The Bearded Lady
2016 Paper Darts Short Fiction Award
Judged by Roxane Gay
The Bearded Lady has dyed her beard blue and threaded it with pearls and tiny shells. Her hip sails out from behind a wisp of blue voile like the prow of a mahogany ship, and her heavy hair, clasped with silver, lifts almost imperceptibly in the wind. Elspeth can never tell what the Bearded Lady is thinking, though she's studied that moonlike face in hundreds of pictures, in Vogue and Glamour and illicit-seeming European magazines that show whole nipples. The gentle curve of her mouth always says I find this rather funny, but her eyes say I am very far away.
Elspeth's sister Imogene is two years older, and she knows everything about the Bearded Lady. “There's never been anyone like her before,” she says, carefully cutting out another picture. “She changed the face of fashion.” From the paper, the Bearded Lady in glimmering Marchesa looks out sideways at Elspeth, distant and amused. Her beard is full of rainbow jewels.
Her beard is full of rainbow jewels.
The Bearded Lady used to go naked in magazines because the fashion designers didn't make any clothes that fit her. Now that everyone is clamoring to dress her, she goes naked because she wants to. Imogene's bedroom walls undulate with glowing brown arms, bellies, buttocks. Her favorite picture is pinned above the mirror: a tender closeup, magenta curls cascading between billowy breasts.
They are not allowed to wear their beards to school—“No beards until ninth grade,” their mother says. Imogene has a glittery one from Claire's, but she's saving up to get a better one next year when she's allowed to wear it out. Hers is chintzy, she says. Girls with chintzy beards don't have any friends.
Girls with chintzy beards don't have any friends.
Elspeth made her beard herself out of her old stuffed dog, Little-Ear. It's not lush or curly, but it's soft, almost velvety, a beautiful gold color one shade darker than her hair. She loved Little-Ear, had slept with him every night since she was three, but at some point you have to give up little kid things and work on becoming beautiful.
Elspeth's friend Meera has the longest, softest beard, made of hundreds of tiny strands of dark red silk. Her mother bought it for her in Milan. Meera gets to wear her beard to school, and everyone agrees that she's the best-looking girl in their grade.
“Briana's mom bought her Rogaine,” Imogene announces at dinner.
“Rogaine doesn't work that way, my love,” says Elspeth's mom, who's a doctor. Her voice has that singsong “I've said this over a hundred times now and I'm being very patient but don't push me” note.
“Well, Briana said her mom said the Internet said sometimes it does.”
“Honey, Briana isn't even old enough to legally get a Rogaine prescription.” Elspeth's mother has short hair and tired eyes and barely any beard; she says fashion has never mattered much to her. Besides, she would have to cover it at work, which would be a hassle.
“That's why her mom bought it for her,” says Imogene, pouting. "Don't you even want me to be pretty?"
“Don't you even want me to be pretty?”
Sometimes the knowledge that she is not beautiful hits Elspeth so hard she almost wails with it. In first grade, she once got put in time-out for sneezing too loud; she remembers staring through tears at the off-white wall, shame prickling over her scalp like a red-hot dunce cap, wondering frantically how to fix something that she hadn't chosen, that she couldn't control, that she'd never even realized was wrong. Being not beautiful feels like that.
She has seen Imogene staring at herself in her bedroom mirror, pinching sternly at the meager flesh over her ribs and whispering, “Look at yourself, just look.” Imogene puts on a voice when she does it, the voice she imagines for the Bearded Lady: feathery and musical, an Audrey Hepburn voice. But Elspeth imagines the voice as booming and rich, speaking each word like an incantation. Look at yourself, the Bearded Lady would say, and the image in the mirror would judder and change.
When they first find out that the Bearded Lady will be making an appearance downtown, of course their mom says they're not allowed to go. It's a school night, and it will be crowded. But Elspeth weeps and Imogene screams and eventually their mom says fine, as long as she doesn't have to drive.
Briana's mother picks them up at 7. She has hollowed-out cheeks and clavicles, and a broad forehead smooth as a block of teak. She smiles and says, “Hello Imogene, and this must be your sister, how nice to see you both,” but her eyes don't crease and her brows don't move. Briana sees Elspeth staring and gives her a dirty look. There’s a soot-smudge of downy dark hair on the rim of Briana’s jaw, which is studded with fresh-looking pimples.
There's a soot-smudge of downy dark hair on the rim of Briana's jaw, which is studded with fresh-looking pimples.
The line to see the Bearded Lady snakes around the building like a labyrinth. Once you get inside it curves again and again through the massive open space, coiled intestinally around a clearing in the center where the Bearded Lady holds court. She's low to the ground; Elspeth can't see her over the throng, even though many of the girls fidgeting in line are no more than eight years old.
Finally, they shuffle close enough that Elspeth can get a good look at the Bearded Lady in person. She's reclining on a heap of pillows on the floor, surrounded by tufts and whorls of different fabrics, her velvet robes fanned out around her like resting wings. Her beard is painted with gold leaf, and there are gold stars in her hair. Even seated on her cushions, she just above eye level with the littler girls who approach her, and quite a bit below Elspeth's height. She stares up placidly at the next girl in line, who is wearing a blue wool beard and chewing the inside of her cheek. The girl's friend has to poke her hard in the back before she manages to lurch forward.
As the girl approaches, the Bearded Lady lifts up her arms, as though for an embrace. Elspeth thinks she means to stroke the girl's face, soothe her worrying, make her be still. But instead she gently unhooks the woolen beard and tosses it carelessly behind her pillow-throne. The riot of fabric that surrounds the Bearded Lady, Elspeth realizes, is all discarded beards: black beards, violet beards, metallic beards, beards made of yards of watered silk, beards of real human hair.
The riot of fabric that surrounds the Bearded Lady, Elspeth realizes, is all discarded beards: black beards, violet beards, metallic beards, beards made of yards of watered silk, beards of real human hair.
A thin fear trails up Elspeth's throat like a fingernail. She imagines a dragon sitting on hoarded treasure, or a demon crouched on the trophy heads of its enemies. But there's so much tenderness in the way the Bearded Lady loosens the strings from behind the next girl's head. Elspeth is still thinking of a dragon, but now she also thinks of a nurse on the battlefield.
Then Elspeth is next. She steps into the open, and the Bearded Lady lifts up her arms, to steal, to succor. The curve of her mouth says I find you rather funny, foolish children. But her eyes say I am very far away.