Dispatch from the Carnival #5: Instructions for Losing Your Head

By

Put on your hospital gown. Step quietly onto the rickety side stage and try not to ruffle the curtains surrounding it. If you do ruffle the curtains, or even if you don’t, a child or teenager or adult might pull the curtain away from the stage anyway, peering inside at you, wanting to know the trick so she won’t be made a fool. She will catch you mid-slide into the illusion, will see your whole body with attached head right there, will call her younger brother over to come check out what she’s discovered backstage. This is not a moment for human connection.

*

The girl slides off the mother’s brace, the sock beneath. The mother is sitting on the bed, knows now, with five years of practice, to let the muscles on the left side of her body flare then squeeze and hold the bones of her whole body together, an ocean keeping a tree upright, afloat, way, way out.

The girl unzips her vest, removes her glasses. There is much work to be done to keep up with the rush of life on the vertical plane, the y-axis. All the therapies, all the doctors, working toward that y. The mother peers past the girl’s busy hands to her face. A grimace, a furrow of concentration. dispacht#5_1The mother isn’t wearing a helmet today, not anymore, even though beneath her shaggy grey hair her skull has a ledge. The absent bone makes a canyon over a quarter of her head where just below the skin’s surface her brain is firing and firing and always still bleeding.

 *

Ms. Olga Hess, the headless woman, a miracle of modern science. When the curtain is opened and they look at you, the audience will see a full woman’s body, arms and legs flailing, in a chair surrounded by plastic tubes which light up red and green and blue. Sparkly. They’ll see the chest and collarbone of a woman’s body and then, apparently piercing the flesh, a metal pole where a head should be. Metal for brain, for hair, for cheek.

Here she is for you today you hope, you want, running as you do between illusions backstage, you boxjumper, sliding your body into one and then another—spider-woman, electric-woman, four-legged woman—but this headlessness is your favorite. Inside, you are all body, no face, no eyes. You are part of a long tradition of women who have lost parts of themselves. Know that you will be whole only when you run behind the curtain to slide yourself between the wooden planks of the next box, only when nobody is looking at you.

*

The mother holds the girl’s shoulder with the one good arm as they lean down toward the bed. The girl shifts the mother’s hips, lifts the right leg onto the bed, hears the crinkle of her diaper and her short baby-breaths and a dog barking outside as this new rented house creaks deep in its wood because it doesn’t want to be part of this story. Or the girl doesn’t want to be part of this story. Or I don’t.

Usually, this is where I tuck her in, kiss her forehead, and leave. Lace up my running shoes, move as quickly as I can down the shaded streets of my hometown on foot, breathing hard, trying not to notice neighbors who want to talk about her prognosis. Or I close myself into the kitchen to do homework, grade papers, or hustle around the stove to prepare a meal or walk slow circles in the bathroom and talk myself out of taking any of the painkillers singing their siren songs in their orange dresses.

*

If someone is holding the curtain open who should not be holding the curtain open, politely ask her to close the curtain. Change your tone as the season wears on and everything starts to harden. Use the loudest-mean-whisper you can muster. Say shut the curtain. Then, use only your arm when you see a peeker, a fast, wide swipe across the air in front of you toward their body, the most basic warning, and then, say nothing at all.dispacht#5_2 Do nothing with your arms, but kick hard and fast toward the body of the person staring in at you, child or adult. Try to avoid contact but don’t worry if you don’t succeed. Kick them in the body. Hard. This movement will not be not separate from the rest of your body’s slide as you scoot in sideways, press flat to the chair, body tipping low and back, one leg coiled and ready for contact should anyone try to discover your secret. To get flat is dangerous.

*

Instead of leaving, I lie down. I am tired. Or. I hold open the covers and slide in beside her. Why this time, after so long of refusing to be still? She turns to me, takes that one good hand and places it on my cheek. It is warm, and dry, and gentle. We have left the vertical plane where I hold her up and wipe her crack. We are horizontal people now and somehow, that shift has reorganized the nature of how and who we once were to each other. Her hand on my cheek, my hair, is the move a mother makes to her child. She slides her fingers along my neck, runs them, very softly, through my hair. It’s too much to bear. Has been too many years since I have felt this much tenderness and I don’t have a place for it anymore and that is the awful price of coping.

*

Slide into the chair and crane your neck around the metal pole. Do not hit your head or you’ll make a noise and you’ll have to kick in someone’s teeth. Scooch back and up and stretch your neck all the way up inside the wooden box, mirrored on the outside, tight and hot on the inside, drape the blanket across your lap to look like what a sick person should look like, and arch your back. Sit straight up so the metal pole which reaches down into the chair presses its angled tip against your breastplate, into the freckled hollow between and just above your breasts, press it hard enough that this spot will, for six months, be a little bruised in service of the illusion. Hunch your shoulders forward to cover any space behind the box, and ready your arms to grasp out wild and blind once the curtain is pulled. Never reach your hands higher than your shoulders, never try to touch your own headless head, or your hands may shine back in the mirror to the audience, and then what miracle will they have to believe in? Instead, spread your fingers wide and keep them low, parallel to the dirt, reaching for the dirt, shaking and alive, very alive, trapped in this headless body, escaping into the greatness of your own extraordinary possibility.

*

We are two soft horizontal bodies breathing. Other mothers and other daughters in the world and in time lie side by side and pass on the secrets of the universe and what are they, what are they. My mother’s beautiful soft grey hair falls over the missing chunks of her head and still she reaches her hand out and away from what isn’t there anymore on her own tender skull, and more importantly, more heartbreakingly, what is. What does she think about what is gone, or what remains? I reach my hand out and trace the edges of her missing skull to tell her a secret of the universe, I think to reach my hand out, I want to, I don’t. We two are just one hand, her hand, moving against the skin and hair of another. Outside language, its own language, one hand, one head, and I am overcome with a tearing inside. Tears are pouring out the corner of my eyes and my hands are moving up to meet them because we’ve been warned we may not cry in front of her, may not show her our sorrow for fear of killing her hope.

*

dispacht#5_3Hope there is not a yellow jacket stuck inside the small wooden box your head must stay in for the duration of the act. Hope it is not 107° in Kansas in August and hope you don’t faint with your face in the heat box, your body under extra blankets and costumes. Hope your coworkers have not lined the inside of the box with torture porn or midget porn or clown porn. Hope you’ll be able to regain your head after the curtain closes and you slide sideways out of the box, hope you won’t have to kick any strangers on the way out, hope your shoes are where you left them and haven’t fallen behind the stage, hope your makeup hasn’t melted completely off, hope you’re suffering enough to atone for the suffering of others.

When you move between the worlds of head and no head, know that you must move parallel to the earth. You must change your plane, reinvent your orientation until in front of you is sky and below you is the black earth, and that is your passageway sister, mother, boxjumper, you are your own door into a world of a different kind. You x-axis. You flattened miracle.

***

Rumpus original art by Xavier Almeida.


Tessa Fontaine is the author of The Electric Woman: A Memoir in Death-Defying Acts (FSG, May 2018). Her writing has appeared in PANK, Seneca Review, The Rumpus, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere, including Hayden's Ferry Review, where her essay that won the AWP Intro Award was published. She has been teaching in prisons for five years, and founded a Writers in the Schools program in Salt Lake City. Find more: www.TessaFontaine.com. More from this author →