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Red Paint

/sarah beddow

Exit Interview

Why are you leaving? A hundred-fingered hand grew like a fungus from my heart through my throat to shroud the floor of my mouth. When I spoke, spores clouded the air and obscured our surroundings.

What prompted you to look for a new job? I grew misshapen, a self-inflicted curse swayed my back and forced me to my knees. Children laughed at me, pitied my distended face. My tongue forked, and my hands fused to hooves. The children watched, impassive, as tears carved grooves through my ruined cheeks. I tried to flee, but my hoof-hands slipped like cleavers against the doorknob. My mouth poured out the lowing of a dumb and wounded beast. I knew I had to leave that place. Have you accepted another job at another school district? In the height of my power, I became a live oak tree. My many arms grabbed at the earth before reaching again to the sky, twisting to gather all beneath my canopy. Children climbed my branches, draped themselves along me in blankets of moss and ivy. We grew and grew, together, our hunger churning the soil beneath us in its urgency. We grew limitless and drew others to us. Branches burst with nests and birds, egg to hatchling to fledgling. The air was charged with a million leaves’ soughing, the skin-prickling shudder of feathers, the crisp cracks of fingernails finding purchase in knots and fibrous bark. Soon, thick white bird shit coated the ground, my branches, the bodies and faces of the children. It sank through the soil and fed my roots, heady like honey wine. My roots dug lower, deeper, sideways through the black earth and bedrock. Abandoned bird nests shook to pieces and fell from high above. Still more birds arrived and scavenged in mud and scrub. More birds came and built new nests in empty junctures. Down floated in the air, caught in our nostrils and throats when we breathed in the humid stink. Who has room for this much, this much, this much, this much, this much, this mu— Did you feel equipped to do the job you were hired for? One day, I spoke and spoke and spoke. With each utterance I grew more insistent, pushed myself toward power. I would speak a better reality into being. But I cast a spell only on myself. With each word, I grew smaller. Smaller and smaller, until I was a housefly, an annoying buzz and black spot marring the pristine walls. My thousand eyes saw all, and all I saw urged me to fly, quickly, away. One day, I walked through my classroom and the children didn’t see me, hear me at all. I taught lesson after lesson, peering through a thick mist. I asked for a student volunteer, and one girl almost saw me. She looked twice at the spot where I stood, squinted and frowned. And then she shook her head and turned away. In desperation, I yelled. I slammed the door so hard I shook dust loose from the lintel. I begged on my knees. Nothing could bring me back from beyond the veil. One day, I sat at my desk and drew deeper into silence. Why speak when all your words are cast against you? The silence grew spongey and thick, like the pith of a lemon, bitter and fibrous. Were you given clear goals and objectives? When I began, my task was to carve and set stone steps into the face of a steep hill. I had little time and only a brief survey of the land and materials before I began. My tools were makeshift, and I had no plan beyond placing one stone upon another. I stacked and measured, climbing as I built, building as I climbed, carrying rocks on my back and in my arms from the foot of the hill to the next step to the next to the next. The steps finished, I was told then to build another staircase. This staircase was to spiral like a tower and begin with the final step I had just laid. This task was more difficult than the first, but I was stronger than I had been. As I stacked and maneuvered, the stones shape-shifted in my hands. They grew lighter then heavier, bigger then smaller. One stone, its edges softened, was too beautiful to leave behind but too slick for building. Another stone was easier to manipulate but cut my palm to ribbons. This stone’s pearly surface, reflecting the light of the sun, blinded me. That stone’s matte black crags absorbed the heat of the sun, burning me. When I had completed the spiraling staircase, I was given a ladder to carry to the top. A ladder atop a staircase atop stone steps. I climbed to the top of the ladder and saw steps and staircases all around, each a singular spire jutting towards the sky. Some dazzled in their beauty, their precision. Others bore the marks of improvisation—and desperation. Some were new, some old but well-kept, but most stood in ruins. Old stones crumbled, fragments bounding off steps to the earth below. I stood above them all. I towered. And blood was on my hands. Was administration ever disrespectful? The only difference here between the weak and strong is how much energy they can extract from you. If you are weak, you are left alone in your crumbling failures. If you are strong, they sink their teeth into your flesh. They drink from you until your skin is parchment, a palimpsest of who you once were overwritten with someone else’s ambition. What could we have done to keep you here? It began, as all curses do, as a wish. We wished to be left alone, to be allowed our own way of doing things. We found ourselves locked in, as if in a fairy tale tower. As if in the chamber at the top of a winding, harrowing staircase. No one to rescue us because who dared climb so high to reach us? No one to rescue us because who would risk exposure to our blight?

We quickly grew sharp with one another. We yelled, we screamed, we pounded on the walls. Alliances formed, dissolved, shifted, reformed with a tremble. From a far, far distance we could hear voices and grew hopeful. But when we called out, those voices screeched at us like barn owls or issued a sibilant, reproachful shush. We sent messages out with a carrier pigeon, on the tail of a kite, slipped between the pages of a book slid beneath the door, kneeling and clasping our hands in fervent prayer. But it was easier to leave us, in our benighted state, locked in the tower and far from the proper, obedient children in the other rooms of the castle. Until the day they came and opened the tower door, told us to leave. We left quickly, down down down the spiraling staircase, and cringed at the thundering of our feet on the stones. We didn’t look back. We wore guilt like a cloak across our shoulders and took comfort in its embrace. We let it shield us from any thoughts of each other, of a return, of a chance to try again. Would you ever consider returning to this school district? In my anger, I threw keys, pens, markers, clipboards, large piles of paper, books. I slammed my fists upon the table, and it gave way beneath the power of my rage. Children recoiled from me in fear. The table wobbled, capricious and unsound. The room wavered and rocked, and I could no longer see the children. I saw only my rage billowing in all directions. I want to return. It’s hard to remember now how afraid we all were, how little we understood about what would happen next, how the world was emptied of human noise. Every draft made us question what ruin it carried. Every warm breeze was the tainted breath from my transfigured maw, mangled by a throat of teeth, left shapeless by a shredded tongue. I will never return to this place. Anything else to add? One day, I stopped. In a moment’s pause from the unrelenting work of tilling earth and tending the garden, of feeding and mucking and praying for deliverance, I looked up and saw I was alone in a landscape withered and rotting, the cycle of life and death stalled at death. I glanced at my hands and found them empty, coated with a slick of rot. How long had I toiled in this wasteland? I cast the harness from my shoulders and walked away. I am smaller now, diminished. My arms no longer reach the sky, but they are arms. My hands are just my hands. My face no longer twists into a monstrous visage. The lines around my eyes are deeper than they once were. But it is laughter now that marks me, like a needle pulling thread through the layers of a quilt. In the mornings now I brush my daughter’s hair into ponytails and pigtails. I sign my son’s assignment notebook. I remember to complete registration forms before they’re due. I read, I write, I make my husband laugh. I am like a thief marveling at riches as I boldly pocket them.

There is so much time now, such long, golden hours. I wonder, who will I become above that disfiguring crush of anger, free from that horrible yoke of love.

Sarah Beddow is a poet, essayist, and mother. She is the author of the memoir-in-verse Dispatches from Frontier Schools (Riot in Your Throat). Her poems and essays have appeared in Bone Bouquet, Rogue Agent, GlitterMOB, Lunch Ticket, and elsewhere, and she is the founding editor of the Pittsburgh Poetry Houses, a public art project. Find her online at


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