There are days, over the baby crying, when I still think I hear Mary Butcher calling from the broken-out basement windows of the ranch house at the end of the cul-de-sac. I tell myself that this is impossible but when I close my eyes I see her, swallowed up by the wet darkness in the hollows of the window-wells. Behind the teeth of shattered glass she has kept the wide moon face of the child on the missing posters, the ones her mother used to staple to the utility poles on Downer’s Court at the end of every month—new Mary Butchers tacked over old Mary Butchers, torn Mary Butchers, Mary Butchers with their faces worn away. The posters are years gone, but their tacked and torn-away corners leave a ghost frame for Mary Butcher, looking back at me from the weathered wood. She is there on the poles, and she is there in the shadows of the basement, and when she calls to me it is with a girl’s mouth, still—down-turned and ruddy and mad. In twenty-five years, I have gotten old, but Mary Butcher has not.
My daughter used to play Mary Butcher with her cousins in the safety of the afternoon, turning with the other children on whoever is fairest in the circle and carrying that one screaming and laughing to the end of the cul-de-sac. But she didn’t know the meaning of the name, really, or why you’ll still hear the oldest of the grandmothers whisper it when the sky purples, when the lowering sun turns the ranch house at the end of the street into the shadow of something crouched on its haunches and waiting for food. There was a time when anyone in the neighborhood could tell you who Mary Butcher was and how she was lost. They wouldn’t, though—not any more than they would tell her red-eyed mother, making her pilgrimage through the miasma of garlic and honey wine that filters the sunlight on our end of the street. She stopped only to staple her lost daughter into the telephone poles and to glare at the grandmothers roasting sides of goat over the driveway fire pits. The people here keep their lips sewn up like the enchanted boy in that old story, the one whose tongue was turned into a moth.
Mary Butcher wasn’t from our neighborhood, but we all knew her. She was notorious for two things: a game of tetherball in which she had unapologetically knocked out the front teeth of a substitute teacher on the first day of school, and her shined-up Mary Janes that, it was said, reflected her underwear like two small black mirrors. We had just finished sixth grade at Redding Elementary, where my reflection in the slick yellow floors showed me and all of rest of us from Downer’s Court as we really were—small and dark and ill-equipped for that place. We kept our eyes on our boots, or, god forbid, our wood clogs, and made ourselves even smaller there, pulling our hands into the sleeves of passed-down cardigans knit by the long-dead. For years I had sat a desk back from Mary Butcher, yoked to her by the first letter of my last name. The safest posture in class was head down, hunched over a three-ring binder and furiously shading pencil dragons in the margins of the page. The pink line of skin that showed between Mary Butcher’s pigtails was like a path that led into the whorl of white-blonde hair at the nape of her neck, and when I looked up I used to imagine myself lost there, hands on either wall of a labyrinth that smelled of strawberry chapstick and nail polish.
I had just turned twelve and assumed my place as an elder in the thick confusion of cousins and siblings on the cul-de-sac. The well-leafed trees shaded the asphalt and made September and seventh grade a far off impossibility. The summer was ours. We kicked our clogs into the gutters and blackened in the sun like the goat sides whose drippings in the driveway fire pits made the air smell like all-day dinner. The bottoms of our feet were harder than concrete or crab grass and the only thing we had to fear was the ranch house at the end of the street, the one the grandmothers carted the hooves and offal to as the moon rose, the one our parents warned us about.
The first afternoon she came, we were sucking on ice chips and playing cat’s catch, a game of metal hooks and glass beads that the grandmothers had taught us. We felt her before we saw her, something uneasy at the top of the street. The game stopped as one dark head after another turned to the mouth of the cul-de-sac.
What was Mary Butcher doing there, standing on the hexed and sun-cracked pavement at the top of Downer’s Court? She wore a white and yellow dress with a kitten on it and held a red ball under one arm. It looked heavy and hard to throw. She stood there for a long moment before she spoke, long enough for us to turn back into our circle and pretend not to see her. We went through the motions of the game, trying to remember the rules. Mary Butcher made her way down the middle of the street, bouncing the ball and catching it again.
“Hey,” she called, in a voice that made us brace ourselves to be hit, “What are you playing?” Some of the girls left the group and drifted noiselessly into the shrubbery, making ghosts of themselves as Mary Butcher approached. She set the ball squarely on the pavement and kicked it in our direction. It rolled to a stop at my bent knees. Still, I can’t say what overtook me, what made me slip the glass catcher into my skirt pocket and stand with her ball in my hands. We were the same height, both of us, the first girls in our grade to get tall.
“We’re busy,” I said, and registered the shock of my own voice on the quiet street. Behind me, my cousins slipped into a solid mass, like small fish arranging themselves into a larger, more fearsome one. Mary Butcher’s eyes narrowed at me and she stretched her thin arms skyward, clasping her palms together behind her head with her elbows stuck out. In kitchen windows all down the street, I saw curtains move where the grandmothers were watching.
“Let me play,” she said, “I’m good at games.” She looked around me to the hooks and beads scattered across the star chalked on the pavement. The catcher, warmed in our hands, was cooling in my skirt pocket, heavy against my leg. The rules had taken me months to learn and I still sometimes forgot them: what to do with the red beads, how the direction of play switched after the hooks were thrown. The game was ours, something we had labored to know since we were crawling.
“We’re not playing anything,” I told her, and as I stepped back into our playing field I felt the crunch of glass beads under my shoe.
“Then give me the ball.” She held her hands out for it and I threw it to her. The moment it had left my fingers she returned it, violently, into the V of my sternum. I doubled over and looked for my breath. “You’re it,” she said.
The game was something like dodge ball, with ill-defined rules and Mary Butcher almost always holding the ball. The late-summer sun in her spun-glass hair made her a radiant destroyer. The smallest of us were felled quickly by her unforgiving volleys, and after a half-hour of play we were uniformly wounded and spent. I sat next to her on the curb and watched a latticework of blood pulse beneath the white skin on her knees.
“Good game,” she said. I could feel a bad welt rising on my thigh but I was no stranger to a good thrashing. I nodded in reply. Mary Butcher looked over her shoulder at the failing afternoon sun and unwound the elastic band from one of her pigtails. “Want to play that other game? The one you were playing before?”
She was looking at our court, its chalk lines bleeding dust where her red ball had hit. “I’d better go in,” I said, watching her comb her fingers through her fine fair hair and re-secure it neatly at her ear. “My mother.”
She shrugged, turned her back on us and, with the red ball under one arm, made her way up the street. The cul-de-sac spat her out and she didn’t look back. We watched for a long time the space where she had been.
“I hope she never comes back,” said one of my cousins, who had spent most of the game hiding under a porch.
“She’s not so bad,” I said.
“She’s crazy. If she ever does come back,” he told me, rubbing his elbows with his palms and shuddering in the heat, “You can have her.”
One of the smaller girls lowered herself from an ash tree, bare feet revealing themselves first, then the knobs of her knees. She dropped into the grass and made herself into a ball. “If she ever comes back,” she said, “We should feed her to the Skoria.” Immediately, she looked guilty, and we spat and muttered a protection under our collective breath. The word raised the hair on our necks. It was a shudder that began and ended in the house at the end of the street, its dark porch light and its dead yard and its curtains unmoving against the glass.
That night, I listened to the gentle singing of the old women as they bent to shove offal and hooves through the broken basement windows of the dark ranch. My mother turned on the nightlight and sat with me while I ate one of the hard lemon cakes that warded off bad dreams. When she left, the summer air was still full of the old songs, and when I shut my eyes I saw Mary Butcher’s afterimage, a dark shape at the top of the street, bleeding light from white patent-leather shoes.
The next morning, I sulked over my mush, scraping my spoon against the bottom of the bowl like I would find something better down there. Mary Butcher was probably eating sugar cereal. She probably got to eat so much of it that she smelled, up close, like hard colored marshmallows shaped like horseshoes or hearts. She probably tasted the way I imagined Capri Sun did, pushing up red from its crimped silver pouch. In the traditional way, I dropped three currants into the bowl and asked my morning question. All three sunk into the gruel and I knew they told the truth—Mary Butcher would never come back to Downer’s Court, would never want to play with me again. The welt on my thigh throbbed in confirmation.
My mother ran her fingers through my hair. “Why so grim?” she asked.
“Stupid breakfast,” I said.
“You’ve never had any complaints about breakfast before.”
I answered her by knocking my goat’s milk over and getting sent to my room. I stayed there all morning, winding my boats and my wood griffins, making battle on the edge of my nightstand while my mother rinsed out the tablecloth. She opened my door without knocking at noon.
“You can come out, unless you’re too proud for lunch,” she said. I was too shamed to reply and laid on the rug imagining constellations in the spackle until the afternoon, when I heard Mary Butcher’s voice pulled in by the box fan in my open window.
I jumped to my feet and watched her through the spinning blades. Two small boys sat petrified on the curb in front of my house and I saw her eyes move in the direction of their timid pointing. Today she wore red, a collared shirt and matching shorts, with white socks up around her calves. Was it possible? Was she looking for me? I ran from my room, threw open the front door and blinked, eyes blasted by sunshine and by her.
“Hey,” she said, pulling a red Fruit Roll-Up thin between her fingers.
“Where’s the ball?” I asked, affecting a tone of great disinterest.
“I have another game. If you want to play.”
I looked back at the curb. The boys were gone. Downer’s Court was empty and I knew we were being watched, from the bushes and the tree houses and the kitchen windows. She pushed the candy partway into her mouth and let the rest droop over her chin like blood.
“What kind of game is it?” I asked her. She licked her lips.
“A following game.”
I looked back at my house and when I turned my head again Mary Butcher was halfway up the street, her pigtails trailing behind her like the streamers on the handlebars of her pink bicycle, the one I had often watched her ride away from Redding Elementary at the end of the day. I followed her.
Wordlessly, all afternoon, I followed Mary Butcher. I followed her across the train tracks that abutted our neighborhood and into the new development where piles of lumber loomed alongside the earthmovers on lunch break, their yellow teeth sunk in fresh cuts of soil. I followed Mary Butcher through a culvert and got water in my socks, and then scrambled after her up the side of the ravine that opened up to the ball fields of our summer-shuttered elementary school. I followed her across the monkey bars and across the painted map of the United States in four colors on the asphalt, jumping as she did pointedly onto our town and grinding the toe of my shoe into it. I walked a few steps behind her down High Street and into the corner store where the clerk kept a careful enough eye on me that Mary Butcher was able to steal several handfuls of bulk candy, and as I followed her across the town square I bent to pick up the cellophane wrapped starlight mints she dropped for me along the uneven brick sidewalk. I followed her into the overgrown garden of the convalescent home and kept my eyes down, as she did, while we passed the row of tiny, quiet men in short sleeved pastel shirts and khaki pants staring unfixedly into the small and unkempt yard.
I caught up with her again at the chain link fence on the other end of the garden and watched from a respectful distance as she struggled to scale it. I did not move to help her and I could tell from the way she glanced back at me when she cleared the fence and bent to adjust her white socks that this had been the right choice. We picked our way over thistles and sun-faded beer cans and then I followed her across the street, dodging mini-busses and an ice cream truck, and into the cavernous mouth of Saint Michael’s. Silently, we wound our way through the empty pews like the slaloming line for a roller coaster, and at the very front of the church Mary Butcher stepped deliberately onto the altar and touched every icon on its marble face. I studied her and did as she did—the nose of the virgin, Peter’s chin, the blank white eyes of the thorn-crowned Christ.
When we passed backwards along the stations of the cross and left the church it was nearly dinner time, but Mary Butcher turned the wrong way on the sidewalk and walked west, towards the line of demarcation where our town ceased to be ours and became a hostile stretch of dry cleaners and failing chain stores. It was too late for this. I took a few steps after her and then I said, in a voice so small she couldn’t have heard it, “I’d better be getting back.” She kept walking. “I’d better be getting back,” I said, louder this time, and stopped at the fence that marked the far edge of the church. Mary Butcher didn’t stop. I looked at the sun—it had to be nearly six. It was Friday, so my mother would be making summer stew, my favorite. I hadn’t eaten since breakfast and my body was hollowed out by the thought of dinner.
Mary Butcher ran across the street without checking for traffic and, as a line of cars passed between us, I saw her push open the glass door of White Castle. Her red shape disappeared into the glare of the windows. I sat, paralyzed, imagining what she might be doing in there. I reached uselessly into my pockets but of course I had no money. I had never even been allowed in a White Castle but now I imagined Mary Butcher counting her change from the slit mouth of a red rubber coin catcher. Being handed a hamburger. Surely she would be out any minute and we would walk back together, and when she offered me a bite of her White Castle I would say, yes, yes, yes.
When the glass door swung open, she had a white paper bag in one hand and a soda in the other. She brought the straw to her lips. She did not look at me, but stepped into the sidewalk and began to head west, away from town, into the slowly lowering sun. I watched her until she turned a corner and was gone, and then I began to run home. I was late for dinner and had dirtied my good boots, but the thrashing I got didn’t stop me from imagining, as I spooned up the yellow squash and lemon peel, Mary Butcher’s mouth closing around the soft steamed middle of that tiny hamburger.
The next day the doorbell rang, and the sound of it made everyone in the house sit up straight in wonder and alarm. No one rang the doorbell. You walked in, and if you couldn’t walk in because the door locked, which was rare, or because you were drunk or lame or otherwise incapacitated, which was less rare, you shouted and banged until the door was opened to you. Doorbells were suspicious, untrustworthy, a reminder of what the cul-de-sac had been before it was ours. And yet, our doorbell was ringing.
“I’ll get it!” I shouted, and sprang up from the drawing I had been making of Mary Butcher’s down-turned mouth. My mother emerged from the kitchen, eyes wet from chopping onions, wiping her forearms on her apron. She stood behind me with a butcher’s knife in one hand and the other at her throat as I turned the knob. There she was.
“Hello,” she said, “I’m Mary,” waving her fair hand at my mother and then nodding to me. “We’re friends from school,” she said, and the look in her eye made it clear that she regarded me as a co-conspirator in this hilarious lie. She asked me if I wanted to play and I looked over my shoulder at my mother, whose jaw hung agape at Mary Butcher, standing like an apparition, colorless and backlit, at our doorstep. She wore a clean white T-shirt and jeans that looked new.
“Just be back for dinner,” my mother said, looking at me as if she hadn’t seen me in a long time. I waited for Mary Butcher to lead us away from the house, to see where I would follow her today, but instead she stepped inside.
“What’s that smell?” she asked. “It smells good in here.” My mother had just brewed ginger tea and now it was cooling in a tall glass jar in the sun, the smell of it mixing with the beginnings of Saturday feast. Mary Butcher walked over to the jar in the window and breathed. I saw my mother slip her scarf down from her forehead and readjust her dark hair so that it fell over her shoulders.
“Here, Mary,” my mother said, “Have some. Have a seat, both of you.” We sat down across from each other at the front table and I slid my drawings under my placemat while the ice clanked into glasses in the kitchen. The tea still held some warmth from the kettle and when my mother poured it for us the ice popped. She carried the smell of crushed onions on her skin and it made the tea taste different, sweeter by comparison. Mary Butcher sipped the glass thoughtfully while my mother watched us from the other side of the table. Sometimes she would open her mouth like she wanted to ask something but then she would bring the glass to her lips and drink.
“This is very good,” Mary Butcher said when she was finished, “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” my mother said. Mary Butcher wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and looked down the hall.
“Show me your room,” she said.
As we disappeared down that poorly-lit hallway, flanked on both sides by pictures of me and my brothers and sisters getting taller, I imagined that my mother could see through my clothes and my skin and watch my heart clenching up. I winced as Mary Butcher looked at the wall and traced one white finger over a photo of me, last year’s body, dressed in the traditional way, the red dress and the crown of spring branches, one hand between the horns of a goat with its face marked for slaughter. She did not comment.
Inside my room, Mary Butcher didn’t speak to me, she just made a slow circle around the outside of the room, hands clasped behind her back, running everything over with her eyes. She stopped a long time in front of the bookcase where I kept my tin cities and my atlases. Finally, she spoke.
“Haven’t you ever won anything?” she asked. I shrugged. “Most kids have trophies,” she said, looking expectantly at my bookcase.
I looked at the box fan like there was a secret hidden in the movement of its blades. “I don’t care about trophies.”
“I do,” she said. I looked back at her and suddenly her face was so close to me I could barely see it. She kept her hands in the pockets of her jeans as she leaned even closer and suddenly her mouth was on mine. Her lips were cold from the tea and she tasted the way my mother smelled at night, all ginger. It was over in a moment and I looked away.
“Can I stay for dinner?” she asked.
“I have to ask my mother,” I said.
“She won’t mind.” Mary Butcher reached into the front pocket of her blue jeans and extracted a black pouch of Pop Rocks. I did as she did—slid down against the side of my unmade bed and let my bent knee rest against hers. She tore open the package. “Put out your tongue,” she said, and when I did she raised her hand and tapped the hard thin edge of the package so that the candy fell into my mouth like rain. My lips were dry and as she finished the rest of the bag the sugar started to crackle and burn on my tongue. We laughed and we opened our mouths and the sound of us together filled my bedroom.
Saturday feast meant that the already significant gathering of my immediate family was compounded by my grandmothers, two maiden aunts, and my Uncle Rummy, so named for the rattling, ice-filled thermos he carried that made his breath smell like sour coconut. Mary Butcher and I spent all afternoon in the yard throwing rocks at grackles while the sounds of preparations for the meal issued from the kitchen, my mother stepping occasionally onto the porch to ask Mary Butcher if she liked garlic or husk tomatoes.
“I like everything,” Mary Butcher told her, now working my hair into a French braid, “I’m not a picky eater.” Her pink-enameled fingers were sharp against my scalp.
“Did you let your mother know you’re staying?” my mother asked her. Mary Butcher nodded though I knew she was lying and the screen door swung shut.
“Your hair is hard to braid,” she told me. I bit back the urge to yell as she ran her fingers through a tangle. “You’re not supposed to wash it every day.”
She pulled so hard at my temples that my eyes started to water, and when she was finished she took her Walkman out of her backpack and offered me one side of her pink headphones. Fully extended, they fit from her left ear to my right with our cheeks pressed together. We listened to Michael Jackson in halved stereo until the tape clicked over and then we drew a hopscotch court in the empty street and played with two smooth stones from the gutter. I worried that I had drawn the boxes too small at the end, eleven and twelve, but my feet fit perfectly into them, and in the lowering sun I doubled over at the end of the court, slipped the rock from the asphalt back into my palm, and stood. My skin felt tight and clean where my hair was pulled back from my face.
When we sat down at the table to chant the blessing, Mary Butcher kept her eyes down, solemn, and gave one hand to me and the other to my favorite grandmother, Nana Tanza, who was seated on her right. Her fingers were cool in my hand and I stumbled over the words, forgetting entirely that I was the youngest girl at the meal and missing my prescribed lines until Uncle Rummy kicked me under the table.
After blessing, my mother distributed plates, stopping as she handed one to Mary Butcher. “Everyone,” she said, “This is Mary, who is joining us for Saturday feast.”
There was some vague muttering as everyone stood to line up at the credenza and serve ourselves. While the adults had chosen to ignore Mary Butcher’s presence entirely, my brothers and sisters were silent and rapt by her, eyeing her as if she were a jaguar perched on one of our rattling dining room chairs, tucking a napkin into its spotted lap.
“How many people are in your family?” she asked me. I shrugged.
“I think I’m related to everyone here. I mean, everyone here in the neighborhood.” Our grandmothers had settled here a generation back in a pall of forgotten languages and wood smoke, casting the evil eye at the neighbors and turning chunks of goat meat slowly on spits in the backyards on the holy days. After a few seasons of this everyone else on the cul-de-sac had fled, leaving only us, and the grandmothers started roasting their goat right in the driveways.
“I’m not related to anybody,” Mary Butcher said. The line shifted forward and I felt my stomach growl in anticipation.
“What about your parents?”
“My mom?” She frowned, taking her hands from the pockets of her blue jeans and examining her nail polish. “No. Probably not.”
We had reached the credenza now and the smell of the meal made my head blurry. I could almost imagine being lonely—having no cousins, having no feasts. I tried to give Mary Butcher a sympathetic look when Nana Tanza looked over her shoulder and frowned, edging a thin metal spatula under a roasted sardine longer than my hand. “A braid,” she said. I felt the blood rise in my cheeks. The dark fish worked itself apart under the pressure of movement, its back opening up like a mouth and revealing a row of long, thin bones.
“She did it,” I said, nodding at Mary Butcher with an admiring smile. But she was watching the sardines.
“That fish has eyes,” she whispered to me. Nana Tanza slid the fish onto her own plate and the spatula clanked against the metal roasting pan when she set it down.
Nana Tanza winked at me. “Very grown up.” She moved on to ladle borscht over her potatoes. “Nice.”
I smiled and stepped down the line. “You can take one,” I said, as Mary Butcher stared at the plate of fish. She shook her head.
“I don’t want that,” she said. “Do you eat that?”
Mary Butcher was leaning into me, incredulous, like we shared a secret. I looked from her solemn face to the buffet and something like panic began to rise in me as I saw it with her. All the food had faces and showed its bones. It reeked of garlic and seeped orange oil onto the silver. Behind us, Uncle Rummy had set aside his thermos and was tucking into the carafe of beet wine Nana Tanza had brought, which meant it was only a matter of time before he started yelling about Socialism. My family began to close in around me like heavy rope.
“I don’t eat any of this,” I told her, taking exactly what she took, three slices of garlic bread and a baked apple, which we both poked at carefully, sliding the most visible raisins back into the pan. I forced my hand back from the roast fennel and the goat stew, the horseradish shavings heaped pungent in a glass bowl. We took our seats and I prayed that in the din my failure to eat would be ignored but Nana Tanza looked across Mary Butcher and fixed her eyes on my plate.
“Not hungry,” she said. I shrugged and looked at my lap. “No roast for you, even?” she asked, frowning, running her mouth over the thin white spine of her sardine and then turning her interest to my younger brothers, who fought each other to sop the leavings from the fish pan up with dark bread. Mary Butcher didn’t speak to me for the length of the meal, but finished what she had taken and then ran the tines of her fork slowly over the scalloped edge of her plate. I concentrated fiercely on not making eye contact with my mother and all I could hear was the sound of my family sucking scale from bone.
After the plates had been cleaned and the feast declared a success, Uncle Rummy brought out the concertina and began to play the traditional after-dinner dirge. Nana Tanza’s voice could save me, still, I thought, as she began to sing alone the saddest, gravest tune, all in forgotten words whose meaning was still clear—you could hear her leaving so many places in the way she sang. The table was silent and her voice found a place to live in my empty stomach, and when I looked over at Mary Butcher I could see that she, too, was hearing this song, the mournful wheeze of the concertina opening and closing like breath.
Then Nana Tanza coughed. Rummy vamped while she held up a knobby finger and placed it against the roof of her mouth. One of my maiden aunts wiped her eyes and lit a clove cigarette while Nana Tanza slid her top teeth into the palm of one hand and coughed the charred fin of a sardine out into the other. We watched her set the fin down on the stained tablecloth and slip the teeth back into her mouth, clicking her jaws experimentally before she began again to sing. Mary Butcher’s jaw hung open. She pushed her chair back from the table.
“I have to go,” she said. The song continued. My mother stood up, unsteady from the wine.
“Mary,” she said, “You’ll miss dessert.”
“Thank you for having me.”
“Do you need a ride home?” she asked. Mary Butcher shook her head and I followed her to the door, the music still loud behind us. My mother watched from the table.
“I’m starving,” she said, slipping three dollars out of her pocket and thumbing through the bills. I imagined convincing her to stay, then counted it against the other horrors my family had in store. They would start dancing, soon. We would give our bones to the dog and then when there was nearly nothing left we would watch Nana Tanza march with her jug of beet wine and her foil-covered casserole dish to the ranch house at the bottom of the cul-de-sac, joined by the other grandmothers from the other Saturday feasts, and in the starlight they would pass the best cuts of goat meat through the broken basement windows and finish the wine while the Skoria ate. Mary Butcher opened the screen door and we stood there for a moment with it gaping between us, letting the bugs in.
“Is that really your grandmother?” Her voice was low and her face serious.
The answer was coming out of my mouth even as the silence fell. I wanted it to cut me loose from this warm orange room so that she would take me with her, gliding past the smoked-beet stench of our cul-de-sac on white rollerskates with glitter laces. The dirge wheezed to a close just as my voice became the only sound in the room. “She’s not really my grandmother,” I said, “That’s just what we call them.”
The screen door swung shut between us. The white glare of the porch light set her apart from the darkness, just Mary Butcher and mayflies and moths making crazy looping efforts against the night. The entire table, with their slick orange mouths and grease-stained pants, turned to watch me as my words settled into the silence. My face burned. Mary Butcher stepped out of the pool of light and I heard her Mary Janes clacking against the driveway.
There was a right thing to say, I thought, to this audience of family, something I could spin into the silence of the dining room to make them love me again. I tried to pull those right words out of my empty belly but I was silenced by the short bleat of the concertina as Uncle Rummy set it down in his lap and unscrewed his thermos top. Nana Tanza pulled her babushka tight under her chin and turned her face away from me. The stillness was long and unbearable, but worse still was the scream of my maiden aunt’s chair against the linoleum as she stood and rounded the table. Without looking at me, she set her cigarette between her teeth. She picked up my napkin where it had fallen by my chair, stacked my plate and glass on top of Mary Butcher’s, and took the pile into the kitchen. While the sink ran, Nana Tanza pushed our two chairs away from the table and the family resettled itself, scooting their seats closer to fill the emptiness.
“Rummy,” Nana Tanza said, “Let’s have another song.”
I took one last look at my chair, askew by the window. With the music at my back, I went to my room and shut the door behind me. Leaning close to the mirror, I looked at my face until the hard edge of my dresser began to cut into my hips and then I put my fingers to the sides of my head and tried to tuck stray lengths of hair back into the braid. For hours, I listened as the party dispersed, waiting for my mother’s knock. I imagined that she would bring me a slice of berry cake and rub my back while I ate it. But she did not come, and I went to bed hungry.
After that, a week passed in agony with no sign of her. The rest of the cousins were relieved and began to play normally again, forgetting to look over their shoulders for Mary Butcher, but her voice came from the blades of the box fan in my dreams. News of my betrayal spread through the neighborhood and no one would talk to me but my mother. Even her conversation seemed begrudging. I had never been lonely before and the summer days found a new, unwelcome length. Grandmothers drew hexes in the dry grass and muttered curses at me when I left my yard, and Nana Tanza did not visit us, even on my brother’s birthday, which made him tie knots in all my shoelaces while I slept. I didn’t protest when my scooter was stolen, just became wan and listless, lying in the dry grass in my front lawn, drinking gallons of ginger tea and letting the sun burn green circles into the backs of my eyes while games of feed-the-fish and magic lantern raged on around me.
When I had become sufficiently sun-cooked, my mother sat next to me in the sharp lawn. She held an ancient bottle of SPF abandoned under the bathroom sink years ago by some pale visitor. We sat for a moment in the buzzing quiet that had become familiar in my house since the feast. Finally, she spoke.
“You can’t just lie in the grass all summer,” she said.
I didn’t answer.
“You’ll be like the love-sick herdsman who was carried off by buzzards.” She banged on the underside of the bottle and the lotion was cool and unresisting where she rubbed it across my nose and cheeks. She used her thumbs to press the last of it into the thin ridges of my ears. She wiped her hands on her skirt, stretched her legs out next to mine and leaned back on her elbows. She hadn’t touched me all week.
“What was he supposed to do instead?” I asked.
“He was supposed to not steal all that gold from the goblins when he was a child,” she told me. We preferred punitive stories to instructive ones. She pushed my hair away from my face and rubbed the last spot of sunscreen into my nose.
“Get up,” she said.
I did. War-painted, I stood and began to walk up the street, out of the cul-de-sac.
My feet knew where they were going before my brains did. As I left Downer’s Court, I could feel the eyes of all the grandmothers on the back of my neck, hotter than sunburn. Solo journeys of this sort were out of the ordinary. When I turned the corner at the top of the street, I knew what my feet were thinking about: the Redding Elementary phone directory my mother kept in the junk drawer, the one I thumbed clandestinely while she made breakfast. Mary Butcher was near the top of the page, after me. She was in bold, listed with her mother’s name, a phone number, and an address on Bonstedt Road, less than a mile from my house.
It was impossibly easy, I realized, as I crossed the street. There was no reason I shouldn’t be here—here, where already the air seemed cleaner. The sky was more aggressively blue and the leaves on the trees caught the light with a clarity that made me dizzy. This was the way I walked to school, but I had never been this way before, not with her at the end of it. If we couldn’t be friends on Downer’s Court, I would tell her, then I would follow her to another place. The world was huge, swollen with games to play, with places where we could drink soda and play MASH in her notebook and watch music videos together. Around my neck I could feel the imagined weight of the split heart necklace we would exchange:
on my half, on hers.
After a few minutes I saw her and my stomach turned over with excitement. She had a pair of stilts and played alone in her front yard, occasionally tipping herself over and falling scowling into the grass. She didn’t see me walking down the sidewalk, or if she did she pretended not to. In the driveway across the street, three tall, blonde boys made slap shots into a hockey goal chalked out on their garage door, punctuating the afternoon with the hollow thwack of puck against wood.
When I reached her yard, she was up on the stilts and had to shift her weight between them to keep her balance. She wore a red and white checkered swim suit under cutoff shorts and from the neighbor’s lawn a whirring sprinkler made a wet circle along the edge of the sidewalk. I stood at a distance to avoid its spray and pulled at the hem of my dress so that it fell straight and hopeful against my knees.
“What are you doing?” I asked. With the sun behind her I couldn’t see her face, and as she moved in and out of the light I had to squint and shield my eyes. She didn’t answer. Across the street, the three boys swore in unison as they lost their puck in the sideyard. When she turned her head to follow the sound of their voices I saw her smile like she knew she was being watched. Two of the boys glanced over their shoulders at us and then joined the third in a slumping search of the daylilies that grew along the side of the house.
The game stopped, the only sound was the click-click-click-click-whirring of the sprinkler resetting itself and starting again its slow rotation. She dropped one stilt so that it clattered onto the sidewalk and tottered on the one that remained for a moment before she tipped over and we were the same height again. Her feet were bare and her hair was still wet. One of the boys shouted in triumph and held the puck over his head. “Do you want to come over?” I asked.
“Good job,” Mary Butcher shouted across the street. The boy grinned and waved to her with his free hand. The puck clattered against the driveway and the game resumed as an understanding rose up in my throat like bile. She didn’t want to play with me. Of course she didn’t! Whatever passing magic had made her set her well-shined Mary Janes in my rancid corner of the earth had been temporary, a promise written in henna. She sank one hand into her wet hair and shook it out. Droplets fell from her like rainwater. “What did you say?” she asked.
One of the boys turned away from the game and shouted across the street: “Hey, Mary!” As she looked away from me I reached out for her—her skin was damp and flushed and as she turned her head back in my direction I thought I could feel her heart beating in her wrist.
“Come back and I’ll show you something,” I said, and immediately I knew I was doomed. I could only think of one thing and it was the thing I wasn’t allowed to say, it was the thing I had kept sewn up in my mouth since I was old enough to speak. Mary Butcher held her one stilt at her side like a spear and waited. We were watched by the boy at the end of his driveway and the sprinkler sprayed across her white ankles but she didn’t move.
“What kind of something?” she asked.
This is what I told her as I watched her hair drying in the sun: they had brought the Skoria over in a crate of earth from the country the babushkaed grandmothers looked out of in ghost photographs, epic lines of siblings positioned by height, all those old woman heads stuck on young woman bodies. We had grown up terrified of its unnatural appetites, its loathsome gullet. Our parents threatened us with it when we missed curfew or asked for the clothes we saw on television. In her neat green lawn, in the near-shade of a crabapple tree, I told her how it howls in the night as it feeds, how it covets youth and gold and goat meat.
“When it eats,” I said, approximating with my own voice the hushed tones my mother had used to say these same words, “its mouth is like a pit of needles.” Nana Tanza leaned in when she told me this, widening her fingers towards my face so that I looked through her hands like a tunnel. “Bottomless. A thousand points of pain. And in the center, the tongue: ragged, stinking of old meat and old dirt.”
She glanced across the street. The boys had resumed their game, the heavy slap and drag of the plastic stick along hot asphalt. “Why would they want a monster in the basement?” she asked. I tightened my grip on her wrist. Her skin was soft, smooth like warm stone. I had asked my Nana Tanza the same question when I was young. They could have left it behind when they came but they didn’t, she said, they packed it up in a crate of dirt and brought it with them. Even here, in the wide green flatness of Mary Butcher’s yard, I could feel the Skoria’s hunger reaching out for me. That wasn’t all, though—under the hunger was something futile and ruined, so hollow it would be swept away if it didn’t hold onto something. They brought it, I knew, to sing back, to tell the cinnamon-scented stories of where we came from. It was our monster, irrefutable proof that we were from somewhere else, beholden to something larger than the gentle curve of sidewalk at the base of the cul-de-sac. What we were was too big for this place.
I could see it if I closed my eyes. From the awful creases of its skin the clumps of old earth were always falling, falling, unfamiliar dirt used up by crops of weak potatoes, soil good only for burying the dead. “I’ll show you tonight,” I said, “I promise. If you come over after dinner. After dark.”
She looked back at her house. The dimness behind the drawn curtains in the front window made me think it was empty.
“I’ll think about it,” she said, and as she turned away from me I knew she would come. The puck hit the garage door with a sound like an explosion and the boys cheered. To speak of the Skoria to an outsider, you might as well put your hands in the thresher, but I didn’t care, I would let Mary Butcher put me on a spit and turn me, turn me, turn me.
It was very dark when Mary Butcher finally arrived. I had gone to bed early and snuck out my bedroom window in my best shirt and the pants that looked the least like hand-me-downs—though of course they were hand-me-downs, boys’ pants from a cousin who had since become a sailor, tired of it, and returned to have children of his own. Those children would get the pants next.
I waited in the shadow of a hedge at the top of the cul-de-sac, the place where she had first appeared with the red ball, listening for the sharp fall of her Mary Janes on concrete. Her shirt was navy and made her pale arms and neck glow white. I ducked out of the bush and walked at her side without speaking. She didn’t know where we were headed but still I felt I was following her. Halfway down the street she stopped.
“Where is it?” she asked. I stepped in front of her and took her hand. When she started to pull it back, I held tighter. At the house at the end of the street, I stopped.
“This is the place,” I said. She appraised the house and frowned as she pulled her hand away. My palms were sweating but I didn’t care. “It’s in there.” She planted both of her feet in the lawn and put her hands on her hips. At the house next door to the ranch, the porch light flipped out. The last instant of its glow lit an old hand pulling the curtain shut in the front window.
“This isn’t anything,” she said. Across the street, another light went out. Mary Butcher began to back towards the sidewalk. I pulled her forward, all the way to the mulch bed that edged the shallow window well. In the near perfect dark, Mary Butcher’s face was as white as the moon, and all I wanted was her mouth close to mine. I knelt and the wood chips were sharp against my knees. She followed.
“It smells terrible,” she said. Three lights on the street went out in quick succession, pop pop pop. There was starlight on the broken window glass and for a moment as she knelt there I saw her outline against it, a dark Mary Butcher against a mirror of night.
“That’s goat,” I said. “They feed it through these windows.”
Mary Butcher was quiet in the yard and I noticed her eyes dart over my shoulder to another streetlamp flickering out in the darkness. “Yeah, right,” she said, but her voice shook when she said it.
“If we listen,” I told her, “We might hear it breathing.” The only light on the street was from my own porch, orange and moth-circled and very far away. The yard was silent in the darkness and I leaned close to her.
She looked at me, crouched there by the Skoria’s broken-out windows, and I saw the distant glow of my own porch light on her eyes. She blinked.
“You believe in it?” she asked.
I nodded in a way I imagined was solemn and romantic and adult, but when I leaned closer to her Mary Butcher opened her perfect mouth and laughed at me. She laughed because her mother had never sung her lullabies of dismemberment and lamentation. Because she had never heard the cries of the goats when their throats were opened up or contemplated having a moth for a tongue. She was a girl who ate fluffernutters with the crusts cut off, who knew how to laugh with both sets of teeth showing, the way our grandmothers only bared theirs for battle. Mary Butcher looked down the street with her teeth showing that way and I wanted to tell her, nobody laughs at the old stories. But by then it was too late. The light on my porch went out and the cul-de-sac was given over to a terrible darkness.
I reached out for her. One hand found the small of her back, just above her tailbone, and the other slipped around her belly. For one breath I held her that way, feeling the air move in and out of her body. It might have been a reflex that made her put her hand over mine, her fingers on my fingers, my fingers on the soft inversion of her belly button. She started to turn her head but before her eyes could find me in the darkness, I pushed.
She caught herself on the window frame and grunted and then reached back for me, catching the side of my neck with her pink nails, and the hard edge of one Mary Jane found my stomach and came off in my hands as she fought. She knocked the wind out of me but I barely felt it—breathing seemed incidental to this other, more important thing, the act of pushing. We were quiet, still, as if this were a secret, a game, and the objective not to get in trouble with the grown-ups. She was curled into herself with her back against the window when I let both legs kick open into her folded knees. My strength was huge, my body an army of cousins. When I kicked again, into the hard bone where her neck met her chest, there was nothing in her face but surprise. And then she was gone.
I’d never seen anything go into the basement alive. There was the high, clanking sound of falling window glass and then a hard thump, a low moan, the scrape of something moving through glass shards on a concrete floor. My knees were wet where they sank into the damp mulch bed and my scalp burned where she’d torn my hair. I could see her one leg kicking in a square of moonlight, one pink-socked foot, and then it stopped. Nothing breathed on the dark street and my head was full of awful possibility, my hands aching with what I’d just done.
“Mary?” I whispered.
She started to mumble something back and then her voice was stopped. Her white leg was pulled from my view with terrible violence and as the growling started I peered into the lost corners of the basement, looking for a reference for that awful noise, the sound of fish bones being sucked furiously dry, of air wheezing from the bellows of a concertina. The sound was too much—I was exhausted, suddenly, unable to listen. I fell away from the window with my hands over my ears and stayed that way, my face against the wet grass, until it was quiet.
When I looked again she was gone. I saw only a field of broken glass reflecting moonlight on the cement floor of the basement. Close to the window, I could just barely hear the Skoria’s ragged inhalations in the corner where the cinderblock gave way to shadow, soft like a song you hum for yourself.
Only then did I see the one black Mary Jane left in the window well. I looked at it for a moment, then kicked off my right clog with my left one. My foot didn’t want to go in at first, but I pulled my wool sock tight and forced it, gasping at the tightness of the fit, at the way my toes curled together in its patent leather hold. After a moment I stood, pulling my wet pants away from my knees with cold fingers and pushing my hair out of my eyes, hobbling away from the dark ranch house with one foot a mirror for the moonlight. The back of the shoe bit into my skin like teeth and when I walked back up to the house and kicked it off again my sock was red at the heel. I knelt in the window well and tossed her Mary Jane into the basement. The clouds closed above me and I made my way back up the street in a darkness I could feel. I didn’t need the light—every step of this place is in my blood, like the old stories. I know it by heart.
There are fewer grandmothers, now, all the Nana Tanzas burned and scattered, the goodbye songs sung and sung again. The ones who replaced them, some of my mother’s generation, let their heads go uncovered—they wear pants on Sundays and don’t know how to make the best old stews. When my daughter turned thirteen last week I spent three days curing and hardening the black almond cake, then watched it sit untouched on the picnic table next to an ice cream pie from Dairy Queen, brought by one of her school friends. My daughter is older now than Mary Butcher ever was.
For a long time things were quiet. Mary Butcher’s mother moved to a new town and the tacked corners of the missing posters pulled away from the old wood. I made space for sleep in my bed, curled up against the remembered sounds of the Skoria eating. But my nights become more restless as I age, given over to kicking and biting and fingernails on a cement floor. Old stories like that one will never let themselves be hushed, not all the way. They hunker down until you think you dreamed them, then they blow the nightlight out and remind you who you really are.
Every day my face gets older. Soon it will be my job to feed the Skoria again.