She spends every evening extricating words from where they’ve lodged beneath the surface of the skin. Most of the wounds are superficial and easily concealed. A few of the cuts are deeper and could probably do with a stitch or two, but she just sticks on a plaster and hopes that the blood won’t seep through. She tells no one. The extracted words are shut in a box beneath the bed. They whisper to her at night.
Some words go straight in and out, like a needle. Others are barbed and get stuck, or splinter into shards. The Ms and the Ws are the worst. Fragments emerge – inger, itch, hore – and she has to poke around in the wound to find the missing letters. One night she extracts man, then pulls forth an o but the final Bloody W refuses to come. She puts the fragments she has removed, still coated in her blood, into the box. Eventually the skin closes over the rest of it, leaving a jagged scar which she conceals under long sleeves.
Occasionally someone will notice, even though the evidence is nearly always hidden. Her mum walks in on her once, unannounced, after a particularly bad day, then phones the school. But this only makes it worse.
“They’ll grow out of it you know, it won’t last forever,” her mum tells her. As if she doesn’t still have the scars from her own school days.
Her dad tells her to fight back, to arm herself with sticks and stones. What does he know? Her assailants are everywhere – the classroom, the corridors, her thoughts. Even under the watchful eye of the teacher they needle her. Sometimes the teacher joins in. She is a sitting target. She has tried feigning illness, lucky charms, and praying to God but her skin won’t grow any thicker; the words still penetrate her soft, yielding flesh. All she can do is draw out the venom, letter by letter, word by word, and hope no infection takes hold.
One day a new girl appears and is placed at the desk next to hers.
“Look after Elaine, show her where everything is,” the teacher says.
She smiles shyly at the New Girl; the New Girl smiles shyly back.
At lunchtime she takes the New Girl to the canteen. The New Girl is quiet but, after a while, begins to chat more freely. The New Girl has moved around a lot and now lives only a few streets away. Can they walk home together? Anything she asks, the New Girl agrees.
But afterwards, the others are waiting. There are only five minutes before the bell and an extra two waiting for the teacher, who is late, but they work fast – surrounding the New Girl within seconds. Seven minutes is all they need. Later, when she asks a question, the New Girl pretends not to hear.
The New Girl comes to school the next day looking a bit less like herself and a bit more like them; swallowed up into the crowd of them at the start of the day and spat out at the gates. The New Girl never says anything hurtful, but the silence is nearly as bad.
And the words in the box grow, day by day. At night they come together – phrases become sentences, become paragraphs, become entire stories. Stories which narrate themselves. Stories she believes in.
Then, later, it could be weeks or months, it feels like years, she finds the New Girl waiting. It is as though they are back at day one. The New Girl follows her into the classroom, chatting about something she has done that weekend, as though they are friends. One of the others looks up as they enter, then returns to the huddle and says something which generates raucous laughter. The New Girl flushes deeply, and she thinks she sees the place the insult pierces before a sleeve is pulled down to hide it.
At lunchtime she prepares to make a quick getaway, as usual, when she feels a hand on her arm.
“Do you want to go to the canteen with me?” the New Girl asks.
Her reply shoots out like a dart, thrown wildly, before she has time to consider what she is saying.
“What, you think I want to go anywhere with you! Bitch!”
Then the New Girl is gone and she senses the heat of the others, feels the warmth from their smiles, as they absorb her.
Just like that, she is accepted. At lunchtime they take her in to town with them, during lessons she becomes the recipient of notes and gossip rather than the subject. One of them walks her to and from school. Her skin heals, the scars fade. She is invited to the cinema, parties, sleepovers – all she has ever imagined and more. All she has to do in return is sling more arrows; the deeper they penetrate, the greater the reward. She is good at it.
Her mum congratulates her.
“See? I told you it would work out.”
But she is not so sure. At night she lies awake, thinking of insults to use the next day. The words collide in her mind and make monsters. Shadows appear under her eyes. Her skin begins to itch and break out. No amount of make-up can hide it. She starts to miss school – pretending to be ill, or just not turning up. But she is soon caught and can think of no alternative but to continue.
One night, as she scratches in bed, she feels something hard beneath the skin. She turns on the light and faces herself in the full-length mirror. The itching intensifies. As she watches, the old wounds reopen like hungry, gaping mouths. Something dark and jagged emerges from freshly parted flesh. She takes it and automatically reaches for the box. Inside, the words lie silent and glistening. One by one, she begins to insert them into her skin.
‘Sticks and Stones’ is a dark fairytale of the heightened emotions and exquisite pain of adolescence. Beautifully crafted.Judy Darley
This was another strong entry not only because of the extended metaphor of ‘words’ but also because of its narrative uncovering the cruelty of adolescence, its inherent contradictions, and its private world of inverted justice.Selma Carvalho