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My mother periodically warned me, in her thick, floury voice: “Don’t wish yourself out of your body. If you try too hard you will be transformed, and live forever in a circle worse than hell.”
She was sometimes religious, but conflated her bursts of holiness with the plots of science fiction films. I always said she was losing it. Why couldn’t I wish myself out of my body? I wanted skinny legs, a heart-shaped face, green eyes and black hair. I would have myself look like a witch rather than my mother’s daughter. When she went to church I took things out the fridge and threw them away, or rearranged them in patterns she thought were satanic but which I had designed by impulse, which, I would think later, might have been a sign. Years later, when I was seventeen and my ribs protruded like park railings, when I had forced the dense pudding of hunger into a ball in my stomach, I pretended to be a monster. I was a horrible, secretive adolescent who hated my mother and didn’t want the arms and legs god had given me. She kept telling me I was horrible and selfish, and I agreed with her. She said I should eat what was put in front of me, and I screamed at her.
My doppelgänger was horrible also. She came to haunt me the night before my eighteenth birthday, when I lay awake all night, wishing I had someone to talk to, or better yet, someone or something to turn into to escape my life.
I got up to use the toilet and met my doppelgänger in the bathroom. She was looking out from the mirror on the bathroom cabinet, then came through while I was washing my hands, fitting her shoulders through the glass frame like she could dislocate them at will. Her bones folded up and snapped back into place, some of them tearing like paper, and she stretched with mirror-cuts down her arm. At first I didn’t believe she was real, but her smile was pointed like glass and I recognised the venom in her eyes as my own.
We worked like mirrors. I touched the side of her face, and she mine. We breathed through each other. We took us by the shoulders and spun us around and screamed when this broke our arms. She got jaw-lock and one of my teeth fell out. My dog, a blonde Labrador called Curly, came upstairs and saw us, and howled hopelessly by the door. My mother was in the kitchen, chopping carrots, and it made the same noise as the heavy feet of the doppelgänger walking after me.
She followed me back to bed and curled herself around me, breathing steadily into my ear. It wasn’t worried. I had been lonely for a long time, and besides, my doppelgänger did not leave, and was not doing me any harm.
I realised we could not part and would have to live together. We did this badly, confusing our limbs and our intentions, so we nearly killed ourselves crossing the road from opposite sides. Once, writing a terrible story, I blinded her with my pencil. That night she gave me a fever and pushed me out of bed. We fought over the best pillow, and she always won, and once as a joke almost smothered me to death. Still, I loved her. I loved the deep cavity in her torso, which I thought was better than mine, her eyes, her nose, and skin, and mouth, and her witchy, calculating expression. I told her all my secrets and she told me none of hers. Later I realised that this was what she wanted; it was a way of emptying my body of words before the rest could happen. My doppelgänger had come to break up my body like an old box.
And still I loved her. Taking a shower involved a twofold action in which she choked in the water while I shaved. We took it in turns to slick the razor over our legs and rinse the soap off and take a breath. One night she dried my hair for me. The day after that we kissed, and my bottom lip came off.
When we argued we landed on top of each other like fish. She kicked once, twice, and the voice was punched out of me. I pulled a blue-and-purple face and she laughed, saying it was so colourful she could go blind right over again. It was the first time she had spoken. “I like having you here,” I said. “I think I could enjoy my life from now on.”
That was the clincher. When I was sleeping she cut herself into little pieces and lay all around me as a joke.
In the morning I knew that a large and irreplaceable part of me had disappeared. I was an incomplete and changed person, incapable of looking in the mirror without seeing her ghost behind my shoulder. I cleaned up the fallen skin with an old towel. Then I put my fingers to my head and realised that my eyes were by my ears. This made me see the world differently.
There was still blood under my nails and flesh in the hem of my pyjamas, but I left them alone and made breakfast. My sister came down the stairs and said good morning. My mother asked if I’d had my hair cut. I found a tooth just like mine in my cereal, which I recognised as my doppelgänger’s suicide note, and which I later planted in a field three miles outside our home, with Curly. He looked at me with something like betrayal when I showed him the tooth. He had liked my doppelgänger, sometimes more than he liked me, and he thought it was me who had got rid of her.
There were fresh rabbits in the burial field. For the first time in months I felt excited and free, and I didn’t mind the body I had spent years wishing myself out of. It was finally starting to feel normal. The rabbits dove into the ground when I ran after them excitedly, and I fell to the grass and shouted after them. I buried my nose in the mud as my dog laughed and walked away. “Stupid dog,” it said.
I got up and shook myself. I felt drunk, but it was good. There was mud on my face, which I licked away. We buried the tooth as follows: in a jam jar, using a small trowel, wrapped in tissue paper and accompanied by a small audience of fauna. In my speech I was apologising for the funeral which was religious even though it had meant to be humanist, because my doppelgänger had never shown much interest in eternal life and I had accidentally arranged the wrong ceremony. Not that I believe in the dead being able to hear, or even in the sanctity of speeches; when I sternly told god to give my doppelgänger some good legs to walk on and things to paint and an electric piano in heaven, I was really talking into the ground.
Then I assigned the day to a black space in the hem of my pyjamas, where she is, where god is, where the voice in my head is, my apology, the jam jar, and my doppelgänger’s confetti body, because nothing exists at this funeral, or in this field, except for a pile of bones and the Rabbit Mourning Club in their matching furry blazers.
Days later, drained and unable to use my fingers properly, I drove towards the field. I had been sent out to walk the dog. I no longer felt happy with myself, and the hunger pains in my stomach were inflating like balloons. I wanted out of my own ribs. Curly started to scream. I pulled to the side of the road and looked at him. He did not usually scream like a person, with so much fear and revulsion. He was screaming at my left-wing mirror, and when I leaned over I could see the face of my dead doppelgänger.
My body creaked slowly as it does when I dream of her, and I felt Curly’s terror in such an animal way that I broke up like a sinking ship.
Sunk, aching for something to join to, my nerves branched into thousands of tiny, cloudy swellings, each a mist of finely balanced cells, their close connections billionth-fold and increasing. My heart, which felt like bursting, filled the car. Imagine this: if you take away everything in your body except for your nerve endings, endless, supremely ghostlike – if the very tips of this new biological formation, this lemony wall, have been dipped in vinegar and salted – then this is what’s left, the very ends of sensation blossoming under the first, translucent layer of skin, thin fractured shivers concentrated at all the pores. You are electric.
Curly barked and the screaming stopped.
Fear, when it nips you, feels like a close encounter with love. Imagine someone swiping a sharp blade, parted scissors maybe, so close to your skin you almost tear open; love and fear are together the shock you feel as you realise that you have escaped, that the near past cannot be altered and that your skin, somehow still whole, could now be bleeding. You’ve made an inadvertent leap, you are here and on a tangent, and for a minute you are still connected, you are still considering the other self with blood on its arms – you, the human, are only a collection of experiences and you have been fractured. Or imagine this: someone is holding a gun to your head. The mouth is forming a dent in your skin. (You can recreate this with a water pistol, even an empty one, held by a person who is smirking – have it held to your left temple, feel the ache of the bullet waiting to go off, to be released with the swipe of a finger – is it really water? Will water kill you?) The side of your head is made of lemons. It is the shiver of getting away, a deep and unintelligent rearrangement of hope.
But this is all wrong. Words won’t explain it to you. I am trying to make you know how it felt. The real sensation lies between print, letters being the bars that hold the space – they make an inside compared to an outside – a meaning, as it were, insinuated by your following – that is, you must shoot yourself now – that is, I cannot communicate to you, could not communicate without brushing your upper lip, the pain and wretchedness, the zinging electrical ache and zipped-up, loving Feeling of the Dead Self Watching You.
I knew there was only one way out. Without properly considering the implications, I turned into an animal and left the gap to my life wide open.
I was reduced to dog-years and speed in a moment of decision. My stomach was so cramped I folded over like a deckchair and my bones snapped. My eyes felt right again. My brain cried its excitement at this realignment, my thoughts overspilled, they turned my pale body thick with hair, and I barked.
Changed, I ran from the car into the pouring rain and tumbled through the world. Canine, I danced like a fish drowning on dry land – I felt like a gorgeous fish, lavicious and licking up water, and it was new, dog-drunk water, OH GOD, and there is a beaten brass plate, the sun a lamplit egg, and as I run sharp sticks are bursting open in my paws, I am heavy, I am hosewater smells, I am dirt and hairs, and jumping up at the trees which are PISH-POSH-SPLASH blasting the canopies wide open, skeleton branches swinging down, I am swaying and spraying green – what’s this? what’s this? the explosion of a magpie swinging with raucous singing flinging bones of silver rain bits – the flat vision flies towards my face and smacks my mouth, the air is beneath me, the essence of bird in my throat, and dry old teeth saturated, I smack the ground – my my my tumbling over treading berries into slack red piles, glistering ducks bursting between my teeth, oh in my ribs a hot slab o’ heartbeat – watch the puddle STUPID DOG! STUPID DOG! I found a rabbit and got bored with it and tore it up until my face was red.
I staggered on again, tumbling through the fields, my bones aching, my legs blurred, and I went to the place where the tooth was buried and dragged it up with my mouth. It had grown into a sad and sightless youth, thin and hollow and bruised. It looked horrible, and I felt sorry for it. It stumbled like a drunk, circled its feet into place and followed me home, its fingers reaching for my tail. I wedged myself through the cat flap; it walked right through the door.
My mother, who was making stew on the kitchen counter, dropped the bowl and emptied her body of sound, then roared to her god to close up hell. She asked the thin girl what she thought she was doing, wandering around naked like she was possessed by the devil. Had her daughter finally gone mad? Had she starved all the sense out of herself? She was only meant to be walking the dog.
When the girl didn’t reply my mother’s faced changed, she warned against the devil and she picked up the cleaver and tried to sink it into her. I couldn’t let it happen, and I was proud of my new canine body; I showed her my teeth and gave her such a look that she fled and locked herself outside.
I raced uncontrollably to the end. I followed the girl to the bathroom and saw both of them together.
They worked like mirrors. They took each other by the shoulders and spun themselves around. I stood by the door and howled.