Exploring the art of prose


Twelve by Elissa Lash

Image is a color photograph of an open book with a uneaten red apple: title card for the 2023 CRAFT Memoir Excerpt & Essay Contest Winner, "Twelve," by Elissa Lash.

Elissa Lash’s “Twelve” is one of three winners of the 2023 CRAFT Memoir Excerpt & Essay Contest, guest judged by Sarah Fawn Montgomery.

“Twelve” weaves the intrigue and haunt, mystery and familiarity of fairy tales with the story of a girl dedicated to depriving the body who becomes a woman desperate to escape this narrative. “Once there was a hungry woman. Some said she was a giant and some said she was a witch. That woman is me. She might be you,” begins this lyric and pointed essay, which seamlessly blends a child’s innocence with the wisdom of adulthood and the artistry of the writer. As dreamlike and evocative as the fairy tales woven throughout the piece, this essay is also stark and powerful, the author masterfully critiquing the ways girls learn deprivation through vast communities of family, friends, and educators, and the ways women are haunted by these histories.  —Sarah Fawn Montgomery



Once there was a hungry woman. Some said she was a giant and some said she was a witch.

That woman is me. She might be you.

I’ve always been voraciously hungry. Even before the years I starved myself. So hungry: I ate paper, thread, and dreams. I eat dreams with a wooden spoon that is like a ladle.

There was a time I transformed myself into a bird girl, made of feathers, sinew, and slender bones designed for flight. Eventually, I was compelled to understand gravity. How the earth holds women. Even when I wish to float away, I stay here. I am density. The solid weight of my muscle and bone is hard-earned. It’s daily work to be in my earthbound female body eating the food, getting older, carrying the heaviness. When I was a bird girl, it was easier. I was revered. My fragility was commented upon as an accomplishment.

You eat like a bird.

Actually, birds eat constantly. Half their body weight each day just to survive. Surviving is a full-time pursuit. Eating is an obsession.

In my dreams, I’m a hawk, a raven, a sparrow.

This is the story of how it happened.


The twelfth year was the worst year. That was the year the woman was a girl tormented because her body was expanding. The girl became rounder, she grew strange lumps. She bumped into walls and chairs. She often wore the clothing of other people hoping this would be a disguise.

Sitting on the cement staircase with the other seventh graders waiting for the M-16 bus, wearing my secondhand clothes, I try to disappear.

Blond Davey in his polo shirt and braided belt begins, First, you should get better clothes. Are your pants from your grandma’s dumpster?

He wrinkles his nose as if my clothes smell like trash. Because I am trash. He glances at the girls sitting on the step above me in their Jordache jeans. He’s making sure he’s funny.

I don’t think new clothes are gonna help, says Kathy. She looks down on me through her mascara-crusted lashes.

Many days the kids discuss how I can be fixed, how to break the curse of unpopularity that has descended upon my body.

My mother and grandmother put me on the Scarsdale diet. They pay ten dollars a pound. They love me and think they are protecting me by showing me the way women need to live in their bodies. Grapefruit halves, diet soda, small portions of skinless chicken breast and steamed vegetables. In the cafeteria at lunch I am a good girl and follow the rules and use tongs to place chunks of iceberg lettuce on my plastic plate, a slice of baloney, no dressing. I’m allowed to use vinegar. No bread, no cheese. I have a constant headache and feel dizzy during gym. This is what I must do for my body to become acceptable. The more I diminish, the more they are happy and proud.

The body is the first measure of a girl’s worth.

I wish I was writing history rather than reality. I wish my body could be freed.

So mote it be with you and with me.


One sunny day we gather in a meadow in our most festive and colorful garments. The office has hired a photographer to take a portrait of our team. We stand clumped together. Smile. Click. The photographer is a man; short, gray-haired, a rumpled shirt, a British accent. He laughs at his own jokes. He arranges us on a wooden bench under a tree, frowns, then rearranges us.

Everyone is worried about how they look.

He points at me. What shall we do with the Giant?

The accomplished professional women in my office exchange flickering glances. As women, we’re used to our bodies as public discourse. Our prescribed response: polite silence, strained smiles.

I am five feet eight inches tall. I wear a size eight. I’ve been told I’m a witch, but apparently to this small man, I’m a giant.

The photographer waves his hand. This doesn’t work. We must move the Giant.

Women are supposed to be small, but as my giant head breaks through the cloud cover, I realize that the photographer has been transformed into a mouse.

What’s wrong with you? The question explodes from my mouth. The grass around the mouse-man burns. I have a name. Use my name when you speak to me!

Whiskers twitching, he offers a smile to placate and snaps another photo. Quite right, he squeaks.

When the shoot is finished and the photographer is gone, my coworkers applaud. Instead of feeling endowed with triumph, I feel alone. A colleague pulls me aside, I was just about to say something.

In fairy tales, giants don’t need friends.


Long ago, a ballet teacher, Miss Erika, pinched a six-year-old thigh. Her nails, curved and painted burgundy, left half-moon imprints in the child’s skin.

This is not a dancer’s leg.

She slapped the curve of the child’s belly.

This is not a dancer’s belly.

She was angry at the child’s body.

Dancers must be flat and light, skeleton and shadow.

I learn to hold my breath, pull in my belly.

That is the story I heard as a child and now you have heard it too.


There once was a girl who was trapped in a hayloft. She could not turn the straw into gold. In desperation, she jumped. The girl was terrified, until she realized she could fly.

Out through the barn doors, I leave behind the bales, the fermenting corn, the manure. Soaring over the meadow as the sky turns from blue to lavender. The rays of the sinking sun lace through the tendrils of cloud: feathers of a dove painted gold.

Jung interprets flying dreams as the desire to break free from expectation. Freud offers that flying dreams represent our repressed desires. Hinduism explains that flying dreams are communication from departed loved ones. Chinese astrology suggests that a woman who dreams of flying is thinking of leaving her husband. The Bible, in Isaiah 40:31, tells us that soaring on wings like an eagle demonstrates our faith in the Lord. The Islamic prophet Daniyal states that a flying dream foretells an unexpected journey.

All I know is that I feel boundless in these dreams. Freedom is my body’s right, I know it in my bones. When I awake from dreams of flight, I weep.

The dreamer awakes, the shadow goes by. We are told a tale that’s sometimes a lie.


Our story begins with a little girl who wished to see and know the whole world, not just the cottage where she lived with her grandmother. She asked the old woman for a magic cape that would allow her to fly wherever she wished.

Instead the grandmother told her to stay safe on the path and gave her these warnings:

Beware of flying for they will call you a witch and a bitch. They will use the straw from your broom as kindling for the fire they will build to burn you alive.

There once was a girl named Amelia Earhart. They asked her about her favorite recipe, and what dress she was wearing. Then when her plane was lost, they said it proved their point. Her tragedy was consumed like a whipped dessert.

You might snap your neck when you hit the glass between you and the sky, like a bird flying into a window. The world will whisper, I told you so.

I stir the little girl’s wish into my cauldron. I add ash and feathers when there is a full moon.

I tried to stay on the path but I got lost.

Stir, watch, walk, wait.

Let that be a lesson to you, my child.


By the light of the moon, while dinner sits on the stove, the mother reads stories to her daughter. Fairy tales from the Brothers Grimm, while they wait for the girl’s father to return.

Perched on my mother’s narrow lap, I absorb it all, as she sips gin and smokes a single True cigarette. The scent of juniper berries and menthol weaves around us.

A king has a dozen beautiful daughters. They destroy their dancing slippers each night even though their father locks them in their room at bedtime. The girls won’t reveal where they go, how they get there, or what happens to their shoes.

The king creates a contest. Any man who discovers how the shoes are ruined will win the hand of his preferred princess in marriage. If he fails at the task, he’ll be put to death.

The royal executioner does a brisk business.

The princesses dance holes in their soles.

One day, a soldier, lame from battle, is returning home and hears of the contest. He comes upon a crone begging by the side of the road. Although he has little, he shares his last bit of bread. The old woman reveals that she’s a witch and can offer him a bit of sorcery.

I’m off to the castle to win my fortune, grandmother. Can you help with that?

The witch can—although even as a child I wondered if it pained her to sell the princesses out.

That night, at the castle, when the princesses offer the soldier wine, he lets the liquid dribble down his chin into the sponge he’s been instructed to tuck into his collar.

The soldier pretends to sleep. A magic portal opens in the wall. In darkness the soldier follows the girls through the doorway and toward an enchanted lake. Twelve fairy princes wait in boats to row the princesses across to their palace where music plays. The sisters dance until the first rays of the sun pink the sky, then straggle back. Shoes ruined. The soldier has rushed ahead and by the time they return he’s snoring away.

All is well, the girls assure one another.

Except it wasn’t. It isn’t.

The soldier presents his findings to the king and picks the youngest daughter to be his prize.

My mother blows a wispy halo of smoke that disintegrates above us. Her drink shimmers in the glass. The sky darkens outside the window.

Happily ever after.


Long ago there was a Christmas when the girl wanted so much that her desire kept her awake at night. An endless list, all impossible.

I wanted a protective shield to stop the mean words from piercing my pulpy heart. I wanted a magic mirror that made me thin as paper, so thin I almost didn’t exist. I wanted the ability to fly. Away from the pointy-nosed girls who whispered about me and excluded me from their lunch table, away from the freckled boys who threw pine cones at my pigtailed head and marked my arms with a pen.

It’s my twelfth Christmas and beribboned presents sit beneath the twinkling tree. My present is a rustling cube covered in an old towel tucked behind the loveseat.

My brother opens his new football, my little sister unwraps a Barbie doll.

From the corner, there’s a scratching sound.

Open your gift, says my mother.

Anxiety is an ice cube I swallow. I pull the edge of the ratty towel to reveal a cage. Inside is a vibrant lime-green parakeet, glitter eyes, and little pink claw-feet stepping side to side on his wooden perch.

Birdie! shrieks my sister.

He’s a budgerigar, a budgie, says my mother.

A friend, my father says and smiles.

If you do a good job, he’ll live a long time, promises my mother.

Which means if I do a bad job, he’ll die.

Name him Noel, or Ivy, something Christmasy, suggests my mother.

Rudolph, says my father.

Baby Jesus, my brother calls out, which gets a laugh from my sister and a head shake from my mom.

We’d just read Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. A golden thread in my whirring brain ties the green bird in the cage to the small boy who can’t walk, and then back to me.

Tiny Tim came with a booklet from the pet store explaining how birds are fragile and need special care, cuttlebone and grit, interaction and stimulation. Outside of the cage, warns the parakeet manual, there’s danger: household cats, windows, fumes, children, the blades of a fan.

At night Timmy’s cage gets covered with a checkered sheet but I hear him rustling. During the day he paces from side to side on his perch and watches me with his dark jewel eyes.

It’s spring and getting warmer. I tell my parents that Timmy wants to be outside to see the sky. I hang his cage in the branches of a tree during the day and bring him in at night. My parents okay this plan.

One early summer evening my parents leave me to babysit my brother and sister. My siblings make a mess with their pasta and resist bedtime. I end up letting my younger sister sleep in my bed. Her sweaty four-year-old body smells like baking bread. I fall asleep early and forget about Timmy hanging in the branches of the dogwood tree.

The next morning my parents tell me that Timmy is dead.

I wrap him in foil and dig a hole in the dirt in the woods behind our house. I do this alone. A pile of gravel to make his grave.

I killed him.

So the story goes.


There was a clever young man who came upon a slender young girl with a secret.

You eat like a bird, he declared.

Jonathan stares at my plate as he stands next to me in line at the cafeteria. Jonathan refers to himself as a queen, he knows things, he sings with the voice of an angry angel, and we sit next to each other most days in the conservatory’s small dining hall. On my yellow plastic plate I have a piece of bread, a teaspoon of peanut butter and six green grapes that roll about like Jack’s magic beans. I spread the peanut butter thin, almost translucent, and fold the bread in half. I cut the folded bread into six small rectangles. I eat three rectangles and three green grapes. My ritual. There is power in threes. I take tiny bites and chew each bite many times and wash it down with Diet Coke.

I see you, Jonathan says. I see that you’re starving yourself.

No one at acting school has commented on how little I eat or how much I chew until Jonathan. The others eat with abandon: consuming sleeves of Ritz crackers, stacks of toast slick with butter, mounds of jiggly mayonnaise macaroni salad. They load their plates and tuck food into knapsacks for later. We fly from jazz dance to yoga class to scene work to rehearsal, vibrating with physical and emotional energy.

I start my day with a cigarette and a paper cup of black coffee. Long ago my hunger passed the point of discomfort. It has become a source of pride and power.

Jonathan whispers, You should eat, bird girl. And ther-a-py. You need it.

He’s right. I feel raw, exposed, ugly as a picked-at scab as I chew my dry bread square until it’s a fibrous pulp. I did have therapy once upon a time and I will get it again and again.

After lunch we go to mask class, held in a barn that also serves as the dance studio. None of us understand mask class. We aspire to be cast in brightly funny television series or moody, meaningful movies. We make jokes about mimes as we stand outside on the patio puffing our cigarettes. We complain about the class being useless but we don’t dare blow it off. Our teacher, Mara, is scary and intense.

When we enter the barn, the masks are laid out on the floor. Craggy visages with gaping eyeholes, mouths shaped like diamonds and ovals.

Pick the mask that calls to you, commands Mara. She wears a magenta scarf and strings of colorful beads adorn her ropy, muscular arms.

There’s a narrow mask with a nose like a beak that stares at me. I don’t want to pick it up. All the other masks are being taken by my classmates, the hyperfeminine masks with almond eyes and bow mouths, the silly joker faces with bubble cheeks and half-moon brows.

The pointy mask shrieks as I turn away. It will curse me if I don’t choose it. So I take it in my hands. I feel a fluttering in my chest.

Mara tells us to breathe deeply as we bring the masks onto our faces. We must stand in front of the mirrors that line the studio walls and let the masks inform our bodies. My body is shifting, my toes are claws. My arms tuck against my ribcage like wings. I cock my head and whistle. I step side to side.

Mara calls to us. Move about. Don’t touch.

I skitter past the other bodies.

Greet each other, says Mara.

My hello is a chirrup.

Mara directs me toward the center of the room, motions the others to sit.

What’s your name? Mara’s arms are crossed over her chest. She’s always been doubtful that I can be big enough to fill the stage.

Pretty bird. I turn my head at an awkward angle, eyeing the ceiling. I’m a pretty bird.

The class laughs. The laughter is relieving.

I flutter and strut, feeling free in my body. I know exactly how to be a bird.

Timmy is reincarnated. I’m releasing the idea of myself as a murderer.

Perhaps it was only that I was twelve?

When class is over, Mara takes my arm as the other students leave the barn.

You surprise me, she says. You look like you’re going to break but inside your little body is brave.

I always considered my body a cage. It turns out that my body is also a superpower.

So it goes, so it is.


Long ago and far away I wanted to die. It was 2012 and I lived on an island. Sadness consumed me effortlessly, like I was made of soft, sweet pudding, sliding into the gaping mouth of great grief.

Twelve hours in a day, twelve months in a solar calendar year. There are many spiritual traditions that exalt the number twelve, it is a number that symbolizes perfection.

Perfection is a tight collar that makes it difficult to swallow, to speak, to breathe.

At first I thought the grief was a lingering postpartum depression. Then I wondered if I might be possessed.

I gave birth to my daughter on the twelfth day of the twelfth month at the twelfth hour of the morning. In 2012 she is turning four. Each day she grows more beautiful.

Men pass us on the street and stare. Men stare at my tiny rose-gold-angel daughter.

Look at those eyes.

Look at those lips.

She’s a heartbreaker.

I can’t sleep, food passes through me undigested, I cry all the time. I berate myself: be grateful for all you have, these privileges—food on the table, a home, an education, employment, healthy children, being born white, a husband who does dishes, a car, access to health and dental care. When I drive over the bridge, to get from one job to the next, I hear the ocean. The water is great and gray on either side of the steel rails. It is calling to me. I imagine driving through the fence.

My therapist recommends a psychiatrist who prescribes pills that wrap me in cotton wool. No more grief, hunger, or desire. I take a different pill at night. Sleep like a coma, sleep without dreams. I lock the sadness in, I lock it down.

My therapist is pleased. I take my pills. I’m a success story.

Then my daughter turns twelve.

This is your golden birthday, I say, what does your heart desire?

As she considers, her eyes sweet and vivid as summer blueberries, I thrum with the desire to be the mother who is also a fairy godmother and able to grant any wish. Her sunshine hair is long again, she’d cut it all off in second grade, telling me, I want to be a boy, to do all the things that boys get to do.

Even when my daughter’s hair was cropped close, even wearing her brother’s sweatshirt and baggy shorts, the comments followed her.

Little supermodel.

She’s dangerous.

She must drive the boys crazy.

We go to New York City to see a show. We walk down the sidewalk paved with sparkle and grit. I watch the male gaze watching my twelve-year-old daughter. I grip her hand and pull her closer. There’s relief in no longer having the gaze on me and terror in knowing it is now on her.

The same key bolts the ancient lock.


After a long journey over many mountains, the girl arrived home. The smell of sandalwood soap, a blue glass bowl with one withered lemon, small brown birds perched on the laundry line, all illustrate the pages of her life.

My father has cancer.

My mother is purging her closet.

You might want this coat, she says. She holds out an enormous olive wool jacket. It’s huge, much too big for me. And I have to confess, I think it’s ugly.

She wiggles the coat on the hanger, waving one of the woolen arms as if the jacket is an octopus puppet.

I’m not huge. I use a flat voice. All my anger and pain have been ironed out.

This sweater? A lumpy wool smock. It swallows me. It’s too heavy. My mother says the word heavy with distaste, whether she’s referring to a sweater, a person, or an entrée. My mother does not finish her morning slice of toast. She eats a single square of chocolate. When being served dinner, she protests that a serving is too much, as if the plate of food is assaulting her.

You always loved these earrings. My mother gave them to me. They are moss-colored jade and shaped like tears. My mother puts them in my hand. She wants to give me something. Maybe you don’t like anything of mine?

My mother was “the pretty one” among her family of four girls and a boy. I don’t know if her sisters have ever forgiven her. Because to be pretty is to be loved. As a girl, being pretty is the way we’re supposed to be. Pretty is safer than beautiful. The world loves pretty women and punishes the beautiful.

Helen of Troy was so beautiful that she was kidnapped and raped. Her beauty is blamed for the Trojan War. Yet many claim that Helen was saved by her beauty because her husband took her back rather than killing her after the rape. The other Trojan women were sold into slavery, but Helen lived “happily ever after,” which seems to be a metaphor for surviving atrocities.

During the Ming Dynasty, the emperor of China selected the most beautiful girls to serve as his concubines. It was considered an honor. They were kept in isolation, only brought out of their chambers to serve the pleasures of the ruler.

There is an expression that the daughter robs the mother of her beauty, as if there is a finite amount of loveliness, as if girl children are thieves.

I don’t know how much longer my wraithlike mother has on this earth.

I’ll take the earrings, I tell her. She looks relieved and I wonder if she will cry.

Ever since that day, that is the way it has been.


Once there was a woman. She woke each day at dawn and brewed bitter coffee while the sky was slate. She took her body to the gym and asked her body to do hard things. Her body did all she asked—bending, jumping, lifting, climbing—until her body ached and trembled.

Bird girl lives, she is within me.

I fear that the key has rusted in this lock.

And I’ll be in this cage forever.

Dreaming of dancing and flying, beauty and bones.

My body has performed miracles. I have turned seeds into people. My body has survived burning and banishment, heckling and high-heeled shoes, starvation and sickness. I’ve been scraped empty and pumped full.

My body has done so much and it’s still not enough.

The story goes on, turning around and around, a twisting spiral.

I will not stop trying to unlock the door, I will not stop trying to write a different story.

These dancing shoes were once my mother’s. They’re full of holes but I keep wearing them. I won’t pass them on to my daughter.

She’ll dance barefoot.

She’ll shake the earth.

She will fly.


ELISSA LASH has published pieces in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, Silver Rose Magazine, Tangled Locks Journal, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction piece, “The Money I Get for My Body,” will be published in Bimbo Feminist Anthology, forthcoming from Purple Ink Press. Elissa has studied writing with Nick Flynn, Margo Steines, Beth Kanter, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and Sabrina Orah Mark. Currently, she’s completing work on a memoir about her years as a sex worker. She founded and was executive director of the theatre company Double Helix and is a founding member of TBD Improv. She lives and works in Massachusetts with her partner and two teenagers. Find Elissa on Instagram @elissa_lash_writer.


Featured image by Liana Mikah, courtesy of Unsplash.


Author’s Note

Twelve was a terrible age. I think we can all agree on that.

Bodies, feelings, friendships change suddenly—we are mean to ourselves, to each other, to our parents—it’s as if all the children of the land have been put under a powerful spell as they travel through their twelfth year.

When I’m walking, washing dishes, lying awake at 3 a.m., ideas and memories appear, little scraps that don’t match up. They are colorful and textural patches—red silk, powder blue gingham, linen the color of wheat, tiny bears wearing green hats on a cream-colored background. These fragments take up space in my head until I figure out what to make out of them.

This essay started in my body. Years ago, there was a friend in theatre school who told me I ate “like a bird.” He called me out on an eating disorder I thought I’d kept hidden. I remember the moment of being exposed, the shame and the pride. Strange to be immersed in this memory while living in a perimenopausal female body that feels as if it’s made of wet clay.

This essay started as I observed that my then twelve-year-old daughter was being watched with a carnivorous lust by grown men, sometimes in sidelong glances, sometimes with overt commentary.

This essay started as a short story about a bird I’d been given that died and then haunted my dreams. And a sense memory of the spirit of that bird entering my body in an acting class.

This essay started as I read the brilliant book, Happily, by Sabrina Orah Mark, marveling at how she used fairy tales to frame and explore her daily experiences as a mother, a daughter, a writer, a wife, a woman. My favorite fairy tale as a child was “The Twelve Dancing Princesses,” a strange and not widely known story of princesses sneaking out to dance, disobeying their father’s rules.

I started writing this piece in longhand. I gave myself permission to keep writing and not try to make it any good, and not try to make it make sense. This is how I must always begin, otherwise I’ll give up before I’ve started.

“There’s a lot here,” said a writer friend on reading an early draft. She thought this piece might be two, three, or even four pieces.

I deeply trust the advice of the wise women in my writing group, but a sadness flickered in my belly as I thought of chopping the stories apart.

“I just know it all goes together,” I said. “I don’t know how, but it does.”

I love a braided essay, even when the braid is lumpy and uneven. There is a permission, a rhythmic structure, a container to hold all the ideas.

Lists are a technique I use in my life, and also in my writing. Lists help the Ferris wheel in my head slow down enough to safely load and unload passengers. Lists are pleasing.

Some days life and writing feel like the same thing. Some days they feel like an egg with a double yolk. Extra, golden, connected.

Another writer friend suggested numbering the sections; she wondered, could there be twelve? I continued in my usual dance of reading and editing, reading and editing, staying open to feedback even when it made me uncomfortable. These are the tried and tested tools that allow my stories to become untangled, separated into strands, then plaited like Rapunzel’s magical braid—a ladder worthy of a witch.

I submitted the essay to CRAFT, thinking, This is a long shot. Then I continued to edit and revise. I’d make it better by trimming, expanding, shifting, and sculpting. When I found out that the essay had made the shortlist of finalists for CRAFT’s contest, I was happy and also panicked. That submission had been many drafts ago. Whatever I gave the editors was probably a mess.

Upon hearing that the essay was one of three winners, first there was shock and elation, and then the certainty that the old draft was not the best draft. The fear that it was not good enough.

I reread the originally submitted essay, touching and feeling the twelve strands.

So be it, I thought.

I can love this draft just as I can love my body even though I still see imperfections. Through the lens of other writers, I embrace “Twelve” anew.

There comes a time to let the words fly free.


ELISSA LASH has published pieces in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, Silver Rose Magazine, Tangled Locks Journal, and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction piece, “The Money I Get for My Body,” will be published in Bimbo Feminist Anthology, forthcoming from Purple Ink Press. Elissa has studied writing with Nick Flynn, Margo Steines, Beth Kanter, Marcelo Hernandez Castillo, and Sabrina Orah Mark. Currently, she’s completing work on a memoir about her years as a sex worker. She founded and was executive director of the theatre company Double Helix and is a founding member of TBD Improv. She lives and works in Massachusetts with her partner and two teenagers. Find Elissa on Instagram @elissa_lash_writer.