I met Sheena at Wonderland, a traveling carnival that took me in when I ran from home. We’d pull into town and I’d set up the sideshow booths, haul swag and stock vendors, and when the run was over, I’d break it all down. I was 16 years old, as strong as any man there. Sheena was the bearded lady, the most beautiful woman I’d ever seen. I didn’t know how much there was to want in the world until I saw her, and then I wanted it all.
My father broke seven bones in me before I was 15. He didn’t have any goodness in him, except when he sang Hank Williams or George Jones, mournful songs of lost love and heartache. He sang like an angel, and when he was done singing, he’d cry for my mother, and when he was done crying, he’d come after me. I felt all his sorrow and loss the night I left home. He came at me with an ax handle, and while I’d be badly bruised, I was able to pull myself from the floor and run. Hours later, I saw Sheena on her trailer steps at Wonderland, and something broke in me for good, some brittle thing I didn’t know was there. And then it just kept breaking.
I didn’t know a woman could have such glowing skin, such carriage. Her beard wasn’t heavy or long like Stonewall Jackson’s, but delicate, wispy, crow purple black. On her sideshow board, she was a hairy demon, eyes popping from her head, but in the flesh she was powerful and fragile, her hair cut in a perfect Prince Valiant. Every time I saw her I felt born again.
Wonderland — Samuel Ligon
The country hit that summer was “You’re Not Woman Enough to Be My Man,” lonesome Kitty Valor’s voice pouring over the hot metal and cotton candy of Wonderland. I’d see Sheena and my lungs would collapse. I hadn’t been on the road two weeks, and already I was a freak. I was glad I hadn’t killed my father and sorry I’d waited so long to run, wondering how much of myself I’d lost to him. I’d sit outside Sheena’s trailer at night, listening to Kitty Valor’s song about men and women and women and men, and I’d wonder if any of us had a chance in this world.
Sometimes a man would wait for her out back of the sideshow. Sometimes she’d bring him home. I’d been moving my sleeping bag closer to her door, and when the rain came slashing out of the mountains, she told me to bed down on the dry ground under her trailer. “I’d let you sleep inside,” she said, “but I’m having company.”
I knew about her company. I knew what men paid her for. And I heard them above me that night, the animal noises they made. Hollowing me. The rain was so heavy I didn’t dare come out. Later, when she said it was time for him to leave, and he said, “I don’t think so,” I crawled into the rain, listening hard.
“No,” she said. “Stop it!”
I opened the door and she was thrashing, one of his big paws over her mouth. She bit him and he slapped her, even as he pulled her tighter against him.
“Put her down,” I said, and he said, “Or what?”
Sheena twisted and he twisted with her. I punched him in the kidneys, the way my father punched me. I punched him until he let Sheena go. He ran out the door, looking back with fear in his eyes, which satisfied me and made me sick. The punches I’d thrown crackled in my hands and shoulders. I’d probably never be woman enough for Sheena now. But when I turned, she was setting a long barreled revolver on her kitchen counter.
“Thanks,” she said. “I appreciate your concern.”
“I guess you had it covered,” I said, nodding toward her cowboy gun.
She was wearing this black silky thing – a slip, maybe. My eyes were pulled all over her. I concentrated on her beard.
“It’s still raining,” she said. “Why don’t you sleep on the floor here.”
“All right,” I said, and I lay on her floor, breathing her molecules, while she slept on the other side of an accordion door. The next night, she was drinking beer out front of her place.
“You want one?” she said, looking me up and down.
“Sure,” I said.
“One beer won’t hurt anything.”
We drank one beer at her dinette and then a bottle of whisky, every cell in my body vibrating with her. She put on some hillbilly music and we danced, rubbing against each other. I couldn’t breathe enough of the air around her. We sat at her dinette and she told me about her first whisker, about shaving and worrying, until she realized her beard was her fortune.
“Do you want to touch it?” she said.
Of course I wanted to touch it.
It was soft as could be, her skin around it softer still.
“It wasn’t the first thing I noticed about you,” I said.
“How you hold yourself,” I said. “So proud, I was afraid of you.”
“You should be afraid of me.”
“I don’t want to be afraid of you.”
“Then you don’t know what love is.”
She gathered a bowl of warm water, a straightedge razor. “Love should scare the hell out of you,” she said, lathering me, her sweet smell all around. She shaved me, humming against my ear. “Does that feel good?” she said, but I couldn’t talk. She flicked the edge of the blade against my cheek, bringing up blood. “Don’t move,” she said. She took a pinch of salt from a bowl on the table, patting it against my face, licking it into my wound, and when she kissed my mouth, all that salt and blood and breath mixed between us. I’d never kissed a woman before and couldn’t stop.
“Now do me,” she said, handing me the razor. “But don’t take too much.”
I took a dip from her beard, then cut and salted her, licked her wound and kissed her and kept kissing her. When I woke in the morning, she was warm against me. I’d never known I could fit someone like that. All my troubles were behind, it seemed. We couldn’t imagine the ways we’d hurt each other down the road, all our suffering a million miles from the mystery we were grabbing after now.
“You’re not a freak,” she said a few nights later, as we lounged on her trailer bed. “But I like you anyway.”
“I am a freak,” I said.
Our faces were crosshatched pink and purple and red.
“You can say you are,” she said.
“And you can say you are,” I said.
She handed me the razor. I lathered her and shaved a wisp of her beard away.
“Don’t take too much,” she said.
I looked at her beautiful face, her beard, her translucence. I loved the way she talked and listened, the way she looked at me. Her smell. I loved everything about her.
“I’m taking it all,” I said.
She looked at me. We looked at each other.
“You can grow another one,” I said.
She closed her eyes and sat straight on the edge of the bed, tilting her head so I could make a clean job of it. I took my time, careful not to cut her, while she hummed against me the most beautiful song I’d ever heard.
Lead photo credit: (Molly Quinn illustration)