Register Wednesday | March 21 | 2018

The Girl Who Sweats Honey


My body was changing. This happens to girls my age, so I was not surprised. In health class I’d learned how our breasts will swell, how our hip bones will billow sideways and how hair patches will appear along the hidden valleys of our bodies. I expected everything and, despite Mother’s warnings, revelled in the sudden flesh coating my bones, the rounding-out of what had formerly been level.

One thing I did not expect—and that I couldn’t stand—was the stickiness. A gluelike residue veneered my armpits, the tips of my breasts and the space between my legs. It was clammy and viscous. It made my thighs stick together and my arms adhere to my torso. My toes melded into one solid, beak-like protuberance. I perspired daily, but I did not perspire as other thirteen-year-old girls did for, you see, I sweat honey.

This is not a metaphor but true life. From my pores came liquid, golden honey such as the bees crave, such as Father puts on his toast every morning before he slices it into strips.

“Tests show your perspiration has the normal levels of sodium and chloride,” said Dr. Merton, Cartwright’s resident physician, his voice even, “but it has unusually high levels of sugar making its composition similar to”—he gulped—“bee honey.”

 At home, Mother removed my clothes and coated me with sea salt, driftwood shavings, baking soda, talcum powder, coral dust—anything to staunch the flow. She forbade me to eat corn syrup, caramel squares or jujubes, and she uprooted all the flowers in our garden fearing they’d attract bees (though bees hadn’t been seen in this part of Labrador for decades—the only thing here is rock stained with sea salt.) One night she snuck into our neighbours’ yard and gutted their tiny flower bed. “I don’t know who did it,” she said into the phone the next morning. Mother even drove me to Mary’s Harbour to get a second opinion, but the doctor there agreed with the first. “Your perspiration has the standard levels of protein and fatty acids, but there’s all this unmetabolized sugar. I’ve never seen anything like it!”

Mother threatened to leave Labrador to get help. Our town was similar to many other towns along the shore; it was charming but hemmed in, and not exactly known for outstanding medicine. Cartwright was always full of the smell of bonfires and rotting flounder, the cry of seagulls and the thump of wood hitting the earth. Fishermen shuffled their feet along the seaweed-strewn boards of the once-busy port. And wind blew everywhere, wailing up one street and down another; it rattled our windows at night, splattered bugs on the walls of the new steel foundry and whipped telephone wires. I’d always feared the Cartwright wind, but lately I found myself fleeing our clapboard house just to run into it. Some things are greater than fear. I wanted to know what they were. 

Every night, doing my homework, I felt honey drops crawl down my neck, beading in the small of my back, collecting in the creases around my waist. Honey seeped through my hair, darkened the fabric of my cotton pinafores. Each time Mother threw my clothes in the washer, the rotating pivot got clogged and the machine stopped running. I showered three times a day, watching the water chase honey globs down the drain along with things that had gotten trapped on me—dust, fallen hairs, fruit flies. It didn’t take long for my sweat to block the pipes in the basement. Again and again, Father had to phone the plumber.

School, however, was the worst. When classes started in September, I thought I could hide my affliction, but Mr. Schmidt soon noticed syrup beads clinging to my forehead. “Sue, are you feeling ill? Do you want to go home?” Whenever I raised my hand, my arm made a loud fffffflit and everyone turned toward me. One day, when I flung back my hair, a globule flew off and landed on the open textbook of Estelle Beaverbank. Estelle had a mountain of blond hair lacquered into a series of curlicues and a slot-like mouth you wanted to slip nickels into. “Ooo, gross,” she said. “Sue’s a filthy glue-girl!”

The boys got in the habit of in-viting me to hang out with them at the end of the school day. I’d usually escape down the alley beside the portables, but one Friday, curious to see what would happen, I shrugged and followed. For a minute, I thought I was being led to the bushes—a spot at the end of the football field where people hung out or “got friendly” or both—but they turned the opposite way, towards a large oak tree. We sat in a circle on the shaded grass while the boys eyed me solemnly. No one spoke. The sun hung high in the sky; a dragonfly circled my forehead. Then the boys dared each other to touch me. I studied my legs draped in wrinkled trousers that resembled their own. Their behaviour confused me; I felt embarrassed without knowing why.

“Put your finger on the drop on the end of her chin and put it in your mouth. Here’s two bucks you won’t.”

“Touch her kneecap and lick it. If you do, I’m the one who steals cigs from Variety Plus tonight.”

“Ten bucks if you put your tongue in her ear; there’s a whole pool full in there.”

None of them touched me. They stared at a honey drop clinging to the end of my bent elbow. As they waited for it to drop, their faces stopped twitching, their eyes darkened and they became stone-still. One boy accidentally got some on his hand but didn’t put it in his mouth. When he got up to go home—it was dinnertime by then—he just wiped it on the grass and sauntered off, trying to look courageous.

My downfall began the day Jimmy Bridock asked me out on a date. Jimmy smelled like wood fires, smoked venison and gunpowder. He had a cowlick that swung on his forehead like a horse’s tail batting imaginary flies. His round cheeks were volcanic with acne. He had blue, moist-looking eyes and his cracked lips were always twisting one way, then another, as if chronically unsure of what expression to take. He’d always had an interest in me. When I’d push open the door of the girl’s washroom, he’d often be standing in the hall with his head down. When I walked past him, he’d look away and kick at the floor—but if I turned back, I’d see him squinting after me.

That was last year. Now, in grade eight, with my sweat flowing, Jimmy became bolder. In shop class, I was hammering parallel-placed nails into a wood beam. Unlike the other students, even the boys, I could whack the silver heads straight on so the iron rods thrust in without bending. Jimmy eyed my forearm moving up and down. In the silent space between blows, Jimmy spoke to me for the first time ever. His voice started as a rumbling in his throat and emerged as a gasp, then a strange sing-song squeaking, as his thick tongue stumbled around the syllables. Did he speak so rarely that when he did, he used tools rusted from lack of use?

“You’re stronger than other girls,” he rasped. A cloud of sawdust hung in the air between us. A power drill wailed. “If we had an arm-wrestle,” his voice rose triumphantly over the din, “I bet you’d win.”

The room was now full of the repetitive rahrah sound of saws cutting. I raised my head. Jimmy had kind eyes. The swath of protruding, unshaven hairs across his jaw was like a fire-razed forest. He seemed innocent, more standoffish than the rest, and so I trusted him. He smiled a checkerboard grin, lowered his head and walked away.

The next day in the cafeteria, Jimmy walked up to me and made a knock-knock sound on the tabletop with his knuckles. His eyes were wide open, blazing. When he spoke, spit flew from his lips and landed on my hamburger-macaroni. His cheeks were flushed. Was this because I’d spoken to him yesterday? Was I the first girl who hadn’t run away from him in terror?

He said, “If you don’t mind it, we can get together after school. I want to go to the bushes.”

Jimmy’s smile wavered, disap-peared, struggled to reform, slanted sideways, collapsed, reformed—

I answered, “Yes,” like I said when the boys asked me to the end of the field. The word gave me a feeling of what I thought was power.

Jimmy’s cowlick trembled like a radar device. His lips parted, spread, lifted, and his smile was so huge I could see the line separating his teeth from his gums. White and pink. A flag. “Great,” he said. “Let’s meet by the bleachers at four.”

We stood facing each other. I stared past him for a very long time. Somewhere in the distance, I sensed winds lashing against seaside cliffs. If I found and gave way to a desire for Jimmy, would a balance be regained? Would my honey finally stop flowing? 

Cartwright was playing the visiting Dove Brook and we were winning. I met Jimmy in the striped shade behind the crowded football stands; above us, everyone had gathered to cheer. I could see the bushes from here, like three ice-cream scoops near the huge, stiff oak that the other boys were so fond of.

“Way to go, Cartwright. Way to go!” Clap clap.

Jimmy leaned against a wood pillar and fidgeted as if his entire body were itchy. Immediately he said, “Let’s walk by the stands.”

I nodded.

The football players were running two abreast in zigzag formations. A squad of cheerleaders in yellow shirts and red skirts (I recognized Estelle among them) shook pompoms and screamed.

“Cart-wright is all-right! Cart-wright can fight-fight!” Clap clap.

Jimmy beamed as if they were cheering for him. He stopped and turned a couple of times toward the crowd so people could see his face. I wondered if we’d come this route so he could be seen going into the bushes with a girl. Was this his way of raising his status among the boys? If it was, I didn’t mind. I might have considered using him for the same purpose. The boys by the oak tree always fled after sitting with me and I had to walk home alone. I’d never had friends at school. Even before my honey problem, my muscles and plaid shirts frightened people. I looked at Jimmy’s pants, plaid with intersecting lines that wavered as he walked. As we approached the wall of bracken, I became frightened. What are we actually going to do in there? Jimmy motioned for me to sit on the stone-bumpy, shadow-dappled earth, and I reminded myself that I was stronger than him.

Jimmy shyly asked me if he could wipe his finger along my collarbone. I nodded. He wanted a honey drop from the hollow below my ankle and I said yes. He asked for some sweetness from the space between my breasts, just visible in the V-cut of my shirt. I let him have that too. As he peered at the golden thread hanging from his fingertip, I wondered if I could make myself like a boy. It was probably interesting to want—really want—another person. How fascinating and unusual it’d be to find someone attractive and completely enjoy his or her presence.

A wind blew that rattled the tree branches and brought the scent of faraway forests, pine sap, juniper flowers—a scent part piquant, part sour. The wind woke an excitement in my motionless body. It made every pore in my skin open wide, and caused my backbone to straighten so completely that I was sitting more erect than I’d ever done in my life. The mouths of my ears gaped and my eardrums became as still as the water on a lake so distant and hidden that no wind had ever rippled its surface; a lake that had waited an eternity for something even remotely resembling weather.

What was I listening for?

To my surprise, Jimmy brought the honeyed fingers of his hand together and shoved them into his mouth. His large tongue swirled out and round in a long, luxuriant movement licking the honey off both sides of his fingers. Honey drops glimmered on his lips. He stared me straight in the eyes as he loudly and definitively swallowed. His Adam’s apple leapt briefly forward as if a small man imprisoned in his neck struck a fist against his throat.

A strange expression came over Jimmy’s face. His cheeks slowly red-dened and his eyes grew larger, bulging forward like egg yolks.

His chest had stopped moving.

“Jimmy?” I said. “Jimmy? Are you all right?”

Flapping his hands in the air, he raced out of the trembling bushes just in time for the home team to score its final field goal. The spiralling football descended through the posts and struck him square in the face. He fell to the earth and, mouth gaping, thrashed on the ground like a fish pulled from water.

I charged out into the blinding sunshine.

The spectators in the stands turned toward me. “Dr. Merton!” I cried. “Somebody call Dr. Merton!”

When the ambulance arrived, everyone was on the field shaking hands with the winning players. Only Estelle noticed me, her shaggy pompom fronds dangling from her hands like tentacles. She eyed me for what seemed like an eternity, her head a stuck weathercock. On the front of her cheerleader uniform, below her right breast, a circle of sweat bloomed like a flower.

Jimmy remained in the hospital all night.

The next morning, I learned that my honey had caused the sides of Jimmy’s throat to adhere. Though he recovered, his desk remained empty for a month. This wasn’t altogether unusual. I assumed he was in the woods helping his father cut open metal traps. It was October now; the hunting season was in full swing.

But still, other students grew wary of me. After Jimmy’s disappearance, the boys didn’t ask me to be part of their after-school circle. When students came upon drops of honey on the school steps or on the handle of the water fountain, they regarded them first with annoyance, then outrage, and finally with pure, unmitigated terror. In gym class no one let me join their squads. Exasperated, Mr. Schmidt said, “Kids, you can sit beside Sue. She won’t bite.”

I noticed Estelle everywhere. She was constantly talking, her voice no longer high-pitched and metallic, but husky, full of sly hissing s’s and cruel, explosive p’s and t’s. She spoke at an agonizingly low decibel that everyone seemed to hear but me. And she listened to people, one hand on her chin, mentally storing this bit of gossip and that bit of truth. She’d become a seamstress stitching together the rumours and facts that were bandied about. From myriad ingredients, she created a seamless cloth woven together with real needs and deeply-rooted desire. In the end, the story was not hers but everyone’s.

Everyone but me, that is. My new isolation did not trouble me as much as hearing my name whisper-ed everywhere and not knowing what that meant. I stared into the washroom mirror. Behind me were the reflected, beige cubicle doors, like a row of pale-faced sentinels, about which sounded a diabolical hiss: “Sssue, Ssssue, Ssssssue, Ssssssue.” The sound joined to other words or half-words, or verbs without objects or objects without verbs or lone, great big, juicy adjectives:

“Piggy-girl, Piiiiig!”

“It’s because of her condition … ”

“ … it was bound to happen…”

“ … she wooed Jimmy into the bushes … ”

“ … stripped him down … ”

“ … and the catastrophe happened!”

I still couldn’t find the through-line to these shattered sentences which, pasted together, now formed the story of my life.

“What catastrophe?” I cried. The hissing stopped and the beige sentinels stared. Before me, a lone, silver tap dripped once into the sink.

Sometimes I’d overhear a refresh-ing, “This stuff about Sue Masonty is ridiculous,” but that was rare.

At last, after a week of conjectur-ing, I was able to put the disparate pieces of the tale into a whole. I was wandering, head down, through the school parking lot after school. I entered the field where boys were playing flag football and, when I stepped onto the burnt wood of the bleachers, heard my name spoken. All the boys had stopped playing and they crowded together, facing me in a tight, protective knot. From some hands hung crepe streamers. Since Jimmy’s injury, the boys were forced to play flag football, not the real rough-and-tumble version, as everyone was now more keenly aware of the fragility of the male body.

I heard a player say, “Don’t let her get near us, or we’ll have to saw ours off too.”

The wind had partly ripped one boy’s streamer and he knelt, sobbing, cradling it in his hands.

It was then that everything fell together. The story went like this: Jimmy and I crawled into the space beneath the bushes and proceeded to make love. But when he entered me, he got stuck and couldn’t get out. The rumour mill had produced two endings. In one, he had to saw his penis off at the root to get free of me and, full of shame, fled into the forest and was now wandering bloodied and penis-less about Labrador. In the other version, he was absorbed by me completely, and was now crouched and suffocating somewhere among the twists and turns of my Fallopian tubes.

But didn’t anyone see him run fully membered from the bushes? I recalled he was lying face-down, and most people were fixated on the rotating ball as it descended through the goalposts. No one cared what happened to it once it crossed the line. Only Estelle had watched me, so the story was hers.

The boys huddled together, their flimsy flags fluttering. The kneeling boy wept bitterly into his torn streamer. He turned toward me and shouted, “Bitch!” He then picked up a stone and threw it. The rock bounced off the bench in front of me.

“I didn’t do anything!” I cried. The other boys crouched and snatch-ed stones from the earth and flung them in my direction. One struck me in the shin; another cut the side of my cheek.

I turned and ran from the field, crying uncontrollably, and when I reached the street, continued running southward. The pounding of my feet on the gravel echoed about the silent clapboard houses that marched past me in jerky, disjointed steps. Women on porches flapped tea towels like striped whips, and barking dogs thrashed on leashes taut as tightropes. Rows of fence pickets pointed sky-ward like white knives. The earth was gouged, cratered and gashed as if hacked with a huge dagger. I passed a man pulling a buggy joined to his waist with a rope knotted thick as veins; a lady stepped from the white-walled Catholic church, the sides of her hat rim flapping like oars. Down one street I charged, and then up another, criss-crossing Cartwright’s checkerboard pattern. The air smelled of sea salt, tar, decaying scallops, motor oil.

When I reached the open field near my parents’ house, I stopped running and stood panting on the empty plain. The wind struck me square in the face, whipped the bangs off my forehead, fluttered my eyelashes and dried the spittle on my lips. I looked down at my body: this body I lived in, this body I carted about wherever I went. These carbuncled fingers, these bulging thighs, this chest rising and falling like the swell of the ocean were mine—were me. It was then that I knew: air will free me. The wind I once feared will lift me high above the earth-bound people of Cartwright. Wind is what happens when air falls in love with itself. I’ll love the sweetness of my sweat; maybe then it will dissolve rocks hurled like missiles at my head. I spread my arms wide to the howling gale that shot into my open pores and roared through my body like Niagara, as a shower of glistening honey drops fell like manna onto the parched, stony earth.