by Jan Elman Stout
I lie inside a glass and metal box, wired to keep me heated. Alone.
Peering eyes whisper, occasionally cough. Most sounds here are microscopic. Squeaking shoes. Whoosh of nylon stockings. Hollow gasps.
Outside, carnival barkers beckon: “See Lionel, the lion-faced man.” “Four-legged girl, a dime.” “Don’t touch Lobster Boy’s claws.” A less distant shriek draws lurkers to gawk at me in the children’s hatchery: “Ladies, gentlemen, for a mere twenty-five cents, see the tiniest creatures on Earth.”
Hourly, strangers gain admission, their comments bleeding through porous glass. “Ewww.” “Look at the prune.” “How do you know it’s not dead?” The bite of arrogant doctors’ words cut deeper than their scalpels, “Why shouldn’t we pull the plug?”
Like you, I first gaze at a face hidden by a mask. The eyes can’t deceive; they are cold, unforgiving. No laughter tickles the air. I’m whisked from sight by gloved hands.
You are robust and barrel-chested, your cry sings to light air. Gleaming eyes greet and exalt you, mask pulled off, baring wonder. Your mother is eased into wakefulness and caresses your pearly body. I yearn for her touch.
I am called ‘weakling.’ I could have been you. I am not.
Mother lingers in blessed narcotic slumber, spared from false mercies: “We can’t help ‘it.’ Take ‘it’ home. That’s where ‘it’ should die.”
Father wraps me in his hankie, slips me in the side pocket of his jacket, shelters me inside his cupped hand. Bolting from the maternity ward he whistles for a taxi. “Coney Island. Luna Park. Hurry. Please.”
He collects quarters and visits me daily. Mother must first garner strength. Fingers clutching her breastbone, she stifles a whimper upon seeing me. “Atta girl,” my father says, nose pasted to the glass. “Look, Joyce, she’s bigger.” Dr. Couney counsels them to postpone my naming. I feel their enthusiasm withers. I want them to love me but they can’t.
Miraculously, I hit five pounds and the nurses’ eyes grow misty. Dr. Couney scoops me from my metal box and foists me skyward like a trophy. I feel cradled by rustling cool air. Now I can be loved.
“What shall we call her?” says my mother, voice lilting. “Louise,” says my father. “Our girl’s a fighter.” I savor the moment afraid it will crumble.
The newspapers label Dr. Couney ‘Showman.’ They search for evidence he is a physician and find none. His peers distance themselves, say his practice is quackery and the public’s suspicions swell. I grow more spirited and strong without their assistance. They no longer can tell I’m not you.
Every year, on Father’s Day, we visit Dr. Couney. He is old and frail and bent and past his time. He pats my cheek when I kiss his and hand him boxed chocolates, salted by a ‘Freak’s’ jumbled tears.
Who will we be, how will the world see us, after our savior dies?
Jan Elman Stout’s work is published in Literary Orphans, the Journal of Compressed Creative Arts, Vestal Review and elsewhere. She was a finalist in the Midwestern Gothic Summer 2016 Flash Fiction Contest. Her flash story, “Marital Amnesias” was nominated by JCCA for Best Small Fictions 2017. Jan is an Assistant Fiction Editor at Indianola Review. She lives with her husband in Washington, D.C.