When Ann was only five years old, she took her brother’s mouth. He’d been sleeping, or crying, it’s hard for Ann to remember now, but she remembers the way her hand stung as it came full against his cheek, and the rattle his teeth made as his mouth flew off his face and hit the side of his crib. She thought about putting it back, but he was quiet again (yes, he must have been crying, why else would she have slapped him?) and so she picked up his once-familiar mouth with the sleeve of her nightgown and stuck it in her jewelry box.
The next day at the doctor’s office, a nice woman in a blue buttoned-down shirt asked Ann if she knew what had happened to her brother.
“I did it,” Ann said. “I didn’t mean to, but I did it.” At least, this was what Ann thought she said, but later she overheard her mother say that what came out of Ann’s mouth was “Maybe it came off on its own. I hear that happens with babies sometimes.”
The woman spoke to Ann’s mother and Ann’s father, to Ann again, and to the doctor. She touched Tyler’s face where the skin crinkled below his nose as if to test for a seam she could unzip. Then the doctor took Tyler away for half an hour, maybe more, and when they came back Tyler had a hole near the bottom of his face held open with a small plastic ring to keep it from collapsing.
“This will help him breathe,” the doctor said. And he showed Ann’s parents how to mush Tyler’s food into a thick paste, slide it past his new, thin lips and to massage his throat like a dog to make sure he swallowed.
“There will be surgeries as he gets older,” the doctor said. “It won’t be like this forever.”
Ann wondered if a mouth was an organ you could donate, like a lung or a cornea or a kidney. What would it be like to have another man’s teeth and gums, a stranger’s curved muscle pressing against your own soft palate?
She thought about telling the doctor, and the nurses, and the blue-buttoned woman that she still had the mouth, tucked away in a small plastic box at home. She moved her tongue around her own mouth, trying out the shape of each of the words, but they would not come out. Besides, she thought, she had not put it on ice. And you were supposed to do that with detached parts: fingers, toes, ears. Otherwise the flesh would wither, die, and become useless. And when she got home from the hospital and dug through the piles of cheap necklaces and bracelets, Ann found that the mouth had dried to a crisp, gray husk. She dropped it in a glass of water to see if she could revive it at all, but the flesh dissolved like an Alka-Seltzer tablet. She shook the glass and heard the clink of his tiny white teeth, saw them swirling around like beads. Then the water clouded and all that was left of her brother’s mouth was the smell of his acrid breath.
She dumped the water down the sink, and washed the glass. Then she decided that maybe it should be thrown out too, so she buried it outside in the flowerbed where they’d put the collie.
Ann never told anyone about her brother, but sometimes they knew about him anyway. Her friends knew him from school. The doctors knew him from the hospital. The cashiers and the hairdressers and the bank tellers and the sales assistants at the department store knew him, and their relatives, and their friends and their relatives’ friends all knew him. Everyone knew the who and what and the when, but not how or why, which was what everyone really wanted to know.
Ann didn’t think he looked that different from anyone else: some fine, pink lines that edged his cheeks when he smiled, a weak jaw, thin lips. People still stared and pointed and asked him to repeat himself. Whenever he came back from the hospital he would wear a new ring for a few days and sometimes teachers would pull Ann from her classes to ask her to translate.
“I don’t know what he wants,” the woman would say.
Ann would sit next to him for the rest of the afternoon, listening to the long, mournful whistle of his breathing. Once, on the back of a game of Tic-Tac-Toe they were playing, Ann wrote What do you want? Her brother flipped the page, drew an x in the center square, then flipped it back again. I would like for people to stop asking me that question. What do you want?
Ann’s first boyfriend, whom she’d met at a concert in a different town, and whom she’d never introduced to her family, asked her one night if she’d feel bad for a boy who didn’t have a tongue. Who couldn’t kiss a girl the way he wanted to kiss her.
Ann placed her hand on the boy’s cheek. “Masseter,” she said. “Mandibular notch.” She massaged the hollow beneath his eye, working in small circles towards his ear. “Did you know that when a jaw breaks, it always breaks in at least two places? It doesn’t know any other way.”
“Is that how it happened?” he asked.
“No,” she said, and drew her hand back as if to show him, to see if she could make it all fly sideways again. She would remember the ice this time. To keep it cold and damp.
The boy brought his own hands up to Ann’s face and pushed her hair away. She could do it, she thought. She could bring her brother this gift, make penance, make him whole, but then her brother would have this boy’s mouth. A mouth that knew her lips and tongue. This boy’s teeth snapping back at her.
Ann’s first pet was a blue merle collie that had one bright tooth that curled outside its lip. It liked to sleep with its nose pressed against Ann’s ear, breathing in perfect time with her. It loved to eat baker’s chocolate and oyster shells. It whined when she locked the bathroom door, and grunted when Ann tried to pick it up. After the accident, her father came home with a long-haired yellow service dog named Henry. Ann had tried to teach it fetch, rollover, sit, but it always walked away, to curl up by her brother’s feet. It followed him around. Picked up his toys in its mouth, and would bark if he stopped breathing. The next two were also long-haired and yellow. Dull dogs with dull names. Sometimes Ann thought there had been one hundred dogs, a new one every week. Each one following her brother. Each one leaning against her brother’s leg, nosing her brother’s hand. They never snapped, or growled, or bit someone’s arm. Good dogs, her father said. They were never loaded into the back of the car to be taken to the vet. Never buried in the back yard. They came, they went away, and Ann thought no more about them.
“How did it happen?” the boy asked. His hands moved, his legs, his arms. Every particle in his body was moving towards her, over her, around her.
She could do it. How better to answer than to demonstrate. How better to pull him into a moment of perfect quiet.
“I slapped him and it came off,” she said.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “Tell me.”
“I did,” she said. “You weren’t listening.”
Later, they broke up.
There was a pre-specified length to all of Ann’s relationships. She could feel it humming in their skin in the first moment they touched her. Three weeks, she thought. Six months. A few days. It would be the point at which they would ask; the point at which she showed them.
George was the first. He had kissed her suddenly and in her surprise, she bit his lip and it came off. She put it back, and there was no scar, but he stopped calling her after that.
“I’m sorry,” she said to his Facebook. His Facebook did not respond. She reloaded his profile again and again, expecting to see a list of likes and dislikes: Girls without secrets; girls who don’t bite; girls who know when to walk away. But there was nothing, always nothing.
Other boys were no better. They would push her until she reached up and pulled their tongues straight out of their mouths.
“This,” she said. “It happened like this.”
Girls liked to hold their own mouths in their hands, touch them, weigh them. They had already known what it was like to be voiceless, could accept it, and marvel at the sight of their fingernails scratching at their own molars. And when they were ready, Ann would take the mouth back and lock it into place.
Sometimes it took longer for the flesh to remember, to part, to accept, to knit itself closed. It was why Ann had rules. She would only do it once. It would never be for more than a few minutes. They could never speak of it again.
The third rule was not one Ann made up. Whenever she asked, her lovers simply didn’t remember.
“I took your mouth,” she said. “I held it in front of your face. My palm cupped your glossoplatine arch and everything we ever hoped to say to one another passed from one moment to the next.”
“Sometimes I have strange dreams too,” they’d say. “Once, I was walking along the road in southern Georgia. And I knew that sometimes I crossed over from that state and into the next, but it all felt the same to me. The same grasses and pines; cardinals and bobwhites; tobacco fields and horses. Florida was just a small stone stuck in the soft part of my shoe.”
Sometimes Ann would see them again after this. One night, or maybe two. In the dark, the lover-who-was-about-to-leave-without-remembering-why would lie on his or her stomach, or on his or her side, facing the wall. In the middle of the night, when Ann knew that no one and no thing could wake him or her, she would take something. Not so large and noticeable as a mouth, but perhaps a small patch of skin near the right hip. The top nib of one of their pinky toes. She took the appendix of the boy who took her virginity, and the bone spur of the girl who cheated.
Ann would place these things on the sun-lit sill until they dried. Sometimes, if it had too much shape, she would flatten it with an iron. Then she would drive to the bookstore or a newspaper stand, and press this thin, desiccated piece in between two random pages like a flower. People left pieces of themselves all over; she was merely helping them along. Sometimes she’d go back and look for it, she’d tell herself that the rightful owner had come looking and that was why it was gone.
In college, Ann met a boy at the library who told her about a group of women in the Amazon who removed the mouths of the men in their village so they could not bite them in the middle of the night. After, the women would grind up berries and vegetables into a fine powder which could be inhaled. They did this to their men at a younger and younger ages, and eventually they did this to their daughters too. Soon after, all children were born without mouths and the village was so quiet that explorers passed it without knowing.
“That’s very nice,” Ann said. “But do you have any books about owls? I’d like to learn about owls.” She told him one had recently moved into a tree outside her kitchen window and sometimes, if she left it open, the owl would come inside and perch on top of her refrigerator.
“There’s a pygmy owl that lives in the rainforest. It’s about the size of my hand.” He lifted his up to show her, spreading his fingers over hers. Sixteen hours, she thought.
“Thank you,” she said and left with three books.
“It’s not so different from owning a cat,” she told Keith, then Frank, then Beatrice. “Independent. Eats rodents. Fastidious.”
Beatrice’s mouth was small, and Ann’s grip was too tight. Her nose came off as well, and Ann put it all back before Beatrice herself could see.
“In an owl’s neck, the cavity through which the artery passes is ten times wider than it needs to be,” Ann said. “It is why they can turn their heads almost completely around, without injury.”
“What does this have to do with your brother?”
“I don’t know. Maybe it was something he told me once.”
While an owl may eat a bird, it first had to find it, and one species of owl was known to eat deer.
The tufts on an owl were not its ears, merely clumps of feathers found on some owls (Screech, Flammulated, Long-Eared, Short-Eared) but not others (Barred, Boreal, Burrowing, Elf). No one knew what they did.
Ann let other people name the owl for her. It made it their owl, until one of them left. She did not call it anything when she was alone. It was merely an owl who sometimes lived inside her apartment, and sometimes just outside it. It killed mice. It had brown and white feathers that looked like marbled fur. Cream feet and perfectly manicured talons. A toe that gripped the back of the sofa, or sometimes Ann’s shoulder. There was an order to the construction of its wing: tertials, scapulars, coverts. Ann didn’t know them all. There were words for its bones that were the same words for human bones. Ulna, radius, femur. Ann didn’t know all of these either.
Ann told Oliver all of these things the day they met. He moved her foot from side to side, asking if this hurt, did this.
“It’s not broken,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “Then you won’t need to carry me home.”
Oliver called the owl Charlie Bird, and sometimes Parker, and sometimes other names. Ann liked how it kept changing. A long list of musicians she’d never listened to: Dizzy, Miles, Davina and the Vagabonds. Settling on one was not important, merely the opportunity to list, to associate.
When Ann touched his hand, it did not thrum with a series of weeks, months, or some future date. She liked this too.
The night Ann brought him home to meet her family, her mother served trout meunière, which she must have spent the entire afternoon preparing. Ann pictured her mother cooking butter and bay leaves, mixing heavy cream and lemon. The filets would have been dredged in flour, then egg wash, fried perfectly mere minutes before they arrived.
“I’m sorry,” Ann said. “She asked if you were vegetarian, but I forgot that you don’t eat seafood.”
“It’s okay,” he said.
Later, as they stepped into the car, Ann asked him if he wanted to know about her brother.
“Never mind,” she said.
The sound most associated with the owl is made by the mourning dove. The Saw-whet could sound like a truck; the Screech could trill; Snowys were silent. Some owls sounded like marines.
As a teenager, Ann would occasionally walk in on her brother as he was fixing his teeth. She would stand in the doorway and watch as he slipped his dentures in sideways, then affix them with long metal rods. As he got older, they gave him bigger dentures, implants. They stretched him out and gave him metal bones. But back then it looked like he was a ship inside an opaque, peach bottle: pink hulls and thin, dark lines where the creases of the sails would be.
If he became excited, or agitated, the dentures would loosen and clink against each other. Ann wondered if at night, his face pressed against the hair of his girlfriend, they would click as he slept. Once, she saw his wife close her eyes at the slight sounds of a fork falling against the plate.
When Oliver traveled, Ann opened the window so the owl could come and go as it pleased. It made a nest of Oliver’s socks and would spend the whole day nibbling on the cotton and wool. Sometimes Ann would sew them back together before Oliver returned. Sometimes she would simply buy more. Sometimes she wasn’t as careful as she could have been and Oliver would stand in the bedroom looking down at his feet, and say nothing.
There were things they never discussed: politics, religion, food allergies. There were things they discussed all the time: movies, ornithology, the things they found annoying about their neighbors. As one list grew, the other shrank. This was what it meant to be with someone familiar, she thought.
On Oliver’s thirty-fifth birthday, she bought tickets to a play she thought she remembered him mentioning. But he had plans that evening and when they couldn’t reschedule, she gave the tickets to her parents instead.
On hers, Oliver gave her an illustrated collection of fairy tales. Without thinking, she first thumbed through to the end, wondering if a piece of a former lover would fall out. Sometimes she dreamed that all the pieces had found each other, had created a new person who would eventually come back to her. But this was silly; she had not taken enough parts. There was not enough substance for an entire being, and even if there were, how could it ever learn to trust her.
One night, Ann reached for Oliver’s hand. She felt the length of his fingers and tickled the skin where each met his palm. “Would you like to see a trick?” she asked. Then she pulled, and he pulled back.
“Maybe tomorrow,” he said.
He turned on his back, but allowed Ann’s hand to remain in his. There was still no hum there, just a beating. He’d once told her to use your first and middle finger to check for a pulse. If you used your thumb you could mistake your own heartbeat for his.
“Would you like to know?” she asked.
“Anything,” she said.
“What do you call Charlie when I’m not around?”
“Owl,” she said.
“Do you think it confuses him? Being called so many things?”
“He’s just an owl. He knows who he is.”
On their first date, Oliver told Ann that he’d always wanted a lobster as a pet, like the French poet Nerval, that he could take to the park. But, he said, his mother told him he would never get a girlfriend if he lived with a lobster. A dog would be better. A cat. An iguana that he could fashion with a small felt vest and a bit of fishing line, like a leash, and he could allow it to run around the kitchen with all those vibrant green legs flapping against the linoleum tiles.
He always thought, he told her, that once he got a girlfriend, he could get a lobster. Maybe not early on in the relationship, but once she knew him. Once he was certain she wouldn’t leave.
But, Ann said, what if she did leave? Then he’d have to eat the lobster. Boil it, serve it on a bib of lettuce, with melted butter, pluck out its tail while pondering his sexual transgressions, and her inability to commit. He’d tell himself: “I’ll find another girl, another lobster,” and the cycle would repeat, indefinitely, until the species died out, or he did, or they got married, not because he had found his soulmate, a life partner. But because she was trapped with a crustacean hostage and unable to think of a way to save them all.
And eventually the lobster would die of age-related diseases, but by then there’d be children, church fellowships, a family Costco card. She’d gain fifty pounds binging on bags of frozen fish filets all because he wanted to be Nerval in a park in Paris, which they’d never visit since she refused to leave the house, to be seen in public, looking like she did, remembering what she’d done.
“I guess I never thought it through like that,” he said.
“Sorry,” she said. “I guess your story just reminded me of something else.”
When Ann was only twelve years old and her brother still lived in the same room as she did because anything could happen in the middle of the night and he had not yet learned to talk, Ann tried to remove her own mouth. She pulled and pulled, but it would not wrench free. She took a pair of scissors from a kitchen drawer and traced one of the blades over her lips, never daring to push it in. Her mother found her standing in the hallway outside her parents’ door.
“Whatever it is,” her mother said. “I’m sure it can wait until morning.”
“I’m sorry,” Ann said. “I didn’t think it through.” At least, this is what Ann thought she said. But later her parents told her that they’d thought about it, and maybe it was time for her to be on her own. In her own room. With all her own things.
A week after Oliver left her, as Ann was packing up the last of his things he no longer wanted and told her to throw away, she picked up a book he’d been reading when they’d met. A bookmark fell out and the owl swooped in to take it before Ann could reach down. Thin and dark, it could have resembled a flattened mouse or moth wings. A rust, or gray, or brown colored feather. Or perhaps instead, the slip of someone’s ear.
This story originally appeared in Lightspeed Magazine.