By: Vanessa Finnegan
Sweet Briar College, Virginia
I am both light and heavy. I have no feeling in my brain. My hair is only a formality. It grows from loose scalp that can easily be peeled away. My skull is brittle too, for it feels no passion towards what it poses to protect. It has no want at all except to decompose and become soil again. The brain within it is indifferent. It could be here or in some other realm completely. It could be as it is or as it was, the root of a tree or a bumble bee’s wing. It doesn’t matter except that it will not be decided by me. Today it is morning. Tomorrow it will probably be morning too, and then it will be night. It will never be by my own choice. My mouth is only a messenger, my heart only a drum that beats for fun. When it grows tired it will be done. None of this body grows to care for me, to love me, or become me more than physically. Once each is through it will disown me without pity or remorse. Each one will stay on being in some different form or way. But without them I evaporate, no form from which to change.
I feel her eternal lack of body when I walk through air; when I walk through it with such ease. I feel her nonexistence. The bruises that she gave me are almost completely vanished, and I haven’t felt pain in days. It’s a strange sort of feeling walking along this same cracked and crooked sidewalk, dragging my fingers along the sides of the same chain-link fences that have bordered my path to school for as long as I can remember. Strange because I let myself enjoy the feeling of the cold metal against my fingertips. I let it trickle up my palm until it gives me a shiver, and the shiver is like joy at a higher frequency—like a little jolt of electricity; I think it must be the closest feeling I’d know to describe the word euphoric. Strange because, where the sidewalk dips and crumbles, I can lift my feet and walk myself right over and it’s nothing. It means nothing to me. Or was it stranger before? Back when the cracked ground opened up and twisted the same way her mouth did and it made my stomach churn just to look; back when I’d drag my feet and stumble, and getting up seemed so hard that sometimes I’d just sit there and cry; back when I’d press my fingers hard into this chain-link fence and they would burn as I’d drag them along. Back then, everything, even my own body, spoke of her hatred and her harshness.
Now, as I step over the gaping cracks in my path, all I see is a flash of limp lips; harmless, immovable, meaningless pink flesh. I see them in the corner of my eye as I pass. For a moment, I think I can see specks of brown dotting their pink surface. My thoughts drift apprehensively towards a curiosity about the taste of dirt; the image of those brown specked lips urging me dangerously towards guilt and irrevocable regret. But my imagination is interrupted by the realization that I already know what dirt tastes like. I remember one night years ago: my face planted strongly against the ground where she held me by a fist-full of my long, knotted, grey-brown hair, her other hand shoving loose dirt in my face. Instead of a need for repentance, I recognize a sort of morbid irony and turn my focus towards kicking a small piece of cement that has chipped off of the sidewalk—watching it bounce along the hard surface, undamaged even as it is continually slammed into the larger counterpart from which it sprang.
Walking into my 1st period classroom, I decide that, instead of my usual seat in the back row amongst the nappers and the texters, I will take the empty seat at the front row next to its sole member, Henria. Henria is a small Russian girl whom I’ve never spoken to but whose voice is generally the only student voice I ever hear speaking words relevant to the topic we are meant to be learning. As I take the seat, she turns to me with small dark eyes and a round, somewhat dollish face.
“You are lost?” she says in her thick accent.
Without responding I lean over to open a faded green backpack with little dragonflies on it that I’ve had for as long as I can remember. I pause and get lost in the pattern. I remember the day I first got it. She used to like me back then, back when I was small and manageable. When I was ten I told her I needed a new one because it was too small for me. Oh right, that’s why. That was the day I tasted dirt. She never liked it when I’d admit to getting bigger.
“Khemm?” Henria coughs loudly.
“Good morning,” I say dismissively as I sit up with my notebook in hand and place it on my desk.
This is Chemistry class. We are learning how long it takes for garbage to decompose; a glass bottle takes a million years, a tin can fifty, a newspaper six weeks, etc. I wonder why it takes so much longer for a body to disintegrate than a soul. I’ve heard more of the words spoken in my classes these past ten days then in all fifteen years of my life together. I suppose sometimes you have to cut off a limb or two to save your vitals. My body works better without her; my legs, ears, arms, they all work so easily at my will. But I know it won’t always be this way. One day my body will be stiff flesh in the ground, and I will be gone.
Once I pulled the hair from my scalp and buried it with her in the yard. I know how similar her body is to mine; we have the same thin lips, the same long legs, the same knobby fingers. I know how my body came from hers, and to her it belongs. I didn’t look at her face when I dug down to her. I know we have the same eyes, and I still remember their pale stare the night her body betrayed her.
I think about death now and I don’t understand. I don’t understand why a person can’t simply will their body into action, into survival. It enrages me.
They say when a person becomes blind or deaf their other senses are heightened. As my body becomes stronger, hers is slowly rotting away.
“Hello?” prompts an irritated Russian voice.
I look up suddenly from my notebook where I have been tracing and retracing a sketch of mine; the lines now thick and dark to the point of nearly ripping through the paper. The sketch is of a pregnant woman with a young child at her side. At first glance you might think the mother and child are holding hands, but looking closer there are no hands to speak of on that place on the page. There are only wrists twisting together as if they were ropes; tied together inhumanly in a snake-like tangle; veins from one reaching into the other.
“We are partners” Says Henria.
I look at her blankly.
“We have to answer questions together.” She huffs impatiently, pointing to the worksheet that had been placed carelessly at the corner of my desk.
Suddenly looking down at where my hands rest on my notebook, she reaches over and takes it out from under me. My heart gives a jolt, eyes wide in fear. I’m exposed and paralyzed, unable to make a move to retrieve it. She looks at it contemplatively.
Suddenly her attitude seems to shift: “This is beautiful,” she says, “you’re a.. artist?”
I stay silent, frozen.
“Why are their arms like that?” she asks, tilting the notebook sideways and holding it up close to her face.
There’s silence for a moment, and then something compels me to tell her: “If the connection is cut, they both bleed out.” The words come out of me as if I’m in a dream, not really knowing what I mean until I say it.
Another silence, longer this time.
“Ahh,” she says excitedly as if understanding something significant. “It looks like a… placenta” she comments, tilting her head to one side and looking closely.
“Who are they?” she asks.
“It’s me as a kid… and my mother.”
“You must love her a lot.” She smiles at me as she hands back the notebook.
My heart feels like breaking, but I stifle a laugh. The bell rings.
This morning and every morning for the past five days, I have carried Little Gina the fifteen blocks to pre-school because she loves to be up high, and because my arms feel amazing, and because I’m celebrating that I know she’s getting there. This is probably the first time all year she has been to school for this long without an absence. After school I bring her home the same way.
When little Gina asks where mommy went I tell her I made it so she can’t hurt us anymore, and she wraps her little arms around my legs and giggles with delight, and that makes me feel better about it all. But when I tell her that mommy’s name was Gina too, and that she should change hers so she can have her own, she scrunches up her face and yells “No!” and starts to cry. I hate it, but I still ask her every day after school. I’m afraid that if she keeps that name she will betray me. We already have so much that ties us to her—so much that prophecies her resurrection through us.
Henria walks with me to pick up Little Gina. She says she wants to see more of my art. She talks a lot and I say little. She talks about how no one in our school wants to be anything, how they are all going to waste away here just like their parents and their parents before that. I wonder at how a person can find it so easy to open up like that. I’ve never said as much to anyone about what I really think, not nearly. She will be the first person to visit my house since the man who put Little Gina in my mom. She will be the first person to ever visit for me. Asking to bring home a friend was never worth it with her around. All it got me was bruises and tears and an earful about only trusting family.
“You listening?” asks Henria.
I look up from my feet and give a small nod.
“There she is,” I say, waving my arms to catch little Gina’s attention amongst the crowd of preschoolers waiting outside the school. She immediately rushes out to me, pushing violently past the horde of children as if she were nearly drowned and is just now finally coming up for air.
She reaches me with a stumbling smile which fades when she sees Henria standing near me. “Fee-fee, who’s she?” asks Little Gina with the accusing point of a stubby finger.
For a moment I don’t know what to say. Should I call her my friend, a classmate, someone who likes my sketches? I settle with “she’s coming home with us.”
Little Gina looks up at me with a very stern look on her face. “That’s bad,” she tells me.
Five years ago, the corpse in the ground in my backyard pushed my baby sister out of her own body. When we all came home from the hospital, that corpse watched me stroke my baby sister’s face and whisper, “you’re all mine baby,” but I wasn’t quiet enough and the corpse snatched my hand up from the baby’s face, squeezing it hard, and with her face right up to mine she told me, “this isn’t your baby, Fiona, she’s mine. Just like you’re mine, only this one’s gonna be so much better. She’s gonna be just like me.”
9 months earlier I was a little rap on that corpse’s tightly closed door, and she was the grunting and groaning sounds coming from the other side. The rest of that week I slept on the porch to learn a lesson about privacy.
“I’m going to be a doctor,” Henria tells us as we walk.
“Why’s that?” I ask.
“Because it’s respectable… and because doctors understand things, like how bodies work; like how to make people better, or sick if they want. They have power.”
“Power,’ I mumble to myself.
“What do you want to be, little one?” she asks, bending down and around me slightly to direct her question toward little Gina, who has been walking on my other side, grasping my pant leg but refusing to look me in the face.
“I don’t talk to strangers” she says indignantly, keeping her gaze straight ahead.
I open the short, rusty gate that separates the sidewalk from my property. The creak is my mother crying for me not to let outsiders in. There is a long, sharp, stretching pain in my chest as I force myself to ignore her. Henria takes a careless step onto the soil past the gate; her soil. Henria has no idea what she’s done; how this would make my mother feel, how she would make me suffer for it. It doesn’t matter though. It doesn’t matter. I try to slow my racing heart. It doesn’t matter. She’s gone. She’s nothing. It doesn’t matter. She’s gone and all that’s left of her is flesh and bones.
I am in a dark place, unable to move, unable to breathe. Cold hard matter packed in on me on all sides. I’m underground! No… I’m in the bottom drawer of my mother’s dresser, packed between piles of cold, thick jeans.
Before I know what’s happened, Henria and I are walking towards my bedroom having left Little Gina out in the living room to play grumpily with her array of stained and naked Barbie dolls, all missing one limb or another.
Just as I feel like I’m about to black out from a lack of oxygen, a glimmer of light shines through the crack of the drawer and gets increasingly brighter and larger as the drawer is pulled out from the dresser. I burst out from under the pile of jeans, take a deep breath and immediately start to cry.
“Mommy, why did you do that?” I sob, “Why did you put me in there?”
“You need to know who has the power around here, Fiona. You need to learn to respect me. I am your mother. I gave you life and I will make it what it should be.”
The first thing we see as we walk into my cold, dreary, dimly lit room is a huge dark sketch that takes up nearly the entirety of the back wall. It’s like the sketch I drew in chemistry class today, only different. In this sketch I am grown; as grown as I am now, anyways. Little Gina is not a fetus in my mother’s belly but the small child she is today, and I carry her in one arm. My other arm is still connected to my mother, tied in a knot of wrists and veins, but in this image she lays limp on the ground and it appears as though I am struggling to walk forward, dragging her behind me.
“Beautiful,” gasps Henria, going to touch the charcoal contours of my mother’s shape. Upon noticing the black she has gotten on her fingers, she bends her arm upwards at the elbow, holding her hand up daintily as if to remind herself it is now out of commission.
“Do you think power is always respectable?” I ask.
“Don’t matter. Power gets respect. Gets what it wants” She says matter-of-factly.
I wanted to kill her. I just didn’t expect it to be so easy. I stare at the limp charcoal woman for a long silent moment, a heat rising in my gut.
“Power isn’t real. Even the most powerful people die. They don’t have a choice,” I tell the wall.
Suddenly I feel that everything this girl, this stranger, has said to me, both simultaneously offends and illuminates the truth, and all of the weakness of my body returns to me. I am the same girl who falls down on the side walk and can’t will herself up. My eyes grow blurry and words pour like tears out of my mouth.
“You think you can have power by being a doctor, making people better…or sick if you want to. You can change their bodies, use your hands to fix or break them, but when those hands no longer work for you you’ll be nothing.” Then my words are violent and shrieking, echoing in my own ears.
“You won’t have the power to tell them: ‘move hands, move!’ because you’ll be dead whether you like it or not and those people you thought you held power over, they’ll die too whether fixed or broken. You die choiceless and powerless and pointless, no matter how much power you think you have.” I fall to the ground sobbing.
When I look up, Henria is gone.
I hear hurried footsteps making creaks across the living room floor, and then I hear the front door slam behind her.
When darkness falls, I tuck Little Gina into my bed and lay with her until she falls asleep. She never had her own room. She used to sleep with our mother, except on nights when our mother preferred to sleep alone and she’d have Little Gina sleep with me. I take one last look at the sketch on my wall, its shape like a shadow in the dark room with only the light coming through the cracked doorway making it visible. I know what I have to do.
As I watch the red stream of life pour out of me, I think I’ve done the right thing. She is my life source, and to keep the power of my own life I would have to drag her behind me forever. The only way to truly get rid of her is to get rid of all of her; to make her body whole. Now there will be no story of a struggle between powers. I thought I could sacrifice a limb to save my vitals, but I am the limb. She is the heart. A tree doesn’t simply rip itself from its roots and walk away. This body was never mine.
The stars blur and dim above me. The blood from my right wrist rushes down the side of my mother’s cold cheek like tears, as if she would ever cry for me, my hand resting limp on her forehead. My left wrist stains the faded green t-shirt Little Gina wears for a nightgown, my arm wrapped around her loosely now. The cut across her throat drips blood onto the soil beneath us.
Her chokes and cries remind me of the day she was born. It’s an amazing bit of symmetry; that day next to this one.