Hannah Rose Neuhauser

First, Then


It started when Beatrice’s boyfriend laced his fingers through her ribs, tightening her like a shoe. “I know it’s wrong, but I really like how small you are. Like, the fact that you are kind of anorexic turns me on.” They sat in front of a mirror together, a mirror she left tilted so everything lasted longer. It was the summer of sleep-sick days and sweating shadows. She hollowed out her stomach to cradle these words—they shone sugar-gold like slivers of nectarines.

At first, she just played with the sun. She lay on a striped lawn chair in a bra and underwear. Eyes opened until blue spots and black swirls. Her skin poisoned, blistered. She peeled raw, grapefruit-pink. The burn reminded her of chlorine and sno-cones. Her first lost tooth. Then she moved on to concrete. She dragged her limbs like bags of trash until they broke open, splitting sinew across the street. The pulp of skin and blood reminded her of Shock Tarts and Kool-Aid. Her first tampon. The sting of girlhood.  Her body became a pulse of road rash—but it wasn't enough.

In middle of the night, she unwrapped the sheets that scabbed on to her, reopening herself, a wound. She walked down to the dock and dangled her legs into the black. She watched her blood drip down her shins, a slow drool. Droplets bloomed black, quietly as an evening primrose. She waited. Silver circled the surface. First fins, then teeth. She sank into the gnaw at her ankles. The sharks were silent, efficient. Gray-bladed machines, buzzing like weed eaters. Beatrice pulled her legs to her chest and grinned at the moon-glint of bone. She returned to bed, skeleton exposed.


The Glass Dream  


My father was at the pool when my mother knew something was wrong with me. I imagine my mother called him, her vocal chords strung tight, a harp, a siren. I imagine my father sweeping my siblings, speaking in only periods and exclamation points. Water spilling onto concrete. Memory is often just a hypothesis. I have the variables now–I have seen my father, an electric wire, splintered thin, buzzing.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe this was a time when my father was a still body of water. Maybe we were the electric chords thrown into him, wrapping his ankles, like eels—a shock, a drain on energy.

Once we were at a science museum watching a show. My brother was pulled from the audience to place his hands on a silver orb. His hair leapt straight, assembling into sun rays around his face. I remember being terrified, thinking he was being shocked. Pain was an easy assumption for me.

My heart was born a house unfinished. Four rooms blueprinted, three rooms built. Now, these anomalies show up on ultrasounds, so expecting parents can worry early and prepare to see their child wheeled off and stitched together. As if it is something a parent can prepare for. I was my mother’s sixth child. She told me that she could sense something wrong. The body is honest that way.

When I was a few years old, I became obsessed with the movie Free Willy. I could tell you that the whale’s real name was Keiko, pronounced Kay-ko, not Kee-ko. I could point out the way Keiko’s dorsal fin drooped, a wilted stem—the toll of captivity.

I was kept clean from the sticky-hands and germs. My immune system was weakened. I immersed myself in the narratives of others. I made my father reenact scenes from Free Willy with me over and over. I cut out paper fish and wrapped them in newspaper. Imagined the oil-slick skin. Imagined placing my hand on the warm-pink plate of tongue, teeth running ragged mountains around.

When I was a baby in the hospital, the doctors tried to keep my mother from breastfeeding me. They told her that formula would be better. I was a finicky eater. My mother is made of salt and bone. She insisted, pushing back. Whales don’t have lips, they open their mouths wide beneath their mother, and milk shoots in.

As much as I loved the film story, I became equally as taken with Keiko’s story and whales being held in captivity. I found out that Keiko lived in an aquarium in Mexico. He wasn’t healthy. His skin was spotted with lesions. The ocean is a complex and balanced habit for the life it sustains, but here, in this tiny aquarium, they poured salt into the too-warm water. He festered, soured.

The glass shatters. My mother is an aquarium, cracked and strong, feral.

That year, I was sent to Boston Children’s Hospital for another surgery with one of the best cardiologists in the country. IVs slipped under my skin. I remember liking the cold spreading through my currents. I didn’t know, but my parents were applying to get dream granted to me through an organization called Dream Factory. They granted dreams to children who were facing life-threatening illnesses. My first wish was to get a pony—I suppose my imagination had limits within reality. My parents encouraged me to choose something else.

I used to dream about Keiko being trapped in a tiny, dingy, off-white pool. It was in an old building, at the bottom of stairs. The water, grayish. Keiko, wilted, feeble-voiced, a tired harp. I would wake in sweat.

Eventually, Oregon Coast Aquarium offered to build a state-of-the-art aquarium to nurse Keiko back to health. When I was six years old, Keiko was airlifted to his new home.

My second request was to meet Keiko and see the Redwood forest. I was warned that because Keiko was being rehabilitated to be able to survive in the wild again, they were limiting his human contact so I would be unable to actually touch him. The only human contact he had was daily blood work—I understood this, all too well. I asked if I could instead play my violin for him.

My doctor had invented a tiny implant that opened into the hole in my heart, like a tiny umbrella. It was still in the trial phase, only tried on a few. They showed me the tiny fiber and metal contraption—describing it as a oyster, an umbrella, a parachute. I imagined a flower blooming in my heart. I had to avoid magnets until fiber formed a protective layer around the metal. Ivy overgrown.

Our trip was planned for us—our whole family was getting a vacation to Oregon and California. A limo arrived to pick us up and take us to the airport. This memory is yellow and floral. I felt like I had finally brought some good to my family, instead of being a constant distraction, a drain.

Looking back, it can be hard to remember what is not captured. I remember white hotel mornings, excitedly trying to drag my sister out of bed, and Strawberry Fields Forever on loop, down ocean-lit highways. Let me take you down.

Keiko was turned free off the coast of Iceland. He struggled with independance, wanting the human interaction he had become so accustomed to. He swam over eight-hundred miles to Norway, looking for a hand. He never became truly independent—relying on people to feed him.

I stood in the black and blue, violin under my chin. Keiko nosed the glass, drawn to my bow—a black smudge, a chord, a moment of taken breath. A dream spun out in half notes. My doctor turns up the volume on my ultrasound. My blood is a rush. A cardiac swoosh.

Keiko’s lungs gave out as I grew pinker. Underwater, we are salt-softened glass, breaking quietly.

Hannah Rose Neuhauser lives in Louisville, KY. She works at Young Authors Greenhouse, a non-profit that inspires students to grow their imaginations through writing. Her work has appeared in apt, Luna Luna, Maudlin House, The Collagist, and So to Speak. She once had a very bad pony who also had a floral name. Hannah Rose tweets @velvetraccoon. 

JD Thornton