The Salt Gift

Elliot Gish

First you are three, running through your grandmother’s living room on chubby legs. The carpet is old enough that it provides very little traction for your feet in their frilly socks, and a sharp turn makes you stumble, twist, fall. Your chin catches the sharp edge of the television stand, and your flesh cleaves as easily to it as to a knife. You lie on the floor for a moment or two, too bewildered at first by your sudden misfortune to cry. Then you lift your head and see drops pattering down onto the dingy carpet, crimson soaking into the grey, and fill your lungs to shriek.

When the stitches are taken out, you are left with a little white seam underneath your chin, slightly raised to the touch. Your mother tries to scrub the carpet with club soda, but your grandmother stops her.

“This is her gift,” she says, and she touches two fingers to your chin, rubbing a thumb along the scar.

She’s an odd woman, your grandmother, but she rarely asks for anything, and so your mother shrugs and lets her have her way. The stain remains. You see it every time you visit and feel a twinge of pain.


Then you are six and the queen of the playground, looping easily across the monkey bars, going down the slide backwards and upside down. You can skip double Dutch and aren’t afraid to stand up on the swing, although you haven’t yet mustered the courage to jump when it reaches its apex, the way the most daring girls do. You watch them with awe and envy, coveting the free twists of their bodies in midair, the way they land in a triumphant scatter of gravel.

One day you are so busy watching them that you forget where you are and what you’re doing and stand motionless astride the seesaw, its saddle resting on the ground between your feet. Another child thinks that you are waiting for someone to play, and he jumps with a loud whoop onto the other end. The saddle flies up and hits you between the legs with the force of a hammer. You feel rather than hear something inside you snap like a rubber band. A sharp, surprised howl tears its way out of your throat without your knowledge or consent.

It takes you almost ten minutes to waddle awkwardly inside to the bathroom; it feels as though you have to go. When you get into the stall, you sit to pee and realize that there are little dribbles of red swirling in the water, bright as paint. Dizzy, sick, you lean your head against the partition and wonder who this gift is for.


At nine years old, you love to eat. You have a particular yen for sweet things: gummy worms, triple fudge ice cream, pistachio pudding, the Danish butter cookies your mother keeps for guests.

Your peers have already noticed that it does not do for a girl to be fond of food, which must be ingested with care and reluctance. Your ignorance alarms them. They take it upon themselves to alleviate it.

Their chance to do so comes, finally, at a birthday party when you reach for a second slice of cake. Suddenly half a dozen small pairs of eyes are on you, following the movements of your fork. The conversation, formerly pleasant enough, becomes pointed. One girl says that she is going shopping for a bathing suit soon and worries that she will be too fat to wear a two-piece. Another mentions her sister’s diet, which permits her only cottage cheese and celery. A third begins to talk about a girl from her hockey team, drawing vague curves in the air with her hands to demonstrate the shape of her body. It resembles your own, which is the relaxed and comfortable shape of a pear.

Someone giggles. Someone else makes a different kind of noise, meant to resemble the deep and mournful lowing of a cow.

You aren’t even halfway done your cake, but each bite is suddenly wet cement in your mouth. As though of its own volition, your fork falls onto your plate with a clatter. The eyes follow it; satisfied smiles are exchanged. The girl next to you pats your hand and says that it’s just as well. Sugar rots your teeth. Everyone knows that.

That night, after everyone else has fallen asleep, you stand in front of the mirror and brush your teeth with a kind of motorized fury, your hand moving so fast it blurs. Every curse word you know is circling in your head like water down a drain. There is copper on your tongue and the froth you spit into the sink is a delicate rose.

It feels strangely satisfying, this little act of violence. Your mouth has never been cleaner.


Twelve sees you wrecked by puberty, which is never kind to anyone but is, in your opinion, particularly cruel to you. Your body has become a stranger to you, an ever-changing lump of flesh that emits strange smells and always seems to ache. Your shoulders slump of their own accord. Your long hair hangs over your face in limp, greasy tangles; you will no longer let your mother braid it, cannot stand the feeling of anyone’s hands on your body. This is because of the boy who sits behind you in math class.

You have never spoken to this boy. When he sees you in the hall or cafeteria, he ignores you completely. But every day in math class, his focus suddenly sharpens, and his whole world narrows down to your body, laid out before him in all its chubby, awkward glory. He leans over his desk to breathe on the back of your neck, muttering obscenities that make you twitch. He drills a finger deep into the fat of your side. He pinches you with a strange rolling motion that leaves mottled bruises. You fail one quiz, then another, and your teacher begins to look at you with reproach.

You tell your mother about it one night, eyes fixed firmly on your plate as you push your cauliflower around and around in a circle. She smiles and tells you to take it as a compliment. Boys don’t know how to talk to girls, she says. It means that he likes you.

There is nothing in his gaze that leaves room for liking. There are no compliments hidden in his bony fingers slipping in your sweat, the hot stink of his breath on your neck.

One afternoon, in the middle of a lecture on probability, this boy slips his skinny fingers under the neck of your t-shirt, hunting for your bra strap. (You were the first girl in your class to wear a bra because she needed one, not because she wanted one; this did not go unnoticed.) He grabs the strap and pulls it back until it cracks against your skin. The sound of it is worse than the pain.

Your reaction is all body, no brain. The legs of your chair screech against the tiles as you thrust your seat back and turn to face him. Although he is tall when he stands, you tower over him while he sits. Looking down at him, you close your math textbook with a thunderous clap and hoist it in both hands. For a moment you hold it aloft like an avenging sword. Then you swing and hear the crunch of cartilage as his nose breaks and gushes.

There are consequences. None of them are pleasant. But every time you use that textbook for the rest of the year, you only need to glance down at the rusty stain on its edge to make yourself smile.


It feels as though you’ve been waiting to be fifteen all your life. Thirteen was unimportant, fourteen a joke, but fifteen is different; it has a glamour to it, a whiff of danger. Even the look of the number excites you, the one crowding close to the five, the five nestling snugly back.

Fifteen is the oldest you have ever been. That is true every time your birthday comes around, of course, but this year you feel the weight of all that time.

The day itself falls on a school night, but you beg and plead for your best friend to stay over the night before, and your parents acquiesce. The two of you keep each other awake with crude jokes and quiet fits of laughter, with music videos and energy drinks spiked with stolen vodka. The goal is to make it until midnight. You want to witness one day rolling over into the next.

It’s the days that make a difference, more than the years; the days are where the weight comes from. There have been five thousand four hundred and seventy-five of them so far.

With half an hour to go, your friend begins to talk about piercings. She does not have any, although she wants them, because her mother thinks that such things make girls look trashy and cheap. As an outlet, she makes a hobby of mapping imaginary holes onto your body, pointing out places that she thinks would be improved by a piece of metal. Today, her target of choice is your navel, that little pit in the soft pile of your belly. A belly ring, she declares, would be just the thing to celebrate your birthday.

Most of the time you just roll your eyes and ignore her, but today you are warm and content and a little drunk, and you tuck up the edge of your shirt and tell her to do it, do it now, before you lose your nerve.

A safety pin is found and sterilized with a disposable lighter. An odd hoop earring is retrieved from the darkest corner of your jewelry box, bent and reshaped to suit its new purpose. Your friend gives you the vodka and tells you to choke it down and count to three. You don’t even get to two before she pushes the pin through the spare half-inch of flesh there. For a moment, its progress slows, and you worry that it has gotten stuck, but then your friend grips your belly more firmly and forces it through with her thumbs. It makes a sickeningly meaty sound as it appears on the other side, silver gleaming through the olive of your skin.

It hurts, but not as much as you thought it would, and you admire your friend’s handiwork as she cleans the area with the last few dribbles of alcohol. The earring does not sit quite right, and you know it will probably fall out after you fall asleep, and that tomorrow there will be nothing to show for this but a tiny dimple in the shadow of your belly button. You cannot bring yourself to care.

“This is my gift,” you whisper, and watch as the blood wells up.