“She is sorry, you know.” My great-aunt (married to great-uncle number three) reaches for the paring knife, a yellow mango already in her left hand. Her voice is casual, but her shoulders are tense beneath her silk blouse. She doesn’t look at me.
I’m leaning in the doorway with nothing to do and nowhere to put my hands, still carrying my duffel bag, already angry.
“It’s the thing she regrets most,” my great-aunt continues, slicing into the mango at the tip and starting a delicate spiral of peel. Her voice begins to shake with emotion. “I’m sure, if she could do it over again, she would do it all differently.”
“You weren’t there,” I tell her.
She’s halfway through the mango, revealing inch on inch of sweet yellow flesh. On the outside, just being exposed, a brown, stringy patch peeks out from underneath perfect skin. Her kitchen smells like vanilla candles, an unfamiliar, stifling sweetness.
“No,” my great-aunt agrees. “I wasn’t.” She looks up, away from the mango, stares at some distant thought or memory. Her hand on the knife keeps moving, and I stare at it, fascinated, as the bruise under the mango’s skin comes into the light.
Her fingers slip on the glistening flesh. She drops her hand to strengthen her grip — and slices through the edge of her thumb.
I jump for a napkin, but the closest thing is the kitchen towel, which I grab and wad against her hand. She’s dropped the mango, which lies at the bottom of the silver sink, yellow reflecting into orange as blood drips and drips and doesn’t stop. There’s a tiny flap of skin, almost translucent, clinging to the top of the fruit. The towel, white cotton with “Count Your Blessings” written in loopy black letters, seeps red onto my fingers. My great-aunt reaches for a drawer and grabs a wad of paper napkins.
“Damn,” she says, laughing a little. She taps my fingers gently, and I jump and draw my hand and the dripping towel back. She replaces my hand with the napkins and turns for the hallway. “I’ll just get the first aid kit from the bathroom.”
I stay in the kitchen, holding the towel over the sink. It’s wet enough that I could wring it, could send little red rivers into the millimeters-thick layer of blood that lays, not draining, in the bottom of the sink, around the mango. Instead, I press the dry, flawlessly white corners of the towel into the blood until the whole of the towel is wet with it, until my fingers are stained and sticky because there’s nowhere dry to hold.
The tiny flap of skin is still on the mango, shiny and a little elastic when I tug on it experimentally. I slip it into a fold in the towel, which I tuck into the outside pocket of my duffel bag. After a moment, I take the knife too. Then I rinse my hands until the water runs clear.
My cousin (first, once-removed) reaches for his handkerchief and dabs at his shiny forehead. We’re in his back garden. He was showing me his zinnias before we went inside, but he caught sight of the carrots, beset by weeds, and headed for his tool shed without so much as asking if I wanted to set my bag down. I’m staying with him for four days. Across the country, my mother is recovering from surgery — an exhausting, brutal ordeal she won’t let me watch — and I am here, watching a single bead of sweat trickle down her cousin’s face in the wake of his handkerchief.
“I used to try to get your mother to play with us, you know,” he says, nudging a hoe around spindly carrot tops. “She was always doing her homework.” “Oh?” I ask. I am trying to be polite, for her sake. “Was she a good student?”
“She was so young,” he says, “but so serious. Your uncles always wanted to play when they got home from school, but she would do her exercises first.” He shakes his head a little. “She always did exactly what she was told. I couldn’t understand it.”
My cousin is five years older than my mother. When she was six, doing her homework in the living room, he was tearing around backyards, muddying his school clothes. “She wanted to be good,” I tell him, knowing what my mother has never told me. My voice goes thin. “She didn’t want to be a problem. She wanted to be chosen.”
He turns toward me, guilty. “We should have been better about it.”
“You were a kid,” I tell him. Of course, so was she.
He clears his throat. “Your grandmother— It wasn’t personal, I don’t think. Your uncles already played with us cousins, so it was easier, I think, for our parents to take them when she had to send the kids away. And someone had to go to him.”
The edge of the hoe is dry and crusted with dirt. He knocks it absently against his leg. “She’s sorry,” he says. “I know she is.”
He puts his weight onto the hoe handle, and I watch the edge sink into the top of his tennis shoe, just above the toe. It’s like a knife through gelatin, too easy, and by the time he notices and pulls his hand back, the toe of his shoe is a separate entity, dusty brown and flesh-pink and totally apart from him.
There’s blood, of course, a growing patch of it sinking into the ground around his left foot as he stares down at it, but the severed tip of his shoe doesn’t bleed at all. When I pick it up, I can see the round outlines of three toes on the severed edge, the bones clear-cut. The shoe is still molded around them, brown and dusty, smelling like blood and sweat. It’s the size of a rock or a pack of mints. I slip it into my bag before I go inside to look for some gauze.
My great-aunt (number two) stands at the dining room table and asks me to hold down the canvas she’s cutting at one end. She’s making a custom tent for my uncle’s wedding. The youngest uncle — the one she took in. She holds a giant pair of shears in one hand, and the metal edges glint at me until I shiver. The room smells like pine and cleanliness, and I fidget under the neatness of it.
“You know,” she says carefully, making an initial hesitant cut into the fabric. “She loved all her children so much. They’ve always been the best part of her life.” Snip, her scissors say, coming toward me with every movement. Snip. Snip.
“She cried for weeks after she put your mother on the plane,” she says. “We all took turns bringing her casseroles, checking in with her.”
“Your mother was so well behaved,” she says with a sigh. “It— It made sense to send her to him. We thought maybe he wouldn’t mind her. Maybe it would be different now that he was married. So we agreed when your grandmother suggested it.” She moves her left hand to hold the canvas still where it’s sliding in the middle. I turn to look at her striped curtains, at the pictures of flowers on the wall. I don’t want to see her say what I know she will.
“But of course, she’s sorry now.” I hear the shears open — snick — and turn back to her just in time to see them close down over her middle three fingers, right at the knuckle — snip.
“Ah, shoot,” she says, noticing the slow bloom of blood over both sides of the canvas, bright, bright red and spreading. She sighs and holds her hand up. “I’d better take care of this.”
She stops in the doorway before she leaves. “Maybe we can turn it into a theme. Paint poppies on the canvas. Bright red.”
Her fingers are already cool by the time I pick them up. She has a callus at the top of her ring finger, and her nails are immaculate — French tips. The skin feels a bit loose, sliding into easy wrinkles when I press my thumb across the top knuckles.
My duffel bag is in the study, tucked underneath the fold-out couch. My great aunt’s fingers, wrapped in a discarded scrap of canvas, fit snugly in between the rolls of shirts and underwear.
My uncle (the oldest one) takes me out on the boat, which is a good decade older than he is and very rickety. I have a week left before I go home, and he wants me to see the old vacation house and all the hidden spots around the lake. Once we’re in the open center of the lake, he turns the engine to low and moves to the back of the boat with me to point out all the places they used to explore.
The sun is low and hazy, sending late-afternoon light all over the water. My uncle laughs, recounting King-of-the-Hill matches on a slippery rock, games of 500 in the sandy shallows, bonfires in the evening. I let the words slip over me and try not to think about them. There were so many of them, I think — cousins and aunts and uncles crowding around each other, playing and fighting and living in a web of each other’s existences. It must have been so easy for them not to feel her absence. Maybe my thoughts reflect on my face; maybe my uncle’s thoughts have turned in the same direction.
“She wanted to send me instead,” he says. “She figured, since I was older, I’d be able to handle him better.” He looks out at the water. “I talked her out of it. I mean, I didn’t know how he was, not really, but—”
But he still got out of it.
“Mother is sorry for it,” he says, waving his left hand in a dramatic, useless gesture. “She regretted it eventually. I don’t think—”
But it doesn’t matter what he was going to say because he’s gestured a little too enthusiastically, and his arm is directly in line with the propeller, which slices his hand off just a few inches above the wrist. His hand goes careening through the air and lands in the lake with a gentle splash.
I take off my shirt without even thinking about it. He’s staring at the place where his hand used to be, mumbling a string of curses at himself, bleeding a trail into the water. I fold my shirt in half and wrap it around the stump of his arm, placing his other hand over it.
Then I dive off the side of the boat.
The water is cool, and it sucks at my nose and mouth at first. As soon as I surface, I swim toward the spot the hand fell in. I can feel it like a beacon, drawing me forward.
When I’m near, I take a big gulp of air and duck underwater, opening my eyes. The hand is spinning a few feet below the surface, tinged green through the filter of the water, and when I reach out for it, it feels for a sickening moment like a handshake.
My great-uncle (the second one) shows me the forest he used to take my uncles on walks in. I take my duffel bag with me, sling it awkwardly across my back and shrug when he looks at me. The woods are quiet and soft with pine needles in shades of green and brown.
When he speaks, his voice is low. “I think she thought he’d changed.”
I run my fingers over the bark of a nearby tree and don’t respond.
“Anyway,” he says, his words rushing together, “she’s so sorry now.”
I hear the creaking from above before he does and jump back. When the branch falls, it pins one of his legs to the ground. Though the branch is easy enough for me to lift, his leg has been crushed into two parts below the knee. I tuck his foot and lower leg beneath one arm and collect as much of the smashed skin and muscle and bone as I can, scraping some of it off the underside of the branch and cupping it in my palm.
It fits easily into my duffel bag. I put the less solid parts into the pocket of my favorite pair of jeans.
My aunt (wife of brother number four) takes me to a local arts fair. She draws my hand into the crook of her arm and buys me a purple purse.
When she clears her throat meaningfully in a glassware tent, I look down at the glass spiral in my hands, rub my thumb along the cool smoothness of it, and hope it will be quick.
“Your grandmother is a kind and loving woman,” she says. “She’s always been so welcoming to me, made me feel a part of the family.”
When it falls, the glass plate on the top of the display table takes her earlobe and a chunk of her beautiful long hair. The duffel bag welcomes them.
My grandmother dies in her sleep two days before I’m supposed to get on my flight home. I’ve never seen her.
The funeral is open casket, and I’m last in line. My duffel bag, heavy with gifts and a giant family’s guilt, is back at an aunt’s house. But I took something out of it before I came.
The casket is polished and smooth. The flowers by her head are appropriately waxy. When I look down at her face, I see my mother’s high cheekbones and the deep V of her lips; a broad forehead; smooth, straight silver hair. Her left arm is missing. They’ve put her in a stiff dress with puffy sleeves, but there’s only one hand resting peacefully on her stomach. At the other end of the casket, most of one leg is gone. Her earlobe is hidden by her hair, which is oddly short on one side, though it’s been arranged to hide it.
She doesn’t apologize to me; she’s dead. But I murmur to her all the same.
“You sent her away,” I tell her. “You sent them all away, but you sent her to someone you knew would hurt her.”
I take my great aunt’s knife out of my sleeve. It’s only a fruit knife, but it slices easily through the stiff fabric of her bodice and into her chest. My grandmother must have had ribs, but perhaps they have gone soft and crumbly in her death, for they present no obstacle to the silver knife, which cuts a smooth circle on one side of her torso.
“You sent her away, and you never called. You never wrote. You didn’t make one mistake. You made thousands. Every day you didn’t help her was another error. There aren’t enough apologies in the world.”
I reach my hand into her chest. Her heart is solid white and rings like porcelain when I tap on it gently with a fingernail.
I slip it into my new purse.
My mother looks so small in the hospital bed. There are all kinds of tubes running in and out of her, and the skin of her arms looks pinched and bruised.
There’s a chair waiting for me, and I curl up into it, dropping the duffel bag on the floor. I hook my toes around the edge of her bed and reach toward her. Her fingers are dry and cool and familiar. She smells like the hospital and the right kind of laundry detergent.
“How was it?” she asks.
I scowl. “They’re a pack of wolves. But they were nice to me.” I hesitate. “I wish you had let me stay with you.”
She smiles at me, and the shape of her lips is hers again. “You can’t bear all my burdens, you know.” Her eyes drop to the blanket, and she rubs my knuckles with her thumb absently. “I wish you didn’t have to carry any of them.”
“I got you something,” I say, already reaching for the zipper of the duffel bag. “There are sweets and stuff from your family, but also….”
I lay out the towel first. It’s folded into a neat little square, still bright red with blood. Then the tip of the brown tennis shoe and toes. Then the fingers, and the hand, and the leg, and the earlobe and the hair.
They look perfectly unreal on the bedspread, but they smell like copper and dirt and sweat. There’s something dark under my great aunt’s index fingernail. My mother is looking at me with wet, concerned eyes. From within the duffel bag, I reach for the purple purse.
My grandmother’s heart is pristine and shiny in the hospital lighting. I hold it out to my mother, who traces its curves with gentle fingers but doesn’t take it from me. My forearm begins to ache from holding it, though I know it’s not heavy.
“It’s—” I start.
“I know.” My mother lets me hold it still, lets me bear the weight of it for a moment longer. I want it to mean something — for the ache in my arm to save her, to heal her. I want to tell her that they’ve all broken off pieces of themselves, and it’s worth it, if it will make her whole again.
I can hear my own breath, a stuttering, shallow thing. My mother’s breaths come more evenly. Beneath that, I can hear the steady beeping of the machines keeping her alive, and the occasional rush of footsteps in the hallway.
“She’s sorry,” I say quietly. “She’s so, so sorry.”
They all said it, so it must be true.