I remember two things about my mother: when I was seven, she taught me how to swim. The water was cold as her skin. I remember the sun, revealed in pink slivers through my eyelids. And that she had a broken finger on her right hand. Her little finger bent sideways, refused to join up with the others.
She died a long time ago; I burned her pictures first. I don’t remember what she looked like.
I am living in the library. Someone broke most of the windows, but there is a basement where the light does not go. I feel at home here. There is something sad about unread books. Yesterday, I opened The Little Prince and it fell to pieces in my hands. There is a little creepy-crawlie here that likes to eat the glue on bindings. I stacked the disconnected sections together next to the day’s photographs. There is no use in keeping a ruined thing.
People hide their pictures in all sorts of places. In frames, in boxes, in paper envelopes. Behind other pictures, between the mattress and the wall. I cleaned out four cities before I remembered about wallets.
Today I found Bethany, 13, at the shore. Her bathing suit has ruffles and she holds out her sandy palms like she’s expecting a prize. I put her next to Dennis at his Bar Mitzvah. He has a friendly face; I think they will get along.
I found a whole album of Ellie. It had a lamb on the cover. Halfway through, there was a page with a soft, dark curl of hair taped to it. When I touched it, little individual hairs broke away and fluttered down.
I have grown calluses on the palms of my hands, but I have gotten good at using the red-headed axe. It’s all about finding the weakest spots. I have cleared a space on the ground behind the library and burned it black. Wind catches up the ash; it looks like snow at the bad end of winter.
The fire grows slow. I am tender; I feed it patiently with leaves and dead brown grass. Soon the logs begin to catch and I gather the pictures up. Bethany and Dennis and Ellie and others and others and others. I hand them into the flames and watch as they are consumed.
Here is a story that you can find in any library. There once was a woman who was a trap as well. She was a fairy gift, the kind that comes with rules and razor blades and no one ever knows until it’s too late.
But she was a woman still, and weaker for it. She was born with an aching place inside her, a toothy mouth hungry for knowing. There were thoughts, words, actions, secrets she couldn’t know, couldn’t see, couldn’t taste or touch or try to understand. But she lay awake at night and something burned at her.
The box made a terrible creaking sound. And the world ended. And the world changed. And the world was just the same, only now everyone had a burning thing inside them. And the woman? The stories don’t tell about what she did after that. She was a woman-thing and she had a function as well as a beating heart.
I found a house today with a wall full of photographs; mostly black and white. A smiling woman and a dark-haired man and a little boy. I had to push the sofa against the wall and stand up on its back, but I got them all down.
In the bedroom, there was a sea-green sundress in the back of the closet. It had been worn and washed until I could see pale white tracks where someone’s legs, someone’s breasts had been. There were pictures in the front pocket. A woman’s thigh, ringed in finger-shaped bruises, her swollen knuckles, scratches on the softest, palest part of her belly.
Sometimes this is a hard job.
After the world changed, some said the woman went away. Was banished. Some said she kept the box in the corner of her home with the lid tightly shut, and sometimes she would pause in the work of her hands and look at it. Because when she let out all the secrets, she also took some of them in. She closed herself down, held her breath. Heart like a lock, no keys and no temptations.
Today I burned Grandma at her 91st birthday and an elephant looking stark and disinterested against the dull brown of his manufactured habitat. I burned the smiling family and the bruised woman last. The picture of her thigh curled and bubbled and rose from the flames, as if to meet me in the air.
Someone made me poorly. Put a little hollow loop inside me that has never healed together. I imagine if you cut me open, I’d be crooked as my mother’s right hand. But I am made just right for some things.
Soon, I will move again. There are so many spaces. Behind the TV and beneath the basement stairs. But I do not get tired, I do not get slow. Sometimes I rest, though, and I look at the sun through lidded eyes. I try to remember, but it is like sinking down into deep water and there are no hands underneath me to slow my fall. Empty me out, fill me up. I think I am more thing than not.
Nicole M. Taylor is a freelance writer and copy editor, recently relocated to Los Angeles. Her fiction has appeared or is upcoming in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, The Raleigh Review, Bound Off and elsewhere. She likes drawing faces on things and non-traditional cupcakes. She bloggerates here.