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Psalm 23: A Translation

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want...

     except to meet my flock, for I have spent years alone with or without friends, and then there it is, my flock? these women--locked behind two sets of double doors in a kind of sanctuary, starving to death like I am. Pain so deep has eaten away all but our breath, our hair filling our brushes and shower drains the way we have filled our plates with nothing but carrots and mustard. The way we have filled our time worrying over the carrots and mustard. The way we reach down our throats and extract the carrots to the point of bleeding because we have dug our nails so deeply into our stomachs. The blood provides a strange kind of comfort because we become aware that we are able to bleed—something we have missed with the passing of full moons tugging hard on our infertile wombs.

     We are together now, sizing each other up, which doesn't take long because none of us weighs more than 90 pounds, and together we form a flock now sanctuaried from those who misunderstand. We huddle close together, and we pray before meals, closing our eyes and turning inward to find the strength to move through an entrée, two sides, and a caloric beverage, comforted by the warmth of each other's thin wool.

He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters....

     to sleep; everybody in bed except Ashley, toweling her hair dr y, and me, waiting in the semi-dark to feel a stirring of the soul like a fish in its school, like a grasshopper in its grasses, waiting for a message from God as though this were a church. I find the walls hold only the echo of hollow hunger s from the past. The walls only know what they know and they do not know if those hunger s were ever satisfied.

     Ashley folds herself into a chair, tucking her legs under her in that way that all of us have since we've devoured our own muscles, our tendons and ligaments stretched. We bad-mouth the night nurse because he did not give me my pain medicine and earlier, he watched Ashley pee. We laugh about the early morning nurse who says, "Top 'o the mornin' to ya" and remembers the names of our stuffed animals.

     And then Ashley says, "Why do you want to get well," and I say, "I miss the way my breasts used to look." She laughs, "What?" I tell her that I used to have the most beautiful breasts, so beautiful, in fact, that I could have made a lot of money if there were contests for such a thing. "But now," I say, "they're all shriveled like giant raisins." We laugh and laugh until the night nurse hushes us. "I want to get well so I can have kids," Ashley yawns. "Although, even if I can have kids someday, I'm not sure my husband will want to. He said that he's afraid to have children with a woman as sick as I've been. He says he doesn't want his children to watch their mother act like this."

     She falls asleep, her breathing slow and steady, her legs still folded under her. I watch her, stinging with the grief she has felt—grief that I feel when I look toward the rest of my life, a long life if I survive this, and acknowledge that my list of arthritises and syndromes that have led to here will not go away. They have had seven years to go away. I will die before I give them anymore of my life.

     I go to my room and pray prayers that don't make sense, hypocritical prayers, desperate prayers, feverish and poetic prayers, prayers that lack faith and hope, and then prayers more confident than tomorrow's sunrise. I sob and the prayers run down my cheeks.
     I pray myself to sleep.

He restoreth my soul...

     through the sudden, vivid demanding awareness of the body as animal, the human animal, the human species operating through DNA and the basic needs of ever y animal: sleep, air, water, sex, and food. By defeating the need for food, we increase our need for water because, we're told, a great deal of our hydration happens through food. We decrease our need for sleep because we are living on strange, chaotic energy; and we either act out through sex or repress ourselves into a terrible shyness? the kind of shyness that is appropriate for girls, not women.

     But air, ah, air, we take it in and try to fill ourselves up with it because we have been holding in our bellies for so long that we have forgotten how to breathe, how to truly breathe. We begin to heal by breathing and praying, breathing and praying...and then we complete one meal, two meals—breakfast, lunch, dinner, snack—and Ashley,
who has been sanctuaried more times than the rest of us and has already survived one heart attack, whispers, "Good job" in our ears and gives us her wise smile, proud and strong. She takes her empty tray to the cart that gets rolled back to the kitchen. The rest of us follow her, mimicking the way she holds her head high, like a queen.

     It happens to be Memorial Day when my soul stirs and considers terminating my body. The male night nurse we hate becomes the morning nurse and he doesn't care about our stuffed animals. He is in my room to get my weight and vitals. I pass out over and over, unable to maintain consciousness and the eerie vacuum around me fills with whisper-yells: "Do you see what you've done? Do you see where this has brought you? You might not make it to breakfast, young lady! Why did you choose to do this to yourself? Can't you see how stupid this is--how useless this is when it comes to the rest of your life?"

     At some point, I wake up long enough to find the tops of my feet dragging behind me across the floor, the rest of me held up by strong hands under the armpits. I will never remember to ask them where they're taking me.

     Much later, I wake up again, and my doctor's sitting next to my bed. She is beautiful the way Aphrodite must have been. She smiles, "You had a tough start this morning. A close call, actually." I nod and sit up. My heart keeps skipping, an uncomfortable and foreign feeling. I tell her about it. She says, "I have no doubt. You will be on bed rest most of the day, but I want you to go to a few of the Groups of your choice. It'll be good for your digestive system. I'll be back to check on you tomorrow."

     I walk into Group late. Ashley interrupts ever ything and starts applauding me. "Well, if it isn't Lazarus!" I sit down next to her. "How're you feeling?" she says. I give her my most disgusted look. She laughs and hugs me and I know that she will tease me the rest of the day.

He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name's sake...

     I choose to blame no one: not the shepherd in my mind that makes me slide my finger down my throat and turn down meals, not the societal expectations of size zero women, not the glossy models in magazines, not the bullies of my childhood. I choose not to blame myself either because this is a way to cope with everything else. If I am hungry enough, I won't feel the pain in my muscles or the way my legs bow, or the crushed disk in my neck. My spine curves with scoliosis. If I shrink my body enough, there won't be enough of it left to feel these things.

     Some of the girls color in coloring books with crayons, markers; one girl has brought a box of pastels with her and her pictures turn out more like paintings with the sunsets she adds. Ashley listens to church sermons through earphones on her laptop, and I watch how her face changes from her jaw set with determination to rubbing her eyes with fatigue. I pray, and then the prayers turn toward my notebook, which I abandoned earlier in the week because it made me tired just to sit there considering what to write down when there is no understanding for anything, no explanation for anything, no reconciliation with my body or my future. There is all that white space staring at me the way I pictured my future to be staring at me--eyes with no pupils that could somehow see everything. This is the middle of a horror movie. Later, Ashley says, "We have created God in our image. What should we do about it?" I tell her how many false starts God and I have had all because I don't know who to look for, what to look for, which is why I read. In every book, somewhere, there is a Who, What, When, Where, and Why.

    I am always looking for Why, a nasty little word because its very existence implies that meaning exists in everything; and if there's meaning, there is a god—a god who has given me some kind of commission on this planet.


     Eventually, we depart and disperse back to our own little pieces of Earth, our little claims of Home. Although it seems as humans— a word we have begun to understand— we are always homesick even at home. "We have created God in our
image. What should we do about it?" It doesn't take much to get haunted while away from the sanctuary.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death...

     With Ashley's encouragement, I gain weight: 10, 20, 30, 40 pounds, my breasts filling out again. I write poetry. Bad poems, poems that used to be (and probably should still be) prayers. Poems fall from my eyelashes and get absorbed by pillows. Poems that have not been born get flushed down the toilet when I reach down my throat and extract my sadness to the point of bleeding because I have dug my fingernails so deeply into my stomach; but now I realize my mistake. Poems bleed from my womb as though born inside the millions of eggs I have carried my whole life—eggs that will not be fertilized, eggs that have no purpose other than to satisfy the moon's tug. Poems slide down my hair and into the shower drain. Poems coat my lips when I moisten them with my tongue.

     And then, from her husband: "Ashley passed away in her sleep."

I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me...

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.

     At the dining room table of my mother's house, I stare out the window and question. Why? Why didn't the Lamb of God run for His life? Why didn't His father intervene? How scared was Mary when the angel told her what she was to do?

     Why am I the one who survived?

     My Pappap, a neuropsychologist and minister, tells me that answers aren't important. What is important: asking the right questions, which I have failed to do, and he won't tell me the answers.

     Anger consumes me and I want to turn my face away from these meals, but I can't because Ashley's death has guilted me into Recovery.
     I am not allowed to have anorexia.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life...

     Recovery. If Recovery is a pasture, it has many trees skirting it. If Recovery is a still stream, it has many leaves floating on the top. And if Recovery is a young woman, she has a new self-definition, a new self-image, a new mantra, a new way of

     If Recovery is a young woman, she has a new Self, buried and forgotten, pushed under by men for thousands of years in an effort to shut out the female part of God, the Goddess, the soft voice that whispers, "Good job" in our ears, the thick wool that clothes us and provides warmth for other Selves, the Shepherdess who claims us when we breathe deep and watch our bellies—bellies chubby since our illness. The Shepherdess tells us to not be ashamed.

     My mother says, "Ashley is still with you, but you need to accept her in her new form of energy." I believe this. I believe and brush the poems from my hair, clean the brush, and put the poems in an envelope for later, cut my hair, donate it to women who cannot keep warm under thin wool. I believe and eat poems with my fork and spoon, cutting poems with my knife, re-arrange them inside me, tell myself, "Good job." I believe and pray feverish prayer s of gratitude. I believe and whisper to the air I breathe that is Ashley. I fill my chubby belly with her scent. I believe and feel my soul restored.

And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever...

The house of the Lord, I imagine, has a bounty of questions that are correct in their nature. I want to wade through them, cup them in my hands and rinse my face, my hair, with them. I want to splash my flock with them so they too recover.

     I tell myself, "Good job" and create my own mission on this planet. It is a mission of meaning and health, of truth and virtue. It is a mission of restoration. It is a mission of growth—something Ashley wanted, a theory with which she didn't know how to experiment, but taught me her philosophy.

     So many people have saved my life, and the only safe ground in sight lay out of the pasture and into the sunset. To leave a flock is difficult, but to stay is deadly.

     And I think they knew this. How else could they have transformed into a memory with such grace and mercy?


published in Snapdragon Journal, Spring 2016

Megan Henson received her MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Kentucky. She has two collections of poetry out: "What Pain Does" and "Little Girl Gray"

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