Rumpus Original Fiction: Curious


Curious, the townspeople call her, the girl with yellow eyes, yellow hair, jaundiced skin. Her parents name her Jonquil, feeding her fresh liver and bloody steaks to rid her of her hepatic complexion. They forbid her pineapples, lemons, the soft innards of squash that unfurl in ribbons beneath their forks—relentlessly diligent as they portion out the cuts of meat that ooze upon her plate. At night her stomach cramps and bloats, struggling to digest the carnivorous fare. In the kitchen, her gaze settles on the plump lobes of corn clinging to the cob, the pockmarked skins of grapefruit, fleshy chunks of yellow peppers. Watching while others feast.

The family fields are purged of daffodils, sunflowers, goldenrod. The delicate bowl-shaped faces of buttercups shredded by the dozen. Despite her parents’ interdictions, she stalks the local children, observes them playing with the blossoms, holding them to their chins like mirrors until they too exude a buttery glow. In her dreams, she imagines meadows of children with upturned faces that resemble her own. The visions resolving into nightmares as the fieldhands take scythes to the tender, stemlike necks, leaving behind acres of severed stalks. The workers act with the efficiency of men rooting out an infestation.



In time, the children’s games diverge into ominous pursuits. Filthy thumbs popping the heads off dandelions. The ragged scalps land mere inches from the bushes in which she hides, shrouded by a bower of cinquefoil and its bristling, serrated leaves. Alone in her bedroom, she tries to scrub the sulfur cast from her skin, applying toxic creams she has concocted from the crushed chimes of lily of the valley, but the pigment only settles more deeply into her pores, burnished and impervious. Alarmed, her parents sequester her inside, warn her stridently against contact with the sun. They cover the windows with heavy boards so that light barely enters the interior of the cottage. As the months pass, she grows intolerant of the slightest glare. Her skin thin and sensitized, the pores prone to weeping. For a time, her sebum retains the aroma of rotting verbena, until even that diurnal vestige fades, and with it, her affinity for flowers, fields, the open expanses of grasslands.


When she turns seven, her parents abandon their efforts to alter her, and consign her to the fate of an oddity, immutably different. Whereas before she could not escape their gaze, now she cannot meet it, their eyes always averted, focused elsewhere. They recoil from her presence, bursting into her room one morning and removing the boards from the windows so that she is driven from the house by the instantaneous eruption of light.


Left on her own, she surrenders to her urges, seeking out wild and wooded places, submerging herself in marshes and ponds, hiding under lichen-covered logs. She prefers states of dimness and dampness, her maturing limbs increasingly clammy to the touch, her skin easily burned—turning a caustic, cadmium tone, an acidic sheen that stings like citrus entering a wound.


When she returns home, she finds the doors and windows locked against her. Some evenings, at dusk, she spies on her parents as they toil over dinner, set the table with one plate missing, devour meals whose leavings she later picks from the compost pile, shouldering aside the other mongrels and scavengers that slink from the forest to feed. Within a few years, unfamiliar figures appear in the windows and garden, and she must acknowledge that her family has either disguised themselves or departed, and that both outcomes are essentially the same.


The villagers do not reach out to the orphan. Nor do they drive her from the woods—this concession is enough to absolve them of culpability in their minds. They warn their sons and daughters to keep their distance from her. But that only motivates the children to creep closer, to haunt her periphery, making sure she can hear them and see them when they play. The children are merciless, mocking her pale eyes and bilious tint, striking her with sticks and switches and words meant to maim.


By adolescence, the boys grow bold enough to congregate within a stone’s throw of wherever she situates herself. They dare one another to kiss her wide fishlike mouth, to touch her dank skin. Curious will turn you into a salamander, they taunt one another. Your legs will fall off, and you’ll grow a tail, and your parents will throw you into the mire, they say. And from her hiding place, she wonders if they are right.


One boy follows her more persistently than the rest, trailing her in the woods, watching her from the edge of the pond as she floats froglike under fronds of algae. There is no denying her disconcerting beauty, the way her skin glistens against the greenery, the gemlike facets of her eyes like shards of citrine. She brings to mind a single word: moist, and that alone is enough to stiffen him, as if her tongue is already in his mouth, as if she’s sucked him inside her like a swamp. Curious, he whispers alone at night, his hands slick with sweat.


The others dare him to do it. I bet she’s as slippery as a snail, they say, as nimble as a newt. They torment him every time she glances at him or offers him a shy smile. They take their clothes off and thrust themselves into piles of damp leaves, joking—this must be what her cunt feels like—wondering if it is yellow too. The boy tries to ignore their jibes and taunts, to limit his participation in their games, but that only feeds the others’ speculation, increases their fervor. At the end of each day, in the privacy of his bedroom, he can no longer control his longing. He dreams that she comes in torrents of amber, that her sex tastes of saffron and salt. That her hair down there is tawny kelp and curling strands of moss. Her nipples spiraled seashells, briny in his mouth.


He brings her an armful of flowers one day—a bouquet of jonquils. Her pupils contract as if the petals themselves possess the power of sunlight, but no radiance comes rushing in, and she relaxes enough to accept his offering and his awkward words, which are flush with what she recognizes to be kindness. His skin is colorless against hers as he takes her hand. We will be like the flowers—he tells her, blushing—pale on the outside, yellow within, but he rebukes himself when she takes the words as insults and withdraws her fingers from his. Each day after, he brings her different golden blossoms, naming them until she is reacquainted with all the martyred blooms of her childhood. They wander the woods together, gathering new species—bog lilies; swamp marigolds; lethal, nectar-filled pitcher plants. He asks to sip from her mouth like a besotted insect, immersed and unconcerned with drowning. He lays edible nasturtiums on her tongue and watches her swallow them whole.

She is surprised to inspire such hunger. She recognizes the famished look on the boy’s face, the expression of someone anticipating a feast. And she, too, is curious. Intrigued by the way her body seeps, by the moistness of his mouth when he tongues the slick peristome of her sex. Afterward, he confides his dreams to her: How they will live together under a lake, how their children will breathe mud and water through delicate gills. And she laughs at him and takes him again while the dream is fresh.


When he returns from the woods, the other boys ask if she tastes of silt, if her slit is the pink of a shellfish, if it is barbed. They mime forcing themselves inside her, demand he share every detail. Tell us, how did it feel? Tell us, they clamor, touching themselves. The boy remains silent. The others shift and jostle. They push him to the ground, clamber on top of him, wrestle him into the mud, but he does not say a word. They pull down his pants and taunt him, sneer that his prick is shrunken and yellow and small as a worm. They threaten to use it for fish bait, to return with a curved, sharpened hook. They say, We will gut you for this, spitting full in his face. Before they leave, they drench his clothes in urine.


The boys know how to handle small animals, how to slice bellies open and amputate limbs. How to skin snakes and mutilate lizards. They are knowledgeable boys. They do not brook betrayal. She has tainted him, they concur, transformed him into something other than he was, other than they are. For all they know, he has become an androgyne, a hermaphrodite, like certain amphibians they’ve read about in school that switch sexes, change genders. They cannot accept losing one of their own. When the boys gather now without him, they mourn him by mocking him, by planning vengeance. They place slugs and snails onto glittering mounds of salt, watching the slimy bodies writhe as the water leaches out, cell by cell. Dipping their fingertips into the pearlescent secretion that emerges, touching it to their tongues. They hack legs, tails, limbs off newts to witness flesh regenerate, count how many amputations the creatures can survive.


In his dream, her tongue is sticky and serpentine. They kiss without stopping and breathe through their skin. Their bodies are weightless underwater. They wrap around one another, twined and fronded, her skin not so much yellow as it is golden, gleaming, air bubbles clinging to her limbs like fragile beads.


The boys paint their faces in mud from the swamp, weave leaves into one another’s clothing and hair, camouflage themselves in costumes made from bog grass and bracken. They crouch on splayed hands and bared feet, move four-legged through puddles, belly crawl through underbrush. They learn how to walk on the balls of their feet to limit the sounds of their footsteps, how to stifle their breathing, how to imitate the calls of frogs and birds to mask the noise of their movements. They carry stones in their hands, sharpen sticks into spikes. They meld into the gloaming.


She teases him when he begins to build a shelter from hollowed logs and fortify it with blades of bristle sedge, musk sedge, bladder sedge, and mares’ tail. He describes his plan to grow gardens of panic grass that will serve as shelter for nesting birds, explains how they can feed on yolks and thresh the grass stems into grain. But she insists she will not harvest even abandoned nests for food, refusing further predation. We have had enough of such sustenance, she chides him, and he demurs, ashamed of his impulse to ambush and ensnare. Instead, she suggests that they grow stalks of water mermaid, describes how the plant transforms to resemble an entirely different species when submerged in water, ornate and saw-toothed, succulent. They repeat the word reverently, not noticing, as they drift to sleep, how the woods now watch them with injurious eyes, how the frogs and birds sing shrilly, and the flora seems to hold its breath.


It is a brutal awakening. The boys grab his hair and smash his face into the dirt. She wakes to find the swamp come to life around her, bristling with jagged branches and pummeling fists. She moves to help him, but the boys snatch her by the wrists and ankles, and she cannot squirm out of their grasp. Their fingers strong as forceps, pinning her down.


He fights wildly, gouging with teeth and nails, bucking against the weight of them on his back, against his legs, refusing to collapse under the blunt blows of rocks that land from every angle. Come back to us, they tell him. Make the first incision, and we will let you go. But he can hear from their tone that their fury has only begun to take root, that it is spreading like spores throughout the woods, and he refuses to allow the seeds inside him. Closing his eyes, his ears against them. He carries the image of her into the water with him as they push his head under, watches the yellow expand against his eyelids, subsume him. He ceases to struggle. As the panic rises, he tells himself he can breathe through his skin. He tells himself he doesn’t want to see what will come next.


She expects his body to wriggle from their grasp, but it grows slack and unsalvageable. Bobbing at the surface of the water like a sodden reed. Some part of her sinking. Some part of her submerged.


The boys shift their attention, faces tilted toward her like malevolent flowers. She wills her arms to detach, to drop like a lizard sheds its tail. But her extremities remain rooted to her body, leaving no chance to choose between limb and life.

The boys begin with small cuts, wary lest the yellow leach out, scald them. They tell her not to worry—the wounds will heal, the limbs regrow. They learn soon enough that they must restrain her if they do not want to be maimed. One boy loses an earlobe, another an eye. But they are persistent in their work, diligent, and they wait, curious to see what will transpire, only half-convinced their words are untrue.




Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen

Nina Shope’s debut novel, Asylum, won the 2020 Dzanc Fiction Prize and was released in May 2022. Her collection, Hangings: Three Novellas (2005), won the Starcherone Books Award. She is the recipient of the Calvino Prize from the University of Louisville, the Jeremy Lake Memorial Fiction Prize from Syracuse University, a residency from the Millay Colony for the Fine Arts, and the Barbara Banks Brodsky Prize from Brown University. Her writing has appeared in LitHub, The Millions, Quarter After Eight, Fourteen Hills, 3rd Bed, Open City, Sleeping Fish, Salt Hill, and elsewhere. Her fiction has been anthologized in PP/FF: An Anthology; New Standards: The First Decade of Fiction at Fourteen Hills; and Wreckage of Reason: XXperimental Women Writers Writing in the 21st Century. More from this author →