by Ji A Ines Lee
All the girls in Symor village reduced at least once a year.
Some reduced on their faces, others on their arms, and the braver ones on their legs.
They came to school with white scars running down sunken cheeks, bones visible beneath their diaphanous skin that bloomed with purples and yellows and greens. When school started, most of the girls were newly arm-reduced and flaunted colorful leather pouch-bags to hold the smooth stump where the once wrinkly, crusted elbow was now round and flawless as a baby’s skull.
The most popular girl was Jilia. Everyone in Symor agreed that she was jaw-droppingly beautiful—that is, if you had a jaw. When you saw her you couldn’t help but stare and wonder how she was so delightfully small. Jilia was a new level of small, all but a large eye connected to a pile of paling grey clusters, possibly a fragment of the brain. All of her was suspended in thick pink goop in a capsule-shaped jar held by her bodyguards. The metal ends of her jar sparkled with big bedazzled diamonds left by her most generous admirers.
All the girls wanted to be like Jilia, but each was secretly afraid of the pain that came with such transcendent beauty. Of course, they indulged in sacrifice through their regular reductions. But there was a terrifying fear of finality that stopped them from complete commitment. Visions of splendor and infinite beauty filled their throats with longing and their stomachs with dread.
Some of the less-beautiful girls whispered to each other that maybe Jilia was not as beautiful as people said. They scowled quietly towards her devotion. But while their words disgraced her, their minds were each haunted by the large unblinking eye, an inescapable reminder of an unspoken wish—a violent hunger to be reduced to nothingness.
When Tamera moved to Symor, she was the only girl who hadn’t reduced. Her family had moved just two years ago from Bromyson, the neighboring town, a forgotten shadow of Symor where most people could not afford to reduce. The people at Bromyson walked without suspension jars or wheelchairs, with full, crooked limbs swaying freely at their sides. They talked loud and ran fast, oblivious to the ugliness of their unbroken bodies.
At Bromyson, most people were businessmen and accountants and workers at big computer corporations, who staunchly defended the antiquated practice of intellectual thought. But the greatest sin of the people of Bromyson was that they ate food left from the days of production. They ate day after day. Their bodies grew bigger and bigger and bigger. Such was the unspeakable sin in Symor. People were devastated at the tragic news of the Bromysons’ utter incivility. How could they choose growth when they could have reduced every inelegant protruding direction to a simple stump and a broken connection of nerves?
And the ignorant ugliness of the Bromysons fell upon Symor like a shadow of warning, reminding young girls to reduce, to keep themselves small and empty and beautiful.
Of course, Tamera should be disgusted by her past, disgusted by the limbs that sprouted from her body like weeds. But when she thought of Bromyson, her bones shuddered with a twinge of warmth and freedom and laughter.
Tamera’s family was poor. Her father had been a businessman, and her mother a computer programmer. She had long begged her father for her own operation, just one limb, one ticket out of the emotional hell she faced for her size. But her father had refused. She could not afford to be less. She would become a programmer like her mother. She would grow smart and wrinkled and boring.
How could they neglect her dream? Who were they to hold her from all that she could become?
She would at times attempt to cut her own skin, to remove the large wet chunks of pink flesh. But Tamera would in terrified frustration only be able to mark a bloody crevice, skin deep, which would inevitably fill up again with squishy white fat before she would muster up the courage to try again.
On Monday, there was an advertisement in the paper. In the ad, a young doctor smiled with sparkling white teeth, holding a glistening scalpel. “Grand Opening Promotion!” it read. “Reductions starting at $38.99.” Tamera had forty dollars.
She cut the little ad from the parchment and took the transfer bus before her parents returned from the city. All of the other passengers were complete, with arms and legs and fingers. Tamera’s mouth opened in shock, disgusted. Perhaps they’re from other cities, Tamera thought, cities beyond Purple County, cities where people waged war over the shades of their skin and not the shapes of their bodies. Tamera looked away quickly and scrambled to the end of the bus, where there was an empty row of seats. The bus plodded along a steaming dirt road, and Tamera, counting mountain after mountain after mountain of bright colored limbs, slipped into a peaceful sleep.
When Tamera awoke, the car was rolling along a bumpy surface of gravel. She peered over the window as the first heads bobbed into sight. She saw immediately that they were reduced, all of them. Legs or arms ended in a blackened stub and bits of everywhere—toes, nails, flesh—were missing or shrunken as though the body parts had decided to sizzle and drop dead like old black fruit.
Tamera felt a cold pity in her heart. Surely, they were not beautiful, they were sick. Rotting, dying, dead. The passengers shuffled in their seats uncomfortably and quickly looked away, and there was a strange dampness that hung in the air of the bus.
Tamera saw the silver shed before the car stopped. She saw the man from her ad grow taller and taller as he stepped out of the shed and lit a cigarette. Then the bus stopped, moved, stopped again. The doors opened with a hiss, and only Tamera exited.
The hot air hit her like a wave, dispersing the free ends of her nose hairs like a thick net. She felt light-headed from the sudden cut of air supply and was unexplainably irritated. “I’m here for the reduction,” she said, but the voice was distant and strange. The man dropped the cigarette and put out the spark with the sole of his shoe. He was wearing long black jeans and a plain white t-shirt. His eyes were sad and deep green, and his chin was marked with an outline of black stubble.
“Thank you for coming. Thank you,” he spoke slowly, in bursts of segments, as though the language was not his own. “I am Doctor Noris. Please follow me.” He turned and ducked into the shed.
The doctor’s room was at the end of the corridor, a small lit area bare except for the white hospital bed and its adjacent cushioned stool. Tamera lay on the bed and held her arm out in front of her. She had seen the process before, on television and on social media. She pictured a thick layer of sticky white anesthetic spread on her arm and tried to remember for a last time the feeling in her fingers, the movement of her forearm, before it would all become but a memory.
Tamera waited, and waited, and finally opened her eyes. She saw Dr Noris’s feet beside the door frame, his arms dragging a big heavy cart on wheels that click click clicked against the tiled floor. It was a rusty gurney like the one under Tamera now, and Tamera wondered if it should be for herself after the surgery. She would lay on it once she became a woman, once she realized the secret and revelation known only to the beautiful.
But on the bed was a lump and the lump began to move.
And two pebbly black eyes emerged from beneath the white sheet. It was a young girl. The girl sat up, and Tamara could see the stub of her other arm. The arm seemed to be trapped in a perpetual melting, full and rosy colored at the shoulder and, just inches down, violently charred and dribbling with ash.
Was this what would become of her? And yet it was everything Tamera had wanted, was it not? She felt a strong urge to leap from the hospital bed and run for her life. But she cursed at her panic, making it flee in her place. She lay on the bed frozen as a dead fish in the marketplace. She felt a pang of shock, a shock of betrayal: how could she back out so easily? Did she even want to be beautiful?
She stared passively at her right arm, limp between Doctor Noris’s huge black pliers. Something felt very different from the videos, and it was only after he started to yank, after the skin and flesh and bone came apart with a terrible shriek, that she realized—there was no anesthetic.
* * *
Light swept into the room. Tamera’s right arm was on fire. She had passed out after the surgery, allowing herself a momentary but sweet escape from the pain. She slowly faced the bald stump hanging from her shoulder.
Doctor Noris walked into the room with his toothpaste smile.
The young girl with pebbly black eyes followed him, but it couldn’t have been the same girl because this one had two arms, one freakishly longer than the other. Tamera thought it strange that the white polish on her own hand should match that one on the hand of the girl. She thought it especially strange that the girl should look at her and say “thank you.”
* * *
Four ten-dollar bills sat crumpled in Tamera’s pocket. She told Doctor Noris she would not, could not pay. She had expected her arm to magically reappear, for all to be forgotten, and then she could try to forgive Doctor Noris for having replaced her hand with a heavy shapeless pain. But Doctor Noris had just nodded and led her quietly out of the shed, into the sweltering heat.
Now she was walking to the public morgue, to the mountains of arms and legs and bits of bodies which had been discarded by their undesiring owners. She realized, now, why Doctor Noris had put the ad in the paper.
The mounds of flesh were eaten away by layers of black ash and frost and were polka-dotted with discolored rats. The ugly distorted people scavenged the flesh at the bottom of the mountains, but they could not climb up.
The drooping stump on her shoulder grew heavier and heavier, and in her mind Tamera saw it burst and gush with endless blood. She would have to find another arm. Tamera began to climb, pungent chunks of fat and muscle squishing and rolling away beneath her shoes.
She stopped at the plateaued peak, which sat beneath the peak of another, steeper cliff of pink. The heat had passed through the leather shoes and the soles of her feet were wet with sweat. Taking a deep breath, she crouched to the ground, shivering as her hand rested on warm skin. Near her was the body of a girl, floating on the sea of flesh and complete if not for her hideous face. The skin from forehead to her right cheek had been torn like parchment, exposing a skull on half of her face. The skull had been concaved on one side, emptied out. Only one of two eyes remained, and the pupil had faded as though tired of keeping a lookout for its owner’s return. The mouth was wide open, gaping with shock. These must be the failed cases they warn us of, Tamera whispered to herself. And, as she realized why the unblinking eye had looked so familiar, there was a great rumble and a crackle of thunder, and it began to rain.
Arms and legs and bits of fat tumbled towards her from above.
By the time her body reached the bottom of the mountain, face and flesh were covered with thick black ash, and nobody could tell that this particular body had still its heart. And that the heart was still beating.
Ji A Ines Lee is a high school sophomore in Seoul, South Korea. She is greatly interested in a wide variety of subjects, pursuing passions in subjects ranging from neurology to literature. She also loves art, and, to her, writing offers a creative means of self-portrayal, a way for her to create worlds beyond her own.
Carol Radsprecher earned her MFA in painting from Hunter College, CUNY. A longtime painter, she discovered the wonders of digital image-making and found that media well suited to her need to make a succession of rapidly-evolving narrative images based on distorted representations of the human body, especially the female body. Her work has appeared in several solo shows and numerous group shows and has been published in print and/or online publications.