Disguise by Sheila Kohler

BOMB 65 Fall 1998
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When they questioned us about the midnight feast, we told them about the food and the alcohol, but not about how Di Radfield had jumped out of the cupboard in her galoshes, painted moustache, Panama hat, and nothing much else, in her role of Porphyro, and climbed into bed with Meg Donovan, where they made the sort of noises associated with love. No one spoke of how we kept passing the spiked pineapple juice to Fiamma, and how she drifted drunkenly around the dormitory, stumbling blindly into basins. No one mentioned Miss G.


Keats’s Eve of Saint Agnes is our favorite poem although, or perhaps because, our English teacher, Miss Lacey, says we would do better to study Milton’s “Samson Agonistes.” Of course, our midnight feast did not take place on St. Agnes’s Eve. We don’t even know when St. Agnes’s Eve is supposed to take place, but Ann Lindt says it is probably in December or anyway some time in mid-winter because the poem speaks of such bitter chill. December is mid-summer for us, so it seemed like the right time to play the game.

We wanted to make the feast like the one in the poem. We wanted the same food: the candied apple, the quince, the plum, but in the end all we could get was the usual midnight feast food: tins of condensed milk and sardines and peaches in sweet syrup. Naturally, we had no beadsman, no beldame; we did not even have a Porphyro for our Madelines, but we made-believe.


Fuzzie thinks she was the one who had the idea for the feast, but ever since Fuzzie’ s mother was shut up in a mental home and died in a fire, Fuzzie has been confused. The Trevelyan twins may have had the idea, because they are always starving. They do not receive any parcels with extra sweets and biscuits as everyone else does here, because they are orphans. They never get any letters or books either, not even books about horses. They are always trying to borrow Thunderhead, or My Friend Flicka from Mary Skeen who has all the horse books and will only part with them grudgingly as she is also horse mad.

Sometimes the twins slip out of their beds at night and go and lay down in the stables on the straw to be near the horses. The smell of manure and sweat, the swish of the tails, the stamping of hooves on the stone floor, a sudden sweet whinnying, comforts them, they say. They are definitely the ones who spiked the pineapple juice. They left it to ferment for ages under the oak tree by the hockey field.

Di Radfield suggested the dancing and the dressing up, because she wants to be a dancer like Margot Fonteyn, although she is already too tall. She likes to dance the Seven Veils in front of the mirror, half-naked, using a tie as a veil, pretending to be Salome getting Herod to chop off Saint John the Baptist’s head.

Sheila Kohler says she thought of playing Saint Agnes’s Eve like Madeline in Keats’s poem, because it is her favorite. She says it was a brilliant idea. Sheila said some of us should be Madeline and some Porphyro, and we could dress up and have a beadsman and a beldame. Someone could hobble around.

Then Ann Lindt, who knows so much poetry by heart, recited the part we like best:

“Her rich attire creeps rustling to her knees:
Half hidden, like a mermaid in sea-weed,
Pensive a while she dreams awake, and sees,
In fancy, fair St. Agnes in her bed,
But dares not look behind, or all the charm is fled.”

Only the girls on the swimming team were invited to the midnight feast. Since we have been on the team, we rarely mix with the other girls. They are too boring. We are only interested in one another, because we are the only ones who interest Miss G. Besides, Miss G always makes sure there are only girls from her swimming team in this dorm, and it is in the whispered conversations in the secret night that firm friends are formed. In any case, no one else would be able to imagine they were Madeline receiving an imaginary lover who turns out to be a real one, Porphyro, in her bed.


We were all there: Fuzzie Burls with her sheet slipping down her plump hips and her daisy chain tilting into her eyes as she sang madrigals; Anne Lindt sitting up in the windowsill with her yellow torch and her thick glasses, her collarbones protruding from the sheet tied around her neck, reading the poem; Di Radfield in her Panama hat and galoshes; Meg Donovan with a scarf tied tightly across her boosies; the Trevelyan twins in nothing at all; Mary Skeen in her riding boots pretending to be Porphyro arriving at the castle on his wild steed, with heart on fire; and Sheila Kohler eating tinned sardines and dreaming of love and death.


What many of us remember best was the white disk of the moon. It was a night of full moon, we are almost sure. Some of us remember thunder and lightning, but no one recalls rain. Fuzzie, who is particularly sensitive to smells, remembers the smell of flowers mingled with that of hot sweating bodies, which increased as the night went on.


Of course Miss G was told all about our preparations. We always tell her about everything. However, no one remembers exactly who told her. Some of us think that it was Di Radfield and others that it was Ann Lindt. Perhaps we all mentioned it to Miss G at some point to make sure she would come. Certainly she knew all about our preparations for a midnight feast and the game we were going to play. Miss G said she thought it was a splendid idea and commended us on our initiative. It was a long time since she had seemed so pleased with us, or had spoken to us at such length. She repeated the business about no repression of libidinal urges and how repression leads to aggression. She even gave us some of the food and some red wine mixed with white.

She was the one who suggested that we get Fiamma to decorate the dormitory. “You know, Fiamma is wonderful with flowers,” she said. She told us to get Fiamma to help with the costumes. “All Italians are brilliant with clothes, you know.”


Once Miss G took us swimming naked at midnight.

In our dreams we heard her voice. In the moonlight, shimmering, she stood in the dormitory door. We rose and hunted, stumbling around for our swimming suits in the dark. She told us not to be so absurd. We would not need swimming suits; we could swim in our birthday suits.

In the night-scented garden, we followed her. She glanced behind with her dark, restless eyes. “Where’s Fiamma?” she asked, while Fiamma lingered behind languidly in the hot half-darkness, staring up at the vast jewel-tree of stars. Finally Fiamma said, “Present.” Fiamma speaks in the clipped accents of the English, though she has never been to England. She says “drawing room” for “lounge” and “sand shoes” for “takkies.”

“One finger on my back, Fiamma,” Miss G commanded, as we climbed up the hill. “Just one finger, to get me up the hill, dear,” she repeated. Fiamma raised her thin eyebrows but obeyed. Miss G always makes one of the girls pretend to push her up the hill.

“Take off your things, girls. Go on,” Miss G said, as we giggled and gaped at the edge of the water, hesitating.

Miss G unzipped her jumpsuit with one quick gesture, standing firm and lithe, her toes curling over the edge of the concrete. She was smooth and straight as a statue, her skin strange in the moonlight, the deeper dark of the shadow between her legs as quiet and mysterious as a shell.

“Fuzzie, you’re going to catch a fly,” she told Fuzzie, who stood with her big mouth wide open.

Miss G lifted her arms, rose on her toes and dived into the water. She splashed us and told us to get in, too. “What are you waiting for, Kingdom Come?” she asked. Fiamma was the first to step out of her pajamas. Naked, unashamed in the moonlight, her white body shimmered. She is slimmer than most of us and lighter-boned and carries her head high, tilted slightly to one side as though it might roll off. Miss Lace calls her Ariel, as we are reading The Tempest this year.

We watched her open her arms to the stars and the night, fearlessly, and enter the water, her glittering body all gathered together like a white, lacquered bud.

Fiamma likes the water more than the land. She is not good at any of the land sports we play: hockey and netball and rounders, but we often find her in the pool at dawn, as though she has been there all night, beating back and forth, sending up a rainbow spray into the air, while the sun stripes the sky pink and orange and red.

We plunged in a pack behind Fiamma, diving into a dream. Di Radfield swam breast-stroke, her long strong arms and legs stretched, lithe and fast. Meg Donovan swam sidestroke swiftly beside Di, her beautiful head and long neck and big breasts dipping and rising over the water. Mary Skeen ploughed through the water, splashing, doing butterfly, and Ann Lindt, quick and neat and efficient, swam backstroke with little splash, while Fuzzie, keeping her face in the water, her fat body wriggling like a worm, somehow kept up with the rest of us swimming a crazy crawl. Sheila Kohler, too, swam as fast as she could to keep up. Fiamma, who swims so much faster than anyone else, swam out ahead of us.

In the dim light and the warm water, we felt small again, swimming to catch Miss G’s shining body, swimming around her, under her, Fuzzie at her feet, Ann Lindt at her head, Meg Donovan at her waist, like minnows around a larger fish, circling her, brushing against her smooth body, touching an arm, a leg, a toe. Then she was lying still on her back, arms outstretched, staring up at the swirl of stars in the deep blue sky. We, too, lay on our backs and stared up and thought we could hear the stars singing. Our mothers were chanting to us; we could hear the beating of Miss G’s heart. We floated on beside Miss G in the moonlight and the mysterious quiet of the night, and we saw our mothers coming toward us in the starlight, silver skirts blown against their bodies, bending over and reaching out their arms and catching us up and swinging us through the air. We were flying. We left our bodies behind and flew free.

But Miss G was calling us softly. She made us get out and stand in the white light. She told us we were her girls.


We discovered Fiamma was very good with disguises. She used our sheets and blankets or scarves to make us look like knights and ladies from long ago. She draped our sheets around us or tied the scarves around our heads, standing back to survey her handiwork. Instead of jewelry, she used flowers stolen from the cutting garden and hidden in the bathroom under the stairs. She made flower chains for our ankles and wrists and foreheads, splitting the stems with a knife and linking them together.

She made up our faces so that we could hardly recognize one another. She outlined our eyes with black pencil and flecked our cheeks with gold paint, so that those who were playing Madeline looked like angels. Those who preferred to be Porphyro—usually the taller girls—Di Radfield and Mary Skeen and Pamela Richter among them—wore pajama trousers and loose shirts and Panama hats raked at an angle and sometimes galoshes. Fiamma painted their upper lips with black pencil to make them look like men. Like a magician she transformed us. We felt like the inhabitants of some strange, distant land. Later, because of the heat, much of the makeup began to run, streaking our faces and making us look like savages.

We had never seen Fiamma eat and drink so much. She ate heaps of sardines and peaches and drank from the tin of condensed milk which trickled down her chin. She drank glass after glass of the spiked pineapple juice, which Di Radfield and Ann Lindt kept passing her. She drank the red wine mixed with white that Miss G had provided.

Also, we discovered she was an excellent actress. We will always remember her pretending to be the beadsman telling her rosary on her knees and shivering with cold in the hot dorm. She looked suddenly old, her smooth brow wrinkled, as though her whole life had passed her by and she had become the ancient beldame, shuffling blindly down the moonlit dormitory, leaning on a stick for a cane and warning an imaginary Porphyro of the dangers in the house.


“Saying, mercy, Porphyro! Hie thee from this place;
They are all here tonight, the whole bloodthirsty race!”


We found out afterwards that Miss Lacey was awakened by the noise. Miss Lacey told Sheila Kohler, who is one of her favorites and wants to be a writer like Alan Paton, that she had heard a noise coming from our dormitory, but she remembered the midnight feasts from her school days and smiled indulgently and thought we should be allowed some freedom—after all, this is not the Middle Ages.

Also, the night watchman, John Mazaboko, the tall Zulu who comes from Natal, heard footsteps in the very early hours of the morning when the sky was still a faint pink. He was wandering up and down, his boots crunching the gravel under the ancient oaks, the light of his torch punching holes in the dark of the hydrangeas. He looked up and saw a girl wrapped in a sheet going toward the pool in the dawn light.

He told us that he called out, “Sala khale,” the Zulu greeting, to tell her to go carefully, but when the girl did not respond, he did not follow her, because he, too, had been drinkingskokiaan to pass away the long empty hours of the night, and he thought she might be a ghost. Besides, he considered it was not his role, a black man in a white girls’ school, to report one of the white girls.


Everyone admits they saw Miss G come into the dormitory, but we are not in agree ment over what happened next. Bobby Joe and Bobby Jean Trevelyan almost came to blows over it. Bobby Joe believes that no one pushed Fiamma forward from where she was hiding, that she simply emerged from the shadows when Miss G came into the dormitory. Bobby Jean maintains that she saw Di Radfield pull Fiamma from beside the bed where she was hiding. Bobby Joe maintains Fiamma floated forward the moment she was called. They both say they heard what no one else seems to have heard, a first soft knock on the door, and they both say that when they heard the knock they knew things would end badly.

Then there was a louder knock which everyone heard. We all kept very still, and some of us, who were naked, crouched down behind the basins which Fiamma had filled with food and which were now almost empty. Then the door opened slowly, and Miss G appeared. She loomed, tall and slender and barefooted, a long dark shadow in the light from the corridor. She shut the door behind her quickly and stood there staring at the disorderly scene in the moonlight. We were all standing around drunkenly, half-naked, linked in pairs, flowers in our loose hair, or false moustaches running into our mouths.

Miss G called for Fiamma. She called again, and Fiamma emerged slowly from the shadows. She tottered forward, or perhaps someone pushed her toward Miss G. She was half-naked. Her sheet had slipped down to her waist, and her boosies were bare. Her crown of daisies tilted crazily across her brow into one eye. Her blue eyeshadow was smudged, her lipstick spread wide, like a clown’s. Like all of us she smelled of alcohol and sweat.

We moved away from her, as Miss G strode toward her and grabbed her by the arm and held her close as though she were smelling her. Miss G put her hands on Fiamma’s shoulders and looked into her eyes. Then she pulled a scarf around Fiamma’s neck like a halter. “Now you come with me, girl,” Miss G said and led her away like a horse. We watched as the door opened and they disappeared into the bright light.

It was after Fiamma had gone that Ann Lindt’s batteries went dead, and there was only the light of the moon in the dorm. We all clasped at one another and rolled around in one another’s beds, but no one was imagining she was Madeline or Porphyro anymore.

Sheila Kohler is the author of three novels, The Perfect Place, The House on R Street, the forthcoming Cracks, and a book of short stories, Miracles in America. Her short fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including The Antioch ReviewThe American Voice,ColumbiaFictionThe Paris ReviewPloughsharesThe QuarterlyRedbookStory, and The Yale Review.

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Originally published in

BOMB 65, Fall 1998

Featuring interviews with Yusef Komunyakaa & Paul Muldoon, Ian McKellen, Sam Taylor-Wood, Thomas Nozkowski, Geoffrey O’Brien, Alexander Nehamas, and Mark Richard.

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