I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
When the blades of knives failed her, she turned quite naturally to the razor’s edge. It was late April and she brought into the bedroom bouquets of lilacs to thrust and droop their scent into the air around her bed. The thin, textureless leaves withered first. When she carried them in at night, cut unseen from the bushes, they seemed impervious. But within a few hours they would go slack. The leaves’ undersides turned up and she could no longer see—or think she saw—the individual cells clustered around the fine branchings of the veins. Then they would pucker and turn dry. The flowerets fell soon after. But she kept them there, the water going rank, for days. All around her, like a child’s science exhibit, ranged the various stages and degrees of death.
A year ago, she’d used the big knife. It cut cleanly through the lilac branches and then into the extreme white of her skin. The first time seemed accidental. She reached by the full moon’s light for one fragrant lavender cluster. She cut it off clumsily and the impetus behind her right arm’s swing carried the blade on through the twig and into the narrow palm of the hand that bent it down within her reach. She hardly noticed.
The next night, she went out again and because there was no accident, sat with the fresh-cut blooms beside her beneath the largest lilac bush. It shaded her from the outpouring light of a moon just slightly flattened on one edge. She sat and drew the knife three times across her left forearm, some distance away from the clumps of veins and ligaments at the wrist. That was not what she wanted.
The third night she cut her right arm. She was detached and yet more aware, more alive, than she had been for months. (I do not feel this), she thought, and, (I feel this not-feeling most of all). The next day was the first anniversary of her daughter’s death.
For two weeks or more, not nightly, but mostly at night, she experimented. Once she used the little paring knife with the carved bone handle. Without consciousness design, she achieved an equality of cuts—fresh, scabbed, fading into hairline scars—on her right arm and her left. Since her left hand was less adept, sometimes she would prop a blade edge up, and bring her right arm down on it.
As the moon waned, she moved indoors. By the dark of the moon, she was doing all the cutting in the bedroom, though the little house was hers alone and any room would have done as well. She wore long-sleeved shirts to work and after she bathed she would puncture the golden skins of vitamin E capsules with a needle, squeezing the viscous oil onto the wounds. Then in May she made a few cuts on her inner thighs, had to cancel a doctor’s appointment, and when the hot weather came, she stopped.
She was working for a temporary office-help agency and summer passed in a succession of two-week assignments. Her first day at each new place she took along a sweater, in case the air conditioning was set too low; she was thin, and chilled easily. Sometimes it was, and sometimes the office air was hot and stale, but though even the worst scars were scarcely visible she never rolled up her sleeves. She moved through the shifting climates unaffected.
In September (Blu would have turned ten that month) she met a man who asked her out. She submitted to the friendship. They picnicked, took walks, went to movies. She wondered when they would sleep together, though he never seemed to press. One evening he made lasagna at his apartment. From the small window in his bathroom, she looked down on the children playing kickball behind the building. One boy, as slight and as long-necked as she was, stood kicking leaves and watching the shouting older children at their game. She went home early. Then the trees went bare and the man called less often, or she refused him more, and by the middle of winter she could only remember that his eyes had ranged through the same green-lit greys as those of her little girl. She remembered those eyes and that once his mouth had seemed to twist into a shadow of the loutish, drunken mouth of the man who had married her mother.
So that spring, the second of the cutting, the third since Blu’s death, she gave up the clumsy knives. She had bought, in early March, a new razor that took single-edge blades. When she realized later that she must have done so with the cutting in mind, she smiled. The two-edged blades were dangerous—she might accidentally cut the hand that held one—so she’d bought a safer kind. More often, now, she cut her legs, the tops and insides of her thighs. Once or twice she made a few tentative slices on her flat breasts, but the pain made her stop.
She wondered if she were going to kill herself. This frightened her. Sometimes as she watched the growing moon from her window she would imagine non-existence, and cry. She did not want to die. The cutting was another thing.
She had a good job now; a firm she’d started with in January had asked her to stay on as a receptionist. She sat alone, greeting, informing, showing sales representatives to the proper office. She dressed in plain, loose clothes, and kept her hair in a dark knot at her neck.
Crocuses, daffodils, an early spray of flowering peach: she brought flowers from her yard to grace the desk. Her boss always noticed, and leaned down to pay brief but full attention to them. Sometimes they exchanged a few words about the flowers until the phone rang or she turned back, straight-shouldered, to her typing.
He was just 30, her own age, with the build and clear skintones of a runner; he was recently divorced. One day he brought in deep purple iris—too soon, they must have been hothouse, forced—and presented them with a self-mocking flourish. She stammered as she thanked him. That afternoon she went to give her resignation to the office manager.
“What’s the matter, honey?” The older woman leaned across the desk toward her, plump forearms resting on a loose pile of papers. “Mr. Larkin didn’t give you any trouble, did he?” Purplish lipstick flecked a capped front tooth.
But she only shook her head and forced a smile. “No, I just, you know, need to find another job.”
They both were silent. The office manager shifted her weight back in her chair and looked up at her, expectant.
Then she knew what she should say. She blinked. “Promise you won’t say a thing to anyone, Liz,” she whispered, “but I’m pregnant.” Liz told her not to worry. On a skinny little thing like her, it didn’t show. Liz, she knew, would tell the world.
She wasn’t pregnant. When she was working, she always saved money, so there was enough to live on for months. Driving out of town toward her house that afternoon, she started to remember the days when Blu was an infant, when she and the child and the child’s father had lived on almost nothing, selling necklaces and leather headbands on a blanket spread out near the university. She would unbutton her loose cotton blouse and suckle Blu in the open. The younger passersby would look and smile. Other people’s gazes froze, refracted off. When people bought the jewelry, she would talk with them about her child.
But the father had been gone for years and the child’s high smooth forehead had been smashed the day the van spun off the road. Worse, remembering Blu made her begin to remember her own mother and her stepfather. The drive past the sub-divisions and across the county line to her house was a long one. Their furious voices, calling her little slut and hell-baby and dead shit, resounded in the grey interior of the car. It was too much. Better to make herself think of Blu.
That evening, after quitting and remembering, she cut the year’s best lilacs and herself. It was clear to her now why. It should have been clear all along. But the knowing did not stop her and two days later, the second anniversary of Blu’s death, her skin wept for her half the night. The sheets were stained as if by menstrual blood, though she hadn’t had a period for over a year. Like menstrual blood, the volume appeared much greater than it was.
When at last she slept, she dreamt she stood by her mother’s and stepfather’s graves, although in fact she did not know whether they were alive or dead. The graves were in a meadow studded with clover, and the world around them was warm and quiet. After a moment, she noticed Blu sitting on one of the heavy stones, swinging her legs. The child seemed not to see her. She was singing and patting the palms of her hands against one another. Her skirt was full of flowers. Her pale eyebrows were almost invisible against her moist white forehead. To touch her would have been frightening. It was only possible to stand and watch the child and finally, to stoop and pick one sweet pink head of clover and toss it lightly toward the heap on her daughter’s lap. It fell short.
The next morning, she tore the sheets from her bed and drove with them through the red clay hills, out to the county landfill. The drive took over an hour and she came home hungry for the first time in days. The milk in the refrigerator was sour. She couldn’t find the can opener. There was no bread for toast. She went out into the yard and began to cut armloads of lilacs, stripping the four bushes in her yard. She filled vases, bottles, jars. She bathed and oiled her smarting body. She drove to the little grocery store and bought yogurt and a dozen eggs. Easter was coming and she picked up a box of Easter egg dye at the check-out counter. Chicks and bunnies capered across a field of flowers on the front of the box. Going home, she stopped at the hardware store for fertilizer.
When she put the eggs on to boil, she realized that she’d forgotten to ask if this was the right season for fertilizing, or even if she’d bought the right kind. But it seemed logical that the bushes would welcome extra nutrients after the effort of setting leaves and blossoms.
The eggs rested now in cool water. She began to remember a day three years ago: the two of them were ready to color eggs for Easter, and Blu had asked her why she put the eggs in cold water after they cooked. A few minutes later, they had driven to the supermarket for more vinegar, a 50-year-old man, drunk, had run a stop sign, and she had swerved on the wet road. It was only after the van stopped short in a ditch that she turned, dizzily rubbing the knot on her forehead, and saw her child’s face shattered. She started to remember and stopped.
There was no shovel in the little house, so she took the big knife and a stainless steel spoon with her into the yard. With these she worked the soil, loosening it around the roots of the lilacs and the flowering peach. This took hours. The day was hot. Once she went into the house, ate the cup of yogurt, and lifting the pan of cooling eggs carefully to her lips, drank the flat chalky water. Then she returned to her work.
When the newly lengthened day began to settle toward evening, she came in to shower off the sweat. She wanted to wear something cool. Rummaging in the back of a drawer, she uncovered one of the blouses she used to wear when they sold the jewelry. It was sleeveless, but today she didn’t care. No one would come by. She changed her shorts for jeans, though, and went outside to apply fertilizer.
The moon was up before she was through. She did not look at it. Patient, casting aside even her simple tools, she crumbled the loose soil with the acrid white powder until the dirt around the four lilac bushes and the peach tree was greyish and fine.
She came in and took the eggs out of the water to dry. In three cups and three bowls she placed vinegar and water. She dropped in the color tablets and they bloomed: scarlet, pink, yellow, sky blue, indigo, green. With the colorless wax crayon, she decorated the eggs in fantastic designs. Loops swirled around delicate leaves and flowers. Some eggs she dyed a light tint, then treated with wax before returning them to bathe in a deeper shade. Several she built up, purple over blue over pink, to multicolored extravaganzas of Easter eggs. She waited in the bedroom until she could no longer stand the heavy sweet scent of the lilacs. But after the eggs dried she saw them with their colors dulled. The wax had flaked off in places, the tip of the crayon had been too blunt for the lacy work she’d tried to do, the colors had run and blotched where the drying eggs rested in their cardboard nests. One was cracked and she could imagine a pale violet stain snaking across the white inside.
By now it was late and she was exhausted. She poured the green dye from its cup and replaced it with the last of the brandy. It tasted odd. Perhaps the bottle had sat too long in sunlight. Or perhaps she hadn’t rinsed the cup well enough. Still she drank it. Sitting on the edge of her wide bed, she undressed and arranged the eggs, visionary, aborted, around her.
Several blades lay among the papers and books on her bedside table. Again her thoughts went hollow and she drew one blade over the skin of her leg. Then for the first time, she cut lightly across her belly. Beads of blood seeped from the scratch. She envisioned the frantic clots of her cells as she would see them under a microscope. She remembered the chemical similarity of hemoglobin and chlorophyll. Meditatively, she cut off one of the freshest lilac leaves and held it up to the light on the ceiling.
It was quite dark out now; the moon had clouded over. The little house was isolated. In her yard she would be invisible. Cradling the eggs with her left arm against her chest, she went outdoors.
A dozen eggs, three apiece for the four lilacs, none for the peach: she dug for each a small cave among the fertilized roots. She washed her hands at the outdoor faucet, then used the hose to soak the earth beneath each clump. She wondered if she had burned the bushes with too much fertilizer.
Inside, she did not cut herself again. She took a new sheet from the hall closet, wrapped herself in it, went quickly to sleep. In some of her dreams, the lilac blossoms were replaced by brilliant eggs; in some, she woke in the morning to find the twig-tips blackened, bare.
Li Young Lee