And yet she cannot find a word to say.
But he, the stranger, opens his voice. He sings to her like a parent, cradling her head.
“The years have passed my baby girl, the years have gone to stay
so far in distant lands we know
in distant lands we pray.”
He smiles with his voice, here in the dust and dark. He could be sixteen and a lover with that voice. But no, he is old and wise. His words fall atop her shoulders like a warm blanket. The clarity of it strikes her. The voice is the tongue of the bell, and his ringing echoes and echoes.
It doesn’t matter that he is singing nonsense.
It doesn’t matter that she will die.
She wants him to say that word, that word that took her life away.
And suddenly, everything is clear.
She is a madwoman. She can see herself from a distance, can see an old man’s arms around her. She has crumpled her body on the cold tile, and there are chill bumps rising on her arms.
She remembers how her sister gave her away so many years ago. They had been walking home from Sunday School, decked in matching polka dot dresses. She had been dancing already by then. She danced across the dirt on the back path home. They were only poor black kids, but she had seen her future.
Her sister’s name was Hope.
“Mother,” Hope had said, pulling on the hem of her cotton skirt, “Bea is crazy.”
“I am not!”
On the path behind them, the little dancer stood still. Hope was older, Hope was smarter, Hope hated the dancing. But Bea could not stop it. She wasn’t crazy. Even so, she ran at her sister and pushed her to the ground. Hope screamed, their mother pulled them apart, and little Bea ran straight home.
It was she the dancer girl forever alone against the world. Every day, she fought them off in hundreds, those who would threaten her with their eyes. She alone stood at the quiet center of the storm, as if time had stopped only for her.
But she was only in a high school cafeteria, or on an audition stage under bright lights, or at home staring at a math problem. She was only trapped inside her mind, circling like a lost moth who couldn’t find her moon. Always, her eyes were round.
Every day was a battle.
She hadn’t meant to.
She hadn’t meant to drink so much at the party and get behind the wheel. Her side of the silver car crunched up like an accordion when it hit the truck. Bea sat in the passenger seat. She remembers mostly screaming, though that may have come from her own head. There was not time to scream. There was not even time to look her sister in the eye before she died. Bea walked free.
How could Hope have died but Beauty lived?
After that, Bea was Beauty.
Her life has been one long, tortuous spiral. She has let herself become this thing. She can no longer identify with people; she can no longer see the light from the bottom of this hole.
But even now, she cannot see any other path she could have walked.
She is losing the clarity. All her thoughts turn back into themselves. The man still sings, no hums, a quiet tune. She wishes that it would rise back up into a voice so that she could more easily grab hold of its meaning. Suddenly, she desires nothing more than to laugh.
She throws back her head and cackles. In the dim mirror, she looks like a hyena. She arcs her spine, throwing off the stranger’s warm arms. More than anything in the world, she loves the feel of her body in motion. She stands.
“Beauty!” the man calls, as if he is losing her. He is so old. His body cannot move like hers. He finds her perfect, she knows. He deserves her story. He deserves her care. She cannot give it to him. She stares down at him, hoping her eyes convey her sorrow. She worries that she is only cold.
The scissors find their way back to her hand. This time, she does not hesitate. The fat snake of hair comes down in her hands, a deadweight. The man, Marvin, protests in a feeble way, putting up a hand and uttering a cry after it is too late.
She offers him her hair. Solemnly, he takes it from her hands.
Then, she is crying, crying, crying. She is dying, dying, dying.
Has she lived? She cannot tell.
Marvin drives her to the hospital. He holds her hand in the waiting room. He reads her children’s books and brings her food. Within two weeks, she is dead.
Beauty was mad. She was everything that was wrong and a few sacred things that were perfect.
These days, if you set out on a search for her, you will never find her. Only if you chase your own life to its very bounds may you see her, waving in the distance. She will welcome you with open arms, and you may fall into her strong body. So wise, she will say,
“This is death. This is the product of living.”
And you will stare at her for ages, entranced.