She hugged me goodbye and left in her boat. I didn’t wait for the boat to grow smaller. I walked into the jungle. I wanted to be something real.
Huma Bhabha, Untitled, 2009. Ink and pastel on paper, 12 x 16 in.
Courtesy the artist, Salon 94 and GRIMM Gallery
I was nothing like my first mother. She crouched in the corner of her pen, her foot scraping the red sawdust out from under her. She was alone, wrestling my head from between her legs. Her knees barely shook. All of me came sloughing out at once. It felt like her insides were bolting through a trap door, wrongly opened. She scuttled in the sand trying to get it back in. She ate the slick sack that had held me inside her belly. They put a needle in her to buckle her knees. Down she went. She slept with her mouth open for sixteen hours, until it was dry and cracked inside where they’d pulled out her teeth. And all my loose flailing limbs were cinched tight in a pink blanket to the mumblings of baby, baby. Here was a little baby girl.
My new mother and father flew with me on an airplane, wrapped in the blanket inside a bassinette. Passengers saw my breath moving the covers and thought about bowed lips and shadowy lashes, the little one, squirming in her sleep.
Here is what I looked like: black hair over my body, my face a pale heart shape. I had ears like half-saucers, ridged brow, heavy jaw, a broad smile. Wrinkles rippled under my eyes, gritty dunes. A pale puff where my umbilical cord was snipped away. Here is what I looked like: I had a straight white line for my part, a yellow bow by my ear. I had limbs that would shuffle snug inside my blanket. I had warm papery palms.
I was pink and newly picked. My mother ironed a clean line into my skirts. My stomach was a paper lantern lit by a candle.
My new mother kept her mouth clean, flossing twice a day with a string taut around her finger. When she was done her fingertip would be drained of blood, pale yellow and cold. She had a waistline, a strawberry hairline, two girdles for hiding her panty line, and certain parts of her, and for not hiding other parts. Some days when my father left she’d unbutton her shirt and rock me, cupping her breast, saying, I am your mother, I am your mother, hoping for milk. I’d always have to take the bottle. My mother, she had a raised birthmark right in the middle of her breasts, a dapple of pink that my father never saw. She wore camisoles to bed, and slept with her hair in a thick braid. He never touched her there. I saw her mark. I thought, to be a daughter! Seeing what mothers aren’t supposed to show.
Whose voice is this, if not mine? They filled my hands with words. Ball, Barrette, Baby Doll. Some I latched onto. The baby doll I kept tucked under my chin, her scratchy swath of blonde hair at my lips. Whose words were they, if not mine? It was my ball, partly deflated, that I liked to sit on in the corner. My mother would pinch two wisps of hair behind each ear into barrettes. I tried not to scratch at those two stinging places where the hair was pulled tight. Here is what I grew to like: my mirror, my bow. I liked the afternoons when my mother would sit on her bed with her blouse around her hips. The light would slant through the window shade, striping her with shadow across her rib cage. When I crawled into her lap I could see the bumps raised on her chest, hair follicles that hadn’t quite evolved to magazine smoothness. The plucked skin of a bird.
Later she’d sit me in the chair, before my father came home. The spoon would wobble in my fingers. I’d eat with the wrong end. I’d loll the silver inside my cheek, wetness around my mouth. When my father pulled into the drive, she’d hold out a handful of food and, looking away, let me snuffle against her palm, taking the mealy dinner into my mouth. She’d rub me hard with a hankie as he came in the door, and we’d straighten our pleats. Goodnight father. He’d sing to me, after he thought I was asleep. Another sweet clean night.
Dad told people I was his darling girl. My face with its smushed electrical-socket nose was a darling face, his girl’s.
There was the age when I was small as a banana leaf, stuck by a storm against the warmth of my mom’s stomach. The age when I could throw my arms around my dad’s neck and he would gallop me from room to room. The age when they gave me a bow and a mirror, and I learned those words, because they made my hands wring out their shapes. The age when I could fit into my Easter dress without the zipper catching the hair on my back. Back then they taught me how to make tea, and I’d make tea for guests that came over. They’d scribble in notebooks, their cheeks pinked, marveling how I didn’t singe myself on the burners. When I was three I switched to drinking gin and tonics. My hands were less obedient. My parents didn’t mind. My body didn’t mind. My arms grew longer.
I learned so fast. They gave me an old radish, I called it cry hurt food. I wanted watermelon and I signed for candy drink. Dad told people I was his darling girl. My face with its smushed electrical-socket nose was a darling face, his girl’s.
My father trained me to walk everywhere but in front of the television, when he was watching the news. He let me make noise during the commercials. My mother held my hand all the time, and I signed into it. Dad patted my head sometimes, but mostly he let me pat his head.
One day I was playing on the swing like I always did, and the air blew up my dress and lifted between my legs, lighting something from my belly button to my toes. I wanted to get back to that feeling. My grandfather came to visit. I made him tea in my green dress, and he seemed to like that. After dinner I went upstairs and listened to their forks and knives on desert plates. I found the hole and felt inside myself. There were soft-edged shapes inside me. Later, while we were watching I Love Lucy, I rubbed the remote between my legs. The remote went hot, like the sun-warmed seat on the bicycle they had me ride around the lawn. Grandfather, father, and mother watched me, but I kept my eyes closed, streaming along on my bicycle, the wind up my skirt. The heat moved into my body, spreading and lifting me up, no more cackling on the TV. I was a hot-air balloon rising out of sight. I was knitting into the sky.
There was the age when I grew to like the two clean lines of muscle that men have grooved over their hips. My dad bought me a magazine. My mother called it a “skin magazine.” They fought about it. He won and gave me the magazine. He watched me and took notes. The pulse of animal, animal, animal ticked through our rooms. I loved my bow and I loved my dresses. I loved my mirror, but I put the handle inside me. They took it away from me, then gave it back, an experiment. My mother taught me to vacuum. I sat on the humming handle. Blood-hued insides, smooth and elastic. Matted black hair under a little girl’s hem. I had turned a corner, and they couldn’t see me anymore, just. My mother was always trying to catch me around that corner, even as I sat in her lap. “Let me tell you how babies are born,” she said. I put my hands over my ears. Pictured what I knew: a mother walking into a cornfield. Ripping a green ear of corn from the stalk and shucking the green husk down. A baby, small as her palm, sleeps inside the soft corn silk.
I saw a picture of my namesake. She was a careful arrangement of bones on black velvet. Her ribs were like a stadium of seats that looked out on her pelvis. Her pubic bone was the same as a modern woman. Her jaw was stronger. Her teeth were long and pointed. She lurched along on two legs. Flat-footed. Lucy. Lucy, meaning, “you are amazing.”
I outgrew my dress. My back split the seam. Mom stitched it up. They wouldn’t hug me that year. My arms whirled without my control. I knocked over the flower vase, the umbrella stand, the dinner glasses. My father’s hands shook when he tucked me under my covers. I tore up the curtains on purpose. I pissed in the corner of the carpet. I blamed it on my mother. Where do you go, when you outgrow the rooms? I crushed the fruits from the fruit bowl with my fingers. My mother’s hand shook when she put on lipstick. I pulled down their shower curtain. She found me curled up on her side of the bed. I tried to hold her pillow gently. It was a feather pillow. It smelled like her collar, when she used to let me hang at her neck, my face pressed to her sweater. Her smell was sweet and warm, a smell you could fall into. She locked me in the room. I shredded the pillow. I smashed the nightstand.
They moved me to another cage. This one was much larger. Outside was a jungle, full of colors I’d seen in my coloring book.
My arms grew to the ground. There was the age when my knuckles turned into walnuts, and my feet were long and gnarled. They didn’t let me make the tea anymore.
My mom gave her perfume to another lady. She told her to wear the perfume. Maybe then I would be confused, and think I still had my mother. When my mother cried, I copied her face and I cried. When she laughed, I put on a big smile. She cried and saw me crying, and she cried some more. Then she put on a big smile, but it wasn’t real. I put my arm around her. I groomed her. I gave her half my orange. She kept crying. My dad stuck a needle in my arm.
When I woke up I was in the back of a boat. There was a sore spot on my head, where I’d pressed against the cage. The woman that smelled like my mom’s collar was touching my arm through the cage. Somewhere between the needle and the boat I’d lost my nightshirt. There were cowlicks of hair across my front. The air was close and sharp-smelling, because I’d messed myself in the cage, all down the backs of my legs.
They moved me to another cage. This one was much larger. Outside was a jungle, full of colors I’d seen in my coloring book. There were animals in the cage with me. I was always around the corner from where they were. I was afraid of them. They rattled the bars and squeezed rotten fruit through their teeth. One grabbed me from behind and hurt me. Every day the woman who was not my mother came and stood on the other side of the cage. The animals left me, one by one. I dreamed about my parents. The longer I was without them the sharper their faces grew. I could see the lines on Dad’s forehead. My reflection in his glasses. The white trim around my mom’s buttons.
Here is what I signed:
I’ll be good.
Every day the woman who was not my mother came to visit me. All the animals were gone. I signed I’m sorry to her every day. I asked for my bow and my mirror. Sometimes when I was bad Mom and Dad would take away my bow and my mirror until I was good again. I’m sorry. I’ll be good.
I slept at the edge of the cage. I didn’t get up off the ground anymore. My stomach was like an empty sink. There was always a draining feeling. Hunger chiseled me away. When I was awake I watched my ribs move up and down. My tongue felt thick inside my mouth, coated. Sometimes noises came out of my mouth when I didn’t mean them to, raspy and small. By the time she slipped my mirror and bow through the cage, I didn’t need those things. I tucked them into the arms that curled around my body, and went back to sleep.
She led me out of the cage. Held out a leaf cupping rainwater. I turned my head away. When I swiveled my head, everything around me was set spinning, a globe. We walked and walked through the spinning green. I don’t know how long, and I don’t know when I slept. When I woke up the woman who was not my mother was looking at me. She started eating leaves out of her palm. Her nostrils were flared with hard, rapid breath. She was eating grubs. My stomach punched about inside me. I ate them too.
That was enough. She hugged me goodbye and left in her boat. I didn’t wait for the boat to grow smaller. I walked into the jungle. I wanted to be something real. I would be a chimpanzee with a long snout and white whiskers, ridged brow, pruned fingers, folds of skin, hair coarse as wire. My eyes two black lenses, thinking about survival. My mouth full of grubs. The slip of a baby growing dark inside me, small as a leech.
But when the men came, I ran to them. Shirts off in the sun, straining to walk along the sandy shore, I ran to them. They were pictures from a magazine, safe and well worn, given to me by my father. I knew my mother was behind them, and my father, and the woman who was not my mother, all together.
The poachers shot me nine times. They took my skin with them, and they took my hands.
But also, I am still there on the shore. My mother carries me. We don’t sign anything to each other. My face is pressed to the front of her shirt. My neck smells sweet to her, because I am her girl.
Anna Noyes is a recent graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and an upcoming James Merrill House Fellow. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in VICE, A Public Space, FiveChapters, and Summer Stories: Paintings by Leslie Anderson, Stories by Ten Maine Writers. She is currently at work on her short story collection Goodnight, Beautiful Women, which received the 2013 Henfield Prize for Fiction.