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The Cornhusk Doll
I awoke to the blackness. The day held no light, the world held no sound, and the house held no voices. Pre-dawn darkness covered me as a quilt covers a body, caressing my entire being. In fact, it engulfed me more sufficiently than the ragged blanket that vainly tried to cover my scrawny frame. Thus I had awaken every day I could remember, even Christmas, before the sun had risen and the stars had set. Awakened not a whole person, blinded by an eyeful of pitch, deafened by a resounding silence, and dumb with a bite of ebony. I had become a companion of cold and had gotten a husband of the darkness.
Of course, these thoughts were never consciously spoken, a reality I had accepted before I recognized. Only a minute after I breathed in the night did I try to fully awaken my faculties. It was another minute before I could catch a coherent thought and keep it.
My iron eyelids did not help in this venture. I do not know why I tried to keep my eyes open, the shade of black looked just the same with them closed. In the end, I guess appearances mattered and I kept up the facade until I was staring into nothing. That done, I continued my stirrings until I was physically prepared, if not mentally, to sit up.
Then, as was my morning ritual, my hands fumbled over my body, feeling every curve. Chapped hands ran over maturing breasts and curved hips. I groaned first in disappointment, then in frustration. I was still a girl. Every morning I woke up still a girl.
In a different time and place I may not have grieved in my impending womanhood, I may have even rejoiced in it. But this is not a different time or place. On the day of my birth my life had been spared, after the discovery of my gender, only on the reflection that I could help raise my younger siblings. This was the value and expectation of my life: that I may be able to earn my right to exist. My parents had gotten their wish and had had four sons after me, the disappointment. I had attended school for a few years, but was pulled out when I was twelve. A woman did not need an education my father had told me. The time and situation of my life did little to tell me otherwise.
While the morning’s darkness had given an illusion of physical weakness, I knew that my femininity was my only realistic infirmity.
Such were not my thoughts at the time, only the fact that I was still not a boy. Lately, every morning my body had defied that hope, and my womanhood confirmed.
Though the bitterness welled up inside me like air in a bullfrog, I swallowed and put my bare feet on the wooden floor, resisting the temptation to jerk away at the cold’s touch. Carefully, so as not to waken my brothers, I folded my ragged quilt. Inside of the folds I carefully placed my cornhusk doll. Such was my only toy, and in a way the only girl that I respected and cared for with a tenderness. Then, wrapping up in every scrap of clothing I owned, I ventured outside into the darkness.
Such morning odysseys resulted in me starting the fire in the house, warming it up before everyone else awoke. A chore fit for a woman.
After having gathered the wood that had been split the previous day and piling them in the fireplace I went back outside. The cold stung my face until it was a ruddy red, and the frozen grass crunched under my weight. It had been my intention to gather a little more firewood as reinforcement for the logs that would burn quickly. Hugging myself I tried to retain what little heat my body produced. I started to think of the warmth that I would soon make, and how I would go and cuddle with my cornhusk doll. Maybe this time we would play house.
Along with such thoughts I noticed how the light was reflecting off the mist, clouding what lay within its wispy grasp. I knew that the thin light would soon touch me, as it had the mist, warming me up. The sun was beginning to creep over the treetops of a nearby forest, outlining the world as a halo silhouettes the head of deity. Smiling in pleasant day dreams I imagined me and my little cornhusk doll playing out in that light, feeling the rays on our backs, seeing…
For a moment I was dumbfounded. Then the facts filtered through my mind, like the Indian’s dagger slicing into brain and soft scalp: the sun was beginning to rise, I had woken up later than usual, my father would be awake any second, I had not started the fire, my father would not awake to the warmth of a fire made by me.
That last thought pulled me out of my lethargic state. I ran. Running I burst through the front door. Flying, I came to the opening of the kitchen, beyond that was the fireplace. Catching the doorframe I stopped, not even wasting my time by trying to breathe normally.
My eyes darted around the room with an intensity that almost sent me spinning. When I saw the flint and steel my mind almost did not register what I was seeing, so intently was I looking for it. As I started toward them the first thing I did was fall flat on my face. I guess my legs were not in the same hurry that the rest of me was. The wooden floor was almost an ice sheet, and in no way softened my fall.
But there was no time to cry out or feel pain. Nimbly, I put my feet under me and picked myself up, this time running without falling, and ran over to where I had last seen the flint and steel. I scooped up the flint in my left hand and cradled the steel in my right. A few seconds more and I was kneeling in front of the fireplace.
That was when I heard it. A mattress had squeaked. There it was again. And it was that second squeak that got my hands moving. They were almost frozen, and as a consequence lifeless, from the cold. Yet, again and again I struck the stone and steel together. For a second I was triumphant. But the spark missed the tinder and died on the stone fireplace.
This time it was the sound of voices that got me going faster. Again and again those flint hit steel. Again and again the result was the sound of two stupid rocks hitting themselves.
It was hearing the footsteps descending that I think my heart stopped. My hands did not. Stone hit steel. Again. And again. The footsteps sounded closer. They were deep and heavy.
Please, please, please just light ONE spark, I pleaded. Maybe to God. Or maybe to nobody. It did not really matter, only that the wish was granted. I do not know when I started crying. It may have been later. It may have been then.
The footsteps stopped at the door.
Oh dear God, why can I not light one spark? My fingers worked furiously. My tears shook my shoulders in time with the thud of each step taken behind me.
Looking back then, I do not know why it was so important that I started the fire. My dad had already entered the room and seen that it had not been lit before he woke up. I guess that at that moment I believed in the vain hope that if I got the fire started, what would happen next would not have even begun. I should have hoped that the sun would set at noon.
I did not hear the footsteps stop. I did not stop trying to light that fire. I did feel him behind me. That moment was eternity.
I will never know if it was my name spoken out loud that froze my body, or the strong hand that had seized my shoulder in a vise; it may have been the latter that made me swallow my heart when it jumped into my throat.
“Myrtle”. Twice he spoke my name. There was no question or plea in his unyielding voice. Twice, he spoke my name. We both knew that there were no words needed, no lie that needed covering up or discovering. He slowly, or was it quickly, took the flint and steel out of my hands. In no time it seemed he had deftly ignited a fire. He blew slowly on it, getting the flames to blaze strong and hot.
I never looked at him. Never in the face. And never in the eyes. I sat there hunched over as he let go of me and went into the next room. I just sat and watched the fire dance to my father’s tune.
When he came back I looked at his hand. It was holding something. It was my cornhusk doll. I felt as if it was me he had in that iron grasp, in a way it was. My eyes never left my little cornhusk doll.
I never moved, not even when he threw the cornhusk doll into the fire. Even then I accepted my fate, as I had my whole life. If there had been a time most opportune to change my stars, that was just it. I did not hear him leave, or hear the muttered tirade against useless girls.
My eyes could only see the cornhusk doll. She shriveled in the fire, features twisting and warped. My vision could hold only my little cornhusk doll. Her dress ignited as she danced with the fire and burned to ash. The part made of cornhusk became a glowing ball, she had curled up into herself. I watched till she was no more than embers.
My only thought at the time was the I had never given her a name. The notion was imprinted in my mind, repeating itself over and over again: I had never even given her a name.
And I watched my nameless, little cornhusk doll burn.