Needle Mouth by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam
When Hana Samsa woke from a fevered nap one afternoon, she found that she had been transformed into an enormous mosquito. At the foot of her bed, her tiny legs thumped against an empty bottle of Becherovka; she’d pushed it there that morning after licking the last particles of bittersweet liquor from the cap. Her head pounded in the faint light of the gas lantern by the bedside, but when she raised her new insect arms to massage her temples, they wouldn’t bend. She felt quite sure that, when she had escaped Anastázie’s embrace that morning in order to retrieve the Becherovka from beneath the bed, she had been human, had used her human tongue to lap the inside of the cap, had nudged her human head back under Anastázie’s arm and rested it on her chest, had breathed with human nostrils the sunshine smell of Anastázie’s skin. Now Anastázie was gone, likely off to work at the school, and Hana had gained four extra legs and a mouth like a needle.
She was also parched. Though the events of the previous night were a blur, she knew that the last water to pass her lips was the glass before dressing for the party of Taroky and dancing and so much smoke and booze she wondered if she would ever return to an unfogged state of mind. Anastázie had worn a beautiful blue dress that moved across the floor like rippling water; as Hana had watched her pull the dress over her petticoats like a second skin, Hana poured a glass of water down her raw, red throat. As far as Hana could recall, she had drunk no water since.
Hana was able, by twitching the wings now attached to her back, to come up onto her legs, squatting on all sixes. She scurried across the wrinkled red sheets until she came to the edge. She balanced on the baseboard, preparing herself for flight. She had always longed to fly. She wondered if she would know how. As a child, she and her older brother, Gregor, used to flap their arms like wings and pretend at being seagulls darting across the Adriatic Sea. Never mind that all they knew of the sea was what their father, who had been to the seaside towns on business before the family business failed, had told them. He had once brought all three of the children a seashell, white and ridged with what looked to Hana like bone. Its edge was so sharp that when Hana ran her finger along it, she cut herself and bled.
The memory of that blood pearl welling up on her finger made Hana’s mouth ache. Beating her wings, she propelled herself into the air. At first she darted about wild as lightning strikes, but once she grew accustomed to the flap of her wings she was able to steer herself through the bedroom door and into the tiny kitchen. She landed atop the counter and examined the contents of the sink with her new antennae. She pointed her needle probe down into a glass half-filled with rancid water. The water did nothing for her. The thirst throbbed under her insect skin. She pulled away from the water and scoured the kitchen for a liquor bottle, but the counters were empty of the bottles which usually decorated them. Perhaps Anastázie had placed them in the cabinet, or perhaps she’d hidden them from Hana, as she had threatened.
As Hana sunk her needle back into the water glass, she heard the front door open. Although Hana did not know the time, it did not feel as though Anastázie should be home yet. The kitchen window gave view of the typical grey fog of early afternoon. Hana heard footsteps, how beautiful and human, the sound of footsteps, travel from the front to the bedroom door. By the time Hana flew back into the bedroom, the blankets were already bunched over Anastázie’s collapsed body. They heaved with Anastázie’s chest, jerky sea movements.
“What’s wrong?” Hana said, landing at the baseboard. She crawled over the blankets and rested a thin leg against the lump that was Anastázie.
“Is someone there?” Anastázie said, her words garbled by the blanket. “Hana, is that you?”
“Who else?” Hana said.
Anastázie lifted the blankets and stared into her lover’s new face.
“Hana, what’s happened to you? Why is your voice all funny? What language is that?”
“I’m speaking our language,” Hana said, but now that she thought about it, she realized the words scratched her throat. Perhaps they were not words at all.
Anastázie’s face was streaked red and wet, her eyes bloodshot. She reached out and touched the space between Hana’s eyes.
“You poor thing,” she said. “But I told you if you didn’t stop drinking so much, something bad was bound to happen.” She dropped her hand. “Oh, God, and last night, after you vomited into your hair, when you crawled into bed, I knew that something was the matter with you. You looked so ill. I stayed up to make sure you were still breathing. I thought you’d poisoned yourself. And I guess you have. I should be angry with you, Hana, but after all you’ve been through, how can I be angry? This is all my fault.”
Anastázie began crying again, tearless sobs that wracked her breath. Hana let her antennae roam Anastázie’s face; she smelled like salt and sugared koláče, and the needle itched to taste of her.
Hana wanted to say, no, no, it wasn’t you. It could never be you. But she knew it would be in vain, and truth be told she was losing her will to speak the language of bone and muscle and flesh.
“I lost my job today, Hana,” Anastázie spat through her gut ache sobs. “Someone from the school was at that party last night, and I didn’t recognize him. But he recognized me. And he tattled about us like one of the seven-year-olds in my class, can you believe it?” She stared into Hana’s bug eyes. She looked different to Hana, like two hundred eyes. Hana couldn’t look away, frozen in her inability to comfort her. “Perhaps you should call on your brother,” Anastázie said. “I feel certain the recent fight with your family is to blame, and he has always been a sensible and sensitive man, more so than anyone else in your rotten family.”
It was an impractical suggestion. Her brother hadn’t, after all, stood up for her when their parents shooed her from the apartment, when they told her, in no uncertain terms, that they wouldn’t support her hedonist lifestyle. When they tossed her night sack filled with a meager few korun and her journal, which they had accidentally peered into while tidying her room, never mind that the maid girl, Anna, did all the tidying in their apartment these days. They had read her most private thoughts and found them vile. And where had Gregor been while this was happening? On one of his sales trips, in Moravia, as absent as he had been since they reached adulthood, pouring all of himself into a job that was slowly unraveling the gentle person he once had been and hardening his skin into a shell.
Hana had marked the date of his return on the calendar above the bed, sure that once Gregor heard what their parents had done he would come to check on her, but it had been eight days, and her brother had not showed.
“Think about it,” Anastázie said. “Your brother loves you. He could have an answer.” She stretched, and Hana envied her the ability. Hana’s own body felt rigid. She felt as though her insides were drying up.
“You must be hungry,” Anastázie said. She picked Hana up in both arms and cradled her like a large baby, carried her into the kitchen. The view outside the window hadn’t changed; the grey light leaked in and cast a pall over the furniture. The house smelled of dust and patchouli from Anastázie’s tarot readings. Hana wished she would have let Anastázie read her. Maybe they could have prevented this.
In the kitchen, Anastázie cupped various foods in her palm, holding them out to Hana, testing her appetite. Cheese, milk, leftover goulash they had left on a plate in the sink – it all smelled of must and mold and bitter. But beneath the food, beneath Anastázie’s skin, pumped a fountain feast of salty sweet, copper coins on a childhood tongue, fresh and red and the very essence of the woman for whom Hana had risked everything.
When Anastázie saw where Hana’s gaze stilled, she rinsed her hand of the goulash mush. “Of course,” she said, holding her hand to her chest. She gulped a quick breath of air. “Go ahead, then. I’ll let you, if it’s what will make you happy.” Anastázie thrust her hand beneath Hana’s face and looked away.
Hana pressed her probe against the skin until the needle unsheathed and pierced it. She sucked the blood into her; warm, it coated her insides and made her dizzy with a lightness like vodka would. Better. Like every bad thing she had ever done. Like forgiveness.
Anastázie’s hand twitched, the blood leaving it in a steady stream up the straw of Hana’s face.
“I feel weak,” Anastázie said. “Slow down.”
But it had been so long since she’d felt this free, this attuned to another, and so she gulped harder, harder, as Anastázie struggled to wrest herself free. Finally she pulled her hand from the needle’s bite. She cupped the wounded skin to her chest and sank to the floor, her breath ragged. Hana’s belly bulged.
“You took too much,” Anastázie whispered, her body pale and wilted. “After all I’ve done for you.”
The truth was a nasty buzz in Hana’s ear. Anastázie had given her a home and food and clothes, water when she drank too much, and orgasms, plenty of those, and love. Hana wanted to land in her lap and give it all back, but it was impossible. There was nothing she could do to save her with her insect arms; she was a monster.
Hana knew better than to stay where she wasn’t wanted, but not enough to keep her from returning to a place that had previously spit her out like a bad taste in the mouth. She traveled, heavy with the blood in her belly, from window to window until she discovered one open in the bathroom and left Anastázie’s house through it. Her headache was gone.
Through the balmy air, she flew to the apartment her brother Gregor paid for. It was not far from the Hospital Na Františku, and so to find her way – she was no longer confined to the crowded sidewalks and streets – she followed the sweet salt reek of blood.
It was blood she wanted, at first. Blood, more blood, siphoned from the people whose unlove she was sure had altered her beyond repair. The buzz of her wings was like a song she longed to dance to, far superior to her sister’s old violin concertos. Superior even to the operas of the National Theatre, where she and Anastázie used to crouch in the shadows outside, listening for a hint of the magnificent music within.
Her family’s apartment looked the same from the exterior, worn grey stucco to match the sky. She found her family’s floor, their three windows, and landed on the first, which led to the living room. Inside, gas lamps cast shadows over her father, mother, and sister reclining in their chairs. Her sister, Grete, stroked her violin, a sad tune floating from her bow, and her father’s eyes were closed, his head dropped back as if he were dreaming. Her mother stared at her sister, an expression Hana could no longer read upon her face. It was too human; Hana was losing her knowledge of such things. She caught a glimpse of the window across the room; it was open. She could fly around and sneak inside through it, taste the blood bonds that were supposed to be so permanent but proved even more fleeting and temporary than human life.
She looked back at her family. They seemed exhausted, slumped shoulders and black bags beneath their eyes, but what did they have to be worried about? They didn’t have jobs. No, they made Gregor support them, let Gregor carry all of the family’s burden. Her sister stopped her playing and let the violin topple to the floor, as if she could not possibly hold it any longer. She would spare her sister, she decided; poor Grete didn’t know better. Only seventeen, she hadn’t yet been ruined by them. She would be, in time. It was impossible not to be ruined by the Samsas. They were like cloying locusts, like mantises consuming the heads of the ones they loved. They had no choice. Their transformations had happened in the mind; that was the difference. They, like Hana, were helpless to control their forms. She looked away. No, she wouldn’t drink any of them. None of them knew better.
Her insect body could have melted then, the tension bloodlust gone and replaced with a hollow ache as if she were a molted shell. She had a sudden urge to see her brother, to land upon his shoulder and buzz into his ear. We must forgive, she would say. We must forgive.
She flew to his closed window and perched upon its ledge. When she peered inside, the room looked the same, his bed unmade, the dresser by his door shut tight as a coffin, as if her disappearance had altered nothing here either. And why would it? She rarely entered her brother’s room. Still she thought it might reveal some element of his distress over her being gone. They had been close, after all, best friends as children. The room seemed empty on top of that, empty of her brother’s breath. He must have gone again on business. It was silly of her to imagine that for once he would have stood up for himself. Even more foolish to think he might have understood, might have told her she was still beautiful, was still human, was not a monster after all.
Inside his room hung a portrait in a frame he had clearly crafted himself. She had never noticed it before: a woman wrapped in furs but otherwise naked. Couldn’t he see that they had this much in common, an appreciation for a woman’s body bare? She perched upon the ledge for what could have been hours, gazing at the portrait, wishing he were home, as the world behind her carried on and her belly shrunk to its normal size, Anastázie’s blood, digested, spreading through her. They were one, even so far from one another.
As the sun sunk, Hana thought she saw a shadow scurrying across Gregor’s floor, some dark bug darting beneath his bed. Its rapid movement reminded her of herself, more so than the scene of her parents and her sister in the living room. It was so, then; she was more like this creature than the family she had once loved, the family which once must have loved her, a long time ago. There was no place for her here anymore, she decided. Her brother wouldn’t know her, and she might not know him if ever she saw him again.
A black sheet fell across the sky. The fog descended, pulled to the water of the Vltava River where it would drift and split as ferries glided across the surface. A beautiful place to be, as beautiful as any she had been to as a young girl, as beautiful as any she had visited with Anastázie: the shimmer of water in moonlight. As good as the sea, because it was attainable, because she could go and live there and stay as long as she liked. With one last look into the apartment, she propelled herself from the ledge and smelled her way to the water full of fish and sweat and walkers on the bridge with their throbbing veins cased in skin so easily broken she could pierce it with her body. Most of all, the river was where those like her lived, those others with mouths with needles. The river would be her home now. She would be wanted there.