Marrow by Tarryn Fisher
THE PEARL STARTS ITS LIFE AS A SPLINTER—something unwanted like a piece of shell or shard of dirt that accidentally lodges itself in an oyster's body. To ease the splinter, the oyster takes defensive action, secreting a smooth, hard, lucid substance around the irritant to protect itself. That substance is called "nacre.” So long as the splinter remains within its body, the oyster will continue to coat it in nacre, layer upon beautiful layer. I always thought it was remarkable that the oyster coats its enemy not only in something beautiful, but a part of itself. And while diamonds are embraced with warm excitement, regarded to be of highest, deepest value, the pearl is somewhat overlooked. Its humble beginnings are that of a parasite, growing in something that is alive, draining its host of beauty. It’s clever—the plight of the splinter. A sort of rags to riches story.
THERE IS A HOUSE IN THE BONE, with a broken window. A sheet of newspaper covers the hole, secured around the edges with thick pieces of duct tape. The siding on the house sags like old flesh, holding up a roof that looks as if it’s bearing the world’s burdens.
I live in this house with my mother. Under the rain, under the oppression, in the room with the broken window. I call it the eating house. Because, if you let it, this house will devour you, like it did my mother. Like it tries to devour me.
“Margo, bring me the washcloth.”
My name followed by a command.
I do. You can barely call it a washcloth. It’s just an old rag, smoothed over by too many uses and discolored by the dirty things it has scrubbed. She takes it from my hand without looking at me. Her fingers are elegant, nails painted black and chipped along the edges. She moves the washcloth between her legs and cleans herself roughly. I flinch and look away, offering her minuscule privacy. That’s all the privacy you get in this house—the aversion of eyes. There are always people—men mostly—lurking around the doors and hallways. They leer, and, if you give them the chance, they reach for you. If you give them the chance. I don’t.
My mother steps out of the bath and takes the towel from my hand. The house smells like mold and rot, but for an hour after she takes a bath, it smells of her bath salts.
“Margo, hand me my robe.”
My name followed by a command.
She hates taking baths alone. She told me her mother tried to drown her in the bathtub when she was a child. It still scares her. Sometimes, at night, I hear her whimpering in her sleep, No mama, no. I didn’t know her mother. After the drowning incident, my mother was put into foster care. A nightmare, she calls it. By the time she’d matriculated from the system, my grandmother had died of a massive heart attack and left her only daughter the house—the eating house.
She looks at herself in the mirror as I unfold her robe—a red thing, filmy to the touch. It is my job to launder it twice a week. I do so with care, as it is her most prized possession. My mother is beautiful in the same way that a storm is beautiful. She is wild and destructive, and in the middle of her fury you feel her God given right to destroy. We both admire her reflection for a few more minutes as she runs the pads of her fingers over her face, checking for flaws. This is her mid-afternoon ritual before things get going. She takes out the little tubs of creams that I bring her from the pharmacy, and lines them along the chipped sink. One at a time, she dabs them around her eyes and mouth.
“Margo,” she says. I wait for the command, breath bated. This time she is looking at my reflection, slightly behind hers. “You’re not a pretty girl. You could at least lose the weight. What you don’t have in the face, you can have in the body.”
So I can sell it like you do?
“I’ll try, Mama.”
Submission. That’s my job.
“Margo, you can go now,” she says. “Stay in your room.”
My name followed by a double command. What a special treat!
I walk backwards out of the bathroom. It’s what I’ve learned to do to avoid being struck in the head with something. My mother is dangerous when she doesn’t take her pills. And you never know when she’s off. Sometimes I sneak in her room to count them, so I know how many safe days I have left.
“Margo,” she calls when I am almost to my door.
“Yes, Mama?” I say. My voice is almost a whisper.
“You can skip dinner tonight.”
She offers it like it’s something good, but what she’s really saying is, “I won’t be allowing you to eat tonight.”
That’s all right. I have my own stash, and there’s nothing in the cupboards anyway.