Perfect as a shell

for Olga Masters

When I was younger, I would look at my body in the mirror when I got up in the morning, between taking off my pyjamas and getting in the shower. I would drop the flannel pants and then my undies, letting my smell fill my nostrils. It was my body – it still is, though it’s a different body now – and I liked to remind myself of that as I faced my reflection and slid my hands down either side of my torso and across my hipbones, into the modest forest below. I would do the same at night before I went to sleep: clothes from the day discarded, hands exploring.

When I was younger, I lived with my sister and we had no parents. One had died (my mother, tragically, after she was stung by every bee in a nest, when I was 10) and the other had disappeared (my father, and not necessarily in the classic abandonment sort of way – he had been bushwalking with friends when my mother was pregnant with me, early one morning wandered away from the camp site alone, and was never found). My sister was nine years older than me – I was the fluke, the accident, or she was.

I didn’t understand that bodies could feel so many different things. Most of the time I was numb, in a blithe sort of way. My mother’s death hushed me. Most evenings my sister was busy with her trinkets and making up her face in the gilded mirror in her bedroom. She left the house at dusk and stayed out late. I would watch television, making myself stay on one channel no matter what came on. It was a test of willpower and endurance, and I was proud of myself when I withstood the boredom. To this day I can tell you the schedule of the commercial channels from Monday to Friday through most of the 1980s.

I loved television, but I loved looking at myself in the mirror even more, because it was real.

One evening, my sister burst into my room without knocking. She had been preening herself, and I had assumed she would just click on out the door without saying goodbye, as she usually did. That night was different. I was standing naked in front of the mirror, exploring my belly button.

When I wriggled my little finger around inside the puckered hole and pulled it out, it had a very particular smell, like cheese, or sunken-cheeked fruit, or blood and bone. I didn’t remember much of what my mother used to say to me before she died, all puffed up and covered in welts in a hospital bed, but she did tell me once that my belly button was as perfect as a shell.

The swell of my sister’s perfume reached me before her voice did. “What are you doing!” she shouted. I looked down at my nudity and didn’t know how to explain. “Put some clothes on!”

We stood still, both of us – me in my nudity and she in her disguise – and then she huffed and flounced and shook her mane.

“I’m going out,” she told me, turning on her heel.

I had my first orgasm that night, in my soft bed, spread out like a starfish under all the layers. I imagined my vulva was a powerful glowing bulb that needed to be rubbed down its middle until it was bright pink, instead of its usual colour, the pale of a scallop shell. I thought of other people’s bodies, and the different-coloured bulbs they would all have, under their clothes, down there. Their very own fruits, and their own perfect belly buttons, like nests, or pearls. I rubbed faster and faster, until my fruit burst and leaked onto the sheets, the pink light shining through the whole of me.

When I was younger, no one taught me how to understand shame. Instead, they spoke around it, at me, no doubt imagining I would understand that I was soiled and behave accordingly. I did, scooping up the words with my fingers and smoothing them all over myself, until I was covered in them.

Soon after the night when my sister saw me, I undid that habit of admiring my body in the mirror, of trying to know what it was and to understand it.

It wasn’t my sister’s fault. She didn’t mean me harm. She had grown up in the same scared world as I had, and we were girls becoming women in that world. 

Laura McPhee-Browne is a writer and social worker living in Melbourne, and the author of the novel Cherry Beach.

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