content warning: depictions of mental illness and self-harm
My daughter finds the bones after she falls off the swing set. Jane points at them, and I nod. She points again and I nod.
She begins to play with the bones, picking up a clavicle and smacking it against a dorsal bone next to her skinned knee. The skeleton was a small thing, the bones lean and fragile, the whiteness startling even in the cloudy midday light.
Andrew wouldn’t have wanted her to play with the bones. I let her. It’s not like it matters to the dead thing. I wonder if the bones are mine.
The bench splinters beneath my fingers as I pick at it, the wood pulpy from the rain the night before. Across from the swing set, Alice is ordering ice cream from the ice cream truck she had waved down just after we arrived. She’s smiling at the vendor whose face even from here is a mottled red as he blushes from her attention. I pull Alice’s jacket closer around me. The leather smells of stale mint and crushed lavender.
I hadn’t realized how cold it was until halfway to the playground. Hadn’t realized until I felt Jane shivering in my arms, but by then it was too late to go back. Andrew probably wouldn’t let us go a second time. I gave Jane my coat even though she wouldn’t fit into it for another ten years. She didn’t mind. She liked playing with the sleeves, flopping them in front of her.
The chill has finally settled in, and it gnashes its teeth at the little bits of stray sunlight visible through the bruised clouds.
By the time we arrived at the playground, my arms were numb, and the hairs on the back of my neck prickled. Alice took one look at me then at Jane before she shrugged off her own jacket and wrapped it around my shoulders without comment.
I wonder if bones can get cold. If, without any skin, I would still feel cold. I wonder what it would be like if I didn’t have skin, if I was just bones raw and open to the world, stripped dry and hollowed marrow. Hollow. I always wondered what it would be like if I were hollow. But I don’t have to wonder. I already know.
I watch as Alice makes her way over to hand an orange-colored ice cream to Jane who pauses in her effort to disentangle the rib bones from the spine. I’m pretty sure now that it had been a cat. Too small to be a raccoon, too big to be a squirrel.
I blink and Alice is next to me, a vanilla ice cream held between us. I take it without comment. Alice slumps down onto the bench beside me, her hands empty. “Eight dollars for two ice creams. Can you believe that?”
I try to hand the ice cream back to her, but she waves me away. “It’s fine, Ella. It’s fine,” she says again as the ice cream wavers in my grip. Gently, she pushes my hand towards me.
Two women, one pushing a stroller, walk past Jane. Jane picks up a tail bone and shows it to them. The women stare, their eyes flicking around the playground until they land on me. Their gazes harden knowingly. I don’t look away as they whisper to each other and give Jane a wide birth as if she is contagious. As if they are afraid of the bones. I’m afraid of the bones, too.
“You shouldn’t have let her go near that,” says Alice, tugging me out of my thoughts. She nods to the pile of bones in my daughter’s lap. “It might have fleas. Ella?” she prompts as I continue to stare without blinking.
“Do you think those women know?” I say and tilt my head in the direction of the women who have disappeared around the ice cream truck.
Alice’s brows furrow, and I have to fight the urge to smooth the wrinkles away. “I don’t think anyone knows. Do you?”
“I wonder what they would do if they were me,” I continue as if Alice hadn’t spoken. I wonder if they would hate themselves like I do.
Alice snorts. “They probably wouldn’t know what to do with all the free time on their hands.”
My attention lingers on the bones again, pale and fragile in my daughter’s fists. I think about how I want to put my bones in a box, so I can become any shape, anyone. Anyone but me. Without my skin, I could thread the bones together, thread and thread until they are strong, unbreakable, unable to be stolen.
Jane drops her ice cream onto the pavement. It oozes out of the cone, and she giggles as she watches eagerly. “There goes the ice cream,” Alice says.
A handful of pigeons peck their way towards her, unaware of Jane’s sticky fingers and even stickier attention snapping to them. Arms flapping, she runs at them. The birds startle upwards and backwards, aghast, their wide red eyes rimmed with exhaustion and fright. Jane giggles again. She looks back at me and points. I nod.
Now, Jane is standing in the melted ice cream like it is a puddle. She jumps, and the ends of my coat sully in the mess. The pigeons eye her, waddle around her, glancing at one another like the two women had done.
“Pigeons are lucky,” I tell Alice.
Alice raises an eyebrow. “Do I even want to know?”
“They can’t be caught. See?” I say as Jane races towards one of the birds only to watch it hurtle into the air out of her reach.
“But they can be shot,” argues Alice.
“Yes.” I have not touched my own ice cream, and smears of it trickle down my wrists like iced blood clotting. Alice takes the cone from me and hurls it into the trash can next to her. She pulls out a wad of napkins from her pocket then wipes off my fingers.
My mind drifts again, and I clutch the needle hidden in my right fist a little harder. I think about how sometimes I wish I could take the needle and thread I keep underneath the mattress for emergencies when I feel the words curdle in my throat and finally sew my mouth shut like Alice did last November. Sometimes, I clutch that needle hidden in my right fist like I am now.
I watch Jane and think that a good mother would sew her mouth shut before she learns to speak clearly. But I know I never will.
The freedom of not having to speak only lasts a few days anyway if the threads aren’t extracted. Only a few days before the woman would wither away.
After I heard about what Alice had done, I visited her for the first time since Andrew and I moved to the neighborhood. I wanted to see it, see how she did what I couldn’t. What I never will do. She let me press my fingertips against her lips, let me touch the thread carved into the soft mounds of flesh. After that, Alice had the stitches taken out. The first thing she said was “fuck.”
Alice finishes cleaning my hands but doesn’t pull hers from mine.
“I asked Jane if she thought I was beautiful the other day,” I say, my voice crackly like I had swallowed a handful of fire poppers.
“And what did she say to that?” asks Alice, her shoulders relaxed, her face turned up as if she were a flower luxuriating in the sunlight.
I look up. The sky is glazed with clouds, leeched of sunlight. I wonder if Alice is doing alright. “No. She said I wasn’t beautiful.”
Alice sighs. “Ella, she’s four. She probably doesn’t even know what the word ‘beautiful’ means.”
“She will never know if her mother is beautiful then.”
“Ella,” Alice says again, firmer. “It’s going to be okay. You know I’m a good lawyer. I know we can get Jane back.”
Jane has moved on from the puddle of ice cream towards the ducks sequestered around the pond next to the playground. The ducks squawk, and Jane squawks right back.
“Do you think I’m beautiful?” I ask.
Alice rolls her eyes. “Of course I do,” she says without hesitation.
I tug her jacket closer around me as the back of the bench cuts into my spine. “Maybe we’re too old to know what the word ‘beautiful’ means.”
Alice laughs. “Maybe.” Her laughter softly dies out as she watches me watch Jane clamber closer to the edge of the pond. The ducks have quacked themselves hoarse and have decided to find another spot to preen.
“Do you want to be alone with her?” Alice whispers.
I clench her hand involuntarily. “No.”
Alice doesn’t push. Instead, she straightens her jacket on my shoulders with her free hand. The sun continues to sulk behind the clouds, but I don’t mind. Alice gives me a small smile.
“Do you think she loves me?” I ask, and the needle between my fingers warms against my skin.
Alice’s smile tightens. “You’re her mother.”
“That’s not an answer. Yes,” I add before she can continue. “I know what you’re going to say. ‘Ella, she’s too young to know what ‘love’ is.’”
“I wasn’t going to say that.” Alice’s smile gentles again. “Of course she knows what love is. You love her. And she will remember that for the rest of her life.”
I force myself to smile back, a smile pockmarked with childhood scars, the only remembrance of my own mother. “Will you love me for the rest of your life?”
“I hope I will,” says Alice.
My smile wilts. “That’s not an answer.”
“Yes, it is. Ella, what do you want me to say to stop you from worrying? I’m here for you. I always will be.”
I scowl. Silence slouches down around us when I don’t respond, thick enough to choke on, thick enough to smother. We both know the truth is I will never stop worrying, stop waiting for the other shoe to drop. For her to hurt me. Like everyone else has. Everyone—except for Jane. But she will soon be old enough to know how to hurt, how to puncture through skin to get to my heart without even making me bleed. Or she would, if I ever get to see her again.
The ice cream truck rumbles past. Under my breath, I hum along with the twinkling song that blares from its speakers, the cadence reminding me of the nursery rhyme my mother used to sing to me. Thread the bones and stitch the soul, she used to murmur as she rocked me in her lap, her grip bruising my arms, Thread the bones and stitch the soul, she crooned as she held me down and began to sew my lips together, the thread weaving in and out, in and out with each rise and fall of her chest.
My father arrived a little after dusk, a little after my mouth was sewn half shut. He had torn me from her arms, torn me as if from the womb, screaming and covered in blood. I never saw my mother again after that.
I wonder where they put her, in a home or a cell or the bottom of a grave. But I never asked, even after my father took me to the hospital and had the stitches removed. I still have the scars though, faint ones that run like teardrops over my swollen lips. Alice likes them. I like them, too.
“Are you sure you don’t want to be alone—?” Alice begins to ask again.
“Do you know what the first word she ever spoke was?” I ask before she can finish.
“‘Mommy?’” Alice guesses, her eyes wary but unworried.
“’Bitch.’ The first word she ever said was ‘bitch.’ She just kept saying it. Over and over. And when Andrew came home, he thought it was funny. He said she was bound to learn the word sooner or later. No, she won’t remember that her mother was beautiful or that she loved her. She will remember that one word. ‘Bitch.’”
Alice squeezes my hands in hers, and her grip forces me to meet her gaze. “He won’t get away with this, Ella. We’ll get her back.”
I let my head droop onto her shoulder. “Maybe I don’t want her back. Maybe I never want to see her again. My mother would have sewn her mouth shut for saying that.”
Suddenly, I want to know what Alice would say to me if I told her what I am thinking right now. What I still think in the moments before dawn bleeds across the skyline; before Andrew wakes up, his alarm bleeding in my ears, his voice bleeding into my soul, and my thoughts bleeding out into the recesses of my mind.
He would get up.
Sometimes I would, too.
Sometimes I wouldn’t. Instead, I would let the world weep around me, let it buzz, let the sun scuttle across the sky until Jane started screaming. More often than not, I wished her screams would stop. That I would just stop moving until she did, too. But I always got up. Always went to her, fed her, changed her. Loved her.
I think she loves me, but you can never tell at her age if she is just curious about me or needs me. I need her. And that need is like a punch to the gut, like a hand grasping inside my chest and wrenching out my heartstrings in one yank. Because I know that need will kill me.
But I won’t have her for much longer. I have minutes now. An hour if I’m lucky before they come. And take her away.
“There is a garden growing in my mind,” I say to Alice. “And everyone always wants to kill it. They say if I don’t cut it out of me, it will take over.”
Alice stiffens, but her smile remains. “What kind of garden? A vegetable garden? A flower garden? I always liked flower gardens.”
“I don’t know. I don’t think it’s alive.”
“It has to be alive,” Alice protests. “If it isn’t, there would be nothing to kill.”
“Do you want to kill the garden?” I ask.
Alice rests her hand against my cheek. It’s warm. Warmer than I expected. But I’m still cold. “No,” she says, “but either way, without tending, gardens can’t live for long.”
My ribcage rises and collapses as if with every breath it loses another silent battle. Alice notices but doesn’t comment. Instead, she says, “They’re here.”
The slamming of a car door startles me. Alice’s hand tightens around mine. I don’t look back, but she does. Footsteps crack against the pavement. I flinch.
“I’ll try to delay them as long as I can,” Alice says and disentangles her hands from mine. She stands. “You should say something to Jane.”
I squint up at her, my head still angled sideways from where it had been resting on Alice’s shoulder. “What?”
Alice halfheartedly throws her hands up. “I don’t know. That you’ll see her soon.”
The needle digs into my palm, not enough to puncture but enough pressure to know it’s there, to know at the slightest of slips it will pierce my skin and, if I keep pressing, sink against bone. I am losing a battle. But I don’t know which one.
I don’t want to lose her.
I don’t want them to take her.
When I don’t respond, Alice shakes her head and turns to the two people making their way towards us. Shakily, I get to my feet. I fist my hands in my skirt, the needle still pressed against my skin.
The morning weighs heavily on me, like wet grave dirt on my chest. Only hours before my thoughts had been a blur of almost-happiness as I walked the five minutes from the post office back home, my hands gratefully empty. I had done it. The papers had been sent. I fingers itched to call Alice, to run my hands through her blonde hair and tell her I was free. But then I found the front door unlocked and the sounds of voices slithering out from the kitchen.
Andrew looked up as I walked in and fisted his hands on his hips. The man next to him straightened, the sudden motion making his glasses slip down his nose. My eyes lingered on him, on the frown lines and pale skin like oatmeal that had been left out too long.
There were more papers on the kitchen table, Jane’s yellow and green crayons inches away from them. I glanced down under the table to find Jane there, a gleeful smile on her lips as if asking for permission. I didn’t nod, and every happy feeling I had felt shriveled in my chest like butterflies with their wings torn off. “Andrew?” I said, returning my gaze to him, “what is this?
Andrew patted the seat beside him. “Ella, sit.”
I did not sit, but let my hands dangle at my sides, my eyes flicking between the two men who in turn were sharing a knowing look. “What’s going on?”
“Sit,” said Andrew, a little more forcefully.
I did not sit.
Andrew gave the other man another pointed glare, but the man shook his head and stepped forward. “Mrs. Albers—”
“It’s Ms. Lindell now,” I interrupted. Andrew’s face was turning a yellowy-greenish color as if Jane had smeared her crayons over his face.
“Ms. Lindell,” the other man continued slowly, “I am Robert Johnson, your husband’s—”
“And?” I prompted before the beat of silence could swallow me whole.
Robert Johnson crinkled his nose to keep his glasses from sliding down further as he attempted to peer down at me even though I have a good three inches on him. “And he is here to pronounce that you are unfit to have shared custody over Jane. There is clear evidence that you have become an unfit parent.”
My heart had stopped beating or it was beating too fast for me to feel it. Absently, my hand slipped into my dress pocket, but it was empty. “Evidence?” My voice cracked like dried bones left out in the sun.
“You are mentally unfit,” Andrew said, the words thrust out of his mouth, and pleasure curled his lips. “God, Ella. You even left my child home alone without discussing it with me first.”
His child. His child. The words were harsher than any slap. His child. Jane was still looking at me, but I couldn’t meet her gaze. My other hand slipped into my left pocket. “She’s four. And it was only to go to post the mail.” To file the divorce papers.
Andrew shook his head, but his lips trembled from holding in a smile. Robert Johnson didn’t notice. “You have one day,” Andrew said simply. “One day to say goodbye.”
“You can’t do this.” The words were out before I could stop them.
Robert Johnson looked at his shoes, the leather toes scuffles and freshly polished. “It is in the child’s best interest to sever the parent-child relationship.”
Severed. Like an umbilical cord. Thread the bones and stich the soul, my mother’s last words raked against my thoughts, against the wall I had put up around me to keep from remembering my childhood. My fingers dug deeper in my pocket, and finally I felt the calming texture of thin metal sucking the warmth from my skin. “You can’t do this. My lawyer—”
“Don’t speak of that woman in my house,” spat Andrew and even Robert Johnson jumped at the harshness in his tone.
I wrap my hand around the needle. “You do not get to tell me what to do.”
Andrew’s face remained impassive but his right eyebrow said don’t I?
“Jane will be placed in Mr. Albers’s care until the court hearing on April 29th,” said Robert Johnson, his breaths shallow as if the will to not run out of the house was a workout in itself. “Where you will plea your case to have your parental rights reinstated.” He extended his hand with a simple, white piece of paper with black letters that smear together as I forced back my tears. I let his hand dangle between us and instead crouched down and pulled Jane out from under the table and into my arms.
“Where are you going?” Andrew spluttered, but I continued walking to the door. Thankfully, Jane didn’t squirm in my grip but instead clung to me as if she could tell something was wrong, clung so tightly I couldn’t tell where her skin began and mine ended. “You said I had a day,” I said without looking back. I flung open the front door, and a bit of wind hissed past me. I could hear the papers swish off the table.
I stepped out of the house and quietly shut the door. But he doesn’t stop me. He knew he has already won.
Back in the park, the ground squelches underneath me as I make my way towards Jane. She is at the edge of the pond now. Mud cakes her shoes and ankles. Cautiously, I approach her and kneel in the mud beside her as if she is a wounded animal. As if I am the wounded animal falling to my knees at the feet of my slaughterer.
Alice had said it would be alright, said I could move in with her until everything got sorted. She was a good lawyer, good enough to get Jane back.
But that means Jane has to be taken away first.
Jane points at the water’s surface, and I forget to nod. She points more pointedly, and I nod slowly. My gaze catches on our reflection blurring up at us. Her face is so small compared to mine, so open. Mine is pinched and pale, my eyes distant, unfocused. So are Jane’s.
They said I wasn’t mentally fit. Not mentally fit like if my mind had run more consistently it would be able to keep up with my daughter.
A bone garden, I think now. There is a bone garden in my mind, and no matter how much I water it, it will never sprout anything but doubt.
“I’m sorry,” I say to Jane, my voice barely above a whisper as I continue to stare at our reflections in the pond. The mud is cold against my skin, a chill that settles deep in my bones. I’m sorry I wasn’t good enough, nice enough, quiet enough.
But I don’t say that. Because deep down I know if I did, it would be a lie. “I’m sorry,” I just keep saying, the needle so warm in my hands, it’s like it’s burning.
Jane turns to me then, her green eyes full of laughter. She points at me. I nod, and the motion makes my tears tremble down my cheeks.
Jane tilts her head and watches them fall. Then she steps forward and wraps her arms around me. She is so small, I think. Hesitantly, I put my arms around her, and I begin to shake, shake so much I can feel my bones rattle inside me, clatter and crack, the splintered ends slicing into my heart.
I startle back and barely catch myself from falling into the pond. A woman stands behind us, her suit smooth and unruffled. Closer to the parking lot, Alice is talking furiously but quietly to a man also in a suit smooth and unruffled. “It’s time.”
“Mommy?” says Jane, her voice only loud enough for me to hear. Only loud enough to keep me from wondering if she really said it. Instead of answering, I look at my hands fisted at my sides and say nothing as they take her away. Jane grasps my hand in hers, forcing the needle harder against my palm, her fingers dry and crusty like sand scraping against skin. Skin.
I always have known my daughter is my skin, and without her, I am just bones, an open-wound.
She is in the car now, her fingers pressed against the glass. The car engine coughs once, twice. Then she is gone.
I let the needle puncture my skin.
Emma Deimling currently works as a writing tutor at the Ohio State University’s writing center. She has been published in numerous magazines, the most recent being in Anamorphoseis Magazine. She lives in Columbus, Ohio. You can find her on Twitter @EmmaDeimling.