“Get undressed,” the doctor says, her eyes on her computer screen as she taps at the keyboard. “Quickly, now.”
Emmanuelle looks at her mother, but gets no help from her. “Do as the doctor says, Emma.”
Reluctantly, Emmanuelle starts unbuttoning her shirt. The room is cold, and goose pimples rise along her arms as she pulls the garment off. She starts to shiver.
The doctor looks up from the computer. “Aren’t you done yet?” she asks, impatiently.
Emmanuelle’s mother looks at her. “Do you need help, Emma?”
Emmanuelle shakes her head and bends to pull off her shoes and socks. She does not want to do this, whatever it is, but it’ll do no good to refuse and she knows that she’ll catch hell for it later. Drawing her pants off, she straightens up in her underwear.
The doctor frowns and gestures irritably. “Those, too. Everything.” She’s a big woman, with a hard face. Her white coat is too small for her, the fabric stretched over her shoulders and breasts so that the buttons strain to hold it closed. She looks Emmanuelle up and down as though she were a piece of meat.
“She’s very thin and underdeveloped,” she says to Emmanuelle’s mum. “Are you sure she’s ten?”
Emmanuelle hugs her bony chest as her mum wordlessly hands the doctor her birth certificate. A drop of blood from where the technician had taken a sample squeezes out of the crook of her elbow and trickles down her skin. Underfoot, the tiled floor is freezing cold.
The doctor nods, hands back the paper, and points to a rack. “Put one of those outfits on.”
It’s thick and black and heavy, and she has trouble pulling the bottom part over her legs. It covers her from the soles of her feet up to the hips, but the front is open down to the tops of her thighs. There’s a top next, which has a hood to go over her head and arms which end in gloves, but the front is open from below her nipples down to her waist. The hood twists down over her eyes. Her mother pulls and pushes on the rubbery fabric until it finally falls into place.
“All ready.” It isn’t a question and she isn’t talking to Emmanuelle, she’s talking to her mother. Emmanuelle’s mum nods silently, and grips her shoulder hard. Emmanuelle can feel her fingers through the thick rubbery stuff.
“Come on, girl.” The doctor glances at the form in her hand. “What’s your name? Emmanuelle? Well, all you have to do is just come along and do exactly as you’re told to, and everything will be fine. Do you understand?”
Emmanuelle nods. The hood encases her head and throat, and the material is so thick that it makes it hard for her to move her head. She feels her mother’s hand on her shoulder, pushing her along behind the doctor’s broad back. The walls of the passage are bilious green, and the lights reflected off them tinge the doctor’s white coat an unsettling colour.
“Mum...” Emmanuelle begins. She’s intensely conscious that she’s naked down the front. “Why are we...”
“Shush,” her mother replies, in the tone of voice Emmanuelle has learnt not to question, or there will be trouble. “It’s just for a minute or two.”
The doctor is joined by an assistant in a brown coat, who’s even bigger than the doctor herself. She glances at Emmanuelle with a total lack of curiosity, and pulls on gloves of the same thick material Emmanuelle’s outfit is made of.
The doctor stops at a door, which is metal, unlike all the others they’ve passed. The edges are set into the walls and floor. The doctor pulls up a plate, and Emmanuelle sees her spinning a dial.
“We use the best blood stock here,” the doctor says over her shoulder. “Even so, we guarantee nothing, because there are too many variables. You understand?”
“I’ve signed the disclaimer,” Emmanuelle’s mother says. Her voice sounds tight, tensed up, and this frightens Emma. Suddenly she does not want to know what’s in the room.
The door opens with a pop. It’s just a room at first, a windowless, empty room, with white walls and bright white lights set in the ceiling. Then Emmanuelle notices that the floor is black and that it’s sunken below the doorsill – almost as far down as her knees.
“What are you waiting for, girl?” the doctor says, still impatient. “Go in.”
“Get down, Emma,” her mother orders, still in that tense voice, and pushes her shoulder. She jumps down, heavily, so that she has to bend her knees not to fall over. The floor is yielding under her feet, slippery and difficult to walk on.
“Just stand where you are,” the doctor says, and takes a can from her pocket, spraying it over Emmanuelle’s bare stomach and between her legs. It’s like a perfume, only it doesn’t smell of anything in particular. The assistant in the brown coat steps down, and walks over to the far wall. There’s a door Emma hasn’t noticed, set flush into the wall, and the assistant slides it open. Inside is a cupboard of some kind, with a shiny cage in it. Things chitter and scutter in the cage, reacting to the light.
“Stay where you are,” the doctor repeats. The assistant pulls the cage out and upends it, shaking. Small things fall out on to the floor, bouncing, and begin to scatter across the room. Then, as though they’ve smelt her, they suddenly turn and run in her direction. As they come together in the centre of the room, they fall over each other in their frantic eagerness to get to her, biting and scratching at each other. She hears a faint squeaking.
Three of them break away from the struggling mass all at once and come rushing towards her. Now she can see them clearly for the first time, and feels the scream rising in her throat. They’re pink and hairless like baby mice, but round-headed and tailless, and the size of kittens. She tries to back away, rising on her toes, ready to jump.
“Don’t move, Emma,” her mother shouts, but it’s too late. The smooth soles of the outfit slip on the yielding floor, and she falls over heavily on her back. In an instant they’re on her.
She has a brief glimpse of the first, as it leaps towards her face; a wide open mouth, gaping jaws studded with glassy translucent teeth, and round black eyes bulging above the flattened snout. Instinctively, she bats it away, her hand hitting it in mid air and sending it spinning across the floor. The next moment, she feels the pain, in her belly to one side of her navel. She tries to curl up, crying out, but there’s another pain now, on the inside of her left thigh, just where it joins the hip. She looks down at herself, screaming. One of the pink things seems to be trying to bore into her stomach. Another braces itself against her right leg, its mouth clamped into the soft skin of her left thigh.
The one on her stomach glances up at her. Its black eyes and flattened snout are flecked with her bright red blood.
After that, for a while she knows nothing more.
When she wakes, she’s lying in a bed. It’s white and smells of clean laundry. There’s a sheet over her, but she has no clothes on. There’s a dull pain on the inside of her thigh, and a numb feeling beside her navel. She lies there for a bit, waiting for the pain to go away, not daring to move in case it increases.
There are voices. She can make out that the doctor is talking, and sounds angry.
“You mean you didn’t educate the girl about this at all? You brought her here raw?”
“It didn’t...seem necessary.” Her mother’s voice, with an apologetic whine Emmanuelle has never heard before. “I remember how scared I was about getting it done, so...”
“So you probably traumatised her for years, and you also cost us one valuable parasite.” The doctor’s voice oozes with contempt. “We could have left it, of course, but it would have made it hard for her to walk, being attached where it was.”
“I’m sorry.” Her mother is quiet for a moment. “Will she be all right?”
“There’ll be a scar, but it’ll fade with time. You’ll have to pay for the destroyed parasite, of course.”
“Of course,” Emmanuelle’s mum says quietly. “That’s understood. I’ll arrange the bank transfer.”
The pain has not increased, so Emmanuelle gingerly moves her legs together. There’s something rough and thick tied around her left upper thigh; it feels like a bandage. She opens her eyes slowly. The room is pale blue, and there’s a pink and green butterfly made of cloth and wire spinning on a cord from the ceiling right above her head. It’s so ugly that it’s fascinating.
The doctor’s face comes between her and the butterfly, looking down. “So you’re awake? Are you feeling all right?”
Emmanuelle tries to talk. Her lips are stiff and her throat dry. “My thigh hurts.”
“It’ll be sore for a few days. I’ve given your mother medicines to give you if it gets too painful.” The doctor’s eyes are unsympathetic. “How’s your stomach?”
“It’s numb.” It’s more than numb, it feels heavy, as though weighed down, but Emmanuelle doesn’t dare touch it. “It’s not hurting.”
The doctor nods, curtly, and pulls the sheet off, glancing down at Emmanuelle’s naked body. “Right. You can get up now and get dressed. I’ll see you in a week for a check-up.”
Emmanuelle’s mother comes forward, her clothes draped over her arm. “Are you all right, dear?”
Her mother never calls her dear. Emmanuelle dresses quickly, unable to meet the older woman’s eyes, not daring to look down at herself.
“I’m all right,” she says.
Her mother takes her to a cafe and orders chocolate milkshakes. Her face is like a mask. She says nothing until the waitress has delivered their milkshakes and gone. Then she looks down at her hands, fingers twisting on the table.
“You’re entitled to know what this is all about,” she says.
Emmanuelle opens her mouth and shuts it again.
Her mother gestures irritably in the air, as though the girl has spoken. “Oh, I know I should have told you before. The doctor gave me an earful about that – you may have heard her. I just thought it would be better, you know...”
“Tell me,” Emmanuelle says. Something squirms under her shirt. She shifts uneasily. “Tell me, then.”
So her mother does.
Emmanuelle sits as though she’s turned to stone. The milkshakes lie on the table between them, untouched. She focuses her eyes on them, so that she doesn’t have to look at her mother.
Finally she manages to speak. “Why?”
She sees her mother’s shadow, on the table, shrugging. “Why, in your case, you mean? All girls go through it. I explained that.”
“No. I mean why? Why at all? Why did this start? Why can’t we still have, you know...” Her mouth feels for the word she’s never heard before today, never uttered. “...men?”
Emmanuelle’s mother’s hand clutches at a napkin. “It was for the best. They were vile creatures, aggressive and territorial, and even the best of them were unpredictable and untrustworthy. They’d have destroyed everything if we’d allowed them to go on as they were.”
“So you killed them. Not you, I mean the scientists killed them?”
“Killed them? No, of course not. They were just changed.” Emmanuelle’s mum’s hand reaches across the table for hers, and draws back before touching her, as though the contact would burn. “They’d have become extinct eventually, anyway. We saved them, really, and we saved ourselves too.”
“Saved them, how?”
“How? You’ve seen what they’re like now. They’re now totally joined, dependent on us. Our welfare is theirs. They can’t leave us, they can’t fight battles...”
“They were fighting each other in there,” Emmanuelle objects.
Her mother shifts irritably. “I explained that. They were attracted by the smell of the spray the doctor put on you. It’s all they can smell, and it drives them crazy. Only the toughest and strongest of the lot can reach you first, and climb up that fabric to your bare skin so it can get a grip, so you get the very best one. If you hadn’t fallen down...”
“That’s right,” Emmanuelle repeats. “If I hadn’t fallen down! It’s all my fault then.”
“Anyway,” her mother says eventually. “That’s it. It’s going to lose its limbs and eyes and mouth soon enough, and become like a little sack of flesh. You’ll hardly even notice it.”
“And when the time comes, it’s going to make babies inside me?” The thought makes Emmanuelle want to vomit. Then a thought strikes her. She looks up at her mother. “You must have had this done, too, to make me, right?”
“Yes, of course. Haven’t you been listening?”
“But I’ve seen you with no clothes on, lots of times. I never saw anything like this.”
“Yes, well...” Her mother picks up a milkshake, touches the straw to her lips, and puts it down again. “Mine...died.”
“Died? But you said it would last as long as I lived.”
“Sometimes something goes wrong. Mine got sick. They said it was dying, and removed it. It was just after you were born.” Emmanuelle’s mum clenches her eyes shut, and shakes her head vigorously. Her lips frame a word Emmanuelle has been told is bad, and she is never to use. Then her mum opens her eyes and shakes her head. “No, that’s not true. Since I’ve told you this much, I’ll tell you all of it. The whole truth.”
Emmanuelle knows what’s coming. “You killed it.”
“Yes.” Her mother’s face is colourless. “I thought of cutting it off, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. I took the knife, and held it to its skin, even, but I couldn’t make the first cut.”
“Why?” Emma prompts.
“It knew I was going to do it,” her mother says at last. “I don’t know how it knew, since they lose their eyes and all the other sense organs, but it knew. Maybe it picked up on my thoughts.” She presses the heels of her hands to her eyes, as though to block out the sight. “It started wriggling, trying to get away from the blade as far as it could. Which wasn’t very far, seeing that it was attached to my hip.”
“But you still,” Emma begins.
“But I still,” her mother agrees. “I couldn’t cut it off, but I’d made my decision. So I took a metal pestle and started hitting it and hitting it until it was a pulp. And then I went to hospital and told them that it had been crushed in an accident, so they removed what was left. They didn’t believe me, of course, but they pretended to. They probably get a lot of cases like that.”
Emmanuelle sits, appalled. “Why did you do it?” she manages eventually.
“You don’t need to know,” her mother snaps, and then shakes her head. “No, I said I’d tell you everything. Well, it was men.”
“Men? But you said...”
“I know what I said! I was stupid. I started thinking what it would have been to have men still in the world. How it would have been to have a man to share my life with, to share you with.” She sighs. “There were the old stories, stories I was idiot enough to read, that you should never ever touch if you value your happiness.”
“Stories? What stories?”
“All stories! Anything written from the old days. A lot was written by men themselves. They were fascinating creatures, at least if you believed what they wrote, and what women wrote about them. There was heartbreak, sure, but there was excitement and more. And there was love.
“Oh, there was love. It was angry and beautiful and fascinating, and I’d never, ever, know it.” Emmanuelle’s mum takes a big swallow of the milkshake as though it were water. “And I began to hate the parasite. I began to hate it with every bit of my being. I began to blame it for the fact that I’d never know what love was, that it helped make you instead of a man doing that, the way they did. And, and I swore I’d never let it make anyone else.” A tear trickles down her cheek, and she rubs it away angrily. “Men! Even when they’re no longer there, they still make you sad and unhappy. Men!”
The parasite squirms against Emmanuelle’s belly, like a kitten nuzzling its mother’s teat. She stands up abruptly. “I’ll be right back.”
Her mother looks up, eyes sad and hollow. “Don’t be too long. I don’t want to be alone right now.”
“I’ll be right back, I said,” Emmanuelle says. She can’t put it off any longer. Walking as fast as she can without breaking into a run, she goes to the washroom and locks the door. “Wait,” she murmurs, to the squirming parasite. “Wait, just a moment.”
Taking a deep breath, she meets her own eyes in the mirror before she pulls up her shirt, and then, only then, does she look down at her husband for the first time.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2016