The Wrong Sort of Woman
By T. M. De Vos
I was six when I made my first enemy. She was older, by a lot, but a head shorter. And fake, with a vacant grin and head full of pins.
She stood with one hand on her hip, like a sassy popular girl. Though you could barely tell she was a girl, except for her name: Lucy. Her hands grazed her knees, and her pelvis was the size of the bucket swings on the playground—wide enough for a child’s legs to dangle out.
Our teacher appeared, pressing her palm to the display case. “Australopithecus aff”—she stumbled over the Latin—“afarensis.”
The boys snickered at the artist’s rendition of Lucy. Her nipples poked through what looked like a hairy tracksuit, and her stomach stuck out. My mother would have said she needed a foundation garment.
“Amazing,” our teacher gushed. She couldn’t tell that Lucy was only a cast.
I snorted. The fluorescent rocks—dull gray with the lights on, livid neon in the dark—were amazing. The shale full of crinoids, necks bent by an unseen Cambrian current, was amazing. There was nothing amazing about this grown woman, with her heavy jaw and bolted knees. Her brain would have fit in a can of soda.
Her brain would have fit in a can of soda.
The docent walked us up to the case in pairs to admire Lucy. When it was my turn, I lifted my middle finger and pressed it hard against the glass. Leaving the print gave me a secret thrill, like pulling someone’s hair behind the teacher’s back.
I never said it aloud. I never even whispered it to myself at night, when I lay flat on my bed, knees knocked open, trying to feel what it was like. To be on display. To be a fossil.
I would be the best, I vowed. The most beautiful. The most complete. And someday, the oldest. Lucy and her sisters would crumble to dust, but I would endure, bleach-white and unbroken, from coronal suture to calcaneus.
So many women just fall out of history, chewing hides and cracking seeds for millennia. No sign of symbolic expression until—basically—yesterday. I wanted to learn from their mistakes. How to endure. How to pose, how to accessorize. It was why I went into archaeology—I wanted the secrets.
And I find them—smears of marrow, particles on teeth, any hair I can find. I wire their ribs together for exhibits and feel like Cinderella, dressing her stepsisters for the ball.
So many women just fall out of history, chewing hides and cracking seeds for millennia.
I swallow the bile: I nod, I smile, I curate. I come out to answer questions when visitors tap on my window. I call the women beautiful and inspiring.
But I know better. The stomach-content analyses are vile: macerated einkorn, chunks of oily rodent. No wonder all their molars are worn to flat tiles. No wonder Lucy’s stomach stuck out, with all that grain idling in her duodenum. Fermenting.
I eat only pretty things: apple slices, a few ruffles of sashimi. I chew thoroughly and finish with some calcium pills from the economy-sized bottle on my desk. I stop short of an overdose, though I like the idea of crystals sparkling in my joints.
It’s a shame that none of it shows, except on X-rays. You’d never guess how glamorous I really am, like a buttoned-up librarian with a red teddy on underneath.
My audience hasn’t even been born yet. They’re millennia away, and I have one mean lifespan to make my impression.
One thing I know is that color fades. Fabric won’t clear your first bicentennial. You’ve got to find a dress that dissolves; synthetics cling to your bones like cellophane. Jewelry is safe, a nice shorthand for representational thought. Metals last, and so do stones—concrete too, if you use the Roman mixture proportions.
My audience hasn’t even been born yet.
Once a year, I paint a fresco—a small one, the size of a school picture. I write my age, the scientific advances, the species that have gone extinct, a few coined words from the year.
I even have a stage name: Tacita, the silent. Latin, of course. By the time I’m excavated, the space between us and the ancient Romans will barely be a blip on the timeline. No one will notice those few ticks, the way we can’t tell the Silurian from the Devonian—it’s just another diorama in the Hall of Life.
It’ll be easy, with my paintings and a few tasteful bracelets, to fall in with Roman nobility. I don’t want anything to do with my nearer contemporaries—the teenaged ice mummies, the little tart we pulled in from the peat bog, with her armful of beads. No more than fifteen and stoned for adultery.
I have no secrets, no scandals. There have been a few men, but no one interesting. They don’t do much nowadays—everyone’s a consumer; everything is disposable. Even the art flickers and disappears.
Men used to be explorers; they used to hike a county over just for ink. Like my favorite Neanderthal with his pat of ocher. He mixed his own paint with animal fat and blew it through hollowed-out bones. He was thinking of posterity—of us—as he tossed hair out of his eyes and inked a row of horses on his wall.
We would have understood each other, I thought, shivering at the recognition. Both painters, but not the gallery sort. I imagined us standing together in the hushed studio of his cave, filling the walls by firelight.
I lingered over his skull, dusting the foramen magnum, where his spinal cord had joined his medulla. I finished him with grease, so his ribs shone like an iron maiden.
Maybe we’ll meet again, in an exhibit at some slick, robotic museum of the future. For now, he’s stuck with our female Pithecanthropus, all bowlegs and sad ounce of cortex.
I don’t mean to sound negative. Like everything else, time is cyclical. The Holocene will go dark, our servers and screens and grocery bags stretched to silver filaments in the topsoil. We’ll lose our muscle mass and gain some back; faces will change, then change again. We’ll lose our toes, our feet turned to flat paddles.
They’ll find me by accident, while they’re sounding the earth for a metro or a new basement, when their instruments pass over me like a lover’s hand.
I say we, but it will be some new species, buffeted by selective pressures we can’t begin to forecast. They’ll find me by accident, while they’re sounding the earth for a metro or a new basement, when their instruments pass over me like a lover’s hand. Specialists will rush over, as if I were still breathing.
But only one will be first. He’ll be tan, sweating a little from the dig. Then he’ll see me, stretched out like a princess on a litter, long since cleaned by whatever passes for scarabs. He won’t know yet how perfect I am, how unmarked—no splinters or parasites, no deficiencies. A hope chest full of my own frescoes packed beneath me.
He’ll sound out my name from my cameo and sing to me as he scrapes away the backfill, frantic to see all of me. The wrong sort of woman might even be stirred by the long tease: nothing between her and the hero but a few layers of silt. Not even skin.
T. M. De Vos is a teacher, survivor, and activist. Her work has appeared recently in Gyroscope Review, Tinge Magazine, Embark Literary Journal, Juked, and Folder Magazine. She is currently wrapping up Face Control, her first novel.
Illustrated By Greta Kotz.