Most lines taken from American deodorant advertisements, 1919-2021
I OVERHEARD the cause of my unpopularity. The real reason for my aloneness, the facts about myself. I who once prided myself on my daintiness. The one fault they can’t forgive, the ginghamed girls, the crew necked boys. The fault which carries its own punishment. I smelled of the bog. Of sphagnum and rotting racoons.
This was before I was really a bog witch. I simply hung out at the bog alone after school, observed muskrats and turtles, waded into the pools now and then to check for preserved bodies. I read about hydrology and carbon sinks, how bogs cover 3% of the earth but contain a third of its carbon. It seemed natural and normal to immerse myself in such a rare, rich ecosystem. It could not possibly hurt. It did not occur to me I was guilty of being revolting.
I was already beyond the reach of ordinary methods. Still I tried to correct my annoying condition. Think of the joy of keeping your gowns unstained, my mother who is not a bog witch said. You’re a pretty girl, my flickering boyfriend put in. You’re smart about most things but you’re just a bit stupid about yourself. You never learned the first rule. In this smart modern age, a girl’s code is pink crush, pop star, ocean surf. Don’t sleep on fresh coconut. Your pits (and the planet) will thank you.
The highest medical authorities agreed. With the caress of deodorant, this medicated toilet, I would be protected. A brisk walk, an afternoon of shopping, an evening of dancing, my loveliness guarded day and night. I would no longer be one of the girls they hate. The messy, leaky, troubled, excessive, frightfully wet. It was just these limited sections of my body, these peculiar qualities. The deodorant would keep me safe. No more tests to prove my innocence. No more dread of dampness.
We were at the beach, that summer of seemingly absolute freedom, when I encountered the sea witch. I had stayed away from the bog for months, applied the key to romance after every bath. Still my flickering boyfriend complained of a swampy stench in the mornings. He was talking to a girl in a strawberry bikini, a girl from our class scented with berry blossom, when I slipped into the waves. I remember feeling like wilted linen.
Fish don’t perspire but you do! the sea witch cackled. This though she smelled of brine and shrimp shells left in the garbage overnight. Her tentacles unfurled, slimy, muscular, covered in suckers, curling around me, and tugged me down toward her kelp forest. I felt fear and doubt but also a sudden excitement. What physical sensations lurked underneath? When at last I escaped—I still wanted to be “natural and normal”—my flickering boyfriend and berry blossom had disappeared.
For years after, I called myself an offender of the law of perfect. I fought my body, tried roll-on aluminons and gels to stay sweet and dry. The harder I tried, the harder it didn’t work. When I grew discouraged, I reminded myself: the curve of a woman’s arm, the poets have sung of it, great artists have painted its beauty. I dated poets, then artists. They had a lot going on. They were in love with their exes. They wanted a woman’s extra feelings, not her extra sweat.
At last, I resigned myself to my old, mossy wanderings. After a while, the bog witches took me in. We love peaty muck and peaty scotch. Some of us are in love with each other. We inhabit a luscious Holocene of decay, our purple heather rooted in histosol, our gray owls spreading their sooty wings in the mornings. We are never berry blossom, but sometimes we are huckle, or cloud berry, or cran. It is an okay, sometimes brilliant life. Even on my most bitter day, there is some kind of pleasure.
We are the caretakers of the dead, unafraid of the touchy subject of fluids, the causes of unpleasantness. Our biggest threat: desiccation. Bogs, you see, are uniquely, intrinsically unbalanced. Vulnerable to drainage, burning, deforestation. Fuck with them and they release the man-made poisons they contain. We are surer than we’ve ever been. It is our wetness we must protect.
MEAGAN CASS is a queer fiction writer based in St. Louis. They are the author of ActivAmerica, selected by Claire Vaye Watkins for the 2017 Katherine Anne Porter Prize, and of the chapbook Range of Motion (Magic Helicopter Press). Their fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Ecotone, DIAGRAM, Puerto del Sol, Mississippi Review, Joyland, and elsewhere. Meagan serves as an assistant editor at Sundress Publications, where they co-founded the Craft Chaps series. They are an Associate Professor of English (Creative Writing) at University of Illinois Springfield.