Every Easter without fail, my mother recounts the story of her childhood baby chicks. The eldest of five daughters in a suburban household, her parents fought constantly, but the girls were wealthy, and spoiled, and on Easter morning of my mother’s tenth year, their father presented them each with a baby chick bought at the local hardware store, each bird dyed different pastel colors to prevent squabbling and confusion.
My mother chose the light blue; the other girls chose, in order, the pink, orange, green, and lastly, lamentably, yellow. Her youngest sister cried hopelessly at receiving the un-dyed chick. While their father tried to comfort her, their mother sighed loudly, slamming her cabinetry as she prepared the elaborate holiday lunch.
Before long, all five girls and all five chicks were steeped in excitement. The birds mingled and zipped around on their pale feet like the trails of fireworks. It stopped mattering whose was whose, and every day upon returning home from school, my mother and her sisters let them out of their coop and into the green grass surrounding the swimming pool.
Their dyed fluff faded quickly into a universal corn silk yellow, and gradually, from beneath their fluff, tight, dark quills began to emerge. Their necks grew longer, their calls lower and less frequent. Their coop smelled more and more acrid as the chickens grew, but the girls couldn’t stomach their assigned morning chores and left the droppings to molder until one day, hurrying single-file to the coop, they found it open, and empty. Hysterical, they pleaded with their housekeeper to help them find the birds.
Her face went white upon being asked to assist in finding the missing chickens. Then she led my mother to a deep freezer, where the birds lay atop each other, compressed like umbrellas, frosted white. It wouldn’t have taken large hands, necessarily, just driven ones.
I was twelve when my father came home with a new Explorer, having donated his old Toyota to charity without first consulting my mother. From my room, I listened to them argue in hushed whispers. She said we didn’t have the money for a new car or the gas an SUV required. He told her it was necessary for hauling things around; as a landscaper, he said calmly, it was outright unreasonable to own a sedan.
Couldn’t you have bought an old one? You’re just going to get dirt and gasoline all over the inside, my mother hissed at him not far from my bedroom door.
I like the way this one smells, he said, lingering so long on the word smells that I conjured the new car’s factory scent from my bed. Then he said, like an afterthought: I don’t trust people.
My mother scoffed. You think the whole world is rotten, she said.
No, my father corrected her. You think the whole world is rotten. I just don’t trust people.
I awoke a few days later, on Christmas day, with a dull, aching pain in my back, as though all of my weight had sunk into the base of my spine, sitting heavily atop my rectum. My feet ached, too, and my ankles felt swollen and in need of popping. I was the first of my friends, and despite my mother having told me it would happen and not to be alarmed, I did not recognize the signs for what they were.
We were expected at my grandmother’s, three hours away, for a family brunch which always included green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup, slivered almonds and Chinese noodles. Too bloated to eat breakfast, I curled into fetal position in the back of my father’s brand new car. Despite several days of hard work, the Explorer hadn’t lost a bit of its new car smell.
From the squeaking back seat, I complained of a backache, then nausea. My father turned the radio off in response, and although it confused me at first, it really did help me to hear the swish of the wheels along the wet road instead of music. I was grateful to him for being so much like me. He knew what I needed.
I looked at his eyebrows in the rearview mirror, watched him glance back at me periodically with concern, alternately checking the other mirrors. My mother turned to me from the passenger seat and, contorting herself, put her left hand on my forehead. For comparison, she placed her right hand against her own neck, which folded like the haunch of sleeping dog. I was impatient with being so loved and drifted stiffly into sleep.
I woke an hour later, thinking that I’d wet myself. That first blood was so crimson I imagined that I was dreaming. I waited for my father to yell, because his seat was stained now with blood, but he only said, It’s all right, Button.
I shoved my fist between my legs and cried until it was time to put my shoes back on. That day, I ate spiraled ham, fruit salad with marshmallows, canned pumpkin pie. I slipped a napkin between myself and my stained underwear, which smelled sharp as cheese; not at all the way blood tasted when I lost a tooth or sucked a cut knuckle.
My mother bought a real bra for me the next day, even though my breasts weren’t large enough to need one. The bra was pink and dotted with daisies. It had underwire and a modest layer of padding, which, my mother explained, would keep people from being able to see my nipples when it was cold. It was not a thing I had ever considered, and being aware of it now angered me.
On the day the police came for my father, I’d been chastised in orchestra class for balancing my bow atop the shelf my bra created for me. Meanwhile, the rest of my section screeched away at major scales and their galloping arpeggios.
I rode the bus home in a shamed stupor, worried about the phone call that would surely come later that night from my bird-like orchestra teacher, all eyes and legs and gaunt breastbone. But I forgot all about the incident when we reached my bus stop. Even from the corner, I could see, rounding the bend of our dull, manicured street, that something was wrong. All of the neighbors were gathered outside; other children on the bus started calling out to their parents and families reunited in the middle of the street like a fire drill.
My mother, white-faced and stiff-shouldered, met me at the curb and pulled me close to her. Her hip jabbed into my ribs and I recoiled a little. I had never seen her look so injured. By me. All she said was, Baby, I swear I didn’t know, and beyond my confusion, I was annoyed by her sudden adoption of a pet name. My father called me Button, but my mother? Never a thing but Hannah, a name she’d chosen because it read the same front to back as back to front; the world could turn upside down and nothing would change about that.
It took a week for the police to fully scour our home, at which point we were allowed to move back in and set the place aright.
That first month, I wore a nose clip day and night and developed blisters on both nostrils. I tossed towels and pillowcases over stains that weren’t there, had never been there, and soon, the downstairs was lined wall-to-wall with linens. My mother let me do this, and straightened them apologetically each time she caught one with her toe.
On the day I cried hysterically at the sight of a wobbling Jell-O mold in the refrigerator, my mother used the phone tree to ask the neighbors to take care not to send us red things, or things that moved of their own accord, or things that stained. Soon, people stopped bringing us food at all.
She intended to show everyone, including herself and me, that we were victims, too, and had nothing of which to be ashamed. But at the time, I hated her more than I hated him. For her inexcusable ignorance. And what’s worse, for sitting still after she learned his secrets. I thought it torturous, and cowardly. I wanted to be anywhere else.
I was sixteen before my father told me, plate glass between us, that his first memory also involved chickens. I must’ve been three, he said and I watched his mustache—which he never had until he went to jail, like jail made him lazy—move against his end of the receiver. My telephone, on the visiting side, was oily against my cheek.
When they were still very young, before it became a required chore, his grandmother let him collect the morning eggs. There were so few it didn’t matter if the early batch were broken; the chickens did most of their laying mid-day and Grandmother insisted on gathering those when my father went down for his nap, at which time his mother began dinner in the white, hot kitchen of her own childhood. It was a large house, ill-maintained, so far out into the country the school buses wouldn’t come to get my father as he grew old enough for school.
I could hear his voice waver a little at the memory of those few eggs. He recalled the weight and warmth of them in his tiny palm, how overwhelming their pocked shells felt—both hot and cold, both animate and stone—as he closed his fingers around them in the dark of the coop.
There was a crackling rattle in the telephone.
Dad? I hadn’t called him that—I hadn’t called him anything—in years. I’m having trouble hearing you.
He rattled the receiver’s spiraled cord violently. It slapped against the teal Formica countertop several times, wobbled to a slow stop. I was saying, he continued impatiently, that one morning, I shoved my hand into that coop and ended up with a handful of chicken snake instead of straw. A sleeping snake, Hannah, I swear it. That thing must’ve been six feet long, and so full. Firm like a steel cable. I’m surprised I could even lift it.
My father had lost weight and grown gray in the four years since I’d seen him. There’d been the news, of course, and the papers. But this was different. I looked from one of his unblinking eyes to the other, and back again. I focused on the black lacuna of his pupil through the scratched glass between us: a target in cross-hairs.
Absolutely not. This is what my mother was fond of saying in the four years between my father’s incarceration and my finally visiting him, which I did secretly, in a car I borrowed from a friend’s sister in exchange for letting her copy my biology notes for a week. I can still hear her saying it—absolutely not. It seemed unreasonable to me, considering she’d married him and slept with him all those years and it was her fault he was my father.
I said as much on the day she learned about my visit to the prison, and she lifted her hand—which has always looked just like mine, only more wrinkled—and slapped my face, catching the stone of her ring against my earring. She took the earring with her as she recoiled, and my ear tore open; later, it healed to look like a cloven hoof, or a baby’s bottom, or the last two petals in a game of he loves me, he loves me not.
Hannah! she called out as though I had slapped her instead of the other way around. I did not cry, but grasped my ear lobe and felt the warm blood seep through the narrow gaps of my fingers, sticking between my knuckles. A few drops bloomed along the pale carpet. She ground her shiny, pointed shoe into the stains, grimacing, and held my earring in her fist as tightly as something she’d earned, or at least won.
When I left the house, she did not follow me. I spent the rest of that afternoon in the backyard, in the shadow of the old shed. I pored over newspaper clippings and smoked my first cigarettes, which were stale and had been my father’s. Before they were lit, they smelled sweetly of raisins.
I sputtered like an engine at the first puff, but caught on quickly enough, having studied him. The smooth double-pull of breath he took each time he smoked: first, he sucked the air into his mouth and then, into his lungs, which swelled more than expanded, his scrawny body suddenly top-heavy and grotesque. Smoke curled from his nostrils busily, frantic as a rivulet of rain on a clean windshield.
The old cigarettes burned too quickly. I smoked my way through the pack in an hour and then spent the evening vomiting helplessly into the hallway toilet, sweating and feverish, refusing to speak to my mother, who knocked periodically to offer water or a cold washcloth I wouldn’t accept. When the vomiting slowed and the shakes subsided, I dipped my raw ear into a flowered Dixie cup of peroxide and listened closely, letting the violent hiss of it erase all other sound.
My junior prom date was a full foot taller than me. He insisted on pulling my chair out when I sat down, and standing up each time I left the table. He even ordered for me—the poulet for the lady, s’il-vous plait—in his best classroom French.
Bored by his showmanship and kindness, every time one of the girls wanted to visit the powder room, I went with her. I stood beside her—Melissa, Rita, Siobhan, Angie. . .—while she applied lipstick, blotted its excess onto a folded tissue which landed then in the wastebasket like a deadheaded rose. Or she covered a pimple with foundation thick as clay, smooth as mousse. Or she fussed with the rigid waves of her hair, and sometimes I, too, put my hands against those waves in an attempt to tame them. I was welcomed to. They couldn’t see behind them.
But mostly, as I stood beside her, I dug one fake nail beneath another, pressing until I could feel my pulse rushing there in that tender space. I watched myself go pale as the blood left my face. Her lips were the brightest, darkest spot in the room. They seemed to grow larger the more pain I felt. Her gown shimmered like an oil spill, and clung like one, too.
After one such trip, I returned to the table to find that food had been delivered and set carefully before my seat. A fresh napkin was folded like a fortune cookie to the left of my plate. A neat pile of Brussels sprouts were sliced in half and braised until brown as baked sugar. Their exposed insides folded tightly as gift ribbons, as brains. The wild rice was wetted and molded into the shape of a donut. And then the hen, belly-up and footless, legs trussed together with wilted twine. Small as the palm of my hand, I could see from its crisp, porous skin where its feathers had been.
My date stood, pulled out my chair for me. I thanked him and unfolded the fresh napkin onto my lap, glancing around to see the plates of all the others. The boy across from me—Rita’s date, I think—set to sawing the head from an oily trout with a steak knife. I swallowed hard, listening to the stiff greenery of his boutonnière as it shook against his lapel with each cut. I pretended to say a prayer over the bird, and waited to dismantle my dinner until the conversation around me became lively.
My date was impressively schooled in ballroom, a parent-imposed skill that wound up serving him well when it came time to ask girls to dance and win scholarships. At the prom, he twirled me out of a basket hold and stuck his meaty tongue so deep into my mouth that I gagged. I had it in me to lie, and I saw here that it could work for us both. I feigned food poisoning from the chicken I’d torn apart like a medical school cadaver, pushing its flesh around my plate without ever taking a bite. The sickness saved his feelings, and also his tongue, which I imagined biting off the next time he forced it into my mouth.
In the event center bathroom, I squatted on the toilet in the furthest stall from the door and listened to the bass line of the music outside. Girls came and went, laughing or crying and slamming doors. Reapplying their makeup, leaving the bathroom in groups amid a cloud of sticky hairspray. I thought of the battering ram of his tongue against my front teeth and reemerged from the bathroom, having splashed my face with water and run my wet fingers through the stiffly arranged bouquet of my hair.
He drove me home in silence and put his hand gently on mine as I moved to open the car door at my curb. I looked at his hand on mine and then I looked to the house. Sometimes still, I saw it cordoned off with yellow tape, sawhorses, flashing lights, men in uniforms who all looked at me pathetically, speechlessly, and yet wouldn’t let me pass them.
Tonight, it was a simple one-story ranch, sitting quietly and lit softly by the butter-yellow porch lamps, which collected dead insects like loose change. The yard was neat and the mailbox flag was up. My mother’s bedroom window was the only one lit on the front of the house; I could see my recent senior portrait, framed on her wall beside a photograph of me as a toddler in a red velvet dress with a lace collar. I thought then that my mother might be a dullard, but if I was superior by virtue of my intelligence, I was also half-evil.
I moved my hand out from under my date’s long, flat fingers and scampered inside on low heels, stopping at the entryway mirror to look at myself. My reflection was always different in my house than in public. The evening over now, I recognized that my dress, bought hastily at a consignment sale, was a little too sheer. My thighs, almost as thin in the thigh as the calf, seemed inanimate, the legs of dolls, or reedy plant stalks, or the taut strings of helium balloons.
I rotated my hips outward, pretending to be a dancer, and did a sloppy arabesque, showing my striped underwear to the mirror. I held myself there, distorted and wobbly, and noted how far my body could bend on its own. I stared and stared, and, like saying a word so many times it no longer sounds like a word, I became less and less human to myself. It was only when I lost my balance and knocked my ankle against the umbrella urn that I was reminded of myself, and the fact of my body, which was female and so was prone to possession.
I became a vegetarian after imagining my date’s tongue in my mouth like a tough piece of pork, after that hen showed up on my plate on prom night. I just couldn’t stop thinking about it sternum cracking open beneath my probing knife, its trussed stumps so useless in their heat-proof bonnets. It was the size of my heart, maybe, or a soft-ball-sized tumor with bones and stray down.
I didn’t explain this to my mother, but suddenly refused to eat what she made for dinner every night, because it always involved flesh. I lived off of noodles and bread and butter. I ate the occasional vegetable, though my mother, in her small act of rebellion, tried to bake all of them into casseroles with tuna or sauté them into stir fries aside chicken or beef or shredded pork.
I combed labels for mention of broth, concentrate, rennet; refused anything containing gelatin and was doubtful of most dairy. Sometimes, late at night, drunk at diners, I’d eat eggs, but never sober and never at home. My mother stopped asking me where I was going, who I was with. She stopped making enough food for both of us, and I would return home to darkness. With even the porch lights off, the front steps were an obstacle course between myself and my bed, which I’d fall into without memory at night and from which I would wake in the morning, pulsing with pain as though my entire body were a phantom limb.
I went to college out of state, and though it cost much more, my mother didn’t argue. She drove me there in near-silence, the same Simon and Garfunkel album on repeat for six, seven hours before she slapped at the stereo blindly, eyes on the road, to make it stop.
In what would be my dorm for the next year, I was asked to sign in with someone who checked a preprinted roll. I whispered to her over the folding table and she put a little x next to my name and gave me directions to my room. When I saw the colorful, hand-painted welcome sign on my door, I felt my body go cold. My entire name was listed there and I panicked, momentarily concerned that my past was announced on the heavy wooden door of my dorm room. My mother put her hand on my back tentatively and I startled away from her, toward the door knob, spinning it open onto the room: a small rectangle with two twin beds separated by a few spare feet of blue tiled floor. I chose a bed and began to unpack.
That first night, my roommate, Lydia, asked me a lot of innocent questions I didn’t want to answer. Was I here on scholarship? Academic or need-based or maybe, she said, looking me up and down while I brushed my teeth at the small sink in our room, athletics.
I’m a Tri-Delt, Lydia spoke before letting me respond. Legacy, Lydia spoke before letting me respond. My mother, her mother. You know: comme ci comme ça.
I’m not here on scholarship, I told her. I’m paying my way with loans.
What do your parents do? Lydia asked.
My mother plans parties, I offered.
Oh! This was something that made sense to Lydia. And what are you good at? Lydia was dabbing lotion under her eyes, her hair pushed back by a thin headband so that it stuck up this way and that. You look like a runner.
Nothing, really, I mumbled past my toothpaste.
Everyone’s good at something, she said. I mean, what do you want to study? Or work? What kind of work do you want to do? She saw that I was struggling with the question and decided to help. For instance, Hannah, I am going to study communications and I want to be a journalist.
What kind of journalist? I spat into the sink.
Oh, you know, a news anchor. We had a station at my high school and I was the anchor, I’d do the morning news reports and all. Not that anything interesting ever happened in Swansea, she dismissed herself, rubbing Vaseline on her lips and smacking them together loudly before sliding into her tightly tucked bed.
So, she said, just as I was unwinding a piece of floss, what about you, then?
I pulled the floss taut between my pointer fingers and sort of snapped it there as a way of communicating: I felt cornered and wanted to be left alone. I had never been in a situation where I could not shut a door on someone to make them go away.
Really, I said, hands cradled beneath me as though handcuffed. I’m not good at anything in particular. I have no idea. I just wanted to get away from home.
She giggled over-enthusiastically. Oh god, me, too. I had this boyfriend, she said, and if I stayed I’d have ended up marrying him. Can you imagine?
I didn’t react.
She didn’t care. Do you have a boyfriend?
I forced the floss between two molars and pulled it out swiftly, tasting blood. No, I said. I have never really had a boyfriend.
But you’re so pretty, she said in a whine. Her eyes were excitably wide. The bedside lamp cast her in a strange light and, staring, I suddenly remembered something.
I must have been eight or nine. In the alcove beneath the roof eaves, where I kept my toys and my mother stored her craft supplies, there was a whicker picnic basket filled with dollhouse magazines. Glossy pages of miniatures in 1/16 scale. A grandfather clock that worked and chimed as many times as the hour. A tall Victorian-style house somewhere in Vancouver—it seemed the Canadians always had the best dollhouses–with meticulously tiled floors, a perfect tiny tub of Noxzema, a claw foot tub with glistening, fake bubbles rising above the polished rim. Article after article about holiday decorating, how to paint resin foods to appear more real, options for creating grass atop a wooden front yard. I spent a lot of time with these magazines, plotting changes I’d make to my own dollhouse, which was two stories and Tudor-style. It had no living room because I opted, instead, to give the baby its own room; the house was only eat, sleep, defecate. I was particularly proud of the white porcelain chain-pull commode.
Beneath a heavy stack of these magazines, I unearthed a handful of snapshots of women. Blue-skinned like lit by the moon. Open-eyed, darkness gathered and dried in the corners of their mouths. One photograph of a full breast, one of a bruised hip, one of a set of perfectly painted toes, covered in dirt and laced through with leaves.
Women were disappearing. I knew that, even at my age. I heard whispers of it everywhere, saw the posters on bulletin boards and telephone polls. But I tucked those photographs back into their hiding places and never admitted what I’d seen, particularly not to myself. And then, I spent six years blaming my mother for her ignorance.
Hannah? Lydia chirped at me from her flowered bed. You home?
I don’t know how long I had been standing there, motionless, wide-eyed. I tossed the floss into the garbage and rinsed quickly, spitting a little blood into the sink. Turning to my roommate, whose eyebrows were raised quizzically, I said as flippantly as possible, It’s fine, sorry, I just remembered something I forgot. I forgot to tell my mom. I’ll be right back.
I walked the foreign campus for three hours that night, and not on purpose. All of the buildings looked the same: red brick with black shutters. It was late summer, but it got cold, and by the time I found my way back to my dorm, my exposed hands and toes were cold and numb, pale and inconsolable. Lydia was asleep with the light still on, her skin a strange and flawless green, hair escaping its binding like a vine that’s outgrown its pot. I don’t know when I fell asleep. When I woke the next morning, the last thing I remembered was watching her mouth drop open, slack with sleep. Spittle pooled against her pillow, a dark puddle bleeding out beneath her.