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Arts & Entertainment

She’s Only Seventeen

• Bookmarks: 263

October 2, 2023


SHE’S ONLY SEVENTEEN: These freaky, formative years in fiction and life

Beth Hahn, of Mt. Kisco, co-creator of the gorgeously crafted new literary zine -ette, is also the author of the novel The Singing Bone, a dark tale exploring what becomes of a handful of teens in 1979 who wander into an older man’s party house and fall into what is effectively a cult. Twenty years later, their former leader/lover is still in jail for murders he may have only inspired his followers to commit if not had a hand in himself—arguably making him guilty regardless. Central to the story is Alice, the youngest to fall under Jack Wyck’s spell at only 17. Despite a severe mental break at the time (or because of that) she is the only one who walks away from this story “intact” to lead a relatively normal life (as a professor of folklore studying the fable of the same title), but reality is forcing her to return to sort out a past clouded with confusion and drugs. A documentary filmmaker is digging around the story and its remaining characters as Wyck might be set free, and Alice’s gig hiding as Alice Wood instead of her former Alice Pearson has been exposed. Where is the line between innocence and complicity? How do we navigate guilt/shame from our messy teenage times? How do we heal from such complicated pasts when our brains were still gray clay?

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Of course Charles Manson and his so-called “Family” comes to mind and are referenced, as it was his followers who killed on his behalf; and threaded through is the folklore of “The Singing Bone,” known best via Grimm, but Hahn uses the murder ballad version starring “The Twa Sisters” instead of brothers, about a bone, which when discovered and blown into reveals the truth of its corpse. Synopses of all the many variants of the Twa songs, going as far back as mid-17th century and mostly in Great Britain and Scandinavia, from Wikipedia:

Two sisters go down by a body of water, sometimes a river and sometimes the sea. The older one pushes the younger in and refuses to pull her out again; generally the lyrics explicitly state her intent to drown her younger sister. Her motive, when included in the lyrics, is sexual jealousy—in some variants, the sisters are being two-timed by a suitor; in others, the elder sister’s affections are not encouraged by the young man. In a few versions, a third sister is mentioned, but plays no significant role in events. In most versions, the older sister is described as dark, while the younger sister is fair.

When the murdered girl’s body floats ashore, someone makes a musical instrument out of it, generally a harp or a fiddle, with a frame of bone and the girl’s “long yellow hair” (or “golden hair”) for strings. The instrument then plays itself and sings about the murder. In some versions, this occurs after the musician has taken it to the family’s household, so that the elder sister is publicly revealed (sometimes at her wedding to the murdered girl’s suitor) as the murderess.

The variant titled “The Two Sisters” typically omits the haunted instrument entirely, ending instead with an unrelated person (often a miller) robbing the murdered girl’s corpse, sometimes being executed for it, and the elder sister sometimes going unpunished, or sometimes boiled in lead.

Beth’s beautiful, riveting, and painful book threads a similar murder mystery with lines from this haunting dead fable girl being played part by part:

And what did he do with her hair so fine? He made of it strings for his violin.

And what did he do with her ams so long? He made them bows for his violin.

And what did he do with her nose so thin? He made it a bridge for his violin.

Bow and bend to me. Bow and bend to me.

I wanted to go in and shake Alice from her brainwashed fog and rescue all the inhabitants of Wyck’s weird house from the insanity of the manipulation they are caught in like fruit in jello. And it’s a book that reminded me how easily preyed upon I was at the same tender age of 17, how powerless.

At a high school graduation party, this guy a few years older than me, a friend of my friend’s brother, approached me, tapping my breastbone with his finger. Simply saying, “You—I want you.” With the swagger and confidence and piercing eyes I couldn’t help but be drawn to. I had next-to-nil romantic experience with boys, save for one awkward date that ended early and one bad Dorito-flavored kiss through years of being caught in the rift between nerd and pretty. The feeling of being chosen now, seen, even if by someone I would have never chosen—a bad boy with tattoos no less—was intoxicating, and I was also drinking. He suggested we go out on a date that week, I should bring a friend and he’d bring his, a double date. I guess we exchanged home numbers to make plans in the age before cell phones. I showed up in a few days at his house, in my dad’s car, with a girlfriend who was game. He took over driving the gold Quantum, and he had a guy sidekick, who, I believe I found out later apparently was out on parole from prison after stealing cars, great. My cheerful tennis teammate sat with the felon in the back seat. “John” played a game where he wanted to kiss at every red light. It all felt exciting. We were going to the movies, show unknown. I knew none of this would be exactly innocent but not in the way he had planned. He stopped at the liquor store, which in Connecticut we called “package stores,” strangely. He asked if we had any requests. My friend and I just said wine coolers. Though I may have been sexually ignorant, I wasn’t new to alcohol. My brother and I had thrown one really drunken house party in our basement, and friends and I found our way to cul de sac kegs until the police came and everyone just drank-and-drove to the next location. It’s amazing anyone survived.

My friend and I had all of one wine cooler each and were officially blotto. Clearly something was not right with those wine coolers but we were too immediately cloudy to object or even realize our states were not normally-induced. There was no movie theater, only now a park somewhere in the dark, and a blanket he produced that somehow he had put in my trunk before, and my friend and his friend wandering off (which would later result in head-to-toe poison ivy for them both). For me, I didn’t know at the time any of this was date rape because I said yes to the date, to the alcohol, to subjecting my friend to whomever; I may have even been ok with fooling around, but not like this. I know I didn’t stop him. This is not how I would have wanted my first experience to be, but it was over, and I’d move on to go off to college in a few months. I avoided him, stammered something quietly when he called. He stopped by my house with a white rose before I left, saying it wasn’t red because I didn’t give him a chance to fall in love with me. But maybe I’d want to put a poster of him up in my dorm room someday because he was going to be a model. I know whatever I said, it wasn’t the right thing. I learned at some point he bragged about his conquest to all of his friends. I felt hollowed.

I rarely share this story beyond a few close intimates, and I certainly never wrote about it publicly, but Beth’s book struck a nerve for obvious reasons. What a difference 20 years make, or in my case, over 30. Our codes on this are clearer now and women so much more aware, and if I was raised now instead of then, I might have never been in this situation to begin with, noted the red flags along the way, or at least done something after the fact. But then, it was just something that happened, a point of shame and silence. My first experience was simply disappointing, but the older I get the madder it makes me that I was robbed.

Alice is on a similar high-achiever path to college and doing all that she is supposed to do until all of that recedes in the party house; she feels like she chooses Jack one night, but he’s been indoctrinating her along, grooming her, planting the seeds of her succumbing. He tattoos his name on her thigh, as he does on his other young followers, and Alice is mesmerized by the inked images he has—black birds, snakes—as they play out their uneven yet captivating courtship.

Alice saw Mr. Wyck crawl across the floor and begin to clim the stairs on all fours. She stared, frightened, putting her hands over her mouth—he was an animal, slick with sweat, his arms strong, his tattoos dancing randomly on his arms. Tattoos of birds circles his neck, their black wings flapping as he moved towards her.

When he got close, he put a finger to his lips, Shh, and then his face came back—no longer frightening—and he put his head in her lap and closed his eyes, and she stared down at his face in the half-light, thinking his stubble was like lace that it had a pattern, and she touched it; she drew her finger lightly over his eyelashes, so long, and then around the shell of his ear, which was so fantastic that she could not imagine that she’d ever accepted any ear as something normal. He sat up and stared at her, fingering the sleeve of the red sweater, and she scooted up and down on the steps, crawling towards him and then moving away, until finally he caught her, and staring into her eyes, he said, “Close your eyes,” and when she did, he pressed his palms into her and moved her hands into the air above, circling one way, then the other. When he pulled his hands away, she could no longer sense him near her, and she thought she might be falling, but she wasn’t. He was carrying her over his shoulder, back downstairs to the party, where he set her down and told her dance, and she danced with Shizz in the middle of the room, in front of the fire, lifting her feet high like his and laughing madly because someone was hiding in the corner, watching her.

Now with a fifteen-year-old girl in my house and another one close behind, I can worry about all the old and new forms of parties and persuasion, these Mr. Wycks of whatever age online or off. I attempt to reparent myself and my inner teen as I muddle through parenting this actual one before me. Will I be instilling in her the self-awareness and values to know her boundaries, the confidence and voice to advocate for herself, the individuality to stand proudly in her own skin and identity? Can she confide in me? She already has a boyfriend, which I’m actually happy about, as she’s having “normal,” and hopefully slowly-paced, growth experiences with the opposite sex that I didn’t have, and can experience (at least what she calls) “love.” Beyond the parameters of attempting to keep her safe, school-focused, and informed, I can’t dictate how all of her ballad goes. I took the important first step of sharing my own 17 story with her the other day, not to scare her but to make her aware of the many ways things can go sideways, how nothing is at it seems, not even yourself when you’re not fully formed. She was surprised I hadn’t shared this sooner.

“Now’s the time,” I said.

Krista Mad­sen is the au­thor be­hind word­smith­ery shop,  Sleepy Hol­low, inK., and pro­ducer of the Home|body newslet­ter, which she is sharing reg­u­larly with The Hud­son In­de­pen­dent readership. You can  subscribe for free to see all her posts and re­ceive them di­rectly in your in­box.

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