PROUD FLESH • by Teresa Burns Gunther

In her English class, Gillian was assigned an ode. She wrote to the jagged Zorro scar above her knee from the August night she taught Benny to surf in the rickety trailer camper their father towed. They’d been banished from his truck because their excited license plate counting interrupted his ballgame; when Dad’s driving, he likes to drink with his Red Sox in peace. In the narrow “kitchen” of that squat rolling camper, she showed her seven-year-old brother how to surf the unseen mountain curves. Two years older, she was on a mission to teach him to be fearless.

“Look,” she said, skinny arms wide. “No hands.” But the camper jerked hard right, then left; horns outside blared as she fell, ripped open her leg on jagged sticks in the apple crate. Firewood to keep them warm outside, later, after Dad went to sleep.

They used their socks to staunch the bleeding and the zigzag cut healed up strong, all on its own. For a while it was her favorite. Her English teacher showed her Ode to a Scar to the school counselor who peered over smudged glasses and asked questions in a suspicious voice, soured with stale coffee. Gillian called herself clumsy; she understood the Irish proverb about the devil you know. Ms. Patel, the biology teacher, a woman with dark, curious eyes and a razor-keen mind, shared her fascination. She explained that scars are proof of healing. Gillian loved the word in the woman’s sing-song voice — hyper-granulation — for the way skin goes above and beyond its duty to protect the rawest places.

At 14, Benny has tattoos up and down both arms and right calf. His “memory keepers.” He wanted to celebrate her surviving to 16 with matching tats he paid for with his yard work money. She cherishes the IGY6 tat on her wrist, a truth in her heart. But her memory keepers are carved into her skin and map her sharpest moments. The hyper-granulated crescent moon on her cheek where Dad’s belt swung through the air and caught her when she stepped between him and Benny. And the railroad track down her back when she was chased by boys, a pack of dogs, who tried to touch her where she did not want to be touched. She hopped a fence armed with barbed wire that didn’t want to let her go either.

Her favorite of them all is the star — fiery and pointed — where Dad held his cigarette to her chest to teach her a lesson, but good. She’s proud of how she clenched every part of herself. Gave up not one tear. Let her rage hypergranulate and smash into his to show him that he could not touch her, not where she lived, cocooned, safe inside. Her brother screamed “Stop” but she needed him to see he did not have to be afraid. She hissed at her dad, “I have super cells. Good daddies that heal over the worst you could ever do.” He recoiled, stepped back, his bloodshot eyes wide with terror like she was an alien; his head ticked right, right, right. He stared at the cigarette, staggered away, tossed it into the sink like it was burning him. It was still sizzling when he slammed his bedroom door. He stayed locked inside for two days.

She tells Benny that star, that proud flesh, is her badge.

It marks the last time he ever touched her.

She wears it everywhere.

It tells the world that only she is the sheriff of her body.

Teresa Burns Gunther’s work has appeared in numerous literary journals and anthologies, most recently: Next Tribe, Mid-American Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, The Dr. T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Pure Slush Books. Her story collection, “Hold Off the Night” was a Finalist for the 2019 Orison Book Prize and her work has been recognized in numerous contests including Writer’s Digest, Narrative, Glimmer Train Press, Cutthroat, Tupelo Quarterly, NMW and more. Her interviews and book reviews have appeared in Bookslut, Glimmer Train Press, Literary Mama, Zyzzyva, and others. She is the founder of Lakeshore Writers Workshop, an Affiliate of AWA.

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