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art by Tim Stewart

The Elephant Man's Love Child

Leslie What is a participant in the longest-running Jell-O art show in the nation. She's won a Nebula Award and has been a finalist for the Oregon Book Award. Ms. What is the fiction editor of "Phantom Drift: New Fabulism". She lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband of 30 years and their feisty Parson Russell Terrier. Visit Whatworld (sff.net/people/leslie.what) for a full bio.

Shadows flicker across wall and tin ceiling. The dancing light exaggerates the lines of old Nurse's profile to the chiseled, stony look of a gargoyle. The girl feigns sleep as Nurse walks away. She blows a kiss Nurse will not feel, whispers a goodnight Nurse will not hear. The heavy door swings shut, closing off the candlelight, and Nurse waddles down the hall, her voluminous robes swishing, the floorboards groaning beneath her weight. The girl holds her breath to await the ungraceful thud that indicates the old woman has lowered herself onto the chamber pot. The girl counts twenty before tugging on the sheets to free her limbs from bondage, for Nurse insists on pulling the bedclothes tight.
Silence follows prayers, and the girl counts another twenty before sitting up. She spends her days and nights outsmarting the passage of time. After her next round of twenty counts she hears Nurse signaling day's end with a deep sigh. The girl is free of Nurse's ministrations until tomorrow. Only now does she dare leave her bed. She kneels on the floor and thrusts her hands beneath the feather mattress, feeling for the photograph she has hidden there. It is a photograph of her father, purloined from her mother during their last visit a year ago. The girl dares not look at it during daylight--so great is her fear Nurse will confiscate her one memento of the mysterious fellow known as The Elephant Man.
The photograph has the texture and smell of overcooked egg white. Her small hands clutch the crumbling edges of the paper. She tiptoes to the door, holds it open with her hip to allow a sliver of light to penetrate the blackness, squints, and stares at her father's likeness. He is grotesque, ugly as the twisted neck of a Christmas goose. The skin beneath his right arm hangs like swag curtains and the hand is bumpy and large as a wool mitten. The left arm is smooth, the left hand delicate, yet useless. They say he was a kind man, gentle of spirit. The girl is the offspring of this monster and a beautiful woman, shamed by the proof of one night's curiosity and pity.
The girl imagines she resembles her father. She can barely remember her mother's perfect face. If she had a picture of that selfish woman she would throw it in the chamber pot. The girl's small fingers probe her face for tags, warts, or wrinkles, flaws her mother feared so greatly she locked away her own flesh and blood.
Alas, her cheeks are downy, the lips soft and warm, her neck unlined as water. Finding only what has always been, the Elephant Man's love child utters an inelegant, guttural sigh. Not tonight, she tells herself. Not yet. She trudges back to bed, imagining what it might be like to hug her father and give him a good night kiss.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
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