The first time was an accident. Isa and her mother were paring mangos, unspooling the skins in long strips that they threw behind their shoulders like pioneer girls trying to read the initials of their future husbands. Isa’s little knife slipped past the thick skin of the mango and sliced into her finger. She didn’t bleed. Instead, bright beads of red sprung to the surface on the same finger of her mother’s hand.
What struck Isa later — and what didn’t strike her at six years of age, when you could have told her that her mother had brooded her from an egg sac in an ocean den and she might have believed you — was the lack of surprise in her mother’s eyes. She just matter-of-factly rinsed off her finger under the tap and told Isa where to get the Band-Aids.
Later, on TV, they watched Winnie-the-Pooh — whose shirt was the same color as her blood, skin the flesh of the mango — and something dripped onto Isa’s head.
“Mama, you’re crying.”
“It’s nothing, Isa.”
And so they watched Pooh and Piglet and Roo and Rabbit tramp around in the Hundred Acre Wood, and Isa forgot about the Band-Aid, because it was her mother’s own finger and not hers.
Isa liked to narrate the story of her birth to her mother.
You were lonely until I happened in your belly.
Yes, I was so lonely that even the maiden who lives in the moon, in the vast and empty halls of night, took pity on my solitude.
She sent you a fairy.
Yes, a fairy.
What did she look like?
She was dressed all in white and had a silver necklace around her neck. She used it to listen to my heart.
It told her that you wanted a baby girl.
The fairy asked me to give her three teardrops, one for each of the things that hoped you might be. And I cried three big shining teardrops the color of moonlight. One was that you would be wise, one was that you would be brave—
And one was that I would never leave you!
(At this, Isa would squeeze her mother, who smelled like paint and fresh cigarette smoke and musty medicinal herbs.)
The fairy waved her wand over the three teardrops, and white silvery stuff swam all over them, and they glowed like tiny suns. A short eternity passed as we watched the fires burn and bank in them, and she plucked out the one that had burned the brightest, and she asked me to open up and swallow it.
What did it taste like?
It tasted like a live ember, like salamanders turning in the heat.
And one hot day in May, I burst the teardrop and slid out of your body.
And there you were, red and wrinkled and screaming. The midwife snipped the cord that you breathed through and placed you in my arms, and we stopped crying.
You didn’t eat the cord?
(Isa had seen the dried umbilical cord. It lived in a plastic bag in one of her mother’s drawers. It looked like a mottled amber worm.)
I took a tiny bite of it, and then I saved the rest, so that one day, if you wandered too far away, I would whisper to it, and it would sigh and shake and call you back to me.
But I’ll never leave you.
No, you’ll never leave me.
In her last year of high school, Isa wrote a furious term paper on Angela Carter’s “The Bloody Chamber,” a retelling of the tale of Bluebeard. Rebellion via term papers was, as Isa acknowledged in her wryer moments, both bloodless and pointless, but not without its minor consolations. In Carter’s rendition, the mother is the one who rides back to save the helpless bride from her demonic husband, not the bride’s siblings. Isa wrote, “Bluebeard exists in every serial killer you hear about on the news, in every man who stares too long at you on the subway. But this superhero mother is pure fantasy.” Her teacher passed her paper back to her with a note to be less dramatic in academic prose. At the bottom, she wrote, “Why didn’t Carter have the father or the siblings barge in and save the daughter? What does it mean for the mother to save her?”
Isa didn’t have a good answer. She had no experience of a father or siblings, and she preferred not to ponder what characterized being saved by one’s mother. Her teacher had long dark hair with a silver streak through it, like a skunk, and an expressive face with huge eyes, like a movie star. She was married to a compact and blandly handsome man. In class, Isa sometimes stared at her collection of exotic thimbles from around the world but mostly stared at her, and idly wondered what it would be like to be a mildly stimulating white man that her teacher might come home to. She wasn’t out yet at that point; she’d never slept with anyone. There were limits to what you were willing to dare with a body that, by some weird alchemical feat of skin and blood, you shared with your mother.
Her mother’s skin had become a catalogue of Isa’s carelessness. Skinned knees, stovetop burns, paper cuts, slips with the scissors, and once, after an afternoon at the beach poking at a dead jellyfish, a red latticework on the fingers, delicate and gruesome. Isa was barred from playdates. The reason was obvious: running around with other children was a high-contact sport from which Isa would inevitably emerge miraculously free from any and all scratches, bruises, and cuts. Their secret would be out. Isa’s mother imagined a scenario in which a particularly inquisitive kid stood Isa against a wall and carved into her skin with ever-increasingly sharp objects while Isa’s mother writhed in pain. Adults constantly underestimated children’s knack for cruelty; Isa’s mother, in a flash of wisdom tinged with the relief of also getting what she wanted — more time with her daughter — would not be one of them.
Nevertheless, there were endless ways to get in trouble, especially if you grew up on a farm in Vermont, where Isa’s mother sold cabbages and lopsided still lifes at the farmers’ market on weekends. Isa inhabited her body with impunity. The first time Isa chopped carrots without her mother’s supervision, she sliced off the hard-earned calluses on her mother’s nimble fingers and some ragged pieces of flesh to boot. Once, a particularly irate rooster pecked her feet bloody by proxy. Those were minor catastrophes, surface-level flaws that Isa’s mother could make up stories about. Oh, these? she could say to a stranger leaning toward her at a bar. I got these from the summer I spent working the galleys on a crab boat. Or, to a man she’d just met at the farmers’ market: Those are nothing. You should see what else I’ve got under this tan line. Scars come with stories; the problem was, all of Isa’s mother’s stories were lies. And if anyone found out the truth, what life could they enjoy outside a pristine white lab? Isa’s mother liked to scare Isa with the possibilities. If Isa was being honest, she thought that there was something her mother might have relished about the prospect of scientists flocking over them in long coats. All that scrupulous, microscopic, predominantly male attention. Non-abandonment via laboratory imprisonment; neither of them ever having to cook again. But in the end, they didn’t tell anyone. And Isa’s mother stayed single.
Not that there weren’t suitors, of a sort, for both of them. Isa’s mother was beautiful. She had thin brows, a plaintive mouth, the eyes of a martyr or a madwoman, and a wine-colored mark in the shape of a triangle on one cheek from the time that Isa, in what her mother magnanimously excused as a mood, decided to test an iron against her face. Isa’s mother liked to walk the line between alluring and uncanny. A man was, in the end, only as strong as his stomach, and what a stomach he required for kissing a mouth painted a deep and intoxicating violet, for drinking teas and tinctures derived from the mushrooms in their garden, for exhuming a grave and extracting a set of femurs, from which Isa’s mother made a meticulously balanced pair of ceremonial drumsticks. One of her lovers complained that he didn’t know if Isa’s mother loved him or was trying to poison him. This she took as a compliment, one that she tossed at new lovers as a dare, a gauntlet. The men had a penchant for disappearing after a while.
Isa had a mouth as wide as her mother’s was tiny. A boy once kissed her against her will under a playground slide. Afterward, he announced to everyone that he heard an echo.
Years later, a second kiss. Elaine’s sleepover in seventh grade. Isa’s mother’s love of rites and rituals of passing had warred with her need to keep Isa safe from the world, and for one night, the former had won. It’s what girls do, she’d said, filing her nails into points.
Elaine’s father had built a basement bar with gilded stools that spun. There was a big mirror behind the bar and a heavy set of shelves stacked with jewellike bottles in all shapes and sizes. At the far end of the room, around a huge television set, there was a low set of leather couches onto which the girls threw themselves, talking about school, boys, and who had been unfairly jilted in the casting of the spring play. Isa stood near the bar and wondered irrationally if she could start making everyone drinks.
Breakfast at Tiffany’s started. Isa was tucked into the arm of a couch next to a girl called Hanna, who smiled at her whenever they passed in the hallways. After the last strains of “Moon River” lifted, one of the girls, silly from the packets of instant margarita mix she’d been pouring into her mouth like Pixy Stix before rinsing them down with gulps of Cointreau, did her best impression of the Mickey Rooney character. Isa thought she heard someone mutter, “Racist,” but Elaine was smiling benignly, a queen entertained by jesters. Hanna rolled her eyes at Isa, pulled her to her feet, and launched into George Peppard’s tirade about Audrey Hepburn being a heartless bitch.
“You call yourself a free spirit, a wild thing,” said Hanna. “And you’re terrified someone’s gonna stick you in a cage. Well, baby, you’re already in a cage. You built it yourself.”
Isa stood stock-still.
“Well, you know what happens next,” said Elaine. “You have to kiss Hanna.”
“I have to what?”
“C’mon, it’s in the movie. It’s just practicing for boys.”
Isa looked at Hanna, who shrugged.
“I can’t,” she said. “I’m sorry.” She scooped up her backpack and made for the door. She was on the curb when the girl who’d done the Mickey Rooney impression — Jenny — walked out, cupping her hands around a cigarette she was lighting. Isa tried her best to look nonchalant.
“Want one?” Jenny said, and threw her the pack. Isa caught it, tapped one out, and lit up, like she’d seen in the movies. One last-ditch effort to look cool, even if only for racist Jenny. She must have managed it, because Jenny complimented her on her sneakers, but Isa knew it was about the cigarette. They huffed silently together. A neighborhood cat slipped past.
“I know why you couldn’t kiss Hanna,” Jenny said, as if they were talking about the weather.
“A kiss doesn’t mean anything unless it means something.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about . . .”
“You’re a dyke, Isabella,” Jenny said, drawling out all the syllables of her name. “A dyke. Like me.”
And she dropped her cigarette, stamped it out, leaned over, and kissed her. Isa tasted menthol, triple sec, something sour and stale. She tried to wriggle away, but Jenny held her arms and shushed her, almost tenderly. But as they were about to break apart, to inhale, to look at each other, she bit down hard on Isa’s bottom lip.
“Not bad for a first kiss, Bella,” Jenny said. No one ever called her that. Jenny flashed her the peace sign and banged her way back inside the house.
Blood was dripping from her mother’s lip when Isa got home. She was frantic. Isa tried to explain what had happened, but her mother paced around the cottage muttering, “There was blood and you were afraid. Therewasbloodandyouwereafraid.” Isa tried to go to her room, but Isa’s mother grabbed her by the shoulders and stared at her, her eyes wild. “What are you doing to me?” she said. “What are you doing to us?” Isa wrenched herself away and darted to her room. Later, unable to fall asleep, Isa remembered the sour taste of Jenny’s lips. Something flashed through her — heat, from the center of her chest to the place in between her thighs. Dark, winged, like a bird. Tipped with sunlight. Isa’s hand went instinctively to that place, froze. What if she felt that too? Her hand retreated. In the morning, she woke up to find her hand buried between her legs. Blood everywhere. She screamed for her mother. Amid the flurry of hot compresses and instructions on how to use a tampon, Isa’s mother claimed to have felt no pain. “You’re a woman now,” she cooed, her mouth twisted into a smile.
From then on, Isa would not touch herself, nor would she allow anyone else to. She couldn’t be sure that her mother wouldn’t be able to feel it too. Instead, she stroked the green head of the snake that lived in the barn her mother used as a studio (four tiny holes in her mother’s index finger). She forgot to pull on protective gloves during a chemistry experiment (a splash of lava-like burns). She joined an all-girl roller derby team (a broken ankle and a shattered kneecap). “I feel everything, you know,” her mother said. And Isa said, “You do, don’t you?” The highest-priority college admissions envelope arrived; Isa tore it open. Her mother was sitting inside the cottage, a Band-Aid already wound around her thumb. She was wearing an old smock covered in paint stains. Her fingers couldn’t quite hold a brush like they used to. She said to her lap, “So you’re going, then?” Isa said, “Yes.”
Isa drove off to college in the Berkshires and promptly fell in love with her partner in an advanced biology class. Marike had quick, clever hands that dispensed decisive cuts with a scalpel; deeply fringed eyes; and the longest hair Isa had ever seen, always pulled into an elaborate pile on the top of her head. Thankfully, it wasn’t that hard to make conversation in front of a fetal pig.
“Ugh, it smells,” Isa said brilliantly. Her fingers were down the pig’s throat as she struggled to work her scalpel through both sides of its mouth.
“It’s bad, huh? I’ve mucked out a chicken coop after it rained. That was nowhere as bad as this,” said Marike, pinning a flap of pink skin from the sternum to the jaw.
“You have chickens?”
“Had,” she said, using her wrist to tuck a flyaway strand of hair behind her ear. Marike had grown up in a Mennonite community in Canada. Her parents worked at a so-called heritage village in Manitoba until her mother got tired of acting in the same play, which was about how the original founders of their colony had traveled from Prussia to Russia to settle their new land. (Their slogan was Hear Our Story and Be Enlightened; it was very taxing to die of dysentery every day.) Marike’s mother left her husband and took Marike and her brother, striking out for a cousin who lived in Ontario. Thanks to Canada’s relatively expansive social safety net, they got by with Marike’s mother working as a cashier at a grocery store. But as a concession to their Mennonite upbringing, Marike’s mother never cut her hair or her daughter’s.
“I considered it, of course,” said Marike, slicing through tissue to separate the skin from the rib cage. “I used to lie awake at night and fantasize about what I’d do to my hair as soon as I left home.”
“Why haven’t you?”
“Force of habit, I guess. Or maybe you wonder what becomes of you when you lose something that’s been a part of you for so long.”
“You know, Taiwanese people sometimes make calligraphy brushes out of a baby’s hair, before the baby’s first haircut. Your hair naturally grows pointed at the tip, and cutting it takes off the point.”
Isa’s mother had one such brush in her collection. Isa had never seen her use it.
“Well, when I cut my hair someday, you can make a brush out of it,” said Marike.
“You didn’t know I was flirting with you?”
It was months after that first conversation with Marike and after their second, during which
they dispensed with a horseshoe crab, and their third, when they moved on to a kitten. (The professor was said to be eccentric — the nickname for the class among the students was Butchery 101.) Isa’s nose was buried in Marike’s hair. She smelled like a human clove candle. Her hair was too long to wash more than once a week, so she concocted her own dry shampoo out of arrowroot, cocoa, and cinnamon powder mixed with essential oils.
“No. Too flustered,” Isa said. “Besides, there was a dead pig on the table.”
“And I’m less entrancing?”
“More than the dead pig. The kitten, not so much.”
“Sounds promising.” Marike laughed. It was the most delicious sound Isa had ever heard.
She propped herself up on her elbows, ran her hand up Isa’s naked stomach, and looked at Isa expectantly. It had been weeks since they started seeing each other, but Marike hadn’t done more than rub her clit. Fingering was off limits, and Isa always pulled Marike’s hand away when she sensed that she was close. Isa went down on Marike but wouldn’t let her do the same in return. The first time Isa licked her, ran her tongue down her clit to her pussy, she stopped and said, “You taste like the sea.” Isa almost wept in that moment but thought better of it. Marike knew that she was inexperienced. She didn’t have to know that Isa was also ridiculous. But Isa cried anyway after the first time she felt Marike clench and spasm around her fingers. Her tears dribbled into the folds of her cleft; she licked them away, the salt redoubling on her tongue. Marike touched the top of Isa’s head, and Isa crawled up to her and snuffled in her hair. “Every animal is sad after coitus except the human female and the rooster,” Marike said, quoting Galen, the unspoken question hanging in her voice. “Fuck Galen,” Isa said. “He cut the vocal cords of squealing pigs. The pigs kept squealing, but there was no sound.”
“This is precisely the kind of postcoital conversation I signed up for,” said Marike, and Isa laughed and felt better. “You know, you could convince me that the waiting is part of some Tantric shtick.”
“Why not?” Isa said lazily, winding her hair around her fingers, trying on an unaccustomed bravado. “I’ve always known that I was a secret sexual prodigy.”
“Isa,” Marike said. A tiny crease that might someday deepen into a ridge appeared next to her mouth. “Isa, why won’t you let me make you come?”
Isa was very still. “You’re going to think I’m crazy,” she said finally.
Marike didn’t believe her, of course, until Isa stabbed herself in the forearm with a steak knife stolen from the cafeteria. (Maybe later she would tattoo a tiny sorry onto her wrist, a one-and-done apology for all past and future transgressions.) Then Marike was fascinated.
“You’ve heard of parabiosis?” she said, staring at Isa’s throat as though the word were written there.
“It’s when you join together two organisms surgically and they start to share a single physiological system. They’ve sewn old mice and young mice together, and the old mouse begins to de-age while the young mouse begins to deteriorate.”
“That’s great for the old mouse, I guess.”
“Yes, but the amazing thing is that your bodies are totally autonomous. I’m wondering if we should take a trip up to visit your mom, maybe over spring break — ”
“No,” Isa said, the word plopping out of her mouth like a goldfish from a tank.
“Why no?” said Marike, puzzled. “Don’t you want to know what’s going on?”
Isa opened her mouth and closed it. “Did you know,” Isa said in a rush, “that when a male anglerfish finds a female, he latches on to her with his teeth and fuses with her, and over time, he loses his eyes and his internal organs, and eventually there’s nothing left of him besides his testes?”
“Uh-huh,” said Marike. “How is this relevant?”
“Actually, forget I said anything,” Isa said.
Isa called her mother and blamed the stab with the steak knife on a slip in the cafeteria. She also told her she’d drive home with a friend for break. Isa’s mother sounded more excited than apprehensive. “Who is this friend?” she asked. Isa thought for a moment. “A friend,” she said lamely.
Meanwhile, Marike was packing everything she thought they might need: sweaters, toothbrushes, sanitary napkins, socks, the dissection kit from Butchery 101. “Hang on, why are you bringing that?” Isa asked.
“It’s always good to be prepared,” Marike said, unruffled.
“My mother isn’t a lab rat. You’re not going to need that.”
Marike finished folding a sock and tucked it neatly into their suitcase. “What I love about the scientific method,” she said carefully, “is that it’s the end of mythology. No more stories about ancient old men in the sky telling you what to do or who to love or where you came from. Think about it, Isa. Given the chance, why wouldn’t you want to know as much as you could about everything? Don’t you think it might make you free?”
Isa didn’t know how to respond. Marike was apparently determined to be as scientifically subtle as Galen. For almost as long as Isa had been alive, the first truth she knew was, If you cut me, my mother bleeds. There was no why to the matter. Just pure, inviolate truth.
Marike waited. She licked a wisp of hair that had escaped her methodical bun and tucked it back.
“Leave the antiseptic,” Isa finally said. “We’ve got plenty at home.”
Isa’s mother was waiting for them at the door of the cottage. Isa was surprised at how old the house looked, as though it had recently expressed a long-held sigh and deflated into the earth. Isa’s mother, too, looked smaller and tauter.
Inside, Marike’s eyes tracked the bouquets of herbs and roots that hung from the ceilings. “Home remedies?” she asked cheerfully, and suddenly Isa hated her. It’s completely insane, what people used to poison themselves with, she’d once said to Isa at school, when they were discussing their mothers’ tonics for various ailments. Back at their colony, Marike’s mother had once helped someone induce an abortion with a tea brewed from calamus and Canada wild ginger. The woman nearly bled to death.
Isa’s mother, though, happily named all of the herbs hanging from the ceiling, and their functions. She had prepared a shepherd’s pie for dinner. The lamb came from the stall next to hers at the market, she explained. The farmer didn’t believe in divorcing people from the reality of their food. If you wanted a lamb, you had to watch him kill it. The bleating was horrible. It was atrocious for business, and the other sellers complained, but it didn’t matter. He came from wealth.
Marike was a vegetarian, but the provenance of the ingredients that had gone into the dish was inarguable. She accepted a large cut of pie. She hadn’t blinked when Isa stammeringly introduced her as a lab partner. Her foot nudged Isa’s under the table. Isa melted, just a bit. “I grew up on a farm too,” she said.
And they were off, Marike and her mother, the two of them swapping stories about cows and chickens, brands of fertilizer, and how to mix up an all-natural pesticide to use on cabbages. Isa watched, amazed. Marike warmed to the bottle of organic wine that Isa’s mother said she’d gotten for a fistful of radishes and a smile.
Then, after a lull in the conversation, during which Isa’s mother beamed contentedly at them both, Marike asked, “How did you get all those scars on your hands?”
“Oh, these?” said Isa’s mother. Then, turning to Isa: “Darling, how did I get these?”
Isa, shocked, opened her mouth to speak. Marike’s chin hit the table. Her glass of wine upended, the liquid spreading fast. Isa shrieked.
“A pinch of henbane and bryony. She’ll wake up with a small headache. Nothing to worry about.”
“Why did you poison her?” Isa shook Marike’s shoulders.
“Darling, I just wanted us to have a little time to ourselves. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you.” Isa slapped Marike on her flushed cheeks. She didn’t wake. “Please don’t overreact, beloved. She shouldn’t have been so greedy with the wine.”
Isa hauled Marike up from her armpits. Luckily, Marike was the smaller of the two. “We’re leaving.”
Isa’s mother stood. “It’s very late. Stay the night.”
“No,” said Isa, straining toward the door. “We won’t.”
Something rippled over her mother’s face. Her eyes shut and snapped open again. “When your mother first wanted a child, she did not know how to get one. All of her lovers, one after another, had told her that she did not know how to be alone, and none of those men, stingy as Onan himself, would give her the seed with which to grow a daughter. So she went down to the sea and caught a tiny octopus in a tide pool, but the skin of the octopus melted in the heat of her hands, leaving only a skein of red entrails like the clots that emerge monthly from between our legs, like afterbirth. This happened many times, with many octopuses. One day, your mother stewed their skeins in a pot of tea brewed from the stalk of a flower whose petals were the hard sheen of yellow jasper and whose heart was carnelian. She drank the skein. It tasted like iron and milk. It seared into her belly. This time, she knew you would stay.”
“Mom, octopuses don’t — ”
“You used to call me mother.” A beat before she continued. “Once, when your mother was too young to imagine a child inside her, she was on a walk. The geese had flown. Deep in the forest, the trees murmured among themselves about the coming winter. Your mother walked along the side of the street, banging her book bag against her knees and counting the black squirrels. There was a man across the street who called out to your mother with a voice like birds. Your mother crossed the street to him. Up close, she could see that his face was curiously empty, as though no one lived behind the shutters of his eyes. It made her want to touch her hand to him. The man seized her and pressed his face to hers. Your mother tasted a desire that sought her as bears sought meat before winter. And she felt, in the place where her hair curled like a fist that encloses a secret, an answering hunger — ”
“No more stories,” cried Isa.
“Stay,” said Isa’s mother. “I don’t mind if she stays too.”
“No,” said Isa. “I said no.”
Isa’s mother strode to the door, blocked it with her body. Isa, still grabbing Marike under the arms, shoved against her mother with her shoulder. She didn’t move. Her mother stared at her with the face of a martyr. She looked suddenly, terribly tired. Isa backed her way to the table and grabbed the long-handled knife that they’d used to cut the pie and held it against her own stomach.
“I made a bargain,” said Isa’s mother. “She said that it would cost me my body and my life.”
A maze of scratches on both her cheeks. Scars all along the length of her legs, rapturous as the flight of birds. They forked along her arms, curled around the nape of her neck, and though the rest were covered, Isa knew how they descended in triumphal relief down the plane of her belly. The biggest scar of all was red and raised, curling like a worm from the sparse, wiry hair on her mother’s pubis, where her mother had been sliced open to have her.
Marike woke up groggy when they finally reached the college. Perhaps because of the look on Isa’s face, she didn’t ask about what had happened, and Isa didn’t offer. Over time, Isa learned that, not unlike her mother, her Marike is capable of not talking about things. Maybe that’s what it is to love someone. Sometimes, when it is very quiet, she thinks she can hear a small, shuddering sigh, like the shaking of a child’s rattle.