The Girl and the Fragmented Body

By Couri Johnson

The night the silvering begins starts with a dinner with her colleagues, though she supposes colleagues is not the right word for them, exactly. She doesn’t know the right word for them, exactly, and so she sits with her hands tucked under the table and tears a pack of tissues into strips as she thinks about it. What is the right word? she wonders. She doesn’t think any word is right, at least, never exactly. 

“How are you liking it so far, dear?” the older man—the Judge—asks her. For certain, the Judge is not her colleague, and she supposes that this is what matters most of all—what he is not. That maybe instead of defining what he is, she should work on defining what he is not, and then she will get closer to the true shape of their relationship. He’s not father, nor uncle, nor friend, nor colleague. A colleague would not call her “dear,” but this man who is not her colleague can, she supposes. She thinks that means she must be a dear in response, or at least as close to dear as she can get.

“Everyone has been very nice,” she says, and under the table, she twists one of the tissue strips around her pinky tight enough that she can feel the blood leave it. “Though it was hard to focus on typing the words out when that woman was crying.”

“Mothers,” the Bailiff says, “they get hysteric.” 

She doesn’t think about her own mother or hysterics. She thinks about what they will want her to say next.

“You mustn’t let them get in your head, those people,” the Judge says. “So many of them are nothing more than common trash—addicts, you know—who are just weeping now to get let off easy. It’s all because they got caught, you see, and it has nothing to do with anything we might call remorse. They’re really the worst, you know.”

She looks down the table at all of them—the Judge, the Bailiff, the Law Clerk, the Judge’s Secretary, the Public Defender, and the Federal Prosecutor—and past them, sees a mirror on the wall where she can see herself being looked at by them, her body made small in the glass. She can also finally see what it is they want her to say next. 

“Yes,” she says, and she thinks what she is going to say to them isn’t dear at all—or at least, nowhere near close to what she always imagined dear to be. But maybe the meaning of dear can be something else completely, depending, she supposes, on who is saying it and who is hearing it. “They really are pretty trashy. I mean, the clothes on some of them. But I suppose if they don’t care about putting trash in their body, then they won’t care about putting trash on it.”

They laugh, and the Judge who is not father, uncle, friend, or colleague to her, claps a hand on her shoulder and squeezes it hard, and she takes one of the few whole tissues left out of the bag and rubs it against her mouth, hoping to rub the words she said off her lips before they change something about her—some fundamental part of her. But it’s too late, she’s already said it, and it’s already said something about her. 

When the dinner ends, and they have all gotten in their cars and driven away, she stands a little ways away from the restaurant and pulls her phone out of her pocket to make a call. 

“I’m ready for you to come get me,” she says, but it would’ve been more accurate for her to say I want you to come get me, or perhaps, I need you to come get me, or something else, somewhere between the two and beyond them both that she doesn’t have the words for. When she hangs up, she stands there shivering on the cement and fooling with the tissue paper wrapped around her finger. She doesn’t notice the prick of silver on the pinky’s tip, as small as the point of a needle.

There is something she remembers believing to be true once: that she was part of a great big thing. That the world was a great big thing all interlocked together. That she was that great big thing, and her mother was that great big thing, and the trees on the street were that great big thing, and the dog on the mat, and the rocks along the road, and they were all together just something moving through a stream she couldn’t see, but she could feel. That was something she believed once before she even had the words to describe belief and tree and body, but it was a long time ago, and she hasn’t been sure of anything since. 

He picks her up in his car that she thinks looks like a ripe strawberry, and takes her to the apartment with the bare walls, the mattress on the floor, the table where she sits in the morning to drink coffee, and the full-length mirror where she looks at herself and dresses herself in the new clothes she bought for the new job at the court. 

He is also new, and she is feeling something like hope. 

They sit on the floor across from each other at the table, and on the table, he puts a small mirror, where he dumps a baggie of powder out and arranges the dumped powder into lines, and she lights the joint he gave her. He holds up the mirror and snorts one of the lines, then comes around to kneel behind her. He puts his arms around her, his head next to her head, and holds the mirror just below her face. He puts the bill to her nostril, and she sees him in the mirror, his face beside hers, the edge where they are separated obscured by the white line. 

She watches him watch her as she leans down until her face is too close, and she has to close her eyes or else look into them.

When she is properly high, they lay on the mattress, and she feels like she is moving back to that space where his body and her body are a merged thing, where the world is a merged thing. She lets her eyes rest on him as he talks, and she discovers the way the sweat and the light forms the lines of his body; she sees how if it were wiped away, he could blur and she could blur; she sees how all the edges that keep all the people and things separate could blur; she sees how they could be one. She sits up to tell him, and in the mirror across from them against the wall she sits up as well, and she sees herself there, and him next to her, looking.

“This is good,” her reflection says to him, something she heard him say earlier that night. “This is good shit.”

And then she and her reflection lay back down, and she knows she has failed somehow, and that now, the lines of sweat are nothing more than lines of sweat, and if she were to wipe them away, she’d have nothing but a wet palm. Still, she wants to experience him as part of herself, she wants to blur that line somehow, so she tries to the only way she knows how, and opens her mouth to him and opens her thighs to him, and she lets him in to split her, but it only works as well as it ever does. She is too aware of where his body is ending and hers is beginning, and if she needs reminding, the mirror is right there, showing.

When he is gone, she sits on the mattress and smokes a cigarette, and as she lifts her hand towards her face, she finally sees it—sees her own face in her pinky as she pulls the cigarette from her lips. Her finger has turned sometime in the night, from the tip down to the base where it meets the palm, into smooth, silvered glass. 

There was a time when she was young that she remembers, a time when she was so small her palms were the size of the lenses in her mother’s glasses. But she didn’t think of things as separate parts then, and there was no concept of doubles, no number greater than one, and she was nothing and everything all at once, and everything was clear, like glass that light could pass through rather than like glass that bounced things back. But then that all fractured, and when she sees herself in the mirror, she thinks she can remember that fracture, but when she thinks about it too hard, it hurts, like a splinter of glass going clean through her, cutting her off from everything and leaving her shivering and alone.

Monday morning, her whole hand is a mirror, and she has to put a glove on it, and it slows her typing in court. She can hear it, each time clinking against the keys, the dulled click of something hard against something hard as she types out the words that aren’t her own. Words that she’d rather not be typing, that she had never wanted to hear in her life, much less type. Words such as: guilt, and probation, and assault, and your honor, and yessir, and ma’am, I am going to have to ask you to calm down, and sir, do you understand the gravity of the situation you are in? and twenty to life and third offense, and weeping, and take them away, and wails and the sound of a gavel striking. She is tangled now in these words; they are a part of her and she is a part of them, and none of it feels very dear, despite the Judge clapping his hand on her shoulder at the end of the day and calling her so. She does not feel dear. She is not dear. But he sits at the center of the web she is woven into now, and his words are her words, and so she cannot argue against him: cannot define things for herself by herself.

“It was a good day, yessir,” she says back to him, though this is nothing like what she wants to say, but it doesn’t matter, does it, she thinks, when nothing ever will be.  

She gets home and undresses before the full-length mirror, pulling off the gloves last. She holds her silvered hand up. She sees her reflection reflected in her palm, a part of herself inside herself, separated from herself, trapped in glass. 

She takes out her phone and she makes a call, but it goes unanswered.

When he returns her calls days later and comes to her apartment, meaning when he comes to her, her whole arm up to its shoulder has turned, and it’s begun to spread down to her breast. She wears an evening gown and long gloves, and he thinks it’s funny and laughs at her as he takes out his paraphernalia—another word that’s become a part of her—and when they are high, he drags her down onto the mattress and tries to undress her. She pushes his hand off the shoulder of the gown and sits up. In the mirror, she can see him look at her like she has taken something from him.

“Come on,” he says, frowning at her reflection. “Don’t be a stuck-up bitch about it.”

“Give me a moment,” she says, “just a moment to talk, alright?”

He keeps frowning, and she feels bad that she is going to try to speak anyway. She lights a cigarette but can’t feel it between her mirrored fingers, and it slides awkwardly against the material of the glove as she puts it to her lips. She wants to tell him about that moment, the moment she first felt severed. She wants to see him look at her outside of the mirror but can’t bear to look back and meet his eyes past it. She has to know if she can trust him first, she supposes. She has to know if he can help her figure out what it all means. And while she wants to tell him about that moment, she extinguishes the cigarette, lays back next to him, and begins elsewhere.

“I used to have this system with my mother,” she says. “She called me too soft, you know. I trusted too much, I was too compliant. So she set up this system to keep me safe. Each week she’d let me pick a new password, and I wasn’t supposed to speak to anyone who didn’t know the word. We did it for a long time, and then one day, we just stopped doing it. That happens, you know, things just end suddenly, like whole branches of your life snapping off without warning. One day you are doing something, feeling something, for the last time, and you usually don’t even know it at the moment, or notice it’s over until it’s too far gone. Like one day, your parents set you down for the last time, and they never pick you up again. Or you stop listening to a song that used to be your favorite. Or you put a doll away and never take her out again, and when you come back, when you remember her, she’s just gone. You forget the name of your first-grade teacher. You forget how your own hands looked when you were young. It just stops, suddenly, and it doesn’t come back.”

She knows she’s gushing now, speaking too many words that she can’t arrange just right to crystalize into true, clear meaning, and she can tell she is losing him by the glaze in his eye and the way he puts his arm up behind his head and looks at the ceiling. She wants to stop, but she has to try and see it through, so she places a hand on his knee and rubs it to bring him back to her, and says as an apology: 

“But, anyway, we stopped. We just stopped, and now I don’t remember the last password. So how am I supposed to know who to trust now?”

“You can trust me,” he says. 

She wants him to help her find it, the word. The right word. Her lips part, and she is about to ask, when he leans forward and mashes his mouth to her mouth, sticks his tongue in to ride and thrash against her tongue, and she closes her eyes and thinks of all the words it could be: unicorn, butterfly, princess, sweetheart, wholeness, peace, tender, love, together, but none of them have any special meaning anymore, other than that she knows she has not heard them in a long time, and she knows they’re not right. 

When he rolls her over, her silver arm gets pinned between them, and the glove rides down. She can feel the smooth cold glass rubbing her skin raw, flaking bits of herself away, but when she looks up at him, he’s looking down at her with a tenderness she has never seen before, with something like love, and she feels something like hope again. She feels like she can tell him: my mother put me down one day, and have it mean everything she needs it to mean. But then she realizes her dress has slipped from her shoulder and he’s gazing at the reflection of himself in her breast. 

When he’s finished, he looks at her, smiling, and puts his hand against her cheek. “Fuck,” he says, “I’m so glad that you’re not like other girls. You don’t think you’re any better than me. You’re really no better than me.” 

Here is the moment she wants to tell him about, if she could find the words:

She is an infant, just before she begins to know what being an infant means, and her mother is carrying her from room to room, and this is the way she used to move throughout the world, but it hardly seemed like movement to her then as everything was just one continuation of one thing. She shouldn’t remember these things, and whenever she has tried to say this to anyone, they told her she couldn’t remember these things, and so she stopped talking about it, about remembering. But she wants to say it, even if she can’t say it right. 

Her mother put her down on the floor that day in the bedroom, which had a wall all made of sliding mirrors. There had been something that pulled her mother away: something unfortunate. Or rather, it feels unfortunate that her mother left her there on the floor. It feels as if her whole life has been marked for her from that moment on as something unfortunate.

It didn’t start out unfortunate as she moved on all fours across the floor towards the mirror. It felt like everything was connected, and the wood beneath her hands was not beneath her hands, and her hands were not her hands, but they were simply one thing discovering itself continuously.  

And then she came to the mirror and suddenly saw herself before it. Saw her hand lift as she lifted her hand. Saw her eyes as they looked into her eyes. Saw the twist of her mouth, the fine hairs on her head, and her whole body a bulge on the floor, something moving apart from the dresser and the bed and the window stationary behind her. She saw herself as something; saw herself as something different that she did not yet understand; saw herself as something within the mirror. 

What was it that happened next? She can’t understand fully. Already, something terrible was happening. Something was being severed. 

And then there was a crack like thunder, a puncture through the window behind her, and whatever had come through from the outside world struck the mirror before her, and it shattered into shards of glass, some of which crashed down around her, some of which struck her body—which was no longer a part of the world or the mirror, a part of anything, but wholly its own and all alone—cutting her. She sat there, among the shards, and saw herself separated from everything, and her own self as many different parts; her foot in this shard here, her hip in that one there, her bloodied hand with the sliver of silver sticking out of her palm; she understood none of it. Or rather understood herself in a way she never had before. Or rather understood, now, what she was not.

She wailed, the way that infants do, and her mother rushed in moments later and started wailing too, her face open and ghastly and so large and so separate, and meaning something completely different to the infant than it had only a moment earlier. 

A week after the new boy watched himself fuck her in the reflection of her breast, she is walking back from lunch and meets the Judge who is not her father, not her uncle, not her brother, not her colleague, not her friend, on the sidewalk and his secretary, who is not her mother, not her sister, not her colleague, not her friend, and not her. She wants to walk past them into the courthouse because clouds have rolled in, covered the sky in one great ominous sheet, and she knows soon the world will rain down on her. By now, she has to buy concealer in bulk and paint it on the silvered parts of her body that she can’t cover with clothes, but it has a hard time staying on her new, mirrored skin. Her cheek, her lips, her chin, her neck, her arms, her breasts, her belly, are all mirrored now, and the world is dangerous to navigate without exposing herself for what she’s becoming, or rather not what she is becoming, but what she has always been, and is just now revealing.  

“Where did you run off to, my dear young thing?” the Judge asks, making her into something that is dear, and is young, and is his.

“I went to eat,” she says, putting her hands behind her back and looking down at her own body in its floral dress; the way it falls over her breasts and clings to her legs, defining her yet separate from her.  

The rain begins to fall then, in big fat splatters. Across the street, two young girls walking together shriek and reach out to grab each other’s hands. They’re dressed in tight fitting crop tops that end just below their ribs and shorts, above the waist of which she can see their underwear peeking out, bold, and black, and lacy. For a moment, there aren’t any eyes on her as the rain falls; they’re all on these girls as they run, laughing, towards an awning together, their feet and free arms whirlwinds of movement, swinging in tandem like one combined thing. The girl with the mirrored skin wants to run to them, wants to speak in their loud voices, wants their clothes that fit like tight, soft, second skins. 

“It’s so nice,” the Judge says, and she turns from the girls to look at him, and he is glaring past her at the girls in a way that is not nice at all. “So nice to finally see a young woman who knows how to dress herself in a way that doesn’t make her look like a little harlot.” And he looks from the girls towards her, and his eyes soften, yes, but she can tell from the feeling of the rain on her skin that he isn’t looking at her, no, he isn’t seeing her, but looking at the silver patches of her, and seeing himself in her, and there is nothing she can say, no words of her own to stop that from happening; and so she just smiles and looks back down at her body, the wet clothes hanging from it, the rash of mirror spreading, and spreading, and spreading. 

Her tongue holds out the longest. Her hair fell out in clumps as the glass grew over her scalp, and even her eyes grew a silver film, becoming two-way mirrors that she could see out of, but no one could look into. But even after all of that is gone, she still has her tongue, and so she thinks there still could be hope. That she could find the password, the missing word, one that is hers, the one that her mother tried to give her to protect herself. Her mother, she thinks of her mother as she sits in front of the mirror, cross-legged on her bed and naked, and sees nothing when her mouth is closed but the mirror reflecting back the room, and the shape of her body interrupting that reflection to reflect the mirror’s image back at itself, over and over again. 

The boy calls her, and he calls her, but she knows he isn’t calling her, and when he comes, he isn’t entering her, and when he loves, he isn’t loving her, he is just coming to, and fucking, and loving the reflection of himself he sees in her body. 

And the Judge smiles at her, and he puts his hand on her shoulder, and he calls her dear, and she knows he is not smiling at her, he is not touching her, he is not finding her dear, isn’t seeing her at all, because she never opens her mouth anymore when he speaks to her. She doesn’t have to. What would be the point? None of the words will be right, if she even were to try, and none of them are her own. 

She thinks of her mother. She thinks of how she had opened her mouth when she had seen her on the floor before the mirror, pierced by the glass. She thinks about how she had wailed, that guttural sound. Was that the word? Was that all that was left for her to say now? 

She opens her mouth, and her tongue interrupts the infinite reflection of the room around her, a pink bubbled slab of meat hanging there, severed and exposed, and all that she can see of herself. 

It feels wrong, letting it out like that, and she can’t bring herself to make a sound. 

One day, he is brought before the Judge—the boy who comes and uses her to fuck himself. And of course, he doesn’t see her, but he sees himself in her as she sits there typing and understands that to be her.  He says things, and the Judge says things, and she has to sit there, writing them both out, making both of their words a part of her, and it goes back and forth and back and forth, and there she is, caught in the middle, a reflection of them both. 

It does not go well for the boy who fucks himself in her, and as it gets worse, he looks to her as if she could help, as if she has any power. 

“Tell them they’re wrong,” he demands of her, “for fuck’s sake, tell them they’re fucking wrong about me.”

But even if she wanted to, she can feel it in her mouth, her tongue turning; the last part of her, going. 

“Do you know who you’re talking to, young man?” the Judge demands. “Do you know?”

“Quit sitting there, and fucking tell them, you little whore,” he says, and he is up out of his seat and coming towards her, and then the Judge is up too, robes flapping, coming towards her. 

“What is the meaning of this? What do you mean by this?” the Judge says. 

She opens her mouth as they both come towards her; she opens her mouth and stands up, and she can feel her tongue dart out, she can feel the last flesh bit of it drip over her lip, but it’s only just an inch and it can hardly even move, and besides, she hasn’t found the word, she hasn’t found the meaning, she has only found them, charging at her. 

“You fucking little druggie whore,” the boy says and grabs her by the arm and pulls her towards him. “You’re going to sit there and judge me?”

“How dare you speak to me like that,” the Judge says. He seizes her by the other arm and pulls her towards him. She is between them both now, being pulled this way and that, and she is all glass with no frame, nothing to define her or mark her borders, and fragile, so fragile. 

“You’re no better than me, you’re no better than anyone, you’re nothing, you’re nothing, you’re nothing but a fucking slut,” the boy says to one side. 

“This is my court, and you will behave as you are told to behave, and you will listen to me, you understand, you will listen to me, and there will be order,” says the Judge. “Let go of this dear young lady. Let go right now.” 

Beneath the pressure of their fingers, she begins to crack, and the cracks spread. They spread up her arms, they spread over her shoulders, they spread down her back, but the men don’t notice, the men don’t care, they go on pelting her with their words, defining her between the two of them. She hears whore and dear and slut and stuck-up bitch and young lady and mine and the cracks deepen. She can feel herself splintering, and she doesn’t know who she is, except that she is not a part of the world even if her body is a reflection of it, and she is not a part of these men, even if she reflects them. She knows that they are not her fathers, they are not her brothers, they are not her colleagues, they are not her anythings because she cannot own them because they own her entirely. 

Say something, she thinks. Say anything at all. 

But it won’t mean what she needs it to mean; it will never mean what she needs it to mean. All her words are gone, now, even her mother’s wail, the tip of her tongue smoothed out and swallowed by silver glass, and now that glass is cracking. Now all of her is cracking. 

“My dear,” says the Judge, and “Fuck,” says the boy, as between them she shatters into pieces, falling to the ground in shards of glass and fine particles of bright dust.