I’ve always been interested in the strange. The ghoulish. The macabre. All my life, I’ve struggled with a disability that has made me feel foreign in my own body; unwelcome, alien, hostile. There are times when I look at myself in the mirror, and instead of a human-made out of meat and blood and bone, I see something demonic shoved into a suit of flesh, masquerading as a shoddy facsimile of a human body. As a way of loving myself, I’ve developed a fondness for monsters. In Fallout 4, a popular video-game franchise from the studio Bethesda, I was ecstatic that I had the chance to befriend a 200-year-old human that had lost his skin, nose, and ears in a nuclear blast. Friends will send me art of cryptids and paranormal creatures with the caption, “your girlfriend.” I love their monstrosity, the horror of their appearance, the sickening implications of their existence. They’re gross, like me.
I can’t divorce my love of monsters from the horrifying psychology of body dysmorphia. It’s not because they are so-ugly-it ‘s-cute, or even that they function as an acquired taste, but rather because despite their hideous countenance, there is something to love. As a woman whose understanding of what she looks like has been hijacked by a short circuit in my brain that screams monster, freak-show, beast every time I’m forced to remember that I occupy a body, it is a perverse comfort that horror can be lovable. Erin McKean, Associate Head of Philosophy at the University of Oregon, writes that “prettiness is not a rent you pay for occupying a space marked ‘female.’” But the barrage of media I’m subjected to never lets me take her words to heart - my worth is tied to my appeal, sexual and romantic.
Who, then, determines beauty? Do any of us have an understanding of what we desire, what we find admirable, enviable, desirable, divorced from the indoctrination of standards that follow us like a morbid parade through the grocery store. Calorie-free popcorn! Guilt-free, zero sugar cookies! Skinny tea! Pills that melt fat off the bone, airbrushed perfection on the cover of a magazine, anything but you! Do we look most perfect when we don’t look human at all? When our features are shrunk, plumped, parts of us cut away to make room for the bulk of projection. Strangers, people we haven’t met yet and maybe never will, and our conceptions about their conceptions weigh heavily on our ideas of beauty. Am I, as I exist now, a Kodak Moment? If not, am I ugly? A waste of space? Am I, like the mirror says, a monster?
In Laura Gilpin’s poem, Two-Headed Calf, the tranquility of beauty divorced from strangers is explored. Chronicling the night of a two-headed calf, the poem transforms what could be a moment of discomfort - the birth of a two-headed calf - into an intimate look at personal beauty. Paired with an illustration from Adam Ellis, the short poem-cum-comic allows us a respite from implication and allows us to reflect on who determines beauty.
“Tomorrow when the farm boys find this freak of nature,” the text begins above the small, folded frame of a newly born cow with two heads, “they will wrap his body in newspaper and carry him to the museum.” We are immediately introduced to death; this calf, newly born, won’t last the night. We aren’t asked to believe that the farm boys will kill the calf, only that these strangers, whom the calf will never know, will find horror in his presence. He’s a freak of nature, alive or dead, but at least dead there is use for his grotesque form. Not a Kodak Moment, but a moment meant for display. We are prepared for his death, a hopefully gentle passing, in his sleep, from complications related to the strenuous process of living.
In nature, having more than one head is known as polycephaly, and it’s generally seen as a disadvantage. Unlike the hydra, whose multiple heads give him power and strength, an animal born with an amalgamation of heads - noses pointing in opposite directions, cheeks pressed close together, mouths opening and closing out of synch - is often subject to a short and painful life. If born alive, their insides can be a mess of tangled organs, some duplicates, some fused, some missing altogether. If their body functions, their brains fall behind, split in two, malformed, and unable to compute. Observed in captivity, two-headed snakes will often fight over food or even mistake the other for prey. We think of their life as Thomas Hobbes thinks of us all: “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” And so, too, will be the life of this calf, unlucky in life, lucky in death.
“But tonight,” the text continues in the next frame, “he is alive and in the north field with his mother. It is a perfect summer evening.” The calf, smiling with a sort of imposed projection common to cartoon animals, is licked by his mother. How must she feel, knowing what the farm boys will find in the morning? Does she think him a freak fit for newspaper? Does she know her son will die, does she find him strange? She bathes him, one head at a time. A stranger to him just moments before but no longer, she recognizes her calf as a child, her child, and loves him in double.
Illustrated as a cartoon, the calf is perhaps a smidge cuter than reality. His two heads are well-formed. Our checklist for perfection is expanded with some simple math. Four eyes? Check. Two perfect little noses? Check. Two smiling mouths? Check. Looking at the image, a scene of normalcy imposed over a bizarre scenario, our attention is shifted to this moment, a perfect summer evening, and the calf living in it, free from the gaze of others.
We know how the farm boys will react when seeing this freak, but what of this perfect summer evening? We see three frames, two to set the scene: “the moon rising over the orchard, the wind in the grass.” In the third frame, we see one of the calf’s eyes, the stars reflected in the inky black pupil. “And as he stares into the sky,” we see the detail of his tiny eyelashes, perfectly framing his up-turned eyes, and the night sky is as clear as if we were looking at it ourselves.
Beginning with a declaration of abnormality, a death foretold, the comic ends on the night sky, where the calf sees that “there are twice as many stars as usual.” There is peace and beauty in this final frame, a moment of tranquility where everything else is ignored, not because we are pretending it doesn’t exist, but because we are given a new perspective. The calf, perhaps dying even then, is unaware - uncaring? - of his fate, as he is unaware of anything else in the world. Strangers, the farm boys, gawkers at the museum, have lost their importance at this moment. He is not a freak, not something broken that will die, but a baby, new to the world and in awe of what he sees. All that matters is the perfect summer night, his mother close by, and the radiance above him reflected in double.
The Two-Headed Calf, poem by Laura Gilpin, illustration by Adam Ellis