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Category Archives: Proserpina

Someday, perhaps, I will stop writing stories about dangerous little girls.


Everybody knows how Proserpina Macnair won three bouts against three pros with three right hooks all in one day, in her shirtwaist; if you want that story you can read the papers. But that’s after she came to town with the seal already dry on her degree. What you don’t hear is how she earned the title of Radcliffe Professor of Self-Defensive Sciences, Ph.D., or what it cost her, or why she wanted it so badly. You don’t hear about where or how she got that hammerhanded hook. You don’t hear about her faded black tattoos.

Unless you ask nice.


Proserpina was not, as they gossip, a tomboy raised by kangaroos; hers was a family of declining means from Northborough and she never gadded about in overalls. She was a model young lady, and earned her days at the nickelodeon by tying her preferred hand behind her back.

Once, sitting with her father in that cramped theater, she watched a reel about “Yellow Tom, the Chinaman practitioner of Chow Lin Kung Foo.” He was short, with strange eyes. He put his fist through six boards; and while the whole audience gasped, only Proserpina saw that he struck with his left hand.


One November day, at the age of eleven, Proserpina got a hammer from the servants’ quarters and broke the tabs for most of the keys on her mother’s new Baldwin upright piano. Her mother, quite unprepared for the discipline required–she had not punished Proserpina in years–broke her right wrist. Forbidden to write with her left hand, Proserpina was withdrawn from school for the remainder of the term. She spent it in the solarium, pensive, wrapped in a blanket with hot bricks at her feet.

The hammer hadn’t touched the keys. Not once. She sucked the scabs on her knuckles.


Proserpina’s father dies attempting to install one of the new electrical light bulbs; the handyman whispers to her, over a shared cigarette, that he didn’t dance and scream the way people who die of electrocution are said to do. He opened his eyes very wide, arched his back and stood still.

After the funeral she goes to the basement and hits six boards until she opens up all the old scars on her right hand, until her wrist shoots red lines up to her shoulder. She wants to switch to her left hand, but she can’t make it form a fist.


Proserpina’s father provided for her education, and at thirteen she stands on a platform, waiting for the train to boarding school. Her mother, who attended the same school, runs the fob chain of her late husband’s watch through her hands again and again. She wishes he hadn’t wanted this.

Proserpina is typically stoic. She’s read enough about boarding school to understand that it is a kind of doom; that bright girls, and those not naturally cruel, are sausage filling. She is bright and kind. But she won’t be scrap meat.

Her mother shivers when they kiss goodbye: Proserpina’s lips are cold.


But when Proserpina arrives she finds no villains, no cold and haughty packs: just girls, nervous and homesick and trying to scrape together a little armor. The first night, she stays up sewing little button bunnies out of her socks and stuffing them with paper. She leaves them on bedfeet, and notices that not a few girls keep them, and cry less. She and a girl named Iala laugh at whoever was silly enough to use up all her socks that way. She has a friend.

She borrows one sock from each of her dormmates; nobody ever notices that they’re mismatched.


Most of Proserpina’s school is empty. The fact is hidden, badly, by the strategic closing of whole halls under “Renovation And Improvement” tarpaulins–no barrier to a girl who charms the maintenance staff. There is no renovation. Public schools are snapping up the private, wing by wing.

She doesn’t have the ring-punch for a proper lace and she’s only seen them in filmstrips anyhow, but Proserpina does manage to sew one tarp into a rough cylinder and stuff it with sawdust and filched oatmeal. She hangs it from a “renovation” scaffold. She strips down to her shift, and squares up.


The first thing she figures out is that punching bags don’t work like that. You’re supposed to have someone to hold them for you, or they swing around and there’s no way to finish even a short combination.

Boxing trainers being in short supply at girls’ boarding schools, Proserpina begins to consider conspirators. Most of her classmates are plainly unsuitable, but there is one close-mouthed girl who watches everything with long dark eyes. Tall enough to hold a bag, and sure-footed in field hockey. A glint of rebellion. An ironic wit.

The other girl’s name, she learns, is Radiane.


Proserpina and Iala have been friends since their second day, and each has found this useful: Proserpina is most confident of the new girls, Iala the best at charming their elders. Between them they have half the school in their jumper pockets.

Radiane seems to have only one friend, an apple-cheeked second-year named Georgette; they eat lunch and do assignments together. Proserpina mentions to Iala, casually, that they should talk with Georgette more. Doesn’t she seem like a darling? Lucky there’s a space at their table.

Radiane eats alone after that, looking cool and bored and never their way.


Proserpina wakes to a sticky wetness between her legs. In the moonlight, her left hand comes away black.

But she’s read books, and doesn’t panic: she gathers her ruined nightdress and pads down to the nurse’s office, left unlocked for just this purpose. The clean cotton napkins are reassuring. Her nose itches. She touches it.

Her clean hand is black too. Dripping. Blood in her throat like bubbles in milk, rush like the ocean, the floor so slippery–

She wakes again, not cold, not sweating. It’s almost gone. Proserpina tries to hold it, that vision dimming, the final sense of relief.