's just my ribbon." I run my fingers halfway around its green and glossy length, and bring them to rest on the tight bow that sits in the front. He reaches out his hand, and I seize it and press it away.
"You shouldn't touch it," I say. "You can't touch it."
Before we go inside, he asks if he can see me again. I tell him that I would like that. That night, before I sleep, I imagine him again, his tongue pushing open my mouth, and my fingers slide over myself and I imagine him there, all muscle and desire to please, and I know that we are going to marry.
We do. I mean, we will. But first, he takes me in his car, in the dark, to a lake with a marshy edge that is hard to get close to. He kisses me and clasps his hand around my breast, my nipple knotting beneath his fingers.
I am not truly sure what he is going to do before he does it. He is hard and hot and dry and smells like bread, and when he breaks me I scream and cling to him like I am lost at sea. His body locks onto mine and he is pushing, pushing, and before the end he pulls himself out and finishes with my blood slicking him down. I am fascinated and aroused by the rhythm, the concrete sense of his need, the clarity of his release. Afterward, he slumps in the seat, and I can hear the sounds of the pond: loons and crickets, and something that sounds like a banjo being plucked. The wind picks up off the water and cools my body down.
I don't know what to do now. I can feel my heart beating between my legs. It hurts, but I imagine it could feel good. I run my hand over myself and feel strains of pleasure from somewhere far off. His breathing becomes quieter and I realize that he is watching me. My skin is glowing beneath the moonlight coming through the window. When I see him looking, I know I can seize that pleasure like my fingertips tickling the very end of a balloon's string that has almost drifted out of reach. I pull and moan and ride out the crest of sensation slowly and evenly, biting my tongue all the while.
"I need more," he says, but he does not rise to do anything. He looks out the window, and so do I. Anything could move out there in the darkness, I think. A hook-handed man. A ghostly hitchhiker forever repeating the same journey. An old woman summoned from the repose of her mirror by the chants of children. Everyone knows these stories — that is, everyone tells them, even if they don't know them — but no one ever believes them.
His eyes drift over the water and then return to me.
"Tell me about your ribbon," he says.
"There's nothing to tell. It's my ribbon."
"May I touch it?"
"I want to touch it," he says. His fingers twitch a little, and I close my legs and sit up straighter.
Something in the lake muscles and writhes out of the water, and then lands with a splash. He turns at the sound.
"A fish," he says.
"Sometime," I tell him, "I will tell you the stories about this lake and her creatures."
He smiles at me, and rubs his jaw. A little of my blood smears across his skin, but he doesn't notice, and I don't say anything.
"I would like that very much," he says.
"Take me home," I tell him. And like a gentleman, he does.
That night, I wash myself. The silky suds between my legs are the color and scent of rust, but I am newer than I have ever been.
My parents are very fond of him. He is a nice boy, they say. He will be a good man. They ask him about his occupation, his hobbies, his family. He shakes my father's hand firmly, and tells my mother flatteries that make her squeal and blush like a girl. He comes around twice a week, sometimes thrice. My mother invites him in for supper, and while we eat I dig my nails into the meat of his leg. After the ice cream puddles in the bowl, I tell my parents that I am going to walk with him down the lane. We strike off through the night, holding hands sweetly until we are out of sight of the house. I pull him through the trees, and when we find a patch of clear ground I shimmy off my pantyhose, and on my hands and knees offer myself up to him.
I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them. I hear the metallic buckle of his pants and the shush as they fall to the ground, and I feel his half hardness against me. I beg him — "No teasing" — and he obliges. I moan and push back, and we rut in that clearing, groans of my pleasure and groans of his good fortune mingling and dissipating into the night. We are learning, he and I.
There are two rules: he cannot finish inside of me, and he cannot touch my green ribbon. He spends into the dirt, pat-pat-patting like the beginning of rain. I go to touch myself, but my fingers, which had been curling in the dirt beneath me, are filthy. I pull up my underwear and stockings. He makes a sound and points, and I realize that beneath the nylon, my knees are also caked in dirt. I pull my stockings down and brush, and then up again. I smooth my skirt and repin my hair. A single lock has escaped his slicked-back curls in his exertion, and I tuck it up with the others. We walk down to the stream and I run my hands in the current until they are clean again.
We stroll back to the house, arms linked chastely. Inside, my mother has made coffee, and we all sit around while my father asks him about business.
(If you read this story out loud, the sounds of the clearing can be best reproduced by taking a deep breath and holding it for a long moment. Then release the air all at once, permitting your chest to collapse like a block tower knocked to the ground. Do this again, and again, shortening the time between the held breath and the release.)
I have always been a teller of stories. When I was a young girl, my mother carried me out of a grocery store as I screamed about toes in the produce aisle. Concerned women turned and watched as I kicked the air and pounded my mother's slender back.
"Potatoes!" she corrected when we got back to the house. "Not toes!" She told me to sit in my chair — a child-sized thing, built for me — until my father returned. But no, I had seen the toes, pale and bloody stumps, mixed in among those russet tubers. One of them, the one that I had poked with the tip of my index finger, was cold as ice, and yielded beneath my touch the way a blister did. When I repeated this detail to my mother, something behind the liquid of her eyes shifted quick as a startled cat.
"You stay right there," she said.
My father returned from work that evening, and listened to my story, each detail.
"You've met Mr. Barns, have you not?" he asked me, referring to the elderly man who ran this particular market.
I had met him once, and I said so. He had hair white as a sky before snow, and a wife who drew the signs for the store windows.
"Why would Mr. Barns sell toes?" my father asked. "Where would he get them?"
Being young, and having no understanding of graveyards or mortuaries, I could not answer.
"And even if he got them somewhere," my father continued, "what would he have to gain by selling them amongst the potatoes?"
They had been there. I had seen them with my own eyes. But beneath the sunbeam of my father's logic, I felt my doubt unfurl.
"Most importantly," my father said, arriving triumphantly at his final piece of evidence, "why did no one notice the toes except for you?"
As a grown woman, I would have said to my father that there are true things in this world observed only by a single set of eyes. As a girl, I consented to his account of the story, and laughed when he scooped me from the chair to kiss me and send me on my way.
It is not normal that a girl teaches her boy, but I am only showing him what I want, what plays on the insides of my eyelids as I fall asleep. He comes to know the flicker of my expression as a desire passes through me, and I hold nothing back from him. When he tells me that he wants my mouth, the length of my throat, I teach myself not to gag and take all of him into me, moaning around the saltiness. When he asks me my worst secret, I tell him about the teacher who hid me in the closet until the others were gone and made me hold him there, and how afterward I went home and scrubbed my hands with a steel wool pad until they bled, even though the memory strikes such a chord of anger and shame that after I share this I have nightmares for a month. And when he asks me to marry him, days shy of my eighteenth birthday, I say yes, yes, please, and then on that park bench I sit on his lap and fan my skirt around us so that a passerby would not realize what was happening beneath it.
"I feel like I know so many parts of you," he says to me, knuckle-deep and trying not to pant. "And now, I will know all of them."
There is a story they tell, about a girl dared by her peers to venture to a local graveyard after dark. This was her folly: when they told her that standing on someone's grave at night would cause the inhabitant to reach up and pull her under, she scoffed. Scoffing is the first mistake a woman can make.
"Life is too short to be afraid of nothing," she said, "and I will show you."
Pride is the second mistake.
She could do it, she insisted, because no such fate would befall her. So they gave her a knife to stick into the frosty earth, as a way of proving her presence and her theory.
She went to that graveyard. Some storytellers say that she picked the grave at random. I believe she selected a very old one, her choice tinged by self-doubt and the latent belief that if she were wrong, the intact muscle and flesh of a newly dead corpse would be more dangerous than one centuries gone.
She knelt on the grave and plunged the blade deep. As she stood to run — for there was no one to see her fear — she found she couldn't escape. Something was clutching at her clothes. She cried out and fell to the ground.
When morning came, her friends arrived at the cemetery. They found her dead on the grave, the blade pinning the sturdy wool of her skirt to the earth. Dead of fright or exposure, would it matter when the parents arrived? She was not wrong, but it didn't matter anymore. Afterward, everyone believed that she had wished to die, even though she had died proving that she wanted to live.
As it turns out, being right was the third, and worst, mistake.
My parents are pleased about the marriage. My mother says that even though girls nowadays are starting to marry late, she married my father when she was nineteen, and was glad that she did.
When I select my wedding gown, I am reminded of the story of the young woman who wished to go to a dance with her lover, but could not afford a dress. She purchased a lovely white frock from a secondhand shop, and then later fell ill and passed from this earth. A doctor who examined her in her final days discovered that she had died from exposure to embalming fluid. It turned out that an unscrupulous undertaker's assistant had stolen the dress from the corpse of a bride.
The moral of that story, I think, is that being poor will kill you. I spend more on my dress than I intend, but it is very beautiful, and better than being dead. When I fold it into my hope chest, I think about the bride who played hide-and-go-seek on her wedding day and hid in the attic, in an old trunk that snapped shut around her and did not open. She was trapped there until she died. People thought that she had run away until years later, when a maid found her skeleton, in a white dress, folded inside that dark space. Brides never fare well in stories. Stories can sense happiness and snuff it out like a candle.
We marry in April, on an unseasonably cold afternoon. He sees me before the wedding, in my dress, and insists on kissing me deeply and reaching inside of my bodice. He becomes hard, and I tell him that I want him to use my body as he sees fit. I rescind my first rule, given the occasion. He pushes me against the wall and puts his hand against the tile near my throat, to steady himself. His thumb brushes my ribbon. He does not move his hand, and as he works himself in me he says, "I love you, I love you, I love you." I do not know if I am the first woman to walk up the aisle of St. George's with semen leaking down her leg, but I like to imagine that I am.
For our honeymoon, we go on a tour of Europe. We are not rich but we make it work. Europe is a continent of stories, and in between consummations, I learn them. We go from bustling, ancient metropolises to sleepy villages to Alpine retreats and back again, sipping spirits and pulling roasted meat from bones with our teeth, eating spaetzle and olives and ravioli and a creamy grain I do not recognize but come to crave each morning. We cannot afford a sleeper car on the train, but my husband bribes an attendant to permit us one hour in an empty room, and in that way we couple over the Rhine, my husband pinning me to the rickety frame and howling like something more primordial than the mountains we cross. I recognize that this is not the entire world, but it is the first part of it that I am seeing. I feel electrified by possibility.
(If you are reading this story out loud, make the sound of the bed under the tension of train travel and lovemaking by straining a metal folding chair against its hinges. When you are exhausted with that, sing the half-remembered lyrics of old songs to the person closest to you, thinking of lullabies for children.)
My cycle stops soon after we return from our trip. I tell my husband one night, after we are spent and sprawled across our bed. He glows with real delight.
"A child," he says. He lies back with his hands beneath his head. "A child." He is quiet for so long that I think that he's fallen asleep, but when I look over his eyes are open and fixed on the ceiling. He rolls on his side and gazes at me.
"Will the child have a ribbon?"
I feel my jaw tighten, and my hand fondles my bow involuntarily. My mind skips between many answers, and I settle on the one that brings me the least amount of anger.
"There is no saying, now," I tell him finally.
He startles me, then, running his hand around my throat. I put up my hands to stop him but he uses his strength, grabbing my wrists with one hand as he touches the ribbon with the other. He presses the silky length with his thumb. He touches the bow delicately, as if he is massaging my sex.
"Please," I say. "Please don't."
He does not seem to hear. "Please," I say again, my voice louder, but cracking in the middle.
He could have done it then, untied the bow, if he'd chosen to. But he releases me and rolls on his back as if nothing has happened. My wrists ache, and I rub them.
"I need a glass of water," I say. I get up and go to the bathroom. I run the tap and then frantically check my ribbon, tears caught in my lashes. The bow is still tight.
Excerpted from "Her Body and Other Parties"
Copyright © 2017 Carmen Maria Machado.
Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.