The Bearded Lady

She admits to a little coloring

to make her gift stand out. That's how

she thinks of it now—a gift.

She remembers when it began—

the fever that kept her in bed for days,

that made her too weak

to pluck out the errant hairs of her chin

or to apply the depilatory cream

to her upper lip. After she was better,

there was a fine patina across her face,

and when she kissed him, her husband

remarked on how soft it was.

He said that she should let it grow,

that he really didn't mind, that in fact

he liked it. Who cared what

the checkout magazines had to say

about beauty? It was the beginning

of their happiest time. But then

her husband died, and the circus came

to town, removing her from her grief

as deftly as a scalpel. Now

she endures the snickers, the occasional

request to give it a tug. She obliges them.

No one has ever pulled too hard

and the tips are always better

when they've given her a touch. It makes her

think of Thomas, how he must have been

the hardest-working Apostle

after fingering the holy wounds.

Charles Rafferty's eleventh collection of poems is The Smoke of Horses (forthcoming from BOA Editions). His poems have appeared in The New Yorker, O, Oprah Magazine, and Prairie Schooner, and are forthcoming in Ploughshares. His stories have appeared in The Southern Review and Per Contra, and his story collection is called Saturday Night at Magellan's. Currently, he directs the MFA program at Albertus Magnus College.