Kit showed me the Polaroids on the bus after school. They were taken in the woods— tree roots thick as branches dipping into black dirt, everything dappled in moss; pine needles on the ground; a certain slant of afternoon light heavy with lazy motes. In the photos, the skull was there alongside some leaves, a Kit-sized shadow crossing into the edges of the frame. In another, you could see her hand touching the top of the skull, her now-chipped tangerine nail polish intact. The bus bumped along, rocking us gently side to side.
Across the aisle, two eighth graders were kissing, slouched down in their bench so that the bus driver couldn’t see. The boy’s hands were out of sight, probably on the small of her back, tracing the pink skin underneath her shirt. I imagined their thoughts as tiny vapors above their heads: he was thinking I am so cool and she was thinking: I hope this looks cool. I watched them like I wasn’t watching them, like Kit pretended not to watch them, and counted to twenty-seven before they took a break.
“What kind of animal is this?” Kit asked finally, as if she was only waiting for me to speak.
I examined the skull. It was incomplete: there was no lower jaw and half of the right eye socket was missing. The teeth were impressively jagged, some broken, and the head torpedo-shaped. It didn’t look like any Earth animal I’d ever seen: it could have been a Martian or a baby raptor head. This always surprised me, how extraordinary things could look without their skin.
“Come back to my house,” I told her, and at my stop we both got off.
It was a dry day, the sky high and clear. The path to my house was a long dirt trail surrounded by a field of grass and what passed for hills in Florida. Sometimes I rolled down those hills with my arms stiff at my sides, as if I was an unstoppable wheel going bigger places than here.
My grandmother was in the kitchen when we both came in. We left our backpacks at the door and rolled our shoulders, shrugging the school day off, dropping all of it there next to the packs—the algebra question we got wrong in front of everyone, the pizza sauce we dripped on our white shirts, the way the boys were kissing all our classmates, but not us.
“Sylvie,” my grandmother called, and Kit and I went in and sat at the island where she fed us tuna sandwiches and tall glasses of Sunny D. I loved that about my grandmother, that she was never nonplussed. I brought home a friend and she didn’t bat an eye, made an extra sandwich as if she was planning to anyway. That’s how I imagined she got me—that my mother dropped me off and my grandmother just shrugged and raised me as if, all along, she had wanted a second child.
My grandmother was still beautiful, even though the laugh lines were now permanent on her brown skin, marionette mouth, crinkles at the corners of her eyes. She had warm hands, a happy face, and long silver hair she wore in a braid down her back. I hoped I would be like that someday: my hair over my shoulder, posture immaculate, making sandwiches in my own home in a man’s Hawaiian shirt.
“Are you joining us for the moon festival?” she asked Kit.
Kit blushed and ducked her head. “My mom won’t let me.”
“That’s too bad,” my grandmother said, and turned to the sink to put up dishes she’d already washed. “What about you, Sylvie? Up for it tonight?”
It was a school night, but of course I was. I’d never been a good sleeper, and my grandmother knew this. Everything is as it is, she was always saying, which I took to mean I could go to bed when I was tired.
“Duh,” I said, mouth full, and wolfed down the rest of my sandwich so we could figure out what Kit’s animal was.
“Your mother called,” my grandmother said as I ate the last crumbs from my plate, picking them up with the tip of a spit-slick finger. “She’s temping at the hospital while she’s in town. She might come by.”
“Mmm,” I said, and then to Kit, “Come on.” She thanked my grandmother for the food and we thundered up the hardwood stairs to my room. It was exactly how I’d left it that morning: bed unmade, radio bumping TLC, the window wide open letting in sun and air.
“What are the festivals like? Is your mother a gypsy?” Kit asked rapid-fire, flouncing down on my bed.
I didn’t understand that this word—gypsy—was something she had overheard her parents say. That her parents discussed my situation often while she listened from her room. They had a Christmas-card marriage: mom, dad, Kit, and her little brother. All well- groomed, smiling practiced white grins they tacked up on their walls for everyone to see. Kit’s mom sold costume jewelry at parties with other moms in cable-knit sweaters, served store-bought guacamole in authentic Native American pottery she ordered online. When I heard gypsy, I pictured Esmerelda, beautiful and dark, and charming despite her roaming ways, but the way Kit said it made it sound like a curse. Like whatever her parents meant when they said it, was lesser than them. She said “festival” that same way, and even if I didn’t understand the context, I understood the tone.
“What does your mother say about the festivals?” I asked Kit.
Kit laughed. “She doesn’t like them. Every time I come over here, she asks if your grandmother walks around naked.”
Anger jabbed under my ribs. How could anyone judge my grandmother, let alone Kit’s mother? I wanted to stare down her generic face and tell her yes, we walked around naked. And we dipped ourselves in blood. I wanted to say all of this to her mother, and I wanted to tell Kit that I wanted to say it. But instead, I pretended not to be offended by her questions, as if the implications of either topic were lost on me.
“They’re magic,” I said about the festival. “You’re missing out.”
I said nothing about my mother, whom I called Helen to her face. I didn’t talk about her with Kit, or with anyone really. She was mine to talk about, or not; mine to think badly of. Only mine.
She’d left me, two years old with my newly constructed sentences (Byebye mommy!), to travel the world. She liked to tell me about all she’d done. She had cleaned yachts for a living, chased boys across continents, cut paths on Antigua’s smoking mountains with a silver blade. Once, she swam with baby humpback whales. She told me of a time she walked barefoot up Mount Sinai to the burning bush, fresh pus funneling into new blisters on her toes, and bowed down to it on the summit. She told all her friends she’d heard the voice of God. Do you know what he said? she’d ask them, eyes shining, and everyone always asked, What? leaning in, greedy for secrets. Nothing, she’d say. She told me that sometimes the voice of God was silence. I saw my mother when she came home, but she drifted in and out of town, heedless as a ghost, on a schedule regulated by a system only she could understand. That she made out in a bird’s flight south or a certain turn of the tide—a Helen’s almanac for when to appear in her daughter’s life. I didn’t begrudge her this; how could I? We barely knew each other, if at all.
Kit and I turned towards my neatly labeled shelves. I was interested in discarded things—dead scalp flakes, toenail rinds, animal remains. I pressed cast- off flower petals onto yellowed sheet music. Rolled snake skins into opaque wads and corked them inside specimen bottles. I showcased these things instead of dolls or honor roll certificates. With Kit’s photos on the floor at the center of the room, we went through all my bones: wolf, cougar, goat, and sheep. There were chipmunks and rabbits, a viper and a blue jay. We arranged their heads around Kit’s pictures like totems, as if maybe their spirits were hanging out somewhere near my room—though I’d had most shipped from faraway places off the Internet—and could be summoned back to help us solve this mystery.
They watched us arranging the sum of their parts, eternal grins indecipherable. There was something dark in it, something true. We gathered my entire supply, tossing down femurs, scapulae, one rodent clavicle, and yellowed vertebrae like strange door knobs. We beat upon the placid skulls with the ribs from a porcupine, popping our skinny hips to the graveyard music. I combed Kit’s hair with a bear’s phalanges; she placed a crown of thoracic spikes on mine.
After a while, we got tired of searching and thought: maybe fox, but there was nothing definite. It didn’t matter. Sometimes it wasn’t about naming the bones we found—we rejoiced in the question as much as the answer. Sometimes it was enough to hold them against our skin, run their particular shapes across our mouths and taste that something always remained. It was a sweet flavor, dust-dry.
We left the bones where they lay and called numbers on my yellow daisy phone. My grandmother needed a second line so the Internet wouldn’t tie up her main. When she wasn’t using it, it was mine; when she was, there was this horrible, robotic blatting and thick static like driving fast through highway rain—the sounds of connection.
We called for the time, though we had nowhere to be. We phoned a free dating service that allowed us to skip through chatrooms by pressing pound or star and pretended to be girls older than we were. We laughed when men told us what they would do to us—spastic, ugly giggles that made our stomachs ache. They would treat us like princesses; they would kiss our feet; they would slather us in honey and lick the cracks of our succulent asses. We never said what we would do.
But Kit and I figured we should be prepared, so we practiced giving hickeys on our own arms, then receiving hickeys from each other. Kit’s marks were controlled blooms underneath my collarbone; mine were wild, splotchy red on her shoulder. I imagined Kit as a dark-skinned boy who smiled nicely at me in school, and we practiced kissing on the lips. I was an eighth-grade girl on a school bus, basking in shy admiration.
“I’ve got to go,” Kit said around five, and waved goodbye. Her t-shirt covered up our practice work. My grandmother’s voice drifted up the stairs, offering Kit a ride home, but she said, No, thank you. She’d walk. Exhausted from our searching, from all our nervous laughing, I lay down on my bed and watched the sky in its singular mass of blue.
I thought about the last time I had seen my mother, when she showed up last year in a gauzy black dress and boots as if for a funeral instead of my eleventh birthday. I was surprised to see her. Usually she appeared a couple of weeks before or after a birthday, never quite getting the timing right. The year before, I hadn’t seen her at all.
At the door, she’d held up a small box wrapped in gold paper.
“Earrings,” she’d told me, rattling the present next to my ear before placing it in my palm. “A girl should have some jewelry.” Helen wore none.
She’d taken a bottle of red from my grandmother’s cabinet and brought it to my room with a glass already full, wedging herself onto my bed, which used to be hers. I got up there too and we faced each other, our knees pulled up. She told me about how one time she and her high school friends spray painted their bodies silver and went to the mall to stand in the fountain, shooting water from their mouths and granting false wishes to children in exchange for their quarters. And how when security showed up and kicked them out, they didn’t give back the coins. They paid them to a kid they knew with a fake ID who gave them each a single can of light beer, and one cigarette to share. The emptier the bottle got, the further back into the past she went.
“Do you have a boyfriend?”
“I’m eleven, Helen,” I’d said.
She told me about when she was eleven. How she’d ride her bicycle to her boyfriend’s house, who was eleven too, and give him head in his backyard, knees scraping against the hand-poured slab of his basketball court, bone on concrete—the tender patches of ashy skin those encounters left. She said his come tasted like nothing. “Not like later,” she’d said, touching the soft hairs at the nape of her neck. She wasn’t looking at me; she didn’t seem to be looking at anything. She was somewhere inside herself. “Later, everything tastes like something.”
My grandmother appeared in the doorway. “Cake’s ready,” she said to me, but she was looking at my mother. “Why don’t you go on downstairs and help me get everything together for frosting? We’ll ice it once it cools.”
“Yes ma’am,” I said, and realized even then that she’d overheard some of our conversation and didn’t want it to continue. I didn’t mind leaving; I thought I already knew how sex worked, anyway. I had seen the glossy torn-out pages other girls brought in from their mothers’ nightstand magazines, had seen a boy at school stick his hand up the leg of a classmate’s rolled-up gym shorts, and how nothing was said to the boy, but the girl got written up for violating dress code.
I pretended to leave, but lurked just outside the doorway, holding my breath for the reprimand. Instead, I saw my grandmother finger-comb my mother’s hair. Watched her wrap her arms around her, and Helen snuggle in. In the kitchen, while I brought down bowls and dye and piping bags, I wondered how many years of children my mother had swallowed, and why she didn’t eat me, too.
Later that day, when some of my grandmother’s friends were visiting, my mother sat in the tree swing facing the field—all that grass, the gentle rolling slopes— and one friend said to the other, “That girl,” and rolled her eyes. She said it low so my grandmother wouldn’t hear, but I heard, and thought, If she’s still a girl, when can any of us be women?
Somewhere in the middle of that memory, sleep found me, and it faded into dream. There was my mother in frills and lace, a red bow in her hair bigger than her head. She had a sticky, lollipop mouth instead of a wine bottle and a glass. I watched my mother pump her legs, taking the swing higher and higher—so high that her nose grazed the green of the tree, and the leaves all fell around her, turning red, turning brown, leaving the shriveled skeletons of their former selves underneath her feet. She was laughing, unaware she was about to swing into the sky, about to be lost, a pinprick among clouds. She didn’t call my name. She didn’t say words at all. There was only her in her dress and her smile, swinging into blue then pink-orange, then gray-purple into black.
I woke up to darkness, night entering through the window with moon and a soft cool breeze. My grandmother’s face hung above me, beatific and calm. She brushed a hand across the trail of self-inflicted love marks on my arm. “Are you ready?” she asked, and then helped me dress—I chose a sundress of such pale pink it was almost white, my grandmother a gown of teal lace. Wreathed in plumes of white magnolias and dahlias, crowns of lavender, and orange carnations like puffs of colored dust, we stepped into the yard.
The field had been transformed in the time I slept. My grandmother and her friends had set up a tent, underneath which tables were laid with wine and bread and fruit—slices of yellow pear and nectarines, black grapes as large as golf balls, fragrant hunks of soft white cheese upon elephant-ear leaves. Lanterns and paper streamers hung from every branch, and a bonfire crackled in the distance. The grass shone a deep plush green that could never be copied, and the field was bathed in light—soft light, twinkling light, roaring red light.
There were women everywhere, my grandmother’s friends and strangers from the next town over, some from farther away than that. There were women who taught children, women who filed papers, women who cleaned toilets. Business women, pleasure women, women who married men, women who never did. Women in flowers, women in grass skirts, women in braids, women in beads, women in only their skins. Old women, new women, tall women. Hugging women, singing women, women running, women praying, women drinking in the night.
A forest of women undulating under a full white moon.
My grandmother left my side to dance, and I watched them all from my hill for a while: we were barefoot, everything bare—our necks and arms and stomachs and legs, and our need, all there and shining in the light. I walked the grass, engaged with these women in a way for which I still don’t have words—I didn’t speak to them, we didn’t touch. I just felt them knowing me, projecting the possibilities of who I could become onto my unmolded form. I waded among them like walking through waves.
Women told stories by the fire. They sat cross-legged on the ground in crow formation: a semi-circle of women around one solitary speaker, the eye. One woman told of a single green knitted glove she’d kept throughout the years because her great-grandmother had woven in a few fine strands of her own golden hair. “Rapunzel hair,” she’d said.
The older ones leaned back and sighed, remembering too, as another woman with fierce gray curls recounted the days when women were freer: warriors and rulers, feeding their children bare-breasted in the full light of day. I listened to their stories, suddenly surrounded by daughters and mothers who stretched back and back, mother to daughter to mother in an unbroken chain from the center of time, connected by milk and blood.
“Tell your story,” the women encouraged each other. I closed my eyes and tried to picture my story—not my past, but my future. I was underground, past rock and root, stones like bones pointing me deeper, still deeper, until I was in the red fire-pit center of the planet. I passed through it, skin and muscle sloughing off, to emerge at a liquid core floating with islands. I found that at the center of earth and fire, there was new life. Sitting in that circle of women, I saw the true shape of myself without my skin. I was a glorious creature, sparse and glowing.
Then, piercing through that vision and the ecstatic din of the women, I heard the sound of my own voice calling my own name.
“Sylvia,” my voice said, and I realized it was a different voice—coming from outside myself—like mine but lower, tempered in years I didn’t yet have. I opened my eyes and saw Helen standing in front of me—my mother appearing as if from smoke. Her skin looked pale in the moonlight. She wore green scrubs and a fatigue-darkened grin. “I found you,” she said.
I said nothing, blinked hard to see if she’d disappear. I was always there, right where she’d left me.
Helen came towards me, seeming to glide, and took my hand. I let her. “I’m hungry,” she said, so we headed back towards the house, leaving the sound of women wild in the distance—women crying happy, women laughing sad. The sounds of connection.
At the front door, I stopped her. All that talk of magic and moons, all the time she’d been away. Her hunger. I wanted to be sure. “Are you a vampire?” I glowered at her. She shuffled through her bag and very seriously showed me her reflection in a heart-shaped compact.
I swung the door wide and tramped upstairs to sit on the edge of my bed, swinging my legs, waiting for her, because even though she was there to sleep, I knew she’d come.
She brought the rest of the tuna salad, eating it straight from the Tupperware, and a glass of milk. “Mom still makes the best tuna,” she said, and handed the milk to me. “For you.”
“Isn’t that what mothers do? Bring milk to their unsleeping children?”
I said nothing.
“It’s good for the bones,” she tried.
“Actually, that’s not true,” I told her, glad to disagree.
“It was true when I was your age.” She didn’t speak again until I’d grudgingly taken a sip—milk blue-white and glowing like pearl, white like young semen tasting of nothing. She pointed with her fork to the bones on the floor. “What’s that?”
“Coyote femur,” I said. My grandmother had brought it back from a trip to Arizona.
She laughed. “Good lord, you’re just like me.”
I bristled at that, baby hair on my arms standing on end—how would she know what I was like? I thought of Kit’s ready-made mom, and looked at Helen the way she would: gypsy, lesser than.
“My friend’s mother would never let her come to the moon festivals.”
She looked at me; the center of her eyes were black as grapes. “What does your friend’s mother do?” She said it like she already knew and it was laughable, a joke with a mean punchline.
“Stays,” I said.
She asked, “Is that what good mothers do?”
She was the one with all the answers, woman of the world. I clutched the glass tight in my hands, bracing myself. “How would I know what mothers do?” A beat, and then my mother laughed—raspy, sad—and speared an onion, crunched it between perfect white teeth. “Domesticity is for animals,” she said. “And really, not even them.” I pictured Kit’s family as a skulk of foxes, their skulls all lined up and proper on someone’s fireplace mantle—daddy, momma, and two babies—unfamiliar to one another without their silky pelts.
“Everything is as it is,” Helen said. She smiled at me and it reached her eyes too. There was something dark in it, something true. “You learn to be who you are, or you die as someone else. It’s simple.”
It didn’t seem simple, certainly not then, sitting in silence while my resentment swelled between us. Years later, I would come to see those offerings—the earrings, the milk, her honesty—as her way of asking for my acceptance. She couldn’t ask me for forgiveness. She was too herself to apologize for her nature.
“Finish that,” she said, tapping my glass of milk, and of course I did. We were tree and fruit. No matter how long she was gone, my body always knew. She took the empties—the bowl, the glass—and disappeared down the stairs. I listened to her footfalls until they grew soft, until they faded entirely and I knew she had gone to the spare room to sleep before she left for wherever it was that her almanac told her to go next. My mother would roll down hills forever, until they took her places bigger than where she was.
Left alone with the animal remains still scattered on the rug and my belly full of milk, I sent myself to sleep. Told my own bedtime stories. I pictured women dancing, women spinning, Helen flying into black. I felt my bones fashioning themselves into something like her: fragile, sharp, and too exquisite to be human. In a hundred years, archeologists or curious children would dig me up, brushing earth from my milk-white femurs, studying my humerus for a hint at the joke. They would never quite get it because they couldn’t see the whole: my fierce weirdness or the restless current that circled my spine. They would wonder what kind of animal I’d been as they photographed my partial skeleton and counted my grinning teeth. They would gild my bones in bronze and hang them on walls behind glass, and men would pay money to see.