I have just turned 13 when the barber-cutters come for my hair. The barber-cutters are tiny round women, their flesh tightly wound in white bandages. They wear black leather aprons over white shirts and black breeches. They make beautiful chiming music with their silver scissors. Their voices ring out over the sound of their glistening shears. I look at Mother, biting my lower lip, fretful.
But, this is our way. We follow the traditions of our House.
I sit on a stool in the large empty ballroom. Pearl-knotted strings connect me to the mould-scarred walls of the ballroom, to the age-yellow peeling ceiling and to the slashed wood floor. I keep scruffing my bare feet on the pitted floor until I get one of my big toes to bleed. The barber-cutters fling my hair, the strands swirling in the air like pale sea foam.
It feels like a little something in a whole lot of numb.
Mother dances around me in a crushed red velvet dress from centuries ago with a gold tattered shawl tied across her breasts. A million mirrors reflect her. In reflection, Mother is whole and young. In true form, Mother is close to bursting.
Cut from me, the long white braids hang from the ceiling and the walls, tracing circular patterns on the floor. I close my eyes, humming so not to cry, and draw lines in the air. I am trying to memorise the symbols.
I will forget the meaning of the words tomorrow.
In the long ballroom, the early sunlight slithers, slinks in to spread like veins to warp the wood. Red traces here, gold there, then shades of violet and silver as the light streams through the coloured window glass. The gods approve. They let in the sun.
I am a garden weeded.
‘Now’, Mother says, ‘Now, you will have a wig once your body rots and your true hair falls out.’
I am happy for her, for she is so happy. I had started my menses just that morning. Crimson lines criss-crossing darkly the soft white sheets of our large bed.
I am mapping the inner country.
I felt sick then, and later, looking in the winding mirrors that line the walls of the long gilt ballroom, watching Mother whirl in dance, I bleed through my linens and through my thin shift. The blood pools underneath the stool, gathering on the white drop cloth. It is just a little bit. Not like oceans. Not like Mother. Not even enough to worry about, really. Hardly any at all.
I jump off of the stool. In the curving mirrors, I stared back at the wavering reflection of a thin, bald girl in wonder.
I stood there, frozen. The barber-cutters snowflake-flutter all around me, collecting my hair from the floor. Some use ladders to take down my hair. They are gathering the fruit for later. I forget to ask for my stained drop cloth. What I made.
They take it away, the barber-cutters. To make my wig. To press a lock in a Memory book for later. I don’t know. It is something, Mother says. The physical remains. It proves existence. It’s important because we all forget so easily the forms we are, the ones we have been, the ways we will be tomorrow.
I am a doll when Mother bathes me hours after. I am a doll as she places food in my mouth. I am pale and thin and empty. I have bled right through and onto the drop cloth and now my limbs, they are the wax. Now, my limbs, they are the glass. I should fear the sun more often. I should stay in rooms where the strings will attach me and hold me safe.
I come alive that night when she holds me in her arms to whisper, ‘When you sacrifice everything, you have everything to gain.’
I have a wall-sized easel set up in the green glass hothouse. I have a cool breeze from the ocean that comes streaming through the cracks in the glass. I have dead and dying greenery plants in shattered pottery. I have pale white flowers living off the remains. Only the poison flowers thrive this close to the ocean, this far from the greening lands. Only the poison resides here, near a house set adrift on the wide Seanassey Cliffs.
That copper scent filling the hothouse is the ocean. The bitter dusty taste of it will remain in the mouth for days. And nights. It crawls to bury under the tongue. Food and drink will make the taste live again, live all over anew. It coats that which is devoured. I can always taste the full depth of cells. The memory of writhing tissue.I once wrote in a painting before I covered it up with more paint so that no one would know except for me: that which thrives, survives. That is my very favorite painting.
I will paint forever, sleeping now and then on the soft damp loveseat, covered in thick woven blankets. It is always moist here but I can bathe whenever I like. I have a porcelain claw-foot tub in the hothouse just for that. I keep my extra linen wraps in the big carved trunk by the loveseat. I am allowed to wrap myself tightly in corseted bandages as long as I don’t tie them too tightly. Some youth are so vain, they bind themselves until they are cut in two.
I cannot swim in the ocean, however. It is forbidden. It is taboo. We fall apart without structure, Mother says. That is one law to keep us safe.
I am checked often by our doctor to make sure I do not have a fever or chill. Sometimes the doctor takes blood while I paint. I can paint with either hand. I am clever that way.
When he takes my blood, it goes through the tiny wires into a thin glass tube cylinder. He shakes it, taps it, and holds it to the light. My blood is a deep purple with small shimmery gold lights. Sometimes, if he stays to talk to Mother, my little blood cylinders gain a smoke, a blackening that swirls the lights.
I paint the ocean at evening tide. I paint the poison flowers and differing perspectives of our house. Our house always looks choked in the white flowers. A throat swallowed in diamonds. Our house pushes back at the ocean. My painted house is black with red veined vines and the full blush of white. My painted ocean is black with blue swirls and silvery flakes.
The secret of the abyss is this: I could be drowning not so much to surrender as to self-devour. I think I have painted that in. I think I have it somewhere.
When I paint people, their faces blur and glide, and the bones seem to liquefy within the flesh. Sometimes their limbs are replaced with wings and wire. Sometimes they shift into other animals like the fossils left in Memory books. Usually, they are very hungry. It is something about the charred holes of their eyes, the loose hold of their jaws.
Mother makes dolls. They open up at the chest. Inside, she puts bits of the flesh that she keeps in the large glass containers in the walk-in pantry of the kitchen. She uses large tongs. She does not trust the formaldehyde. She does not trust the rupture of flesh, the keeping of wax. She does not like to put her belief in the science of others.
There are hearts floating in the thick yellowing liquid of the glass containers. To take a piece, she uses a special wooden chopping board and her largest butcher knife.
As a little girl, I would sit on a large stool, drinking straight from the cooking pot, watching her and marvelling that such a large knife could slice delicate teacake-sized portions of heart. These bits of heart belong to the children who did not survive. They are my brothers and sisters. Other parts are kept in the walk-in walk-about pantry in the walls of shelves in glass.
Whenever I dance around the kitchen, I leave the pantry door open. I dance for my brothers and sisters. It is a good thing. It is a giving thing. They like it. The eyes always follow. Sometimes their tiny hands wave within the formaldehyde like sea-grass in the ocean, like the tongues of the mermaids from the Memory books.
I am not allowed to tap on the glass.
Mothers’ dolls are collectibles. They are extremely expensive. I am not allowed to speak with the customers but I can spy on them with Mr. Gaines. The customers, they come to trade. All of their flying ships work. They are very careful and suspicious, customers. They are very delicate, customers. Fragile.
Mother knows Mr. Gaines and I watch. She simply asks that we do not giggle.
We sit in a big comfortable armchair in the secret passageway of a crawlspace within the parlour walls. I sit on Mr. Gaines’ lap. My legs entangle his. I like to wrap my legs around him. He likes to stroke me where I split open. Where I gape open-mouthed in my burial places.
Mother feels I should know the business and the conduction of money but I should not have to dirty my hands until after I have been married a few times. I am expected to take over then. When I have matured. When I have developed fully.
I am 16 when I get my first suitor. I meet him in the violet parlour. The flowers here are white in the morning and brown by evening. There is the hint of fingerprints on the petals. There is the crush in the stems that speaks of murder. That milky comfortable smell of baby’s breath does not reside within the flowers. That scent can be traced to the dust within the fabric of the violet walls.
Our lives in arrangement of flowers. Our lives in the patterns of cracks.
If I close my eyes and trace the symbols left in the air, I might remember the words.
Mr. Gaines watches. I can sense his giggling. I wonder then if Mother watches also, sitting on his lap and holding Mr. Gaines’ big hands as I would have. I wonder then, as I have so many times before, if his big hands also stroke her burial places.
I don’t know what I am supposed to do with my suitor so, when he talks, I just smile and nod. I don’t understand one word he is saying. I think he is foreign. I think he is alien. I don’t think he is male. He is not of a house. He is from the stars. He came in a ship. It is broken. Then, he walked right up to our house. Our house. He chose our house. He chose me. I can choose him. I choose him.
I am only a doll when I lay down. I am only a doll sometimes. I am something other than the rest of the time.
When he is done talking, he takes off my blouse. I stare at the wall.
I am looking for the peepholes in the walls. I don’t know why. No one can see them from out here in the parlour. The secret passageway of a crawlspace is completely hidden. But, I imagine anyway, that I can see Mother and Mr. Gaines. I try reading their thoughts. It is faint at first because the male is doing things to my neck and it is hard to concentrate. Then, I hear Mother and Mr. Gaines thinking.
Mr. Gaines is thinking about flashing lights. This makes me giggle. Mother is not thinking of anything at all. This makes me sad.
My suitor pushes his cold damp hands past my shift bodice. He pinches my nipples. I fall deeper into the couch. I am drowning in feathers. I have rough pearls clenched in my teeth. They are biting into my lip. I have the roar of the ocean in my ears; it is saying something to hurt the wide Seanassey Cliffs. To break them open.
My suitor climbs on top of me. He fumbles with my skirts, then with his breeches.
He is puzzled by my bandages, by my white wraps. I have only bound myself up to my waist. It is not time to bind further than that yet. He really is a foreigner. I open my mouth to explain and I can hear Mother thinking. She is thinking: Shhhhh.
I giggle instead to keep him.
I sing, ‘I am in cocoon. I am embryo.’
That which distracts, lives to splinter another day. I will paint this. I will paint these words with the lace bones and feathered wings of birds from the Memory books. I will then press into the paint the insect bodies and shells from the Memory books.
He is cold all the way through. From shaft to stern. He is space without stars.
He is happiest just before I pierce him from within. He is happiest just before I take a nip. He draws back, startled. He looks at me.
I smile up at him. I am happy for him. Mother is thinking in blues. Mr. Gaines is thinking in flickers of lines and folded space.
My suitor looks around, warned suddenly and listening. There is nothing in the room for him to see. There is nothing for him to sense. There is no danger here.
My suitor comes back in to me to drink. Sweat breaks his brow. The locks of his long brown hair have a thick texture that, when taken in my mouth, spears the pearls.
And we are married.
We move into the little carved stone garden house behind Mother’s house. The writhing stone of the little house jets out into space and cuts into the skies, into the folding oceans that spread out into far-reaching distance. It has two rooms. One for sitting and eating. One for bedding. The carvings follow the stone inside. Inside, they are cut into the stone so that the walls withdraw into crevices. Fingers must go in seeking to find.
I don’t have to cook, but I do try to make the foods he likes. I don’t have to clean, but I do try. He teaches me what his words mean. His language is beyond repetitive. His language is limited and awful. He has a foul scent like something heavy and clotting.
I rub his clothes in the poison of the flowers to change his scent. I soak his clothes in the tide of the black ocean to bring him into our being. I drag his clothes behind me on the rocks as I climb the Seanassey Cliffs. Nothing clings to him. He smells just like he did when he first got here. I cannot save him at all from himself.
He is too different from us. He hates the pale green dust that covers everything. He hates the white flowers with their blue and violet veins, with their cloying scents. Like death coming, he says. He hates the black ocean that breaks below. Like a million voices singing off-key, he says. He hates the wideness of the Seanassey Cliffs. Empty, forlorn, and going nowhere. He cannot abide the stillness.
He says it is fading here. Everything is shifting themes of water.
He keeps his little ship in sight of our little carved stone garden house. He says he is making repairs. He says one day he is going to take me away from all of this. He says I would like the deeper oceans of the skies.
He says the stars come in the spinning walls of the ship like lights that pierce the skin. He says the stars are the missing parts of who we are. What we have drifted away from. I have no idea what that means. I think he is a liar.
That which is important and real is kept in Memory books. My husband does not keep Memory books. My husband keeps everything locked in his head. How can he trust himself if it is all kept in his head? Doesn’t he realise the falsity of that? My husband thrives on illusion.
Mostly, I paint, walking the short distance from the little stone house to the green glass hothouse. My husband’s name is Mr. Jesse and he sleeps a lot and goes out walking at night. There is nowhere for him to go. We all keep to ourselves here. We all keep to our houses.
I am not the only one wrapped. I am not the only one held in glass.
Mostly he screams at his little ship.
Then, he goes back to working on it. He says soon we are leaving. He is dedicated. To his little ship, to me, to leaving. He has a computer on board that reconstructs little ship skin out of the soft thick air. Together, my husband and his computer are rebirthing the little ship.
When he comes home as the sun is rising, he stumbles into bed, fully dressed. If I fight him in my sleep, he remains persistent in his wooing. If I continue to resist, he eventually gives up and pouts, his back shrugging off my hands. Then, he will not speak to me, will not look at me for days. If I am open to him, and I do learn to be so, he will slip himself in, cold and damp, and push at me until he is warmed again. He kisses wetly, sucking at me, with his hands clamped onto the back of my neck.
I cannot find words in his language to tell him. I would like to wrap him. I would like to stop the bloom. Sometimes the most precious moment is the stillness before.
I would not like it so much if it did not make me feel needed.
I like being necessary. I like it when he is necessary, too.
And I only take a little. Here and there. Now and again. He notices it less and less. My husband is starting to grow used to me. I am becoming the only familiar constant. Sometimes I really like him. He has this thing he does with his tongue.
I tell him, ‘I am not going anywhere, this is my home.’
He says, ‘Yes, but it is not my home. And you are mine. You will come with me when I go.’
I say, ‘What is there for me?’
He says, ‘Me’, and laughed.
I persist, ‘What is it that the stars could give me that I do not have now?’
He grows serious, staring down hard into me. That is what the narrowing of his eyes means. He is thinking. He is considering me.
He says, quietly, ‘They give you back the parts of yourself that have been lost. They make you whole.’
Now, when I paint, my paintings are dark, all the forms hazy and blurred as if seen through a lace veil. I am concerned that my husband is not lying.
I am worried I am becoming alien. I think I have been contaminated. I think I have been consumed.
I think I do not mind his horrible smell so much anymore. I think I even like his fleshy heaviness. He is something that keeps to its form as much as it can. He is something that resists and struggles. He does not taste so much like the copper scent of ocean as he does of a tangy musky salt well-spiced.
When he is working on his ship sometimes, I feel very alone. I feel like something is missing. Like I am starving.
I feel then like I am the wax of childhood. I am limbs waiting to be filled.
‘Are you happy?’ Mother asks me as she sits on my loveseat in the pale green hothouse. She shivers slightly. It is changing outside. It is growing colder. The hint of snowflakes that summons sleep. Quiet here, underneath. Slow stirring that promises. Just an ember, just a breath. Just a folded wrap. Every year, the ocean draws near. Every year, the skies yawn broader and deepen.
My husband is crawling in and out of his little ship. He is very busy. He is very driven. Seen through the pale green of the hothouse, he bleeds at the edges of himself. He looks like a thinning shadow collapsing.
‘Oh, yes’, I answer and I stab my canvas. It is a flood of colour; it is spotted and nothing blends. Up close, my painting is a mess but, from far away, it is a vibrant scream. At my feet, water gathers. I have overflowed my claw-footed tub. I cannot remember if I have taken a bath. I cannot remember the last time I did. I am flooding the stone floor of the hothouse.
‘But, I miss you and Mr. Gaines’, I add, slowly.
Mother rises from the loveseat and comes to me. I peer down sideways, listening. Brown vines and white flowers filled to bursting, made thick from the water, cling to her ankles. The perfume chokes the air.
‘Look’, she says, holding out her hands to me.
I look down and find her hands full of her long gold hair. Mother puts the hair into my hands. My hands are paint smeared. The hair tangles there, clumps of black, red, violet, and blue meshing into the gold strands.
‘I am rotting already’, Mother sighs. ‘And you are still so young.’
Then, she walks out of the hothouse. I take the handful of hair and sweep it into my painting. It clots there, heavy and unmovable. I stab the canvas with the sharp end of my brush until there is a hole. I shred and rip at the hole until it forms a crater.
My eyes leak. I brush the wetness away with the back of my hand.
There is something that is filling me, surging through me. It doesn’t belong to me, with me. It is foreign. It is learned. I have adapted it to me. My husband does this sometimes. He has given me this. He says it means we have touched. He says it means we are translating. He says it means we can understand each other. We care to. We want to.
Then, through the hole in my canvas, I can see the calm green glass of the hothouse walls. I am looking inward, seeing without.
I am comforted.
I am feeling calm and still. The wetness dries.
And the ocean screams up into the Seanassey Cliffs. A crack forms in the green glass of the hothouse walls as seen through my little crater hole.
Mother is dying. And it is all my fault. I was raised better than this.
I go back to the little carved stone house and wait at the stone table where I set the meals my husband likes to eat. My husband watches me cross the yard from the hothouse to our house but he hasn’t stopped working on his little ship. He is still working on his ship and here I am, telling him to come see me. It is right there in my head.
I pick at my bodice. I am leaking through my bandages. I am staining my dress. I am tearing on the outside. I pull the bodice away and look down. It is crusted black in places, in the creases of my wraps. Mother is dying and here I am, ripening. Nearly bursting.
I really should pay more attention. I am always thinking of myself.
I am not alone. I am belonging to a house. There are others to think about.
I am not a little doll anymore, watching from the secret crevices of the crawlspaces. I am not sitting on Mr. Gaines’ lap with his large hands in my burial places. I am a married woman. I have a husband. I am going to have to sew that up. I am still young enough. I am not Mother’s age.
My husband still doesn’t come.
They are slow where he comes from, I think.
Finally, I call out to him, ‘Mr. Jesse.’
He still doesn’t come.
So, I say, ‘Mr. Jesse, Mother is dying.’
Now he comes. He stands there in the doorway, watching me.
‘My computer has the medical intelligence for analysing most viruses’, he says. He wipes his hands on his breeches. ‘I know you all are superstitious when it comes to technology…but, I would like to help.’
I am quiet, still staring at him. I am trying to understand him.
‘We are not like you’, I say finally. ‘Your computer cannot help Mother.’
‘I know, I know’, my husband says, shaking his head, ‘I am blocked here no matter what I do. I keep trying to fit in and you all make damn sure I know I will always be an outsider.’
My husband comes up to me very quickly. He slams one hand on the table. He lowers his face closely into mine. I am still. I do not know what his kind do. I do not know what this means.
‘We are not so different’, he says through his teeth. ‘We are not. You will see. I think I have finished all the repairs.’
My husband squats down until he is looking up at me with my thighs caught between his hands. I make a motion with my hands. I am not conscious of it. I let it come on through. It feels strange. I put my hands on his face until I am cradling his head. He smiles, nuzzles his mouth into one of my hands.
He says softly, gently, then, ‘I will drag your mother on board if I have to and prove it to you all. We are not incompatible species. Then, you and me, we are leaving this place. I can show you real civilisation. A real life…not like this…
‘Mr. Jesse, Mother is dying’, I say slowly.
My husband stares at me. Then, he nods. ‘You cannot leave the house until the elder…of course. I am sorry, I have been blind. It is very traditional here.’
He takes my hands into his. I smile at him, nodding. I am very happy for him.
I push him away gently and I rise from the wooden bench. I take off my jacket and unlace my shift. I step out of my skirt. My husband stares, frozen.
‘You are hurt’, he murmurs. His hand motions at my bandages. The leaking has spread to blacken the white bandages.
‘Yes’, I say, softly, coming to him.
I brush his hands away and press up into him. He is slow to respond. They are truly slow where he comes from.
Then, I find his tongue and he is glad for it. I latch onto his tongue and go into him gently. He tries to draw away. He thinks I am using my teeth. My tiny little sharp-edged teeth. But, when the scent comes through me, through the seedling tendrils in my mouth and into his, when the poison releases, he relaxes. It has a calming effect.
I only took a little from him. Here and there. What I return now is based on his own DNA. He can translate it. The poison I give him is part of him.
I look into his eyes to watch his pupils dilate. His eyes are grey.
Before my husband, I did not have that word, grey. We do not have that colour in our house. I do not know of any house that does. Grey. It is amazing. I asked him once: Where you come from, are many things like this? Yes, he said, many things. You will see many things you can’t even imagine.
When his eyes are fully dilated, I know that it is safe. I want to hurt him as little as possible. It is strange. I did not know that we could come to care for our husbands like this. Mother leaves parts out.
That which varies from instinct is lost in translation. I must remember to paint those words. I would like to leave something for someone. I may even not paint over the words.
His shaft grows hard so I have to take that in, too, finally. He hisses and bends backwards, away from me, breaking the kiss. I rock gently to release. He is very heavy. With his legs numb, he cannot hold up either of us. We nearly fall. His mouth keeps trying to form his words. It would take me too long to figure them out. I cannot understand him. His words are just sounds.
The grey of his eyes leak clear. I cannot stop looking into them. In his language, this means something to me. I almost can remember it. There are emotions for the words. It is like another life. It is like something I dreamed while in cocoon. When I was just an embryo, an infant. Wings wrapped in cotton wisp.
My husband shudders. I let him go. He falls heavily onto the floor. He is choking on his tongue. His numb-pierced tongue. The more he struggles, the more he resists, the faster the poison works through him. The round curves of his cells mutate. Follow the laws of poison. Dance the protein strings. The birth of little spinning hooks.
It is like looking through lace. But, it is my fingers. I am holding them up before my face and peering through them. I am.
My face is wet, too, like his for some reason and I need my fingers to wipe it dry.
I will not remember this later. I cannot retain the knowledge. It seems, though, a waste. The wetness is just so unnecessary.
I can only put physical things in the Memory books.
My husband twitches on the floor. The poison is rendering him. My fluids are preparing him. Husbands cannot be taken in their natural state. They have to be prepped. They have to be moulded. I have been a good wife. In some houses, the husbands scream.
I call to Mother. In our way.
In the little yard that separates the house from the stone house, Mother loses the back part of her scalp. The tear runs from her head in strips and pulls down some of the skin of her back as it falls. She is nearly nude, dress-less. Only the decaying fraying white wraps remain. One breast flops past her stomach, the flesh barely keeping within the bandages. She nearly stumbles. Her bones are weak with holes.
Just past Mother, Mr. Gaines stands in the hothouse, watching. He is grinning. He is the loveliest shade of green. In the ever-weakening sunlight, Mr. Gaines glows brightly.
The sound of his whirling, chittering teeth comes through the glass faintly. If he were to stand in the hothouse doorway, the scent of him would flood the yard. The smell of sweet-tinged copper as it mingles with sharp herbal overtones and the sharp underneath nesting of rot.
The males of our house. They smell divine but they are impotent.
On the floor, my husband has rolled to his side in an effort to lie on his belly. He starts vomiting up his insides. It is uncontrollable. A sound escapes me that is foreign.
And, driven on by the smell of that vomiting, of a breeding ground made fertile, Mother comes, humming vibrantly.
Panting at the doorway then, Mother rests, leaning against the stone. There is a blackness at the corner of her mouth. A mucus-thick liquid. It is part of the enzymes she needs to break down my husband. The blackness runs down her legs as well, from deep within her burial place.
Mother pushes herself forward and falls. She has to crawl to get on top of my husband. He shudders beneath her but he is past caring. When he is beneath her, she nearly shreds him trying to turn him over onto his back.
Her burial place mouth takes in his soft member. Her face mouth delivers the kiss.
Mother rocks. Mother takes. Mother gives.
One kiss inflicts pure material, undiluted. One kiss swallows the cross-bred adaptation. Husbands filter.
When her black kiss becomes the sticky-clear tinged with blood, Mother will be pregnant again. It murders her that so few of us survive. It makes Mother very sad.
Her sadness is always screaming in my ears. No child should ever hear their Mother cry. It is an act of violence.
Mother starts grunting and thrusting. I walk out of the little stone house.
Mr. Gaines is throwing himself against the green glass of the hothouse wildly, nearly breaking it. Already lines have spread from that crack the ocean gave it earlier. I look away from him.
There is a sudden silence in my head. A stillness. I have an inheritance.
My husband has left behind a working ship that flies. My husband has left behind a working computer with maps to the stars, to other planets. To other husbands.