I’m As Beautiful As…

I’m as beautiful as an onion. That’s what everyone says. Grandma says the boys won’t marry me, because why marry an onion, when there’s a tulip? Dad says an onion is only good for cooking and cleaning. The girls at school say an onion is only good to make someone cry.

Guess I do lots of that. We’ve got big plans for the school, our teachers and students and even the janitor. We want to get funding! We want books and supplies and maybe even a computer. We’re all working hard. Got to get good grades. Got to show up the other schools in the district.

Mona got a scholarship to a big-city university. She’s always been smart, and she wrote this amazing essay on growing up poor. Course, she’s the richest kid in town. She’s off in the city now, and writes every week about the fast food and fast cars and fast boys. Fast fast fast, is that all? She writes that she needs money, because everyone else has cellphones and cars of their own and money to go out at night.

We don’t go out at night. We stay in and study, or sew, or tutor a younger sibling. There’s nowhere to go.

I’m a year away from being able to go to university. I want so badly to go. Mom and Dad want me to go too. I could give them a shot, I could make something of myself out of this ghost-town.

But what can I do? I’m as pretty as an onion.

A revivalist comes to town. He’s got a big tent and a Bible. The tent’s got holes in it, the Bible, he says, is missing pages. The revivalist is shabby around the edges too. Greasy, like he hasn’t taken a shower in a while. We all agree to take him in for a night, and a meal. It’s the best we can do. We’ve barely got enough food for ourselves.

Reverend Ford hops up on the tiny stage the men built for him and he waves and yells and prays. We watch him, and nod, and clap politely. We don’t agree with him, but it would be rude not to appreciate his enthusiasm. There’s not much enthusiasm in our town these days.

He says that God speaks through him, that God told him to spread his love all around the world. The world must be a pretty small place then, if he’s coming to our town. Even the buzzards don’t come to our town anymore.

He wants us to get down on our knees and pray, to cry, confess our sins, become the majestic things our God created us to be. He’s not our God. Our god is the dirt, the rain clouds that never rain, the misery that has become almost a living entity. Our god is a god of lost chances, forgotten hope, ennui. Majestic? We can’t afford to repair the car so that Dad can drive to work. Majesty is the last thing on our minds. We just want respectability, hope, and rain.

The silence drags on, the reverend waiting on the congregation to come and pray. When we don’t move, he raises his hands and prays anyways, begging God to soften our hard hearts and show us the meaning of piety and humility.

Then he passes the collection plate around, exhorting us to do our Christian duty. We throw him out of town, and the silence descends again.

The silence.

The silence.

The silence.

I’m as beautiful as an onion, and I’m failing my classes. I can’t think. I can’t breathe through the dust. Why bother? It’s all going nowhere. Mona came back. She doesn’t have enough money to live in the city. No one will hire her. And her dad’s paying back all the money she spent. Now she really can write about being the poorest person in the poorest town.

At least she’s a tulip.

Then, one day, the grocer gets some fresh produce. Doesn’t happen often, it’s too expensive even for him to buy. But he gives us all a couple of pieces. He gives Mom some beets and onions, some greens and an apple.

We all share the apple, little nibbles at our pieces. After a diet of rice and beans, tasteless bread because we can’t afford salt or yeast, the apple hurts our mouths. We lick every last drop of juice from our fingers, and Sarah gets to clean the core, her eyes shining in awe.

Mom makes soup out of the other vegetables. Rice and beans, a sprinkle of precious salt, beets chopped into it, and the onion roasted, set whole into the soup.

Brad jokes that I should get the onion. I hit him, and the mood of the moment is broken. No one wants to bite into the onion, which is whole, and tinging pink with the beet juice. It’s like the onion has taken the last little bit of will from us. We had forgotten what food tasted like, and now we can’t keep eating.

Mom, screaming, throws the onion out the door and tells me to start feeding the chickens.

The onion lies there, in the dirt, red and pearl-white, and the most lovely thing I’ve seen in years. Crusted with dirt, splayed, unwanted even in the hardest of times.

Kneeling beside it, I collect the scattered petals and begin arranging them, forming them into a rose, a peony, all the flowers that used to grow here. Some dam breaks, some hold on my heart, and I can’t stop. I sculpt the dirt, build houses of dried grass and twigs, make an angel out of discarded chicken feathers.

The onion, the red-tinged, cast-out onion, lies in the heart of it all, and the sun glows brightly on its stained petals. The magic-hour, when our town is beautiful again, painted with gold and red.

In my work, I see the magic of far-away places and adventures. I see myself, a girl as beautiful as an onion, and in a rush, I have forgotten my past.

That was then. This is now. Now I am an entertainer, a dancer, a sailor, a pirate. I drift from place to place, living on my wit and my wiles. I fight with the men and seduce them, and leave them crying. I have never regretted that day, nor turned back my head.

I visited once. Went back to my little town in a forgotten corner of a dead America. They were all still there. Sitting at the dinner tables, sitting in armchairs. Mona was reading her magazine in the bathtub, the water foul and gray around her white bones.

All dead. They’d just laid down and died. All the tulips, the apples, the ones who made people smile and were good for something other than cooking and cleaning.

Mom and Dad were in bed, and the children sitting around their dusty, ugly dolls. It had not rained in seventy years. Everything perfectly preserved, mummified.

In the yard, that cast-off onion glowed softly, surrounded by chicken corpses and feather angels. Moisture glinted in its thick skin, somehow untouched by the parched air.

I touched that onion, and cried.

I am as beautiful as an onion.

Author’s Note: Last night, I cooked an onion, beets, carrots and greens for soup stock. All the vegetables lost their color and became mushy, unlovely. Except for the onion. Deep red stained it, and the pieces seemed to be arranging themselves into petals. It seemed a fitting prompt.

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One Response to “I’m As Beautiful As…”

  1. Fitting indeed dear.

    Very nice.

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