DARA YEN ELERATH
We glimpsed it in the encyclopedia: Amygdala. My brother spelled the word out slowly, trying to parse the unknown syllables; he was too young to read. What is it? he asked. It’s an almond-shaped structure in the human brain, I replied, it regulates anxiety and fear. My brother’s mouth twisted to a grimace, an almond that makes you afraid? He inquired. We both gazed at the cryptic language. The letters floated before us like motes of soot or flakes of ash.
Sometimes he would muse on it, this odd almond, this bringer of calamity and fear. Can I pull it out through my ear? he probed me, he was so fearful after all, he suffered from a hundred phobias: a fear of spiders, a fear of ghosts, a fear of the black tendrils in our mother’s hairbrush, a fear of cartons crushed in the garbage compactor, a fear of our father’s gnarled fists, a fear of empty swings in the park blown by wind. Maybe you can knock it from your head or wash it out with water, I said.
Mother claimed it was more like an eraser; she was trying to shift the shape of my brother’s thoughts. That night he gathered all the erasers in our house; he rubbed them hard against the walls. He rubbed and rubbed until pink crumbs blew and billowed through our rooms, a constant reminder of his amygdala, of the structure in his mind that made him curl beneath blankets at night, that made his five-year-old fingers shake at our father’s rages.
One day, we heard him bang his head against a window, I’m going to knock it out he cried, I’m going to loosen it. Mother was terrified, she tried to stop him; yet, suddenly, we saw it: a bright, pink almond easing its way out of his ear, strange and clean as an egg, undeniable as a piece of beach glass. I picked it up and felt its smooth, living edges move slightly against the tips of my fingers, like a worm or a pearl-grey slug.
My brother displayed his amygdala in a velvet box. One day he took it out. This is my fear, he said, holding aloft the soft almond. I watched as he began to peel it like a fruit, I watched as he began to tongue it gently. Don’t I cried; but he swallowed it down. His eyes, once so dim and nervous grew suddenly bright. They grew clear and hard, sharp and deadly as diamonds.
How We Learned About Our Bodies
What are bones? We asked our mother. They are sticks—white branches that grow inside of us, she replied. We imagined forests in our torsos, tree limbs rising beneath a butter-colored moon; we wanted to enter this forest, but mother said it was not possible. To enter it would kill you, she cautioned. Thus, the mystery of our bodies grew. We dreamed of our skeletons, our spinal columns. We believed our breath was the sound of wind pitching through our bones, that our teeth were fragments of bark washed up after a storm, into the dirty gullies of our mouths.
Our lungs, too, we thought on. Are they wind instruments? Are they steel shafts through which we shift our breath? We pictured wheat slipping through metal harvesters; we pictured pipes, tubes, ducts and plumbing. We imagined concrete culverts and dogs that wandered through these culverts. Do dogs live in our lungs? We asked. Mother drummed her fingers on the table as if considering; she licked her lips. Yes, she said, finally, dogs with venous necks and wolf-like eyes. When my brother caught a cold one winter, he claimed his cough was the sound of a dog barking. We tried to lure it out, to drag it, scratching and yapping, from the dark tunnel of his lungs.
What about our stomachs? My brother queried. Are they porcelain basins? Are they tin bowls filled with gristle and chicken? Mother’s head ached from all our questions. Go play outside, she said, your curiosity is unhealthy. We tried to forget our stomachs; we tried not to think of what they might contain: hummingbirds, extra organs, orange groves, glass bottles or fake snow. There could be a whole country in there, my brother said, anxiously, but we played at kickball and licked ice cream cones. We tried not to hear our stomachs growling, how the noise sounded like boys pacing back and forth; like two brothers trapped inside a house, trying and failing to read the maps of their own bodies; trying and failing to escape.
It was blood we pondered most often. We’d heard there was a liquid inside of us as red as crushed raspberries, as bright as ripe plums; mother shamed us for dwelling on this. You are young, she said, and ought to ride bicycles or swim in cool lakes instead of acting like thieves trying to break and enter your own bodies. After all, she said, it’s possible there is only sawdust inside you, it’s possible there are only burnt flakes and ash. It’s possible you are not boys after all, but only dolls, she said, pulling on our black hair. Then, for a moment, we wondered—was it really hair? Maybe it was only thread braided to look like the hair of children, string arranged to resemble the tresses of innocent boys.
The Silent Sisters
They called us the silent sisters because we did not speak; instead, we tied knots in our long, dark hair and used this to communicate. Two knots for yes, one for no. Do you have tongues? other children would ask us. They wondered if we’d cut them out, but we would not say. We liked them to imagine our mouths as dank caves, the stumps of our tongues as torn leather belts.
Some nights, we wandered through the roads in long, white dresses. What’s wrong with them? The townsfolk would whisper. We snapped dry branches or sticks to break the stillness of the night. The dead girls they christened us. The ghosts.
Four outlaw brothers planned to hitch us to their horses with hanks of rope. They were hunters and had lugged the corpses of two pale deer from the woods; they’d mounted their heads upon the wall. They meant to mount us too—we could see it in their chipped-tooth smiles, in the way they tracked us like frightened rabbits, studied us like sows with red apples in our mouths.
The day they attacked we leapt upon their backs. With rocks we smacked and shattered their skulls, we wound them in our dresses like funeral palls, then lay their bodies on the ground. In time their skins blued and rotted, in time their bones were bleached by sun and we collected them in satchels like ivory spoons, like rusted keys, like stones.
We had no home so stacked the brother’s bones into a house. We strung their ribs around our necks, used their teeth to fashion an abacus. Listen, the mothers of the village would warn their children, do you hear the dark sisters whipping their hair in wind? On clear nights they would notice tendrils of our hair rising over the mountains, rising over the hills like clouds. They called these dark clouds storms. They feared our rain, how it soaked into their houses of wattle and daub; they feared our thunder, how it rumbled and cracked; they feared our lightning, how it twisted the air, how it caused their bodies to tremble.