Foil (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: FICTION)
In fiction, our winner is Anne de Marcken for her story “Foil.”
Of her story, fiction judge Carmen Maria Machado said, “I couldn’t get enough of this story, its beauty and strangeness, the way it turned in on itself over and over again. So many moments and sentences quickened something inside me—gorgeous. I loved how [de Marcken] used surreality, language, and myth to prod at the powerful and precarious space between mothers and daughters.”
De Marcken is an interdisciplinary artist and writer. Her credits include short and feature-length films, site-specific installations, and publications. Her fiction has been featured on NPR’s Selected Shorts, in Best New American Voices, Narrative, Glimmer Train, Hunger Mountain, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She’s received support from Jentel Foundation, Centrum, Artist Trust, the Hafer Family Foundation and The Millay Colony for the Arts. De Marcken lives and sails with her wife in Olympia, Washington.
“I’m a slow writer. A slow emerge-er. I started writing ‘Foil’ twelve years ago. It took me this long to let myself into the story, into my own body, which is where the story takes place. I was clearing blackberry vines and listening to David Naimon’s interview with Vi Khi Nao. She was talking about writing Fish in Exile. I don’t remember what she was saying. Sometimes I can get into a productive trance when I am working physically and listening or when I am reading. Suddenly I remembered being on the beach in my story. I remembered that I could not feel the water on my skin because it was so close to the same temperature as I was. And I couldn’t see myself or the sea because the night was so dark, or maybe the memory is dim. I thought of the words, ‘If I were the sea, which I am…’ I rushed to take off my thick gloves and I tapped the words into my phone, which I never do. It unlocked the story. My body was the key and the door and the world on the other side.”
My mother gives birth to me again and again, multiplying my body to outnumber the deaths she foresees, until I can do it myself and can no longer tell the difference between the first me and the many who follow.
She has a premonition that I will drown when I am nine years old, so all that year she makes believe I am ten. For my birthday, she puts ten candles on my cake. She skips me to fourth grade. She takes me to get my ears pierced. She gets a dog and lets me name it. If I were a birthday candle, which I am, my mother would suck the frosting from my smooth blue wax and save me in a baggie to use again.
Once, she calls the police because she has seen my body on the side of a road. Somewhere on a two-lane highway my eyes fly open when I hadn’t known they were closed. I pull off to the shoulder and sleep for ten minutes or a year. When I wake, I am not sure which way I was headed. I get out of the car. It is cold. The road and the darkness are the same in both directions. If I were a two-lane highway, which I am, my lines would be worn away. It must be another me who goes north instead of south and winds up in a ditch.
Now my mother offers to pay for my trip if I will go anywhere else and I know she has seen how I will die. I must choose between her fear and mine. I picture me splitting a wishbone with myself. Switching strategies, she gets the jewelry box from under her bed and takes out her wedding band for me to wear. She says, “It will be safer if men think you’re married.” If I were a satin-lined case full of charm bracelets and oily opals, which I am, I, too, would be kept under her bed.
On the plane, I wonder if the man sitting in the seat next to mine is the man she is trying to protect me from. Safety instructions are delivered by a cast of video flight attendants while real flight attendants walk up and down the aisles. Pull the loose end of the strap to tighten the belt. Lift up on the metal flap to release the buckle. I have to shorten my seatbelt for it to fit snuggly across my lap. This makes me feel good about myself. The oxygen bag will not seem to inflate. Put on your own mask before helping others. The man sitting next to me is not paying attention. The nearest exit might be behind you. Floor lighting will illuminate your path. I read the safety card front to back. There are directions for how to open each kind of emergency door and when to leave them shut—if you see flames—and how to use the inflatable ramp as a life raft in the event of a water landing. The man sitting next to me glances at my ring and says nothing for twenty-two hours. The ring fools me too, and I enjoy a feeling of privileged contentment. One who belongs to another is more than one.
The plane turns onto the runway and accelerates for takeoff. I close my eyes and I am twelve. We are flying to my mother’s country. “Back,” she calls it. I don’t understand how the plane will lift into the air and she explains how a foil works. She tells me to hold out my hand palm down. She shapes it into a shallow curve. She says, “You’re the wing. I’m the air.” She floats her hands past mine—one travels under my wing, straight and level and fast, and one travels over my wing, fingers spreading to show how the air thins as it passes over the curve, creating an irresistible lift into which I am drawn up and up. My mother’s hands are rough and stained from ink and solvents. “You’re lighter than air,” she says. My hand between my mother’s hands.
The layover in Honolulu is long enough for me to deplane. It is night and warm. The air is fat with rain. I am mesmerized by the mercury-vapor glare of tarmac lights on the wind-tossed fronds of palm trees. If I were a palm frond, which I am, I, too, would be a shiny cut in the dark. From here we cross the international date line. I slip out of time through an unstitched seam in the sky. The sun rises slowly behind the plane and lights up the cabin golden in a dawn that lasts for hours.
It is dark when I wake, and I have forgotten everything. Small green lizards scuttle across the walls of my room. I get dressed and step out onto the stiff green glint of plastic grass. I call my mother from a pay phone. She says, “It was never today where you are,” and I know she is thinking that the day I lost somewhere over the Pacific is like the year I was nine. A trick she is playing. My silence is lit by the stroboscopic flutter of an entire generation of moths clambering at a bare bulb. If I were a bare bulb, which I am, I would know what it feels like to be mistaken for the moon, to suffocate.
The story of my first birth: My mother laughs as I rip my way out of her skin into my own. I float to the end of my umbilical cord, caught in the updraft of her joy. Tethered belly to unbirthed placenta, we see each other for the first time. My shadow floats on her body like the shadow of a kite on smooth sand.
I pretend I am someone who never tries to be anywhere and is not lost. There are dogs and mopeds and three-wheeled trucks. It is the wrong time for any meal. I choose from all the empty tables in all the empty restaurants. I fan myself with the laminated menu until a small, deerlike man comes to take my order. All the people look small and deerlike to me. Later, I will think the same thing about the cows I see standing in rice paddies. Everything on the menu is written in three languages and has a picture for good measure. I point out what I want. The waiter says, “Very beautiful lady.” He raises his eyebrows. I look down at my hands. I twist my mother’s ring. My finger is swollen from heat and travel, and it wrenches my skin. I say, “Oh.” Or maybe, “No.” If I were a menu in three languages and pictures, which I am, I still would not know what I mean.
The sound inside an airplane is the sound of a broken seal. And there is the coldness and curve and colorlessness of the cabin walls, the overhead bins. The upholstery and tray tables and window blinds. The word lavatory. The undifferentiated food smell like the inside of a microwave. Outside, there is the sky and there is the ocean. The sky is pale blue at the edges, but looking up, it is outer space—bottomless and nearly black. The ocean is very dark blue with a wing-shaped gust of whitecaps sparkling and shifting like a flock of white birds. If I were a whitecap, which I am, I would in fact be a white bird. If I were a white bird, which I am, I would actually be the frozen summit of a mountain so high they don’t carry down the bodies of the people who die trying to reach me. I think of my mother’s hands. “You’re the wing. I’m the air.”
After I have disappeared forever on my way back to the room with the yellow tile floor. After I have been to a forest temple of thieving immortal monkeys who tear all the hair from my head. After my limbs have been pulled off and carried away in different directions by a pack of twelve dogs. After I have been filled with turmeric and hard white grains of rice, wrapped in banana leaves, and cooked for a whole day. After I have gone through a sky blue door and fallen into a volcano. After all this, the man sitting at the next table guesses I am French. He offers me a cigarette and I accept. He lights it for me and I think of how I used to pretend-smoke my mother’s cigarettes in preparation for this very moment. He is a photographer. He believes in emulsion. He is looking for something. Maybe it is me. He asks the waiter to take our picture with his camera. We lean toward each other.
The night is very large and very thick. The black sand is still hot. We can hear the low voices of fishermen, the sound of them casting out nets. Lanterns swing on poles from the sterns of their boats, small moons reflected in the shallow sea. We lie half in and half out of the water. I am half in and half out of my skin. If I were the water, which I am, I would know how flesh softness and sea softness are entirely different in a way that is entirely compatible, in the same way that life and death are compatible.
Just like the cheating wives I’ve grown up with on television, I take off my mother’s ring and put it in the nightstand drawer. I see now the perverse craftiness of her ruse. My bed is unmade, the sheets already twisted and anxious, so even the first time we have sex it is as if we have been here before. We slip on each other’s sweat. We stick together and peel away. All night the ceiling fan turns and the green pyrethrum coil burns in the corner. In the morning I am a spiral of ash.
The plane crashes into the ocean. Not a crash landing, but a plunge. Like the white bird, the mountain peak. Hard and loud. No one is alive to lift and pull the levers on the exits over the wings. Nothing is inflated. Seat cushions are not used as flotation devices. A few bob away from the broken fuselage. Magenta and orange checks in the wide blue. The water relents. The plane sinks sinks sinks.
Winged beetles black as patent leather baby shoes float on the surface of the swimming pool. I breaststroke through their bodies. The sky above is empty except for two crisscrossing contrails that have become loose and uncertain as my arms and legs. I think of how I would look to someone up there looking down at me. If I were two contrails that make an X, which I am, I would mark the location of a dead girl’s body. It is hard to pinpoint the moment when the contrails disappear. It is subtle and sudden. What I have then is just blue. Sky or water. Me up there or me down here. Which is the death I don’t escape?
I take a shower that is the opposite of a shower—instead of rinsing anything away, I am applying something, someone. I use the little bar of soap, the little shampoo, the little conditioner. I become a little…what? I think of the ring. Of my hand, lifting slowly slowly in the dark aquarium of the sunken airplane cabin. A gesture that looks at first like hello. I think of a time when I was three years old. My mother and I are alone together in the bathroom with the yellow bathtub. It feels like late morning. She sits on the closed toilet seat unwinding her hair from pink curlers. I sit on the edge of the bathtub watching. She leans forward, bows down her head to me. She feels and I feel her feel my small hand, my cupped palm, pressing, lightly pressing, the tight curls. Press, press, press. I close my eyes then and now. I let the water run and run. I am just a woman taking a shower. Me or her or you or me or me or me.