Alma had been thinking about cannibals all Sunday afternoon. It started at lunch when she was eating the roast-beef sandwich that her aunt Nancy had made, and she began wondering what baby Ellie would taste like. Nancy had gone outside to rake up the dead leaves, so Alma knew this was her chance to try. She leaned over and sunk her teeth into her little sister’s pudgy arm. Ellie’s blue eyes bulged for a moment before breaking into a wail. Nancy came flying through the kitchen door.
“Oh, Ellie,” Nancy said as she lifted the baby out of the high chair and began to inspect the rows of teeth-sized red marks.
Alma slipped out of her seat, landing with a solid thunk on the kitchen floor.
“Alma,” Nancy said. “What is wrong with you? You are eight-years-old. You should know better.”
“It was the cannibal inside!” Alma exclaimed, crossing her arms and tapping her foot on the tiled floor.
“Alma, honey,” Nancy began, “there are plenty of good things to eat besides your baby sister.”
Nancy had the smallest, whitest teeth that Alma had ever seen. The day after the funeral, Alma was still in her black dress. She had taken the shoes with the bows off the night before. They were making her toes itch. Nancy had made blueberry pancakes for breakfast and, between mouthfuls, Alma had asked her if she had ever had braces. Nancy had laughed, open-mouthed, so Alma could see the back of her throat, and said no, her teeth were naturally that straight.
Ellie stopped crying and lay drooped on Nancy’s shoulder. Together, they moved about the kitchen, cleaning up after lunch. Alma watched the perfect little rows of teeth move up and down as Nancy talked. She was saying something about when her mother was here and how she would have to be in touch with Dr. Richter again. Dr. Richter smelled like spearmint and wanted her to draw how she felt on the inside. So Alma drew pictures of hearts, stomachs, bones. Pictures of blood.
Dr. Richter didn’t seem to like that very much.
Nancy put the remainder of the roast beef sandwich in clear plastic wrap, muttering about what she was going to tell Alma’s father. Alma just stuck her tongue out and stared at the sandwich through the plastic. It looked misshapen. Her mother had always used tinfoil, and Alma had thought that opening each sandwich was like opening a present on Christmas morning.
Alma sunk to the floor, folding her pleated skirt over her knees. The tiles felt cool on the backs of her legs. She watched Nancy’s skirt go swishing by as her aunt padded around the kitchen, baby talking to Ellie. She waited, watching how plump Nancy’s legs were, how white the skin was, but blotchy in places.
The third time Nancy crossed the kitchen, Alma lunged her entire body at her aunt’s bare legs, half hugging them and half clawing them with her unclipped fingernails.
She sunk her rounded teeth into the back of Nancy’s calf.
The voice was not from Nancy, who was screaming and trying to shoo Alma away while still holding on to Ellie.
The voice was from the stairs.
Alma let go of Nancy’s leg and watched her father as he walked into the kitchen.
Ellie was screaming. Nancy was clutching at her leg in surprise. It was the first time she had bitten Nancy. She tasted salty, like work. Like sweat.
Her father stumbled towards her. A feeling started inside Alma, a supreme terror and excitement at having her father so close. She stood up, licking the extra saliva from her lips.
“Enough of this,” her father said, not yelling, but not speaking either. A terrifying mixture. He had a beard again. “This has gone on too long, Alma.”
“Don,” Nancy said.
It was one of those horrible moments Alma hated. When something secretive and dark seemed to grow out of the floor like a giant weed that couldn’t be pulled out or cut down. There was a weed in Alma’s father, and it wouldn’t stop growing. She could smell it on his breath. He always smelled faintly of it, but after the accident, the smell grew.
“Out of the house until Nancy calls you for dinner.”
“Fine with me!” Alma said. She stomped out the kitchen door.
Outside, the sun hid behind the clouds, so that Alma could make out only a large bright patch in the sky. She knew she wasn’t supposed to look directly at the sun, so she traced the edges with her eyes until she blinked and saw purplish-black spots forming like craters all over the sky.
“I’ll call you a half hour before dinner, Alma,” Nancy’s voice drifted out into the yard from the doorway. “No wandering.”
The screen door shut with a loud bang before Alma could agree or disagree. She stuck out her tongue in the direction of the door. Nobody came out after that.
Alma walked around to the front of the house to where the garden was. Nothing but crocuses and snowdrops had started to grow.
Soon, there would be more. Alma had memorized where the different bulbs would appear in the dirt. She ticked them off as she went by: tulips, hyacinth, daffodils. It was easy to remember because it was the same every year; nothing seemed to change with the flowers. The tulips had been there since before she could remember, and she and her mother had planted the daffodils together. She remembered how her mother had dug the holes with the green trowel, deep holes for flowers that grew from bulbs, shallow ones for the seeds.
Alma remembered one afternoon in particular. It had been Alma’s job to place the bulbs into the holes and cover them with dirt. For hibernation, her mother said. It wouldn’t be until spring before the flowers appeared. But after that, they would keep blooming forever, year after year. A loud, overwhelming noise took over the sky, and she heard her mother say, “Look, Alma, an airplane!” But instead of looking up, Alma looked at her mother, the bulbs in her hands and her eyes filled with sunlight.
Squatting down at the edge of the garden, Alma peered down at where the flowers were sure to emerge later that spring. The dirt looked tired, but she could see the tiniest sprouts of green beginning to poke through the soil, greeting her. Alma couldn’t help but wish that it was the same with bodies as it was with bulbs. That some piece of her mother might grow on her grave.
She got up and walked to the end of the garden where flies were buzzing, swirling in the air like a funnel. She looked down to see a dead crow. Wings ripped from his body, miniature heart pulled out and spread on the garden. Dried blood caked the dirt and scattered black feathers littered the grass.
Flies flicked their invisible wings against Alma’s cheek, but she didn’t brush them away. She crouched by the dead bird. Another fly landed on her head, nestling, for a moment, in her hair.
Alma, with very little hesitation, picked up the bird’s heart. It sat in the center of her palm, as wide as a small skipping stone found on the beach, but thicker, layered. The heart was no longer warm, but cold like it had been dipped in chilled water. Ripped tubes and veins were sticking out at the bottom and the top, channels leading to nowhere. She held her breath, waiting for it to start beating in her hand.
She wondered how large her mother’s heart was, and if she could hold it like the crow’s heart.
Alma set the heart on the grass and began to dig, slowly at first, and then furiously as if she would never get the depth she needed. She dug a wide hole. She dug until she found the bulbs, three of them tucked together in a little row. That’s how her mother planted flowers: three in a row. They were like white, stone-cold hearts in the bed of dirt. Roots like little veins. She yanked each bulb until it broke free from the dirt. Roots snapping.
She turned towards the heart, lifted it gingerly, and buried it where the flowers should have been.
That night, Alma dreamed that a palm tree started to grow in the front yard. Alma could see it from the living room window where she wasn’t supposed to lay about and daydream. Nancy always put her outside when she wasn’t doing anything useful. But that was the kind of thing that seemed to be overlooked in dreams. Alma had baby Ellie in her arms. She was asleep, her large head nestled in the crook between Alma’s neck and shoulder. Ellie became heavier, so Alma went out into the yard and placed her sister up in the palm tree between two coconuts larger than Alma’s head. Ellie sat nestled in the branches. The coconuts seemed to sway in the wind. Then, one by one, the coconuts started to fall onto the lawn, and Ellie woke up and began to cry. Alma couldn’t remember how to get Ellie down. The tree had grown taller since she had placed Ellie in the branches, and now even her sister’s toes were out of reach. She tried to climb the smooth trunk, but the coconuts kept falling, forcing her down, back onto the grass.
It wasn’t quite dawn when Alma woke. She couldn’t get back to sleep, so she slid out of her bed and crept through her door, opened just a crack to let in the hall light.
She wandered into Ellie’s room. She could hear the low hum of the baby monitor, and Ellie’s slow breathing coming from the far side of the room. It was a small room, the nursery, and Alma had been told that she had slept here when she was a baby, but she couldn’t remember it.
Alma gripped the edge of the wood frame crib and watched her sister dream. Ellie was turned away from Alma, her little arms flung out to her right side as if Nancy had carelessly dropped Ellie from a great height. Alma knew Nancy would never do that, even though she didn’t care about other people like cannibals. Alma wondered if they would teach her about cannibals in school ever, or if she would have to find out all of the world’s secrets on her own.
Outside the window, gray had started to overtake the sky, and the room became lighter, though not warmer. The sunrise never seemed as colorful as the sunset.
It had been that way on the morning of the funeral. Instead of a sudden spark of color, the dawn had seemed cold to Alma. It had snowed the night below, and the morning light made the inch of snow shine. She lay in her bed, waiting for Nancy to fetch her. Nancy smelled strongly of perfume as she dressed Alma in black and brought her to the car. She was safely buckled in the back seat; her hair had been combed, parted, and pulled into braids so tight that they tugged at her scalp. Throughout the ceremony, those braids had distracted Alma, and she had scratched at them, trying to loosen them as the priest said all the prayers and all the nice things about her mother. And then it was over, and her father told her to put the flowers into the hole that was somehow her mother, but Alma said it wasn’t time for that yet because she hadn’t said goodbye.
Somehow, Alma had missed the important part of the speech that would let her know her mother was in heaven, and everything would be alright again because Alma would know; she would know her mother was happy. But she had missed all the prayers, and that must be why her father was all wrong, and Alma was all wrong. But Nancy and baby Ellie seemed just fine.
Alma curled herself into a ball by the side of Ellie’s crib, feeling the familiar tide warming itself within her. She felt as though her entire body, bones and all, was comprised only of strings, and when she thought of her mother too much, all the strings tightened so she could hardly breathe without making one snap.
At the funeral, she had told her father she wouldn’t put the flowers in the hole because it looked black down there, and she knew her mother wasn’t going for hibernation, but that she was leaving for the rest of time. The flowers would wilt, and wilting meant dying. Her mother had taught Alma about flowers. But she didn’t tell her father all of this, just that she wouldn’t do it, so her father gently took the flowers from her and threw them in the box-sized hole.
Alma woke to Ellie crying and slow footsteps mounting in the hall. It was Nancy’s night off. Every Sunday night, Nancy gave Alma’s father the baby monitor.
Her father looked surprised to see Alma curled on the floor.
“Ellie’s crying,” Alma said quickly.
Her father paused. He looked older every time Alma saw him. His chin and cheeks were covered in gray hair. She remembered that her mother had hated that. She liked smooth faces. She could remember some mornings, her mother running her fingers over her father’s cheeks and laughing. And then her father would kiss her quickly on the mouth.
“I know, Alma,” his voice was heavy as he moved towards the crib, lifting Ellie into his arms. It always took a long time for Ellie to stop crying when Nancy wasn’t there.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” he looked at Alma as if he couldn’t make any sense of her.
“I couldn’t sleep,” Alma said.
Her father sighed and sat down in the rocking chair, awkwardly patting Ellie’s back until she stopped wailing.
“How did she die?” Alma asked when her sister had quieted.
“Alma,” her father said, his breath smelled sweet. “You know. We’ve explained it to you. There was an accident in the car. She was driving too fast and hit a tree.”
“No,” Alma said, “I know why. I want to know how.”
There was a pause, room for several rapid heartbeats. For a while, Alma had thought she didn’t need to know, but it continued to rip away at her. Like how she wanted to know what part of the body cannibals ate first, and if they ate the brains and bones and heart. She had to know it all.
She thought her father ignore, replace Ellie in her crib, and leave, but he just scratched at his stubble with his free hand and squinted so that the lines around his eyes folded into doughy creases. When he finally spoke, it was slow, like he was recalling a dream that he couldn’t quite remember.
“She was still alive, but …” he paused, “sleeping, when they brought her to the hospital,” her father said, running his hand up and down Ellie’s back. “The doctors told me later that there was too much internal bleeding, or bleeding on the inside.”
He motioned to his belly, and Alma nodded.
“She never woke up,” he said, then, looking at Alma, “She didn’t feel any of it, Alma. The pain – it was like she was sleeping and dreaming of you and Ellie.”
“And you too?” Alma asked.
Her father didn’t answer, but put Ellie, now sleeping again, back into her crib.
“Don’t wake your sister,” he said. He walked slowly into the hallway closing the door behind him.
Alma knew her father was lying to her. She knew her mother had felt everything from the accident, sleeping or not. Alma imagined her mother in the hospital, eyes closed and dreaming about the pain, about drowning from the inside on her own blood.
She wondered if Ellie would grow up thinking Nancy was her mother. They might never tell Ellie the difference, and they might think that was okay. Alma wished there was some way to remind Ellie of her mother. She curled up on the floor next to the crib, closed her eyes, but did not sleep for some time. The image of her mother in the crash kept repeating itself, changing slightly every time. Sometimes, she would be smiling, radiant, as if she knew Alma was watching her. Other times, she would be asleep, like her father said. But the last image that surfaced before Alma fell asleep was her mother in the garden with a bulb in each hand, knees covered in dirt, eyes fastened on the sky.