The Bearded Lady

Just as no one can combat the graying of the population by dying their hair, so Emmy Debeuckelaer could not keep her sorrow at bay by giving herself a good shave. At the age of about sixteen, when the beard started growing, she’d still been able to deny it a public outing. She shaved in the mornings before leaving for school, where she shut herself up in the toilets with a hand-mirror and a Gillette in the afternoons. That meant, however, that contrary to her intentions she was ensuring that within a few months the excessive down would turn into tough, ever-present stubble. No matter how great Emmy’s abhorrence of the role, she became the bearded lady.

Other than that she had an extremely attractive body, which led several classmates to put sexual proposals to her. The scene they had in mind would be played by six actors and a young woman wearing a mask. Emmy declined the offer and was thought ungrateful. Harassment followed, certainly, but more often she was avoided. They did look, boys and girls, women and men, they looked all the time, some biting their lower lip, others horrified, and all with the curiosity with which people witness natural disasters, just before running to safer ground. Deeply hidden in all their eyes was something else, too, something that was ignored because no one could say quite what it was.

Emmy was not the sort of woman who could easily put facial hair out of mind. Before the beard she’d looked forward with confidence to the moment when she would take over her mother’s tanning salon and develop it into a fully fledged beauty parlor. Her mother consulted doctors who prescribed Emmy pills and injections that didn’t help. In the end mother and daughter decided, hugging each other in their affliction, that a beard would not be good publicity for the business and that Emmy’s start, like the new investments, would have to wait for a medical life raft that was undoubtedly already being inflated in some laboratory or other and would float their way in the future.

Entire newspaper supplements are printed to convince you that your furniture tells you who you are, that you are what you eat. It was a lie in her case, Emmy Debeuckelaer knew. She was her beard.

Although she continued to place her hopes in science, she found it increasingly hard to deny the existence of God. Not so much because she thought a noble divinity lay behind every ray of sunshine but rather because she found the idea of punishment more plausible than sheer bad luck. Her beard was a punishment. But for what? She couldn’t recall any great personal crimes that would justify such relentless retribution. So she persuaded herself of a previous life full of wild atrocities. A psychic confirmed that suspicion. The clairvoyant discovered that Emmy had been a warrior in the Hundred Years War, first on the side of the House of Valois, then as a mercenary by the name of Richard the Tyrant, deployable on all fronts, ever intent on the satisfaction of his perverse and extremely bloodthirsty destructive urges. Emmy had thought it was something like that.

The discovery of her previous existence at first mainly changed the nature of Emmy’s dreams. Previously she’d experienced in them a repeat of the humiliations of the day, or became in sleep her ideal self: smooth-cheeked, queenly hairstyle in the wind, at the head of a Japanese-style beauty salon, the most successful in Europe, and everyone was driven wild by the scent and softness of her moonlit skin. In her new dreams her broad fingers clasped an ax. Her muscular arms, all blood, earth, and sweat, lifted the thing above her head time and again and brought it down with full force, all the way through a fourteenth-century village.       

At the start Emmy would never have admitted it to herself, but waking from this kind of dream was just as disappointing as from the one about smooth cheeks. That she had taken on a different guise and was living in a different time from Richard the Tyrant did not absolve her of responsibility. She alone could make amends for the centuries-old guilt and get a beardless life in return.

Good things come to good people, thought Emmy. She retrained as a nurse and was able to start even before she graduated. The care sector was understaffed, overburdened and underpaid; a nurse with a beard was, as a consequence, no problem. At least, that was the theory. One little old man had an anxiety attack every time she walked into his room on night duty and two other patients brazenly asked her whether she was undergoing gender reassignment therapy. There were people with empathy and people with advice. The ones who annoyed Emmy most of all, however, were the self-declared fellow sufferers.

The woman in room 432, for example. Emmy couldn’t remember her name, probably because after each encounter her brain purged itself as thoroughly as it could of all trace of the creature. Her tragedy was that she’d come no closer to modelling work than a vegetable-slicing portrait on the side of a kitchen shop’s delivery van. She’d made reference to it in every conversation for a decade, before realizing it wasn’t enough and never would be, that there wasn’t even any such thing as enough.

While the woman griped, Emmy looked with a smile at the clouds as they disappeared more rapidly than normal behind the window frame, as if they felt trapped, vicariously embarrassed by the sight of her beard. The frustrated model thought her a good listener.

Her obese colleague Caroline was also drawn to Emmy time and again by an assumed kinship. At least once a week she enumerated all the forms of discrimination that had befallen her, all the ways fat people were disadvantaged by society. The bearded lady again showed herself to be a benign listener, who never strayed into making comparisons, never said that fat people should simply eat less whereas for unwanted facial hair there was no remedy. In her mind she christened Caroline “Calorine.”

In her dreams Emmy was less accommodating. As Richard the Tyrant she kicked in doors to houses where Calorine, the failed model, the little old man who was afraid of her, and all the tip givers, sympathizers, and tormenters that had presented themselves in Emmy’s life were hiding beneath rotten floorboards. They wore fourteenth-century clothing and held their breath. Richard the Tyrant would walk through the room with a heavy tread, smash some furniture and curse threateningly to himself, as if incensed by the empty house. After stamping resoundingly to the front door, he would open and shut it without going out. As soon as the first sigh of relief rose from the floor, Richard stormed at it with his ax. A massacre later, Emmy woke feeling relaxed.

All the same, when she then looked at herself in the bathroom mirror—the thing was indistinguishable from the rest of the bathroom fittings—she immediately lost heart. She was a woman with a light-blue silk dressing gown and a full beard that seemed to be growing more and more rapidly.

Because her good deeds as a nurse clearly weren’t enough to pay for the guilt of her previous life, Emmy decided to volunteer at a shelter for the homeless on her nights off. Now and then there were fights, but usually it was quiet. A schizophrenic woman kept making calls to her with a knitting needle she’d pushed through one of her dreadlocks. Somewhat dismayed by the size of the holes in the social safety net, Emmy pressed the three middle fingers of her right hand to her cheek so that thumb and little finger formed the ends of a receiver.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered to her finger. “I’m here to show you that it could be worse.” She initially felt ashamed of saying such a thing, but when the woman, after a slight delay, burst into assenting howls of laughter, Emmy suspected she had spoken the truth. She would happily change places with the bag lady. Better hopeless than bearded.

She wondered whether she in turn could find comfort from people who had suffered even worse punishments. She went in search of pictures of cabinets of curiosities, photos of people put on show in those long-abolished traveling circuses. Hiki, the scaly man from Nebraska. Stella Blanchea, the woman with a tail. Betty Williams, who had the misshapen limbs of a twin sister growing out of her side. The Sanders family, with their leopard skin. Even hairiness could be worse, as proven by Krao, the “Missing Link Girl” from Laos, whose entire body was shrouded in a coat of fur. “One of us, one of us,” the photos chanted. Emmy belonged with them, just as a person belongs with his family: inextricably bound to them without having chosen to be. Emmy did not believe that their success and the money they made from their handicaps had made them happy, only more convinced that the world they belonged to was peopled by a sad troupe, a vanload of weeping clowns, however broad might be the smile into which the armless among them inserted a cigarette with their toes.

Did love bring Emmy consolation? Hardly.

In the hospital, Bart, a urologist, had been courting her for some time. He stayed the night ten times or so and came out with wise generalities about mankind such as: “We humans are certainly the only creatures afraid of death, yet compared to us, animals are free of an even greater fear. The fear that governs us from our first breath to our last sigh is above all the fear of sorrow. A whole lifetime spent worrying about missing out on happiness—and then you die.”

The fact that as he spoke those words a breadcrumb clung to his forehead so endeared Emmy to him that she briefly abandoned her reticence.

He never said anything about her beard and Emmy had to accept that. But after a few weeks she started to get the uneasy feeling that ignoring the beard seemed to insinuate that she too had largely escaped Bart’s attention. It wasn’t long before she was going after him with an axe in her dreams as well.

In reality, while shaving, she snapped at him that he needn’t act as if it didn’t exist.

“As if what doesn’t exist?” Bart asked impatiently. He wanted to leave for a party.

“Stop playacting. You’re making us both ridiculous.”

He stared at her in exaggerated bewilderment. Emmy felt how light and non-hazardous the razor blade in the holder in her hand was.

“Your girlfriend is shaving her beard. Don’t you find that strange?”

Bart shrugged. If he said now that he didn’t see her beard, she’d be furious with him.

“I don’t see that beard,” he said.

After she’d been furious with him, and he’d asked in a very loud voice what he’d been supposed to say, repeated that he loved her, and to her dismay even resorted to pleading, they decided to give the party a miss, downed a whole bottle of Cointreau between them at great speed, and ended up between the sheets. There she asked him whether she could scratch him really hard, since he seemed to her someone she wanted to have under her fingernails, and she also asked, sounding far more brittle now, far deeper into the night: “If at the end of your life you’ve been hurt more than you’ve hurt others, does that make you a loser?” As an answer he hugged her until the next afternoon.

It seemed a harmonious time between Emmy and Bart, but you never know what other people are thinking. Even if they say something exactly the way you once put it, it’s difficult to believe they mean the same thing.

Rather unexpectedly he said he found it hard to deal with the mistrustful way she approached other people, her misanthropy. She described that allegation as deadly, saying her reticence toward others was less than it had ever been. More arguments followed about her beard, how he dealt with it, how she dealt with it, quarrels that were no longer settled in each other’s arms. What Emmy and Bart shared was ultimately no more than the umpteenth love that came down to having to convince the other person they were the one more beset by madness, the one less in tune with reality. In the end Bart fled to a beardless hepatologist called Patsy.

Emmy remained alone and firmly resolved to look at love only from a distance in future. For women that was generally more difficult, she realized, on a biological but mainly on a semantic level: a man is restless, a woman hysterical. At work she frequently stopped to examine the intriguing portrait of a bald man that hung on the wall in the corridor next to the secretarial offices. Ignaz Semmelweis he was called, according to the caption. Emmy never looked up who he was—she assumed he’d had something to do with founding the hospital—but because of the portrait she often thought about baldness in men. How baldness is worse in women. How for a man it’s no catastrophe if he doesn’t have a beard.

Yet she’d looked into the eyes of enough flawed men to understand that despair and impotence were sexless, just like short-sightedness and malice—Emmy did not wish to become involved with gender-bound misanthropy. The more couples she observed, the more relieved she felt at being spared their exhausting fulfilment in life. You could see it in their faces. Everyone had insulted everyone else again. At home silences or tears would fall, and rifts develop, with an eye to something better, until there was no avoiding the realization that it only ever seems that way.

So Emmy Debeuckelaer raced through her life, past adults with dirty nappies, vagrants with psychoses, couples with problems, strangers with stares and recurring extras who liked her but didn’t know her. Sometimes she would turn abruptly to people and ask what they were looking at. One time a woman answered: “I was looking at your dress, it’s lovely,” and it cost Emmy some effort not to believe her. Then every night again: the ax, the screams, the perforated intestines, the taste of human flesh, the relief.

God took all the time in the world to put her patience to the test. She was approaching forty, Emmy was, and her beard was already showing its first gray hairs. The guilt had still not been atoned.

There were days when she doubted whether one lifetime would be enough to set right all Richard’s wrongdoing, especially since she enjoyed it so much in her sleep. There were days when the beard seemed to her more like bad luck after all, days when she no longer believed in recompense, even though she didn’t know what else to do, days too when she thought that all goodness begins and ends with yourself and that something like that doesn’t need to be a problem. There were ominous days when she thought: from now on everything is full of flies.

Emmy saw people who caused her harm as ever-shrinking sculptures on the palm of her hand. When she closed it and opened it again, they were gone. Emmy learned how to look at people, saw how they could continually and permanently damage themselves by their efforts to change course. She’d finally worked out how to describe what lay hidden inside them when they looked at her forested chin: they saw their own scars, concealed in the darkest passageways of their soul, the ghosts of their childhood, the traumas that had been woven into their DNA for generations.

There was a morning when Emmy woke from a dream in which Richard had been lying on his back in the grass staring at the clouds and the migrating birds flying past them. She had no idea what his fourteenth-century brain thought about that, perhaps Richard didn’t think anything at all, but it was clear he’d been behaving that way all night, briefly no longer a tyrant. It felt as if she’d lost something essential and had immediately forgotten what it was. It felt good.

There are people who laugh till they cry. With Emmy Debeuckelaer it was the other way round. In the deepest pit of her sorrow she suddenly felt immensely happy. What a morning. It was a morning on which she was the only glittering grain in the awe-inspiring mountain of variation that nature had managed to bring forth, not a type that would set the tone for future generations, but a sublime one-off. A gift is also an abnormality, went the cry of jubilation in Emmy’s chest cavity, and she even turned it around: an abnormality is also a gift. She felt a true and sovereign aristocrat that morning, and for a handful of mornings afterward, scattered untidily across a life that advanced just as quickly as anyone else’s. As for the beard, that remained.

"De vrouw met de baard " © Annelies Verbeke. By arrangement with De Geus. Translation  © 2014 Liz Waters. All rights reserved.