Malconformation

Ann Carter (1781?-1803)

Along the dark street Ann hurries toward a place to hide. Another cold night is coming on here in the hinge between winter and spring, the first week of March although she’s lost track of the day. Beyond the wall of Parliament to her right, with cold bronze Cromwell on his horse, the Thames rushes past in its stinking bed. Frost rims the air like fur on a rich woman’s coat. A glitter of late snowflakes catches and swirls in the wind.

Between her legs the bale of sodden rag is cold. She carries it always: her curse, her shame, slung about her hips like a stillborn child bound to her as penance. To leak and leak, to run and run, to make her howl with pain when it’s touched. And, now, again, to lose her her place. “My God, said Mrs. Macready last week in her velvet parlor, lifting her nose when Ann entered with the ash-bucket and broom. “What’s that horrid smell?” And Ann stood still, dumb as a mule, waiting for the eyes to land on her. They always did. And then Mrs. Pullen, the housekeeper, sat her down at the kitchen table, firm and dismally kind, the braids of onion and the chicken on its hook to be dinner that night for everyone in the house but her. “Oh, Ann, girl, the mistress says ye’ve got to go. Here’s a reference for ye, a good character. Ye’ve earned it.” There are so many things she can never say in this situation. Good thing Mrs. Macready can’t hear her guests calling her a jumped-up Scots merchant’s wife, getting above her station. Good thing character’s not of the body but of the soul. Because it’s my body, again. Isn’t it. The thing you can’t stand to see.

Ever since she left the village there’s been house after lady’s house, inn after inn after tavern with its pallet of straw in the back. And now, whatever hiding hole she can find. But there is always the body and the thing between its legs to haul from pillar to post, from doorway to bridge-arch to square of yellow light falling from window through which she can see the normal people drinking, eating, warming themselves, sitting still for as long as they like. Like a dumb child that’s the cause of shame yet unknowing of wrong, her body begs her: What’d I do to be so hungry, so wet and raw? So cold? Oh, why am I not fit to look upon?

The weight of rags around her hips is familiar now. Even the chafe of the reddened skin is known. She’d bathed the thing between her legs when she was in work at Mrs. Macready’s and could haul a kettle up to the garret she shared with the other maids. “Oh, Ann,” jested Irish Bridget, “don’t ye find it a trial to bath so often?” But then Bridget saw her legs, and the thing between them, and went white, even crossed herself. “Oh, Ann. I’ll pray for ye.”

“Yes, well,” Ann said. That was the third house in a year or maybe fourth and she was tired of prayers. “It ain’t exactly suited God to take this from me, has it?”

All those Christians. Comfort the afflicted. That’s what they are taught.

Here it is now, the great arch of Westminster. On nights like this all the hiding holes are full. The crevices up under Blackfriars and London Bridge and Westminster Bridge as well, the broken-open cellar near the Swan and Hoop where the fire started and has never been repaired, the lean-tos behind the breweries, where you can find old wicked Sal and all the rest, sucking on the barrel-dregs. The word’s got out among them that Lord Mayor’s decreed the Abbey door be opened on such nights. “Tell us another,” says Ann. “Every time I’ve tried it’s locked. And anyway, who’d let us in?” With all that gold, and all the famous tombs. All that splendor and illustriousness. Against old wicked Sal, and Will, and Mary Jane, and her. But even if the door isn’t open there will be the arch, the nooks in all the walls. Some place to get out of the wind at least. A hole for her against the river and the stars and all this city.

It’s funny, what’ll put men off. She’s seen them at it with the poxiest girls anyone could name, their black mouths jarred open in mock delight as some butcher’s boy pumps at them with his pimply arse, his buttocks red and shriveled like the menagerie baboon’s. But when she’s had to let some man lift her skirts – hurts even to touch that thing, but it’s food – he stops at the sight of it and on his face is something like Mrs. Macready’s horror. A shout, a curse, a blow she’ll dodge near-automatically. But yesterday had come a pause, a halt, her skirts shoved down, a coin flipped to her, a shamefaced sidelong glance: “Ah, well, then. That’s for ye anyway.”

Under the great east arch of Westminster Abbey, she pauses. Carved in stone, the saints and honored dead in rows until they narrow down to the great wooden door itself. This massive iron latch – large as her head, large as the wad of swaddling cloth that catches her trickling – has never been open. But, here, right now, it is.

Into the vestibule and then into the nave she slips. It’s dim in here, lit only by torches burning in brackets on the walls, pressed in by the dark and the weight of all this space. High overhead comes a rustling, a clicking coo: pigeons have found a hole, as every creature must. Great shapely arches rise up and up into the black. Windows are spotted with what in sunlight would be color but now are only patterns, flat and dim: something like a Savior with his hands outstretched, something like a face.

She looks down into shadows at her feet. The dead are here, all their names to be trod upon. Sacred to the Memory of Mary Countess Shrewsbury, Beloved…. Why read of it. She had her letters before she left the village to come to this place, and she had some Bible too. Her mother had read to her the story of the woman with the issue of blood who’d crept to Christ and touched his robe, who’d made the Savior wheel and cry out Who touched me there? Surely on his face was the same quick unhideable disgust the woman saw on every face when they caught sight and smell of her, the thing she’d prayed not to see as she brought him her body to pray for healing, her body with its traitorous seep of hope from her heart down into her stomach, where it pooled and burned. Read the story. Learn your letters. Pray. Why am I not fit to look upon?

The village. The taunts: piss-a-bed Ann. The whispers: Have you seen it? When the great red spongy thing began to grow on her and then to push the piss out of her sideways to left and right, uncontrollable, her mother had helped her with the rags, had washed and washed. Her mother had soothed her when the village boys had pinned her down and yanked her skirts up and pointed and laughed. “What did they say to you?” Mam demanded, but Ann had let her tears choke away the words. She wouldn’t stain Mam with big Ned Simons’ voice: “Ah, just like a mushroom on her cunt. Who’ll ever give a ride to that?” Mam took ill when the milk-cow kicked her on the temple by mistake and then the landlord took the cottage and so that had to be that.

Here in the Abbey’s dark there’s no defense against the words or, worse, the tears, so she lets them come. She flees deeper into the gloom, under an arch spangled with gold, past a row of pews, past the ranks of choirboy seats upright and bare. The altar looms before her – a great window admitting of the night – and she dodges left and hurries deeper still. There must be shelter somewhere to rest this body for the night, this leaking stinking shitting bleeding yearning thing. She longs to be shed of it, to abandon it to dust like all the rest of them around her now – the Kings of England and all the other men who nevertheless can’t stop the leak of her water out of her, the stink that drives her door to door, the dark that fastens over the city like a breeches-clout, the dawn that streaks dark blue above the river on yet another day to be endured.

A door, a passageway up some steps and she is into a smaller room with another tomb in the center and a narrow aisle around. One torch is lit and burning at the far end, even here. Lord, what it must cost to fire and light this place. A stone queen lies face-up under a canopy, narrow pointed hands folded, high forehead a perfect blank, a body neat, tidy, odorless, composed. The glow discovers Ann the words on a plaque: Near the tomb of Mary and Elizabeth remember before God all those who divided at the Reformation by different convictions laid down their lives for Christ and conscience sake. The old ones in the village talked of burnings their own grandparents had seen, of stripping the altar of any cross or Popery. Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live. She left the village when Mam died. Before they could get around to burning her.

In the farthest corner Ann curls, tucking her feet under her skirt and pulling her shawl and her layerings tight. The stone seeps into her on all sides. So cold. The hip that’s going gamey with the walking presses into the floor and pains her now so she turns over to ease it some. With her eyes shut and forehead against stone the headache eases too. She’s thirsty but she dast not drink. For what she drinks will only leak right out again.

In her dream she’s back in the village milking the cow, pulling those teats with the leaking jets of milk, warm from the creature’s body, steaming in the chilly morning, her head against its flank: ssst, ssst, ssst. And then there’s an old man with a lantern bending over her, shaking her shoulder. He’s asking her name, trying to rouse her, saying something about a hospital. A hospital’s where you go to die, but this is too much trouble to explain to this stranger now. Ann turns her face back to the wall. Sleep, she wants to tell him. Please just let me – But the words don’t come. Against her forehead the abbey stone has begun to warm. This one place in all cold stinking London acknowledges her. And she’ll stay here for as long as it will hold a knowledge of her body: of the circle of warmth, mute and innocent, it can yet cast.



The Edinburgh Medical and Surgical Journal, 1 April 1805. Case of Malconformation of the Urinary and Genital Organs in a Female. By Mr. Astley Cooper, Surgeon to Guy’s Hospital, London. Vol. 1 No. II, p. 129.

Ann Carter, age 22, was admitted, on the 4th of March 1803, into St. Thomas’s hospital under the care of Mr. Cline, on account of a fungous tumour on the lower part of the abdomen, through which the urine was involuntarily discharged. This misfortune she had laboured under from her birth; but when she arrived at the age of puberty, her situation, in that part of the country in which she was born, became insupportable to her feelings, on account of her infirmity being known. She therefore resolved to seek her subsistence in London, where she vainly imagined it might escape detection, and she soon procured the situation of a servant to a family in town. But being unable to retain her urine, her clothes were rendered offensive by it, and her bed was nightly wetted. Her infirmity was thus soon discovered by her employers, and she was dismissed from their service. By frequent disappointments of this kind, she was reduced to seek a miserable subsistence by begging, and spent days and nights in the streets of London, until, becoming ill from the effects of want, and exposure to the severity of the weather, she was carried by the police to an hospital; and, when admitted into St. Thomas’s, she was so much reduced by poverty and sickness, that she died on the 8th of March, four days after her admission.

Author / Ilustrator

  • Amy Weldon is professor of English at Luther College and the author of The Hands-On Life: How to Wake Yourself Up and Save the World (2018), The Writer's Eye: Observation and Inspiration for Creative Writers (2018), Eldorado, Iowa: A Novel (2019), and the forthcoming Advanced Fiction Writing: A Writer's Guide and Anthology (2023).

  • The architectural critic and photographer John Margolies (1940–2016) saw there could be home-made beauty in the buildings and signs locals built on the American roadside. For almost forty years, he documented the most remarkable examples he found, publishing some of his discoveries in books and consigning the rest to an archive, which has now been purchased by the Library of Congress who, in a wonderfully gracious move, have lifted all copyright restrictions on the photographs. From Public Domain Review.