My father, Dr. F., noticed my dinner roll trembling then tumbling out of my right hand.
“I’ll get you another one,” he offered. “A younger one. The older ones only last so long. It could be the median or radial nerves, the digital sheath, or the flexor sublimis digitorum. Let me see it.”
His usual frown ruffled his forehead like a hat. He pushed his half eaten dinner plate, with its flurry of some bird’s ribcage and legs tossed with mashed potatoes and peas, to one side. His food looked bruised. Sometimes I saw pictures of things but couldn’t make all of them into a language. His shoulders drooped and his eyes grew monstrous under his thick, black eyeglasses. Light lay across the kitchen table in stitches from the bars on our windows.
“Manufacture.” He stated one of the silly words to make me laugh.
I did, although it sounded horrible like teeth gnashing together.
I hesitantly unfurled my right hand and lay it on the table between us. He inspected it while I made my usual joke, “Another operation with all that anesthesia and I’ll lose more of somebody else’s brain cells.”
To which he consistently replied, “My beautiful miracle of modern science. My lovely Mara.”
He petted my hand although I knew he was careful and very precise in his touch. He stroked my wrist scars. For a moment I envied the dead bird.
“When?” I asked, although I usually liked being imprecise.
“Now,” he said. “I have something that will work.”
All the air in my hollow core rushed out. The house of my body emptied out for a minute. Then I could feel my blood and organs resuming their hard work again. I thought of that bird caught flying in an unbroken sky. Now, on our plates, it was something else. My stupid heart fluttered and kicked. I wanted to draw my wings around me but they were always somebody else’s wings. I wanted something that was my own, one day, an hour.
“When I turn nineteen next month I want to inhale the sky, touch a tree…” I was beginning to list what I wanted to do again.
Father made a twisted face. The kitchen table seemed to knock that emptied bird off his plate. But it was my father jostling it accidentally with his elbow as he reached for me.
“You know, Mara, your age is simply an average of all the components…” He touched my arm. He was using his soothing voice.
I could only hear ice cracking. Sometimes my senses became mixed up. If I had been a radio, then certain of my wires were crossed. I would never confess these symptoms to my father. That bird nearly leaped off of its plate and rushed toward the window. I wanted to explain to it how it would never escape.
My father was still talking, “…you are always more than the sum of your parts.” He hugged me.
I wasn’t sure. Instead I gave him a word. “Artifice.”
Last night I had a recurring dream that I was an ugly, moon-shape faced girl with dirty red hair in tangled strands. I was staggering down a blurry street, bumping into people, insulting them. My brain wasn’t working correctly and I was fighting with everyone. I cursed someone in an alley, a man I couldn’t see, and he grew angry, lifting me into the air by my neck. I saw stars, planets, planes, clouds reflected in a broken window lit by a streetlight. I saw my moony face among them and then we were swept away by black clouds into emptiness.
I didn’t mind the lengthy darkness. It was the abrupt pinpoint of light that disturbed me. I screamed for my father in my sleep. Just before he ran into my bedroom, the girl’s moon-face cracked into tiny little pieces and rained into my hands. It was rendered harmless and I wasn’t sure I could put it back together. Underneath it, a pink brain and laddered arterial system were pulsing and beautiful.
Father ran into my bedroom without his glasses. His body crumpled in his pajamas. “Bad dreams?” He sat on my flowered coverlet.
“I can fix them for you.”
“How do I know whether they’re mine or someone else’s?”
He thought for a moment. “I don’t know, Mara, honey. Tell me what they were and we’ll try and sort it out.”
“No, I’m sure they were mine.” His head tilted skeptically as though he knew I was afraid. All that cold steel, the antiseptic smells, machines rolling and whirring around me, the pain that vanished faster and faster each time.
“You know, Mara, I will always do what I can for you.”
“I’m fine,” I reassured him, he who took away and gave.
He patted my hand. “Complexity,” he gave me before he left.
I could feel my stomach digesting every bite of my dinner. Pain pinched at my head, and I heard a soft music with bright lights attached to it. My heart ran quickly ahead of me. I closed my eyes.
“You can have two hours tomorrow on the computer. Unsupervised.” It was a gift, a bribe. I was rarely allowed to use the computer, relying mainly on books my father had chosen for my enrichment. The Classics he sometimes called them.
But we both knew I had nowhere to go except to the laboratory. I stood up and took my father’s hand.
“My body’s borrowed.”
“We’re all on borrowed time, honey,” he told me, his precious daughter, before he unlocked the thick, heavy door to the downstairs. A variety of familiar lights tore into our skin. The machines formed a tall city around us, our own private city. I lay down on the padded table. He strapped me down. He caught me staring at the Photographs, the Mother and Daughter contentedly surrounded by trees and pet animals, the Scientist standing in front of a building at his school. The Scientist gave my father his first interesting word, “Complicity.” I glanced at the Photographs before every operation to say hello.
We each had collected scars.
My father’s forehead had a circle of light attached to it. His wild white hair escaped from the top of his head, a blue paper mask covered his face. His glasses peeked out from above the blue edge. He wore his beige gloves and the table with instruments sat near his waist. He held my plastic mask aloft as I writhed beneath the straps.
His eyes followed mine to see where I was looking. “Look past the person.”
I didn’t always understand his lessons. But it wasn’t him getting the operations, stuck in bed for months, unable to move some arm or leg or worse, not capable of eating, sleeping, hearing, or seeing. I pushed his arm and my mask away with my available fingertips, and then I held on to it. No piece of me went unnoticed.
“You’re the future, darling Mara. You’re my whole life,” he reminded me.
I tingled inside. I stuck out my makeshift tongue at him. I released his arm. “Don’t be abstract,” I chided him. I wanted specifics. How was I the future?
He didn’t answer me. The mask he lowered onto my face smelled how I imagined lake water stank, dank, wet, and earthy. Cones of light crossed my eyes and those trees and animals from the Photographs grew closer, started breathing with me. Deep breaths. Deeper. I began collapsing back into myself. I remembered hiding from my father, behind some jars of pickled hooves and snouts, livers, bladders, brains, hearts, ears, and intestines in the lab a long time ago. Skulls lined one shelf. He ignored my racing and crouching and giggling. I had asked him where he got all the parts in the jars.
“Sweetheart, you don’t want to know.” He patted my hand. “That’s for me to worry about.”
Where else could I go?
“I’m the future seen through a glass of cold water,” I murmured. That dead chicken was pecking at my side as a beautiful blue color surrounded me.
“Where did that come from?” He was talking to himself already, a knife in his hand, his extra surgical eyepiece dangling over his enlarged eyes, the steady circle of light from his forehead. Everything in the laboratory was ready, humming. “We create ourselves,” he whispered to me from very far away.
I searched for blood as I awoke slowly in the empty room. I thought I could taste the blood, rich and metallic in my mouth, but there wasn’t any pooled there. I could smell it oozing from my right hand, syrupy and like iron, as though I was another one of my father’s machines that needed to be oiled. When I lifted my head, I didn’t see any visible bleeding, only a new hand with stitches. I tried to squeeze it but it was stiff and I was still strapped to the table.
When I was a Childcloud and newly born Dr. F. told me, “Sometimes one small pain seems bigger than the whole.” I tried not to concentrate on the incisions. I tried to find my way out of my body. I could hear my father’s voice in the office next to the lab.
“I don’t understand her imagination.” He was talking into his tape machine. I could hear the clicking and sputter of it. “Where does it come from?”
He was saying that I was different.
“And we’re only beginning to scratch the surface.” Click. Footsteps came toward me.
At the end of this operation I imagined a white bird that fought its way up and out of my throat. It flew away, leaving me sick and empty.
Father’s face looked wan and bloodless as he released the straps. He peered at my new hand. “It looks good, sweetheart. I also added a mole to your right cheek.” He was attaching a bandage to the side of my face.
My eyes flew to the Photographs and there it was, the dark speck on the Daughter’s cheek that I hadn’t noticed before. My heart stuttered but I should have known.
I opened my mouth. Only a groan escaped. Sometimes, after more than one operation in one day, my voice became an unintelligible growl from so much anesthesia. I believed that I was the sum of all the people Father had used. Father said that everyone had parts of all the people they had known inside of them. I mismanaged my small happinesses, a day without aches, noise I could almost hear from a street that was described in a book, or the morning sky ablaze through the bars on our windows, making striped patterns on the walls. And no piece of me went unnoticed with my father. He was vigilant.
I had wanted to whisper to him that the damaged parts of me loved the damaged parts of him.
“Mingle,” I croaked as I sat up. My father turned around, he was busy cleaning instruments, wiping the machines, slowly turning everything off. His reflection expanded and contracted on the stainless steel. He was behind the table with the large microscope.
“Thank you for the word.”
“No. I WANT to mingle.” I finally got it out of my throat.
“With who or to do what? You can order anything you want over the computer. Would you like a new dress or shoes? It’s the same as being there.”
“No, it’s not. I want the world. I want to touch it.” I pushed a finger toward his back but it didn’t reach him. I was exhausted.
“You’re nearly perfect,” his back said.
“No one is perfect,” I sighed, hoping my new fingers would work well. I carefully slid off the table a little bit of me at a time. My legs were stiff and feathery. Father pulled his gloves off and helped me. “Next time I want a tail.”
“Very humorous, Mara.”
“I want to actually be out there. Meet people. See places. So many different worlds are described in books. Is there a different world for everyone?” He wasn’t answering me. What was he afraid of?
Father perched his glasses down further on his nose. “I’m afraid of what the world will do to you.” He looked sad again.
I smiled a crooked anesthesia smile. “What about what I could do to the world?”
Soon after I was a Childcloud and newly born Father began bringing home flowers, daffodils whose yellow petals, filled with sunlight, illuminated our ceiling and walls and turned them yellow, white roses with their perfume and heavy, layered heads, and red tulips whose repetition I saw around the outside of our house from my window which disturbed me. He taught me their names, smells, and their particular needs (water, soil, sunlight). They usually ended up on our floor, scattered, crushed, abandoned behind furniture, or mummified and forgotten in vases. I was reluctant to touch them. The earliest ones had become green pulp between my fingers.
“You don’t know your own strength, darling daughter.” His eyebrows crossed in a worried way. “Agility,” he gave me.
Then he began bringing home mice from his research job, the extras. One at a time. I didn’t do any better with the mice at first. They turned inside out in my fists, all fur, bones, blood, and organs until I learned patience and how to slow down time to my advantage. I let the mice gnaw my fingers, felt their tiny clawed feet on my skin, along my sleeves, and at the back of my neck. They tickled me with their tails and feet and fur, making me laugh, a large sound which flung one of the mice onto the floor. Then I accidentally crushed it.
“Unintentional,” I told my father.
“We’ll keep trying.”
One day he brought home two mice together, unlocking the heavy front door, holding them aloft in one cage. Then he locked the door behind him. Father was the only one with keys to all our locks. He was careful. I could sniff the outdoors for a moment when he slipped in and out of that door. I thought of large pale shapes passing our house, a tinkling like coins falling from a pocket, people grinning and pointing at me. Maybe it had been a memory.
“Let’s go down to the lab,” he said.
“Overwhelmed,” I explained to him when he placed both mice in my palm inside the laboratory. I didn’t hurt them although my hand involuntarily began opening and closing like a wing. I tried to pet one with the outstretched finger of my other hand. It bit me, which surprised me. One mouse leaped to the floor and the other jumped into the nest of my dark uncombed hair. While trying to remove the mouse from my hair I burst its skin, its blood and organs became a wet, red pulp as it plopped to the floor.
“Maybe we need to practice,” my father replied.
I stood there crying, my arms hanging at my sides. The other tiny mouse had disappeared in our house. “How do I know I’m real?” I blubbered.
“You killed something, didn’t you?” Father was bent down, cleaning. “We kill the things we care for. And it’s always a mistake.”
I cried harder.
I lay on the operating table. “Fix me.”
“I can’t,” he said, looking forlorn.
“I read on the computer that cerebral cortex neurons replace themselves every seven to ten years, as do most of the other cells in our bodies. We become totally new people every decade or so.” This was a story I liked to tell myself. It made me hopeful. I moved my wet face towards his. “It’s immoral to kill any living creature, even if you don’t mean to.”
He patted my shoulder. “I know, Mara.” His eyes grew wet too.
I had been trying to understand the complexities of the mirror in my bathroom since I was a Childcloud. Was that me in there? Did I do everything my image did? I searched for anomalies in my skin and other features but the mirror was disturbing. I stopped gazing at it for a while. I was pleasantly surprised some time later when I looked again.
I had been a shattered woman who was patched together again. I cut my dark shaggy hair into both long and short strands that reached to my chin. Brown clumps were trying to grow from my scalp in small bursts. Later I noticed my short nose, brown eyes sunken into my face. Sometimes a round, pale moon face wanted to emerge from my own thin oval one. I had long eyelashes and my eyebrows seemed unfinished. The first time I peered at myself I had been passing the mirror. I crawled back to determine what was there. I watched myself breathe. I watched myself turn around and scratch my cheek.
“Reflection,” I whispered to myself, understanding.
I had raised red scars then. Some turned white and itched but they didn’t hurt anymore. I was the fifth Mara, developed from the failures of the others before me. I opened my mouth and inspected it the same way my father had. I understood that I was his greatest and worst creation. But then I was also my own. The scars faded rapidly and were replaced by thin lines that resembled wrinkles. Then the wrinkles faded. I was stitched together and didn’t see another like me in my limited books or computer time.
I had tried moving more delicately, practicing lifting small objects with grace in front of the mirror. My joints were angular and full of errors. My arms and legs seemed awkward. I discovered that everything that came out of the body had a purpose. And the beginnings of actions arrived from my thoughts. I tried to listen.
Inside my skin did the other Maras wait and stir? Could I separate into distinct selves? Once I had seen and understood the mirror and the Photographs, I knew what Dr. F. had made me for. But was my purpose the same as his?
I was breakable.
Return to table of contents for Issue 9 Summer 2015.