claymation in six scenes.
Margaret finds out she is 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 buried three-feet deep in dirt, a corpse hollowed out by consumption -- that she knows.
Margaret spends the next three months 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 valley 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 her armband to ward off any odors. 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 as olive-colored as the skin and bears the same folds and creases when she bends the arm, flexes a muscle. It feels so normal, no phantom ache or searing pain, that
Margaret from the first moment when she had palmed the chunk in her hands could have ignored it and kept on living.
But she doesn’t.
Her father’s face is an oil stain in Margaret’s memory. She tries to wipe it away, but his face keeps sticking the way it always has for the past five years he’s been gone. Her father never returns, but her older brother Ed does. After a five-month business trip, Ed is back, shouldering a suitcase through the door and with that familiar black fringe plastered to his forehead. Margaret embraces Ed as soon as she sees him swing into the kitchen. He coughs a dry “hello” and touches her cheek.
There’s blackberry jam on her fingers and it leaves streaks of black on his grey jacket sleeves when she presses in, tenderly at first before squeezing harder. Maybe to see if Ed’s arms are made of clay, too. She quickly returns to making breakfast.
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 light of their kitchen lamp, smelling of flour and butter and jam and, faintly, of pollen.
She continues slicing the loaf, fingering seeds of grains that have peeled from the crust. She wonders, as the glistening knife in her fist lifts up-and-down, if her little fingers will peel away just as easily.
Three days later, Ed receives a business call. In twelve hours, he will leave for the train station, but now he is seated on the carpet, organizing his papers.
(She had 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 months since part of her arm came off, Margaret has cut apart three stray dogs-- a cocker spaniel, a poodle, a hound-- and two birds, five green apples and three cuts of pork to find
Flesh. Flesh. Flesh. In all its malleable and impermanent forms, in all its colors.
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 is 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 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 with branches like spindly arms, and beneath it is a cast-iron bench where a couple sits holding hands. Their thumbs and fingertips rubbing and wriggling together like earthworms.
Margaret accidentally pricks her finger people-watching. It doesn’t hurt. A minute throb 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 fades back into cerulean within seven hours. Five hours left and Ed is still asleep, face pressed into the carpet and breathing raggedly. Margaret drops the mended sock into her brother’s opened suitcase and quietly shuffles the scattered papers into stacks.
She is 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 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 in areas where the tarnish hadn’t yet spread. On the bed of baby teeth, the sunken white pearls, she’d 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 and whimpering. 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 have collapsed. His nose is mashed in, his left eye a watery slash beside a crumpled ear. His cheeks are two basins collecting saliva which oozes from his upturned lips. Stuck in the wrinkles of his forehead are carpet fibers.
In her arms, he falls silent, and so Margaret holds him in the hours that follow. As she holds him, Margaret runs her hands over Ed’s face. Gently, she pokes a finger into Ed’s mouth, prodding until the stern frown on his face eases and the cheeks fill. Nudging the furrowed eyebrows apart from their tightened draw, she rearranges the black hairs and plucks out any reds or blues. 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 face takes on that beatific expression he used to wear on Saturday ferry rides or on evening walks to the cinema. When she’s done, his lips are pressed in an almost-smile, the gaunt cheeks now plump. And the lines of his forehead which once added five years to his features are gone, bearing the faintest whorls from Margaret’s fingertips.
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 is also a good-bye.
He closes the door behind him.