The first growth appears in the morning before school. A shriveled bloom of algae clings to the damp of my palate. I move Mom’s medicine bottles and blink at my reflection in our bathroom mirror: mottled with toothpaste stains and soap splatters, a crack in the glass fracturing my face in shapes and angles. Fingers dug under the hood of my lip, I tug my mouth wide—and there it is again, that lichen, that rot, pocketed in the pink bed between my tongue and my teeth.
Upon further inspection (think: me, leaned over the sink, eyes open, nostrils flared, skin like taffy pinched and pulled taut) I realize the mossiness in my mouth is not the only change in my physique. Though loamy when I smack my lips, the algae is easily hidden. I brush my teeth and the suds soften the otherwise coarse texture, soaking up a flavor somewhere between Winter Mint and wet soil. But the green tint of my cheeks is unmistakable.
Fungal scabs flake from the soft of my jaw (an area where many kids in my class are already developing their own scaly skins. Theirs, however, red and pimpled—mine, something closer to peeled-back sycamore bark). A watery yellow rashes around my pupils. My eyelashes give after a single pluck, collecting in the creases of my palm. Deodorant in hand, I lift both arms, but no matter how many chalky lines I draw my armpit still smells like soured fruit, dewy socks, a clogged drain.
I have this thing with fish. I don’t eat them. Not because of the taste or the texture; instead, out of a complex combination of both respect and fear. I value, too strongly, the ways their bodies reflect light, how they move like cut-off lizard tails. But I am also afraid of the glint in their eyes, how they seem to fold inward and uncoil without bone, without break, without edge.
When I was younger, our family spent summers at my grandma’s old, pale-wood house on the coast. At night, it stormed. Dad, Mom, and Priscilla would sit up on the porch, canopied, rain battering the shingles while Dad read the obituaries, Mom thumbed the thin stem of a wine glass, and Priscilla curled into herself, chin on knee, painting her toenails. Grandma’d usually be in bed. Moths fingered the porchlight with their peach-fuzz bodies, and I went down to the water.
The sand thickened between my toes, squishing up soupy and brown. Mom called to me, her voice syrupy with Pinot and sleep—a weak attempt at ushering me back into the house—but I followed the surf. The foam washed over my ankles and sprayed salt until, far enough down the hill, I found the place where the porchlight didn’t reach. The night bruised blue.
I’d duck under the water and resurface, but with all that rain it was hard to tell—my body like the chunked fruit in those gelatinous cakes Mom made for her book club. Submerged, I remember how calm I felt. How I could see through the murky green, feel the salt on my lips like something familiar. How the fish wove between my toes and splayed fingers, how I began to move like them, to shine and slip like them.
I think probably I am a fish. Or I used to be a fish. I am not sure what I believe, as far as souls and spirits go, but I know these memories.
After my grandma died, with Priscilla in college, they ended up just selling the house. Now, we have only a circular above-ground swimming pool in our backyard—withered things floating in the film of the water, helicopter seeds dropped from the arms of willows overhead. And sometimes, when it storms, I swim.
Steps for preserving insects:
1. Find a dead insect. (Or trap one yourself).
2. Fill a jar two-thirds full with hand sanitizer. (To protect from decay).
3. Ease the insect into the jar. (Your fingers are stronger than you think. Be gentle—handle its soft body the same way you would handle a baby, or a lover).
4. Fill the rest of the jar with the hand sanitizer.
5. Keep your preserved insects away from food, children, and animals.
Downstairs, the morning of the growth, I pour my cereal and tell my mother that I think my body is rotting. She says I should take more Vitamin C, and also I don’t get enough sun. She pushes a glass of orange juice and three dinosaur-shaped vitamins across the table.
The vitamins go down fine, but the juice sears the inside of my mouth, hot and sharp as lemon pulped into a cut. Shit, I say.
Watch it, Mom says. Drink your juice.
But when I lift a finger and prod my bloom, it stings. I picture the green vines recoiling, drawing back into my throat. It’s too acidic, I say. But she isn’t listening so when she turns her back, I tip the glass into a potted philodendron, sitting by the vents, waxy leaves swaying with the blow of the A.C. Sorry, I whisper.
Mom spins. What was that?
The juice soaks slow around the roots, until the soil darkens an oily black. I swear I see the leaves already wilting. I swear the sway becomes more of a shiver. And maybe for the same reason I don’t eat fish, I feel a twinge in my stomach like I’ve harmed one of my own—a phantom of some aching pain, the way one twin winces when another stubs her toe. I wolf down the rest of the cereal and sling my backpack over my shoulder.
See you later, Mom.
Don’t miss the bus.
Biology class, freshman year, our teacher made us draw Punnett
squares and pedigrees for every trait we thought might be hereditary, passed from generation to generation like a shared secret. I chose Obsession With Death. I am not sure what allele this is but I know there’s no external expression. Grandma’s got it for sure (the bugs—you’ll see). Dad, too (obituaries). Priscilla’s going to cosmetology school to become a mortician. And my circle is the one on the left.
Sometimes I am so scared of the space I take up. On the first day of third grade, Ms. Willis asked us if we could have any superpower what would it be. I said, Invisibility and she said, Ooh, sneaky! and in seven years my answer has not changed. I forget that other people can see me. Walking down the hallway, I expect to weave between backpacks and elbows like a tendril of steam. Washing my hands in the bathroom sink, I am startled to see my eyes sliced in the mirror, startled when another girl says, You’re so pretty! or, I love your shoes! the way that other girls do when it’s just us, alone, standing by the stalls. In winter, when I wake with chapped cheeks, I bring my knuckles beneath my nose and am surprised to pull my hand back warm and red. I pick the scabs until I bleed again—just to check. I find frozen-over puddles and toe the surface, watch pockets of air move beneath the shell. I hate when people look at me, hate when others unpeel my skin and trace the bends of my body—because there are days, I think, that I am such a sheet-ghost: two eyes scissored out, all of me bound by threaded seams, so easily broken. Tug one and I will unravel.
By French class, the growth has spread to my ears. I keep my hair around my face so the fuzziness isn’t a problem, and under the fluorescents we all look green. I’m not sure anyone would’ve seen if I hadn’t leaned over, head in hand, because when I pull back a grub wriggles in the sole of my palm. It latches onto my skin and digs. I don’t bleed, but something salty oozes around the wound. I tuck my fingers in my pocket.
Beside me, Kathy B. raises her hand, long arm stretching like a slinky unstrung. Madame, she says, il y a un asticot dans l’oreille de cette fille. Which means, loosely, Madame, there is a maggot in this girl’s ear. I guess Kathy B. doesn’t know that snitches get stitches. Madame straightens, huffs, and tells me to see the nurse. I almost ask for a hall pass but remember my oozing worm hand so instead, I leave all my things at my desk and go.
The whole maggot thing becomes kind of a health concern. Parents are angry. So that day, the school will be tested for lice. The nurse will slap see-through gloves onto her fingers and walk up and down the halls, white sneakers squeaking. In every class, the students will line up and plop in the chair one-by-one while she feels around their follicles like she’s digging for rooted weeds in a garden. With every student declared parasite-free the next one will sit, bite their lip, and she will begin her search.
A list of creatures with translucent bodies:
1. Glass octopus (Vitreledonella richardi)
2. Moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita)
3. Sea walnut (Mnemiopsis leidyi)
4. Ghost shrimp (Palaemonetes)
A list of creatures with decomposing bodies:
2. Everything (?)
My skin flakes as I walk to the nurse. Plates of biocrust crumble and fill the cracks of the tile, more maggots dribbling from every orifice: my nose, my ears, a few even wiggling out from behind my eyes. The hole in my palm sprouts with new fungi and in my mouth, grassy shoots grow to the touch—crawling my cheeks and itching down the hem of my shirt, collecting in the divot of my clavicle. By the time I reach her office, its antibiotic smell and yellow walls, half of my body has littered a trail leading right up to the backs of my Converse.
The nurse takes my temperature first. The decay in my mouth makes the typical under-the-tongue routine difficult, so she swipes something across my forehead and the numbers read 96.8. A little on the cooler side, she tells me, but nothing a bag of saltine crackers won’t fix.
Before my grandma passed, Priscilla and I used to sneak up to her attic when the rest of the house slept. I memorized the way the room breathed at night—the creak and whine of something cardboard, something decades dead. How dust floated in fingers of dappled light, the exposed bulb humming. Priscilla took my hand, her skin sunscreen-soft, and led me to the tables where Grandma kept her collection: glass jars fuzzed in a fine layer of dust, bees and flies and hornets suspended in the jelly like pickled eggs. On the walls, framed behind smudges on the glass, moths and dragonflies splayed their veiny wings. Pushpins pierced their bodies to the fabric.
I asked, Are those real?
Priscilla said, Yes but no.
The bodies are real, she explained, but that’s it. And she held a jar right to my nose so I could feel the cool glass, look inside, trace the glaze on the prismed eye of a horsefly. And in its deadened stare I swore I understood: this shell, this fossil, could never be more than a ghost of something that used to stretch its wings and bite.
I don’t go back to class. The saltines crinkle in my pocket and I enter the girls’ bathroom. Today, there is no one to say You’re pretty! or I love your shoes! I sit in the handicap stall, feet planted, and I wait. Someone has drawn a penis on the back of the door. It doesn’t take long before cobwebs creep from the crevices and floss a cotton-candy nest around my stomach, my thighs. The maggots writhe. Fungal buds break from the skin linking my toes and soon, sitting on the toilet in my high school bathroom, I feel my body crystallize.