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Body of Feathers

By Megan Eralie-Henriques



My body has suffered much since it exited my mother’s womb a month too early. Yes, there are illnesses I never recovered from, pains that haven’t gone away (that get worse with age), and a womb of my own that reminds me daily of its emptiness—but those things don’t matter here, not yet. My body has suffered more than this. 

I lost my body when I was five years old climbing a fence with my neighbor, Blake. My shirt got caught on one of the metal chains as I fell down the other side and landed, shirtless, on my ass. He laughed and pointed at my pre-pubescent chest. “You have boobs,” he teased before I ran to my mom, who first scolded me for being shirtless, then for climbing the fence. I didn’t understand what boobs were, but I understood they were something I was supposed to keep hidden. She told me I didn’t need to know yet, not to worry, and to start wearing two shirts now, just in case. I wasn’t allowed to know about my body, which made me feel like my body did not belong to me, which meant I also spent a lot of time daydreaming about bodies.  P***hub.com: like Zillow.com, but for bodies.


Some people go there to masturbate; twelve-year-old Megan went there to find out boobs are normal. No one explained that would happen to her, or what areolas were, but already she felt ashamed of her body, and then, suddenly, her mom took her to Target to buy a thick-banded white bra and said "you have to wear this every day.” No explanation. So, one night she snuck out of her bedroom to google “boobs” on the family computer and discovered sex (which she wouldn’t think about again for ten years).


I need to clarify; this isn’t about sex. This is about bodies—not just mine now, but all the bodies Megan has been, and could have been but isn’t, wasn’t, and never will be (but might be).  


---


A single drop of blood splashed onto my skirt as I rushed to find a tissue, which, it turned out, I was out of. I had accidentally poked a small hole in my finger with the pin-back of my nametag, and now applied pressure with a wad of one-ply toilet paper while I searched for a Band-Aid. This wasn’t the first time I’d injured myself by putting on my name tag, which says a lot on its own. The safety pin attached to the shiny black rectangle was always finding new ways to make holes in my clothing, and in me. My mission President said we weren’t allowed to use the magnetic ones—I didn’t know this was unusual until I mentioned it to a friend years later who gasped and said, “but the magnetic ones are so much better!”  


A lot of things were better.  


The black name tag reads

Sister Eralie

The Church of

Jesus Christ 

of Latter-Day Saints 


Any missionary will point out, with pride, that Jesus’s name is bigger than their own (what a metaphor, right?). It was an honor to wear the Savior’s name, whose name was already spiritually emblazoned on my heart, literally on my chest every day for eighteen months for everyone to see. The young men and young women on missions are called Elder or Sister because it unifies them, like a church-stamped endorsement. Missionaries aren’t supposed to tell anyone their first names. Most of them break that rule, and first names are shared like dark secrets, whispered to their companions in the middle of the night, when no one is around to hear. I’ve never liked my first name, so I didn’t mind hiding it. But as someone with a last name most people never bother learning to pronounce, I missed feeling like people knew how to address me.


I stood in the bathroom of the small house, my temporary home, in Shelbyville, Indiana, a small drop of blood bubbling out of my finger. My nametag, the weapon, rested on the edge of the sink while I looked in the mirror at my reflection to contemplate the injury. The bathroom was the only place I could be alone, where any missionary could be alone, so I spent a lot of time there. I’d given up my search for a Band-Aid and my attempts to clot the wound with toilet paper. It was a small prick of the finger, nothing life threatening. I wanted to feel the wound bleed out. Feeling anything was a rare event, so I welcomed the pain. My reflection stared back at me but didn’t look like me. Her glasses were the same brown, rounded frame as mine, her bangs as chunky and uneven as the ones I cut spontaneously the night previous, but her eyes were dark, all pupil, almost bird-like. The mirror reflected the bathroom behind me: the laminate flooring slanted downwards towards the yellowed shower base with a scum-lined curtain that had been hanging there for at least ten years, next to it an unfinished wall with exposed studs my companion used as a shelf for her shampoo. And two small, white, oval pills stuck between the cracks in the floor and the shower pan, which I hadn’t noticed before. Tylenol. I refocused on my reflection in the mirror and noticed that the longer I looked, the more she transformed. Her flesh turned gray, her lips almost blue, and her eyes increasingly darker until she was practically lifeless. I wanted to feel envy but all I felt was my finger throbbing. Lifeless seemed like a vacation. Maybe then I could feel something.  


A few weeks later, I found myself sitting in a church building forty minutes away meeting with a man named Matt. Middle-aged, greying brown hair, wearing a suit at least two sizes too large, asking me questions about the symptoms I expressed (apathy, head-fog, low-energy). “Sounds like depression,” he’d say before asking me where I thought it came from. I scraped at the excess keratin beneath my fingernails as I tried to answer his question, ripping corners of my nails off when I struggled to find words. “I didn’t notice it until recently,” I’d say, which was true. One morning I woke up and snapped out of the numbing trance I’d been under for months and realized I wasn’t myself anymore (or, I wasn’t Sister Eralie anymore, Megan had been irrelevant for longer than that) and I asked the mission nurse to make an appointment for me with a therapist.


As I dug through my brain files to answer Matt’s questions, I thought back to a meeting with my mission president a few months ago. “This is a victory” he enthused, congratulating me on the loss of my identity. I sat in the wooden chair across from him in his office, smiling, ankles crossed, hands held on my lap, choking back tears of joy (sorrow). He asked me who Sister Eralie was. I said, “She’s a faithful servant of God.” That’s it. She could be nothing more—The White Handbook warned against the consequences of harboring my autonomy (getting sent home early, punishment from God, etc.). President Cleveland was pleased. “I want you to train new missionaries,” he announced. I felt honored. I buried myself even deeper in The Work (god’s work, salvation-shit). 


Matt asked if I ever felt guilt. “I don’t know,” was my honest response. I don’t feel much of anything anymore. He wanted to know how things were with my companion. Sister Smith was a new missionary, at that point it was week eight of the twelve I was assigned to be with her. We didn’t get along. She didn’t like me, and I didn’t like her. Mostly she resisted the rules of being a missionary, and I insisted that she follow them. I told Matt I was concerned about her. “I think she attempted suicide last week,” I said in a whisper. “Poured a whole bottle of Tylenol pills down her throat but spat them out.” He didn’t ask for details, just asked if I’ve ever felt suicidal. I had. I was. I wanted to die. We both did. “What makes you suicidal”? I didn’t know it then, but I know now that it was because I believed my body did not belong to me. It belonged to God. I was not in charge of my body. Reminds me of a scripture: “Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own?”


---


My grandfather, a professor of music, would tell anyone who listened that he got into the Utah Symphony twice due to his cello talent—both times he declined the offer because his wife told him “Warren, your cello will not feed ten mouths.” He taught instead, but that’s not the point. The point is he loved the cello, which meant I was destined to love the cello too. 


The deep, rich timbre of the cello lulls me into a steady trance that’s nearly impossible to escape. My body feels light, like if I untied the invisible tether keeping me on the ground I might just float away into the clouds. My parents’ best trick was to put on my grandfather’s cello lullaby CD anytime they wanted me to be distracted. I could spend hours replaying the CD over and over, picking apart the composition and identifying the notes. Propped on the edge of my twin-sized bed, I would imagine myself as the cellist, air bowing and holding a pillow, or sometimes nothing at all, between my legs, picturing myself on a stage performing the pieces recorded by my grandpa. This shouldn’t be past tense—I still pretend. I shake my wrist in the air, fingers folded as though wrapped around the neck and fingerboard, altering the vibrations of the invisible strings. My body sways with the beat, eyes closed, mouth curved slightly upwards in a smile. I feel lighter than air as I fly through the melodies. In my imagination, the final note's vibrato fades into the silence, and the audience applauds, no one louder than my grandpa’s whoop whoops. As a child, I would smile, bow, pretend I was a budding musician waiting to take flight.


When I was four, my mom put me in violin lessons, but, when I refused to stop putting the instrument between my legs to pretend it was a cello, she switched it out for a real one. For as long as I can remember, my dream was to play Camille Saint-Saëns’ “La Cygne” (The Swan) as well as grandpa could. I knew that would make him proud, but I had to start with “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” and work my way up from there. When I was eight, my dad moved my family to a different state and my mom decided I should play the piano instead—because that was the more “useful” instrument for a Mormon girl to play.


Recently, I asked my mom if she regrets that. She does. That was all she had to say about it.

  

I played the piano—and was good at it. A natural, some would say. I won competitions, decorated my walls with blue ribbons, and mastered Debussy’s “Clair De Lune” by thirteen. By then, I was also three-instruments into concert band, trying anything and everything to replace the emptiness left by the cello. I decided the flute felt good, so I stuck with that, and grandpa seemed to approve of this. The cello and the flute are similar. Both create vivid melodies that soar above an ensemble, and both, when listened to closely, can lull an audience to sleep. But the flute could never perform “La Cygne” like a cello could. “La Cygne,” The Swan, meant to be performed on the cello and accompanied by the piano, creates the image of a swan gliding across a body of water. The cello melodies birth the delicate swan, and the piano forms the ripples in the water as the swan glides above it. The beautifully graceful melodies require difficult octave switches and rely on steady hands to keep a consistent vibrato throughout the piece. Many cellists learn this piece, but few play it well—and no one plays it better than my grandpa. The flute is more like a wood thrush bird than a swan. Still delicate but less graceful. Higher pitched, less noticeable. Swan calls even sound like the opening few bars of La Cygne, a long glide down the fingerboard, creating a long wah tone. But I’m getting off track. I don’t actually know much about birds.

I worked for a music store during my undergraduate program, where every day I helped budding musicians pick out the perfect instrument. Most of them came in for violins, but occasionally they’d ask for a cello. My favorite customers were the ones who just wanted to hold one, to know what it felt like.


What it felt like. 


Sometimes, if the store was slow, I would sit in the back room and pull a cello out of storage. I’d sit on the step stool and slide the cello body between my legs, press the scroll against my cheek, slide my fingers down the side seams, and feel my stomach flutter at the memory of making the strings vibrate through my chest. With my eyes closed, I would air bow and imagine fingerings to the tune of “La Cygne.” In that fantasy I grew up to be who four-year-old Megan dreamt of, instead of an underpaid retailer selling that dream to someone else.  


I’m not a cellist. Instead, I buy season tickets to the Utah Symphony at Abravanel Hall because it’s cheaper than therapy. Abravanel Hall feels much the same way as home feels. Calm, safe, like nothing bad could possibly penetrate the walls to find me there. I always wanted to take my grandpa to the symphony with me (I invited him a few times, but it never worked out). He would have commented on the conductor’s precision, the first chair violinist's hairstyle, and probably made at least one inappropriate pass at someone near us in the audience. None of that behavior is excusable by knowing he’s always been like that, and he doesn’t mean harm, but if it were anyone else’s grandpa I’d complain. But he was mine, and I saw past all that (probably to a fault). I had a lifetime of pretending sexism and misogyny didn’t bother me.


---


I found my body again on an October day as I caught a glimpse of myself, naked, in the full-length mirror hanging on my bathroom door. Grandpa was dying (a few days later he’d be dead); I was doing anything to distract myself. By then, my twenty-four-year-old body knew better than to let grief, or any emotion, seep through my skin. I had learned to be quiet, submissive, everything a good Mormon girl should be. Earlier that summer, I met Brad. A grumpy, but sometimes funny, ex-Mormon guy who always had a cigarette in one hand and his dick in the other. He was nothing special, except that he was the reason I bought a tank-top shirt, almost got arrested (this is a good story, one for another time, that has nothing to do with crime), and learned how to say “yes” to what I want—everything a good Mormon girl does not do. 


In the mirror, my skin, a mixture of sweat from my pores and from Brad’s, glistened as it moved from the dark bedroom to the bathroom light. I stared at myself for a moment to observe my unruly hair, exposed skin, and the large hickey darkening on my right collarbone. If this were a movie, there would be feathers tangled in my hair from the bed pillows. My reflection made me laugh. Who the fuck am I? I muttered to myself. I never saw myself as a person who could have sex, and like it, but the Megan in the mirror was that person. It felt good to be touched, despite my awareness that the places I was being touched were the same places that, just a few months prior, were locked beneath white polyester armor.  


Before that moment, the last time I noticed my naked body, I was eighteen, standing unclothed in the temple locker room being told to open the small pink packages containing white garments and place them on my body. The fabric was silky, almost soothing to touch, but too small for my body. “Mom, they don’t fit,” I whispered through the cracks in the door, holding the too-small garment top in my hands against my chest. “Can you get them on at all” She asked. “Yes, but if I sit down, it feels like I’ll burst the seams!” “We’ll go back to the store and buy a different size before we go home, okay? Just make it work for now.” What was supposed to be sacred and spiritual suddenly felt shameful, and I stood there with my old underwear in one hand, the new garments in the other, trying to decide if I’d put on the ill-fitting temple-regulation pair, or choose what was comfortable. My face burned as I tried to conceal my emotions and slid my legs through the tight silk garment shorts that barely made it to my waist. The promise was kept, we picked up the right size on the way home, but when I knelt to pray that night, the seams around my thighs temporarily severed the blood flow and sent tingles down my legs. “You’ll get used to it,” my aunt assured me when I joked about it later. I told myself it was an honor to wear something so painful—God rewards those who suffer in His name.


The thing about pain is eventually it numbs. If it persists for long enough, the body learns to accept it as part of the normal daily feeling. My legs learned to expect poor blood circulation, I learned to fold part of the fabric beneath my breasts to collect some of the sweat, and the yeast infections got better in time. I accepted that this was my life. My life was for God, not for me.


Four years later I finally asked why.  


Why can’t the Church make the garment out of breathable fabric?  


Why do I have to suffer if Christ suffered already for me? 


Why the fuck do I have to be like some dude anyways?  


Eventually I decided I didn’t have to be like some dude, that the only one suffering was me, and I never put garments on again. That makes it sound easy (it wasn’t). It took realizing that the garments were just a piece of fabric, not armor, and that I wouldn’t die just because I took them off. The Church catastrophizes simple things far too often. They made me think my underwear was my key into heaven, which was a pretty good distraction from the truth that heaven isn’t real (at least, Mormon heaven isn’t real. I’m still undecided about the afterlife in general).  


So, on a spring morning I walked into a Walmart, sans garments, and bought a few pairs of one dollar underwear that turned out to be a few sizes too large, but I had no idea how to buy underwear. Before I had garments, my mother always bought my underwear. White, sometimes light beige, never patterned, never colored. I was an eight-year-old in granny panties. After I researched underwear sizing, I went back to the store and bought hipster cut panties with peaches on them. I thought it was funny. It felt fucking powerful to wear. Later I bought a push-up bra, which was a mistake (double Ds don’t need any extra help), but I wanted to wear something I thought a boy would want to take off me. Guess the church was right. Once the garment came off, I turned into a sex-crazed heathen.


Not really, but that’s what the Church would say if they saw me wearing black panties. I just wanted to feel sexy. I’d never felt that way before.  


Attractive. 


Desirable. 


Pretty.  


Black underwear helped.


With the garments off, I had to answer a lot of questions. If Mormon God isn’t real, is any God real (I don’t think so)? Should I start swearing now (hell yeah)? Where do people buy good underwear (still haven’t figured that out)? Who do I date now (definitely not Brad)? Do I want to have sex—and who do I want to have sex with (yes, and pretty much anyone)? I don’t think I'm attracted to women, but maybe I want to have sex with women (give it a try)? 


Long story short, no, I’m not sexually attracted to women, but I did have sex with a Tinder girl (for research purposes). She was a lot like me, maybe too much like me, which made it feel almost like having sex with myself, which was a little weird. When it didn’t work the first time, we tried again on a different day, but that time she was wearing garments, and I didn’t know what to make of that. I asked her why she still wore them. “Because I’m still Mormon,” she stated. I asked her how. How can you have sex, get tattoos, sell weed, and be everything you are, and still be Mormon? She just wanted to be.


That was the only time I found myself questioning whether I’d made the right choice to leave the church. Did I give up too soon? I wanted to switch bodies to see what it’s like to believe in Mormon God and feel like my (her) body could belong there. She struggled to explain how this works, and in her eyes I see how she was lying to herself. I could never be me inside of a Mormon body.


I looked her up on Twitter, curious to see where she ended up.  


She left the year church a year after we met.  


I didn’t need to have her body to know the garments were a lie.  


Back in the mirror, I brushed my fingers gently against my new hickey while I remembered getting it. My reflection looked like me, but the me I’d always dreamt of being. The me who was in control of my body and what it wears and does. I smiled at her, the me in the mirror, and exhaled the breath I’d been holding for too long. For the first time, I loved my body. 


I asked Brad to come over that night because my grandpa was dying, and I wanted a distraction. Once I told him that, he forced a “my condolences,” then took my pants off. To be fair, during the three months we’d been using each other there wasn’t much precedence for talking. He did what I asked him to come over and do. I blocked his number minutes after he left. He was boring.  


---


In East of Eden, John Steinbeck writes: “now that you don’t have to be perfect, you can be good.” I can’t honestly say that I’ve read Steinbeck’s book, but I can honestly say I’ve heard this quote more times than I could count. For a while I had it written on a sticky note posted on my desktop computer. I like the sentiment: good is better than perfect. Good is realistic. Good is attainable. I don’t have to be perfect.


Missionaries, more than normal members of the Church, are taught to be perfect. “Perfect Obedience,” The White Bible calls it. Never wavering, never straying. It didn’t bother me so much while I was a missionary, but it bothered me afterwards. I left my mission four months early because of my depression. Even now, seven years later, I don’t often tell people this. Sometimes I think I’m worried they’ll ask the follow-up question: What happened? What happened was I wanted to die. My companion tried to die. I couldn’t stop it. I blamed myself. I spiraled until I decided it was me who should be dead, not her. People assumed I had sinned. That was the common reason why missionaries went home early—they broke too many rules, or they watched pornography one time when they were fifteen and never told anyone about it until the guilt burst through them in an interview with their mission president. I wasn’t physically ill or injured, so I must have sinned. I just couldn’t remember what my sin was.


The second, and last time I went to see the mission therapist, Matt, he told me I was feeling depressed because my testimony, my belief, in God wasn’t strong enough. I believed him and accepted that this was God’s punishment for being weak even though I had never felt closer to God. That just made me want to die even more. When I got home, God stopped talking to me. Or maybe I stopped talking to Him. It was probably both. I’ve already explained how all that ended, but for clarity’s sake, I don’t give a fuck about God anymore.  


---


I’m writing this at my fiancé, Cass', kitchen table, where two of my mission journals are spread open to various pages waiting for me to write about them. Most of my memories were forgotten until I reread them, and I was shocked at how little I had remembered. Cass has endeavored to read all my journals while he eats breakfast in the morning, which is cute, but I don’t think he knows exactly what he’s getting himself into. He grew up in Minnesota, outside from the Church, or any God, but for some reason he decided to get a Ph.D. at the Private LDS owned Brigham Young University. Reading my mission journals are the closest he’ll get to understanding what it was like to grow up in the Church. Sometimes I wonder if this ever makes it difficult to look his professors in the eyes knowing they subscribe to the harmful ideals described in my journals. He says they’re not all bad.


One morning he called me, his voice a little shaky because he’d been crying, just to tell me he loved me and was glad I wasn’t so sad anymore. I'm not sure which entry triggered his tears; it could have been any one of them I suppose. So many of them are filled with the heaviness of my desire to die a missionary, rather than live as a sinner. If I think too much about it, it makes me cry too.


As I’m typing this, my phone lights up with a text from my mom and confirms what I knew already: the family sold my dead grandfather’s cello to a stranger. A single tear escapes the corner of my right eye, the last one I’ll shed for something I’ve already mourned (that’s a lie).  


His cello had a light-stained spruce top, which is unusual compared to richer reds or deep browns most cellos are stained with. The cello, which he inherited from his mother, was well worn but always kept in pristine condition. No one was allowed to touch it without permission, which, oddly enough, was the only real rule at grandma and grandpa’s house. Nothing was off limits, except for the cello. It was decided that selling it was the only fair thing to do after grandpa died, since no one in the family could actually play it. Forty thousand dollars for a hundred and fifty years of love. Hardly seems like a fair trade.  


What if my family never moved, I never quit cello lessons, and I grew up to play in symphonies like my grandfather and I dreamed of? I could have inherited his cello, taken it to the stage, and played “La Cygne” so well it moved the audience to tears. With every dip of the bow and shift of my fingers, my pupils dilate wider and wider, the swaying movements of my body turn each hair on my arm into a feather, and my neck grows longer and thinner, until it too, leaning down towards the cello body to be close to the vibrations, is covered in feathers. My nose hardens into an orange and black beak; the rest of my body struggles to catch up but can’t fully transition yet until I’m done holding the cello, so I sit there, playing the last few measures of the song, the audience staring and the pianist accompanying me unsure if they should keep playing or if they should watch as my body becomes something impossible, something a human body like mine was never supposed to be, but then I finish, and my grandfather’s cello falls to the stage floor—clatters, but doesn’t break—my arms now wings and my feet orange and webbed. The audience hesitantly applauds, confused but accepts that they’ll never understand what brought me here to this form, or why. They won’t know where I’ve been, or where I’ll go, but I crane my long neck to bow before flying away, my body of feathers caressed by the wind that carries me somewhere new. 



 


Megan Eralie-Henriques (she/her) is a writer currently living in Utah who thinks having two cats is a personality trait. You can find her on Twitter and on her homepage.

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