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The Muttery Man

by Julie Wornan

It was standing there in the dark just beyond the foot of her bed. It was a thin cylindrical form, so tall that it went from the floor up to the ceiling and it had to bend its head a little at the ceiling.

She had awakened from her sleep suddenly, as one sometimes does just before the alarm goes off, and she was wide awake and not frightened.

“It was me,” it said. “It was always me.”

“I know,” she said.

It said, “I am your Curse.”

She said, “I know.”

They spoke silently, mind to mind.

It said, “Did you know when I first came to you?”

She said, “I didn’t know, but I think I do now. Were you the Muttery Man?”

* * *

She had been a normal happy child at three. But by the time she entered kindergarten, she knew she was different. The other children didn’t want to hold her hand when they made a ring, and if the teacher paired them off for a game, the one who got her for a partner would giggle and whisper “Look who I got.” During lunch hour she would eat very slowly so as not to finish before it was time to go back to class.

She wasn’t too lonely in those days because her imaginary friend, Peter, was good company. But as she grew older, her imagination lost some of its power and the reality of Peter began to thin, like an old blanket which you try to wrap and rewrap about you until you finally wake up shivering. Then she would cry herself to sleep.

She longed to be invisible. She knew she wasn’t ugly (regular features, dark curly hair) . But the thing that had to be hidden was something else. Nobody could see it or hear it. Yet, she would have gladly been a monster, a cripple, or a dimwit, anything, if only she could have been... anybody but herself.

* * *

Andrew came up to her one day at the lunch line. Andrew had reddish hair and freckles and a pixieish smile and she had a crush on Andrew, so when he walked straight up to her she could hardly breath. He said, “Hey, Ruthie!” and then he said, “Did you know the answer to the second question on the math test?”

Of course she knew the answer. She always got A’s in math. After a long time, she said, “Um....” Andrew said, “Um?” and he walked away. And the place where Andrew had walked away was the emptiest place in the world. She never looked at Andrew after that and he never looked at her.

* * *

The Muttery Man came to her when she was three or four. A curtain was moving in the wind but she knew the Muttery Man was behind it, and then he came out and sat her on his lap and combed her hair. He seemed nice.

“You were a cute kid,” said the Curse. “I am so sorry. I didn’t want to harm you.”

“Why did you do it?” she asked.

“We do that,” it said. “It’s the way we are. We make bets. We might choose someone, the most ordinary person, and lift him to the heights of power. Or we might take an extremely talented person and play at keeping them down. Sometimes we keep a whole nation down. We think of it as something like your video games. But I know you are real. I want to let you go now.”

* * *

Once, alone in a planetarium, she did a dance to the planets and she knew it was a good dance. She got her parents to sign her up for dance lessons. But after a week she fell and broke her foot. She never danced again.

Once she took a creative writing course in college. Scribbling stories in a scruffy notebook in the subway was shear heaven. The second story she wrote impressed the teacher so much that he said, “Bring me the manuscript and I’ll show it to my editor.” She didn’t. She didn’t write any more.

At intervals she loved music, art, photography, philosophy — passionately. But every flush of success made her stop short. Sometimes there were migraines. Usually — nothing. It was like a hypnotic suggestion.

In a childhood dream, she had a collection of pretty ribbons but the other children told her she had no right to them and she had to throw them away. She was to remember that dream all her life.

Loneliness sapped her energy. She couldn’t study, couldn’t concentrate. She became an accountant in a paper bag factory. She ate her lunch alone. Sometimes she cut out pictures from magazines and put them in frames and pretended they were her own children and grandchildren. She gave them names — Peter, Andrew, Jeannie.

Sometimes she went to a movie. There was always a cat to come home to.

* * *

The Curse said, “I always let you have a cat. I could have made you allergic to cats.”

She said, “I would have died.”

It said, “I know.”

The Curse said, “I want to free you now. You’re seventy. You have twenty more years — good years. Okay, you won’t be a dancer. But you can paint, do some photography, write. You still have talent. You won’t be famous, but you’ll enjoy being creative. It’s your nature, and you’ll have friends.”

The tall figure looked fainter now in the pre-dawn gloom. Ruth recalled how childhood “monsters” of the night would become a heap of clothing in the morning. She could now see the faces of her “grandchildren” peering from their picture frames. They were strangers to her. They were dear to her. They were herself.

The Curse said, “Say ‘I dismiss you’ and I will go. Say it with your voice. Or with your mind.”

“Where will you go?” she asked with her mind.

It remained silent.

“Where will you go?” she asked again. “What child will you choose next?”

The demon kept its silence.

So did Ruth.

Copyright © 2009 by Julie Wornan

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