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the girl with the mason jar stomach

Jolene Tolscani had a B- blood type and four years outside the womb before she broke her leg. She would never forget how that felt. Bones crunching and knocking inside her tiny white calf, mangled in a sculptural way, in the same smooth curve as those the Lord created in the smallest of seashells. She had known it would hurt before she hit the ground, plummeting from the tree, the cloying summer air but a sieve for the frantic motion of her limbs. In an instant her salmon dress was trimmed crimson Rorschach test of B- blood.

It was then that Jolene felt a tightness that signaled something of importance had happened.

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Jolene and her family bought a house, a house that was a muted salmon in color.

Her father thought himself clever, and would cook salmon for dinner. “Salmon for the Salmon house” he would say. He would gut salmon in a big metal tub that he used to bathe Jolene in when she was small. The fish parts would glisten, in a sweet way. Like a baby fresh from the womb. It all made Jolene very sad. And so she would hide in the corner by the record player and dance to her only Elvis record, but in its black reflection she could see the fish parts glisten.
When she was six she dropped the fish parts into her mother’s finest crystal punch bowl, and filled it with water.
“I just want them to swim mommy… I don’t like dead things”
Jolene was sent to her room, and the crystal bowl was put up on a higher shelf.

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She was a teenager when she started to refuse getting her hair cut. She didn’t like letting go of anything. She kept everything she came across, fitting small trinkets in mason jars and burying them at four in the morning when she couldn’t sleep. Each jar in the soil was like a child in her womb. She came to think of herself as a tree, every part of her relevant to every other part.

She was not very attractive. A nose like knotted wood and gray eyes that made many feel uncomfortable. She did have a pair of lily soft lips, small and pursed like the mouths of the cherubs that danced in the stained glass of her church. She had a voice like a rosary, ethereal and strung together, letting each word roll around in her palm before it was uttered.

There was one boy. They would talk over the phone in broken Italian. He would sing her Jolene by Dolly Parton. She hated the song, but loved to hear it fall through the lips of a handsome boy. She readily accepted her role as Narcissus, the land line her limpid pool and her Boy her pining nymph.

But with the migration of the birds the boy too sliced his wings through the winter air and flew, fast and wildly away. And with him the blue T-shirt he left in her room, the one that smelled of sweet sweat, became nothing but another filling for another mason jar.

Leaving Jolene alone to swaddle herself in her own calf length hair.

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At twenty she traveled. She spent a month In Italy in a dirty hospice. She spent a week speaking only in song lyrics. She drank moonshine and smoked thin lady like cigarettes and big masculine cigars. She plaited her hair and walked through city streets at three in the morning, just because she could. This was her prescription, and she downed her actions like white pills to make things go away.

She shared a cigarette with a schizophrenic, then shared a bed with him. She flew away by the morning, the only trace of her the three foot long golden hairs that lay electrified among the white sheets. She had an urge to pluck each hair from the bed and take it with her. She liked to imagine that he gathered up the flaxen hair and sealed it in a mason jar memorial that he too buried in his yard at four in the morning.

She always made a point to avoid fish markets. Gutted fish still made her weep.

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Her father said to go to medical school. And so she did.
On the eve of her first day at work she cut her hair out of shame in her bathroom.
She let it drop around her snowy white ankles like fallen soldiers.
As the tendrils dropped to the linoleum tile she had an urge to gather them up and clutch them to her bosom. She would pack the limpid locks in a box and send them over the ocean to the schizophrenic, so he could spread them out on his bed as if she still lay with him.
Jolene had her hair packed up in a box, stamped and ready for the morning post.
But when the flaxen rose of morning came she faltered.
And like most things, Jolene decided to keep it for herself.

She became a nurse, a mediocre one at best. She hated being in the room for operations, seeing things cut open. Jolene believed firmly that things should remain closed. It was unnatural to look through somebodies pinkest, most tender parts. Like reading someones diary, but something far more holy and sacred.

The worst was when they removed things… took things away from people. She watched someone get their kidney removed, and was then just wheeled out of the room, that glossy kidney on the tray. Jolene had to restrain herself from running up to it, cradling it her arms as blood soaked through her scrubs. Holding it like a stillborn infant, severed from life. She cried with no sound. She hated dead things. But this time there was no Elvis record to dance to while her father slashed stomachs in the bathing tub.

So she hummed blue suede shoes while driving home that night.

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In the next summer Jolene met Russel, the only man in her life ever important enough to be referred to by name. She liked his name, it reminded her of ice cold coke on a hot day. Jolene was a narcissist and a b**** and very kind, and Russel was condescending and passive and loving. He was a Vegan who also hated the gutting of fish. He would order them both green colored, pretentious cocktails at the bar. He was thirty but with grey hair, the kind of silver that reminds you of fireflies and lakes at midnight.
With Russel she let her hair grow long again.
And she was happy.

She wore long skirts and painted her nails gold and fell asleep next to him while watching Family Feud. He smelled like peppermint, just like her father.
She started to dream about tiny pink children running around, children who would cling to her skirt while she made batches of brownies from the mix they sold at the corner store, the one that’s only $4.99. Little children with ordinary names like Sarah and Ben and Jess, children she would never gut fish in front of or let fall from big tall trees.

Her lover became her husband. Soon her belly swelled like the moon, full and glowing and shuddering with life. She would pretend she was the mother Mary, carrying baby Jesus. She hung her sonogram above the doorway. She looked up Santeria herbs to mix in her tea. Alfalfa so her child would prosper, angelica root to purify, caraway seed for protection and juniper berries steeped in wine for fertility. Russel would joke that she should take peonies and witch grass to ward of insanity. She would drink her teas in old chipped cups while she made strawberry flapjacks in the morning, singing Arctic Monkeys off pitch.

She dreamt of crawling within her own stomach and clutching her unborn baby to her. Russel would start to cry when he felt the baby kick, for the little thing was his too.

In the evening they would watch jeopardy with Russel behind her, one hand tracing the lines of her scalp, and the other folded protectively around her full moon belly.

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Jolene’s belly was like the earth. Fruitful and deep, fertile and ripe with roundness. As she approached her due date they moved into the house of her childhood, inherited through the blood of her dead father and mother.

Just as the baby began to kick, Russel hung himself from the rafters in the attic.
Just another gutted fish.

Jolene had always hated dead things

She cried the whole time as she clasped her hands around her unborn child and prayed to the baby Jesus. She grabbed the kitchen scissors and sheared off her golden hair for the second time, her formless tendrils forming a halo around the somber rafter from which her true love hung.

“Gesù Bambino, lo salva da quello che ha fatto. Salva mio figlio dal destino di suo padre”

Her words stuck to the salmon walls like flypaper.

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It was always the same dream. She was strung from telephone wires as her father rose to meet her. He had with him the same knife he would use to gut the fish. It was curved, an isolated splatter of moon glimmer that danced with glare under an October sun. His neck was cocked to the side, ringed with blues and purples, ligature marks that flickered in luminescence like a butterfly wing. She would offer up her stomach, snow white and soft. With his curved blade he would puncture it with a fatherly tenderness, and gut her as she dangled a million miles from the ground.

Hollowed out she would race her father along the telephone, the wind whistling through her empty stomach. And in a moment she was in her Mother’s arms, the table set with plastic flowers and heaping plates of spaghetti and jars of white pills that tasted like sugar and a mason jar of her husband’s bones. They would gather to eat and pray to the lord, as Russel would appear and run his fingers through her hair. He would press his browned cheeks up into hers, until she could not distinguish their tears.

And she could breathe fire and she felt like she was born again.

And when she awoke in the cold bed, wrapped in pale sheets, Jolene would heave with water and throw her screams at the salmon walls.

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Jolene rested herself in the parlor, sunk into the chair, the one that smelt like him. A smell not far from the smell of the sweet sweat of the Blue T-shirt the boy had left in her room when she was sixteen.

She wondered why her father ever decorated the house in a color as horrible as salmon. Her chopped hair fell forward, brushing at her eyes as she bent to study the shape of her swollen stomach. She watched the clock tick. The sound was irritating, a salmon colored sound that stung her skin and vibrated off the sickly salmon walls. With each tick she could swear the pigment intensified. The color bloomed brighter as seconds flew by.
Tick.
Tick.
Tick
She started to think about her baby and her. About her dead husband and gutted fish and things she had no power over. She could feel the vibrations of her baby whispering to her…

“Start over. Start over”

She eased herself from her chair, taking small, desperately deliberate steps towards the kitchen. She reached the counter and opened the cupboard. It was the same cupboard that held the curled, half-moon knife her father would use to slice open the soft bellies of fish. But Jolene reached past the knife, her left hand curled around the box of matches, her right hand running through her hair absentmindedly. She caught herself by surprise when her golden hair released her fingers so quickly, so used to combing through her knee length mane. It was seven, excruciating, salmon colored seconds before she could get the match to light. In the smoke that wafted through the air she swore she could see a mass the same shape as that B- blood on her dress. That one match screamed the sadness of a discarded kidney and a crystal bowl set one level higher, of a father to be; hanging from the ceiling like some twisted wind chime.

She nursed that tender bloom of fire with her own waning breath, then let it fall on the rug.
Jolene struck another, then another, then another. She sprinkled them like a flower girl drops rose petals before the bride. She got an urge to put on her wedding dress, as she made her procession through the flaming house with her hands cradling her giant belly.
As the salmon walls turned black Jolene smiled, the first real smile in a while. The house started to shovel off its form, as if it too laughed with her.
In each twisting tendril of smoke was the face of her husband. As the gray fingers wafted around her stomach the baby kicked, as if it knew it was meeting its father for the last time.

She floated through the licking flames as the baby continued to kick, like some pagan demon dancing to the crackle of fire.

The wallpaper curled in her wake, furniture reared back and swallowed itself.
And down the stairs she went.

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It was just her and her child as she burst from her house, swaddled with the cold midnight air. She sat cross legged on the sidewalk parallel to her burning house as she rubbed her stomach, amid her neighbors flower garden of peonies and witch grass.

It was rather like a fairytale, like some flaming shooting star had taken her husband away
In the same way it stole the innards of the salmon
And broke her leg
And cut her hair.

The smoldering house a womb of another kind, birthing the sweet smoke of her lifetime, whispering the stories of her years.

And for a moment, she took her life into her own womb
And fed her unborn child with stories of great men.



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