I wasn’t always like this.
A crescent shape on my left nostril from the time I toppled out of my high chair at age three. Everyone says they don’t notice it, but it’s all I can see when I look in the mirror.
I used to be strong. Fearless. Maybe that’s not just me. Maybe that’s everyone. Sprung from the womb without all the heaviness that envelopes us as adults, so free and clean and new. I know when I was small, as far back as I can remember, I had no fear. The world hadn’t beaten that into me quite yet. My mother had taught me to be brave. She taught me so many things.
I remember running across the tops of hay bales, heart beating hard in my chest, playing chase with my friends. When you get older, you’re playing chase from far worse.
A rough patch of skin near my ankle from tripping over Dad’s dismantled weight bench in the backyard. It had been dark, I didn’t spot the pieces in time.
I wonder about that, still. Where my courage went. Did it leave me in middle school? When suddenly it was wrong to raise your hand and answer the question right? Being right made you a target. Maybe that was it, what started it anyway. The fear of being a target. It’s not what my mother taught me but my mother didn’t matter as much any more, I was growing into who I would really be someday and everything she had spent years teaching me just sort of… evaporated.
I certainly didn’t have courage in high school. I was a spineless little shit, dressing like all the popular girls, laughing at their jokes even when what they were saying wasn’t funny, wasn’t worth anything. Because it was better to belong. I needed to belong to someone.
A curved little nick at the nape of my neck from the time I didn’t tell him ‘no.’ He pushed farther, bit harder, until he drew blood — he said he was sorry but he was never sorry.
The summer after senior year I met Jay. He was meant to be one night of fun that turned into a few months of mistakes. I should’ve known he was trouble when he told me he liked it rough. I suppose he warned me.
It would’ve been brave to leave him but as I’ve said my bravery left me at some point, slipped through my fingers like smoke. I didn’t leave him but he left me for college on the west coast; I called his house one day and his mother said he was gone. She sounded surprised that he hadn’t told me but I wasn’t surprised. I was relieved.
Jay was not the last mistake I would make. He wasn’t even the worst. Not by a long shot.
A short line, a raised hyphen like a break in a sentence on the heel of my palm from where I reached under an old end table for a beer pong ball. It had gotten away from him and I insisted no, don’t worry, let me, and I got scraped by a rusty staple.
Warren and I met at a house party. He was the most charming man I’d ever spoken to in my life. I was 19 and didn’t know that his charm was a mask he wore. It was the sticky-sweet inside of a venus flytrap’s mouth and I was the tipsy, clueless fly.
I also didn’t know that in six months he would propose to me and I, the fly, would say yes to my own flytrap.
We stopped going out with my friends almost right away. He told me it was because I was embarrassing, I drank too much and got too loud, but I know what it was about now. It was about isolating me. Separating me from everyone else.
But that didn’t matter because I finally belonged to someone.
A leathery strip shaped like the state of Illinois on my knee from my tumble outside of the bar. My heels were too high and I ripped a hole in my jeans and he shook his head in disgust, saying he couldn’t take me anywhere.
I didn’t know it then but I know it now — that Warren wanted me, he targeted me because I had no courage anymore. He could sense that I needed to belong to him and he gladly obliged. He ate me up until there was nothing left and I thanked him afterwards.
I was always thanking him for something.
A thin thread of white that runs through my lip from the time I asked him where he’d been all night. I never found out the answer but he found out that if he hit me I’d shut my mouth.
I learned how to hide the bruises. Cover up the black eyes. All the cliches. After all, I was used to the scars. I’d been collecting them my whole life.
My skin used to be smooth and then it wasn’t. I used to be strong and then I wasn’t.
A split in my eyebrow from when he threw me against the wall. I had left, summoned up what I had of my bravery and gone to a hotel, but he had found me and he had hit me and I ended up on the floor, unconscious, not knowing what he’d done to me until the next morning.
I let it go on. I let him do what he wanted. I let him tell me how I was worthless, stupid, how I was lucky that he even wanted me at all.
I thanked him.
But when I took the test, when I peed on that little stick and the two lines stared back at me in silent mockery of what my life had become, well. That changed everything. That brought my courage back.
A long, snaking puff of puckered skin along my palm from where I drew the blade across the meatiest parts of my hand. I knew the ritual, should’ve gone to it before, but I hadn’t been strong enough to do what so clearly needed to be done.
I wasn’t strong enough to fight him, not physically, but I remembered what my mother had taught me. What my grandmother had taught her. I’d always kept it shelved, not brave enough to ask the Dark One for help. No bravery left at all. But with the life growing inside me, well, I knew I couldn’t let him stay in the picture. And hell, I knew he’d never leave. Not on his own.
So I cut and I bled and I called upon Him, the Dark One, the source of our power. And, as I soon found out, the source of my courage.
God, I hadn’t felt that strong in years. Not since I was a girl.
A series of half-moon shapes on my forearm from where he grabbed me in the night. It happened in the night, in his sleep, but it was not peaceful.
How he went isn’t important but I’ll tell you anyway because I love to remember the sounds of him gurgling on his own blood, his insides betraying him, twisting into mush and coming back up his throat. Warren went that way because I wanted him to, I wanted it to hurt, and the Dark One promised it would.
It sure sounded like it did.
The EMTs looked less shocked than I thought they might but I think the Dark One had something to do with that because after he was gone, the doctors who performed his autopsy said something about an embolism. It hadn’t looked like an embolism. It had looked like fucking justice.
A prim, simple slash along my abdomen from when my daughter was pulled from me, screaming her way into life the way I once had. I knew at once that I loved her and I knew at once I would teach her to be brave.
We’re happy now. I’m not the way I used to be, I’m different, but it’s a good different. I’m strong the way you can only become by collecting scars. Smooth skin is pretty, sure, but it doesn’t tell a story. My skin does. I can count each one and tell any stranger my whole life.
I’ve told my daughter my story because it’s important she knows what she is. She is the product of my mistakes and my metamorphosis. She is my most recent scar but she is not the last. She is brave.
We are the granddaughters of the witches you could not burn.
We are strong. And we will always be like this.