Harrowing by Natalie Coufal

Featured Image: “Voices” by Fierce Sonia

In the black-and-white photo I hold, Dad delivers his salutatorian speech to a small crowd. Dated May 1959, the picture is unremarkable except for Dad’s skeletal hands clutching the podium. Moon-white and sunken, he faces the camera as if embarking on a death march. He’s crafted a fine invocation, but he has no words for his condition. Neither does his daddy. Anorexia does not yet exist, so my Grandpa’s a pioneer, harrowing new fields of unbroken land. Nobody’s gonna hire you, looking like that. Grandpa threatens to beat his ass behind the barn if he can’t do better.

My Grandpa first supplements the family farm with some part-time carpentry work, then later, a full-time job at the furniture factory in town, giving up on cotton entirely. Dad survives his curious folly and finds a job at the stock brokerage office in Houston. He even meets a pretty, blonde girl in bookkeeping. They marry and Annie and Pollie are born, the first set of twins. Then ’81 the recession comes and so does the second set of twins, Steph and me. Everyone in town comments on how remarkable we are. Granny and Grandpa are so proud. A heart attack claims Grandpa at the age of sixty-four. Everything dies eventually though he’s left his mark here on this earth.

In ’94 when we are thirteen, Steph withers to eighty-four pounds; my folks do not seek medical help. I begin to wonder if my sister will die. Dad takes Steph and me for a drive one day. He pulls into the car dealership and points out a car he has been eyeing. The family needs a new vehicle. The Oldsmobile is on its last leg. But Dad and Mom are waiting to see how Steph does, if they will have to use the money for medical bills. So are you going to do better or not? Dad passes on the home remedy, Grandpa’s voice rippling through time.

My sister survives though the illness will return stronger in adulthood. A recurring dream plagues my sleep over the years: she is anorexic again. The blue vein of her forehead, the jutting cheekbones, and the shape of her ribcage haunt me. My dreams resemble the Holocaust pictures in my history textbook. We grow up, go to college, and get married. The dreams persist. In 2010, I become a mother. Steph is there with me in the delivery room as I give birth to a daughter.

My motherhood pivots the universe. All things reversed, Dad’s voice ricochets back to me: Are you going to do better or not? It’s omnipresent in the house as I rock my baby. I educate myself. I read about symptoms, warning signs, toxicities from Western culture while my newborn naps. I banish Barbies from the house. I cook wholesome Pioneer Woman recipes. I Google therapists near me. All things must die, and everything’s depending on it. As my daughter grows, my father’s words morph into some terrible machinery with teeth and claws, ready to tear into new terrain.


Natalie Coufal is a nonfiction and fiction writer from rural Central Texas. She is pursuing her M.F.A. in Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing at Sam Houston State University where she has received a fellowship. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Prose Online, Burningword Literary Journal, Glassworks, 100 Word Story, Touchstone Literary Journal, Passengers Journal, Prometheus Dreaming and others.

Fierce Sonia is a mixed media artist. She builds a substrate with acrylic paint and collage. A narrative is constructed by the tension between the lush layers moving to dreamy feminine  mindscapes with a brighter palette. If you listen closely her work has a soundtrack, a rhythm, a pulse that will give you a magic carpet ride to a fairytale that restates your own heartbeat. She has a public studio at Torpedo Factory: 105 North Union Street, studio 5 Alexandria, VA 22303

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