This page contains:
- Body transformation
- Drug use
Do you know the tale of the armless maiden? In most tales, it is only her hands she loses. If I were the sister of a king, I could claim that I cut off my own arm so that my brother would not want to marry me. If I were a witch, I could tell you that a miller cut off my paw when I was in my midnight form and that, in the morning, I woke with blood on the sheets. If I were the miller’s daughter, I could claim that my hands had been the symbols of my purity, and that my father had to cut them off so that the devil could not take my hand in marriage (an act that, in fairy tales, is as literal as it is symbolic). I could tell you that my husband gave me a silver arm—a silver prosthetic—as a wedding gift.
The truth is that I lost my arm the same summer I lost my brother.
Lost is a euphemism. In fact, my arm was retrieved by the paramedics and brought to the hospital, along with the two fingers severed from my left hand, and the various parts of my brother’s body. My right arm was broken in three places: I can still feel the ache and itch of my poorly mended bones. Several parts of my brother’s body were not retrieved. It was dark when they found us, and the terrain where we crashed was steep, rocky bushland. The next day, my sisters went to the site to search for anything that had been left behind. The car was still there, Esther told me, and there was police tape stretched across the side of the road where the barrier had been broken. They found my brother’s companion crow, Grip, waiting nearby. He was sitting on the roof of the car with a bone in his claw.
They did try to re-attach my arm. For four days we were united, but on the fifth day my temperature was elevated and there was no pulse in my right wrist. I could not feel it when the nurse touched my fingertips. I could not curl my fingers or bend my arm. An infection set in that could not be sufficiently averted with intravenous antibiotics, or debridement. After six days, some of the flesh around the sutures had turned necrotic. My arm’s circulation was increasingly compromised: they could not find a pulse in my elbow or, even with an ultrasound, anywhere below my bicep. I pushed the button on the PCA every ten minutes, but the pain was stubborn. I was sure Theo was with me: sitting by my bedside and sharing in the lovely fug of drugs. I was sure Grip was with us. I felt him peck at my palm, digging out ribbons of flesh.
When I woke after the surgery, I could still feel my arm. The weight of it on the blanket, the pressure of the bandages. It felt larger than my left arm. Each of my fingers was long and muscular. When I curled them up towards my wrist, they scraped the ceiling. As the anaesthetic wore off I slowly understood that, for a second time, my arm had been removed from my body. That wherever it was now, floating in a jar of formaldehyde or burning in a medical waste incinerator, it was not with me.
Once upon a time, there was a giant who kept her heart safely hidden away. Removing her heart from her body was simple enough—giant’s hearts are not so rooted in the body as those of other animals—but finding a secure place to hide the heart was another matter altogether.
First, she hid the heart inside an egg. An egg is, after all, a perfect container. It has no edges and no corners. Unbroken, it is inviolate and smug. If anyone finds the egg, they will think it belongs to a duck or a goose. They will think it is an animal in the process of becoming, and leave it be. Only a monster would take a heart, sealed inside an egg, and crush it in their fists until the giant whose heart it contains is dead.
The giant, having placed her heart inside the egg, went home. She had a late supper of tomato soup, and fell asleep with a green blanket pulled up over her knees, and a small hill for a pillow.
That night, she dreamed that a crow, flying over her sleeping place, led a hunter to the nest where her heart lay inside its egg. The crow dropped her brother’s jawbone into the nest. The giant threw the bone as far away from the nest as she could, and cleaned the nest thoroughly, but the smell of death would not come out of the clean straw.
The giant who kept her heart inside an egg woke from a terrible dream. Her shoulder ached and her feet were cold. While she slept, the green blanket had slipped off her large body and the morning fog had coated her feet and knees, her thighs and hips, in sadness. She made coffee and sat with her back against a tree, wondering how to keep her heart safe.
On the far side of the mountain there was a well that was as deep as the world. When you dropped a stone into the well, you had to wait three hours to hear it plop into the water far below. If the well was dry, you had to wait even longer to hear the stone meet the back of the turtle beneath the mantle of the world.
The giant packed the egg that held her heart in a box lined with sheep’s wool, which she put in her backpack. She walked for half a day to find the well as deep as the world. She tied her rope to a tree near the lip of the well and lowered herself down. Whenever she ran out of rope, she had to use a little magic to cut the rope away from the tree and tie it to a root protruding into the well’s mouth so that she could continue going down. The rope was as long as an elephant’s memory, but it wasn’t long enough to reach the bottom of that well. The giant wore a caver’s torch on her head, which threw haloes of light onto whatever she turned towards. She saw cupboards filled with jars of teeth, and shelves of ink bottles. Further down there were the fossils of unimaginable creatures, tiny things with teeth like wings and feathered toes. Further still she saw an angel, weeping. She offered the angel the last of the food she’d brought with her, and they sat side by side for a while, on a kind of shelf jutting out into the well’s throat. The angel plucked a feather from its head to give the giant, and then they parted ways.
Finally, the giant reached the bottom of the well. She lowered the egg gently into the water, which was surprisingly warm and faintly green. Then she tied the feather to the end of her rope, and the rope bore her up out of the well.
That night, the giant rolled her green blanket up to her chin and slept with her head on a treeless mountain. She dreamed that a crow flew over her as she slept and kept going until it reached the well as deep as the world. The crow dropped her brother’s thighbone into the well. The giant, who was both dreaming the dream, and awake within the dream, threw the thighbone out of the well, but the crow brought it back, and dropped it down the well again. The giant tied the angel’s feather to the bone, and asked the feather to take the bone far away. So, finally, the bone was gone. The giant washed the walls of the well with her tears, and scrubbed the stone of the turtle’s back with her fury. Her shoulder throbbed with pain—BA-thoomp BA-thoomp BA-thoomp—but the smell of death remained.
The giant who kept her heart inside an egg, inside a well, woke from a terrible dream. Her hands smelled like bones. Like death. She went to the river to wash away both the dream and the smell of death, and while she was sitting by the side of the river, she thought about her heart. How safe was it, really, inside an egg at the bottom of the well as deep as the world, if even a crow could find it there? She lit a small fire and toasted some bread over the flames. On the other side of the river, three crows sat in a tree. Each of them was as fine and glossy as silk, their beaks sharp with grief; their eyes full of dark light.
The crows were singing their morning song. Nonsense words, their song might seem to some, but not to the giant. The crows sang the songs of the dead. Syllable by syllable they sang the song of the bones. The crows were particularly concerned with the dead who were not complete. They sang the song of gathering bones. The broken and divided bones.
The giant tore a tree from the ground and threw it across the river at the birds, who rose up affronted. She was sick and tired of having such terrible dreams. Her shoulder ached with stiffness: perhaps she had made it worse tearing up that tree, throwing it so hard and so far. The pain, when she moved it in a certain way, made her wince and cry out. It brought tears of frustration to her lake-blue eyes.
Once, the giant had been told, a woman had built a tower in which to live. The tower was so high that its base was on the earth, but its crown touched the joists supporting the floors of heaven. The woman made sure that there were no windows in the walls of the tower below the level of the clouds, and when she entered the tower for the last time, she sealed up the entrance behind her with bricks and mortar and magic. Then she climbed the stairs that wound up the inside of the tower until she reached the first four windows. These windows were placed to look out to the north, west, south, and east of the tower from the first chamber. The first day when she opened the shutters, she could not see the world beneath her: the whole of the earth was blanketed in clouds. Nobody could reach her; the woman cried tears of unparalleled joy.
At last, she was alone.
The giant packed her tools into her backpack, tied her bucket to the rope at her waist, and set off again to the well as deep as the world. She took her wheelbarrow with her, and on the way she collected rocks and stones, piling them on top of the barrow until the mound almost obstructed her view of the road ahead.
The giant began to build. She had built things out of stone before, and her hands were strong and capable. Her shoulder gave her grief, and sometimes she had to stop working for a day to rest her body. She created a pulley system to carry rocks up to the top of the construction, and slept in a hammock slung across the great hollow of the tower’s belly, which became the upper portion of the throat of the well as deep as the world. It took the giant a month to build the tower, which had three living chambers inside it: one at the height of the highest of the continent’s mountains; one at twice that height, and the last at the height of the clouds. On the last day of work, she sealed herself into the tower, just as the woman in the story had done, and climbed up to the first chamber. She opened the windows so that she could feel the night breeze and look out at the stars and the moon, and then she lay down to sleep.
That night, she dreamed that a crow flew to the top of the tower, and threw her brother’s fingerbone down the chimney. The giant inside the dream threw it out the south window, and bricked up the chimney—she could do without a fire for warmth and cooking, but she could not do with a broken heart. The crow brought the bone back! It flew up to the roof of the tower, and removed some of the ceramic tiles from the roof so that it could toss the fingerbone down the tower. The giant caught the bone as it fell and threw it out of the north window. This went on for some time: the crow dropped the bone down the gullet of the tower, and the giant threw the bone out of the window: south, east, north, and west. Her shoulder was stiff with pain: she could barely move. She could no longer lift her arm to put on a shirt or close a window. The rain came in, and the wind and the hail. There was no warm fire, and no soft green blanket to lie under.
The crow threw the fingerbone in at the window, and then perched on the window’s edge. The giant rolled over and glared at the bird. “Fuck off, maggot-breath,” she said.
The crow cocked its head and seemed to smile. Its sisters gathered at the other windows, each with a bone in its claw. Soon, the floor of the chamber was covered in the giant’s brother’s bones.
The giant rolled onto her left side and pushed herself up from the floor. The whole right side of her body was a racket of hurt. She gathered each of the bones and put them in her backpack. It was hard work going down the stairs carrying the bones. She had to sling the backpack over her left arm when she would have preferred to use her stronger side: her right. She had to spiral down the tower anti-clockwise, which was the way the stairs wound down the inside curves of the tower. This meant her bad shoulder was against the wall. When she stopped to rest, she had to twist herself awkwardly to lean against it. The cold of the stones sometimes eased the pain, but sometimes made it worse.
At the base of the tower, she used her pick and her sledgehammer to create a doorway. Every thud of the hammer on the stone sent a blade of pain through her. She used her left hand and arm as much as she could manage. Clawing broken stone from the wall with the pick, with her bare hands. Finally, she had made a hole as big as her fist, then as large as her head, then as wide as her body. She pushed her backpack out through the hole, and then slithered through it herself. Outside, the crows waited. Two of them sat in a nearby tree, one on the ground. They were pleased to see her. As pleased as crows can be.
For seven days she followed them. They crossed rivers and climbed over mountains. They skirted the edge of a desert and passed through a forest so dark that within it there were no shadows, even on the brightest days. Each night, she worked on stitching a gravesack. The sack was long and narrow, and made of the finest and palest linen. She embroidered eggs, and wells, and towers in the cloth. And stars and clouds and windows. Finally, the crows let her know that they had reached the place they had been leading her towards. There was a road nearby, and a creek. By the side of the road someone had constructed a shrine of sorts. Faded flowers drooped in the heat.
After taking off her shoes and washing her feet in the creek, the giant dozed in a shaded spot near the water. The ground was hard and uneven, but she was used to that by now. The crows didn’t consider her comfort, any more than they had during the long week of walking. When she woke, it was late afternoon. The light was pink and low. The crows showed her where to dig. Her pain was so loud she could no longer hear the earth turn, no longer hear the crow’s song. There was only the light of her pain, a song of its own. She counted the shovelfuls of dirt and stone she removed from the earth. The crows made her dig until, as she stood in the hole, her shoulders were level with the surface of the earth. At the bottom of the hole, she hit a shelf of stone, within which there were fossilised birds. Perhaps one of them, the giant mused, was the fossil of a crow. Or at least the ancestor of a crow.
The giant took her brother’s bones out of the backpack, washed each of them in the clear water of the creek, dried them with the ends of her hair, and laid them out to dry in the late sun. When the bones were dry, she wrapped them in soft wool and placed them in the gravesack. She lowered the bones into the grave and stood at the lip of the great hole. The three crows perched on her shoulders. Together, the grieving giant and her crow companions sang the song her mother had taught her. The song of going. The song of longing.
The giant who kept her heart inside an egg, inside a well, inside a tower lay down to sleep by the edge of the creek. Her brother’s bones lay quiet in their grave. The crows, satisfied at last, did not bother the giant in her dreams. No bones fell down from the sky; no bones came in at the windows. She lay on her left side, trying to remember—even in her dreams—not to put weight on her right shoulder.
The moon brightened. The trees softened into silhouettes: dark fingers reaching across a dark sky. The giant had lit a fire, which warmed the front of her body. Her back was to the road, and colder, but she quite liked the feeling of being divided in that way. It was like being two creatures at once: a creature of darkness, and a creature of light. A snake and an egg. A tree and a seed.
That night, the giant dreamed that pain lifted from her body. That she danced, as her mother had once danced, her great feet stomping, unafraid. Fruit fell from the trees, birds lifted into the air, waves formed on the surface of a lake, crashing onto the pebbled shore with a stone-wet and satisfying hush hush. In her dream, the giant looked out of the south window of the tower and saw her mother, whole and tall. She looked out of the east window and saw her father. She looked out of the north window, and there were her sisters, all six of them, dancing in a circle.
The giant looked out of the west window …
Even in her dream, she could not see her brother coming towards her. There were only the crows—silk-dark and silent—bearing the bones of the broken dead.