Photo: © Adam Courtney. All rights reserved.

Things with spine:


I have never heard of any of these being curved. To one side, under unknown burden, and then—in compensation—back.

Fish move horizontally through water, their vertebrae not contending with the vertical crushing of gravity; I doubt scoliosis happens to fish.

If the spines of books curved, their shelves would look like waves of seagrass, difficult to stack, order, sort; their contents tangled ribs of unread, unknown pages.

My grandmother had courage. Ramrod straight, despite her tiny size, and, in order to work and raise children during the Depression, requiring what she alternately called “a spine,” or “the right stuff:” discipline, rigor, stoicism. Possibly a smile near the end of December, because she was Christian, after all. But never in photographs, or at a granddaughter who grew inexplicably, wildly, too artistic and tall.

A roof also has a spine. In the attic of my grandmother’s bungalow, I stand up straight in the only place high enough, under the line of apex where the two slopes join.

I wear my black knit that I have altered, like all my dresses, so the hem will hang evenly. A chandelier’s crystals, strung with jet beads on 20mm gauge brass, swing and tinkle against my cheeks from the residual motion of my awkward climb up the stairs. I make my own gaudy, oversize earrings to call attention to my face, not my body.

Below my black flats—the right hiding a discrete, ineffectual lift—the rickety bare wood floor creaks, and below that, the voices of those who knew Grandmother murmur.


“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” Grandmother left me everything, including her books and her King James and the choice of its verse at her service. Isaiah 40:4, picked out with such a naïve hopefulness in the power of her few possessions, and such an insult to my form, that here, where no one is looking, I half-smile.

If a roof’s spine curved, the walls underneath it would surely fall. I look up at the braces and joists of Grandmother’s tiny bungalow, perpendicular and dusty, that are mine now, apparently. Made of fir, a soft wood, but hardened by a century of time, cut when those trees grew straight into the sky so high that loggers had to bend far backwards to perceive the tops. They climbed with leather straps into the canopy, disappearing from view of those on the ground until limbs and shouts began to rain down.

I said I stand up straight in the middle of the attic, but that is merely a figure of speech, meaning there is enough space above my head. My back is a rickety pile of half-smiles; I can stand straight nowhere.


When a scoliosis curvature measures above forty degrees, when there is near constant pain in one hip, difficulty breathing from one or both lungs, serious self-esteem loss, or when the patient just gets tired of being partially disabled while the insurance companies label her condition ‘cosmetic,’ surgery—in the phrase of my doctors—is indicated. All the ribs sorted (I imagine rebuilding a fish from what’s left on the plate) and a metal rod inserted to keep things in alignment. And forever unbending. My surgeon says it is a much more successful operation than it used to be, well worth the cost of a small house and all the books it contains, but all surgeons say this. My second opinion surgeon says I may continue to bow as I age until my walk changes to a kind of shuffle-hop and my right shoulder nudges my ear like an earring.

The truth is, I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a straight spine. I don’t remember what it is like not to ache. To create, in an effort to achieve at least the appearance of balance. My line of jewelry, which although not lucrative is well known, grew from my scoliosis as one curve happens in an effort to balance the other. I don’t know that it is right to level every mountain, to exalt all our valleys. I don’t know in which direction lies courage. I don’t know which would be worse: to curl into myself as I age, or to give over my body to an eager osteopath with a pick-up-sticks pile of titanium rods and a belief that flexibility is a quality worth sacrificing.

After the murmurs below me die down and everyone has left their casseroles and gone home, I consign my black dress to the dusty floor and lie down lengthwise in the attic, aligning my head and feet with the roof ridge. I smile, a full open-book smile, thinking of how scandalized my grandmother would be at my slip and naked calves against wood. I try to imagine that like the fir spine above me, the line between my head and pelvis is plumb. Try to imagine that I am made of, or can become, the stuff that will eventually reach straight up to the sky.

Kimm Brockett Stammen‘s writings have appeared or are forthcoming in Litro, december, CARVE, The Greensboro Review, Pembroke, Prime Number, and many other magazines. Her work has been nominated for Pushcart, Best Short Fiction, and Best Microfiction anthologies, and she holds an MFA from the Naslund-Mann Graduate School of Creative Writing at Spalding University.

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Issue 17

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