Once upon a time there was a girl who was growing into a woman, but she wasn’t growing into the right kind of woman. Instead of dressing in loose robes that dusted the ground, she dressed like her brothers, in tunic and trousers. She pulled her hair back away from her face and never wound it in cloth. When possible, she bared her feet and hands and face and smiled in her joy because she was comfortable. This girl, instead of praying as her father prayed, turned her face up to the light and lifted her arms with the ecstasy freedom of movement affords. Her prayers had no room for prostration; they were a celebration of her physical existence. As a result, when the girl prayed, she was comforted. Finally, she did not behave as she was expected to behave. She eschewed the indoors and wandered freely under the open sky. She grew lean and quick. Often, her brothers could not catch her. When she had run herself sore, she went to green moss under an apple tree and rested comfortably.
The girl was considered wild and rough. Her parents dropped their heads and flushed red when it was necessary for her to attend them at the market. She more than once heard them extol her brothers in conversation with friends and fail to mention her at all.
The girl did not understand. She spent many afternoons on the moss under her apple tree reflecting on how she excelled in her lessons, on how quick she was, and how strong. Was she not also beautiful? The farm boy down the road had trembled when she spoke to him about the pigs and their future as bacon. He had smiled at her shyly, blue eyes cast down under orange lashes, as many others had. Yes, her parents said she was overly brown from the sun, but did that render her unworthy of mention?
This continued into the girl’s twelfth year. By this time, her breasts had begun to bud and her hips to curve. After dinner one evening, she went to her room to dress for sleep and found that blood had spread down the thighs of her trousers. Womanhood had come for her. When she summoned her mother, all her trousers were reclaimed for her younger brothers, and her closet was filled with multi-layered undergarments. The next day, she was forced to dress in heavy robes that dusted the floor and a cloth was wound around her head. When she cried over the changes, her mother beat her with a broom. When she complained to her father, he beat her with a stick.
The girl was no longer allowed to run in the fields. She was beaten when caught speaking to the farmer boy. Her lessons became focused on etiquette and prayer. When she walked one afternoon to her apple tree and stayed by herself until dark, the tree was cut down, and the moss ripped from the earth.
In time, the girl lost her quickness. She grew soft and malleable. She ceased to speak at excited volumes. Her parents celebrated each change.
Once upon a time, there was a woman who dressed as she was expected to dress. She prayed as she was expected to pray. She folded her hands and spoke just above a whisper, declining any hints of expertise, free of expectation that she might ever be more that she was. This woman found a man who was dressed well, prayed as her father prayed, and spoke for her should society require her voice. As was expected, she married that man, was faithful to him, and bore him sons. Her sons were happy and healthy and carefree. The woman was pleased. During this portion of her life, she laughed about the kind of child she had been. She believed herself without conflict.
Born with the next child was the seed of change.
Once upon a time a woman expelled a child from her womb. It was a daughter. The woman looked at the child and was afraid. The girl was beautiful and vibrant and completely unrestrained. The woman saw two possibilities: The first, that she could observe her daughter as she grew. She could watch and wait and help as needed, recognizing that children do not always make safe choices or good choices, but that they can learn to make the best choices. Her daughter might make big, scary choices or small, silly choices, or even repeat unnecessary, annoying choices, but her daughter would learn from these choices. She would grow up knowing herself because she was allowed to do so. But she might not grow into the right kind of woman.
The second possibility was that she could actively shape the girl to prevent her from growing into the wrong kind of woman. She would strip the girl of any choices in dress, hold the girl’s head to the floor to ensure it touched during prayer, and beat the girl when she grew jealous of the freedom of her brothers. In short, pressure would need to be applied. It would hurt the child. Every day the woman would have to press and press and press on her daughter to make sure she only grew in the ways that would fit the mold and make the right shape. The woman remembered what this process felt like.
The woman grew warm and strong. She looked at her daughter. She looked at her past. What, the woman wondered, would she be like had she been honored as an individual first? She trembled with anger, and before she could be convinced otherwise, she said, “No!”
A seed came loose. It traveled from her throat down through her heart and womb and exited her vagina. The woman looked down and saw the seed. Oh! It was small and foul. It had barbs where it had clung to her insides. She rubbed her throat, noticing that it felt empty. The seed had been choking her, but now she could inhale and exhale in a way that was fuller than she had known possible. She could tip her head from side to side and swallow and cry.
My, how she cried. The tears bathed her face for forty-eight hours. Pain she had not known she carried was washed away. She began to age backwards.
Once upon a time there was a woman who gave birth to a daughter. When she looked into her daughter’s face, she saw the beauty of choice. The choice was frightening.
Once upon a time there was a woman who grew into the right kind of woman according to her parents. She gave birth to a daughter. When she looked into her daughter’s face she wondered who had first defined “right.” Rage reared up inside her. A seed shook loose and was birthed right after her daughter. The woman burned the seed on a funeral pyre and danced well into the night. She was no longer afraid.
Once upon a time a girl grew up to be a woman who gave birth to a daughter, and when she looked at her daughter, she saw herself as her parents should have seen her. She rejected what they had taught her and vowed to start fresh. She lifted her voice and sang out this vow for all to hear.
Once upon a time a girl grew up to be a woman, certain there was only one way to be the right kind of woman. That woman gave birth to a daughter. She looked at her daughter and her heart opened and she realized that you get to pick what kind of woman you are, and no one else gets to tell you if you are wrong or right.
Once upon a time a girl grew up to being told she would be the wrong kind of woman, but she gave birth to a daughter. In honor of her daughter, she rediscovered herself. In the process of self-discovery, she realized that, although she chose to no longer dress or pray or behave the way she was expected to, she was the right kind of woman after all.