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Heather “Natural” Conway grew up in Waunakee, Wisconsin, a little suburban enclave fifteen minutes outside of Madison, although it might as well have been fifteen hundred miles away as little as the University town had impacted Heather’s life. She was the daughter of Donald Conway, a convicted confidence man and locally famous swindler who was serving twenty-five years in a federal penitentiary for a litany of charges that included, among other things, the formation of a bogus political action committee. It was rumored he’d built it with Eastern European co-conspirators he’d met in forums on the dark web, creating a con that took in a smattering of local business owners, folks who believed Heather’s father when he promised them access to certain lawmakers who held sway over the state tax legislation that was being debated in the capital at the time. He wound up defrauding all of them to the tune of ninety thousand dollars, and he might have even gotten away with it if one of his victims — one of the more prominent businessmen Heather’s father had targeted, a man who owned several gas stations and small convenience stores around town — hadn’t happened to see a State Assemblyman at a local crab feed and ask him with a hearty wink how he’d liked the gift he’d sent him through Donald.
“Donald who?” the State Assemblyman had said, which of course, signaled the beginning of the end.
Heather’s mother, as I understood it, took the news of her husband’s criminal activity pretty hard. Prior to the conviction, she was under the impression that Donald drove a limousine for a living — a limousine he parked in their driveway and did in fact own, having purchased it at a prison auction several months before being incarcerated at the very same facility, using it primarily to add a bit of flair to his arrivals at meetings in Madison, paying a kid from the neighborhood to put on a collared shirt he’d bought at a thrift store and chauffeur him anytime he went to the capital.
Now, having to come to terms with the truth, that her husband had been conning her along with everyone else, wasn’t easy for Carol Anne. After going through a prolonged crisis of confidence where she felt like she couldn’t trust anybody or anything, she woke up one morning and suddenly decided to put all her faith in Jesus Christ. Heather had just turned six. Her mother, who became more and more consumed with her newfound faith the longer her husband’s crimes dominated the headlines in the local paper, discovered a church on the outskirts of town where a young preacher, barely twenty-one, had slowly built a rural following with passionate sermons about what it took to battle the Devil every day. His sports analogies and references to the University of Wisconsin Football Program to flesh out his finer points on competing against Satan were particularly engaging, but even those paled in comparison to the sudden, often unexpected, convulsive fits he would go through in front of his parish audience, falling to the hardwood floor and breaking out into tongues mid-sermon.
It was quite captivating. When Pastor Paul was in the middle of one of his sermons, detailing all the stratagems Lucifer employed to tempt Man, he came across as an earnest, impassioned youth football coach, attempting to explain the tactics of a complex game to children, determined to stand in front of the chalkboard for as long as it took, diagramming the pathways to sin over and over until his stick of chalk was worn down to a tiny nub.
And then one of his fits would come and his limbs would go limp and then spasm and the nonsensical utterances would rise from him, loud and staccato, and all at once the determined, upright young pastor would transform into a rock star, overcome with the emotion of his performance, writhing and gyrating on his back while the notes came out all at once in a furious, spontaneous thrust.
His parish, Carol Anne included, was absolutely riveted. Word spread and the congregation steadily grew. On Sundays, people began to openly wonder in the parking lot whether Pastor Paul was going to “go off”. There were mutterings of minor miracles being performed. One of the original parishioner’s eczema had disappeared after witnessing. Another man’s brother, addicted to opioids for over a decade, had called minutes after one of Pastor Paul’s episodes, suddenly clean and sober. A large cooler of ice water was kept nearby in case Paul needed to be revived. A few men even began experimenting with speaking in tongues at home, and many fantasized about being consumed by the rapture. In other words, the Congregation of the Lord’s Humble Flock had become a bit of a scene. Heather’s mother meanwhile, took great comfort in the pastor’s rigid sense of right and wrong, his absolute certitude about what it took to withstand the temptations of the Devil, and if she was being completely honest, the whole thing, the anticipation, the performance, the ecstatic release that rippled through the audience when he started speaking in tongues was pretty goddamn sexy too.
And so, in another minor scandal in the community, Pastor Paul divorced his teenage wife six months after Heather’s mother started coming regularly to his church, and eight months after that, the pastor, roughly nine years her junior, married Carol Anne Conway and adopted her young daughter as his own.
. . .
It can often be said that one of the most dangerous characteristics a parent can possess is an unswerving belief in a particular vision for their child’s future. The pastor, unfortunately, was one of these people. He’d long ago decided that the architecture of his thoughts emanated from a divine blueprint rather than that Freudian drivel about the subconscious and, as a result, believed strongly in the majesty of his ideas. It didn’t take long before he felt a path had revealed itself to him about the direction young Heather’s life should take. A path, he knew, that had come to him from the Lord Himself.
Moreover, knowing what he knew of her father’s criminal past, he viewed his responsibility to guide her young soul to the Lord as paramount. Whereas Heather’s father had often let her tramp barefoot through supermarkets, not bothering to offer any guidance one way or the other as she opened bags of chips and boxes of popsicles, sampling them or shaking their contents on the ground, the pastor set out early to show the young girl the godly values of order and discipline. Wandering the neighborhood in swimsuit bottoms and bare feet, glorious days spent without the punishment of being forced to bathe, were replaced with hours trapped at the kitchen table completing page after page of Christian coloring books, trips to the mall where she was forced to try on frilly Sunday dresses that looked as if they’d been taken directly off porcelain dolls, and weekly visits to the hairdresser when her mother, parroting her new husband, would tell the stylists to make her look like a “young Ruth Bell Graham”. It was enough to drive the young girl insane. If she’d been able to verbalize her feelings back then, Heather might have accused her mother and stepfather of attempting to turn her into someone she wasn’t and never would be, but the closest she came to putting it into words was during one of her monthly visits to her father in the state penitentiary.
“I hate him,” she told her dad. “He makes me pray every night. I get in trouble for farting. I have to wear dresses every single day.”
Her father nodded solemnly, his mood slowly changing. He’d actually been feeling pretty good before his daughter had come to see him. His prospects, he thought, were bright. Prisons to him were just like neighborhoods or businesses or entire towns. They were simple. All they were, after all, were groups of human beings. And to deal with human beings, in Donald’s mind, all you had to do was boil everything down to a series of small transactional games that you were currently on the winning side of. And Donald at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution was most definitely winning. He had already sold options to a fifth of the men in his cell block on the development of a piece of real estate he’d claimed to own on the outskirts of Waunakee, telling anyone who would listen how one of his contacts in the state legislature had assured him that the University of Wisconsin was planning on building their new graduate school of dentistry there. “Big money,” he’d said. “Government contracts. You fellas might want to consider going in on this with me while you have the chance.”
Many of them had, and he’d accumulated enough filthy dollar bills, baggies of yellowing marijuana, and eminently tradable objects (an electric toothbrush, several dozen e-cigarette cartridges, a vast collection of pornography) to buy into the prison’s opioid drug trade, which everyone knew was where the real money in the pen was.
“No matter where you put me,” Donald Conway thought to himself on more than one occasion. “I adapt and thrive. These bastards could drop me in the middle of Afghanistan. By the time the sun starts to set, I’ll be selling sheep shit to the shepherds.”
For once though, Donald wasn’t thinking exclusively about himself. Now, sitting behind a wall of glass, studying his daughter’s hunched back, her tiny frame bent toward the ground, carrying this unspeakable load, he was sizing the young girl up, trying to decide if she had enough of his innate ability to be able to withstand the onslaught she’d described.
“What does your mother say?” he asked her finally.
“That I’m lucky I get to have a new daddy who’s a man of God instead of a crook.”
“What do you say?”
Her little shoulders rose in a tiny shrug and then slumped back down.
Donald thumped his knuckles against the plexiglass separating them until her eyes met his.
“That right there is the problem. You’re acting like you don’t get a say. What the hell are you moping around like that for? Don’t you get it? They can’t control what’s in here. Not your mom, not that piss ant pastor, not the government. No one.” He touched his temple with the phone. “That space belongs to you and you alone. Don’t ever give that away. Once you let someone in there, you’re nothing but a dog hearing whistles everywhere you look.”
Years later, when Heather defended her bantamweight title for the first time against a dangerous, much larger woman who had a decade more of professional fighting experience and had held the title herself prior to Heather’s meteoric rise in the sport, she remembered what her father had said that day in prison. This woman, Jacqueline “Serpiente” Santos attacked Heather mercilessly in the media buildup to the fight. There were jokes at press conferences about her father being raped in prison, whispers about Heather’s culpability in the suicide of a best friend, dark memes she shared about an abortion Heather had gotten in high school, and casual reminders about the many times she’d visited psychiatric institutions anytime a reporter stuck a microphone in front of Santos’s face.
Whatever the line had been for decorum and honor between martial artists prior to a fight, Santos seemed intent on obliterating it each and every day. Making matters worse, during the week of weigh-ins, Heather got her period unexpectedly and no matter how many hours she spent in the sauna or bathtub, her body clung to weight with a determination that had reduced her on more than one occasion after standing on the scale to desperate sobs.
The night before weigh-ins she still needed to lose thirteen pounds. What ensued was the most intense and dangerous effort she would ever make to shed weight, forced to lie in a hotel bathtub while members of her team heated water in as many electric kettles as there were outlets in the room and poured the near-boiling water inside, one after the other, for as long as Heather could manage to remain conscious. It was without a doubt the closest Heather had ever come to dying.
Sometime around three a.m., long after she’d slipped into delirium, Heather started to mumble, repeating to herself in a non-responsive, faraway voice that finally convinced her head coach, Ali Aberdeen Swanson, that enough was enough, the fight be damned, it was time to pull the plug and take her emaciated body out of the tub and wrap in her cool towels.
“It’s my fucking space,” Heather said over and over once they placed her frail body on the linoleum. “I own it. No one controls it. No one controls it but me.”
“Listen to me darlin’,” her father said when the guards came to take him back to his cell. “I’m living through you now, all right? So don’t let any goddamn peckerwood in a robe tear the wild out of you. That wild is me.”
And the young Heather remembered the prolonged eye contact they made before the guards came and pulled him away from the glass partition, still staring at each other even after the guards had him by either arm, cursing and telling him to move his dead ass, feeling like for the first time in her brief life she could say without a shred of doubt that her father thought of her as the most important person in the world.
Thus began her inaugural fight against her first opponent, her stepfather, the pastor.
. . .
It started with the dresses — those stiff, frilly uniforms that Paul demanded she wear every Sunday that pinched the flesh beneath her armpits so tightly that her fingers would be tingly and numb by the end of his sermons. Not to mention the restricted movement, the inability she had to turn her shoulders freely or lift her arms above her head. They might as well have been straitjackets as far as young Heather was concerned. A rebellion against them became obvious and inevitable, and the purple one she was forced to wear the Sunday after she saw her father in prison became her first target.
There was always a steady flow of detailed demands that Paul made of Heather and her mother, but they were particularly intense on Sundays. Not only did he dress them, but he insisted on controlling their movements almost from the time they woke up to the evenings they spent preparing elaborate dinners after all his work at the church was over. During the service itself, the pastor insisted Heather and her mother sit in the same church pew, front and center every time, with devout attention to his sermons. Their facial expressions were of particular importance, especially Heather’s it seemed, as her stepfather would often sit with her on Saturday evenings and explain the responsibility Heather had during those moments.
“God moves through everyone during a meeting of the congregation. But so does Satan. And there’s a fight happening between God and the Devil during a sermon. And when we act bored,” he said, leaning particularly close to Heather’s little face. “When we fidget around and kick the pew and yawn with our mouth so wide open a swarm of flies could fly inside, that shows everyone that Satan is winning.”
To clearly be on God’s side, and to show the expression of calm serenity that came with that, is all he asked of his wife and stepdaughter when he was at the pulpit. And of course, that included not pulling at or adjusting or grimacing about the dresses he picked out for her. The dresses, he told Heather, were a manifestation of God’s will.
After leaving the prison, however, seeing her father resist the guards who had pulled him away from her, Heather was no longer under the assumption that she had to do what other people said. So the next Sunday, just as Pastor Paul was relaxing the intercostal muscles in his chest, readying himself for a fall to the carpet and the inevitable spasming that came with an acceptance of the Holy Spirit and an eruption in tongues, Heather slipped away from her mother and went to the church’s little bathroom, twisting her arms behind her back and yanking on the zipper until she was finally able to get the damn thing off once and for all.
When she came back to the pew, she was wearing her favorite tank top and gymnastic shorts, and she was completely barefoot, feeling at once riveted with her newfound agency, having lived her entire life up to that point thinking there was no alternative to the orders of adults, thrilled as to what was now going to come next. Pastor Paul by then was in the midst of one of his fits, speaking what he secretly believed was Aramaic, and his latest episode had captivated everyone in the parish so completely that no one paid Heather much attention, not even her mother.
The first person to notice her actually was the pastor himself, bouncing the back of his skull off the carpet at one point and turning to steal a quick look at his wife, as he often did during his fits, infatuated with the way she looked at him when he had been completely possessed by the Lord. Instead of being able to focus on Carol Anne’s lustful gaze, however, he was distracted by a glimpse of his stepdaughter’s bare shoulders. And that’s when he saw Heather, in the process of pulling apart the neat braid in her hair, stretching her bare feet across the pew, looking back at him with a subtle gleam in her eye as if to say:
“What now you fucking clown?”
. . .
Rather than punish Heather, the pastor vented his anger about his stepdaughter’s disobedience later that night at his wife.
It had been her fault for enabling her daughter’s bad behavior for so many years after all. For allowing her to be raised by a criminal. For falling in love with such a man in the first place and permitting him to enter her body and soul. Now, Paul feared, it might already be too late for her daughter. Did she know, for Pete’s sake, that Heather had not only ripped off her best Sunday dress, but stuffed it in the church toilet? Did she have any idea what it would cost to address the water damage caused by the flooding, which had seeped all the way into Aunt Doris’s office, who did the bookkeeping, and had ruined the carpet? What if there was irrevocable damage to that ancient toilet? Who was going to pay for all of it? But more important than the money, or the strain that had been thrust upon poor Aunt Doris — whose responsibilities in that small office were about all she had to look forward to in this world — was the answer to this question. Just what in holy creation could possess a child to act so… so… devilish?
Carol Anne, thoroughly rebuked and ashamed, sat Heather down that evening to try her best to impart upon her daughter the lesson she’d learned after suffering through the whole fiasco with Donald. Namely: the importance of right and wrong, of choosing the benevolence and guidance of her stepfather over the crass indolence and criminality of the man who had borne her, but all Heather could hear in that lecture was that her mother had chosen Paul, a man she’d married less than a year ago, over her own flesh and blood. That night, lying awake in her bed, her tears long since dried, she felt like her mother was no longer someone she could depend upon, and with her father likely gone forever, she began to glimpse a terrible realization for a child of nine — a thought that she would be forced to lean on many times in the coming years, especially on those nights when she would make the walk into the cage, hearing it shut and lock behind her, staring death in the face in the form of the women put in front of her, her opponents, who also understood that everyone in this world is fundamentally and irrevocably alone, and that the only person you can ever truly depend upon on moments of crisis is yourself.
This nascent belief only strengthened her intention to cling to her newfound sense of freedom at all costs. So the next Sunday, despite her mother’s pleading, Heather slipped out the church exit as soon as the children had been gathered for their weekly lesson on the New Testament and hid in the flatbed of a parishioner’s pickup truck, staring at the formation of rust on an old shovel and wondering about the impermanence of something as solid seeming as metal for the duration of the service. And the Sunday after that — after having been grounded the entire week, unable to even sit with Paul and her mother at the dinner table — she ran away before dawn, fully intent on never coming back.
“I’ll just live with my dad in prison,” she thought, not sure how exactly that setup would work, but confident that it could happen if she just had a moment to speak with a few of the guards and make her case. And it was at that exact moment, walking through the two-block radius that the residents of Waunakee referred to as their “business district”, pondering how she was going to get herself to a prison two hundred miles away, that she witnessed Brazilian Ju-jitsu for the first time.
It was in front of an old bread distribution warehouse that had been vacant for years, but recently the building had changed ownership and a small placard that simply said “Gracie Ju-jitsu” had been mounted over the faded Iron Man Bread Co. sign out front and the warehouse’s concrete floor had been covered with wrestling mats. The entrance, a massive metal garage door, had been rolled up and Heather stopped there and tried to make sense of what she was seeing — the men rolling on top of one another, sprawling for limbs, reaching for each other’s necks — not quite knowing that she’d just stumbled upon a portal that would take her to an entirely different plane of existence, but still sensing somehow that what she was now witnessing was very, very important.
She returned home later that evening looking to make a deal.
“Enroll me in Gracie Ju-jitsu,” she said with her arms folded on the dining room table, looking directly at her mother and the pastor, speaking with the finality of someone who was making their last, best offer. “And I’ll behave at church every Sunday from now on.”
And so her career as a martial artist began — a career that, by the time of her shock retirement at the age of twenty-four, would come to be known as the greatest of all time.
Anthony is a Lebanese-American author and podcast producer based in the Bay Area. He studied Creative Writing at UCLA under Mona Simpson and David Wong Louie where he was awarded with the Ruth Brill Scholarship for excellence in fiction. He recently received a fellowship at the Writer’s Grotto, and his work has been featured (or is forthcoming) in places like F(r)iction Magazine, Rusted Radishes, PANK Magazine, Miracle Monocle, and MAYDAY Magazine. He is also the founder of Jones and Woolf, an audio fiction podcast pairing short stories with original music. The podcast was named as a finalist for the Google Podcasts Creator Program, and it won the bronze medal for fiction at the Australian Podcast Awards in 2022.