When I woke up and heard the high-pitched ring, I knew a part of my middle ear was missing. She had stolen the malleous or incus—hammer or anvil. I shook my head, but the sound remained, along with the memories of my daughter, Chandra, in our bedroom. Chandra’s footsteps padding across the carpet. Her thin fingers touching my hair and skin. Her nails picking through my flesh to touch the organs underneath.
That morning I asked my husband Allan about a lock for her room.
“At five years old? Don’t you think she’s a little young to be able to keep us out?” he asked. Allan had one eye on the television, one of those drug intervention shows. His cell phone buzzed. He glanced at the display and tossed the cell aside.
“I don’t mean for locking out,” I said, leaning against the wall. My balance had been off since last night.
Allan paused the show. He looked at me, probably noticing the worry lined across my forehead and the sadness that sagged the skin under my eyes and around my stomach. He opened his mouth three times, half-formed words caught. “It was jewelry. Try forgiving her, if only for yourself.”
I swallowed hard.
“I love her,” I said. “She’s stealing again, Allan.”
Parts of my body, I thought and picked at the cuticle around my thumb. “Things only I would know about.”
“I’ll talk to her.” Allan picked up his phone and began typing.
The day the jewelry had turned up missing, I had tried not to blame her. I had asked Chandra again and again whether she had taken them. I used a sweet voice, one a four-year-old would understand. I explained the difference between right and wrong, that you shouldn’t take things that aren’t yours. Finally, I begged—“You don’t understand what they mean to me. They are the only things from my family I kept.”
She just smiled, wrinkled her upturned nose, and said, “No, mommy.”
I had found the jewelry in her closet, hidden in a small purple box in the back. I screamed at her then. Threatened. Shook her by the arms. Allan snapped Chandra up before I could do anything more. Chandra was crying so loudly her voice disappeared for three days.
I would have done far worse had I known what would come later.
The first time I noticed a body part missing, we were at a butterfly conservatory. Chandra had been sick the week before with a two-week fever that broke overnight, and Allan suggested we take her out, just to relieve her isolation. Chandra knew to never touch the wings, which would remove the chitin, tiny scales that made them shine iridescent.
Allan walked her to a box where chrysalides hung with the next generation of butterflies ready to emerge. The hard mountings looked like tiny shells. “They only live for a few days once they emerge,” he told us.
“The butterflies die so soon?” Chandra covered her mouth. Fat tears gathered in her eyes.
“That’s not true,” I said, knowing that most butterflies live for weeks.
Chandra began to cry. She pushed me away and started to run. I tried to grab her arm, but my leg buckled and I fell to the pavement. Allan helped me to a bench and went to bring her back.
“I hurt mommy?” Chandra asked, stepping from behind an exotic fern.
“No,” I lied, clasping my knee, pain surging down to my ankle. I felt a strange scar and hole in the joint. “You scared us.”
A butterfly flew past and Allan’s eyes followed its erratic path. He sighed. Chandra’s eyes narrowed when she touched the scar. She ran her finger pads run along my purple flesh until her nails cut the knotted skin. “I hurt mommy,” she said, her gaze locked on my eyes. She licked her dry lips.
It felt as if the ligament had never been attached, it had vanished so completely. Of course, Allan didn’t believe me when I said my limp was because of Chandra, that I knew from her reaction that she had pulled strands of ligaments from my knee.
I haven’t eaten much more than a crust of bread or drunk anything stronger than tea in months, since she cut a rope of intestines from me, leaving a nickel-sized dent in my stomach. Chandra grew despite eating little of what was offered at dinner. “She never touches her fork,” Allan said.
When Chandra was at school, I sat at the kitchen table. I couldn’t walk much further than the bus stop, so I made up logic puzzles to keep my reasoning sharp. Angels on the head of a pin. One hand clapping. If I screamed and no one heard it, whether it would make a sound.
The night after Chandra cut a nerve from my eye, ruining my peripheral vision, I had to talk to Allan. His eyes, even while sleeping, remained open, the vitreous gel like set gems. In the seven years we’d been married, he had never remembered anything after he fell asleep—it was like talking to his naked inner thoughts. I needed him to have no memory of our conversation that night.
“My life since Chandra feels compressed. Small house, small desk, small bed. Small body, too. I calculated that I lost ten percent of my weight in the last three months.” I sat up, my back to the headboard.
“Compressed?” His voice was raspy, barely a whisper.
“I can’t walk anymore. I’m scared I will lose everything,” I said.
He took a deep breath, as if settling to sleep. “She will replace you, piece by piece.”
My heart raced, and I pushed my hands against my chest, feeling something odd: an asymmetry under a thin scar. Chandra had plucked a rib from my chest. Was she going to rip out my lungs, fiber by fiber? I wondered. “When did you realize that?” I asked, but Allan didn’t answer.
The house was still, except for the endless breathing cycles of my husband and the shallower patterns of Chandra. I limped to her room. For an hour, I sat and watched her, tucked inside the covers. A poisonous butterfly of my own creation.
By the dim hallway light I searched her closet. I felt the small outline of her special box, where she had hidden my jewelry. I felt an edge, but of a much bigger box than I remembered. It had grown heavier.
Taking it to the hallway, I found what I had hoped, what I had feared. Inside was a tiny organ, which I recognized as the hammer of my ear, along with a splinter of rib, intestines like knotted yarn, a shred of nerve, and a cut of tendon.
Beneath, were parts I didn’t expect, parts that were not mine. Tucked at the very back, were the blackened shreds of Allan’s seminal vesicles. Our bodies, the parts that were taken, had shriveled like apples left for months in the icebox. Lost to me, the way my youth had been. We will both be replaced, I thought.
I promised to myself then never to confront Chandra. Not to yell or threaten or tell her I had learned her secret. It had become our family’s secret.
I looked closer, and what I saw made me slam the box and tremble, hoping not to wake the child nearby. A child who would most certainly come again in the night. There, on my intestines, were garlic dust, a drop of olive oil, and spiraled, petite teeth marks.