Nightmare Magazine




A Girl Defines Herself

Content warnings:

Blood, warfare, cannibalism

Years ago, while working online in curriculum development, I was set the task of helping high school students understand Hamlet. Many approaches exist—too many to enumerate here—but the one that changed my experience of “the Bard” and the English language itself was turning to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) whenever I had a question about a word. My favorite part of this process was learning about the history of the word: the obsolete definitions, the slang it once formed, the phrases in which it first appeared. When I started writing the “A Girl” series, I looked up “girl” in the OED and was delighted to find the phrase “origin unknown” listed under etymology. No one knows for sure where we came from; no one can say where we’re going. We are, in the linguistic sense, mysteries. Secrets. In some ways, threats. This story was born of that discovery.


For centuries, there was no word for what I am. It had to be reconstructed. Postulated. Approved. Once a gyrle, a gerle, a gurle, a girle. Yonge, gaye, and ȝong, in the strete, the gardin, the diocise. Never: alone on a balcony, wiping blood from her mouth. Only daunsynge in a rounde at a party, prety and heart-delighting.

What the dictionary won’t tell you is how little the heart weighs when drained of blood. How when you lick it clean the bare tissue turns white and the ghost heart beats a medieval melody. Eight hundred years I have been living with humans, hunting humans, loving humans, and still the vast majority do not understand: girl can mean anything that girls want it to mean and more. Once upon a time, it meant cocaine. Meant roebuck. Meant employee. Why then can’t it mean a creature of limitless possibility or a nexus of power, unbound by time, age, sex, or gravity? With this understanding, my life might make sense to others.

Take for example the story of my birth: in the aftermath of the battle, as the wounded lay dying on the blood-soaked fields, a figure emerged—nightmarish, filthy—and devoured the men one by one, leaving by accident one survivor, who would, for the rest of his life, wake up in the middle of the night screaming, “It’s a girl! It’s a girl!” He knew. Of all the men in my life thus far, he alone has grasped my full power. May he only be the first.

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Ruth Joffre

Ruth Joffre is the author of the story collection Night Beast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in LightspeedNightmarePleiades, khōréō, The Florida Review OnlineWigleafBaffling Magazine, and the anthologies Best Microfiction 2021 2022Unfettered Hexes: Queer Tales of Insatiable Darkness, and Evergreen: Grim Tales & Verses from the Gloomy Northwest. She co-organized the performance series Fight for Our Lives and served as the 2020-2022 Prose Writer-in-Residence at Hugo House. In 2023, she will be a visiting writer at University of Washington Bothell.