are cold. It is the type of cold that comes only after death, and it will never leave us now. We mourn what must have come before: hands holding ours. Sunlight warming the tops of our heads. Cats on our laps and nightclubs where we danced out of our minds and Pop-Tarts straight from the toaster. Life, pulsing hot and fat beneath our fingers.
Mother keeps us in a chest freezer. “For preservation,” she says, and perhaps this is true. But here is another truth: The night she brought us back from death—after she had canvassed local papers for the right news and hunted through grave-soil for the right parts and sewn them into the right approximation of the female form—she let us sleep in her daughter’s room. Amongst the heart-shaped pillows, the grass-stained soccer uniform still puddled on the floor, she cried and cradled us and called us her daughter’s name, and we knew even as we strained toward her touch that it was all too much, it couldn’t last.
In the morning, she moved us to the freezer. But the tenderness she had shown during the night still lingered. Her dark brown hand hovered on the lid as though unwilling to let it go. “What will I call you?” she said.
Our old names flared within us, firing into deadened muscle and marrow-stopped bone: Charmaine-Nikita-Salma-Alicia-Kat—
The softness in Mother’s face fell away. She laughed, a flat, lifeless sound. “Listen to me. Trying to name a dead girl.”
As the lid slammed shut, the truth of our new existence dawned: Never again would any mother name us or hold us or take this cold from our bones.
There in the terrible darkness, we tried to weep and discovered we could not.
Our left pinky toe
belongs to her daughter. It was all they ever found. How is this possible? What did he do with the rest of her? No one knows. No one much cares.
Except Mother. When she brought us back to life, she gave us strength and an appetite and a nose drawn to badness like a buzzard to a corpse. Then she sent us into Atlanta, its suburbs and city streets.
“Find him,” she said.
And we did—or rather, we found men like him. We cornered them in darkened streets they had never learned to avoid, in parking lots they had never learned to speed-walk through with keys clenched in their fists. We let them know how it felt to bruise and then we asked them: “Was it you?”
“No, no,” they sobbed, and when our left pinky toe confirmed this truth with a regretful twinge, we took them apart and ate them limb by bad-tasting limb, which satisfied our hunger but did not make us feel less empty. This, of course, was why Mother made her monster out of other dead girls: she knew her hunger was only matched by our own.
Six long weeks of this; and when everything inside of us began to change, we did not notice until it was too late.
is rebelling tonight. The whimpering of little girls fills our ears. Their high, thin voices needle our bones, followed by a spike of pain. They are in us. We want them out. We open our mouth and regurgitate our last meal onto the dirt in great, undigested chunks. We spit out another spur of bone, then groan as pain guts our body like a fish. Nearby, a feral cat wails in response.
It is well past midnight. We are in a scrubby patch of woods between two golf course fairways. The man we dragged here, now spattered across the pine straw, owned a string of successful dance studios. He scoured the poor neighborhoods for talented girls and gave them scholarships; their delight turned to terror as he took them into the back room and showed them what they still owed. It is their voices we heard just now. And not just theirs. Over the past few weeks, we have started hearing other voices, the victims of other men we have consumed. And with their voices, their suffering—so much that our body has begun to fall apart, the seams splitting as if they can no longer hold all this pain.
We bury the man as best we can and stagger home, clutching our torso. Mother strips us down and examines our body with a seamstress’s eye. “Nothing some thread can’t fix.”
“But the pain . . .” we say, again.
“It’s not for long. We’ll find him any day now.”
She sews up our loosened seams, her hands hovering over but rarely touching our skin. We do not dare voice our thoughts: What if he is too far away? What if we never find him? What will you do with us then?
“There.” She raises a hand as though to pat our shoulder, then drops it. “Just needed tightening, is all.”
is never full. This used to be a good thing, because the supply of men who have done evil never ends—only now we cannot eat them. We try, again and again, but our stomach heaves them back out. We poke the parts into sewers and trash cans, knowing it is only a matter of time before someone discovers them.
One night, as we are burying a body in the woods, our shoe comes loose and a splinter drives itself deep into our heel. When we get home we show it to Mother, head lowered, waiting for a lecture about protecting the limbs she worked so hard to bring to life.
But her voice, when it comes, is soft. “My girl got a big splinter in her foot just like this. She was little, maybe six or seven. I tried to tweeze it out but she ran off hollering. Got blood all over the carpet. In the end, she took it out herself. She always hated it when I fussed over her. Not like you.”
Although she has prised out the splinter, her hand still hovers over our heel.
“No,” we say, when she does not move. “Not like us.”
“You remind me of her sometimes. Your eyes. The way you tilt your head.”
“We are not your daughter.”
“I know.” We expect to hear bitterness in her voice, but she just sounds resigned. She picks up her needle and guides it along its familiar path, tightening the sutures at our neck, our right shoulder, our thighs, up the center of our chest—retracing the joins she made, all those nights ago, when she stooped low over us and breathed life into our limbs. Occasionally, when she tires, the heel of one palm comes to rest on our skin. We try not to tremble at each shock of warmth, try not to lean into her touch.
A knocking at the door interrupts this ritual. We both freeze.
Another volley of knocks, louder this time.
“Downstairs,” Mother murmurs. “Quick.” Toward the door, she calls, “Coming!”
We hurry down the stairs and climb into the freezer, pulling the lid shut. Drawing our knees to our chest, we try to make out noises from the floor above us. We hear only the freezer’s steady hum. After a long time passes and no angry police officer hauls open the lid, we lie back, pressing our cheek against the frost-encrusted wall. Mother will come for us, we think. Once her visitors have gone.
But she does not come for us. We wait there in the darkness and the cold, the minutes unspooling into hours and then days.
At last, she throws open the lid of the freezer. She squints down at us with bloodshot eyes, her breath clouding the air. Unfamiliar fumes roll toward us: orange juice and tequila and sweat. “They found her,” she says. “Well—not all of her. A piece of her. Her torso. In Virginia. Virginia!” Her words spill out in a too-fast staccato, and we see that the news has undone her. Like us, she is coming apart at the seams. The only difference is that she has no one to put her back together. “You have to go. It’s a sign. You have to find him.”
Her hand scrabbles at something in the bottom of the freezer. We sit up, our mind slow with coldness, and see that she has grabbed our left foot.
“What are you doing?”
She props our ankle on the lip of the freezer and unties our shoelaces. “I need her toe.”
“But we need it. We need it to sense him.”
“I’m only going to take part of it.” She eases off the shoe, tosses it aside.
“It’s mine. I gave it to you and now I need it back.”
We notice, for the first time, the small meat saw in her right hand. She positions it next to our left pinky toe, just below the nail. Our foot jerks and she grasps it firmly. Setting the blade against us, she begins to saw.
The sensation is nothing like the pain that comes after we have eaten. It is more of a dull irritation, a worrying at the skin. We watch, frozen, as the woman who has always stitched us together takes us apart. She does not look at us as she works, and we realize that in all this time she has never met our eyes, not once. We remember that first moment of gasping into the light—lying stunned and terrified as a strange woman bent over our chest and wept. At the time, the gesture soothed us; we thought she did so out of love. But we were wrong. You cannot love an instrument.
Our hand shoots out and grabs Mother’s wrist. She tries to shake us off, clucking with irritation. But she has imbued our girlish limbs with the strength of ten men. Our hand is steady, unmoving.
“Please,” she says. “I need it. I need something to hold onto.”
But we have been taken apart too many times. We squeeze harder. The saw clatters to the floor.
She looks at us then, stares straight into our eyes, and we almost recoil from the force of fear and revulsion we find there. “I gave you life,” she hisses. “I could take you apart again, just like—” she snaps the fingers of her free hand “—that.”
When we release her, she walks away, rubbing her wrist. At the foot of the stairs, she pauses. “What are you waiting for? Go. Get out of here. Don’t come back until you’ve found him.”
should tire, but they do not. When Virginia turns up no trace of our quarry, we zigzag across the country: wandering beside endless fields of tobacco and later corn and soy, through new-growth forests, along gravel country roads. Men in trucks lean on their horns, slow down beside us, but do not stop. Once, an old woman gives us a lift in her beat-up Corolla, then drives off in a spray of gravel-dust, making the sign of the cross. The seasons turn: from asphalt-melting heat to sudden crispness, forested hillsides cloaked in reds and yellows so brilliant they make our eyes hurt.
At a strip mall outside Kansas City, we buy a portable sewing kit. We learn how to dig the needle deep into our skin so it will not tear. We stitch ourselves up and think that, perhaps, we can learn to live without Mother. Every meal still makes us vomit, so we stop eating. In time, our hunger dwindles to a dull ache. But the cold in our bones never leaves us.
One night in Milwaukee, there is a man in a beautiful suede coat whose smell makes our left pinky toe throb. We follow him through snow-carpeted streets to an outdoor holiday market. As he disappears between the stalls, we hesitate. Mother has warned us from places like this, where the smells could overwhelm us or someone could see us for what we are. But the fairy lights beckon prettily, and we hear laughter and see white clouds of breath emerging from mouths and mingling in the air. We want to be among these people, to place ourself in proximity to their bodies, their heat.
Pulling up the hood of our sweatshirt, we plunge into the crowd.
is missing. “You were better off without one,” Mother said. No cunt either—she made us smooth and sexless as a doll. Our heart is missing, and yet. As we edge through the press of people, the weight of their badness descends and we feel it all.
There: a man buying mulled wine for a woman he has known since high school. At a bar later tonight, he will stir a crushed pill into her drink, and when she wakes the next morning the world she thought she knew will invert like a tipped glass.
And there: a man and woman walking together, a boy between them clutching their hands. When the woman leaves for her night shift, the man joins the boy in his narrow bed. The boy told his mother about this last week. She said that God punishes little boys who lie.
A teen who is barely a man, yet who has already learned how to press down on his dates’ heads in the backseat of his car. An old man, now wheezing with emphysema, who once threw his ex-wife so hard her body broke through the drywall and into the next room. A powdered donut seller, who once took a girl off a reservation in Nevada and never brought her back again. People who have hurt others. People who will hurt others. People who will be hurt and do not know it yet; all of their past and future pain clamors in our head, bearing down.
The man is almost out of sight, the tan of his coat a faint, dwindling smudge. We stagger after him, the pressure building, compacting our vision. Above us, strings of lights hover and pulse. Yellow globules flex toward us, then shrink away. We jump as a woman to our left laughs, too loudly; it sounds like a child’s shout. Our foot snags on something and we lurch forward, smacking into a bulky man and sending a cupful of cider sloshing down his front. We barely register his look of outrage before we are darting around him.
“Bitch!” he yells. “Come back here and—”
We break into a run, clutching our head, trying not to moan as the pain grows, trying to make out the tan coat of our quarry amidst the lights and the pooling darkness and the people and the dim white snow.
But he is gone.
We are not even sure he was the right man.
Outside the market’s entrance, it has begun to snow. We extend our hand and watch the flakes accumulate on our palm, unmelting. We know what Mother would say: What are you waiting for? He’s getting away. We should leave the market, slog through the snow-banked streets, search until we find him. But, for the first time, some stubborn impulse prevents our legs from moving.
“I’ve been watching you,” a voice behind us says, and we start.
We turn, thinking for a moment that it is the man in the beautiful coat. But this is a different man, shivering in a beanie and scuffed denim jacket. He thrusts something into our arms. We look down. It is a coat, brown and puffed like a toasted marshmallow.
“I couldn’t stand it, watching you freeze,” he says.
He hurries away and we stand there with the coat in our arms, snow piling onto our eyelashes, and we are tired, we are so tired—
• • • •
our left pinky toe
our missing heart—
• • • •
they ache and we want them to stop. We are done with this world and its unending pain. We are done with the pieces of this body, which will never form a whole no matter how much thread we wield. We remember Mother’s words: I could take you apart again, just like that. We long to be taken apart.
We begin the journey home.
• • • •
Mother’s apartment smells like laundry. On the kitchen table, a stack of clothes sits neatly folded. A green-and-gold shirt catches our eye: a girl’s soccer uniform.
We find Mother curled on the bed in her daughter’s room. She is facing the wall, holding one of those heart-shaped pillows in her arms. At first, we think she is asleep. Then we see that her eyes are open and the muscles in her arms are quivering with exertion. She is pressing the pillow to her chest, squeezing it, and we realize that it is not the pillow she is holding but the memory of her daughter, her dead daughter who she will never hold again.
“You’re back,” she says. “Does that mean—”
“No,” we say. “We did not.”
She is silent. We step into the room. There are words we have been rehearsing as we traveled home. Words we need to say before she returns us to death. “We don’t remember what it was like to die. But we remember what it was like to come back.” (The terror of tumbling back into a body that worked against our will; into a mind scrubbed clean of all memory save for the faint echo of our former names.) “It was a different kind of death, and we were just as powerless to stop it. Because you never asked us, did you? If we wanted to hunt those men. If we wanted to come back at all.”
Without being aware of doing so, we have crossed the room to stand over the bed. Mother’s shoulders quiver—with fear? Sadness? We know so little about the woman who brought us back to life. “I know,” she says. “I’m sorry.”
“And now we are done searching.”
“Yes.” Her voice is muffled by the pillow. “You’ve done everything you can.”
“Then . . .” we hesitate. “Then it’s time for you to take us apart.”
“Is that what you want?”
She has never asked us this. No one has. At first, we do not know how to reply. We remember all our long, lonely days and nights on the road. All the times we yearned to obliterate our self, to go back below the earth and stay there. We imagine our own mothers, curled on our beds, and we grieve despite our missing heart, because the world has too many mothers curled on their dead daughters’ beds, and because we could catch bad men until the end of time and never catch them all. We look at Mother, her body like a fragile comma holding back a story she cannot bear to end. All this time, we have been longing for her touch. Perhaps she, too, has been longing for ours. Perhaps this is enough.
“No,” we say.
We sit on the edge of the bed. One of her corkscrew curls has fallen onto her cheek. Hesitantly, feeling that we are reaching across a great distance, we tuck it behind her ear.
“If you stay—” she says, and our hand tremors against her skin “—you’ll need a name.”
We think of all the girls we once were.
There are more, many more, pressing against our chest, all the men we consumed and all the people they hurt.
“There are too many,” we say.
“We have time,” she says.
We lie down next to her, curling up against her back. And when we wrap our arms around her, we are holding our own mothers, yes, but we are also holding her. Heat radiates down the length of our patchwork, perfect body. It sinks into our bones. For the first time in this life, we are warm.