History is replete with terrifying succubi—harpies, serpent-haired slags, and toothy sea vaginas. Cunty crones and lewd leviathans who have both cursed and seduced sailors, bewitching them into adjusting their waxed knickerbockers while harpooning sun-dappled manatees and pregnant monk seals into extinction. Women thus riddle a horrific taxonomy that has for centuries inspired terror in otherwise rational men. Sailors and men dreaming of a life at sea have been alarmed at white-breasted mermaids who comb each other’s kelpy hair to sapphic song, luring unfucked sailors to watery dooms.
Yet despite the strength of our cock-crushing might—nay, precisely because of it—women have also been ridiculed, belittled, erased.
Take humanity’s familiar dread of another creature, the werewolf. In Old English, “were” originally meant “man.” So a werewolf is literally a “man wolf.” This necessitated a separate word, “wif,” be created for “woman.” That’s right, language reduced the haunting specter of the female werewolf to a wifwolf. How preposterously un-frightening is that? And to ensure our howls remained unheard and without choral power, men thought to devise a related psychiatric condition, lycanthropy (the delusion that one is turning into a wolf), which they then wielded against many of us throughout the years, compelling us into mental wards with all the other bitches and gas-lit witches who’ve seen visions in their husbands’ yellowed wallpapers—“Methinks she doth howl too much!”
The greatest crime, however, is how we are insidiously taught from girlhood to doubt our own beautiful, monstrous powers.
My personal gorgon, with her bouffant of deadly vipers, slithers up my throat to pry clenched teeth apart. Stretching skin, she slips from my newsprint self, which sloughs in papery sheaths across the floor. Her glistening locks poise hungry as Scylla’s gullets, though even these hissing follicles curve in question as they cock themselves against the echoes of my petrified misgivings:
Did I double lock my doors? Will afternoon nails hammered above each sash hold windows firm at 3:00 a.m., or can a cat-quiet burglar still climb on in? And will he, beamed in floods of green moonlight, witness my open-mouth snoring—fixate instead on an ocean of pillowcase drool—and slip back through the casing?
Whose shoulder will the cosmos tap to find me in a Walmart aisle the moment that my hand has grasped a jumbo roll of soft two-ply? And will I bite my tongue that day, or feel the need to inform them that even though I live alone, I plug my ears to poop in peace but once a day (Oh lord, why can’t I shut up?)
What is the name of this friendly soul who has stopped to ask, “How you been? You look so thin! What college did your girls get in? Good gracious! My, how time does pass! You blink an eye; they grow so fast!” And all the while, my gaze so still, my mind will race (but fail to place) a name with yet another face, and why can’t I just please erase this meeting altogether!?
Shall I believe WebMD’s impending doom? Is my Imposter Syndrome real? Do spiders nest within my ears? Is smeared lipstick a worse fate than coffee breath? Will my teeth fall out from chewing gum?
What do people say behind my back about the “nips” on shirts I’ve left too long on hangers? Do I look fake with makeup on? Will the child sitting in a cart behind me ask, “Mommy, who’s that crying clown?” And is it gauche to mouth “Fuck off” to a four-year-old in a line at Costco?
Can I ever measure up to what everyone expects of me? What I demand from myself? If I choose “me,” am I being selfish? And does it matter? Should I stand straighter than I did today to prevent becoming an old hag with a hump?
Oh, god! Am I going to die alone, hunched under a venomous tangle of gray hair? Yet, who is to say?
Maybe I will grab my brush and mirror—wait! Is that a ship near setting sun? I’ll sing my song of hope, envision sailors smashing into wild coasts, and gently rock my monsters off to sleep.