The girls returned to us are not girls. They were taken at eleven and returned at seventeen. Forty-six were taken and fourteen returned. Had they then expired, were they no longer of use to them who had done the taking? In the morning, we woke and they were here, in the center of the village. And we do not know what to do.
The girls look at us. The girls’ looks ask us what we have been doing. We have been doing
life. What had they been doing? What life had been done to them? Six years ago, they were lost. One morning the spokesman at the factory came. He told us they’d been taken. “Taken?” we asked. “Taken,” he said, “by boys with guns.” The girls’ parents followed him on the day-long trek back to the factory. He was right and the girls—gone.
The factory had stolen them from us years before that—on the day we sent them. We
wept. The factory was a gash, bleeding loss. To begin profiting again, it took in even younger girls, littler sisters. Smaller girls who could fit inside the big guns, who could weld while boxed in those small ovens, who would need little. We prayed. For months we prayed for the return of the older sisters. For years. There was no prayer to make the factory give back what it took. At some point, some of us began to hope the kidnapped girls had found other lives and some of us wished them dead.
I am ashamed to say I am of the former group, although I am equally ashamed to admit I
am sometimes among the latter. There is no place to stand in this village anymore. Our mouths are dry. Some of the girls are surely dead. Some of them must be in other lives they did not choose. Some are in the middle of the village, circled around the well, facing out. Slender as question marks, curved in on themselves.
They hold hands. We have been pacing around them since the call went out. A boy, Olly,
yelled out at dawn, “They are here! They are back!” And we gathered, to search faces, to call out names, but none step forward. None cry out to mother or for father. Some mothers go from one to the next, skimming cheeks with fingertips, looking into eyes, hunting as if among nuts and seeds on market day. Some mothers stand back.
I am one who stands back, but am no mother. The girls do not look dead to me. They do
not look like ghosts. They are not girls anymore but there is nothing else to call them. They seem unmoved by the wailing and by the prodding, caressing hands. I wish they would sit cross-legged like they did in the school. I wish they would ask for food. They have refused all that we have offered. Even the sweet hard buns that all the children love until one day, inexplicably, they do not. The girls hold hands and sway, reed-thin in the dust that is beginning to coat them like cinnamon.
Before the factory took them, I taught them letters and they recited letters back to me.
They grinned their gappy smiles and flashed new teeth as they grew and giggled and whispered behind my turned back. One picked a flower for my birthday. One thanked me for my teaching even though it was stupid for her to learn. She was no boy, she told me. I told her I knew she was no boy.
None of the boys in the village have stayed at the well except Olly. He is here, he is still
looking. The rest have left. They are frightened, I think, though they would not admit it. There is an idea, unspoken, that these girls are spirits come to hurt us. As if we have not been hurt enough.
Of course, it is true and not as-if. We have not been hurt enough.
Three years ago I married my second husband. The first died a year after the girls were
kidnapped. It was a short sickness, with coughing I thought would stop, and did, but only with his heart. My mother, who is still alive, says to anyone who will listen that I killed him. “He suffered,” she tells them, “an unnamed grief.” This is something like truth, as I made him no children and unmade children have no names.
When the girls were taken, his eyes went dark. But he was my husband and he didn’t care
about the girls. He didn’t care about any children other than the ones I did not give him. “Children make men men,” he said. He drank himself into sickness, his eyes dimming with each paycheck tossed down his hot throat. After the girls went to the factory, a few fathers joined him—a half-dozen, then maybe a half-dozen more. He bought many, many bottles with the money I brought home from the school. I worked hard that year to keep half the village numb.
After the factory replaced the lost girls with even littler ones—any girl old enough to sit still
inside a room shaped like a bullet—only boys came to my class. I noticed then how boys are taught. They are taught that they are the ones who make good things happen, while bad things are done to them. I did not teach them this. They came with this knowledge. I taught them logic, logic those earlier lessons helped them twist. The boys with guns, they reasoned, had taken their sisters: a bad thing done to them. Justice must be served: a good thing they must do. For the past six years I have watched these boys plan for a new world. A better one they want to make, need to make, if they mean to grow into men. A just world. I love these boys and I fear them.
My new husband is from the coast, and comes and goes as he pleases. This year he took
money from the village, small stipends paid to families of factory daughters, and brought back guns. He is loved. My mother loves him, more than she loved the first. She warns him that I am barren, cursed. He says he has no need of more children, he left a score at the seaside and along the road to our village. I know his smile and I believe him. He stands beside me now, peering in with narrow eyes at the girls-not-girls, yelling questions that ricochet off the stone well.
“Where are the others? Who took you? Why? What did they do? Speak!” and—
“Why have you come back? Answer!”
I am used to his questions, used to how he ends them with command. My second husband
is a man who speaks of action. Who travels to and from the oceanside. Who trades things for things. Who is heard above others. The people in the village respect him. And I too love this man I fear.
The girls-not-girls have been not answering for hours, and the people are starting to make
their own answers. It is how silence works here, a thirsty grave unconcerned with which body it is asked to swallow.
The mothers who do not see in these girls even the shadow of a daughter are the first to
get angry, but they stay silent. They see these ones as wraiths, shaming us for our continued life. Since we are ashamed, they are not wholly in error. One father who drank often with my first husband called out “Witches!” an hour ago. But only once. That is not an idle word here, and none are ready, yet, to repeat it.
A toddler from the edge of the crowd broke free from her mother, ran to the well,
and pulled at one of the girls’ skirts. She wanted picking up. We all noted the resemblance of her mother, standing at the back of us, to the teenager singled out. The mother came forward to snatch up the little one, never raising her eyes to the other. For her part, the girl-not-girl stood with the closed face of a pit. She still stands, and she offers no look, not of recognition nor malice. Nor expectation of love.
The fathers whisper below their breath. They grow louder, their stances spreading as if in
anticipation of added weight. But their hips are narrow, unused to carrying children. They feel they are being accused. Since the village bears a fathomless guilt, their whispers have merit.
My husband, sick of the silence, turns his back on the girls to address the village.
“Who are these girls-not-girls? Are they yours? They are not mine. I came after your
tragedy so maybe I am the person to tell you what must be done. Because as we have stood here, re-mourning your loss, re-opening that wound, for no good reason I can see, it has become clear to me.”
He pauses. My husband is an intelligent man. It is his sharpness that drew me to him. In
both of us, intellect can be cruel. Our fights are legendary. No one in the village understands them. I think one day he will be done with me and move on to another town and I am afraid. I have no third husband in me, yet a husband makes a woman a woman, here. I am too old for the factory, too big, my mind too hard to melt or blunt. When we fight, my husband tells me I am no natural woman. When we fight, I question his reasons for coming here. I say he must have been driven away from the coast. I say he is not the big man he would have us think he is.
And since this is true for all men, it is true for him. I have the better education. He does
not understand how I can know things about him he has not given me to know. But I once saw the sea. I worked for a family there and learned. They were not kind to me, the schooling they promised was informal, irregular, but from them I gleaned things that have served me. And at the end of my stay, from their oldest son—a boy I helped raise—and his friends, I was given the gift of no children. During these last six years, I have come close to accepting that gift.
None of these girls-not-girls, the ones holding hands, the dead ones, the ones making
children elsewhere, not one of them is my daughter. I am grateful.
My daughter is smoke along the coast.
My husband finishes his pause with a fist coming down in his other hand. He speaks again
in a voice he saves for moments when he would not be argued with. Other times he enjoys besting the men of the village, especially after I have made him question, if only for a moment, his superiority to me. They drink with him less often than they did with my first but they listen harder.
He says, “You must interrogate them.”
There is a sudden hush in the village. It has been four long hours and everyone is horrified
at the suggestion and also relieved. Someone knows what must be done.
In small groups, men and women go in toward the well to drag out the childwoman who
seems most familiar. They make no noise, the taken, though they hold onto each other so that fingernail marks appear on their wrists as they are dragged apart. But none yell or speak or run. They are taken, for a third or thousandth time, against their will.
This time, they are removed to homes that are no longer homes.
The following day, each family performs its begging, its bribery, its beatings. The girls-not-
girls make no sound but other noises emerge. Yelling, crying, cajoling, whipping. I cannot go home to my husband so I walk through the village, my own ghost, listening for a voice I recognize. Some girl-not-girl I knew from my classroom. From before the taking. From before, even, the factory. I hear no such voice. I remember the girls-once-girls by drawings they made, by words they stumbled over. “Interrupt” caught Eda’s tongue. Min could not say “architect.” A bird folded from homework perches above my doorway nearly seven years after little Komi offered it up with shy hands. I have been waiting for it to leave—to fly away—as is the way with birds.
Finally, I go home. My husband asks me where I’ve been. I answer by asking.
“Why did you separate them?”
“I did not do that. It had to be done.”
“They were safer together.”
“Safer from whom?”
I cannot explain to him how a girl needs a girl in this world. I do not say it because, one—
he would not believe me. Two—he would ask of what use is a girl to the world? And three—he’d tell me a girl cannot have needs because she herself is needed. My husband sees no contradiction in his logic. I have the better education. He knows where to find guns. Still, of all the men in the village, he offers up the most freedom to his woman. I don’t always cook for him. Like him, I go and I come back. But I do not go far or for long. His confidence that I will come back is envied by the other men. They would not dare allow it. I come back because I have no woman to go to. I was my mother’s only child, and she sent me to the sea long ago, before the war came.
Two days pass and no girl-not-girl speaks and no girl-not-girl is let out into the street.
The boys come to school agitated. They are angry and do not know how to stay still. They
pace and they spit. They argue with each other and ignore me when I ask them to work. They were hurting and hateful before but they had hope. When they got older, they insisted, they would hunt the other boys down. Gun against gun. They would take their sisters back. But now some sisters are back and it is a joke. A trick. These are not the sisters they knew. They are broken, unnatural. They do not blink or cry. They look through their brothers as if nothing their brothers could do would matter. Someone must pay.
The boy, Olly, tells me they are hatching a plan. He will not say more. I wonder which
direction they will strike out in. I wonder how many guns my husband has given them.
I come home and ask him, “Can you stop them?”
“Why would I stop them?”
“These are your guns, and maybe these are your ideas in their heads.”
“They will not tell me.”
“They are smart then. If they know when not to speak.”
“Not speaking is not helping the girls.”
“The girls are no longer girls. Anyone can see that.”
“What are they then, husband?”
“They are pain.”
I see that this had a kind of truth, and do not argue with him. Instead we make love as we
did when he first came through the village—angrily. Oppositionally. As if in competition for the bottle of love between us. This is the first time since the morning the girls came back. I am also pain but do not cry out as I sometimes do. I do not want anyone to mistake my voice for that of a girl returned.
The boys, I think, will leave the village in the night—as is the way with soldiers.
But the next morning comes and they have not gone. They are back in my class. Olly is
twelve, and the oldest. His muscles are getting denser, dragging on his bones. He is a heavier thing in this world. He could sink deeper in its mud, mud that is elsewhere. Here it is dry. Nevertheless, it is time for him to make his mark—this is what they begin to think at twelve.
The younger boys look to Olly for guidance, and those his age look to him with love, the
rough love of boys separated from sisters. In this village, the only direction is downward, a settling into dust. One day his mark will grow deep enough to swallow him.
“What is the plan, Olly?” I ask him. “Which way will you go?”
Olly stares at me, and smiles. It is a smile he uses when he is caught with a frog in his
desk or when he has stolen another boy’s lunch pail but before he has eaten its contents.
It is the smile that happens before.
The boys mock their lessons and leave me. I walk home, sad for what is next. The sky is
too many colors this evening, embarrassingly. This is the only way for the sky to show her kindness, and it hurts us both. I will never touch the sky, and she will never pull me up into her like a lover or the reversal of a child. The sky and I are, we have always been, sadly matched. Same-not-same.
It is not long after dark when the first shot rings out.
And then, another. There is a scream. Two more shots in rapid succession. More screams.
My heart pounds at my sternum as if it were a door. I run out of the house and my husband is there, at the end of our street, staring wildly, worried at what is next—for him. The shots continue. I do not count them. Cries overwhelm the night sounds of whirring insects, the thin babble of starlight. Mothers are running out into the street, their hands over their own faces or shielding the smallest children. Their homes tether them—they can only run so far.
A dozen shots ring out, more. Each one reverberates in the bodies emerging into the
street. They cower or cringe, or they drop onto their bellies.
My husband stands, unmoving. He sees in my eyes my hatred. My arms too ache with it. I
could strike him. Or shoot him. My hands are open in just such a way. They want the cold, the metal, the relief of a trigger. He taught me how, once. In case of wild animals, in case of a drunken man coming to take what is his while he is gone taking elsewhere. There are guns in the house behind me. Two? Five? I have never counted.
Finally the blasts stop. It is over. My shoulders drop, my arms heavy as Bibles. I was
punished with books by my family on the coast—for intelligence called arrogance—punished for hours with arms extended, hands laden with this god no one ever meets, this god I learned weighs very little. Less than the weight of boy after boy after boy. I do not turn back into the house. I stand on the threshold. I count. “One,” I say.
The first shooter stumbles out of a house nearby and vomits in the dust. He vomits the
way I vomited the day I was made hollow.
His mother looks over at him. She is shaking in the street. She cannot will herself to go to
him, although I see her trying. He looks up. It is not Olly, but it is a boy who would follow Olly into fire or the scrub, a boy who loves math and whom Olly assured that loving math was fine, was indeed acceptable to Olly. Hoke learned his tables quicker than any child I have ever taught. Even the twelves. Hoke is also twelve, like Olly. The gun is beside him and he says, “Mama?” He asks it of her. She cannot answer him.
She stares at the boy so long I think he will crack. He is already pieces, but still flesh, not
hard. I see her eyes drawing softness from him. I see his loved numbers stumble-hopping away from him into the shadows, like unfledged birds. The eight-times-tables. The sevens. She cannot give him an answer.
His sister. Min. She answers.
Min glides through the doorway with her arm outstretched. She puts her hand in the center
of Hoke’s back. He swivels around to face her, shocked at her touch. Her hand goes to his cheek. She is no wraith. She is Min. She may no longer be what she was, neither is he, but they cry like children. Tears shine inside the dark space that surrounds them, like tips of soldering guns sealing shut a bomb casing. They are alone together inside this death. Gun smoke drifts from the house in surrender. They were children, and now, they are together without a father. Min’s brother has done this and she can see him again. Hoke. He is pain.
I wander the village’s circular streets in shame. I did not guess. The boys have decided to
fight. In order to fight, they have deduced that they must have an enemy. They have figured this. I pass homes where a mother has been spared, and others—a father. They have figured this also. The boys have spared some of us, a mercy. In a few homes, both parents are dead. This is the inscrutable calculus of war. Brothers cry and some sisters cry with them. Some are giving comfort, some are taking it. There are arms wrapped round. Or, there is no touching but a huddling close. I hear the voices of girls-not-girls for the first time since we have arrived at this new place. Some are so low I cannot tell if they grieve. If they are grateful.
My second husband is a few steps behind me. He is saying foul things, but under his
breath. “Cursed,” he says, and “Witches.” I send him a look he allows to pierce him. Or maybe he does not have the power to allow. The look I send says, You are lucky. Lucky your guns are in our house and not my hands. Lucky you were coming home but not home when I heard the first shot, and the second, and the seventh. Lucky I do not count. You are such a coward, a creeping shadow in the village now, not the big man you pretended—asking to be shot, begging for it, by me or by a boy. My eyes tell him our equation has changed.
He stops muttering.
When I reach Olly’s house, no one is outside. I go to the door and push it gently open. A
light is on. Olly’s mother is on her knees. She is holding Olly. Olly’s father was gone long before the girls were taken. It was mother and son who mourned but could not mourn Komi, who was not returned. Komi is still dead or she is still living some other life she did not choose. Either way, she is not here in the village. Komi’s brother is dead, and he is here. Olly will fill her empty grave like a wrong answer.
“What kind of revenge is this?” my second husband whispers from behind me, and the
whisper fills the room like fever. Olly’s mother does not respond. She is holding her son, so close to becoming a man, so close he could not bear it.
I kneel down beside her. “Olly only ever did good things,” she tells me. “So many bad
things were done to him.”
“They took his sister,” she says. “They did that to him.”
I know this as a kind of truth. I know, too, about the money sent from the factory—for
Komi and Min once and the smaller ones now. How guilt swells inside woman or man like a pregnancy, and can rot like a pregnancy. Or fail to root at all. I also know how many frogs I pulled from Olly’s desk. These, I counted. The boy snapped 37 small necks between his thumbs before he cocked a pistol and put it in his mouth.
“He tried,” I said to his mother. “He tried and he tried.”
In the morning, the village drops its bodies one by one into the well. There is no ceremony
other than this succession, the long line of families struggling to carry heavy dead then struggling to let them go. The girls and the boys together carry the dead the boys shot alone. Mothers help sons let fathers fall. Daughters touch goodbye mothers’ hair. And then the village turns from the well and we leave. All of us do this—all except a hard few. My mother remains, loving above the living her dead: her husband, and my first, and also the child-me. Since I came back from the coast, I have been like a crust to her, a sulking husk. A wraith accusing. Her mouth will be so dry, but she has known drought. I learned it from her.
The village starts walking. We walk all day to the factory and there demand the younger
sisters. We left the guns behind, but we do not need them. A village stands at the factory gates—girls are inexpensive. There are other villages. The little ones soon file out to meet their older sisters. To be half-met by half-families. The girls themselves are nearly dead but happy to be out, so happy I smile to see them limp and skip on unstretched legs, the sun catching on bits of bald where dripping missile seams have seared shine onto close-cropped scalps.
My second husband I sent creeping back to the sea before dawn. He will speak to other
boys of guns, and of better ways to use them. He is smart. So smart he will again love—probably another woman he cannot control. Maybe she will pick up one of his guns and send him away with it. He may secretly want this. Until such a day comes he will creep like a shadow difficult to recognize as shadow, bleeding his darkness into the darkness that surrounds.
I carry a paper bird. As we walk, it leaves a print on my sweaty palm—architect, cinnamon,
interrupt—before disintegrating. I open my hand. The fragments drift away but the words stay with me, cool, like weapons. Behind me the smallest girls are crying as they learn what has happened in the village to fathers and mothers, to aunts and cousins and uncles. They are learning the complication tables of their freedom.
Beside me, Olly and Komi’s mother drifts. We are nomads now. I reach across to take her
fluttering hand into my own. I say to her: “The children have figured it. Olly did.” She nods. The sky is large and strange, and it has nothing to do with me. The sky is the sky.
I mean to accept this gift too. To teach myself, day by day by day, what happens when
things are not, or do not have to be, the way they are.