The Opal Maker

Lâle Davidson


When they cracked open my sister's ribs and slid the curved bone blades back under her skin to repair her damaged heart, they found me tucked inside, wedged between her lungs and smashed behind. Up until then, I had not known how her ribs cradle-gouged me.

The head surgeon was Russian, so nothing much surprised him. "It happens more often than you would think," he said. "Her aortic valve ripped because it was pumping blood for two instead of one." As he finished that sentence, his left eye drilled into me, as black and shiny as the word "one."

You might think it's hard to breathe when you're living inside someone else. It is. But surprisingly, you adjust. You mind goes hazy, your hearing muted. You close your eyes and lie still, warm and bound. You grow to love being bound. You attune yourself to the other's heartbeat, the gurgling of the stomach, the burbling sounds from outside that muzzy your ears until you forget there ever was an outside. Sounds shine in your mind like light through stained glass. Such bright colors! How they bloom and swirl. You grow to love, love, love this body to the exclusion of your own. You press and probe and drill and wind yourself into every tiny space it affords, until you are ripping it apart at the same time you are holding it together.

So I can't say I was glad when they pulled me out. Not at all. I hadn't developed very far, my limbs flat and folded in on themselves, a plant caught under a stone, my skin opaque, ridged and pruney as a water-logged lizard. The light pierced my cranium, and my eyes opened raw as wounds. The air sanded my skin, and cold moved in like the enemy.

They peeled me out, repaired her torn valve, slid her ribs back in place and stitched her up. If she felt empty inside, she didn't say. She went back to her job of sorting gemstones, and I became useless. I couldn't walk, couldn't feed myself, couldn't think my own thoughts. The bright lights in my mind went out and were replaced by pale mushrooms.

For a long time, after they took me out, all I could think about was snipping those stitches and crawling back in. In fact, that was how I learned to walk again, by flopping onto the floor as soon as she went to bed, pressing and pressing my arms and knees against the ground, until my muscles grew fiber and could hold me up. At first my fingers flew haphazardly as I twisted them through the scissor handles, but eventually they began to obey my thoughts, and I marveled at how the twin blades opened and then, by pressing themselves against each other, delineated an edge, the power of separation. A revelation.

In the darkness, since I didn't need light to see, I hunched over her sleeping form and pulled back the covers as soundlessly and deftly as I had moved inside her. But to my shock, her flesh had knitted back together again. It had taken me too long to get there. The scar gleamed in the moonlight, a talisman of individuation, a shield, closing me out of her forever.

I was devastated.

But I was standing.

What a miracle of balance standing was, my muscles, mind, bone and sinew, even my back, that magnificent, curved snake with its tiny tail wagging between my hips, all adjusting and attuning to each other, speaking their own tiny words quicker than light, a minute orchestration of falling and pushing back, teetering and balancing, letting go and holding on.

I dropped the scissors and stepped out into the garden, the spectral flowers glowing in the moonlight. Scent was another discovery, so much information and complexity feathering your lungs, igniting memories. I inhaled and exhaled again and again, loving how I could stroke myself on the inside simply by breathing. With my skin now smooth and toughened, the air felt like another soft body enveloping me, but this body allowed me to move whichever way I willed.

That's when she began to hate me.

She didn't say it, but I could feel it in her gray eyes the next morning, her freckled skin, the way her mind went blank whenever she sat across from me as if I wasn't worth even thinking thoughts about, and the way she hid the gems she was sorting whenever I entered the room. After those first giant steps, progress slowed to torturously tiny increments, so I grew more frustrated. And whenever I cried, she would reach for her own throat to strangle it off. I would have to dig my nails between her clenched fingers and white throat to peel them away or else watch her sputter and choke. The night I awoke to find her hands around my own throat, I left.

Do I miss her? Yes. Do I sometimes wish that someone else would live my life for me? Who wouldn't?

But ah, the smell of sunshine on the dusty sidewalk in spring, of flowers in cat's fur. And sound! The laughter of children and the swish of tires on pavement flow into the skull as cool and crisp as water.

Now I sit on a street corner in the busy part of town. People bring me their stories and fragments of thought. I cup the sounds in my hands, and if I press my palms together hard enough between my thighs, the sounds turn into opals, not perfectly round, a little oblong and misshapen, but silky smooth and shining with interior light and color. They swallow the opals, and the colors shine from their eyes. Then for just a moment I feel connected to them and we all become light, illuminating each other.