Emily Gill was born in California, grew up in Malaysia, and is currently living in Calgary, Alberta. She's working towards a BA in English literature at Mount Royal University. She received an Edith Park Award for composition of a literary essay in 2009. In the future, Emily hopes to work towards a master's degree and to continue writing fiction. This is her first piece to be published within the US.
"Yesterday, a mother and daughter arrived,” Lavender whispers in my ear, waking me. “At the same time.”
I feel her breath, warm and wet on my face, but I don’t open my eyes. For just a moment, I want to pretend I’m still sleeping.
“At the same time.” she says again.
If you lived here, if you woke up in our community beside the same women every day, you would know how peculiar that is. Lavender stood at the west end yesterday. She must have been watching the path when it happened. But I chose to paint. Just a stick figure. A woman with an empty basket. I finished my painting before most of the other women had bit the core of their morning apricots. At a complete loss of inspiration to create anything else, I retreated to the Belly, didn’t emerge until nightfall. Maybe that’s why I was unaware of the unusual series of events.
Lavender usually sleeps next to me in the main cabin; so does Autumn. All the other women scatter and sleep in here as well, except Lilith and Sparrow—they’ve got their own little hut on the hill. Sometimes they invite other women to join them for a night. Autumn climbs the hill quite often, sometimes balancing a jug of homemade wine on her head. But Lilith never invites me. Not that it matters to me. Or to Autumn.
Back here, in the cabin in the valley—we all spread out on these huge pillows one woman makes by stuffing dry foliage in hemp sacks. Dead leaves crunch and crackle under the weight of our heavy heads every night, but I’m getting used to sleeping through the rice-crispy lullabies. It’s more comfortable than goose feathers scratching my face, piercing through cheap thin sheets. And leaves don’t give me nightmares about screaming geese babies fluttering their wings in pain and helplessness.
When I finally open my eyes, Lavender’s face rests inches from mine. All I can see are these huge gray eyes. We’re engaged in a staring contest.
She says, “Have you heard?”
I say, “No.”
“Yeah, I saw them first.”
I imagine Lilith’s reaction, when Lavender brought the new women up to the camp. As far as I know, women never show up in a manner to be referred to in plural. Any woman who receives a letter and decides to come does so all alone and seeks to be otherwise.
“I thought maybe they were hikers,” Lavender explains. Her eyes, still locked with mine, grow as she shuffles her face forward on the pillow, even closer. “Maybe they just took our path by mistake—that happens every few summers or so—but they had no bags. No one walks by mistake for seven hours through a forest in the North Okanagan without a bag.”
Behind me, blankets rustle. I don’t turn to acknowledge the source of the noise. But Lavender cocks her head up, away from mine, props herself on her elbow. I win the staring contest.
“Morning, Autumn,” Lavender says.
The old wood beneath us creaks, the sound of Autumn’s footsteps fading fainter and fainter with each step away from me. And I hear the million bamboo beads strung in the doorway crash, collide, chime as she joins the other women outside. She’s barely said a word to me since the week I arrived. And it’s getting harder every day just to look at her. So I don’t.
“Anyway they come up to me and the younger woman hands me a letter,” Lavender continues. “The letter. I said—okay but it’s only intended for one woman. She said—this is my mom. I’m like—sorry but you can send one letter to one woman once you’re in. Know what she did?”
I think this is a rhetorical question so I don’t respond, but then Lavender doesn’t continue. Sighing, I ask—”What did she do?”
Lavender leans in, closer. Our noses almost touch. I can smell something sweet on her morning-breath.
“She steps onto our property and stands next to me. Doesn’t hesitate at all, just steps right in. She pulls a pen from her pocket and writes on the back of her letter, copies it word for word just changes the names—hands it to her mom.”
“I know. Like she owns the place, right? So the older one reads it and steps in, too. Can you imagine? Fifty one full moons with no new women, then you show up. Only like, what, three since you got here?”
“We should get dressed,” interrupts Lavender, pulling her nose away as she stands. “The ceremony’s starting soon.”
The welcome ceremony is like signing papers to finalize a really messy divorce, then marrying your rebound only moments after. Every woman stands outside, shoulder to shoulder with the next, forming an imperfect semi-circle around the two new women. We peel scratchy shawls and ponchos off our bodies, exposing our skin, already seeping sweat in the morning sun. Autumn rubs Lilith’s bare back, hands greased with sticky sunscreen that one of us created by grinding grape seeds with green tea.
At my ceremony, Autumn hosted. Because she sent my letter. But Starshine or Appleseed or whoever sent this new younger girl the letter, hosts now. Dipping a vote-you-off-the-island kind of torch into the fire, she says, “Burn your prisons.”
The women lack the confusion and hesitation I struggled with in their position—immediately a MasterCard is thrown into the flames. Two drivers’ licenses. Their birth certificates, one smudged black from ink on newborn feet, another clean and typed. Tiny squares of baby-faces against blue backgrounds and Christmas Wonderlands. All charring, black, disintegrating.
With their pockets empty, their stories erased, both strip. The older woman flings a conservative cardigan in the fire. Her arms twist and flail as she dances. Cellulite thighs, that we aren’t supposed to notice, jiggling.
But her daughter looks less relaxed, slipping off her sequined jeans. She wraps her arms tight around herself, pressing her breasts flat into her chest. Her fingers anchor in the ribs on her back. Dancing like a child who desperately needs to pee, legs crisscrossed. Hiding speckles of dark pubic hairs trying to fight through a barrier of red razor burn. She doesn’t look insecure so much as she looks afraid of exposure. This young woman—this uncomfortable woman, she reminds me of me. So I look away, back to the fire.
The baby-faces are just ashes now. Through the thick smoke, I think I see a pink thong smoldering.
The naked women are prompted to renounce their old lives. They give us each a kiss on the mouth, vowing to love us equally. And kiss each other. Lips to wet lips.
They’ll never be mother and daughter again. Not really. Not unless they want someone to tell Lilith. Unless they want to be banished, discarded, exiled to the real world. Without proof of who they are, who they were.
I’m not sure if they’ve realized yet that here—everyone is family.
Now they have to choose a natural name. I haven’t technically decided mine yet. When I was up there, my mind went blank. Autumn kept flicking her eyes between mine and Lilith’s. As if to say—don’t fuck this up. To say—please, please don’t say Moon Unit. So no words came out. I’m not Elliot anymore, but I’m not really anyone at all.
The older woman doesn’t think, says—“Breeze.”
Lilith stands up too, lays hand stitched, hemp clothing in their arms. She tells them we’re a community. And communities need to create in order to sustain. So they must decide where their abilities fit best. Another task I’ve yet to complete.
In the real world, you’d call this work. A job. But they don’t like those words much here. Jobs here arecreative abilities.
In the real world, I had three jobs. But not much creativity—limited to a kind unique and innate to most women. Creating life. And I couldn’t even do that right.
Here, Sparrow’s got the best creative ability. Maybe that’s because Sparrow is Lilith’s real daughter. But maybe not. Autumn said Sparrow is special because she’s the only one who can create the means for paper. Because she’s the only one with a bicycle.
Paper, for women here, is more important than food. In addition to our daily duties, we must paint. Or draw. We must write, every day, write something. Because the only truly sustainable aspect of any community is art. Our words, Lilith says, will last longer than our bodies. So we need Sparrow, and we need her bike.
The thing is, Sparrow and Lilith, they’ve got the same gleaming black hair. Same black eyes. Olive skin. What I know is—Lilith hiked here first and never left. Eighteen years later, she wrote a letter. Then Sparrow came. But we’re not supposed to talk about the real world, or what happened in it. So that’s all I know.
It’s kind of like me and Autumn—we’ve got the same mousey hair, the little bumps on the bridges of our noses. And we don’t talk about that, either.
Only with the condition that Sparrow promises not to read even a single headline is she permitted to bike off our property. She cycles for four hours to the end of the path where it intersects with a dirt road. There, someone from the village leaves sacks of unsold newspapers in a stationary metal bin. Sparrow brings the unread news directly back to camp and drops it in a vat of water in our paper mill. By the time Autumn arrives the next morning—when she fishes the old paper out to grind up and lay flat on pulpy screens—she’ll find the water dyed purple-black and the words of the real world washed away.
Maybe, someday, an article describing the cure for AIDS will disappear in the water. It might mix in with details of the third World War and the discovery of Atlantis. But Autumn won’t ever know.
After the ceremony ends, Mango struts right up to me, asks what I create.
Thinking for a moment, I tell her I’m going to pick fruit for lunch. The crew with the creative ability to cook—they’ll have to choose fruit salad instead of mashed squash. And Mango says she’ll help.
This irritates me. Mostly because I’m not quite sure which fruits are ripe. Really—I don’t know shit about gardening, or harvesting. Really I’m just going to wander around the plantation until the sun is halfway between the horizon and directly above, then I’ll slip into the Belly. Mutter about peaches being too firm if anyone sees me.
Lately, that’s all I think about. Being in there instead of out here.
But for now, I lead Mango between two rows of soy beans sizzling in the sun, weave through heavy trunks of peach trees. And then apricot trees—all dripping, oozing red orange yellow. Each time we stumble over fruit that gave up and fell to the ground, their weak skins burst open, emitting a sickening syrupy scent. Flies circle, feeding on our heels—sticky wet with juice.
Every few strides I reach my arm up, skinny amidst the thick dominating branches, to pretend to check the firmness of dangling fruit. But I don’t pay attention to what happens when I squeeze. Maybe that last apricot was rock hard, maybe this one melts in my hand. Either way, I don’t pluck anything.
Instead, my fingers trace the jagged outline of a leaf, follow along the sturdy stem until I find the rough branch it grows from. My hand curls around it, hidden behind the life of the tree so Mango can’t see. My thumb barely reaches my fingertip—too wide of a circle. Uncomfortable in my grasp. So I trace the limb to another, and then another. Until I find one that feels right.
I break off a thin, live branch. Snap, fracture, rip it off the tree. Shrapnel of bark and twigs fly. The stick is thin, but strong. Coarse and uneven, but probably smooth somewhere hidden beneath the bark. I place it in my no longer empty basket. And keep walking.
This whole time Mango is talk-talk-talking behind me, but my triumph over the tree changes her focus.
“What’d you do that for?”
“Nothing,” I say. “Let’s pick cherries.”
The cherry trees were blossoming when I first arrived, not quite blooming. Autumn walked, talked me through the maze of white and pink petals. So I remember where the cherries grow, a few fields east. But I change direction, avoiding the short cut. This way, we have to walk through the hemp fields first.
“Holy shit,” says Mango, her eyes scanning. Counting the one-two-ten-fifteen-twenty rows. A smile creeps in through her eyes and releases as the corners of her mouth draw closer to the curls and twirls of her hair.
I know what she’s thinking, so I say, “We don’t smoke it. Not unless you’re sick and ask Lilith. Mostly it’s for making clothes and blankets and—”
“Like if you have cancer or maybe going blind or something, hey?”
“Yeah,” I say. “Something like that.”
“How do you know if you have cancer?”
“Well—I guess from some doctor who said so before you got here. Or maybe you just know. Sometimes when something’s in you that shouldn’t be, you just know.”
We roam between rows of sativa and indica, until I hear Mango’s bare feet stop shuffling behind mine. I turn around as she bends her knees, tucks her ankles under. In the dirt, she peeks up at me, sheepish, that smile crawling again. Mango slips a hand down her loose shirt, fingers between her breasts, revealing a thin plastic tube. Thumbing it open with a pop, sheshakes one joint, two cigarettes, and three strike-anywhere matches into her palm.
And she’s saying, “You smoke?” And grazing the ground with a match, lighting the joint.
“How’d you—” I say. “Are they?”
“Hundred percent natural,” says Mango, arching her back. Looking down to her chest and back at me.
I keep staring at her as smoke seeps out of her face. I just keep staring, wondering how much silicone it takes to keep boobs pressed together firmly enough to be a wallet. Without the support of a bra.
“Just kidding. Got ‘em done when I was eighteen,” she says. “Don’t tell anyone though.”
And she reaches up with both hands—one to offer the contraband, the other tugging me to the ground beside her.
Realizing she just talked about the real world, I let her pull me down, let her hold the unlit end to my mouth. Hot air hits my lungs hard. And I cough. Cough, exhale. I’ve only gotten high once before, with Autumn. But really, it was with Mia. When we were Elliot and Mia.
During our Mom’s wake, Mia smoked a joint with me on the rusty swing set in our back yard. Us both in black, from our earrings to our shoes. I was seventeen, she was twenty, but it felt like we were kids—turning plants into potions, wondering where our mother was. Inside our little house, people laughed, eating pigs-in-blankets. And Dad slept.
Before Mom died, Dad drank a lot of rye and yelled. But he didn’t exist between nine and five. After the funeral, he always slept. Slept so much that Mia and I took second jobs. But then Mia left. She disappeared for almost five years. I thought she was dead, thought maybe she went searching for Mom.
A week before I came here, Dad died sleeping. But Mia doesn’t know. Because she’s Autumn now.
So I’m high again. In a colossal field of unsmokable weed. I forgot how it stills your brain. How it clouds you—makes you forget. And even if you can’t forget, it seems less important—you’re relieved.
“How’d you get it in?” I ask, and Mango smiles. “Don’t tell me your fake boobs hid this shit while you squirmed naked around that fire?”
She shoots me a look that says—I know you’re right, but fuck you.
“Sorry,” I say. “Just curious.”
Taking another breath of pot in, Mango eases up. Passing the joint, she says, “I have this Tupperware box.”
While she talks, my fingers drop into the pocket of my tunic, but I can’t remember any message from my brain telling them to do so. I pull out a knife carved from some kind of rock. I found it with the cooking tools while I wasn’t cooking a few nights ago.
Dragging the rough edge up and down the branch from my basket, I begin to shred the layers of bark. Each time the blade hits the ground—I pull it back up, push it into the wood, and scrape it back down.
“Mom put tampons inside,” Mango says. “And a picture of my brother, the asshole. I just wanted a lot of joints and cigarettes. Hoping to ration ‘em awhile.”
Inhaling bittersweet smoke, I tell her about Sparrow and my suspicions.
“Maybe.” I say, “If you find a way to bribe her, she might help you out.”
Mango says, “I could probably just fuck her. Orgasms for cigarettes. Just like jail, hey? If you ever want something from the box, let me know. Don’t even have to leave camp to get it, buried it beneath the fence by the blackberries. Need a tampon?”
“Thanks—I’m good.” I haven’t needed one since before I got here. And I’m not sure what the other women do every month.
“Who sent your letter?” Mango asks, wiping oily residue off her bottom lip.
I’ve stripped all the bark from the branch now, smooth despite the splinters. But I keep carving so one end is thinner than the other, scraping down as I answer.
“Mia. That’s how she signed it. For my Elliot—blah blah blah—Love always from your sister Mia.”
That blah part, that’s where Mia wrote that she found a real live Neverland. Included a sketch of B.C. on recycled paper. And she said—please, Elliot, please come.
“But, I mean—who is she here?”
Me, trying to shape the point on the thin side of the stick as sharp as I can, I say, “Autumn. But that’s not who she is, not to me.”
“Who sent it to her?”
“She never said. Doesn’t talk about the real world.”
“Oh.” Mango says. “I only got my letter like a week ago. Thought it would take a bit longer to convince Mum, but she practically left the house before I finished asking.”
Looking at her, watching the way she smiles talking about Breeze, I wonder if I should warn her. If I should be the one who takes away this girl’s mother. Her life. I can’t.
I say—”Not me. Had the letter for months before I came, maybe a year. It just sat on my dresser. I’d read it ten times every morning, then put it back in the envelope and go to work. Then Dad was gone, so I wrote a suicide note. Don’t know why. And I took a bus to Vernon and walked until I got here.”
“Crazy. My sister’s still out there, but Mum’ll send her the letter when it’s time. Mum misses her. Must be hard, leaving kids behind. Got any?”
“No.” I don’t tell her how Mia sat silently in the waiting room while I had an abortion after Mom died. It would’ve been a boy, but not a happy boy. Still I’m just dragging the blade across the branch. Pull up, push in, scrape down like I’m not interested. Like I don’t care.
“Oh,” Mango says. “Ever get high upside down? Like, when you sit the wrong way, so your head is by the floor and your feet are where your head should be?”
Mia and I used to dangle off the couch like that, in front of a TV that hadn’t worked since 1982. And in the bedroom beside us, Dad would yell and Mom would scream. We’d pretend the ceiling was the ground and the ground was the ceiling. Walk around in some parallel universe.
“It’s awesome,” Mango says. “When all your blood rushes to your head—it feels like you’re dying. Like the whole world lives backwards and you’re the only one living right-side up. Eventually you can’t feel your body, just your head. It’s scary.
“Then you flip over, stand up fast, and get really dizzy. Everything spins. You don’t know if you should pass out or puke. But things start moving slower. You see the world how everyone else does. It all makes sense again, stops spinning. Everything stops. And you’re all right. Everything’s all right. Because it’s stationary.”
My blade scrapes down and stops. I drop the knife back into my pocket.
During her rant, the joint has burned down so we’re only smoking paper. Mango tosses it behind her, lights a match, and hands me a cigarette.
I breathe in, with the tip of the cigarette in the flame. Inhaling sulfur. I say, “That sounds awful.”
Mango says, “Whatever. You know you want to try it.”
Maybe I do. But I don’t want things to make sense anymore. It’s time to go.
“The cherries are just through there,” I say, pointing the tip of my branch down through the tall green plants. I place the branch in my basket. “I’ll be right back.”
Mango doesn’t ask where I’m going. That makes me like her more.
Walking back to the camp, I see a group of women piercing fruits and berries with twigs. Stringing various shades of red and yellow on hemp twine to hang on the cabin’s porch. Their creations will shrivel, leather-dry, die in the sun. Flies already sense the bait, they’ll swarm and buzz in our ears tonight. And the women gossip, cluck like chickens as they work.
“She basically lives in the Belly.”
“All she ever does. Didn’t help seed the asparagus. Didn’t pick a single soybean.”
“I think she’s depressed.”
These voices, they’re talking about me. But I don’t care. I hear the same conversation every time they see my naked body disappear into the hole in the ground. Stopping just short of the raspberries, I slip out of my clothes. My tunic falls faster than usual, the knife in the pocket thuds on the dirt.
Retrieving my stick from my basket, I smile. I heave open two heavy doors in the earth. And slip inside.
This is the Belly. A spring, warmed just enough by some geothermal miracle. When I shut the doors above me, I can’t hear the voices anymore. Or anything, except the water rippling around my limbs. And it’s so dark my eyes will never adjust. I can’t see any part of my body enough to know that it’s really there. So far away from that persistent, sour taste of tofu-stuffed-eggplant or vegetarian meatloaf, I don’t spend my time in here counting down the minutes until dinner.
In here, there are no minutes.
Lilith says time is a perceived concept. And in the Belly—there’s nothing to perceive. Except water and earth.
Water tastes like nothing. It feels like nothing too. A warm, sweet scent of wet dirt releases in a light steam when I disrupt the still surface—fighting its way through the barrier of the smooth rock lining.
In the Belly, we don’t know daytime or nighttime. We’re not going to watch ourselves develop laugh lines. Or frown lines. We won’t notice if our stomachs inflate a little more each day.
I just float. I just am. Here. And nowhere.
Inside my fist, I’m still clutching my branch. Running the tip over my fingers, I know if I pushed just a little harder, I could easily bleed.
Rusty hinges squeak somewhere above me as someone pulls on the doors. My body tenses, my hands reach out—searching for something solid to grab, to brace myself. There’s nothing but water, splashing violently with my flailing arms, as startled as I am. A thin slit of harsh light shatters the calm of the Belly—and the doors above me tear wide open. Everything so shocking that my spine curls.
Someone above can see me, floating on the surface in the fetal position. My face burying into the water, searching for darkness. Like a newborn after a water birth.
My body bobs with the waves and ripples of another person slipping in beside me. She lets one door slam, then the other. And we both lie out on our backs. All the motion makes me vomit a little in my mouth, and I gulp salty water to wash the burning stomach acid back down my throat.
“It’s me.” The voice not quite as familiar as it used to be. “You can’t just stay in here all day, every day, you know. It’s not healthy. Not normal.”
I lose my words, so I run the wet branch through my fingers. Grasping the thicker end with my right hand, I trace my body with the point. Curving along my breasts, my stomach. It grazes my hips, scratching down the inside of one thigh and up the other. Maybe I’m still high, but it feels good to be touched. Maybe I just feel powerful with this stake in my hand, carved so close to perfection. With a deep inhale, I say—“You’re the same person who walked on ceilings with me. That’s still you. My sister—who left me alone to deal with Dad. Oh, and Dad’s dead.”
She’s quiet for a moment. As if she shouldn’t acknowledge what I’ve said. So I exhale.
The water feels cooler. My sister. But maybe this really isn’t her. Without asking my brain, my hands connect with each other around the branch and situate between my thighs.
“Mom never wanted to have us, you know,” Mia says.
Pushing the thin end inside me, I smile. For the first time since Mia introduced herself to me as Autumn, I almost laugh. Thinking, if her eyes could focus right now, she’d probably think I was trying to induce an orgasm. And, for just a second, a pleasant tingling pulses through me.
“When they yelled—they weren’t playing a game. Dad hurt her. Almost every night. Why do you think she killed herself?”
I push the branch up in me a little further. Pleasure slowly subsides, shifting to pain. Until I can feel the sharp point poking, piercing deep under my navel.
“Mom would have killed us before we were born, if he let her. She told me herself.”
I take a deep breath in, fingers wrap tighter around the thick end of the stick. And I thrust it in. Jab in. Force it. As hard as I can.
Pull up, push in, scrape down.
With this, I let out a cry of indescribable torture. But I know I should move the weapon around inside me before I pull it back out. With three more distorted noises emerging from somewhere deep in my body, I carve around my insides.
Push in, scrape down three little circles of terror.
Inside the Belly, where there’s nothing to distract the senses—agony amplifies. Inside myself, I feel skin rip open. Tissue shredded. Unnamable organs punctured. Unseen blood leaks into parts of my body where blood shouldn’t be.
Exhaling and gasping, my lungs contracting—I’m trying not to choke on water.
“Don’t sound so surprised,” says Mia. And then she’s Autumn, “We won’t ever talk about this again.”
The water moves, she must be moving too. To leave the Belly and leave me. Pulling the stick up between my legs, I push in. Scrape down, and out. Blood I know is mixing in with the water.
Or maybe the water mixes in with me.
She shoves her shoulders against the doors. Light floods in again, but my pupils don’t care this time.
Life pours out of my body, but I’m not sure whose life it is.
Mia’s shadow, hovering above—a black figure against the bright, blank background. Before she closes the doors, she looks down at me. And at the Belly. Looks at the floating red mess.
This unnatural birth. I imagine what she sees. I imagine her eyes, her mouth.