Francis Legg: All the lovely childhoods I never had

Jul 2023 | Short story

When I was a child I lived in a caravan with a cow’s skull on the dashboard. I slept on a foam mattress on a piece of plywood. I put a drop of orange oil inside my pillowcase every night to help me sleep.

When I was a child I lived under an orange tree. I hibernated in winter and ate orange blossoms in the spring. The nectar was sweet and dripped down my chin.

When I was a child I spat into my hand. I took the saliva and spun it into thread, climbed up the doorway and into the corner of the ceiling. I made myself a home there, with a toilet and a bath and everything. It took me a long time to get the plumbing working. The pipes were exposed but it didn’t bother me, I wound my saliva string around them and they glittered in the sunlight.

When I was a child I had no plumbing at all. I slept every night buried in a haystack. During the day I pushed my way through fields of corn. They were so thick that they made great scratches up my arms. My eyes filled with kicked-up grit from the dry ground beneath my feet. My hair matted on my forehead. I was so small and alone in the fields. And nothing but corn to eat.

When I was a child I ate the leaves of trees. To reach the sweetest, greenest leaves of all I had to climb right to the top. I climbed the tallest tree in the world. When I reached the peak I poked my head out, and looked at the playground below. There were other children playing there, so small I could barely see them. I pulled my head back in behind the leaves and started to make my way down. By the time I got to the bottom, they were gone. There was only the green plastic slide and the swing and no people on them.

When I was a child I was a piece of chewing gum stuck to a slide. I liked to stretch myself out into long threads of sticky pink. One day I stretched myself out so thin I became invisible. A light wind blew and carried me for a while. Then I got caught on a fence. I stayed there and watched the grass grow until the rain came and washed me away.

When I was a child the sun shone. I lived inside a bubble. The girl who blew me wore a pink leotard. She wanted to be a ballerina. The wind carried me up and up and she smiled. Then I was blown behind a tree and I could not see her any longer.

When I was a child I, too, wanted to be a ballerina. I had no mother or father so I had to make my own way to lessons. When I got to the hall where the lessons were held, there was nobody there. Instead, there was dust, so much dust in the corners of the hall. The floors were wooden and the whole place smelled vaguely of feet, so there must have been people there not so long ago. The piles of dust in the corners were growing taller and taller before my eyes. I tried to run but the dust was growing too quickly. I could not escape.

When I was a child I was a piece of dust. It was a very stressful existence. Every piece of dust lives in fear of one thing and one thing only: the dust mite. To a piece of dust a dust mite is a huge beast. How they towered above me! They are so tall, with so many eyes and great, thundering legs. All the mothers tell their little dust children, beware! Beware the dust mite! But the worst thing of all is that, as a piece of dust, I could not run or hide or even scream. I  just had to sit there, and watch the dust mite thundering towards me, until at last it fell upon me and devoured me with its thousand teeth.

When I was a child I was a dust mite.

When I was a child I was a feather duster. I belonged to an old lady. She kept me in a cupboard with the vacuum cleaner and the broom and the shoe polish. I did not get along with my cupboard-mates but every week on a Sunday the woman would open the cupboard and light would spill out over me. She would grasp me by the handle and her hands were warm after the cold of the cupboard. Her skin was loose with age and there are raised blue veins snaking up the backs of her hands. She would grip me and her hand would shake a little but she was so careful as she swept me up and down her bedside table and underneath the couch. So careful and slow, as if there was nothing else in the world, only me and her and her things to be dusted. Then one Sunday she didn’t come to fetch me. “Ha, ha.” Said the shoepolish. “She is coming, she is coming.” I said. I did not cry because feather dusters cannot cry, and besides I would not have wanted the shoe polish to see me in such a state.

When I was a child I lived in a shoe. There was no old woman. There was only me and the shoe and the cold darkness outside.

When I was a child I never grew old.

When I was a child I was music. I kept people company at night, in the small hours when they thought they were alone. I lived at the backs of throats in the warm smooth wet places. But to call it living is not quite correct; for after each note was over a little part of me dissolved again. Just as quickly as I came to people I had to leave them.

When I was a child I wondered what had come loose inside me. I tried to tie myself into my body. I went to the supermarket and bought a packet of brown string. I looped it around my arms, tied it in tight knots. It made red dents in my skin, lines up my arms and over my legs.

When I was a child I was a piece of string. I wrapped myself around a hock of bacon and hung from the ceiling of a butcher’s shop.

When I was a child I was the son of a butcher. We lived in a little house made of brick. Downstairs was the cool-store, and the shop. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a small kitchen with mottled mint green lino that matched the benchtop. One day the butcher packed a backpack full of sandwiches and water bottles and towels. He took me by the hand. We went down the stairs past the closed-up shop with its empty display case and its lingering smell of pink chicken. We went out onto the street and climbed onto a bus. I sat on the butcher’s knee and a layer of sweat formed between my skin and his. Then we arrived and the sun reflected off the ocean so I could not look at it. He put down the backpack on the sand and led me into the water. I had never been swimming before but he held one hand behind my neck and the other in the small of my back so that I could float on the surface. Then he lifted me up and carried me back onto the sand, where I lay. It was very hot in the sun on the warm sand. I did not eat my sandwich. The butcher said, “Once upon a time, there was a butcher who lived all alone.”

That night it took me a long time to fall asleep. I lay in my bed, with its mismatched sheets rubbed soft and thin from many washes. I watched the light fade behind the curtains. I must have fallen asleep eventually because I woke with a start. Everything was dark and I was shaking. I felt all light and spread out inside, and I remembered all the things I had been before; the feather duster and the old woman, the shoe and the darkness. The time was coming near that I would change again. I watched myself from above while I snuck down the stairs into the butchery. I was not supposed to know where the key was kept but I did know. The sound of the key in the lock was loud in the darkness. I went through to the back of the shop, where the knives were kept. I placed my little finger on the stainless-steel bench, pushing down so the rest of my fingers are tucked against the side. The cleaver was heavy in my small hand. I took a deep breath and thought of the butcher holding me up and the cold water lapping at my sides. The weight of the cleaver propelled it downwards and for a moment there was no pain. The blood came thick and hot and red, spreading out over the metal. Then I was screaming and it was so loud, the pain and the screams and the red blood. There were thumps from above and the butcher was there, holding me in his arms. His muscles were tense beneath me, still warm from his bed. My blood stuck his shirt to his chest and he said bad words and carried me out into the street and into the car.

Now I am older and no longer a child. I live in the brick house with the butcher, who is bent over with age. My arms are thick with many hours sharpening my knives, unloading boxes of meat from the trucks. Sometimes I feel the lightness coming, and I watch myself from far away. When I feel that way I rub my thumb over the stub where my finger used to be, and I am here again, in this man’s body.

Francis Legg (they/them) is a tauiwi transsexual of Irish stock living and studying in Ōtaki on Ngāti Raukawa land. They study te reo Māori and write poems and short stories when they are not busy discussing potato varietals at length with anyone who will listen.

You May Also Like