Everything is horse.
Horse like how Marketa is horse when she declares she requires no food to survive—her superpower, she says. Horse since Mother won’t allow the dirty suffix, which is horse in itself, or horsebastard, which has been a-okayed by the board after consulting the dictionary; Mother can appreciate a word corrupted into profanity, but one vulgar from the get-go! No thanks but thanks. Mother of Horse, an emphatic term derived from two offensive words Natalie cannot say, so it’s all Mother of Horses, even Mothers of Just One Horse, and the sentiment hums here in the middle of the cobweb, in the narrow walkway between neighbor’s house and home, here where Natalie starts her period, and immediately it’s clear she feels no closer to womanhood as promised in pamphlets and photocopied handouts, clear that the body had conspired, all known and unknown back deals, during her early conquests of bladder control and fine motor skills—now a waste.
Silk weaves into her black hair, and together they reflect light like so many mirrors that endanger the lives of pilots.
No, not Mother’s bathroom, and no, not the Jack and Jill she shares with her older sister. The guest half-bath is the remaining choice, its underutilized nature right—the scent of rubbing alcohol, the lack of ghost heat from past clientele. Her underwear she runs under the tap. The sight of herself in the mirror, just one brief look at any portion of her face, even a split end or a corner of an ear, could end her life, hers already cycling through the Kübler-Ross at the idea of her sister finding out; the lights she leaves off.
Credit cards have gone, and so have stacked slices of cold cuts, so why not Natalie’s underwear? The paper shredder groans, as many do when introduced to exotic foods. She thins the fabric through tension, inserting mathematically into the slit until the shredder eats, no complaints, though not before it fesses up evidence. Pink drips from the basket underneath. But it’s done and it’s gone and that’s that and she’s okay and no one knows and she’s gonna be fine.
Stray strands of spider silk catch along the trajectory of Natalie’s afternoon, a rope barrier queuing up to Mother’s sink and Marketa’s cupboard, the kitchen pantry and storage boxes, the seeking of contraband that could subdue the protest, but Natalie does not find what she is looking for. She instead eats the customary macaron before practicing scales—left hand descending, right hand ascending—on the upright showroom of third-place trophies, the spoils of deliberate mediocrity gone undetected through subtle disregard of slurs and pedal releases and natural notes once flat, third place being an ideal position to variously please both Mother and Marketa, and instead of more lento con gran expressione Natalie adds one new item to a wish list for her eleventh birthday. After some thought, she scratches her marker across each line except for the last.
“You can’t tell Mar,” Natalie says to Mother before dinner. “You tell Mar and I’ll report you to social services!” This she mitigates with woolly Boston accent, accuracy overlooked.
Mother plays along; the job requires it. “I’ll report you to animal control, animal!”
“I’ll inform the Stasi! Yeah, that’s right.”
“Natty, that’s going too far.”
“You just shut your filthy mouth about my business or you’re gonna get what I’m giving!” Natalie swings her finger and Mother laughs at her impersonation of men.
The joints and angles of Marketa’s mannequin body hoists her mannequin clothes on the downstairs dawdle, and in jerseyspeak goes, “One of these days you bastards are gonna rise and shine smothered under a pillow, and I’m gonna be there—just smothering, goddamnit, just smothering.”
“Please, Mar. You know how I feel.”
“Take it easy, Mother.” Marketa puts up her hands. “I don’t mean nobody no harm, I swear it.”
“Wonderful choice of words,” Natalie says.
“A fan! Show me what you have, then, if you have.”
Marketa stoops and points to her ear with both indexes; little sister murmurs an expletive mantra through cupped hands for full amplification.
“Pretty good. I sure do appreciate the effort, but unfortunately I can’t give you marks for creativity. You’re gonna have to go back to the drawing board. Here’s the board, you draw on it, hence back to the drawing board, and then come to me and I’ll really put you to the test. Now, this,” and she peels the pea coat covering Natalie’s arm and sinks teeth in the bend of the elbow.
Heed the microwave, the sizzling downpour of cookery, the treacherous transport of dinner and leftovers. “A little backup, por favor!” Mother’s burnt fingers she cools against her earlobes. The children finally chip in, Marketa wiping the table, Natalie clearing away her science fair project: a display board on the Duchenne smile. A comparison of the magnitude of perceivable physical effort and likely enervation following both tasks precipitates Natalie’s appended handling of age appropriate wood lacquer and varnish.
Mother, ruler of roast beef and resident table politico, arranges the hierarchy. She positions the main course in front of Natalie; the side dish castoffs, the flavor add-ons, the leavened and unleavened: the vast mesa landscape Marketa must cross for better food, a full arms-length reach complete with lean and full thigh flex. Natalie corrects this, this and selected cutlery, the Chinese spoon in her hand that Mother picked up in the part of town “where half the cars are filled with plush toys and the other have Piolín bumper stickers,” swapped for sister’s warped-tine fork, the fork’s familial significance diminished by frequent use, its genealogy dead-stopped at a factory in Vernon an hour’s drive away.
It’s discouraging, Natalie had told her mother. Mar barely eats.
When Marketa eats, she’s not really eating. That’s what Mother says. She says you see the mouth open and you see the food go in—there, the chewing, and there, the swallowing—but you can’t call it eating. Call it temporary housing.
Oh, what tragic oversight! Natalie ships a few extra slabs of ham onto her sister’s plate. Must be a mistake that Mother didn’t give you This Piece and That Piece from the Greatest Part of the Pig. Here, here, I don’t need it, you have it, and look at that, I have eight cauliflowers but you have six, no, no, this will not do, such tragic oversight. Mother, don’t you think Marketa looks lovely tonight? Tell her, Mother, use the word lovely, tell her how much better she is than me at the vital things, all the Bunsen burner and cosmetic talent, a small-talk specialist with haggle knowhow. And attending Northwestern in seven months, full-ride! Mother, are you sure you gave birth to me? Ha ha. You must have picked me up at the dollar store. Ha ha. Such a great daughter, and I, I can’t even brush my own hair! or even do aerobics! Ha ha.
She’s not an eater, Mother had said, reinforcing Marketa’s superhero status, which is horse, absolute horse—Mother the neurotypical, Marketa the neurotypical. Mother, just look at her, Mother, look at her smile, I know what I’m talking about so listen to me, Mother, I’ve done the research, and honest, she can’t know, it’ll break her, just look at her!
And look—Natalie now the prophet of the playground, a cocktail party pro, at buffets examining mouth behavior—there on Marketa’s face: a smile, lips pressed, no creases around the eyes. A combination found on stewardesses and car salesman, as horse as horses get. How you can tell, why, you only need a look-see of that science fair entry.
And look. Giving it the college try, Natalie in front of the mirror or Natalie in front of some Tom and Jerry produces the same thing. Her brows remain still, as do her cheeks.
Mother forgets the alarm, as is the standard; Natalie presses the faded zero. Under the metronomic countdown that personates an incendiary device willing to explode unless one hastens to the pillow, Marketa slips through the bathroom and into bed with her little sister, the little sister employing all leg strength to squeeze together, the little sister thinking: what’s the point of bodies? Her back cools against Marketa’s face; slow warmth spreads across Marketa’s cheek. When Mother follows the same route into the room and for the same reason, she finds her daughters shivering in the heat.
It’s one or two in the morning when a door opens downstairs and the alarm cries out and cries out. Whoever it is does not feel the urgency to punch in the code before police are informed. It just cries out and cries out. The girls and their Mother stay spooned and immovable, eyes open, afraid to go downstairs whether it’s Father or a thief.
Moira Gray, in 1869, became the first person to smile in a photograph. For seventy-five cents, the Gray family had proof of Moira’s madness, in a family portrait still smelling of silver chloride, which resulted in her immediate hospitalization. It was quite an astonishing smile, all teeth and stretched skin, diminished eyes and a bit of tongue revealed, and of course the gums, a smile striptease that was mistaken for hysteria but was in fact an acting out against her parents, as these things usually were and continue to be. It was suggestive enough that the local boys stole it from the Grays every so often to masturbate to, despite the very obvious plainness Moira’s face possessed. As news spread, many other girls of her age continued the trend, some grinning, some smirking, some with mouth completely agape or gurning, until it caught on with the boys, who made faces that impressed no one but themselves.
Known as a depressive since youth, Moira decided to do a big one for the camera not only to punish her parents for their tyrannical views on courtship and, oddly, the proper way to cook sausages, but to express genuine joy. The night before, Moira had come upon a mix of vinegar, traditional Indian spices, and a few inedible powders and herbs that when consumed together in equal parts ceased her menstrual cycle. Not only were her parents spurned but nature as well.
(“One could argue that the concept of smiling failed to exist in photography because of photography’s consanguineous connection to portrait painting of the time. The purpose of portraiture was not to show likeness (it was verboten, in fact), except in the case of eyebrows. Due to prodigious leaps in grooming technology, many in the upper class had the silhouettes of their dogs shaved into their eyebrows as evidence of wealth, a fashion soon emulated by the proletariat, albeit with livestock. Like other fads throughout history, brow-enthusiasm won out over sincere efforts to overturn laws banning facial expressions.” – translated from the only issue of Make Pictures Dutch Style! distributed in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region)
This is what Mother says, holding the photograph of Moira Gray along its edges, some great-great-grandmother or long-lost aunt, proud Mother stockpiling pads for Natalie, the pads Natalie first hides under her mattress and then in the garden tall with wild grass and dandelion, the story some attempt to pass down an ancestral tradition, that Natalie, my Natalie, you come from a line of naysayers and trailblazers; Natalie, the newest member of the oldest club. “Oh, no one wants them. Most can’t wait for menopause, but we are women, Nat. Your friends will be jealous you got a head start.”
“I think I’d be a better woman without a body, then, like Mar.”
“Don’t say that, okay? This is important stuff.”
Natalie issues Mother the middle finger, then its Italian, Persian, and British coequals. “I’ll say what I please. You’re gonna get what I’m giving, buddy.”
“I’m calling animal control, you animal!”
The ingredients are scattered on the counter, the mixture produced mortar and pestle method. The vinegar recipe Natalie the two-month menstrual veteran finds on library microfilm. She drinks it every night with Capri Sun chaser. A week of it forces her into permanent residence by the toilet, her stomach a block of cracked glass. Moira’s smile motivates Natalie, Natalie who wants to get a smile like that, who wants to believe it is possible.
The vinegar doesn’t work. Another letdown, courtesy of the neurotypicals.
Her affliction passes in a few days, but it doesn’t matter. It’s not the effects, is it, it’s that she has the capability at all, the aptitude. She obscures herself among imaginary schoolwork rather than the usual television with Marketa, the usual television more labor than leisure, what with Natalie’s habit of looking to make sure Marketa is laughing, or wide-eyed, or not preoccupied with finding a comfortable sitting position, and as a result of such syllabi invention scores high on the Iowa Tests. Proximity exacerbates the condition; the house’s square footage and open layout offers no escape.
A brother, a son, Mother’s son, Nat and Mar’s brother, three years Mar’s senior, Mother’s firstborn, stranger to Nat, to the outside world, but she’s heard the stories, according to the Honorable Bernard Twist a danger to the people, what people?, a danger to himself perhaps, Mother’s baby boy, tenant at the state hospital with new mothers Annie and Dolores, pretty nurses (his opinion), one caring and able, the other caring and able—and once a month, Marketa and Mother engage in bloodsport, a sibling rivalry.
Mother examines her outfit in the full-length, a sheer-sleeved striped blouse—too revealing?—changed to jeans and tunic—will he like it?—changed to appropriate sweater and capris. Marketa has a shouting match with the blow dryer over a disagreement regarding product, this after a varicolored sequence of nail polish and acetone.
“You’re not really gonna wear that? Now I have to change.”
“Don’t let me forget the cupcakes.”
“I’m bringing him a robot toy.”
“We never discussed bringing toys.”
“Well, what am I gonna give him?”
“You’ve got the cupcakes.”
“But he always gets cupcakes! This isn’t exactly fair.”
And Natalie the witness.
Nicholas, sometimes letter opener and rice cooker, walks himself to the warmest part of the visiting bay, no wheelchair required, death-defying if you’re in the know, Mother before wrapping her arms around him revealing sweets, and Marketa, reaching out with her shiny toy—and who’s first? Nicholas, sometimes biter of flesh and knock-knock joke aficionado, sees his silvery reflection in the toy robot, really looks at it, gives it an eyeful, making the robot very self-conscious with all that eye contact, the eye contact Mother and Marketa crave, of which they receive none, oh, the oversight, and then a latch drops open at the bottom, and look!, the robot no toy at all, no, not a toy but a pencil sharpener, and Mother smears away her nascent grin with the back of her free hand, why what sort of Mother would she be if she didn’t, and Natalie, the non-participant loitering in the furthest corner, her presence the future ghost heat of the room, her presence that cannot be felt until she is well on her way, currently Miss No-Show, this Natalie, Natalie who?, Natalie who is on administrative leave from the family, her head not stocked with shared memories, but oh well, a horse is a horse, and who is he?, Nicholas my brother, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, your nose like my nose, and that’s about it.
Visiting hours are over. Marketa takes the wheel.
“He looks like me more and more.”
“No, he doesn’t. He looks like dad.”
“Not only does he look like me more, he looks at me more. Did you see him look? He really looked. And smiled. Did you see that?”
“I’m not kidding. He smiled at me.”
“I’m pretty sure it was for me. I’m his mother, I know these things.”
“You don’t know anything. Nat, tell her.”
“You can’t fake the chills I got.”
Disregarded are the speed bumps and crosswalks.
“You don’t know anything about chills!”
“Such a breakthrough.”
“What breakthrough? I told him how handsome and he blushed. Nat, tell mom.”
“You had no chance, Mar. He heard my voice and smelled my cupcakes and it was all over for you.”
“Nat, say something. Tell mom.”
“You two better shut those filth holes now. I’ll kill—that’s a promise!”
“It’s not the time, Nat.”
And Natalie, overcome with sin and vinegar, sides with sister. Mother disputes the decree; only by chance do they return home alive.
Her room, Natalie’s, is Cambodian, the landmines triggered not by weight but by memory, not by steps but by sight alone—the mechanical pencils that rattle their innards and the aluminum cases that keep them rattling and the zippered cartoon pouches in which the cases sit; the binders Marketa autographed in Wite-Out, first name in cursive and last name blocky and sea-gapped between each letter; old textbooks dressed in a calendar page, circa 1999, its clean white back exposed but decorated with the loose frame of a once full sticker set; dolls with jean jackets that Marketa and Mother anxiously tried to match with the Nordstrom spring catalog, children’s section, and oversized neon windbreakers; the ¼-sized violin with only d-string intact; the cameras in camera bags and DNA-rich hair ties and black and pink cleats caked in gum and pitch and the AYSO uniform Natalie wears as pajamas and abridged versions of Robinson Crusoe and Treasure Island—the ordnance making the casual stroll impossible. Natalie the thief, the pickpocket, here, Mar, don’t cry, look, don’t you remember this?, yes, you do, I know it, it’s yours, yours, I don’t need it, no, you have it back, I never play the violin, and these binders, these pens and pencils, oh, they sure are nice, but you’ll need them, all those book reports in Evanston, take them, and mom didn’t tell you, no she did not, that fuck, am I right?, am I, Mar?, that prick, she didn’t tell you, she told me not to tell, she took me to the aquarium, you were somewhere, I don’t know where but you weren’t here, something about treatment, she took me and not you, and did I deserve that?, I don’t know, that’s not for me to say, Mar, and when we came home, you were already there in bed with that look, all better you said to me—Natalie, the heir, the inheritor of hand-me-downs and mother’s-better-moods, and what is it they say, a man, some man, an architect with two sons, and one becomes an engineer, the other a drafter, and us, what do we get?, what did that brother of ours get?, and Mother, don’t get me wrong, I love that woman, I do, but it just doesn’t make sense, oh, how handy she is with that Visa with me, wherever we go, all I have to do is open this mouth and that Visa does the talking, and the conversations it has!, and how you open your mouth and you don’t hear the end of it, you don’t, it never gets anywhere near the end of it, how you took her youth (her words), why I think that’s a little steep, a little harsh in my opinion, Mar, it’s horse, I know it and you know it and all the horses know it, Mar, Mar, I never wore the jacket, I swear, I looked at it a whole lot, sure, who wouldn’t?, but I swear, Mar, Mar, I swear I never put it on, not even a sleeve, no sir, not I, and Mar, Mar, knock-knock, who’s there?, Nicholas, Nicholas who?, Nicholas who indeed.
Here, nothing is for sale, so Patrick Royce rents. Not that he could afford anything else on that ex-con pay; part-time is all he gets. He soundproofs his walls so that when he plays his French horn, he gets to keep playing his French horn.
Natalie turns the corner on her bike, the color of it the color of the sky, the sky the color of soggy road, like the color of Royce’s one-bedroom, all now overflowing in a pale blue glitch.
Write something out is all you had to do. Just an outline, or a Venn diagram, or a few bullet points, the pros and cons. Gotta go in with a compelling argument—but Natalie, an advocate of trying everything once, is unprepared.
Patrick answers her knocks. Behind him, blown speakers hiss, the stereo on pause. His arms and legs Natalie bypasses. She poses on the green carpeting (Elle, Spring 2009).
“Excuse me. What is this?”
“You went to jail,” Natalie says. “Right?”
“I don’t know what this is or who you are or what you’re doing, but you need to leave.”
“I know about you. Things you’ve done.”
“Please,” he says. “Go home. Out.”
“It’s okay. I’m not afraid. I know, Patrick.”
His name from her mouth reconstructs his belly into a furnace.
What Natalie knows, everyone knows. Twenty years for touching children. So goes the story. Boys, girls—all his cup of tea. Her mother had said so and so it was. She’s the right age. Her lips she made red with lipstick for him; her eyes and eyelashes and eyebrows blacked, pulled, and trimmed for him; the dress, he cannot say it is not a lovely dress.
“Don’t I look the type, baby?”
“Come on. Let me have it.”
“Have what? I don’t have anything!”
“Make me your girl,” she says. “Take it from me. It’s what you do, so do your best. Make me pregnant. You can do that for me. I won’t say a thing.”
“That’s not what I do best!” Royce hugs the wall.
“I need this. You don’t know how I need this. So give me what I need to get.”
“This is no good. Go away. This is—you got it all wrong. I know what you think. I don’t say nothing to others to tell them they’re wrong, but I know what people say. I didn’t do any of that. I stole. I robbed a Yogurtland. I just wanted some yogurt.”
“Please.” Her performance falters, a vehement heel against the floor betraying her revirescent complexion.
“It was hot. I thought: hey, yogurt’d hit the spot, and it did, it really did, and that’s what I’m guilty of, okay? I don’t touch. I had a wife I didn’t touch and Christ I wanted to touch! I just like frozen yogurt is all.”
Natalie approaches, her shoe on the carpet the loudest thing in the room. Whatever this is, Royce is sure it violates probation. He bolts out to the hatchback in the driveway and fires it up. Three years in Corcoran, he thinks, that’s enough. He puts the car in reverse and kicks the gas, which sticks and throws the hatchback into the jacaranda tree on the other side of the street. His head, the male pattern baldness, cracks against the wheel, but all Natalie sees when she comes out is a figure blanketed in lavender petals falling through the sunroof.
Should’ve written something out, at least a few bullet points.
Aswim in her ablative dreams and dreams of uterine conquest, she joins her bicycle and removes herself from the neighborhood, the scenery now laminated in apocalyptic skin. The sound of the running engine fades bit by bit but never wholly out of earshot, even when she makes it home at the other end of town.
Above, the coronal loops of the sun slurp turgidly; and closer to earth a satellite constellation guides a florist to her first kickboxing class; and closer to the ground is the signal from person to person, a lullaby that for the time being only antennas can enjoy; and now as close as possible, in Natalie’s amygdala, the impulse dispersal between neighbors hypothalamus and hippocampus.
The local news yields no relevant dirt, for five days straight the channels run identical programming: some coupon exposé, and did you see so-and-so’s hairstyle redo?
No write-up in the Courier. No policeman at the door. No helicopters circling overhead. With blindfold she crosses streets. She defies expiration dates. She reads in the dark and stands in front of the microwave. No broken bones. No upset stomach. No need for glasses and certainly no tumor.
“It happens to every girl in the world,” the pamphlets threaten. “And correct posture helps you behave normally.” You’ve never seen a girl with a straighter spine, and her curled hair she conceals under cloche hat—curled hair a signifier, you know, a dead giveaway—when Marketa comes for an elbow bite.
Think of the price of pads, the ultra thins, and all the greenbacks Mother could save to pay the mortgage, to pay for Marketa’s yearbook photos, the deluxe package, 8x10s and wallet sizes for extended family, the studio time, the digital touchups.
Natalie, from a cup left unattended over the weekend, drinks and expects iced tea, as one would after iced tea has been poured, but chokes on a tangle of spider web instead, and it shouldn’t come as a surprise, no, since Mother has taught her offspring to at least cover their plates and glasses with the kitchen roll when out of the room, and also at least to have the lights on while ingesting, and to bang your shoes against the wall before putting them on—at least. The texture of yarn Natalie accepts and she swallows the mesh and latticework, the iced tea as chaser.
She takes it upon herself to look for the safest pest control company, what with Mother being asthmatic; Mar prone to dermatitis; Natalie, resident side effect specialist and search engine wizard. Pinnacle Pest uses phosphorus, and the user reviews of Hegemony Over Insects suggests past occurrences of massive structure fires (albeit honest prices), and all Natalie gets from the Rat & Roach Hate Group website is a bit of a skinhead vibe.
“Hello ma’am, hello girls,” the technician says. He hands Natalie a hard candy and scans the house from the dining table. “Your worries are no more. What I’m saying is tonight you rest and that’s a guarantee. You see what it says on the side of the truck so you know we’re the best, and I wouldn’t put that on the side of the truck if we were only par. That ain’t worth the cost of stenciling. Now, what we use is one hundred percent eco-friendly, in case you’re concerned about how green it all is. We’re talking essential oils here, and they wouldn’t be called essential if they weren’t necessary. My associates and I will only take ten minutes for the spray, and oh, about another half hour for the complimentary termite inspection. All we ask is total cooperation and perhaps a soda if you’ve got it. For the road and all.”
His associates stand by the counter, giving Mar the once-over.
“What sort of chemicals do you use?” Natalie asks.
“Now, I said oils. Not chemicals. I’m talking pyrethrum, and I’m also talking about neem, talking about the entire plant-based ecosystem diametrically opposed to creepy-crawlies, you see.”
“You mind writing them out for me?”
“So you’re the man of the house,” he says, and tears a fact sheet from its staple. Natalie goes down the list of names to ensure that the ingredients used matches her research. There was once a couple who went mad from the fumes, Natalie had read, and an old woman who went blind.
The three men carry their handheld kill-tanks into separate rooms, spraying corners—and did you know there was a man who blacked out and woke up employed at a Long John Silver’s? It happened. Or the housewife who abruptly stopped loving her husband? No one suspected the connection.
Room to room to avoid the process, Marketa plays with an acrylic coronet Mother had pushed her to give to Natalie—and Mar, I don’t even want to comment on the children eaten as a result. It’s the scent, the coyotes, I’m not making it up, Mar, believe me, I’ve done the research.
“Done in record time! Tonight you dream of arachnid opposites, whatever they may be,” and the technician dematerializes into a series of wall knocks outside, his associates on their soda break after the tanks are shed. The complaints come in about the room temperature sodas. Natalie’s mother they disregard as “mostly crazy,” this based on her insistence that she vacuum their footpath the instant their boots lift. But worse are the cracks they make about Marketa. Not even in hushed tones or another language do they do so, something about if she turns sideways.
Something about “if you work with pesticides for so long you die of fucking cancer,” Natalie says, and the two men self-muzzle with aluminum cans.
“That was good. I’m impressed.” Marketa provides a smile, but Natalie doesn’t buy it.
“You’re nothing but a no good bucket of horse,” she tells Marketa, wagging her finger. “You think I’m finished with you? Buddy, I’ll never be finished. You’re gonna get what I’m giving and I’m giving wholesale today.”
Marketa pinches her sister’s nostrils. “Your Boston accent is awful.”
Nat climbs the stairs, over scraps of sycamore and fig from the workmen’s treads, a tank in each hand up to the Jack and Jill, and under spumoni incandescence aims a nozzle, spraying insecticide onto Marketa’s bath towel, the one mascara scarred but otherwise stalwart—and there’s the one about an essential oil used as an emmenagogue in certain cultures. It’s no joke. It’s in the research, with pictures.
Now the tank exhales a short, dry breath, and Natalie, in collecting the second, almost genuflects, eager for Mar to be thoroughly healed.
Photo by Andrea Kirby