At night I hear rustling made by the silver hands of the maiden that I’ve cut out from old biology text books and newspapers. She appears by my bed side, wan and pale visage frozen as I’ve fated it, and casts long shadows against the wall.
I, cruel as a mother can be, left her no hands.
God knows where she’s acquired these silver ones, heavy, dangling limply by her side, still unaccustomed to use. Where has she been all of these months?
Her mouth is sunk into a plump, pale green pear plucked from the tree in the yard. She can’t speak. The juice trickles down and in places dampens and distorts her crisp silhouette Her right side sags, sticky with ink and glue running down her side. The honeycomb print of her skirt is cut from photographs in a children’s zoology book. She flips like a page in the draft to face the window, and on her back the text reads:
A BAT ( below): These are not birds. They have no feathers; instead they are covered with fur; they feed their young with milk as do all mammals. Bats stay in such dark places as caves and barn lofts during the day, and come out in the evening to catch insects. They fly through the air on swift, silent wings, catching mosquito and other insects harmful to men. They are more likely to fly into a person’s hair than bir..
The remaining text along with the photograph of the bat is severed below the head where I cut out my daughter’s skirt hem. The text crinkles at the pleats as the breeze drifts in. She is quieter than usual and I leave her alone. I look through her things-they smell perfumed, strange. Where the hell has she been? I take her things to the attic room. Fold her clothes into neat little paper squares.
I’ve lived here for quite awhile without company; I’ve gotten old here without ever needing to leave. The smells of the place, the shifting colors of the day- they’re me spilling over. I don’t know if I could exist in another landscape. I am this slowly crumbling structure- I feel the mold eat away at the walls; I feel the termites in my knees.
I would forget who I was if it weren’t for the details of this house. My days are a familiar hum and the daily gradation of colors by which I keep the time. I have memorized how shadows look but I keep no mirrors. When I chanced upon a shard from a car mirror in the street I caught sight of myself for the first time in decades.
My face is smooth and uncreased still, I’ve had little to laugh or cry about.
I could be 20, I could be younger but it doesn’t matter because I was never pretty, not like my own daughter, although sometimes I can’t tell. She is either very ugly or very beautiful
I think of my mother, a healthy peasant girl dangling still rosy and blonde in the kitchen doorway. My hair falls in smoke colored coils now. And I am relieved that there is no one to look at it.
It’s mine; it’s soft and smooth in my hands, I cherish braiding it in the evening. It falls in a herringbone braid to the small of my back, and I sit here playing with shadows and begin to think I lucked out with this solitary life.
I was never pretty, but look what good it did them. I always knew that I wasn’t separate from the magnolia scent growing heavy in the evening, from the twilight crawling slanted up the hill to this crooked house.
I am sitting here with rusty scissors again. The same pair for every task.
There is a part of me, attached to me, that does not belong. It is bound to me by an enchanted thread, secured with the double stitch of my mother’s industrial strength sewing machine. I have had no success yet but sometimes I cut at the thread and watch the stitches unravel and fall away like dead skin before they regenerate.
This squirrel tale hidden in my skirts; red like my father’s beard.
Growing up, my own mother worked at a handbag factory drafting blueprints. My mother who grew far away in the snow, dried pasque flowers by her bed to remind her. She was young and alienated, English clunky through her teeth.. When I was a girl she taught me to cut patterns from newspaper. She brought me botched and malformed hand bags to keep for myself, hoping to initiate me into the rituals of girlhood, expecting that I’d play dress up. And she taught me to make a few simple, straight forward things: a stiff a-line skirt from a rudimentary pattern, stitched from our old table cloth. A strange checkered thing that I wore to school for years. Stiff and unflattering but nonetheless, I was proud that I’d made something and wore it long after the cream beige turned the color of melting snow. This was after my father died.
This crooked house was my father’s palace when he was alive. He settled here to build his solitude. The building took on his shape, he had a crooked nose that swiveled to one side of his face, a lazy eye and a sideways way of looking at you when he spoke. I remember his tobacco stained teeth, his nose sunk into yellowed pages. The smoke from the papercup factory at the bottom of the hill hangs in the air here, the pervasive sickly sweet smell from the pig hides in the glue, like ham and vanilla.
My mother was 17 when she first walked through these doors, round face framed by feathered hair, peroxide colored to snow. The clouds hung low where she was from, daughter of a miner employed by Ultrablast, like every other daughter in that town. In the mornings she swept up layers of carcinogenic dust that accumulated on their living room floor.
My father kissed the series of welts that ran up her arm and in some months they faded, but a dry cough continued to rattle her, lulled me to sleep for years.
Underneath her picture in the catalog it read “ I am romantic, like healthy lifestyle, kind, loyal, have old fashioned values.” There is a ghost here too, if you can call it that, a small blue flame that I sometimes see in the morning, it flickers on and off, barely a ghost since it was barely alive. My mother, when her periods stopped for the first time, found a bottle of house cleaner and drank up the last dregs.
The second time it happened I think she had ceased to resist and 7 months later, I was born, a 10 pound preemie. With a head of curly red hair and squirrel’s tail stitched to me at that.
The spirits did that, she says, the domovois, to punish her for taking away her first child. She would cross herself when she mentioned it, cross herself when she lathered me up in the bath.
Father was a professor of philosophy. He never beat her, I never saw him kiss her, never saw him touch her. He watched her when he knew she wouldn’t return his stare. He couldn’t face her eyes, green and pale like cool stream water under ice. He died of lung cancer when I was 5, and my mother went a year later, 24 years old and I still don’t know the cause.
But she lingered a while after- wandering the halls, confused, crossing herself and then dissipating, rematerializing. I crawled up to the attic, and hid a pile of her clothing, in her still alive smell while the police cut her body down and took away the smell of rot.
For a while it was still just me and her in the house until something began to change and her shape grew blurrier, fainter and fainter, until one day she faded altogether.
I’d been going to grade school without a problem, knew how to steal food and sew my own clothes, knew how to forge every signature needed. I never have had cause to leave this place. So I grew old here, grew into myself inside of myself.
I never named her because I had forgotten my own name, we had no need of names, she and I.
One day over a breakfast of texts and images severed from musty pages and old spines, she looked up at me and said “ Collagen.” and I replied, “ Beg your pardon?.” Those were her first words. I realized that she was imploring me to address her as Collagen, and humoring her somewhat, I began to refer to her lovingly as Collie, like a dog. She never did say much after that.
I never had a mate; my daughter gestated in me as a mad impulse that I kept at bay for months, she was born of the sticky scent from the glue factory, the vapors that wafted into my body and lodged her in my mind. She was a nausea and a dizzy feeling, a sickness that drove me to do strange things until I rid myself of her. They crept through the windows and permeated the house- those vaporous ghosts of burning hooves, rabbits, and fish.
So it makes sense that she is so bestial, wild eyed and grotesque, thin like a crooked branch, a freshly stripped bone. She never did learn to speak, my Collie. And where did she acquire these hands of thick and glossy metal? Where does she wander to when she leaves me? Collie, dumb as a dog. But how beautifully she’s learned to move those hands that once dragged down her flimsy body, brassy in the moonlight as she gorges herself on pears, nocturnal in that orchard, covered in small red bugs and burrs, trailing dirt and juice and bits of paper that loosen themselves from her slight frame-glue will not stick to my Collie. And as they fall away I notice another structure, she’s made herself a skeleton, a nest, a nest body to dwell in. But I mend her. And I am always mending her, always mending she that sprouted in me like some psychosis, when I am so content alone. I had never before been lonely, and where are my scissors?
I wished that she would stop, that she would let these paper scraps fall away from me. I relish in the rain that has always been forbidden to me, I bathe in streams, edge up against a rock and scratch the laminate from my body, taking pleasure in the sodden, crinkled reflection refracted back to me. I am melting, pulpy skin pertrifying into a thick papier mache shell embedded with leaves and dirt, a rough grey replacing the once smooth gloss of my mosaic of images. I am looking more grotesque than she could ever imagine, but I am clever and I know that my life doesn’t inhere in her cuttings. Her rusty scissors jab at my side through my dirty apron. From her I’ve learned how to tinker. In a the hollow of the pear tree I’ve assembled a cache of bones and rusted metal salvaged from my nocturnal excursions through the forest and to the rocky bottoms of streams.
Now that my mother is gone she stays with me in floods of smell and sense, human smells that could never be my own.
Mother thought that I was a dunce when I would sit for hours, gazing at the crows perched on the intertwining branches of the pear tree. They alight on my left shoulder, each atop the other, and together they form the shape of my guardian angel, a strange little three headed beast with a purple coat sleek as velvet. As everyone knows, angels are neither men nor women but something else altogether.
In my feast I’ve stripped the branches bare of fruit, and I’ve let the juice dry from my soaked body in the moon light. Mother’s rusty scissors jab at my side through my dirty apron, while she paces the empty halls and mutters about headaches and nausea, about strange smells wafting in from the paper cup factory. Her braid unravels and a disheveled mass of grey hair falls across her body. She cannot leave this house, and she wanders from room to room, muttering to herself and to invisible others, overturning objects in her wake. She grows her nails longs, and her hands and feet curve more and more each day until they resemble gnarled fleshy talons. But she sprouts no wings or feathers. From the yard, I glimpse Mother perched like a bird on the kitchen window sill, her squirrel’s tale tangled up in a mass of gray hair.
By night my angel helps me to assemble my findings into a body; bits of bone give me a a sturdy frame. My angel arranges these hands from scraps of metal with all of the care and diligence of a mother bird assembling a nest. Once I can use my them, I fill my crevices with dirt and clay, and pretty weeds sprout from where I’ve caught the wind’s spores. A thin covering of moss gives my rusty frame a nice finish. But my hands: they sparkle and refract the moonlight like water.
By day, I sneak back into the house where my mother has taken to slumbering suspended from the door way where her own mother once hung, clasping the ceiling beam with her talons. I snip at the thread that attaches her tail to her body, but sure enough, as she told me it would, it regenerates anew.
It has grown shorter, but that escapes her attention. My angel has a taste for flesh; I feed him morsels of boiled tail while I feast on pears. His appetite is slight next to my hunger: insatiable, never ending.