Illustration: Ansellia Kulikku.

I WAS BORN A KNOT LIKE MY MOTHER

and her mother before her. Picture three women with their torsos twisted like thick pieces of rope with a single hitch in the center.

The doctors had the same reaction each birth: They lifted our slick warped bodies into the air and stared, horrified.

All three of us wailed, strange new animals, our lineage gnarled, aching, hardened.

Outside, beyond the bright white lights of the hospital, the machine of the world kept grinding on, a metal mouth baring its teeth, a maw waiting to clench down on us.

“I’M NOT RELIGIOUS, BUT I DAMN WELL

prayed,” my mother says, exhaling smoke over the kitchen table. “I rubbed the rosaries raw that you would take after your father.”

My mother’s knot rests against the kitchen table. In my tender moments, I want to reach out and place a hand there.

“But as soon as you crowned, I knew it,” my mother says. “I could feel your knot.”

When my mother tells this story, I take long sips of my lemonade to keep quiet. I know she screamed the whole birth. I brought her the same pain she brought her mother.

“Your father says I went possessed. My eyes rolled back into my head.”

THERE ARE 4,500 DIFFERENT TYPES OF

knots. There are 3,800 basic variations of these knots. There are an infinite number of ways to combine these knots and their variations. In this way, knots are like stars.

We could have been complicated: Figure eights, clove hitches, sheet bends, reefs, heaving lines.

But our knots are simple: Overhand. Our abdomens twist in and out just once, our bodies wrapping back into themselves, creating dark caverns, coiled as snakes.

IN OLD BLACK-AND-WHITE PHOTOS, MY

young mother poses next to my grandmother. Both conceal their knots beneath billowing blouses, standing stiffly on a gray lawn, their lips strained into smiles over their teeth.

THE ACRES WERE PASSED DOWN TO MY

father from his father and his father before him. A small black sign with white paint says The Acres where our land begins.

We have an old white house and a rust-red barn. Our white house is all wooden floors, arched windows, linens to wash. Our barn is where the hay and quiet machines are kept.

The rest of the town stands a few miles back from us and our land. We are isolated in this way. Some days, only my family can see me, which is my freedom—no new stares, no new disgust.

The Acres are worth money is what my parents say. Here is why: At the edge of our land is the Meat Quarry. There, meat is harvested from the tall walls of a red, fleshy canyon.

MY MOTHER AND I KEEP THE HOME ON

weekends. My mother is like weather in that she changes daily. Each day, I make a report of her.

Today, my mother is focused and sharp, training me to clean. Everything must be white, pristine, diamond. Specks of dirt taunt her.

A bucket of lemons rests at my feet. To keep a home, one must have hands and skin of citrus.

“Now, do it how I do it,” she says. “You’re old enough for a knife now.”

I have seen it: Her back hunched over the sink, the brown of her hair glinting in the sunlight, the fat of her upper arms warbling, the sawing, then the halves between her fingers, yellow moons in her palms, rubbing the lemons over the white walls.

I hunch over the silver gut of the sink. I cut the lemons down the center, one by one, arms shivering against the knife, separating the small citrine hearts.

I run the yellow halves over the white walls until they glisten, until the house tangs with the flesh of the fruit, until the juice of the citrus runs into the gutters of my gnawed nail beds then stings.

EACH DAY, MY FATHER AND BROTHER PULL

meat from the quarry to sell in town like my father’s father and his father before him. Their bodies disappear over the green grass of The Acres, their figures swallowed by the thin mouth of the long horizon.

I have never seen the Meat Quarry with my own eyes.

“You’re not meant to be there,” my father says. “Some things, a woman should not see.”

Has my mother seen it? I do not know. I invent the quarry in my mind: Giant red walls of flesh marbled with fat.

“Does the meat glisten and glitter?”

“Enough. You keep far from there,” my father says. “It’s not safe.”

He drinks his liquor after dinner, eyes going red. My mother’s fury hangs at the edge of the table, growing with each sip he takes.

“Haven’t you had enough?” she asks.
“What does the quarry smell like?” I ask.
“Enough again,” he says sharply. “Both of you, drop it.”

MY MOTHER SITS NEXT TO ME ON WICKER

porch furniture. We have finished our cleaning for the day. Now, it is magazine time.

My mother’s magazines are bright portals to new worlds. Women wear fantastic clothing, their faces dazzling up from the pages.

My mother reads me the new tips.

“This season, women need whiter teeth.”

I look at her teeth, their yellowing from years of smoke.

“Another trend is plastic fingernails. Now would you look at these?”

A pair of young hands holds a glass of soda with a straw. The hands have long, bright red nails, shining, luscious, more perfect than anything I have seen before.

I look at her hands, their nails, which are short, unpainted, best for working lemon against wall.

The sun begins its fat drop into the horizon. A thin sadness leaks from my heart for her.

“One day, we’ll have white teeth and red nails, too.”

I picture us like that: Our teeth gleaming, our nails red. I picture us beautiful, unknotted.

*

Excerpted from The Book of X (forthcoming, July 2019, Two Dollar Radio)

Sarah Rose Etter

Sarah Rose Etter's debut novel, The Book of X is available from Two Dollar Radio. She is also the author of a short fiction collection, Tongue Party (Caketrain Press). Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Cut, Electric Literature, VICE, Philadelphia Weekly, and more. She is the recipient of writing residencies at the Disquiet International Program in Portugal, and the Gullkistan Creative Program in Iceland. She earned her B.A. in English from Penn State University and her MFA in Fiction from Rosemont College. She currently lives in San Francisco.

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