Steel Maiden

May 27

Steel yourself.

Has anyone ever said this to me or did I find it shut away between book-covers like a grisly family heirloom, rotted with silver tarnish?

Steel yourself.

It became my amulet. It became my armor.

I needed steel skin, a silver snail shell, psychic chainmail. Without my second skin, I feel too much. Before I leave my bedroom, it’s helm on, visor down, or I won’t live out the day. I am excruciatingly sensitive to the loud the foul the hot the close the filthy the crude the foolish the slapdash the tardy the utilitarian—the all-day rubbish-heap rat-race of squeezing out a life in the city.

It’s all so offensive I want to strike it off this page.

Steel yourself.

To stride down the street, my only defense is to gird my exposed nerves in insensitive steel. My visor chops the city into slivers. In my steel skin, I feel nothing, not even spring. There is no spring in the city.

Only out in the fields can I strip off my steel, only there can I wear sunburn and shadow and my own skin. In the countryside, nothing hurts.

The path is a narrow trough through weeds, chasing the Thames past Kelmscott and Buscot, and I stretch out my fingers to touch it all: the frothing elderflower, the young barley with its pacific-blue stems, even the wind—I catch it in my pockets. Steamboats puff along the Thames, as if this tableau has been torn out of a library book of 19th century lithographs. In this uninterrupted lithograph of 19th century tranquility, I am the eccentric lady-writer in the wide-brimmed hat and summer dress that advertises illicit ankles. Out of my armor, I feel scandalously light and free.

Dragonflies, blue and glassy, scissor through the grass. Like a hunter’s arrow, a copper-quilled hawk shoots across the sky, glinting in the sunlight. At Number 5, a handsome black and white cat sits on the doorstep as if waiting for someone. I whistle a note and a half, and by some charm, the cat saunters straight to me, springing onto the fence so we’re eye-to-eye. In this lithograph, I am the witch.

Someday I will strip off my armor for the last time. I will give it to a girl who still has to cleave her way through the city melee every day. Then I will leave for the countryside, in my own skin.

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