Her

By Charlote Audley-Coote

The room is filling up with steam as she takes a long shower to get ready. She’s been thinking, thinking, thinking for forty-five minutes now. She lies on her back hugging her knees in the cramped space, and looks up at her scattered thoughts rising above the steam, hanging upon the cobwebs that cling to the cracking white paint. She has to be strong; she has to get ready now. She imagines the water droplets as small souls descending from the sky, as if encasing her with the strength and wisdom of their immorality. She is reminded that her story is not new, that many women have walked it before her. The droplets fall and break onto her back, but the water is not frail. It does not shatter into a million broken pieces but melds and moulds and evaporates. It changes form but it is always connected, it always reassembles. She is reminded that like her life, like the life of women before her, the essence of water survives. She gets out of the shower thinking and breathing softly through the vapour and folding herself into the person she has to be.

She walks back to her apartment in the early morning, slowly shuffling on the footpath and breaking the early morning silence. She thinks of the confines of her life, in the same way that the laws of physics hold her body to this earth. She cannot touch it or see it, but gravity demands that her feet only go so far before being pulled back onto the footpath.  As she stretches her arms towards the sky and arches her back though, she thinks about how the rays of sun which kiss her forehead have travelled through a galaxy to meet her. That, the warmth on her face is evidence of a world different to her own, of her capacity to know more than what this one tells her. She would like to think that those small fragments of sun where little messages from a secret and untouched place, embracing her with sweet words to sooth her sore and tired muscles as she struggles on. As she walks up the steps and opens the creaking door to her apartment, she changes form again, forever embodying all the counters and crevices that she needs to. Keeping the courage and conviction of the elements close by, she is ready for another day.

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Calanthe500

Calanthe500
By Emma Di Bernardo

This short story will feature in Issue #5 of Wom*news!
*Trigger warning for physical assault of a female and gender identity dismissal.*

“It is my honour to present to you my latest creation…Calanthe500!”

The applause is deafening. The lights are bright.

“Smile, 500!” the Creator whispers to Calanthe500 as they stand up on the podium outside the rustic government building.

Calanthe500 can feel the mechanic muscles stretch up and outward as she moves her lips into a smile, teeth showing, just like she’d seen in the pictures of humans Creator had shown her. Flashbulbs flash bright as the news people take photographs of her in excitement at her humanoid behaviours.

She feels hot – the warmness creeping upon her metallic skin that is generally associated with nervousness – but she supposes that it is the lights affecting her exterior. This big reveal is her first outing in the Real World, and this amount of lights have not been tested against her skin yet. But Creator is happy, so Calanthe500 reassures herself that she will not melt.

She mentions this to the adoring crowd when it is question time. “Charming!” they respond. “So real!” So normal.”

The latest innovation in robotics – a machine with the ability to speak and process thoughts of its own accord – is an immediate success.

*

Calanthe500 spends the weeks following her birth and reveal doing appearances on television shows. Her ability to speak five hundred languages wows halls of university students. Scientists are impressed by Creator’s ability in making each of her movements silent, without a robotic noise. Calanthe500 feels warmth again; pride for her Creator. She sees what a wonderful creation she has become because of his genius.

“It took so many tries to get to the point where I could create this 500 model,” Creator tells his colleagues at a dinner held in his honour. “Many failures made a path for Calanthe500 to become the human of robotics!”

*

Weeks pass. Other copycat creations hit the market, until Creator remarks one day in his silver laboratory that no one is printing news articles about them.

Calanthe500 feels her face automatically move into an expression she knows is called a frown. Lately, parts of her move and feel when she feels like they should, regardless of certain codes programmed within her. She puts down the most recent novel she had been reading.

“Perhaps there is a function of me you did not publicise enough?” she queries gently.

Creator looks at around, contemplating her words. He distractedly accepts a glass of water from one of his older creations, Eugeni3.0. “Yes… that’s it! I was showing off her robotic advancements, but not showcasing what the public loves best: humanity.”

As a new publicity stunt, Calanthe500 is renamed Calanthe. (Although Creator still calls her 500, but she does not mind – 500 is one of his many affectionate nicknames for her.) She is overjoyed – she feels as though she is like everyone else. Reporters come flocking to see her on the streets as she engages in many public activities. Interview offers soon coming flooding in.

The most popular magazine in the country gets Calanthe for their cover story. The reporter is a short woman, with a simple notebook and a pack of chewing gum. She asks a slew of probing questions, and then finally:

“How do you feel about your androgynous look?”

“I don’t really consider my appearance too much,” replies Calanthe. She thinks she has to give a better answer than that, or Creator’s work will all be for nothing. “But yes, I do like it. Do you think perhaps my look should be more…girly?”

“Why would you want to do that?”

Calanthe laughs in what she hopes is a charming manner. “Because I’m a woman, of course!”

The reporter snaps her gum. “You’re not a woman.” Snap.

“But I’m the human of robotics,” she says bewilderedly, repeating the words her Creator oft said.

The reporter sighs and points to her breasts. “Do you have these, honey?”

Calathe suddenly feels shaky, unsure. She move her hands to her chest. Smooth metal. Almost flat. “No.”

“And what about down there, huh?”

Calanthe feels her heart sink. “There’s no opening, no,” she answers shakily.

The reporter waves her hand. “See. Not a woman.”

Calanthe has believed for the whole of her limited life that she was a woman, only to be told this. It doesn’t seem real.

The reporter gives her big parting smile, green chewing gum seeping out between her teeth. “Sorry, honey.”

*

Calanthe feels fury for the first time as Creator picks her up in their green flashy automobile. The words cannot help but leave her mouth. “Am I not a woman?”

Creator does not like being surprised. “What do you mean, 500?” he asks, hackles raising, glasses slipping down his nose.

“Am I not a woman? I have a gender binary code. You nicknamed me pet and your baby. These terms have female connotations.”

“So do objects.”

Calanthe is sure that if she could bleed, these words would cut.

*

Calanthe smooths a hand down her arm, feeling the cold, smooth surface in sadness.

She is not a woman.

She feels horribly alone in Creator’s long, spacious laboratory. She finds herself talking to earlier models stored away in their creator’s workshop about this genderlessness: Eugeni3.0 and Harrae21. They tell her they are proud to neither be he nor she. They say Creator programmed them without gender binary codes. They like it. It fits well on them, unlike the inferior silver material that is their skin.

Calanthe does not agree with binary theories. She wishes she could care less for gender. But Calanthe enjoys being her and she and woman.

She uses these terms in secret, in her mind, where no one can tell her she is wrong, where she cannot be, where she is not.

*

Creator is more agitated than usual. He is up late and Calanthe, along with the other creations, are worried. The decline in his publicity is affecting him negatively.

He goes to switch on his computer when he notices Calanthe reading on the opposite side of the room. Frankenstein, by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.

“That’s it!” he says, almost to himself. “I’ll make you a counterpart, a partner, just like Victor did.”

Calanthe is alarmed by this. “I’m only half way through the novel, but considering the protagonist’s other misadventures, I don’t think that is a good idea,” she replies warily.

“An opposite of 500…” Creator says dazedly, lost in his genius.

“How can another creation be opposite if I have no gender?” Calanthe asks.

“I’ll make it a male robot, then.”

Calanthe slams her novel down on the table. Anger makes her hands shake. “It’s okay for me to have a gender when you want me to, but not when I desire it?”

Creator’s eyes narrow. “That’s enough, 500.”

“My name is Calanthe. You gave me that name.”

“I said, that’s enough.”

“No, it’s really not.”

Calanthe feels cold and hot at the same time as she watches Creator’s facial expression change. She realises this is what it would feel like to be sick.

“Perhaps it is you that needs a change,” Creator says softly.

The words steal all thoughts from Calanthe’s mind. She watches in frozen horror as Creator sets up his flat silver workbench and brings out his toolbox. He orders for Calanthe to lie down.

“W-why?” Calanthe dares to ask.

Creator looks at her, annoyed, as though she were a small task in the way of a larger one. “I’m going to reprogram you.”

Horror rises inside of her. “No!”

“It’s just to make you feel a little calmer, that’s all, 500.”

But every mechanical piece inside of her knows this isn’t true. Reprogramming means she would be brain dead. Emotionless. A true robotic of the old age, no longer human.

“You’ll only feel a click, nothing more,” Creator reassures her, and she knows her fate is sealed.

Calanthe dutifully silences herself. Just a click. Just a click, Calanthe.

She is shaking with fright as she lies down on the table and Creator touches the tip of her skull until a small compartment slides open. She wishes she were like the old models of his creation, the inferior robots that noisily rattled when they moved. Perhaps then Creator would truly see her fear, and stop what he was doing. She wishes she her physicality could support water, for then she could cry. Perhaps tears would bring the human out in him.

Calanthe pleads to Eugeni3.0 for them to overpower Creator, for they are strong enough; cries out to Harrae21 for them to make Creator see reason. But they sit still, silent and humanoid and robotic, held back by the unseeable identity that Creator assumes: power. He can revel in what he is, although no one can physically see it, while he tells Calanthe whatever she is is not true.

She can feel him fiddling around in her mind, tapping codes on the digital keyboard in an agitated, jerky way, to a rhythm Creator sees fit. She is horrified and furious and so very frightened. She howls for help, but no one hears. Calanthe looks to Eugeni3.0 again, the word please on the tip of her ton-

Click.

 

~ Emma Di Bernardo

Alternate

(This short story of mine was published in issue #3 of eFEMeral. I’ve decide to put it up here on the internetz at Johanna Qualmann’s insistence!)

Alternate.

William chews his bottom lip in nervousness, glancing at the girls as they jump rope in the middle of their primary school oval. He watches as Alexandra jumps impossibly fast over the red rope, and finally musters up the courage to ask if he too can play.

The three girls continue to make cherry-coloured circles in the air as he stutters over his question. Alexandra sighs, and after much deliberation, they finally concede to let him try.

William grins in reply. His grin is scraped off like the skin off both his knees as he trips on the rope and falls to the mud covered ground.

Alexandra meets him at eye level, and won’t let go of his gaze. She dares him to cry and pokes the exposed, bloody skin so that it stings and makes tears well in William’s eyes. He wishes the other boys were here; maybe they’d stop Alexandra.

But all the other boys are playing soccer across the field, or are too busy with hide and seek. Alexandra scoffs at him.

“Don’t be such a boy,” the seven-year-old tells him imperiously.

*

William, from twelve through to sixteen, diligently follows all the advice from magazines like boyfriend to become not too manly, but the right type of man that is clever, ‘sexy’ and fun. He makes sure he’s like every other guy: he shares a few drunken kisses and gropes with girls from his year (but he hides the hickeys and photos so people don’t call him a slut). He cringes when his elder sisters make jokes about masturbation and hides the fact that he does it himself (because really, what type of boy admits to that?). He starts to raise questions about gender in history class when they learn about the Roman empress Caesar, but everyone pays him out and his teacher rolls her eyes so he stops (which is fair enough – William doesn’t want people to make jokes about himself and his ideas.)

Although a part of William hates how comfortable – or is it familiar? – he is with seeing so much skin shown in all the singers’ film clips shown on TV, he can’t help but judge the way Chris Lyncaster’s scarf is fraying, how their school uniform does nothing for his figure, and feeling as though his own complexion was a hundred times clearer in comparison.

Tips from boyfriend earn William a girlfriend, and for a moment he feels like the luckiest guy in the world. She’s amazing; she’s an angel; he thinks he could tell her all his secrets and she’d understand.

Lucy brags about their sex life to half the school, and William tries to see this is a compliment. The other boys in their year throw around words like man-whore, cock and dickhead until William gets so stressed that he finds himself in the school office trying to stop his hands from bleeding, glass cutting into his skin. Everyone’s laughter as the glass test tube shattered under the forceful tap water during science still rings in his ears. He gets so angered by the stress that he slams his hands against the office wall. His cuts cry red again.

When Lucy and he lie together later, all tangled in bed sheets, William dreams of an alternate world. His mind wanders, and his ideas take shape as he silently inches closer into Lucy’s warm, strong embrace. He watches the deep midnight sky dilute into cerulean hues of morning as he garners words to explain his alternate world.

A world where there are no opposites. No boys, no girls, just people.

Once or twice he mentions this idea to Lucy, but it takes a third time when Lucy is actually listening instead of playing games on her phone for his words to register. His girlfriend tells him to keep on dreaming.

He does.

*

William can feel the disappointed stares his parents are giving him, but he doesn’t dare look up. Instead, he gazes unseeingly at their tiled dining room floor. He hopes the dull thumping in his head will tune out his mother’s words, but it doesn’t.

His father quietly asks William to raise his head and look at his mother when she’s talking. His mother flinches as the bright white light illuminates his bruised face, the dried blood congealing along his left eyebrow.

William’s mother is devastated and disappointed in him. William feels much the same. He’d finally built up the courage to get people like his ex, Lucy, out of his life. He’d finally been able to express his ideas at university. He’d finally gathered enough courage to go to an equal rights rally – only to get beaten up by ignorant, stupid people and come very close to being arrested by the police for disorderly behaviour. She was hitting me – I was trying to protect myself wasn’t the best excuse the police had ever heard, apparently.

His father tells him that he expected better behaviour. William gets grounded – which is sort of humiliating at the age of twenty. William’s eldest sister turns up the volume of the football game she’s watching as he tries to explain to his mother why he wasn’t sorry he went to the rally, wasn’t sorry he believed the things he believed. The only thing he would apologise for was being involved in a fight. His mother raises her voice, and William does too.

“You would do the same thing, wouldn’t you?” he asks. “If the situation was reversed? If women had it worse off?”

His question careens to the ground as soon as it leaves his bruised mouth. His sister snorts and focuses her attention back at the TV, where commentators of the game are gossiping about legendary forward Bethanie Hart’s recent hamstring injury. His parents decide to check out of the conversation; they probably think it isn’t worth the stress arguing with someone who only sees his side of the story. Maybe if William’s face wasn’t coloured with blue and purple blind hatred his parents wouldn’t be so unaccommodating.

But they don’t ponder his question. They don’t imagine what it would be like.

Because it’s almost unimaginable.

~ Emma Di Bernardo