Edited by Barry Kitterman | Andrea Spofford | Amy Wright
Visible: A Triptych
I was eleven or twelve when my mother bought me, as a gift, a Visible Woman kit. She gave me a box of little plastic organs, complete with a transparent body and a set of enamel paints. The task was to break each organ off its rod, paint it, and eventually assemble the bones and organs of this woman. I was to construct her.
For a while, I didn’t do much with it at all. It was my mother who liked science. My mother the homemaker, who once had me dissecting a frog at the dining room table, or looking at moldy apple crisp under a microscope. Dust collected across the Visible Woman’s box. It was months later that I opened it, examined the pieces, skimmed the directions. I spread newspaper across the kitchen table. I broke off the lungs. The gallbladder. The heart. The colon. I was lured by the smell of paint. Convinced by the prospect of constructing a whole—like a puzzle.
I worked on it for days. I painted, listened to music, followed the instructions. I learned where all her pieces were supposed to go. I attached one bone to the next with tiny pegs for joints. I glued front halves of thigh bones to back, connected the shoulder blades, the clavicles, the spine. In the transparent casing of the woman, there were tiny rivulets to represent her vascular system, and I dragged drops of blue and red through those canals.
This was how my mother attempted to teach me of the body, but I’m more concerned with what it means to inhabit a body, and to me, the woman was more art than scientific study. She was color and shape. She was tiny parts forming a whole and becoming, together, meaningful. She smelled like glue, and not flesh. She was light in my hand, and not warm.
When I finished assembling the woman, the two halves of her outer casing—that is, her front set of clear plastic skin, and her back set—did not fully close. Her organs did not fit as tightly as they were supposed to. I couldn’t get the body to snap together.
I remember I had to take a rubber band and wrap it around her waist a couple times to hold her together. She couldn’t stand on her pedestal, erect, naked, visible, without something to keep her from falling apart.
I don’t know what became of her. If she were laid before me now in pieces, I doubt I’d remember how she comes together. And when I think of what’s in me, it’s no less mysterious.
A pig has been cornered in a village in Hubei Province, in China. I watch.
This pig’s legs are bound together; her whining is a wordless, shapeless appeal. After a few moments, one can ignore it, like brakes that habitually squeal upon stopping, like a door that creaks to close. It takes several men to hold her. I watch when many knees press against her side. While she’s on her back, a man comes and fumbles with her neck. He feels through toughened hair for her throat, coaxes the tunnel to rise from her flesh, so he knows where to slide his knife in. It looks easy, natural. His blade probes a little more. A woman stands beside him with a metal tray, ready so that when his knife finds just the place, and blood pours from the throat, she can catch it.
Then buckets and kettles of boiling water stream over a body that has ceased moving. The men scrape blades over her ribs, her head, her ankles. Her flesh is scraped white, the hair coming off in quick, short bursts as the knives come and come again. Until she is familiar in her bareness.
The pig is on her back, her tits exposed, tiny rows of punctures. Take the knives to the legs. One to a front leg and another to the back, the inside of her separating along fields of cartilage. Knives meet bone like axes on wood. Who knew bone could be so persuaded? Who knew how easily foundations could break?
And I am amazed at how routine it all is. How simply a body is disassembled, the curtain pulled back from all its small miracles. A community can unite around this violation. My awe is at the deconstruction of motion and volition, and more, that no one else seems awed. In this moment, I feel temporary.
One man has sliced open the bottom of the belly towards the neck, and the intestines are exposed. His bare hands bury in pale gray ropes, still warm, still full. He pushes them away from the tail bone, and at the sternum, he brings the knife down and down until she opens. It takes two men to open her ribs, like splitting two halves of a clam shell. Knives guide the flesh away from the bone until she gives, and all that’s inside her falls, and at the bottom of her is a ribbed puddle of blood, a cup of her, a bowl to be poured, a cave I could stand in, wet to my ankles. And they do pour her—a woman is ready again with a metal bowl as they tip the ribs towards it. The man reaches into the cave to cup the blood forth. The bottom of the ribs can be cut too, to split the ribs fully. The cage is open. Halves of her can be scooped into arms.
The blood will be cooked in soups. All the bones boiled. The ears and the heart and the intestines eaten. The ankles chewed. Nothing will be wasted.
By my age, a woman should understand her body. But it surprises me still. My senses have marked the patterns of days when my memory has forgotten them. I am a Rorschach test to myself. What do you see when you observe it? What does it make you think of? What does it look like? What can it do? What can be done to it?
In China, I enter an unmarked office along a strip of restaurants with a woman who works in the HR department of the school where I teach. She says this is a doctor’s office, but it doesn’t look like one. A cluster of men sit around a bare room, fanning themselves, legs crossed or arms behind their heads, and they are gazing at a TV on the wall. The door to the street remains open. One of the men takes me into an adjacent stall, behind a sheet looped over a bar. He lifts my shirt, presses hands against my stomach, my pelvis. He pushes, and I say it doesn’t hurt.
The HR woman, my translator, is speaking to him. I imagine what she’s telling him. She says she’s pissing blood. She says she was awake all night with a fever, shaking. She thinks it’s a UTI spread to her kidneys.
I gaze at this man, wondering what he can know of me, just by pushing down at my belly. I wonder how he knows. Who taught him? I am suspicious that he may actually know nothing.
What else is she saying? What if she told him, She says it’s all because of a man, another foreigner. She says his knees cut into her ribcage, and he bore down on her neck. She wants to know if you can feel that too. She couldn’t have expected it. He says he loves her, and buys her papaya milk for breakfast. Ask the doctor, I want to say, if he heard the cicadas this morning, how they ground the air, the weight of their sound a kind of catharsis. Tell him I wanted to Skype my mother last night to ask her what she hadn’t told me—what hasn’t she told me about women’s bodies, and what to do with them in times like this, when they are undone?
The HR woman says to me, bashfully, that the doctor wants to know if I’ve been with a man. Her embarrassment is another undoing. She and the doctor don’t meet my eyes. I listen to the chatter from the TV behind the sheet, aware suddenly of all the people in the next room, the open door to the street. I’m laid out for examination. What do they think of me? Perhaps that I’m loose, or without pride, or uncareful. Or perhaps I only imagine this dismissal. Would it be better if they were indifferent?
My answer means his hands leave my skin. I pull down my shirt. He writes a prescription, and smiles awkwardly, says something in uncertain English about “America basketball.” And names what I assume are players. I just say, “Yes.”
Show me a device that will hold me together. But perhaps I am better held in sections. Diagram and label these parts. Here is innocence. Here is its opposite. Here is Americanness. Here, woman. Daughter. Here are things I store in my senses—papaya musk and rot, cicada rattle, hot blood, water boiling, mother’s soprano, paint and frog bones, and hands pushing and pressing at my body, and me saying not there, that’s not where it hurts.
Elizabeth Horneber’s essays have appeared or are forthcoming in AGNI, PRISM international, Hotel Amerika, Split Lip, and elsewhere. She earned her MFA at Minnesota State University, Mankato, and was a 2015-16 Loft Literary Center Mentor Series winner. She teaches in Mankato, Minnesota.