- Margaret finds out she’s made of clay when she presses into the crook of her elbow and pulls the flesh right off.
- She doesn’t tell anyone – not her older brother who is no longer a boy but a man buried under six feet of paperwork, and not her mother who is covered three feet in dirt, a corpse still hollowed out by consumption – that she knows.
Margaret spends the next three years concealing the missing chunk of her arm in puffy-sleeved school dresses and lace armbands bought from corner store boutiques. In her mind the arm is rotting, leaving bone exposed. She pictures maggots finding a damp, nutrient-rich habitat in the enclave where her elbow should be. In truth she is made of clay. And so there is no rot, no maggots, no fume of decay: all indications of organic matter re-entering the cycle of life.
Still, she tucks small flowers into the armband to ward off the scent. It becomes a habit: powdery baby’s breath in the morning, to be changed with double-tongued Japanese honeysuckle in the afternoon. Only when she sleeps does she remove the buds, placing them in a crystal vase on her bedside table. By the end of the week, the vase is full of greyed, now-blackening, blooms that are then thrown into the river.
Every time she changes the flowers, Margaret breaks the unspoken taboo by looking. The crook of her elbow where the chunk is missing appears emaciated next to the fat of her bicep. But the flesh inside is the same olive color as the skin, with the same folds and creases when she bends the arm, flexes a muscle. It feels so normal, no phantom ache nor searing pain, that Margaret from the first moment when she’d palmed the chunk in her hands could’ve resolved to ignore it and keep on living. But she doesn’t.
- Her father hasn’t returned since he left five years ago, but her older brother Ed does. A three-month business trip and he’s back, shouldering a suitcase through the door and that same black fringe plastered to his forehead. Margaret embraces Ed as soon as she sees him swing into the kitchen. He coughs a “hello” and touches her cheek.
There’s blackberry jam on her fingers and it leaves streaks of black on his sleeves when she presses in, tenderly first before squeezing harder. Maybe to see if Ed’s arms are made of clay, too. She quickly returns to making breakfast.
Margaret keeps all the curtains closed when at home alone. So, even at seven-thirty-five in the morning, the only light pouring into the living room comes from the kitchen lamp. Ed rests on the couch and props his feet up on the table to show his black socks with two holes in the left one. His head lolls to the side away from Margaret who stands in the golden lamplight, smelling of flour, butter, jam, and, faintly, of pollen.
She continues slicing the loaf, fingering the seeds of grains laden in the crust. She wonders, as the glistening knife in her fist lifts up-and-down, if her fingers will pull away just as easily.
- Two weeks later, Ed receives a business call. In twelve hours he must leave for the train, but now he is seated on the carpet, organizing his papers.
(She’d cried when he told her. “I’ll be back before you know it” was the repeated phrase of the evening. But Ed couldn’t know that in the three years since part of her arm came off, Margaret had cut apart three stray dogs – a cocker spaniel, a poodle, a hound – and two birds, five green apples and three cuts of steak to find
Flesh. Flesh. Flesh.
In all its malleable and impermanent forms, in all its colors. Not clay.
Why. Why. Why.)
Margaret sits by the window where the curtains are drawn, mending the black sock, the left one, with thread in needle, needle in hand. The sky’s the color of prune juice, and there is no beauty of the stars or cloud-misted moon to enjoy on this last day before Ed leaves.
Below her, on the streets there are people. A broad-chested lady in a fur coat scurrying home. An elderly gentleman rocking in place, clenching a cigarette and squirting smoke from pallid lips. There is a solitary fir whose branches obscure the glow of a streetlamp. And beneath it is a bench where a couple are holding hands, their thumbs and fingertips rubbing and wriggling together like earthworms.
Margaret accidentally pricks her finger people-watching. It doesn’t hurt. A faint prickle of discomfort draws her gaze to the slender finger. She wishes, as she always does, for blood. Instead, she sees a hole where the needle went in, met no resistance, and came back out. The finger is dry.
- The sky drains of its prune-juice hue and returns to baby blue within seven hours. Five hours left and Ed is still asleep, face pressed into the carpet and breathing raggedly. Margaret is clay and so she doesn’t tire too much. She drops the mended sock back into her brother’s opened suitcase and shuffles the scattered papers into stacks quietly.
She’s about to head into the vacated study where her mother used to be. She wants to grab some clips and folders to help Ed arrange his things. As Margaret glides down the hall, she avoids the closet where she still keeps the chunk of her arm.
(Margaret had locked the piece of clay in a metal box left by her mother. It was previously used to store baby teeth. She had pried open the faulty lock which still bore the whorls of fingerprint grease from her mother and Ed in areas where the tarnish hadn’t yet spread. On the bed of baby teeth, the sunken white pearls, she rested the olive-colored clay. She never touched the box again.)
But halfway, she hears a muffled noise and turns to find her brother, prostrate, emanating a gruff cry. Margaret attempts to pull him upright, to shake him awake but stops short. Where his face had been pressed to the floor, Ed’s features appear morphed, with carpet fibers stuck in the wrinkles of his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks.
Margaret pokes a finger into Ed’s mouth, prodding until the stern frown on his face eases and the cheeks fill. She nudges the furrowed eyebrows apart from their tightened draw, rearranges the black hairs and plucks out any reds or blues from the carpet fabric. With a flat palm, she carves the jaw and smooths the chin. Laboriously she sculpts until the face before her is as the one from her memories.
Back when mother had still been here, and father, too.
Ed’s cries taper off as his face takes on the childhood expression he’d worn on tranquil rides aboard the river ferry and weekend walks to the cinema. His lips are pressed into an almost-smile, the gaunt cheeks now puffed like when he and Margaret used to hide sweets in them from mother. And the lines on his forehead which added five years to his features are gone, bearing the faintest whorls from Margaret’s fingerprint grease.
- Ed wakes fifty minutes before the train arrives. He rubs the sleep from his eyes and kisses Margaret on the top of her head as a thank-you for putting his papers together and for mending the sock. It’s also a good-bye.
He closes the door behind him.
A high school student from the Atlanta suburbs, Christine Baek enjoys writing for The Muse and reading up on history, philosophy, and paleontology.
Brilliantly penned and kept me engrossed till the end.
This is one of my my favorite short stories I have read this year. Very impressive.