When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where the animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading them selves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.
At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.
Alan, Adora, and Amma were all gathered in the living room when I returned. The scene was startling, it was so much like the old days with Marian. Amma and my mother sat on the couch, my mother cradling Amma—in a woolen nightgown despite the heat—as she held an ice cube to her lips. My half sister stared up at me with blank contentment, then went back to playing with a glowing mahogany dinner table, exactly like the one in the next room, except that it was about four inches high.
“Nothing to worry about,” Alan said, looking up from a newspaper. “Amma’s just got the summer chills.”
I felt a shot of alarm, then annoyance: I was sinking back into old routines, about to run to the kitchen to heat some tea, just like I always did for Marian when she was sick. I was about to linger near my mother, waiting for her to put an arm around me, too. My mother and Amma said nothing. My mother didn’t even look up at me, just nuzzled Amma in closer to her, and cooed into her ear.
When I was a child, I remember my mother trying to prod me with ointments and oils, homemade remedies and homeopathic nonsense. I sometimes took the foul solutions, more often refused. Then Marian got sick, really sick, and Adora had more important things to do than coaxing me into swallowing wheat-germ extract. Now I had a pang: all those syrups and tablets she proffered, and I rejected. That was the last time I had her full attention as a mother. I suddenly wished I’d been easier.
I am a cutter, you see. Also a snipper, a slicer, a carver, a jabber. I am a very special case. I have a purpose. My skin, you see, screams. It’s covered with words—cook, cupcake, kitty, curls—as if a knife-wielding first-grader learned to write on my flesh. I sometimes, but only sometimes, laugh. Getting out of the bath and seeing, out of the corner of my eye, down the side of a leg: babydoll. Pulling on a sweater and, in a flash of my wrist: harmful. Why these words? Thousands of hours of therapy have yielded a few ideas from the good doctors. They are often feminine, in a Dick and Jane, pink vs. puppy dog tails sort of way. Or they’re flat-out negative. Number of synonyms for anxious carved in my skin: eleven. The one thing I know for sure is that at the time, it was crucial to see these letters on me, and not just see them, but feel them.
“I’m sorry you had to see me that way, Camille,” Amma said. “Especially since we don’t really know each other. I’m just going through a stage,” She flashed an overdone smile. “But now we’re reunited. You’re like poor Cinderella, and I’m the evil stepsister. Half sister.”
“There’s not a speck of evil in you, sweetheart,” Alan said.
“But Camille was the first. First is usually best. Now that she’s back, will you love Camille more than me?” asked Amma. She started the question teasingly, but her cheeks were flushed as she waited for my mother to respond.
“No,” Adora said quietly. […]
“Because you love me,” Amina said, between mouthfuls of ham. The sick smell of meat and sweetness wafted over. “I wish I’d be murdered.”
“Amma, don’t say such a thing,” my mother said, blanching. […]
“Then I’d never have to worry again. When you die, you become perfect. I’d be like Princess Diana. Everyone loves her now.”
“You are the most popular girl in your whole school, and at home you are adored, Amma. Don’t be greedy.”
Amma kicked me again under the table and smiled emphatically, as if some important matter had been settled.
As a child, I don’t remember ever telling Adora my favorite color, or what I’d like to name my daughter when I grew up. I don’t think she ever knew my favorite dish, and I certainly never padded down to her room in the early-morning hours, teary from nightmares. I always feel sad for the girl that I was, because it never occurred to me that my mother might comfort me. She has never told me she loved me, and I never assumed she did. She tended to me. She administrated me. Oh, yes, and one time she bought me lotion with vitamin E.
For a while I convinced myself that Adora’s distance was a defense constructed after Marian. But in truth, I think she’s always had more problems with children than she’d ever admit. I think, in fact, she hates them. There’s a jealousy, a resentfulness that I can feel even now, in my memory. At one point, she probably liked the idea of a daughter. When she was a girl, I bet she daydreamed of being a mother, of coddling, of licking her child like a milk-swelled cat. She has that voraciousness about children. She swoops in on them.
I have one memory that catches in me like a nasty clump of blood. Marian was dead about two years, and my mother had a cluster of friends come over for afternoon drinks. One of them brought a baby. For hours, the child was cooed over, smothered with red-lipstick kisses, tidied up with tissues, then lipstick smacked again. I was supposed to be reading in my room, but I sat at the top of the stairs watching.
My mother finally was handed the baby, and she cuddled it ferociously. Oh, how wonderful it is to hold a baby again! Adora jiggled it on her knee, walked it around the rooms, whispered to it, and I looked down from above like a spiteful little god, the back of my hand placed against my face, imagining how it felt to be cheek to cheek with my mother.
When the ladies went into the kitchen to help tidy up the dishes, something changed. I remember my mother, alone in the living room, staring at the child almost lasciviously. She pressed her lips hard against the baby’s apple slice of a cheek. Then she opened her mouth just slightly, took a tiny bit of flesh between her teeth, and gave it a little bite.
The baby wailed. The blotch faded as Adora snuggled the child, and told the other women it was just being fussy. I ran to Marian’s room and got under the covers.
Most sows are repeatedly inseminated, brood after brood, till their bodies give way and they go to slaughter. But while they’re still useful, they’re made to nurse—strapped to their sides in a farrowing crate, legs apart, nipples exposed. Pigs are extremely smart, sociable creatures, and this forced assembly-line intimacy makes the nursing sows want to die. Which, as soon as they dry up, they do.
Even the idea of this practice I find repulsive. But the sight of it actually does something to you, makes you less human. Like watching a rape and saying nothing. I saw Amma at the far end of the barn, standing at the edge of one metal farrowing crate. A few men were pulling one pack of squealing piglets out of the stall, throwing another pack in. I moved to the far side of the barn so I could stand behind Amma without her seeing me. The pig lay nearly comatose on its side, its belly exposed between metal bars, red, bloody nipples pointing out like fingers. […]
The piglets in the stall were swarming over the sow like ants on a glob of jelly. The nipples were fought over, bouncing in and out of mouths, jiggling tautly like rubber. The sow’s eyes rolled up into her head. Amina sat down cross-legged and gazed, fascinated. After five minutes she was in the same position, now smiling and squirming. I had to leave. I walked, first slowly, then broke into a scramble to my car. Door shut, radio blasting, warm bourbon stinging my throat, I drove away from the stink and sound. And that child.
“Camille, open the door.”
“What’s wrong with Camille?” Amma chimed.
“This won’t work.” The side zipper was sticking. My bared arms flashed scars in deep pink and purple. Even without looking directly in the mirror I could see them reflected at me—a big blur of scorched skin.
“Camille,” my mother spat.
“Why won’t she just show us?”
“Momma, you saw the dresses, you know why they won’t work,” I urged.
“Just let me see.”
“I’ll try one on, Momma,” Amma wheedled.
“Camille . . .”
“Fine.” I banged open the door. My mother, her face level with my neckline, winced.
“Oh, dear God.” I could feel her breath on me. She held up a bandaged hand, as if about to touch my chest, then let it drop. Behind her Amma whined like a puppy. “Look what you’ve done to yourself,” Adora said. “Look at it.”
“I hope you just loved it. I hope you can stand yourself.”
She shut the door and I ripped at the dress, the zipper still jammed until my furious tugs yanked the teeth apart enough to get it to my hips, where I wriggled out, the zipper leaving a trail of pink scratches on my skin. I bunched the cotton of the dress over my mouth and screamed.
“You were always so willful, never sweet. I remember when you were six or seven. I wanted to put your hair up in curlers for your school picture. Instead you cut it all off with my fabric shears.” I didn’t remember doing this. I remembered hearing about Ann doing this.
“I don’t think so, Momma.”
“Headstrong. Like those girls. I tried to be close with those girls, those dead girls.”
“What do you mean be close with them?”
“They reminded me of you, running around town wild. Like little pretty animals. I thought if I could be close with them, I would understand you better. If I could like them, maybe I could like you. But I couldn’t. […] And now you come back and all I can think of is ‘Why Marian and not her?’”
Rage flattened immediately into a dark despair. My fingers found a wood staple in the floorboard. I jabbed it under my fingernail. I would not cry for this woman.
“I’m not so pleased to be left here anyway, Momma, if it makes you feel any better.”
“You’re so hateful.”
“I learned at your feet.” My mother lunged then, grabbed me by both arms. Then she reached behind me and, with one fingernail, circled the spot on my back that had no scars.
“The only place you have left,” she whispered at me. Her breath was cloying and musky, like air coming from a spring well.
“Someday I’ll carve my name there.” She shook me once, released me, then left me on the stairs with the warm remains of our liquor.
"[Natalie] had serious problems. We looked for my earlobe, see if it could be stitched back on, but it was gone. I guess she swallowed it.” [Meredith] gave a laugh that sounded like the reverse of a gulp of air. ”I mostly just felt sorry for her.”
“Ann, was she as bad?” I asked.
“Worse. There are people all over this town with her teeth marks in them. Your mother included.”
“What?” My hands began to sweat and the back of my neck went cold.
“Your mom was tutoring her and Ann didn’t understand. She completely lost it, pulled some of your momma’s hair out, and bit into her wrist. Hard. I think there had to be stitches.” Images of my mother’s thin arm caught between tiny teeth, Ann shaking her head like a dog, blood blossoming on my mother’s sleeve, on Ann’s lips. A scream, a release.
A little circle of jagged lines, and within, a ring of perfect skin.
“She likes to take care of me.”
“It’s weird, Amma said. “After she takes care of me, l like to have sex.” She flipped up her skirt from behind, flashed me a hot pink thong.
“I don’t think you should let boys do things to you, Amma. Because that’s what it is. It’s not reciprocal at your age.”
“Sometimes if you let people do things to you, you’re really doing it to them,” Amma said, pulling another Blow Pop from her pocket. Cherry. “Know what I mean? If someone wants to do fucked-up things to you, and you let them, you’re making them more fucked up. Then you have the control. As long as you don’t go crazy.”
“How do you lash out?” We were near my mother’s house now, and my high was in full bloom. My hair swished on my shoulders like warm water and I swayed side to side to no particular music. A snail shell lay on the edge of the sidewalk and my eyes looped into its curlicue.
“You know. You know how sometimes you need to hurt.” She said it as if she were selling a new hair product.
“There are better ways to deal with boredom and claustrophobia than to hurt,” I said. “You’re a smart girl, you know that.” I realized her fingers were inside the cuffs of my shirt, touching the ridges of my scars. I didn’t stop her. “Do you cut, Amma?”
“I hurt,” she squealed, and twirled out onto the street, spinning flamboyantly, her head back, her arms outstretched like a swan. “I love it!” she screamed. The echo ran down the street, where my mother’s house stood watch on the corner.
“She gave me something that made me feel really groggy and sick,” I said.
“Yeah, she likes that one,” Amma mumbled. “You fall asleep all hot and drooly, and then she can bring her friends in to look at you.”
“She’s done this before?” My body went cold under the sweat. I was right: Something horrible was about to happen.
She shrugged. “I don’t mind. Sometimes I don’t take it—just pretend. Then we’re both happy. I play with my dolls or I read, and when I hear her coming I pretend to be asleep.”
“Amma?” I sat down on the floor next to her and stroked her hair. I needed to be gentle. “Does she give you pills and stuff a lot?”
“Only when I’m about to be sick.”
“What happens then?”
“Sometimes I get all hot and crazy and she has to give me cold baths. Sometimes I need to throw up. Sometimes I get all shivery and weak and tired and I just want to sleep.”
It was happening again. Just like Marian. I could feel the bile in the back of my throat, the tightening. I began weeping again, stood up, sat back down. My stomach was churning. I put my head in my hands. Amma and I were sick just like Marian. It had to be made that obvious to me before I finally understood—nearly twenty years too late. I wanted to scream in shame.
“I know who did it, Curry,” I hissed. “I know it.”
“Well, that’s no reason to cry, Cubby. The police made an arrest?”
“Not yet. I know who did it.” Thunk on the dartboard.
“Who? Camille, talk to me.”
I pressed the phone to my mouth and whispered, “My mother.”
“Who? Camille, you have to speak up. Are you at a bar?”
“My mother did it,” I yelped into the phone, the words coming out like a splatter. Silence for too long.
“Camille, you are under a lot of stress, and I was very wrong to send you down there so soon after . . . Now, I want you to go to the nearest airport and fly back here. Don’t get your clothes, just leave your car and come home here. We’ll deal with all that stuff later. Charge the ticket, I’ll pay you back when you get home. But you need to come home now.”
Home home home, like he was trying to hypnotize me.
“I’ll never have a home,” I whimpered, began sobbing again. “I have to go take care of this, Curry.” I hung up as he was ordering me not to.
“Camille, if you could be any fairy-tale person in the world, who would you be?” Amma asked.
“Sleeping Beauty.” To spend a life in dreams, that sounded too lovely.
“I’d be Persephone.”
“I don’t know who that is,” I said. […]
“She’s the Queen of the Dead,” Amma beamed. “She was so beautiful, Hades stole her and took her to the underworld to be his wife. But her mother was so fierce, she forced Hades to give Persephone back. But only for six months each year. So she spends half her life with the dead, and half with the living.”
“Amma, why would such a creature appeal to you?” Alan said. “You can be so ghastly.”
“I feel sorry for Persephone because even when she’s back with the living, people are afraid of her because of where’s she’s been,” Amma said. “And even when she’s with her mother, she’s not really happy, because she knows she’ll have to go back underground. ” She grinned at Adora and jabbed a big bite of ham into her mouth, then crowed.
One night I woke to find Amma standing over my bed.
“You like Lily better than me,” she whispered. She was feverish, her nightgown clinging to her sweaty body, her teeth chattering. I guided her into the bathroom, sat her down on the toilet, wet a washcloth under the cool, metallic water of the sink, wiped her brow. […]
I poured two aspirin into my palm, put them back in the bottle, poured them back onto my palm. One or two pills. So easy to give. Would I want to give another, and another? Would I like taking care of a sick little girl? A rustle of recognition when she looked up at me, shaky and sick: Mother's here.
I gave Amma two aspirin. The smell made my mouth water. I poured the rest down the drain.
“Now you have to put me in the bathtub and wash me,” she whined.
I pulled her nightgown over her head. Her nakedness was stunning: sticky little girl’s legs, a jagged round scar on her hip like half a bottle cap, the slightest down in a wilted thatch between her legs. Full, voluptuous breasts. Thirteen.
She got into the bathtub and pulled her legs to her chin.
“You need to rub alcohol on me,” she whimpered.
“No Amma, just relax.”
Amma face turned pink and she began crying.
“That’s how she does it,” she whispered. The tears turned into sobs, then a mournful howl.
“We’re not going to do it like she does it anymore,” I said.
“I was friends with them for a while,” she said finally, talking into her chest. “We had fun, running around in the woods. We were wild. We’d hurt things together. We killed a cat once. But then she”—as always Adora’s name went unsaid—“got all interested in them. I could never have anything to myself. They weren't my secrets anymore. They were always coming by the house. They started asking me questions about being sick. They were going to ruin everything. She didn't even realize it.” Amma rubbed her shorn hair harshly. “And why did Ann have to bite . . . her? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why Ann could bite her, and I couldn’t.”
She refused to say more, answered only in sighs and coughs. As for the teeth, she took the teeth only because she needed them. The dollhouse had to be perfect, just like everything else Amma loved.
I think there is more. Ann and Natalie died because Adora paid attention to them. Amma could only view it as a raw deal. Amma, who had allowed my mother to sicken her for so long.
Sometimes when you let people do things to you, you ’re really doing it to them. Amma controlled Adora by letting Adora sicken her. In return, she demanded uncontested love and loyalty. No other little girls allowed. For the same reasons she murdered Lily Burke. Because, Amina suspected, I liked her better.
You can come up with four thousand other guesses, of course, about why Amina did it. In the end, the fact remains: Amma enjoyed hurting. I like violence, she’d shrieked at me. I blame my mother. A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.
Sometimes I think about that night caring for Amma, and how good I was at soothing her and calming her. I have dreams of washing Amma and drying her brow. I wake with my stomach turning and a sweaty upper lip. Was I good at caring for Amma because of kindness? Or did I like caring for Amma because I have Adora’s sickness? I waver between the two, especially at night, when my skin begins to pulse. Lately, I’ve been leaning toward kindness.