Late one night, a father bends over his workbench, removes his daughter’s right femur, and sharpens it into a walking stick. It will leave deep gouges in the dirt, the way his surgeries leave gouges in her mind. He is not interested in the contents of her head. He has removed them and found them wanting. He kept only the mass of chicken claws he drew from her limbic system; now he lowers each into a bottle of tincture. When the kid is well enough, she can set up a table in the cafeteria and sell these, the remains of her mind. The chicken claws are charming, and he thinks what is left of her might pay better attention in arithmetic if the instructors wore them around their necks. She would recognize the amulets from somewhere, and, remembering both what she has lost and what she can still lose, be goaded into action.
He shears her long black hair, and grinds it to bits along with a devil-red cayenne. With this potion, he will torture those who try to redeem her.
As for the excess tincture, he sets it beside the twin suns that are his morning eggs, mixes it into the “mummy food” he eats late at night: a stew of figs smooth and black as Nefertiti’s heart.
She has convalesced long; she has healed incompletely. Her mother worries about her education. “Without middle school, you can’t get into college. Without college,” she frets, “You won’t be anyone.” The girl hasn’t been anyone for a long time, and she doesn’t see how college will help. Still, she is packed back to school, her deflated leg wrapped in paper towels, and she is given one crutch. (What happened to the other?) A sympathetic teacher petitions for a special bus with a lift, but after a few phone calls, never follows through. It is September, and in the stifling heat of the English room, her leg begins to stink. The paper towels, soaked in sweat, fall to the ground. The boys in the back pick them up with two fingers and throw them at each other. Some kids complain, and the girl is taught English alone, after school, where her smell can bother no one.
Sometimes, late at night, alone in bed, she becomes curious about her leg. Against her mother’s warnings, she untapes the paper towels. Gingerly, she touches the hanging, goosebumped skin, puts her hand inside its hollowness. She falls asleep with the paper towels off, the night air coming through the screen to caress her newness, her wound. One morning, her mother notices the paper towels have been replaced crookedly, and beats her—but after that, she lets her be.
When the new boy comes to school, his skin pale, his black hair long as a girl’s, she starts wearing long patchwork skirts. He teases her, he flirts, he asks what she is hiding, until one day another girl trips her and her skirts go flying. She runs from the girls, from the boy, humiliated, repulsed by herself, but she cannot run very fast, and the boy catches up with her in a field of wet grass. She kneels, flushed, too tired to resist as he touches her tears—silent, shocked, awed—as he very gently, slowly, when she is ready, lifts her skirt. Who is more surprised when, under his tender gaze, the leg changes to a sculpture of sugar?
Her hair grows back.
Her father wants to stuff her leg with new things. Children’s toys, whirligigs. She curls on the table like a roast chicken while her father tries out different stuffings. First he packs her leg full of pine needles and dirt. He takes a sniff and decides it is not quite to his liking. He reaches in and cleans her out, scratches deep inside her because she looks itchy. And then he yelps, bitten—because deep in her leg, a hank of black hair is choking his fingers, cutting off circulation. Her father’s hand turns red as cayenne, translucent. It pulses, burning, glossy—veins and tendons bulge.
She looks through the window, and sees a deer leaping through the pepper garden, leaping in pain, its delicate hooves glowing molten. She knows she will not see the boy again.
Her father decides the time has come. The chicken claws he scooped from her mind have marinated long enough, and now the family will sell the tinctures. He comes with her to school—always an appreciated Parent Volunteer—and sets up a long table in the cafeteria, the table he has envisioned, twirled in crepe paper. Her mother got the large plastic banner at Kinko’s. “Mind and Soul,” it reads, surrounded by smiley faces, pink and yellow and green. Only close observers see that the smaller faces do not smile—they frown and yell and scream.
The remains of the girl’s mind do not sell well. Midday, the girl and her father go to buy lunch; they return to find the bottles gone, the cash box stuffed with bills. “Woman,” exclaims the father, “you could sell ice to Eskimos!”
That night, as the girl lies crying in her room, her mother ascends the stairs. “It may not help,” she says softly, sitting on the bed, stroking her daughter’s hair. “It may not help now, but I bought—” and in the light of the bedside lamp, her mother lifts all the mind-bottles from her huge purse, and lines them up beside her weeping daughter, on her daughter’s narrow bed, beside her own mother-leg, her hollow leg, her own secret hollow leg.