At first, I hide the zigzag. I feel that people will misunderstand. I wear my mother’s enormous sweaters, the long-necked ones, and I keep my sleeves unrolled so that my wrists are lost in the cable-knit vastness. I don’t raise my hand in class and receive no unsolicited questions. I keep to myself, and I eat lunch alone. Only at night do I admire it. When I come home after school, I crawl beneath the coats in my closet and pull my huge sleeve back. I feel the bumps in the dark. I try to memorize them. I hold the flashlight with my teeth, jab the button, and shine light upon my zigzag. Illuminated, it is rosy pink. I scratch it slowly, press the raised skin with the edge of my thumbnail, and I am sure I feel a stirring deep within, feel a second watery pulse above my own. There is something alive inside me. Something that is not just me.
The secret does not last. My father catches me scraping my wrist with my spoon over breakfast. He asks about it. He grabs my hand and flips it, shoves the sleeve back over my wrist. He calls in my mother. They squint down at my zigzag in dismay.
I did not want it to become such an ordeal.
Scabies? My father says the word like its mildewed. You’re saying my daughter has scabies? He leans toward the doctor and mouths something that makes my mother stab her fingers against her temples. I think the something might have been, that’s hex U-Haul.
The doctor makes a face. No, she says, not like that. Most cases don’t fall within the realm of STIs. Your daughter’s infestation seems to be isolated to the left wrist and is undoubtedly something she got from a school chum of hers.
My father has a look that says, my daughter does not have any school chums.
My mother has a look that says, infestation? infestation? infestation?
The doctor closes her laptop. She says, slather her down with this cream and she’ll be fine.
My mother finds her voice and tells me to listen to what the doctor has to say, now.
I can’t. I try for a second, I really do, but I am busy. I am drawing in my notebook, diagraming a jewelry-box-sized nursery, and thinking hard about names. There is something clever in whatever the doctor was saying, something that almost sounded like music. Scare Baby, she said. Scare Baby, Scare Baby.
Oh, my zigzag, I know what you’re called now. I know just who you are.
I have been told that I am very precocious. I apparently sound like a small adult. I do not sound convincingly adultish enough to talk my way out of school, which I think is a human rights violation, but my opinion doesn’t matter on these issues, so anyways, the point is that I read a lot. I haven’t really got anybody, so I make a bigger body for myself. I make rib cages out of book stacks and pull ratty quilts overtop like a film of skin. I crawl inside this book torso, become the spine, and read a good book heart. Little words flush around me, rush through me like blue liquid in an IV, or like purple syrups through the capillaries in my feet. In this big book body, I am learning about the universe, and about love and true belonging. I am learning about multiplication. I am learning about how paradoxes are born and die.
Mother or baby? Birdie or egg? I found my answer around the fifth chapter of an evolutionary textbook with big green illustrations. It’s hardly even a paradox, see. It’s more like a trick question. The answer is neither, because at first, there was not even birth at all. That came later. First, there was oneness, and that oneness would split itself down the middle and become two, like a girl and her reflection in the mirror. Somewhere in the corkscrews of our personhood, our DNA still remembers this, remembers being too small to understand, being something that chops itself in half to make new friends.
I am satisfied that Scare Baby will be a friend to me.
It is soothing to know that I am not alone.
One story about miraculous babies goes like this.
The violence was over and their father was dead, so Sparky and Smartie got married. They lived together on a cloud on a mountain. They tried to think of ways to pass the time. Sometimes they would chase each other through the orchards or take turns knocking birds from the sky with their slingshots. Other times, they’d build rings of fluted columns from salt and dance about inside them. Smartie was an architect, and she crafted arches while Sparky chopped the heads off the chickens. They ate together, slept on a pallet of flowers. They were unused to such molasses afternoons. When their father was alive, everything always happened so fast.
One day, the two of them came across a green lagoon, so they peeled off their flowy dresses and tossed them up high in the branches of yonder fig trees. They shook the pins from their hair, unbraided their beards, and waded into the water waist-deep. Pale fish ribboned between their ankles. Reeds bent around their hips and their bellies. They splashed one another and floated on their backs, and they soaked together for hours, kicking and drifting, laughing lazy as the dragonflies shaped rings around their heads.
When the sun was dipping, Smartie climbed up on a rock. She wrung out her hair and basked in the evening warmth, algorithm daydreams ticking numbers between her ears.
Sparky stayed in the water. He flicked water on her knees and she ignored him. He said, I am going to be king, I think. You must do as I say.
Smartie wrinkled her nose. She said, why?
It’s my birthright, said Sparky. As father was king, so shall I.
Smartie ran her fingers through her hair. Father was a bad man. I don’t want to be like him. I don’t see why you would want it yourself. Anyway, even if that’s the case, she said, then I should be king as well.
You’re not father’s son, he said. You’re just the daughter. Daughters cannot be kings. They just make them.
She was quiet for a while. Eventually she said, I am going to have a baby.
Sparky said, a baby?
Smartie did not say anything in return.
Sparky sank deeper. Water came over his chin, his lips, his nose and gold-domed cheeks. Soon only his eyes stayed dry. His dry eyes fixed on Smartie’s ankles, and he floated closer so slowly, so smoothly that the water around him looked like glass. No ripples, no bubbles. Just his eyes in all the green.
Smartie said, Sparky?
Sparky did not blink.
Smartie said, Sparky, please say something. We are better than him, Sparky. We won’t ever be like him, won’t ever. We will love our babies and they will love us back, and we will all live on the mountain together with the rams and the bluebirds and all the singing willow trees, and none of us will be cannibals, and all of us will be happy. We will dine on milk and honeycomb. We need never have wartime again. Oh Sparky, aren’t you listening?
Sparky grabbed her feet and opened his mouth.
I am good at planning for the worst.
I read the pamphlet the doctor gave me thoroughly. There is a cream to be administered at night, and inside of the cream there is a poison intended to kill little microscopic mites. I fear that Scare Baby might be harmed in the process.
I hid seven cups of water under my chest.
When my father came to lather me down, I kept my arms out like wings, and I stared straight ahead as he coated me with cream. Jaw stiff. Tearless. When the procedure was over, I told him that I was headed to bed, and my father did not question my motives.
Now I sit by the door with my knees to my chest, waiting for him to turn off the hallway light. I’ll know it’s off when the orange strip disappears from beneath my door.
I am sure my Scare Baby is dying. It is still beneath my skin.
The light disappears, and I am bathed in darkness.
I dive for the cups on the floor beneath my chest. I pull them out one by one, and when they clatter together my heart slams against the roof of my skull.
I am still for a moment, listening.
No parent sounds.
Good. I grab one of the cups and splash my arm, douse my wrist with water.
I do this repeatedly until I’m out of cups. I poured out seven cups total.
It’s made a little horrible puddle in the middle of my floor. I drop my mother’s sweater and stand upon it, try to sop it up. The wool squelches between my toes. When I peel it back off the floor and hang it up, the floor underneath still looks glossy. Moonlight through the window slats makes a zigzags overtop of the wet spot. I hug my wrist to my chest.
I am sure there is a book on my shelf about a girl who evades her miraculous baby.
I will be more clever than that girl.
Sparky sat in his chair and wept. Nothing could console him. The smell of wine was nauseating and the velvet under his thighs made him sick. He hated lights and he hated music, hated the battering they gave, so he forbade all mirth and merriment on pain of lengthy death. The halls of his cloud-mountain-castle rang silent. His new wife muzzled the maids. Even then, the universe was swollen all around Sparky. His brain was a fig tree in a pot three sizes too small. The roots of him shoved up against his gums. The roots of him rasped against the back of his eye sockets. The roots of him stabbed out his ears. Try as he might, there was no release, no peak to the cacophony, no crest at the top of the wave. He had never been sick before. He was sure that he would die.
Father, said Ugly, a crooked-grown child of his new wife. Are you well?
Don’t speak to me, said Sparky. In his head there was the ticker tape of numbers, of algorithms, of consequence. He viced his skull in his hands.
Ugly smiled at him. Even squinting as he was, Sparky saw Ugly pull something from behind his back, something beaked and painted red. Ugly had a hatchet. He rolled the handle in his hands. Ugly said, I can see that you are hurting, father, and I hate that. I don’t want you to hurt. I would never want you to hurt.
Sparky tightened his fists in the fabric of his dress.
The hatchet crashed just shy of his ear.
Sparky jerked back so abruptly that his chair tipped, and he spilled onto the floor. His open shoulder splashed the marble tiles. The air smacked out of his lungs. His brain cracked like fireworks and the world shot orange-gray. He couldn’t see. He couldn’t swallow. The blood from his shoulder smeared under his belly, was clammy under his elbows and his palms. He heaved himself onto his forearms and panted, dry wretched, writhed his slippery body toward the door.
A sandaled, twisted foot pinned Sparky’s dress to the floor.
Sparky trashed and spat. He sucked in between his teeth and said with his voice in ribbons, father, father.
Ugly brought the hatchet down and chopped open Sparky’s head.
Smartie clattered to the ground in a beetle-shell dress. She was sticky-pink with brain matter and her eyes were creamy with birth. After the shock wore off, she saw that she had legs, and she stood up. She took off her helmet, dropped it. It rolled by Sparky’s open skull. Its fluffy, wine-dark stripe of plumage tickled his aching ear.
Ugly dropped his hatchet and said, oh what have you done?
Sparky said, oh what, oh what have I done?
Smartie said, good morning! I am alive now, motherfather. I am here, breathing air, with you. Have you named me?
I never saw it bite me, so I never saw the shape of it, but I think I’ve got the right idea. It was big as a weasel at least. Its exoskeleton was glossy-iridescent, and mostly it was shaped like a lobster, only much longer, with its body in centipede segments that resembled a thick string of pearls. It had eyelash legs all down its sides. Fairy wings on every bump, seventeen pairs total. That’s thirty-four wings in all. It flew like a ribbon underwater, wiggly and liquid-like, and it noodled under my window screen and floated deep into my bedroom where it found me. Maybe it had been looking for me in particular. Maybe it’d been looking for a while. It made its way to the lamp on my bedside table and scuttled up its brassy neck, perched on the pull chain, and coiled its egg-laying proboscis at the ready.
I must have been thirsty or frightened by a dream. Whatever the reason, I was half awake somehow, and I reached out in the dark, curled my fingers around the lamp chain, and tugged. The bite was like a lightning strike. It stung and all at once, I contained many.
Back at the doctor’s, my mother showed me this picture. It looked like a flat, boneless ghost dog. There is a patch of red in its middle but no other colors. She said that Scare Baby looks like this, but that it is so small that I couldn’t see it if I tried.
My mother meant well but was mistaken.
Scare Baby will be big enough to grab.
I try to talk about this at school and am met with little interest.
One morning over his morning coffee, my father says unprompted, you must’ve been playing with boys. It’s filthy, filthy. Only boys would be buggy at this age. I hate to even think about it. It makes me want to flood the house with bleach. It makes me want to never let you over to anybody’s house ever again. I can’t fathom my daughter infested. Makes my skin crawl. God, oh god.
I can’t recall the last time I spoke to a boy, or the last time I was in a house that wasn’t this one.
I decide not to talk to my father for a while.
I go to school without having finished my toast. I console myself by reading aloud to my wrist during recess. My wrist hums a note of approval, thank goodness. This must mean that Scare Baby enjoys myth.
There are so many stories about Sparky to tell you. He comes in so many different shapes. Sparky is a buzzard, and your best friend’s doppelgänger, and a fistful of pennies crashing on your head. The shape doesn’t matter. What matters is that when he leaves, you are not alone inside your body anymore. This means, I think, that pregnancy is like a spore. It is in the air. It gathers on the stems of things, on daffodils and benches. It’s like finding a feather on the sidewalk, it’s just like that. You pick it up, brush it to your cheek, and then something lives inside you and wants to share your food. Even Sparky wasn’t immune to this kind of pollination. Once, he found a lump above his knee, and he split the intrusion with a pair of dull craft scissors. As soon as the gash was open, out of his thigh fell a baby. The baby soon unfurled into a man made of wine bottles. This is just the way it is.
As much as I want to have this baby, it is starting to make living very hard.
I’m very tired.
At night instead of sleeping I put my teeth in my wrist bone. I am slightly afraid that I will accidentally pull out Scare Baby with my incisors and swallow him, but the impulse overpowers all my fear. My skin is dented slick. It’s rougher around the pregnancy, and the rough spots scrape my tongue, and it hurts but still I can’t stop biting. It makes my stomach hurt. I want to sleep, I want to feel less like I’m stuffed with cotton balls, I want to empty out my head and be nothing for a few hours, but I can’t.
Maybe Scare Baby could use a little nip.
I’ve just got questions, I think, and I don’t have answers for them. Scare Baby is a baby, it hasn’t even been born yet, it has no mouth with which to speak. Maybe instead I’ll find the Scare Parent. The Scare Parent will know what I want. Threatening my Scare Baby with potential swallowing should get the Parent’s attention. Just a nip. Just a tug. Soon, Scare Parent will manifest itself and speak unto me, and I could ask it why it picked me in particular to mother this child we share.
I wouldn’t really threaten my Scare Baby. It’s just.
It’s just hard to love something that eats your skin.
I am trying, but I have questions.
I don’t think having questions can be wrong.
Mary was a girl around my age who lived a long time ago. If she is anything like the Mary in my grade, she’s always standing up on the swings even though the teacher keeps yelling at her, and she’s always got piano lessons and therefore can’t ever come over to anybody’s house. She paints lizards on her tennis shoes and she always has an extra eraser. I have tried to be her friend but don’t know how.
Anyway, this is a different Mary. One evening, the Mary who was my age a long time ago was in her room, trying to get some sleep, when her window came open and a star came fluttering down onto her floor. It filled her entire room with a fire of every color, dazzled brighter than any mortal eye can comprehend, and then the star dulled, shrank, and became an enormous praying mantis. It was about the size of a bull. It sat on the floor across from Mary’s bed and cleared its throat a few times expectantly.
Mary pulled her blanket to her nose.
The mantis said, are you Mary?
Mary said, you are a hideous bug. Please leave.
The mantis said, I am an angel of God, actually. You cannot tell me to leave. My name is Gabriel. You can call me Gabe, if you’d like. You are Mary, are you not?
Mary nodded. Her eyes were big as spoons.
The mantis said, well Mary, God has plans for you.
Mary said, by God, do you mean Sparky? I’ve read books about Sparky. I’m not sure that his plans will have my best interests at heart.
The mantis shook its terrible bug head. It said, no, some other God. He’s choosier than Sparky. Physically larger. Look, I wouldn’t worry too much about that. What matters is, you’re going to be pregnant, and you will be special, and everybody will try to kill your baby.
Mary bit the insides of her cheeks. She said, I’m not so sure I’m ready for a baby. And why would everybody want to kill it? Wouldn’t God electrocute them for that? Wouldn’t he be angry? At least Sparky would be angry. Sparky would make them push rocks.
The mantis said, you’re asking a lot of questions, kid, and I need you to understand that none of them matter to me. You’re pregnant now. That’s just the way it is. Capiche?
Mary opened her mouth and shut it.
The praying mantis was gone.
The Scare Parent never showed up.
My Scare Baby aches. It’s a little nymph now. A little magic being, squirming and eating inside me. I rub it to keep it quiet. I try to do my work. Algorithms, little algorithms. Little Smartie hatch work. It’d be nice if Scare Baby was any good at math.
There’s a huffing sound beside me.
Our teacher says, oh god.
Across the table from me, my classmate Mary’s eyes bulge out like gumballs. I’m afraid that she might pop. She looks at me and her ribs batter, and our teacher kneels beside her and scrunches her brows.
Everybody looks over at her like, what’s wrong?
Blood, Mary says. I don’t like to look at blood.
It occurs with a start that I’ve been scratching a while. My white shirt has gone pink.
The whole room is staring. The ceiling tiles are staring. The tables heave close to catch a glimpse of my bloody shirt. Mary looks like she might die.
I can’t feel my toes in my shoes.
I want it out.
I want my body to belong to me again. I am not food and I am too young to be a mother. I don’t know how to take care of my Scare Baby and I don’t know how to feed it things that are not me. I want to raise it outside of my body.
I want to teach it real manners.
Dear Scare Baby: please don’t wriggle in public, especially not in class.
It hurts and I’m trying to make friends.
When are you due? Mary’s voice sounds like a clarinet over the phone and I want to cry when she speaks. Mary is the only person my age who’s ever called me. Mary says, if it’s born soon, that means it will be a Gemini.
I ask her if she knows the story.
Mary says she doesn’t, but she’d like to.
Well here goes. Once day, Sparky became a goose. He swam around the sky, fluffy hands a-flapping, until a fistful of eagles swooped from above him and struck him with their beaks. The eagles said, you terror! you terror! you’re a terrible father! you never come by! They all bit his skinny neck. They tore his wings to ribbons. They gashed his feathered chest. Sparky dropped from the open air, and he spiraled down and down, until he crashed on an unsuspecting girl named Leta who was walking in a garden and minding her own business.
Leta? Do you mean Princess Leia?
Yeah, sure. So when, Princess Leia saw this quickly descending torn-up goose, she scrambled to grab him. The bird wretched in her arms. Blood splashed everywhere. It polka-dotted her nice white dress. He beat his wings around her, and his feathers smooshed around her face, and the claws on his webbed feet scratched up her arms. Leia said, oh no, please don’t die, you horrible ridiculous goose.
While she was speaking, Sparky snaked his head around and jammed his beak between her teeth.
Leia’s eyes popped wide. She made a sound of panic in her throat.
Then in a flurry of feathers, he left.
Leia was alone.
She rubbed her head and gawked at her empty arms. How bizarre, she thought. Maybe she had imagined that; she’d been told that she was silly, and oft mistaken. She adjusted her shawl, gathered herself, and tramped back down the garden path. She brushed her hands over hollyhock stems as she went. She thought of things for dinner.
Later, when she kissed her boyfriend on the mouth, he laughed so hard his ribs snapped. As he lay on the floor, bleeding profusely, he explained that she had feathers stuck between her teeth, and that her kiss was so ticklish he feared that he might die.
Leia was pregnant with twins by dawn. In a few days they were born, and she named them Casper and Polly. Casper was a human baby. Polly was part bird. You couldn’t tell that from looking at him, but he never could laugh like a human little boy. When he opened his mouth, a honk sounded from the bottom of his soul, and it made the geese overhead holler trumpet song.
Mary considers all of this. She asks me what it means.
It means there are two options, I tell her.
If Scare Baby is like Casper, he’ll be so small that I can’t see him, just like my mother and my doctor say. He’ll scuttle away from me and chomp on somebody’s hands. I’ll never see him again.
And if he’s like Polly?
If Scare Baby is like Polly, he’ll be the god of bugs.
It’s rare that I can sleep with my Scare Baby inside me, and tonight I almost did it. I was warm and snug and comfy. I was dreaming about playing hopscotch on the ceiling with a giant praying mantis. I don’t know why being awake is happening to me, but I reach for the lamp chain and pull it. My bedroom floods with honeyed light.
Something around me is moving.
Something else nearby is awake.
It’s my windows. My curtains are pulled back tonight, and my window panes are crawling with life. Moths and flies and leggy things flock to my room, crowd over one another for a space atop the glass. They press their ashen bellies close. They crane their necks to see me. To see us.
My zigzag is not itchy.
I dig my fingers into my wrist, I feel for it, for my Scare Baby’s pulse. It is gone. The skin of my wrist is vacant. My heartbeat rails in my teeth.
What a community of insects my child has brought to us.
My child who is outside of me.
Scare Baby is watching me now.
I stand up on my bed with my blankets around me and cough to clear my throat. My pillows are unsteady underfoot. I fight the wobble in my chin. I speak loud enough for the audience to hear me, louder than the milky of sleep, the milky of youth, the milky of inexperience.
I say, hello my offspring. Have you been born?
The fly choir taps on the shutters.
I say, I have been calling you Scare Baby. It can be your name if you’d like.
Silence, silence. Thousands are swarming. Infinite limbs kiss the glass.
I sit down on my bed, swing my legs over the side, and drop to the floor. My toes don’t creak the hardwood, but the planks sway to accommodate my feet. I walk across my bedroom floor and my blankets trail behind me like a coronation train.
I grab my window and yank upwards with all of my strength. The metal handles bites my palms and my fingers scream and burn and my shoulders ache, but I pull and my window heaves upwards.
I nudge the mesh screen with my fingertips.
It falls down two stories and crashes in the daffodils below.
The bugs rush in around me. They’re in the air all at once, like smoke as a candle is snuffed. Their wings make a sound like a deck of cards shuffling. They vibrate together, amass in a great black plume. The plume settles thick on my ceiling, my walls, my bedposts. They gather in the ripples of my sheets.
I walk back to bed slowly.
Little wings weave between my toes.
None of these are the Scare Parent. I can sense this. They are something perhaps holier, disciples and six-legged prophets. These are the insect story makers. These are the shelled weavers of myth.
There is a crunch and a slither when I peel back the sheet, a rustling as I nest my blankets around me. I put my cheek against the pillow and somethings squirms below my ear. The crystal susurrus whirr above me. Wispy antennae brush my lips.
How beloved by many we are, my little one, my child out of sight on the ceiling.
How many eyes we have.
Mary’s house is full of doilies. I tell her that they look like spider webs. She says that she doesn’t like that idea very much. Either way, they look rather nice on top of all her wingback chairs, where we sit while we eat little cakes.
I am staying in Mary’s house because my room is being fumigated, a process that involves men in space suits spray painting poisonous squiggles into my walls. The infestation was more severe than initially expected, I heard by snooping, but my father exiled me from the kitchen during this conversation because I apparently have a knack for the wrong ideas. I can’t sleep in a poisonous room. While the massacre ensues, I am to stay here, in Mary’s nice house with its spider web doilies.
Mary says, do you think your baby died when they covered you with cream?
I say, no, I don’t. It was born a few days beforehand. Whatever was left was just dust.
Mary says, do you think it will be exterminated when the men get to your house?
I say, no, even less so that. The martyrs who love it might die, and it will mourn them, but it is somewhere else now. It is someplace with stars and skin.
Mary smooths her stockings. She has those constant piano lessons, and while she goes and does her scales, I wander out onto her porch and sit on the pretty white bench swing. I put my knees under my chin. Beyond her overhanging roof, the low-hanging sun is soft boiled and her lawn looks aqua blue. Dandelions poke out of curb cracks. Crusty cars roll by with groans.
A dragonfly lands on my toenail.
I thumb my zigzag scar and feel it swell.