My brothers imagined themselves the first to speak without mouths—their fingers blood-pricked from learning how to pass a needle through lace—but it was only my mother and I who could understand the heaviness of the things we could not say. Only my mother and I who had learned how to speak with small sounds that were not words at all.
“How much longer?” they asked with the harsh grunts they taught themselves. Listening to them was like hearing one voice but also like a roaring. Like the sound of the river in the dark. “Our fingers ache,” they said, and I kept my eyes cast down because they did not know how they left their stain all over everything. It was not beautiful to leave parts of yourself behind.
But there were only the two of us to do the sewing, and it needed done more quickly, so my mother gathered my brothers to her skirts and fed them tinctured milk from the tiny spoon she carried around her neck until their eyes fluttered shut and then stitched their mouths closed. This was the way it had always been done. Girls’ mouths sewn closed and born without names so that we might focus on our work. If a mother gave her girl child a name, there was violence at the end of it and so I was Sister to my brothers and nothing more. My brothers had names, but I never learned to speak them properly.
When my brothers woke, my mother traced her fingers over the tears pearled on their cheeks and pricked each of their fingers until their hands were painted in scarlet and vermillion and crimson. How they wept! Their shoulders shaking in silence as they caught at my mother’s arms, her hair, her breasts, and behind my own sealed mouth, I bared my teeth.
My mother and I were meant for our work, meant to bend to it, but my brothers did not know anything other than the freedom of the river; the warm, iron scent of earth slick against their skin as they lifted their voices into the sky. They did not understand how the silence was a necessary part of sewing lace.
Over and over, my mother taught them how to thread a needle, how to coax lace—thin and airy as a spider’s web—from the movements of their hands. Here, her hands said. Like this. Forget your voice. Forget there was once anything other than this movement. It won’t be for long. I promise.
Under her touch, they jumped and fidgeted and stared out the window at the pear tree they could no longer climb. They coaxed the lace from their needles, but it was not quite as fine as it should be, so it did not fetch a high price when my mother ventured into the city to sell it.
My brothers’ fingers did not grow calloused, as ours were. Back and forth, they grunted to one another, their eyes jerking about the room as if the mere act could free them from this duty my mother and then I had been born into.
Once, when mother wasn’t looking, I slapped each of their hands for fumbling a particularly fine section. Behind their closed mouths, they growled, and I envisioned snapping, slathering jaws, but they only flexed their arms, their bodies becoming sinewy in a way that did not belong to boys. They would not ruin this for me. They would not. Soon, I would bleed and be old enough for a man to make me his wife. Soon, I would be taken into another life I had never wished for myself.
My brothers would grow up. My mother would unstitch their mouths, release their tongues, and they would go back into the world. They would find girls with hair the color of moonlight and marry them and take them away and forget there was a time when they bent over lace. Their wives would all have stitched mouths, but my brothers would be happy because they had the ability to choose.
But my mother understood. Together, we sewed and dropped coins into the cloth bag she’d carried before she married my father. How was she to know his heart would be weak? A tender thing that would bleach out before she learned how to truly love him, but after he had given her four children. How was she to know her fate was already rotten as the roots under our feet, the earth yielding only the dead?
Her gnarled body spoke of memory and regret, and so our numb fingers tucked away the coins the women from the city paid us. Those women whose lips were not sewn because they had been born into gold. These women whose fingers would never ache from use. Once, I envied their lives, how they curled their mouths into pouting smiles, but they were bound as my mother and I were, only with a different kind of thread.
Evenings, my mother would take her spoon and slip the same tinctured milk past the stitches on my brother’s lips, so they would sleep without moaning, but she never did this for me, no matter how my hands cramped or how my fingers twisted.
Only when they slept would she talk to me, in those quiet moments we hid from my brothers. Our language was not for them; it was not the language they had learned.
Past the river, there is a town without a name. When you go, you cannot tell anyone where you are going, even if they ask. Smile. Keep your eyes down. They will not follow you. Your body will know the way. It will know when you have found it.
But how? I questioned, and she pinched the back of my arms to quiet me. She wove my hair into plaits, and her hands were rough, but they were my mother’s hands, and I leaned into her and waited for her to finish telling me what to do, but her breathing deepened, and I knew she slept.
How long before my brothers slowed in their sewing? How long before their work was not the quality my mother had shown them, the thin lines veering off into crooked, broken pieces? The coins their work fetched grew fewer and fewer, and my brothers spoke in harsh barks that sounded like demands rather than concessions, and I glared at them when our mother’s back was turned. They laughed at me, and it sounded like a fistful of earth dropped into a deep hole.
Still, my mother watched over them, her small spoon filled each night as they tipped their faces toward her and waited for what was due them.
We’re tired. We want to stop. They said as they tumbled down into their dreams. Beside me, my mother stiffened, but she said nothing. It was better if they did not think we could speak for ourselves. They were my brothers, they were my mother’s sons, but it was their duty to be certain we did not speak. They were born with cruelty threaded through their skin. They would not hesitate.
Only when my brothers were quiet, did my mother begin. Past the river, there is a town without a name.
But how much longer could it be? We have been sewing for so long. We cannot need much more.
My mother’s eyes flashed, but she did not speak again. Later, I woke to her bent over a long strip of lace, her eyes gone reddish in the dim light. After that, I pretended to sleep, but there was a fear in my belly, heavy as a stone. Perhaps there would not be enough. For two months, I listened as my mother sewed by candlelight, the lace spilling from her fingers like snow.
My brothers grew more restless and spoke in yips and growls. I recognized only the violence in their voices. They were older now, and their muscles flexed like living things. Their lace was torn to shreds before an hour had gone by, but still, my mother ignored them and beat her fingers against her legs, so she might feel them again. I sewed faster, my hands cramping from use as my brothers jostled each other and ignored their work.
My brothers did not notice that our mother’s eyes were the color of blood.
It doesn’t matter. We can still talk, they said, and I wanted to slap each of them but kept my hands busy. It was not my place.
That night, my brothers crept away, their new voices leaking into the darkness like things hunting meat. When they returned, it was with arms corded with exertion and faces that had lost their softness and scabbed, bleeding mouths, freed from the binding my mother had placed on them. They smelled of something rotten and the iron tang of blood.
“Tomorrow,” they said together. I did not recognize their voices. “Tomorrow, we will go out into the fields. We cannot sit in the house any longer. It is not for us.” They laughed, and the air around them bent to make room for the sound. They shook their hair and their eyes flashed yellow.
My mother touched their faces. Her hands trembled, but my brothers did not notice because they were men now and not boys. There was no room in their vision for such subtleties. They did not grow up sewing lace as I did.
That night, my brothers ran beneath the moon, their skins bare and wet with dew, and I did not watch them from the window because I knew they would somehow be beautiful and terrifying at the same time. This new world they had grown into was not for me.
They will marry. They will leave. They will not stay to till diseased ground, my mother said. I turned from the window, but still in my mind I saw them, rushing over cool earth, their hands and feet gone dark with soil. I shook my head, but there was the taste of water on my tongue as I forced myself back to kneel at my mother’s feet.
I will stay. I will be here with you, I said and took her hands.
She shook her head. No. They would keep you here. Your brothers and then your husband. You would know only the small violence that can happen to your body. You would never know what it is to speak, what it is to have a name. She shifted the pile of lace in her lap. All this beauty. It isn’t enough.
My mother stood, letting the lace fall from her lap to the floor. When I bent to retrieve it, she brought her hand to my shoulder. No. Not this time, she said.
Outside, one of my brothers shouted, and the others answered in deep voices, and I knew they would return smelling of the forest and of sweat, their mouths wide and greedy as they gobbled whatever meal my mother prepared.
From her skirts, my mother withdrew the small bag of coins and placed it in my hand. There’s enough now. I made sure of it. All those nights. There is enough.
I closed my hand against the pouch and then opened it. What will you do? When I go?
My mother closed her eyes. I will grow old. I will die. It is what my body has been trying to do my entire life.
Don’t. Come with me. I said.
No, love. I am too old now. This is what I have wanted for you. Since I looked into your face, this is what I have wanted. For you to have a life, a name. Past the river, there is a town without a name. When you go, you cannot tell anyone where you are going, even if they ask. Smile. Keep your eyes down. They will not follow you. Your body will know the way, will know when you have found it. She brought her fingers to my lips and traced over the stitches she’d put there before I was old enough to walk.
My mother reached again into her skirts and withdrew a small pair of scissors. I flinched, but she grasped my shoulder and held me still as she passed the blades between my lips and pulled the threads from my skin. Pain is a thing to carry with you always. So you never forget, she said, but I did not cry out. There were years of silence within me. It was the only thing I had ever known.
My mother kissed my cheek and whispered in my ear. You know the way. I have told you, so you could not forget.
Again, she pressed the coins into my hand, and I did not hesitate. Even when I saw the tears staining her cheeks. The sound of my brother’s voices grew closer.
Tell me goodbye, she said, and I kissed her with my new mouth.
Goodbye. I told her in the old way because my tongue did not know how to curl around the sounds it needed to produce actual words.
I did not look back.
Only once I was in the woods, the night animals crying out from their hidden places, did I slow, my muscles aching from use.
It would be hours before I reached the river, and I had brought no food, no water, no sharp blade to protect myself. Past the river, there is a town without a name. I repeated my mother’s words like a prayer, a stumbling series of requests offered to whatever great being lived beyond the sky. My shoes were too thin, and my feet tore and bled where stones pierced the flimsy material, but it did not matter. My mother had sent me on to something greater. In time, the pain would lessen, the weight of the coins would lighten as I paid my way into a life that meant I could be more than the property of a man who would never know what it meant to be silent.
I walked and tried to learn what it would mean to speak, but my voice was a light, airy thing that would not cooperate, so I finally stopped, my feet the only sound in those deep woods.
When the rushing of the river finally reached my ears, I felt as if I had stumbled into a dream. Leaves and branches seemed washed in silver, and the air had fallen still as if a storm threatened, but there was no thunder, no lightning. Only a thin slip of moon the color of bone and the shadowed earth beneath my feet, and my mother’s voice in my ear. Past the river, there is a town without a name.
For a moment, my feet froze. There was still time to turn around, head in the direction I had come and slip into my bed—my mother’s back against mine—before the sun rose. Time yet to return to stitching, the old threads back in place to keep my voice contained.
It would kill her. To see you once more, I thought and pressed on. I would cross the river and find the town. My mother had never told me what would happen next. There had never been room enough in our little house to contain it, but for years we had saved. Perhaps I had not understood well enough then what it was my mother hoped for me.
At first, I only heard them. My brothers. Their footsteps passing heavily over the earth, their voices low, and then so loud I imagined they were trying to crack open the sky, their breath panting as they growled in frustration. “Girl!” they called, and I could hear the teeth in it. “There’s no use hiding. We can smell you.”
“I can make use of that mouth,” another of my brothers called, and they all laughed. The forest trembled with the sound of their breaking what lingered in their path to me, with the sound of their jaws snapping and their tongues extended in anticipation. I froze because I knew how they would tear me open, how they would pry open my mouth with their bloodied fingers and slip themselves inside. There were other girls who had fled, other girls whose mangled bodies had been returned by their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, and I thought of them, how they must have run, their hearts in their mouths. My brothers would do the same, would cast my body at my mother’s feet, the coins useless as they spilled. My mother would swallow down her tears in the way every woman who’d lost a daughter had.
I did not run in the way of the other girls. My brothers understood the chase. They knew how to scent meat and panic and follow it down to death. What they did not understand was stillness.
I went slowly, my feet quiet, and forced my beating heart to patter softly, but my brothers were close. I could taste their salt-slicked skin in the mist rising from the river. I dropped to my belly, twigs and leaves scraping against me as I crept forward. The slow, steady rushing of water made my tongue ache with need, but there was no time to drink. My brother’s voices grew louder. I could feel their weight shake the earth beneath me. My legs ached, and my arms were scratched, but I kept moving, my eyes fixed on what lay beyond.
Beyond the river, there were only more trees, more shadows. No lights shimmered in the distance. There was no town. The thing my mother had promised was not there. I had never ventured this far into the woods, had never seen the river for myself. Perhaps there had once been a town—when my mother was a girl—but now there was only empty space.
With my new voice, I cried out. It did not sound like the voice of a girl. The voice of a woman. It was the shrieking of a fox, the haunted scream of something clawed and fanged and trapped.
“We can hear you, girl.” My brother’s voices lingered in the cups of my ears.
Beside me, the river flowed. I breathed and wondered how easy it would be to slip beneath its surface, to draw cold water into my lungs, but there was my mother’s voice—the only voice she had—speaking her instructions. I could go beyond the river. I could search for the town there. I could stay pressed against the ground, and my brothers would not find me.
An animal cried out behind me, a low sound that sounded like laughter and crept into my blood. Yellow eyes flashed in the darkness, and something large moved through the trees and then stepped into the moonlight. Whatever moved there stood on two legs and licked its chops, the tongue impossibly red in the darkness. It did not snarl but opened that great, yawning mouth so I could see the familiar, sharp teeth. A reminder that here in this vast forest, I was nothing more than meat and blood.
More yellow eyes emerged from the gloom, and I watched my brothers sniff at the air. “She’s here,” they said and surged forward, their hands extended as they went down to run on all fours.
Gathering my skirts, I stood and looked out over the water. There was a gathering of rocks where the river was shallow, and the stones gleamed like otherworldly things. My brothers shouted, but I did not turn back. My mouth did not know how to say please; it did not know how to beg, so I pulled the pouch of coins from my skirts, and without thinking, dropped one into the river and stepped forward. There was no creature there to request my coins, but it seemed as if there was a threshold to cross that only gold would pay.
The water was not cold but warm as if the sun had somehow descended into its depths, and I fell, the water filling my mouth, my nose, as I scrambled to get away from my brothers. The deep stink of them filled my nose, and I thought I felt one of them grasp at my leg, but it was only a branch drifting. I pushed onward and told myself not to think of what it would be like if they caught me. Breathless, I scrambled up the opposite bank and only then permitted myself to cast a backward glance over my shoulder.
Those yellow eyes watched, but there was no movement in the water. My brothers paced back and forth, their growls dipping lower and lower until their voices no longer seemed human. Together, they waded into the water only to retreat, their screams and yips filling the air.
“Girl! Sister!” they called, trying again and again to enter the river, but they could not cross. I stopped to throw another coin into the river and then turned and ran. Behind me, my brothers shrieked, but it was only a sound. Whatever charm I had purchased at the river held.
I could not be sure how long I walked. Perhaps it was hours. Perhaps it was days. I could not remember how long my legs carried me toward a place that surely did not exist, but I kept moving, unwilling to finally admit my mother had made a mistake. Morning did not come. I moved through a never-ending twilight, the sky above still dark despite the time that had passed. In and out of sleep I drifted.
How much farther did I go? How much longer did I stumble before I heard voices? Slow, lovely undulations that made my heart quicken and my cheeks flush. Lights shimmered ahead of me, faded and then glowed like living things among the darkness.
Mother. Tears stained my cheeks, and I touched the pouch filled with coins. I could buy my way into a different life. I would not be the lace girl, her lips sewn shut. I would not be my brothers’ sister or a husband’s wife. This had been my mother’s gift.
A woman emerged from the trees. She wore her hair loose, and it draped over her shoulders like a cloak, and she moved without hurry. She was not lovely in the way the young women in town were lovely with their elaborate dresses and perfumed hair and rouged mouths. She walked without swaying her hips or fluttering a fan against her bosom, but her eyes were large, the lashes long and dark, and her skin was smooth. The beauty she carried was like a dim light.
“You have found us,” she said as if she knew me—as if I was expected—and offered her hand, which was as slim and cool as the stones I crossed. She walked beside me, and she smelled of lavender or honey or the rosewater my mother kept hidden away and sometimes splashed over her wrists.
I nodded, and she brought a finger to my lips and traced them over the places my mother’s thread had once been. “You cannot speak.” I shook my head. “Ah. Well, then. You are not the first who must learn.” She pointed to her own mouth, the pocked scars faint but still visible in the dim light.
Before us, the town emerged. A low wall with blazing lanterns that encircled squat buildings where women stood and watched my approach. Many voices seemed to tangle together in song—I saw them as threads, not binding a silence, but weaving a tapestry of sound. Fires lit up the rounded and willowy bodies of women, their skirts the shades of brightly feathered birds as they wound their arms about each other.
“You would not be a wife. You would live as you wish. Such a dangerous thing for someone who carries so much sweetness within her body.” She lifted my hand and turned it as she examined the roughness of my fingers. “You may sew here, but only if you like.” She closed my hand and smiled. “They will never find you. The men you fear.”
I dipped my head, but she pulled it back up. “No. Do not feel shame for that. Never for that. Now,” she pursed her lips and extended her hand. “Someone paid for you, yes? No one comes here who has not paid. There is always a price for things that are hard won.”
I removed my mother’s pouch, so many coins, and spilled them into the woman’s hand. “Very good,” she said. Someone laughed, high and clear, and the sound was like breathing air after a long death. “Do you have a name?”
I shook my head. No. Of course not.
“You will have a name here. It is what you have bought,” the woman said. There were faces turned to us now, watching from their places in the dark with calm, expectant smiles. “Something that is yours.” She bent and laid her lips on my neck, her breath warm against my ear as she whispered a single word. “Now, tell me your name, little one.”
Others emerged from the darkness now, the entire town turning its face to watch.
I opened my mouth.