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Image by Patrick Hendry

Susan Rukeyser

A Hymn for Us Heretics

One bone-dry, summer afternoon, Poet and I sat together in the ruins of an abandoned homestead cabin, enjoying the Mojave Desert views from what used to be the window. Poet had a notebook and pen, but I had the words.

Poet said, “I want to write with fire.”

“You want to write about fire?”


“No,” said Poet. “I want to write with fire. I want my words to sizzle and combust into flames that fan out and singe the ears of anyone who needs them, bypassing those who don’t get it. I want my questions to melt old ways of thinking – in my own head, first. I want my phrasing to be urgent and my subject matter, dangerous. I want my words to burn it down.”


“Burn what down?” called Worry from outside, where she waited so she wouldn’t get in trouble for trespassing.


“Relax,” I said. “You know Poet speaks in metaphor.”


To Poet, I said, “I wrote something. I don’t know if I wrote it with fire. It’s a song of praise for girls of all sorts. A hymn for us heretics, maybe. It’s dedicated to insistent girls, persistent girls, those who expect better and more.”


“Get on with it,” said Poet.


I cleared my throat: 


“We do not have to smile for the bad guy who calls, ‘Hey baby, hey beautiful... Hey, where you going, bitch?’


“Or for the good guy who explains what we already know and did not ask. Who says, ‘Boys will be boys.’


“We do not have to smile for family that loves us ‘anyway.’ Or strangers who argue when we explain who we are.


“We do not have to smile to ease the tension. We do not have to smile to be safe.


“Not for well-meaning cowards who won’t give themselves a hard look. Or some fool who says we’re too much, or not enough, not what a girl should be, or a girl at all, in their opinion.


“We do not have to smile.


“Sing for the girls who tried to be President and the girls who voted for them, all of us awake from the dream of a savior patriarch. Those gunning for regressive backlash count on us relenting from exhaustion, softening back into compliance. I am tired; we are all tired. They want us to forget how righteous anger energizes. They want us to forget: The rights we do have were pried from their closed fists.


“No, we do not have to smile.


“Sing hallelujah for the girls fat as goddesses. Who fuck for experience and also love. Who disregard the opinions of assholes. Who dress for fun, who laugh hard, cry often, and always forget to shave. Who pretend not to notice when the wind lifts their skirts or their nipples against their shirts. Who were told to wear bras by gym teachers or their fathers: ‘You’re getting too old to walk around like that.’


“Sing for the girls who tell the truth, who came before and after us, with bodies like ours and different, with perspectives that resonate and others wholly new.


“Sing for the girls who grow to write with fire. We are beautiful in the light of it, these flames tended and stoked, generation to generation. In this light, we smile for real.”

Poet was quiet for a while after I finished.


Worry said, “I just think if you’re gonna call it a song or a hymn, there should be music.”


I ignored her and asked Poet, “Did you hear?”


She picked up her notebook and pen, the purple ballpoint we both liked. “Okay,” she said. “I’m ready.”

About Susan Rukeyser

Susan Rukeyser writes and reads in Joshua Tree, California. She wrote the novel Not On Fire, Only Dying (Twisted Road Publications), and her flash fiction is collected in two chapbooks: Swap/Meet (Space Cowboy Books) and Whatever Feels Like Home (above/ground press). Susan hosts the monthly Desert Split Open Mic, Joshua Tree’s feminist, queer, and otherwise radical spoken word open mic.

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