Cruel Beauty

**This fictional story contains delicate themes (e.g. bullying/coming of age sexuality/rape) and coarse language.  If you are sensitive or averse to either, please refrain from reading.**

I am a keeper of secrets. Not just the hair-standing-up-on-the-back-of-your-neck kind, but the kind that make you want dive into the peanut butter jar and eat marshmallow fluff with a spoon. I’ve never been pretty. I’m the girl who stands in the mirror, towel on her head, pretending to be beautiful: Disney-princess-beautiful with long-flowing tresses, big eyes, and a perfectly heart-shaped mouth. I know I’ll never be her, but I dream to be.

I live in the country; I’ve lived here all my life. I spend my days wading through corn fields and my nights down by the creek. I like to listen to the silence there, to all the things hidden in it. I like to bring my diary too. I write about the things I hear and quietly muse how it would feel to catch my name dancing on the wind. The wind that kisses and caresses. The wind that doesn’t harm.

I write about sad things too. Like what Swan Anderson told everyone last week about my being a curse. That ugly people like me shouldn’t be allowed to live. I write about it because I know it’ll hurt less if I put it down on paper. If somehow I peel it off myself and plaster it to the pages of a book that can be closed.

Swan is one of those girls who was gifted with good looks and vexed with bad manners. She’s beautiful. She knows it. And so does everyone else in Drexel. Because of it she gets anything she wants. Her heart is black though, I’m sure of it. Just like I’m sure I hate tomato juice and that strawberries make me sneeze.

I watched her once after gym class, parading around half-naked in the locker room. She was talking about Nick Berry, the cutest boy in school and with whom she’d recently “done it”. Everyone hung on her every word but all I could pay attention to were her breasts. They were perfect−barely touched by the finest hairs, and transparent on both sides. Her nipples, deep pink and button-sized, were unlike my own which are huge and fleshy, like the breasts of the women in the nudie pictures my father hides in his chest of drawers.  I’ve always found them ugly too.

Swan has never talked to me. We’ve sat next to each other in homeroom nearly every year−Anders before Anderson and all that−but she’s never uttered a word. The closest she has come to acknowledging my existence is that cool flip of her hair. She almost looks at me when she does it. Almost. I get a faint whiff of her strawberry shampoo every time and afterward secretly pinch my outer thigh, careful not to let her see my silent reprimand.

Everyone loves Swan. Teachers praise her. Parents want to adopt her. Boys want to date her. Girls want to be her. But me, I simply want to survive her. I had a dream last night that she got run over by Willis Watkin’s tractor. She didn’t die, but the accident left her mangled, unrecognizable really. In my dream, I felt a frisson of joy and then a cold, deep stab of guilt at her misfortune. But then I woke up and realized she was still inimitably beautiful and horrible, so I cried myself to sleep.

I took off toward the creek this morning trying to forget. It was near dawn and I knew my father wouldn’t miss me.  Too much drinking.  Again.

I cut behind the Miller’s farm and followed the long fence to where it ends and climbed over. The grass was still somewhat wet and slimy beneath my sneakers, but the air was light, crisp even, for a summer morning. I hadn’t been in the Miller’s house for over a year. Not since Sil died. It didn’t seem fair for her to be taken so young: 37, full of life and love. She’d had a massive heart attack eight days after the birth of their fourth son, Jack. They found her prone, wearing her ruffled apron, the green telephone receiver just out of reach.

I babysat for them off and on until Mr. Miller, Sheriff Miller’s son, decided Swan would be a better choice. She is the first of nine siblings, a child-rearing cognoscente if there ever was one. “Surely, with all her experience, she’ll be able to handle my boys…better,” he told me. “I hope you understand, Margaret.” Sure. I understood perfectly. For a second, I had a wicked thought about Mr. Miller. But before it and my anger consumed me, I turned around and walked home.

The Miller’s property backs right up to Thunder Creek, but isn’t part of it. Their property is, however, one of only two ways to access it and since I’d been their babysitter and am not a known deviant, they’ve let me come and go as I please. They probably take pity on me, like most others do. A person knows when he’s being pitied, I assure you. There’s something unmistakable in the flattening of one’s lip and the squint of one’s eye when they’re trying too hard to be happy around you−like if they don’t, you’ll find the nearest bridge from which to hurl yourself. It’s ridiculous really, but then so are they.  Turns out ugly doesn’t trump ridiculous. Who knew?

The creek, calm and steady, was just beginning to warm from the dawning sun when I arrived. I closed my eyes to its music and let my body gravitate to my favorite rock, the huge one nestled beneath the wedlock tree, where my haunches had worn a perfectly-positioned settee.

Everything about this place is lovely. If I were an artist I could try to do it justice, but since I’m not, I just let its beauty wash over me. There are trees everywhere, both skinny and fat; and rocks−of all different shapes, sizes and colors−pepper the creek’s outer edges. Farther off there is a small sunflower field, which looks too perfect to be natural, and a wooden shack the fishermen used when the fishing was good. From what I’ve heard, it was also a prime make out place, but it’s been abandoned for years, the lower quarter now giving way to the creeping kudzu.

As I looked, I saw a strange light coming from the shack, like prisms dancing on the panes and swore I heard a scream. I decided to investigate since the odds were quite favorable that someone “up to no stinkin’ good,” as Pap always said, would be more scared of me than me of him. Besides, I hadn’t had the Cook’s tour of Thunder in a while and convinced myself, and my erratically beating heart, that now seemed like a perfect time. I remembered my father’s words: “Don’t worry, Mags. Wait long enough and you’ll find your fear.” And I had found it; it was skulking within me making the underside of my knees sweat and my bottom lip quiver.

I thought of how my father despised me as I crept. How he was a small man−not in stature, but in character−who had never forgiven me my mother’s death. How he held me responsible for it. Me, who took my first breaths as she took her last. Me, stuck with a drunk of a father who wouldn’t give the slightest damn if I simply vanished. Who would talk you dead for twenty-five hours with no bathroom breaks. Who, after deciding to take one step down the wrong path, decided to take another and then another and then another. Cruel he could be, but mostly he was just inconvenient and foul− a weighty addition to the laundry list of why-to-leave-this-hellhole-of-a-town.

I was cut by another scream, followed by sounds of struggle, as I eased my way alongside the shack and then to standing beneath its window. I saw him first, one hand over her mouth, the other between her legs. His body, moving grotesquely into hers in rapid bursts, was rigid with wrongdoing and heavy with shame.  “Is−this−how−you−like−it−pretty−girl?” he asked, then answered, “Yeah−this−is−how−you−like−it.”

Her white panties circled her ankles and her head shook back and forth, occasionally smacking the filthy floor, finally breaking her butterfly clip as she fought him. But it was no use. He was too strong and too crazed. He began to hit her, to bash her slight frame, and that’s when I heard a scream, recognizing it seconds later as my own. I started hammering the glass shouting, “Get off of her! Get off!”, and hurled every foul word I knew at him, calling him a shitdickass, or something like that, as I ran around the side of the shack screaming that I’d kill him. “I’ll kill you,” I promised, through a rush of adrenaline and moxie, and then was nose to chest with him, his open fly and his horrified expression. Son of a bitch, I thought, looking into the ruddy face of Mr. Miller, and behind him, to a cowering ball of flesh: Swan Anderson.

For every Goliath, there is a David, but staring into Mr. Miller’s eyes I realized I was no David. I took a step back as he raised his fist, and felt a warm trickle run down my inseam and pool in my polka-dotted socks, as I waited for its weight across my face.  “You leave her out of this,” Swan warned, trying to pull her panties up her shaking legs. “You touch her and I’ll tell everyone about this−your father, your children. I’ll tell them everything,” she seethed. “I’ll even go to the graveyard and tell Sil.” Something in him broke then. He looked around the shack−suffused with heat, sweat and regret−to Swan, and then to me as he lowered his arm, stepped back and disappeared into the woods.

“You won’t tell anyone about this, Margaret,” Swan said, as her teeth chattered against her bent knees. She wouldn’t look me in the eye and kept smoothing her hair and her dress. I stared at her in disbelief, not for what she asked me to do, but that she said my name. It seemed a small victory to hear it pass her lips. Somewhere deep down I waited for her to melt at the utterance of it, like she’d warned many times before.  Nope, I thought, and shook my head back and forth.  “Good,” she whispered.

I stood in the doorway, not knowing where to be or how to act, as she walked toward me dusting herself off. She pinched her pale cheeks, which quickly came to life, and brushed her hand through her hair as she looked at me and walked away.  The faint smell of strawberries lingered for a moment as I pinched my outer thigh, not as a reprimand, but as a prayer, as a keeper of secrets.

**I wrote this story last year, yet until yesterday only one other soul had read it.  Obviously, it’s not what you’d expect from bloomingspiders, but it is an artistic expression of deep themes, as are all of my posts.  In the future, I plan to post pieces that may stretch and scare us both.  I hope you will welcome that, but if you don’t I understand.  My ultimate goal as a bloomingspider is to spin truth to net hearts.  Rape and bullying are deep-searing truths for many.  And while they may not be yours, I pray you’ll be sensitive to those whose they are.  I close with the sacred blessing of my dear friend, Charissa Grace:

“Do justice
Love mercy
Walk humbly”

Elizabeth Berg, a man named Andre, and writing true

On August 16, 2013, I kissed my husband curbside and anxiously entered the lobby of the Hyatt Regency Chicago. I was wearing my favorite jeans, a polka-dot blouse and my black pumps, the ones with the large leather bow near the toe. But the space felt wrong, like the cafeteria on the first day of school: a virtual minefield of social suicide and no map to guide.

I looked around, knowing full well I would find no familiar faces, but hoping I could spot aspiring writers, that perhaps our hearts would seem familiar to one another. And after a few trips up and down the stairs, I spotted them. Comrades in pen. Soldiers of prose.

We were all nervous. Sizing up the space and each other, then scanning the large area for a face we’d seen only briefly, if at all: that of Ms. Elizabeth Berg.

I had met Elizabeth previously, but doubted she’d remember me. I had been too nervous, too giddy that warm summer day when she’d spoken about the motivation behind her novels, including her most recent, Tapestry of Fortunes.

Meeting Elizabeth.  May 10, 2013.

Meeting Elizabeth. May 10, 2013.

Afterward, as she signed my copy, she told me of a workshop that was in the planning stages. It would be in Chicago. “If you’re serious about writing”, she told me, “I think it would be a wonderful experience for you. Please try to come.”

And then there I was, waiting for the first of three days with one of my most beloved authors .

Her latest novel, which I enjoyed, but doesn't hold a candle to my absolute favorite, The Pull of the Moon.

Her latest novel, which I enjoyed, but didn’t move me nearly as much as my absolute favorite, The Pull of the Moon.

Elizabeth wrote my name before I spelled it, hence the addition of "who wrote before she listened" to the inscription.

Elizabeth wrote my name before I spelled it, hence the addition of “who wrote before she listened” to the inscription.

There were five of us: different ages, different backgrounds, different writing styles and different motivations for putting pen to paper. But we all had two things in common: we all loved Elizabeth and we all wanted to learn from her.

The ladies from the workshop (L to R):  Sandy, Ginny, Chrissie, Me and Marilyn.

The ladies from the workshop (L to R): Sandy, Ginny, Chrissie, Me and Marilyn.

She told us our time together would be sacred. That we would bond quickly, share more and share bigger because of the intensity of the workshop. She asked us to be open to feeling everything that came, even the terrifying and difficult. That it would make our writing more authentic. And then she said this:

“Don’t be afraid to feel. The good stuff is where the bullshit ends and the truth begins.”

I nodded my head in response and heard the tinny clang of my armor, heavy and protective: Bullshit. Yes, that’s what it was.

On day two, Elizabeth shared with us where our talents might best be suited. I had prayed all night for her lips to form the word novelist, but instead she told me she saw me as a children’s book author. And called my writing ethereal. Afterward, as we sat tight and straight like Popsicle sticks, I asked the ladies if they felt the same. Ginny, who I’d grown to adore, stepped closer, “It’s just what she thinks; it doesn’t mean anything…unless you think it does.” But it did. Elizabeth Berg was telling me I’d be a great children’s author. Perhaps she was right. Since she was Elizabeth Berg and all.

I was dreading day three. Its focus, dialogue, had never been my strength and I’d convinced myself it never would.

On that day, Elizabeth gave an assignment:

Today’s assignment is to go out and listen to people talk. It can be anywhere: on the street, in a restaurant, in a bathroom, in the hotel lobby, on public transportation. Pay attention not only to what they say but HOW they say it—you want to pick up on natural patterns of speech. What gets emphasized? What makes for pauses? Hesitations? Repetitions? Is there a strident quality to what they’re saying? A lyrical one? A dull one? How does emotion affect the way something is said?
…Try to replicate cadence, a natural and way of speech. Try to avoid clichés or dialogue that goes nowhere; have your assignment be a little story. Understand in your mind who these characters are before you make them talk: see them clearly in your mind.

I felt sick to my stomach. I had no idea where to go or what to write. So I wandered down Wacker, turned left on Michigan and saw a man standing in a doorway, a paper cup in his hands and a cardboard sign around his neck. Written there were two words:

I’m hungry

I looked at him as I passed, but I didn’t See him, and continued to walk until I found a door that looked interesting and walked through. I ordered my lunch, then sat at a table near the back, behind a young couple and away from the noise. She was pleading with him to stay together, despite their parents and their friends’ objections. But he heard nothing. He was messing with his iPhone and jamming to the tunes heard on his bright red headphones. She looked down, around and down again. And then there was silence.

I started to eat my lunch, but couldn’t forget the man’s face, his sign and those written words: I’m hungry. So, I got up, bought him some lunch and headed his way. When I held out my hand, he cocked his head and put his pointer finger to his temple. It stayed there as he sized me up and then extended his hand toward me:

“My name’s Andre.”
“Pleased to meet you, Andre. I’m Dani.”

I asked him if he’d mind having lunch with me to which he replied, “pull up some concrete”, which I did. He told me about losing his job, his apartment and his family. He told me about life on the street, sleeping under Wacker Drive, “which smells like trash and dead things…’cept in winter.” How his friend had a dog, “one of them smooshy ones with rolls” and how he helped them make it: “People seems more inclined to feed a starving man with a dog, ‘poor thing’, they always say.”

He told me about working in factories in Kenosha. And I watched him hide his hands as he told me how badly he wanted to shower, “to get clean, you know?”.

Then he told me this:

“Yous my present from God today. People don’t see me. But you, you stopped. And looked at me. That there’s a God thing, mam. Yous a God thing.”

I shook his hand again and told him I needed to get back. And then looked him straight in the eye: “It was nice meeting you, Andre. Thank you.”

I ran to the hotel and began feverishly scribbling the account of our conversation, as if I were watching from the outside. And when I shared it with my group, I cried, overwhelmed by what had happened and how he’d let me in. “That was a God thing,” I told them.


That first day in the Hyatt lobby was 365 days ago. One week later I started this blog and since then have referred back to things said by each woman who attended, to Andre, and, of course, to Elizabeth, who reminded us on our last day together:

“Writing is not a craft, it’s a calling.”

I know now I was called to this place and that I couldn’t fully be here without my traumas and triumphs. That you wouldn’t hear me or See me without them. So in honor of Elizabeth, Andre and my nearly one year blogging anniversary, I’d like to extend my heart in thanks to those who have sprinkled light and truth on my path, those who have Seen me and had the decency to hold my gaze in this precious space:

To Ginny, a beautiful writer and friend, thank you for believing in my voice and experiences. And thank you for believing others would as well.
To Charissa Grace, a wordsmith if I’ve ever known one, you are true heart. Thank you for being Family.

To Jane, a tender soul and talented writer, thank you for breathing kindness, acceptance and grace.
To Stephen, a man of passion and stalwart faith, thank you for your time, your willingness to consider and our continued conversations.

And finally, to Elizabeth Berg, who taught me about the sanctity of writing true. May you know I always will.

Tadeusz Borowski: Auschwitz Serial Number 119 198

Image courtesy of PAP/CAF via

Image courtesy of PAP/CAF via

I first heard the name Tadeusz Borowski as an undergraduate student in Amherst. At that time, I had rather sophomoric ideas of the horrors authored by the Third Reich and of its henchmen, and was scarcely aware of the songs of its survivors. Of course, I’d heard of Levi, Spiegelman and Wiesel. And I’d read Plath’s “Daddy” as a teenager. But nothing could’ve prepared me for the words I would read that semester. Nothing.

Our syllabus consisted of many required readings: Maus, The Destruction of the European Jews, Night, and selections from Chaim Kaplan’s diary. It also included poetry from Nelly Sachs, Paul Celan, Yitzchak Katzenelson and Dan Pagis. But the reading that haunted me most was Borowski’s This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen. His words, his deceptively simple words and oftentimes frigidly detached account of the unimaginable, proved to lyrically amputate a chamber of my beating heart. Forever.

After falling into a Nazi trap at a friend’s apartment, Borowski was sent to Auschwitz in late April 1943. It is Auschwitz, then, that serves as the main backdrop for the fictionalized stories found in his brutally gripping book and about which the novelist William Styron wrote in his acclaimed novel Sophie’s Choice: “Auschwitz itself remains inexplicable. The most profound statement yet made about Auschwitz was not a statement at all, but a response. The query: ‘At Auschwitz, tell me, where was God?’ And the answer: ‘Where was man?’”

Borowski’s words anchor deep into the most sacred of places. He shows what one will do for an extra bowl of soup or a proper pair of shoes. And challenges the more traditional roles of perpetrator and victim. He also weaves a thread of normalcy through the most abnormal and ghastly of circumstances.

In this selection, he writes about arrival at Auschwitz:

You have no idea how tremendous the world looks when you fall out of a closed, packed freight car! The sky is so high…
…and blue…
Exactly, blue, and the trees smell wonderful. The forest ̶ you want to take it in your hand. (p. 126)

The entrance to the main gate at Auschwitz I.  It reads "work makes you free".  Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

The entrance to the main gate at Auschwitz I. It reads “work makes you free”. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via


One of the most chilling features of Borowski’s prose is its icy delivery. It proves to recreate such intensity that the reader is often left breathless:

The lights on the ramp flicker with a spectral glow, the wave of people ̶ feverish, agitated, stupefied people ̶ flows on and on, endlessly. They think that now they will have to face a new life in the camp, and they prepare themselves emotionally for the hard struggle ahead. They do not know that in just a few moments they will die, that the gold, money, and diamonds which they have so prudently hidden in their clothing and on their bodies are now useless to them. Experienced professionals will probe into every recess of their flesh, will pull the gold from under the tongue and the diamonds from the uterus and the colon. They will rip out gold teeth. In tightly sealed crates they will ship them to Berlin. (p. 48-49)

Female hair found in Auschwitz warehouses after liberation.  Image courtesy of Polish National Archives via

Female hair found in Auschwitz warehouses after liberation. Image courtesy of Polish National Archives via

Here, he recounts the terrors of the crematoria:

Often, in the middle of the night, I walked outside; the lamps glowed in the darkness above the barbed-wire fences. The roads were completely black, but I could distinctly hear the far-away hum of a thousand voices ̶ the procession moved on and on. And then the entire sky would light up; there would be a burst of flame above the wood…and terrible human screams. (p. 84-85)

A door to a gas chamber in Auschwitz. The note reads: Harmful gas! Entering endangers your life. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

A door to a gas chamber in Auschwitz. The note reads: Harmful gas! Entering endangers your life. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

An Auschwitz  warehouse filled with shoes and clothing from those who were gassed upon arrival.  Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

An Auschwitz warehouse filled with shoes and clothing from those who were gassed upon arrival. Image courtesy of USHMM Photo Archives via

Omnipresent in Borowski’s stories is the theme of deception: deception by the Nazis, deception by both friend and foe and deception by strangers. That theme is magnified in the following: “It is the camp law: people going to their death must be deceived to the very end. This is the only permissible form of charity” (p. 37).


After being liberated in Dachau, Borowski lived in Bavaria, Paris and Berlin; finally returning to Warsaw in 1950. It was there, nearly 63 years ago, on July 1, 1951, that he gassed himself. He died two days later on July 3.  He was 28 years old.

Sadly, he was followed by others. Others who had peered into the soulless recesses of human eyes and lived to tell about it. Others like: Paul Celan in 1970, Piotr Rawicz in 1982, Primo Levi in 1987, and Jerzy Kosinsky in 1991. Surely there are others, many others. But these are those who survived to share their stories through a written medium. Those who left us with “Death Fugue”, Blood from the Sky, Survival in Auschwitz, and The Painted Bird. Those who live on in elegant typeface in books throughout the world. And through such, are immortalized.

After all these years, Borowski’s suicide still perplexes me. I wonder what went through his mind as he entered his kitchen, opened the gas valve and repeatedly inhaled. I wonder if he thought of his wife, who had bore him a daughter, Małgorzata, just three days before. Or of his friend’s arrest by Polish Security, the same friend at whose home Borowski himself was arrested 8 years prior. Or of the freight cars and the high, blue sky.

And I wonder what justice there was in such a death. And then realize it was not about justice but rather about hope:

Much of what I once said was naïve, immature. And it seems to me now that perhaps we are not really wasting time. Despite the madness of war, we lived for a world that would be different. For a better world to come when all this is over. And perhaps even our being here is a step towards that world. Do you really think that, without the hope that such a world is possible, that the rights of man will be restored again, we could stand the concentration camp even for one day? It is that very hope that makes people go without a murmur to the gas chambers, keeps them from risking a revolt, paralyzes them into numb inactivity. It is hope that breaks down family ties, makes mothers renounce their children, or wives sell their bodies for bread, or husbands kill. It is hope that compels man to hold on to one more day of life, because that day may be the day of liberation. Ah, and not even the hope for a different, better world, but simply for life, a life of peace and rest. Never before in the history of mankind has hope been stronger than man, but never also has it done so much harm as it has in this war, in this concentration camp. We were never taught how to give up hope, and this is why today we perish in gas chambers. (p. 121-122)

Tadeusz Borowski hoped for a better life. For peace and rest and flameless dreams. And perhaps, as much as he tried, it wasn’t possible. Perhaps Auschwitz and Dachau weren’t just horrendous experiences, set apart. Perhaps they became a part of him, like a song, and the only way to silence that song was by stepping on his own throat (20). Perhaps that was his peace.

Perhaps it was enough that he lived, survived and, above all else, loved.  He wrote: “I smile and think that one human being must always be discovering one another ̶ through love. And that this is the most important thing on earth, and the most lasting” (p. 110).

Perhaps there is hope in that.



Borowski, T. (1976).  This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen (B. Vedder, Trans.).  New York: Penguin.


My sacred place

“Go to the desk. Stay at the desk. Thrive at the desk.” -William Matthews

Everyone has a place—their place—where heart and breath slow, and stillness and contentment reign. Maybe it’s the inside of a train, the white sand of a beach, or a treasured bookstore. Maybe it’s a cushy chair at a local beanery, the zoo, or a bench at MoMa. Or maybe, if you’re truly lucky, it’s a space within your own home.
Since my mother-in-law’s arrival we’ve been working on my nook. Truthfully, I’ve been adding to my stash since last year, but I needed her expertise to bring the space to life. To make singular items create a mood and tell a story—my story.

And that’s just what she did.

nook_right wall_close
My nook is my sacred place.

It asks nothing and gives everything. It smells of sage blossoms and vanilla and is guarded by cheery owls and pink hippos. It highlights my love of polka dots and dresses, quotes and candles. And it houses a tribute to our three little angels, who watch over me from the halls of Heaven.

Generally, I go there to write, but it’s also great for naps, tears and counting to 10 (not necessarily in that order).
Everything there is a reflection of my heart and a representation of my spirit, from the decorative boxes holding pictures of loved ones to the small collection of books by my favorite novelist, Elizabeth Berg.

Elizabeth Berg
This place oozes me.

It honors my past and cherishes the possibilities of my future.
It brings the kiss of life to my craft and heart.
Four simple walls and a collection of stuff do all that.

nook_desk view

What a wonderful and blessed thing!