By Kora Burnham
My mother used to read me The Ugly Duckling before bed. I think she was trying to instill some self-confidence in me—some assurance that I wasn't a freak—that someone, somewhere, would love me and accept me for who I am. She told me that, one day, I would grow into a beautiful swan.
I knew she was wrong, but it was nice to dream.
Vitiligo is a condition where the cells that make up the skin pigment die. The skin loses its colour, like it's been bleached out by a washing machine. It usually starts in the hands.
It started when I was eight. The tips of my fingers started going lighter, and lighter, and lighter. In small patches, in splotches, in spots. Eventually, my fingers lost all their colour and became white. It was a shocking, contrast against the rest of my skin. I was dark everywhere else.
I would refuse to remove my mittens. When I did, I hid my hands under the table. I never raised my hand in class, never got participation marks.
“You're a smart boy,” my mother told me. “Speak up!”
But I didn't. I didn't want anyone to see my hands. I kept them in the pockets of my sweater, cramped and overheated.
The nickname came when I was ten.
We went on a field trip to the zoo. One of the zebras had been bred with a donkey and had just given birth to a foal. The baby was dark brown everywhere except for his legs. They were black-and-white striped, all the way up to his stomach. He clung to his mother's side, shy, as people pointed cameras at him.
The tour guide told us they called him a zonkey. His name was Mikal.
One of the other kids laughed and looked me and said, “Hey, he's black and white, just like you!”
People avoided me on the streets. They crossed the road so they didn't have to share the sidewalk with me.
I learned not to care. I learned to not want anything to do with them.
I took up smoking at seventeen. When people got too close to me, I blew smoke in their face, grinned at their annoyed expressions. I blew kisses when they flipped me off. They called me “weirdo” and “crazy.” My arms were now patchy white, all the way up to my shoulders, the spots creeping up to my neck.
One evening in the supermarket, I overheard a girl asking her mother what was wrong with me.
“Don't stare,” the mother hissed.
The little girl stared.
I grinned at her and she hid her face in her mother's arms.
Mikal grew like a weed.
I visited him whenever I could. By the time he was two, he was the size of his mother.
By the time he was four, he had bulked out and was larger than her. The zookeepers moved him to his own paddock, and there I watched him for hours as he swished away flies and chewed grass, his coat shining in the sun.
I felt a connection with him, something I never felt with anyone else but this weird freak of nature, with his too-thin striped legs and his dark brown fur. People came by his paddock to gawk at him, to take pictures. They would walk past me and notice me sitting on the bench. They would gawk at me. I'm sure if I had let them, they would have taken pictures. Maybe I could have painted a sign, set a price, and made some money out of it.
The zookeepers paid no attention to me.
I would sit on the bench until the zoo closed.
I grew up and moved out of my mother's house. I still visited every couple of weeks, bringing presents for my little sister. She was loud and annoying and hard to get along with. My mother was tired and snapped when we argued.
I worked in a photo lab, editing photos, because it was quiet and the boss left me alone. I didn't have to deal with people; everyone was better off that way. I liked it enough to not dread going in every morning.
I visited the zoo on my days off. The zookeepers had warmed up to me slightly. None of them really talked to me, but they didn't shoo me away when I brought mints for Mikal. He ate them out of my palm, his mouth scratched with its stubble-like fur, his teeth crunching loudly.
He lived in his paddock alone. He was aggressive, the zookeepers said. They had tried to introduce him to the other zebras, but they wanted nothing to do with him. So Mikal lived in solitude, eating crab apples off the ground in the autumn and huddling against the wooden wall of his shelter in the winter. I felt like I understood him and like he understood me.
The pigment in my neck had all but disappeared and was working its way over my face. When I looked in the mirror, I thought I saw a ghost looking back. I didn’t feel like myself anymore. I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or a bad thing.
Sometimes, the teenagers that came to watch the animals would walk past and say, “Freak.”
I never knew if they were talking to me, or to Mikal.
One evening, I got off work early and made my way to the zoo. It was dark and quiet. There were only a few families still wandering the grounds. The zookeepers were feeding the animals, tidying up as the sun went down, picking up trash, sweeping the pens.
I stopped in front of Mikal's paddock, digging into my pocket to find a mint. It had been a few weeks since I had last seen him. He was getting old and slow. His joints popped when he walked. The fur around his muzzle had gone grey. His muscles were atrophying, causing the bones in his back to stand out.
I waited by the fence. Mikal didn't come.
“Hey,” I heard his caretaker stop behind me, bucket in hand. She had red hair tied in a messy bun. It was coming loose around her shoulders. She set the bucket down at her feet when I turned around.
“Is he inside?” I asked.
“Oh, uh. I guess Steven never got a hold of you?” she asked. She wiped her hands on her jeans and cleared her throat. “He, uh...he got his leg caught. Tore it up pretty bad and broke it in a few places. Normally we'd try to mend it, you know? But he was old and... well.”
I felt something tighten in my stomach and tucked my chin further into my coat.
“I'm sorry,” she said, her voice low. “He was my favourite, too.”
“Right,” I said. “Well, you know. These things happen.”
“Yeah,” she said with a nod. “Hey, listen. I'm off in ten minutes. If you wait around, I'll buy you a coffee?”
I looked up at her again. She smiled softly. I couldn't tell if she was being serious or not. People didn't want to spend time with me; that was why I worked in a back room at a photo lab, and why I spent my days off sitting on a bench at the zoo. Maybe she felt sorry for me.
“There's a cafe two streets over,” she continued. “My sister works there. They make great cappuccinos. I kind of—well… I haven't really talked to anyone, you know... About him.”
She liked Mikal, despite the fact he was aggressive, or the fact he looked wrong, different. Maybe she would like me. It was hard to imagine—most days, I didn't even like me.
“Okay,” I said finally. “I'll just wait here, then?”
She nodded and grinned. “Give me ten minutes.”
I sat on the bench outside Mikal's paddock. I tucked my hands into my pockets and rolled a mint around between my fingers. The sun began to set behind the buildings. I thought about my mother reading to me as a child, about the ugly duckling who grew into a beautiful swan.
I was never going to grow into a swan. I had long-since come to terms with that. But maybe there was someone out there who wouldn't mind being seen with an ugly duckling, being friends with one. I didn't want to get my hopes up.
Ten minutes later, she came back, pulling a sweater over her shoulders.
She smiled at me again. “Ready?”
I felt something close to hope grow in my stomach.
“Ready,” I said.