The Rugged Track
By Liz Argall
1 August 2011
Part 1 of 2
Once upon a time there was a plucky young woman called Princess Bite. She loved to roller-skate, and Roller Derby was her community.
Her mother, Lady Push Comes to Shove, had felt her daughter jamming from inside the womb.
"I had to keep the sounds of whistles away from you," Lady Shove would say as she helped Princess Bite into her aqua and purple quads. "The slightest peep and you were off, bouncing around my insides like the joyous devil you are. The only way I could get you to be quiet was to zoom around the track."
Princess Bite learned to skate as she learned how to walk. Lady Push Comes to Shove and Princess Bite would hurtle around the track so fast it felt like flying. Princess Bite and Lady Shove skated together every day until Lady Shove's illness made it too difficult and painful.
Princess Bite loved everything about Roller Derby. She even loved cleaning up after a game, sweeping the floor with a broom twice her size, coiling cables and emptying endless garbage cans. Princess Bite loved the spectacle, the makeup, the glitter and ferocity. She loved crashing into people and trying to keep her feet when they crashed into her. She loved watching the teams train and playing with the other kids of roller mums.
Princess Bite and her three best friends (Icy France, Bitto Biffo, and Jugular) took turns pretending to be great jammers and blockers like Queen Cartilage, Snow Fight, and Speed Shark as they waited to grow up and be on teams of their own.
When Princess Bite was little, Lady Push Comes to Shove was a coach for one of the nicest teams in the league, the Pussycat Posse. Lady Shove was the second-greatest coach of all time, and her former-now-estranged skating partner, Fierce Fairy, was the greatest coach that had ever been and ever would be. Fierce Fairy refused to coach anymore—Fierce Fairy's team always won, and that made the games kinda boring. Fierce Fairy also had magical powers and the ability to grant wishes, and that made people uncomfortable.
Fierce Fairy had retreated to an island of desolation before Princess Bite was born, out of fear that an accidental word of advice would change the fortunes of entire teams. Fierce Fairy still logged in to the chat room every bout, but never posted a single comment. Still, it was nice to know Fierce Fairy was still watching over them and caring, no matter how far away.
Lady Shove had been dying since before Princess Bite was born. At first she had been dying secretly, but as Princess Bite grew older she was less able to hide her slow decay. Lady Shove had encephadaknes, a mysterious degenerative disease that occurred only in men. This was deeply unfair, as Lady Shove had never thought of herself as a man, and she had shed that awkward seeming when she was twenty-five years old, six years before Princess Bite was even born. Princess Bite often railed against the unfairness of it all. Lady Shove would shrug her shoulders and say that was just the way it was, but it still made Princess Bite very cross indeed and often quite sad.
As Lady Shove's illness progressed, she was only able to coach from the sidelines—no longer skating with the pack to work them through difficult drills and exciting new plays. She had trouble saying words sometimes and developed a kind of stutter that did not give justice to her skills. At times she would leave the rink to cry in secret, though everybody knew why.
By the time Princess Bite was old enough to join the Bacon Bootcamp, Lady Shove needed to use a walking frame to get to practice. Lady Shove was told to get a wheelchair, but she wanted to use her body as much as possible. Lady Shove spent all her energy getting to practice, too exhausted to say a word and almost too tired to get home. In time, she was too tired and shaken to pieces to come to practice at all, and very quickly after that she struggled to get out of bed. Sometimes Princess Bite found her mother collapsed in the kitchen or bathroom, unable to perform the simplest task.
One day, as Princess Bite was trying to shove her grown-too-big feet into her beloved battered skates, her mother handed her a clumsily wrapped box, the thick ribbon lopsided and drooping.
"H-Here," said Lady Shove. "Y-You're almost . . . full grown now."
Lady Shove sat down, the hand that trembled the most pushed down by her steadier hand, as she watched Princess Bite open the box. Princess Bite removed the lid carefully, the intensity of her mother's gaze making her own hands tremble; and there inside were Lady Shove's best and bravest roller skates.
Princess Bite ran her fingers slowly over the leather. "But these are yours!"
"I won't s-skate again."
"Skating, it's what you are. It's what we are."
Lady Shove looked up and away to the north. "I can . . . hardly walk. I will not s-skate again." And they wept tears that cut their lungs with glass-sharp regret; knowing it was the truth, knowing they would never skate together again.
The day Princess Bite graduated from Fresh Meat and joined a team of her own (the Kill'n Kittens) was one of the happiest days of her life.
Princess Bite was not the best player on the team, but she knew how to go fast, stop quickly, and slide sideways into other people; and, most importantly, she loved the game and got better all the time. Princess Bite practiced almost every day and skated everywhere in her beloved quads.
Princess Bite's life revolved around Derby, working to supplement her mother's disability pension, and caring for her mother. There was no time for anything else but sleep. Lady Shove had bad days and good days. Most good days led to worse days of exhausted recovery, and Princess Bite grew to fear the good days as much as the bad.
When the Kill'n Kittens (with Princess Bite as Co-Captain) and the Pussycat Posse faced off against each other in the finals of the Menagerie Massacre, Lady Shove MCed the entire event. Lady Shove was resplendent in a wheelchair decked out to be a throne, and her repartee was so hilarious, pun-tastic, and rippling with sexual innuendo that fans became afraid of drinking in case beer would spurt out their noses, and a zebra wet himself with laughter. It was a glorious day, writ into the annals of Derby history.
Using the wheelchair had bought Lady Shove extra energy and delight during the Massacre, but surrounded by such fine friends and soaring on the joy of the crowd she could not help but spend every ounce of energy she had. Only Bite and Shove knew of the long days spent recovering afterwards—days when Lady Shove found drinking barley water almost too painful to bear, and food impossible. Her body ached in a fever dream of constant pain, and she hallucinated that her bones had pushed all the way through her tissue-thin skin.
Time passed fast and slow, blurring in heart-pounding lurches, dissolving into puddles. There were exultant days of energy like a skipping stone, hoping to bound to the farther shore of lasting well-being. And days of sinking deep into water, tiptoeing days where Lady Shove's exhausted sleeping form, hidden behind her bedroom door, filled the house with a miasma that made Princess Bite's vision blur and encephadaknes seem contagious. Days, months, and weeks became indistinguishable, marked only by Princess Bite's growing body and the giddy punctuation marks of home, regional, national, and international Roller Derby championships.
Princess Bite's only break from her mother's slow disintegration was playing on the Kill'n Kittens travel team. They travelled across the country in joyful competition with the Sisterhood of Derby, from Radelaide to Razor City. Princess Bite would return refreshed by her travels. And sometimes the giddy pleasure of experiencing a bigger life made returning painful—the duties of a caregiver closing around her, choking out the light and turning love into a vise. On those days Princess Bite hurled herself into practice homicidally, the shake and shudder of flesh slamming against flesh giving her a brief reprieve from the shake and shudder of her mother's tremors.
"I'm sorry, baby doll," her mother would say. Words would come slowly, in awkward bursts and roundabout ways, words like round stones stuck in her mouth, rolling heavily on her tongue, at last ejected in a burst only to falter again.
Princess Bite would blur out the faltering stutter and struggle to find sounds, willing the words into one liquid sentence, the way it was supposed to be.
"I've been dying since before you were born," said Lady Shove. "It was selfish of me to have you, knowing you'd have to put up with me. I hope you don't mind."
Princess Bite would squeeze her mother's hand and say in word and gesture it was all okay and she wouldn't change anything for the world. They would lean against each other on the couch, Lady Shove exhausted by speaking, Princess Bite exhausted by listening.
One hot and humid day when it was too warm to do anything, Princess Bite was going through old memorabilia: the booties and lost teeth of her childhood, her mother's old team photos of the Pussycat Posse. Princess Bite had many happy memories of flipping through these albums with Lady Shove. They used to curl up on the battered couch on the veranda, exploring moments captured and idly slapping at insects that wriggled their way through the holes in the mosquito net. Not wanting the warm glow of remembrance to fade, Princess Bite delved into the older, stranger, and less frequented photo albums. It was always weird to see photos of her mother as a young man and very strange to see her grandmother and grandfather as beautiful young people. She laughed to see her mother skating around the rink as a man; she looked so odd and stupid! Princess Bite flipped through the pages, watching her mother's sometimes awkward transition and transformation.
Her favourite photo, as the joyous endnote on the back page of the album, was of Lady Shove finally in her true form. The photo was from a championship promotional poster of "The Clash of the Titans": the two best teams in flat track Derby going into battle. Fierce Fairy and Lady Shove faced off against each other nose to nose; you couldn't tell whether they were going to kill each other or kiss. Princess Bite pulled the photo out of the album, peeling back the yellowing plastic of the sticky page, thinking perhaps to scan and duplicate the image, but mostly to hold it in her hands. This was a memento of a time before, when her mother was well and Fierce Fairy had not retreated to an island of desolation. She flipped the photograph carefully, holding it by the edges. On the other side she saw the looping handwriting of Fierce Fairy. She recognized that distinctive scrawl immediately; that signature exponentially increased the value of posters and cards, and was even tattooed on a few girls. The note said:
Dearest Lady Shove,
It is not too late to change back. All wishes have their cost. Let me unmake the wish, let me unmake the consequence. This wish may change your body, but it will take your body too, piece by piece. Please my dearest friend, if I cannot unmake this wish I shall leave the track and never meddle in the affairs of mortals again. Abandoning my love, my fondest family, my brutal beauties for shame of it.
Please, think it over, or piece by piece we will lose you. I cannot bear it and I cannot bear that it will be my doing.
Princess Bite ran to Lady Shove, photograph in hand; her mother a small tired figure reclining on veranda couch, jacaranda blossoms crushed and slippery on the deck.
"Mother! Can we unmake it? Please? We can ask Fierce Fairy, it might not be too late!"
Lady Shove leapt up and ripped the photograph into pieces. Fragments scattered across the floor, a nose here, an ear there; Lady Shove falling with them.
"N-Never," she wheezed, her breath harsh as ice. "Don't ever, ever, suggest it."
Princess Bite sat down next to her, mournfully collecting the broken pieces as she sat.
"I didn't mean to upset you," said Princess Bite.
"It's the most important wish I ever made. I could never undo it."
Princess Bite thought but did not say, More important than living a life where you can skate and have fearless energy? More important than being well for me?
"I love you," said Princess Bite, curling against her mother. She felt the evening breeze from the sea come in like cool fingers brushing their temples.
Her mother started to say the same in response but got stuck, and Princess Bite finished the words for her.
Lady Shove took a slow, ragged breath and said lightly, "If I died, you would be free."
Sometimes Princess Bite thought the same thing. And sometimes she woke in a cold sweat, full of fear that her mother was gone, too soon, much too soon.
"And miss these mother-daughter moments? Are you crazy?" Princess Bite laughed. Lady Shove wheezed and giggled in response. They chuckled, holding each other and wiping tears from their eyes until the sun went down, drawing light from the sky on a day that was over and would never come again.
The next day at practice Princess Bite asked if anyone knew which island of desolation Fierce Fairy was on.
Icy France said, "Now, now, that's not fair, Princess Bite. I know you want to be the best, but trying to get coaching from Fierce Fairy is just not the way to do it. You're not the first to have tried it, you know."
Bitto Biffo said, "Dunno."
And Jugular said, "Hell no! Do you think it would be a very good retreat from the world and everything if we all knew which one it was? If Fierce Fairy wants to be left alone, you leave Fierce Fairy alone."
The following day, Princess Bite shaved her head and told her mother she was going to train with the skating nuns of Fa A Wei. Her mother squeezed her hand and said, "It's good. It is time to have a life of your own."
Princess Bite bit her tongue and did not reveal her true motive as she prepared to travel. Jugular, Bitto Biffo, and Icy France, seeing the burning need in Bite's eyes and cracked voice, swore that Lady Shove would never go without care, even if it took the whole league to do it. Princess Bite's heart rattled as if filled with blown ball bearings, as she skated out into the world to find Fierce Fairy. She swore by the sky above, the speed in her skates, and the rugged track before her that she would save her mother, no matter the cost.
Princess Bite skated across mountains and deserts, slippery ice and salt-encrusted sand, catching the ferries, trains, and buses out to the multitudinous islands of desolation. Sometimes she slept underneath the sky. When she got to cities and towns she stayed with women of Roller Derby, who always found space for her somewhere. They fed her, helped her repair her skates, played in a scrimmage or two; and then she would go, looking for the right desolation.
She became a skater of legend, mysteriously appearing and disappearing as she traversed the globe. She won Queen Cartilage's Shield at the Terrible Tourney, saved Snow Fight from the pernicious East Coast plate saboteurs, and helped Speed Shark return the Horrible Harpies to their former glory.
Sometimes Princess Bite visited in a town with skaters so fine and friends so dear she was tempted to stay a while, and sometimes she did for a short spell. But, regardless of the friendship and the wrench in her heart at leaving, she always left in the end. She had sworn by the sky above, the speed in her skates, and the rugged track before her that she would save her mother, and so she would.
Most Wednesdays she wrote to Lady Shove c/- the Sisters of Fa A Wei. Less frequently she wrote to Icy, Biffo, and Jugular, thanking them for the care they gave her mother. Fierce Fairy remained elusive, never answering her messages in the chat room, leaving no imprint upon the world but a taunting name and a blurry icon.
Every evening Princess Bite crossed out the islands she had explored in vain and planned her travels for the next day. Her map grew thick with crosses. Islands off every coast, crags jutting sharp-toothed against time and tide; rounded mounds, soft with sea grass; islands of black sand, of yellow, of red coral and of tangled jungle; islands of drowsy sheep and of sharp keening seagull. In time she expanded her search to more generous definitions of island: islands on oases in deserts, islands of rock in verdant wilderness, islands made of concrete and cable.
And eventually, after every part of her skates had been replaced more times than counting, she found Fierce Fairy's island of desolation. A message was sent to her on a replacement pair of shoelaces: one long scrolling set of instructions, signed FF.
The island was in a small pond, and on that small pond there was a crooked fig tree, and on that crooked fig tree there was a withered fig, and in that withered fig was a fig seed striped black and red, and in that red and black striped seed was a small, quiet cottage surrounded by combed, rippled sand.
Princess Bite's footsteps left ungainly smudges in the sand; her skates tied by their laces and looped over her neck, she made her way to the home of the league's greatest coach. Princess Bite knocked on the door and after a time hammered, and a time after that kicked with steel-capped boots. Eventually the door swung open, smug on its smoothly oiled hinges, and Princess Bite stepped inside. The small quiet cottage was spacious and clean. The glittering polished floorboards were smoother than any rink. Picture frames festooned every wall and in each frame a different bout played. In one frame the Pussycat Posse played the Cowgirls of Annihilation, the image blurring as the download struggled to keep up with the game. In another frame the Kill'n Kittens played the Beat Nics. Princess Bite could not help but pause to admire their form.
"I watch every game," said a soft voice, like silk and saffron, like a warm sunny day sitting on the roof and watching the world go by, like nostalgia wrapped in clover honey.
Fierce Fairy had not so much aged as become more insubstantial. Fierce Fairy's hair had faded to the last breath of May, curling languidly around long, lean fingers.
"You hunt for me," said Fierce Fairy. "You run from teams that would love you and keep you. You chase me in your dreams, and I cannot sleep. Why do you punish me? Why chase what cannot be caught?"
"I seek you, Fierce Fairy, to claim back the mother I am losing. The price she paid is too high, and I wish you to unmake it," said Princess Bite.
"Are you that unhappy with your life?" said Fierce Fairy, drifting closer, long hands curious to touch Princess Bite's cheek, rough hands, and bruised knees. "I always wondered how you would turn out." Fierce Fairy sighed.
"I am tormented, worn weary by a mother who dies slowly, her life stolen for a foolish vanity. I don't care what she looks like! Shouldn't being alive be more important than whatever stupid body parts she was born with?" said Princess Bite, surprised at the heat in her words and how deeply the anger bubbled.
"Why should it matter if she looks male or female? I would rather she live with boy bits, than die with woman things. Sever the wish, unmake what is made and let her live in any body rather than have this one taken from her."
"Oh sweet sweets, you don't know what you ask. Push Comes to Shove made herself a lady. That was not my doing."
Princess Bite gasped, like a rude wannabe in overpriced boots was staggering across her chest. "What?"
"She wished for you. To bear you from conception, to birth, and beyond."
"I could unmake you," added Fierce Fairy, suddenly closer, much closer, eyes yellow, pupils triangular. "I could unweave all that you are and weave Lady Shove whole again. Yes, yes, the wish can still be unmade, though more painful now you're as big as you are."
Princess Bite felt her heart grind as if full of broken bearings.
"And yes, I think I hate you enough to do it," said Fierce Fairy with a soft sigh. "I have been watching you slowly kill my dearest friend. You've even stolen her skates, eaten up every part of her. You are killing her."
"No . . . ," said Princess Bite.
"Oh yes," said Fierce Fairy. "Every wish has its cost, a life for a life. I gave . . . and now I must take. That's how it works."
"How much time does she have?"
Fierce Fairy breathed deeply, tasting the air from far away. "Not much, but enough. Return to your mother's house, and find the photo album of red leather and gold edging. Remove yourself from every photo on every page. Cut, burn, tear yourself from the book of memory, and when you have finished, say: 'I am undone' three times. Then you will die and your mother will be whole again."