The girl’s mother named her Cousin, so people would love her from the start.
Her mother worried no one would take to the homely, wild girl otherwise. Babies were supposed to be pink and beautiful, not ruddy and coarse. Besides, her mother knew how painful love was to catch. Pins beneath nails. Gravel ground into knees. Smoke singed into palms.
The problem was, with a name like Cousin, everyone believed the little girl belonged to them. Her name simmered in people’s mouths the way apples turn soft under their skin in the heat of the skillet. And Cousin was trained to melt too quickly when people called for her. She learned to sit and wait. She believed she belonged to those people, too. The name was a curse.
The girl grew into a young woman the way she was supposed to. Her rough red braids smoothed out into soft curls. Freckles paled against bronze skin. She still waited for her name to be called, but now she passed the time with books. Fairy tales of frozen girls, trapped girls, patient girls who won their freedom through submission. Cousin secretly hoped better stories existed beyond the shelves her mother carefully curated in the study.
In the summer Cousin met a man immune to her mother’s spell. He refused to say her name right. His voice rested on the sin. His hands rested on her thighs.She gently corrected him, moving his hands, moving his tongue. She supposed all this time she’d been saying her own name wrong, leaning into his pronunciation. Curses can never be broken. But they can be sold. Her mother liked the man. That was all that mattered.
Cousin, now rebranded, felt herself change bone by bone. At first, she reveled in a world her mother didn’t create. She adopted the man’s long strides, his taste for foreign spices. Cousin read the man her fairy tales at night. Once he fell asleep, she deftly searched his apartment for new books, disappointed that beneath their exteriors he and her mother were identical.
The man broke her heart on a starless Thursday night, with a letter written on crumpled paper. Scraps of other words were erased. At first, she thought maybe he’d had second thoughts. Tried to convince himself to stay. Instead, she made out the names of other lost girls he’d collected then disposed of like the decaying autumn leaves. She felt herself disintegrating as she read his words.
Her eyes drifted to the margins. The places where he’d never written, untouched, unworried. She pressed the paper to her mouth, then wrote Cousin in blood from her bitten lip. It was the first time she’d ever written her own name in a space that neither her mother or the man owned. It was the kiss that woke her. Curses can’t be broken, but they can be owned. She felt her heart stitching itself back together, and she realized it was time for a new name.
Sarah Clayville is a high school teacher and author who works from a small town in central Pennsylvania where she has lived forever. She holds a special place in heart for short fiction that stops people in their tracks. Find more of her work at SarahSaysWrite.com.