I have taken a blow to the head.
Not one blow. Many blows. But one was worse than the others.
And my larynx is not my own. My heart isn’t either. But I have a phantom larynx and a phantom heart.
I also have one artificial arm—my flesh ends above the elbow.
My phantom heart beats faster and slower than my artificial heart which drums in my chest like a parade band that only knows one song, a patriotic one. I cannot name the song, but I hate this song. It’s the enemy’s song.
My phantom larynx is what’s speaking now, within me. I am not saying this aloud.
I’m standing in line with the others, awaiting genetic testing. This was a city park at one point, named after a business magnate. There’s a plaque and a hologram of him with his angry family. Their images ripple. Everywhere in the park there are plastic tents. Some tents are air conditioned. They thrum with cool air. Our air conditioning has failed, a purr that whinnied and then stopped.
I’ve already had genetic testing—at birth and when I was rounded up in a raid and when I was shot in the swamps, and, again, in the military hospital. My DNA is built into my documentation. But they say this testing is different. It’s part of the armistice agreement, a mandate to try to reunite us with our families.
I’ve recovered here, in enemy territory—which didn’t start out as enemy territory. I’ve been treated in the enemy’s hospital for the last six months. They do their job. They don’t look me in the eye though, not if they don’t have to. My care is mandatory. They had to fill me with artificial parts.
My body can’t be reunited with what it’s lost. But maybe I can be reunited with the cells of my family. I only have one family member, that I know of. And I am here, hoping for one thing—to find Gossy Beigen, my mother. I last saw her when I was six years old.
There are other prisoners of war in line. Some are still twitching with nerve gas. Our titanium limbs are shiny and our joints glide silently. Our new internals are ticking and swishing away within us. My own heart and larynx are made of slick biocompatible alloys and the shiny intestines of pigs. My chest is puffed up under my shirt. My chest has a swollen seam, clotted gauze, and the beautiful bead-work of glue. I wear a scarf to hide the bandages at my throat.
How did I lose my arm?
I was eight. The fences were electrical. Even those around the playground.
I don’t know anyone in this line. I’m from far away. I was found and captured, near dead, in a swamp, what was once a vacation destination known for orange groves, maybe. This was a rumor.
When I was lying on my back in that swamp, I was sure I saw an orange. It glowed and bobbed.
But it wasn’t an orange. It was a hunter’s hat, bobbing as he walked away, leaving me for dead. Leaving me for someone to body-bag.
Leaving all of us for dead. I’d escaped the detention camp with six others. I assume they are dead.
I was left for dead. But now I’m here.
The little kids in the line have been pulled from work camps. They stare blindly, their eyes bitten by radiation that punctured the air for miles and miles. They could be orphans or not—that’s why they’re here, in hopes of finding someone who might claim them. I have believed that I am an old orphan, but maybe I’m not. Now I’m almost sixteen years old. I am so old that I can’t think of myself as an orphan anymore. Now I just am. I make my way.
Most of the orphans look lost and mute and memory-dusted. I guess I do too.
Inside the tent, it’s only dead air. I’m offered a chair and my cells feel like they are cohering. Sometimes they are incoherent. Sometimes I feel like I have already begun to spin off into the world, the dark sky of night. I am part-starlight.
We all are.
We have been unhinged from one another.
Remember: babies wrenched from the crooks of arms.
Remember: the mother and the father, once the baby is wrenched, hold their arms outward, half-cocked, broken-like, holding a bale of air.
This was my view from the fence, over and over. A view of the taking of children from mothers and fathers. The view was theater. We always drew close to the fence to watch. We knew we shouldn’t. But we had to see it happen, again and again. It was meant to terrorize us. But it created something else in us. To see it. To witness it. To have proof—this is what they have done to us. We were not just nameless, faceless. We gave witness. We watched because we all had eyes. And we offered our eyes to the children and their mothers and their fathers.
We said, Here, a feast of eyes. A feast of being seen. We are watching. We are here. We stand. This is happening. See our eyes seeing it. We will keep seeing—for you, with you. We see each other. We exist.
When it’s my turn, I open my mouth. They swab my inner cheek. This is touch.
No. This is what passes for touch.
These are the enemy’s hands—quick and efficient.
Eyeless—because if you don’t look at me, do you have eyes? I can’t see them. They don’t see me.
The workers are invisibles with hands inside of gloves that shine like the intestines of pigs—like the intestines of pigs that make up my fake heart and larynx. And their humanity is hoarded. In this way, they are artificial too—like my fake heart and larynx. What else is a human who doesn’t offer humanity?
This war was the Forced March, the Great Diaspora, the Systematic Displacement, the lock-step shattering of communities and families, dispersing humans, fracturing networks.
I am a diaspora, too. I am the smaller scale of war. Each of us is. What was once whole is now broken and scattered.
One of the other patients tried to retrain my mind. You have what’s left, he told me. Remind yourself of where you are. You have a body.
I try this now. I am inside the dead-air tent. I have a chair. I am sitting on it. My feet are on the floor.
And, proof of the world around me: an eye-bitten boy sits next to me. Our chairs touch. His swab has been processed and run through the database. A worker tells him that he has a match, a sister on another continent. “She will be notified as well.”
The eye-bitten boy can barely see. His eyes are fixed on her mouth. I think he’s also been deafened by bombing raids. She hands him papers with information written on them. I don’t know if anyone has taught him how to read.
“How will they find each other?” I ask.
“I guess it’ll be arranged.”
But how will they pay to reconnect all of these people? Who will be transported to whom? This will change lives all over again. Who will bear the brunt of that? Is there a burden to bear when we are reconnected with what was lost? Or does the eye-bitten boy’s body expand? Will his cells cohere to his sister’s—is this already happening? Is he more situated on this planet because he suddenly exists on two continents?
He spreads his hands wide on his thighs and then tightens the cloth of his pants in his fists. Then he pulls his hands as hard as he can, lifting his legs off the ground. He makes small noises in his throat. Like he is a small mammal, he makes a fox-like cry which is to say that it also sounds like a human infant.
Or a bird, one that might want to pull its feathers from its body. Birds in captivity do this. It’s true.
So do children. We pull at our skin, our hair, our clothes. We pick away at ourselves. To make physically true what we feel: that we are coming apart.
The worker says to the eye-bitten boy, “This is good news. This is good.” But she won’t look him in his eye-bitten eyes. Because she has been taught to hate him. Or because she is ashamed of the violence her people have exacted on all of us. I cannot know. “It’s good. Don’t you understand? A sister.”
The eye-bitten boy doesn’t know good or bad. He knows change. He fears change because it has never been good.
The worker starts to reach out and touch the boy, but she stops short. Since the boy is near-blind, he didn’t know the touch was an intention. He didn’t know that the touch was taken back.
The worker walks away. She, too, has a body. Was she afraid to touch the boy because she knew that it would blur the edges of her body? Does she know where her body begins and ends? I don’t think so. She must be careful with it.
What if I have a phantom brain? Maybe the parts that were shunted or damaged or de-wired exist. My phantom brain puffs and stirs. It’s itchy with altered thoughts. It aches with memories that my original brain does not want to remember.
The hunters’ shots pierced my heart and larynx. I was part of a group of kids who’d escaped. The hunters mowed us down. The bullets were fiercely designed. They chewed and sprayed blood, muscle, and bone. Maybe what pierced my heart and larynx was the abundant spray of bodies around me.
I asked the doctor what she took from my body.
“What do you mean? Bullets and some other … small pieces.”
“Small pieces of what?”
“They were unidentifiable.” She paused, looking for the right word. “Shards.”
I am made of shards. Some of the shards are still within me. Some of the shards may have belonged to people I love. Maybe I am made of others in ways I don’t understand.
It’s a comfort to think: I carry you with me.
The worker who gave the eye-bitten boy his results walks up to me.
I want to hear only one name: Gossy Beigen.
The name is something I have always been afraid of losing. Each time I lost a part of myself, I made sure that I had her name.
Gossy Beigen, I said after the electric fence.
Gossy Beigen, I said after the blows to my head, each one.
Gossy Beigen, I said after the biggest blow to my head and the shattering of my heart (which beats hard and fast right now) and larynx (said by my phantom larynx).
Gossy Beigen, I said to the sky, over and over, until someone dragged me out of the swamp.
“Is there anyone for me?” I ask the worker.
“There is a match but she is gone,” the worker says without looking into my eyes. “The records say she died many years ago, in custody.”
My phantom heart folds in on itself. It is small and then smaller.
You wake and there is too much brightness. Again. You find yourself here, again. And your hair, your ear … all wet with blood and swamp. You know where you were—running to get away with the others. And now there are none. You are alone. Because the others are dead. The hunter in the orange hat—that is not an orange—says to another man that someone will come and bag the body. “Not my job.” All of it dims. And you are within your body—deep within it. Not at the edges, not up to the skin. You have burrowed deep. And the sky is an utterance. The sky is telling you something.
Blue, it says. And you say, Is that all? Yes, it says. Gossy Beigen, you say. Gossy Beigen.
Gossy, it says. You wait a long time—or a short time. Time is hard to manage. Then the sky says, Beigen.
“But we have remains,” the worker says. Her eyes are everywhere but on me. “So she could be reconstituted.”
I’ve left the conversation but it has gone on so I’m pressed—my body feels like it is being shoved through time—to catch up. “Reconstituted?”
“Yes.” She looks at the chart. “Gossy Beigen? Right?”
“Right. But how?”
“She wouldn’t be reconstituted in adult form. Not from where she left off, of course,” the worker says, as if this would be a common misunderstanding. “But as an infant.”
“Are you asking me if I want my mother as an infant? To use her DNA to remake her?”
“It’s not part of the program. It’s not cheap. But if you’d like a consult, we’d be happy to provide …”
My phantom brain thinks, This worker doesn’t know my mother. My mother was tall. She had broad hands. She had beautiful knuckles. She wasn’t afraid of anyone. She knew how to press one of my ears to her bony chest while covering the other with the flat of her hand and humming—to fill my head with song. I knew to shut my eyes. I knew that she was providing for me a place where nothing else existed. She was saying: Don’t watch that girl get pulled away to be raped. Don’t watch that man take a beating. She sometimes sang songs about looking away, being carried away … away away.
My phantom brain tells me that this was the first blow to my head—a soft blow—my mother’s ribs and my skull creating an amphitheater and another amphitheater, to haul song from one place to another and back again. Keeping our cells strung together.
“Is the consultant here?” I ask. I have no money. The worker knows this. No one has any money.
But I wonder: Will my mother’s remains be shipped to me? Will they exist in a sealed biohazard container? A vile?
Why did they keep the remains of those who died in custody?
I don’t want to know. It was an evil regime and the answer will be evil.
“I’ll get one of them to come over,” she says. “Just sit here and wait.”
My phantom brain: My mother was no baby. Not to me.
My mother doesn’t want to come back to this place.
My mother can’t know me as the one who raised her and still be my mother.
The eye-bitten boy is sitting beside me. We are both waiting for further instruction.
Time passes. I don’t know how long. Light has shifted. I’ve gotten hungry.
No one is coming. There will be no real effort to reunite families. This is bustle. This is for show. This is artificial and we are part of it.
Time is broken by the eye-bitten boy. He gasps as if someone has just grabbed a handful of his hair and pulled him up from underwater.
His eyes are terror-wide.
And I know that he has phantom eyes. They are seeing some horror. A memory that brightens in the darkness and cannot be unseen.
His eyes are all watered up, all golden shimmer cast over in fog.
I touch his shoulder. He startles but he doesn’t leave the vision. I have probably become part of it.
I tug him toward me, gently. He allows this. I put one of his ears to my shirt, the gauze padding my incision. I press my hand flat against his other ear. The incision lights up with pain, a searing ribbon.
I hum softly at first so the song can find the bones of my chest and his skull.
I hum a little louder. It’s a song. But not much of one.
This isn’t about the song. The vibrations let him know where he is. They hum here, here, here.
Some people are going to remake their families, one baby at a time. Not me.
“Gossy Beigen,” I say to the eye-bitten boy who can barely hear me. Gossy Beigen is dead, but not. And it’s easy to believe that to be the truth. Because I’m dead, but not.
I am keeping this boy together—ribs and skull and brain and heart and lungs. And, applying pressure, he is keeping me together. We are like the fine glue beading that shut my incisions. We are sealed.