Mouthbrood is a novel that explores the idea of the magic circle through the experiences and memories of a group of young people from rural New England. Sensory perceptions blend with dreams, fables, and visions to create a layered portrait of queer alienation, the limits of empathy, and cycles of gestation and rot.
When I am young, I dream that I die. In this dream, I am sitting cross-legged beneath the dining-room table. In front of me sits myself in the same position. I am both selves at the same time, though sometimes I am just one. One of my selves – I am not sure which – has been poisoned. I know I am about to die. I know it both as a fact of my body and as a kind of empathy. The me that is not dying is filled with self-pity and begins to make small choking sobs like a caught zipper. The other me makes the same noises but does not feel self-pity. When I cough and gasp for air, I feel little bits of myself leak out. They aren’t replaced with anything. I have difficulty understanding this sensation even as it exists inside of me. It is like forgetting a simple word in the middle of a sentence. The self that is not dying, grief-stricken, moves to comfort the other, but I have forgotten what it means to be comforted. I have very little of me left and then there is nothing. I close my eyes and see it.
I am desperately thirsty when I wake. I creep down to the kitchen. The house is transformed at night, breathing with bluish shadow and shallow light. I fill a glass at the sink. The water looks grey and thick. It tastes sweeter than usual and does not fill me up. I replace the glass in the cupboard and make my way to my mother’s room, careful not to catch my eye in the hallway mirrors. Her door is swollen with June heat and creaks when I force it open, waking her.
“I had a nightmare.”
She gestures me over and I crawl onto her lap. She kisses the back of my neck. There is still a part of me that doesn’t know how to be comforted. She asks me what happened in my dream and I tell her that I died. She asks if I know what happens to people when they die. I shake my head, though I do know, or at least feel like I might know. She tells me, her voice like a heartbeat in the side of my neck.
“Dying is something that happens to your body. All living things die because bodies can’t last forever. But your body isn’t you; it’s just the house where your soul lives. Your soul uses your body like a hermit crab uses its shell. You have to shed it when it gets too small. That’s what death is. Once your body dies, your soul goes to a much bigger house called heaven. Heaven is so big that many souls can live there at once, even people you used to know. When you are there, you will feel light because you have left your old heavy body behind. You will feel happy because you will be surrounded with love.”
As my mother speaks, I feel the parts of myself that cannot be comforted curl up and go quiet. I fall asleep gripping the front of my mother’s shirt and do not dream at all.
The next morning, the sides of my throat feel sandwiched together. I am hungry. As I pad downstairs, hoping for a hot breakfast, I notice one of my socks has slipped off in the night, leaving my left foot cold. When I reach the kitchen and climb the counter stool, I fold it beneath me. My mother is making coffee and there is steam on her glasses and sweat pasted on her forehead when she looks over. She asks if I slept and I tell her that I have and ask for waffles. The syrup cools quickly and is grainy-sweet in the little wheat valleys. I ask for water. This morning, it tastes like nothing and fills me up heavily. There seems to be less space inside of me than usual. I feel a pull at my throat but nothing comes out. My mother pushes her hair damply from her face and takes a call in the other room.
“I’m just sending her off to school now...yeah, she’s fine, but let’s rain check tonight...no, I know, but I don’t want her staying up late and freaking herself out in an empty house...okay, see you soon...I know, you too…”
While she speaks, I slip off to my room to get dressed, leaving my plate on the counter. I begin my walk to school early, sensing there are thoughts inside of me that will stay balled up until I am alone. As I walk, I begin to taste the sweetness of the water around my gums and the memory of the dreams returns to me as a single moment – an exhale. I can neither move past this moment nor further back from it. I remember that, in the dream, I had died, but I can’t feel the pulse of that part of the memory. I turn the moment over and over in my mind and run my tongue over the edges of an emotion far removed from anything I have experienced in life. Walking like this, I almost trod on a small figure in the dirt in front of me. At first, I am unsure of what it is; my mind flips rapidly through several increasingly unlikely possibilities (black plastic bag, worm fighting a mouse, creature trapped in tar) before my eyes settle and I can see it. An injured bat squirms on the side of the road, its movements inelegant on the ground; it jerks like an old stop-motion film. Its wings smother its small body, holding it down, while its sharp feet and elbows scrape frantically at the road. I approach. I have never seen one up close, just far-off silhouettes when they pass over my yard in the evening. Its black eyes are like dew on fresh pavement. Its mouth, jewelled by delicately pointed teeth, gapes with animal pain. I search for a stick in the nearby grass and, locating one, attempt to use it to nudge the animal out of the road. As soon as the end of the stick comes into contact with the creature’s small body, I know I have made a mistake; it is impossibly fragile – tissue draped over matchsticks, the vulnerable flesh of its wings softer even than the webbing of my fingers, than the folds of my eyelids. I yank my hand away, drop the stick and sprint back towards my house. I slow only when I see that my mother’s car is not parked out front, though I still enter, careless of the slamming screen door, shrieking for her. There is no answer. I do not think to wonder where she is, but her absence shakes me. My blood is hot and tight under my chin and I burrow through the junk in the shed in search of something to use. I finally come across a small net we bought when we used to have a fish tank. The teal plastic is rotting off the handle and rust has gathered beneath. I rush back down the road, forgetting my backpack in the shed. When I reach the spot where the bat was left shivering, there is nothing. The stick lies where I have left it, but there are no other signs of the creature, not even markings in the dirt to show me where it may have gone. I toe through the greenery on the side of the road but stop when my anxiety about accidentally trodding on the animal overwhelms my desire to find it. Around me, it is very quiet. There is only the low hiss of the drainpipe, the rhythmic shuffling of leaves, and my own ragged breath. I resume my journey to school. My legs, as I walk, feel very separate from me
Naturally, I am late to school, but I am still surprised to enter my classroom to see all of the other children already arranged neatly in little rows across the big checkered carpet. They turn to look at me when I open the door, their faces sweetly bland as a box of marzipan fruit. My teacher purses her mouth and glares at the net in my hand.
“Take a seat on the carpet please, Phaedra,” she says, her voice like a sour candy scraping the roof of my mouth.
I tuck the net carefully in my desk, trying to strike a good balance between care and speed so as not to further anger my teacher and settle cross-legged in my carpet spot. My cold foot is still cold and I shuffle a little to place it completely beneath my other leg. In doing so, I realize that the other students are unusually quiet and still, and I try to mimic them, concerned that I may have missed something important. My teacher speaks,
“Now that we are all here, I can continue. As I was saying before, when Lily comes back tomorrow, it is important that you do not mention her mom unless she mentions her first. Losing someone close to you is very hard and can make you very sad. The best thing you can do is to treat Lily kindly no matter how she may be acting. You might feel nervous around her, but the best thing to do is to treat tomorrow just like any other day.”
My teacher’s voice is slow and dull, but her neck is flushed and tense. She flicks her eyes above our heads and I look back to see the principal leaning against the doorframe. His chin jiggles a nod in her direction and he turns to leave. My teacher clears her throat and recrosses her legs.
“I know loss can make everyone feel big feelings, so if you are feeling scared or sad, you can ask to go down to the counseling office and talk to Mrs. Swift. Now, does anyone have any questions?”
We are released. The carpet squirms to life as several children raise their hands at once and others start back up with their usual distracted compulsions: picking at lint on the ground, playing with their friends’ hair, tying and untying their shoelaces. I pull at the shredded hem of my jeans and try to conjure Lily’s mother’s face. She was nice, I think. A bit older than most of the other mothers with a low, deep voice and a face that creased gently like a worn T-shirt. I try to picture her soul crawling out of her body and scuttling, soft-bellied and brittle, across the empty ocean floor to find its new home in heaven. It doesn’t seem real at all. Hermit crabs, I remember suddenly, don’t shed their shells when the shells get too small; they shed them when their bodies get too large. I picture a stonefish gobbling the soul up in one wet gulp, a massive foot crushing it into splinters, each shard a tiny copy of Lily’s mother’s tense, kind-eyed face. I feel laughter foaming up in my chest, but when it reaches my mouth, it feels like something else. I let out a strangled yelp. The class’s attention snaps back to me. My body, heavy and jittery, leans backward and my voice, when it emerges, is louder and more mocking than I mean it to be.
“Can I get some water, please?”
My teacher squints at me with her pale little knot of a mouth scrunched up in distaste. I sprawl further back, knocking into the boy behind me.
“C’mon, Miss Deirdre, I’m dying for some water!”
My voice becomes shrill and my throat tightens until it feels like a wound.
“Please! I’m dying!”
I stop at the water fountain only briefly and then make my way to the nurse’s office. From there, I call my home number. It rings and rings until I hang up. The nurse, a distracted woman who spends most of her day on the phone with her daughter, lets me stay in her office while she goes on her lunch break. No one comes looking for me. I wonder if staying here will keep things in a kind of stasis. When I left in the morning, my mother was alive and I was alive, but now she is somewhere unknown to me and I have no way of determining if she still exists. If I stay in this room forever, everything will stay as it was. I tilt my chair back on two legs and brace my cold foot against the wall. If I push a little bit more, I think, I could tip backwards and spill my brains all over the linoleum floor. Maybe my mother ran her car into the river. Maybe she had a stroke and bled out into her own skull. Maybe she has cancer hiding in her body, eating her away cell by cell. It’s possible – any of it – I think, at any minute. Any minute the world could stop and stop completely. I can’t imagine a bigger house. I feel too big already.
The nurse comes back from her lunch break and lets me call again. This time, my mother picks up. The world feels more real at the sound of her voice. She is irritated, though, when I ask her where she was this morning (“errands”) and, when I tell her I want to come home, she tells me that she’s “too tired to deal with this right now.” When she says this, her voice begins rough and then softens as she finishes the sentence, so that the end almost sounds like an apology. Or a request maybe. I hang up and spend the rest of the day placing address stickers on envelopes in the nurse’s office.
When I get home, I feel too deep inside my own body and try, with little success, to dig my way out. My mother does not hear me come in and I pause as I pass her open office door. I watch as she crooks her head to the side and digs out an earbud, catching a strand of hair in the process and wincing.
“Phae?” she calls, scratching at her nose, “is that you?”
Several thoughts inhabit my head at once. The first and loudest is a sense of immense relief at seeing her in the flesh. Simultaneously, I want her to be punished for our earlier conversation, most of all for the apology in her voice before I hung up. And beneath both of these thoughts runs the continuation of what I began in the nurse’s office earlier: hit by a car, fell in the shower, murdered by a stranger, tooth infection spreads to the heart, a bump on the head releases an aneurysm, I make her too sad and she swallows a bottle of pills… She calls my name again and I hold still and don’t answer. When I watch her like this, it’s as though I don’t exist at all. Her hand pushes hair from her face in an uncertain gesture I’ve never seen from her before. I wait until she puts her music back on and then walk to my room.
That night, I wake only a couple hours after drifting off and, when I open my eyes, I have no recollection of what I have been thinking, feeling, or doing only seconds before. I can’t even recall existing in my body or anywhere at all during the time I slept. I sit up in my bed and watch the shadow on shadow of my body moving in the darkness. If I keep my hands still, I can’t see them at all, but when I move them, they create a sort of dark current in the air that I can perceive somewhere near edges of my eyes. The house is so quiet that I can hear my mother breathing in the room below mine. I go to her.
With the door open, her room is lighter than mine and the objects in the room (dresser, lamp, book, pillow, extended arm) are solid bluish shadows. I wedge myself between her and the wall and, upon pressing my face to the dampish spot between her shoulder-blades and rubbing my toes over the prickly hairs on the backs of her calves and inhaling the familiar, sour scent of her, I feel immediately that I had been wrong before. My mother’s body is too solid, too real to disappear at any moment. There is something that exists both outside and inside of her that keeps the stuff of her clumped around her soul. I think about the book I read that explained how planets are held together by a powerful gravity that pulls all matter inward toward a center core, that all matter has this gravity. My teacher had tried to explain this once, though she became irritated when we all began bumping into each other, trying to test out who had the most gravity. She told us that the gravity in our own bodies was too small to measure or even perceive. We didn’t believe her. I think about the absolute center of something, the most inner core. I consider that it’s not really anything at all, just a force pulling everything in.
I press closer to my mother and scrunch my fingers into the back of her shirt. I whisper, “I don’t believe you.”
She continues sleeping. The room is quiet but her body is very loud – resonant wet breaths and her legs twitching and nudging against the fabric of the sheets; her tongue clicking against her teeth and the dull running whine of her stomach. Against her, I am silent and still. A ghost on her back. I kick lightly against the back of her knee with my cold foot and call for her. She jerks forward and then rolls to face me. Her face is shadowed when it turns to me and her eyes are dark swirling currents.
“You know what you told me last night? I don’t believe it.”
She turns from me to flick on the light.
“What do you mean?”
Now it is light, pulsing spheres of it, that blots out her face. I blink, expectant.
“What you said happens when we die. I don’t think it’s true. It doesn’t feel true to me. Do you know the real truth? Can you tell it to me? Please?”
She is quiet for a pause and the lights swarming her face shrink. She reaches for me and pulls me onto her lap and I can no longer see her face. She presses her mouth to my hair and says, “What I told you is what a lot of people believe, but I guess that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily true. Or true for you. I’m sorry that you felt like I lied to you. I tried to tell you the truth, but it’s different for different people. I don’t know which is right for you.”
I reach up for her fingers and feel along the groove where the nail meets the skin. A seam. I say, “What do you believe? That’s what I’ll believe too.”
She turns her hand over so our fingerprints touch and lock together.
“I think that, when we die, our bodies stop working and shut down. Our brains stop sending signals to our bodies to do things like move or feel or think. Whatever it is that holds us together as one thing falls apart or disappears. But, everything else stays. When we are buried, we disintegrate and we begin to stop being a body and instead become part of the ground, of the dirt. Then, the worms eat the dirt and we become part of the worms too. A bird might eat one of the worms, so we become a part of the bird too. And we become a part of the flowers that take nutrients from the dirt. And when a butterfly drinks nectar from the flower or a cat eats the bird, then we become a part of those things too. And then the cat will die and its skin cells will turn to dust and a person will breathe in that dust and then we will also become a part of that person. Instead of being one thing, we spread out and become everything, which is also – I think – what we were before we were born.”
I consider this. I imagine the solidity of my mother crumbling away like sand into the ground and then carried off, bit by bit.
We go to sleep.
In my dreams that night, I am swimming in a murky river. When I look down into the water, I can see to about my navel before the rest of my body disappears from view in the clay-colored water. Then, I can see my legs, but through another pair of eyes. An alligator bites down on my thigh. From above, I can see a shadow-shape moving beneath me, a gelatinous disturbance in the water, a delicate, mounting plume of red. From below, I see the meat of my leg flapping in the stream like seaweed. I tear it down as I would a hangnail. The stuff of my body is ripped away from me. Then I am the alligator, muscling my way through the powerful undercurrent, my mouth gaping. But I am also the flayed thing hanging dead on the surface, left behind.
In the morning, I wake to find that my fingers are curled tightly into my palms and my knees are pressed hard into my chest. My skin feels cool and stiff and smooth. A shell. A seed. It is difficult to unwind; my wrists and elbows keep drawing themselves back into my chest as I descend the stairs. My mother is in the bathroom and I can smell the humid body scent of the shower as I pass. I curl up on the living room chair and place my chin to my knees. We didn’t do the dishes from dinner last night and they glisten on the coffee table with the early morning damp that permeates our house. A line of ants wanders down the lip of my juice cup. I pick one and stare at it, allowing my gaze to unfocus and fall slack. I hold my breath somewhere between an inhale and an exhale and stop up my throat, taking the whole of myself into my eyes and directing them towards the ant. I wait to see how long I can stay perfectly still like this before remembering that I have to breathe.
My mother appears at the doorway. At the sight of her, I come pouring back into myself, slopping hotly over like an overfull mug. She settles into the couch across from me and asks how I slept and if I had any dreams. I tell her I haven’t and she smiles like I gave the right answer and leans back into the cushions with her steaming cup of tea. I curl deeper into myself and watch her. Her hands and forearms look just like mine but larger. When I look at them, I can feel my arms in them too. “What we were before we were born,” she had said. Before I was born, I was not a random collection of matter somewhere; I was a part of her. And before she was her, I suppose we were both a part of her mother – my grandmother, a person I had barely known. I can’t remember being a part of either of them – though sometimes, like now, I can sense little shadows of myself in her – I can’t really feel the parts of what I used to be that remain with her. I am, in this moment, so thoroughly separate from her while also feeling like a broken-off piece. Of my known family, the only remaining members are me, my mother, and her sister, which means that most of what makes me up is already dead. My mother jostles her foot up and down as she reads, the cracks channeling up her heel more familiar to me than my own face, than the sound of my own voice. I feel a sliver of envy twitch its way into my throat. Because of me, she is more alive and I am less real, more ghost.
That day at school, Lily sits two seats in front of me and I watch her closely, craning my neck at an awkward angle and hanging off the edge of my seat. Her almost-white pigtails are a bit looser than normal, I think, but that seems to be the only change in her outward appearance. I wonder if she knows that she’s become mostly ghost. I wonder if that’s something you can feel or if it happens so gradually that you don’t even notice. She lays her head down on her desk. A mosquito sways lazily by and lands on her neck. My fingers long to reach over and brush it off. There is a ridge of dead skin on my knuckle. I pick at the frayed edges, pulling at it until I feel a sharp tickle of pain when I reach the point where dead skin meets living tissue. I tug at it again, feeling for the seam. When it tears along the edge, a zigzag of red forms in the creases. Mindlessly, I place the now fully dead strip in my mouth and chew. It is close to lunchtime and heavy slabs of light slap down onto the desks from the high classroom windows. Inside, dust particles float and gather and disperse in glittering eddies. Watching them, I am struck by how much there is. So much dust. The air, it seems, is thick with flesh. I hold up my forearm to the light and scrape at it with my nail. Bits of me flake away and climb to dance in the air with the other bodies – bodies of the students around me, bodies of children long dead, parts of my own body already lost to me. I watch my flesh drift away from me until I can no longer track it and it becomes indistinguishable from the rest. I breathe in deeply and let it all flow into me. I feel nothing. I can’t feel the dead parts of myself at all.
At recess, I sit on the swing and rub my jaw up and down along the sharp-smelling rust of the chains. I watch the other children play; they are split neatly, almost completely in two – most of the girls are arranged around Lily, fluidly adjusting to her movements like a school of sardines around a shark or sea lion, their eyes bright with curiosity and something else. Nearby, most of the boys circle a soccer ball in a surprisingly identical manner, now and then flicking their eyes over to the other group with a horse-like nervousness. I have been apart from them for as long as I can remember, though I have never known why. I often feel that I am the sole audience member in an empty movie theater playing a film about the other children, but the movie is real and I am the one being projected from the little lightbox in the back. Once or twice, I have been invited over to their homes and there have been able to glean a sense of what separates us. Their houses are loud and busy, full of distinct smells and people who wear their last names like the uniform of a team everyone wants to join. They all seem to have separate roles that they play with confidence and they relate to each other in a way that makes sense from the outside – even when fighting, even when upset. In comparison, my own home is like a conversation you have inside your own head, the voices distinct from each other only in how they call out from different aspects of the same being.
I look for Lily in the sea of girls. I peer at each face and try to parse it from its neighbor’s but find that I can’t. Together, they become a one multitude, the expression on each face – concern, guilt, confusion, indulgence, empathy, discomfort, envy, sorrow, fear – replicated again and again with slight variations that, rather than distinguish, embellish on a single, chiming chord of sentiment. I am alarmed to find that, if Lily is indeed within this crowd (and I sense she is – the rest flowing around a center point, a queen ant), her expression is no different from the rest, that she is simply a part of it, that her grief is not even her own to keep, that she is simultaneously its originator and the one being devoured by it. It is important, I feel, that she be pulled out before something more of her is lost.
On my next swing, I am pulled airborne and then down onto the wood-chip ground, pain splashing up the backs of my heels when I hit. I drift through the soccer boys, their bodies spinning and angling gracefully around me, the ball never seeming to come near me or even to hit the ground, only bouncing endlessly off of knees, elbows, foreheads. The girl-swarm yields less easily to my presence; they seem to solidify at all entry points, protecting their vulnerable core with their flashing teeth, their gemmed wrists and earlobes, the switch of their hair. I take a step toward them and then rock back, unsure. A cluster of eyes stares out at me. My mouth fills.
“Lily,” I address them all. One near the center floats into focus – sharp incisors in an open mouth, a pale mole by her ear, sticky greyish lashes.
“Can I talk to you, please?” I push a thumbnail to my lips and pause, sensing that it is my last opportunity to stop myself. “I think I have something to tell you.”
“So, tell her!” a voice rings out, an eye roll, a nudging shoulder.
The sea of girls burbles with mirth, reflected laughter bouncing between each glimmering face. Lily catches it all up in her own. She leans on the girl next to her as if she is too overwhelmed with amusement to stand by herself. “You want to talk to me?” she chirps, fanning a beauty-queen hand towards her throat.
“Yes.” My teeth feel too big for my mouth and my lips are dry and when I run my tongue across them, it only makes them drier. “It’s important.” I feel that Lily has betrayed something that was connecting the two of us and the mean little twist in her face is mirrored in my belly.
“It’s about your mom.”
The girls’ expression changes again, beautiful as a school of fish flashing their silver bellies. Ah, I think, better.
“Your mom is dead. She’s dead, but not in the way that you think she is. She’s dead forever, every single part of her. She’ll never go to heaven because heaven isn’t real and nothing about her will keep on living, not like a soul or anything. And you need to start being very careful because you’re part of her, so you’re part dead now too and if you don’t pay attention you might lose even more of yourself without even realizing it.”
The girls are very still. Some of them are making noises. Lily’s nose and cheeks have turned shiny pink like she’s been playing in the snow, but I have difficulty seeing her face. I sense vaguely that my attempt to draw us closer has had the opposite effect. I think that someone might start yelling at me and don’t know how to finish.
“No offense,” I attempt.
It seems that my best option is to run away, and so that is what I do. As I approach, and then cross, the school gate, I am surprised at how easy it is to pass through. I had imagined a barrier of some sort, keeping me in.