MY SISTER HELENA had invaded my house: a dripping coffee pot, an ash tray only she had used, the rug that she brought from her trip to our wela’s in Mexico City, a chocolate love seat she gave me when she won a new couch, and a vase-full fake flowers, one from every Valentine’s Day for the last twenty years. Before, I hadn’t noticed. But now her ten-year-old daughter was coming to stay.
My doorbell rang. Down the walkway came the niece with the crocodile tail. The wide thing swept from under her shirt, natural as anything, and dragged on the ground. It knocked out a window pane on the door, and I felt nostalgic.
I opened the door. “Oh wow,” I said, “My goodness you’ve gotten so big since—” Since the funeral.
But she hadn’t, it was just the tail.
She trotted inside and, of course, her tail swung one way and the other. She swept down the hall and around the corner while I thought how pretty she looked—like a Mexican Shirley Temple—and smart, too. People used to stare at her all the time, so that she would get mal de ojo and my sister would be up all night saying prayers over her. But Helena was dead. For ten seconds, I stood alone with the door agape behind me.
The mover’s boots pounded around me, stacking the niece’s things in the hall at the base of the stairs. When Phil came in, he wrapped his arms around my stomach.
“Did you see her tail?”
“Yes,” Phil said, “Poor kid.”
I shifted to look at him, pulled his embrace open, slogged from his grasp and stepped down the hall after the niece. My sister’s Last Will and Testament left me Reggie, the Rottweiler who always dug up my flowers, because I “took such good care of him.” She left me the niece also, but without a reason. Could I have said no?
In the kitchen, the niece reached for a cooling cookie on a rack. Her teeth gnashed and littered the newly mopped floor with crumbs. “Try not to mess everything up.” I took another step toward her.
She lifted the Mexican rug by a corner and swiveled, her tail rounding her legs and hiding the crumbs with a sweep. The rug dropped from her fingers. She had her mother’s curls, wavy hair that evolved into tight-ringlet ends. And the same dark eyes, like black mirrors. She smiled, her burgundy lips stretched thin. “Hello, Tía,” she said.
“Thanks for the cookie,” she said. The gnashing teeth again.
I leaned into the hallway to see where Phil had gone. Boxes were stacked three by four. “You have a lot of stuff. Are you tired?” I gestured to the tail. “You need to carry that with you?”
The girl came close and the swampy scent perfumed the air. “I’ll keep it for now.” She walked around the rug, out the door and across the hall into the living room, the smell of mud and decay trailing her.
“It’s nice in here,” she said. She sat on the chocolate love seat, pulled in her ankles and curled her tail around. “Can I watch?” She stared at the big-screen TV.
“We probably should save it,” I said. “The movers will be done with the boxes soon, and we’ll get you settled in.” Next to the TV was a collage of photos that included the niece’s baptism, and her first school picture.
Her tail twitched. “Okay.”
I sat next to her and stared at the black TV screen until her eyes closed and her breath came out in puffs. The tail relaxed, slid and tapped the floor.
THE TAIL HAS been in my family since—well no one knows who got it first. You might get it, you might not. When my wela’s husband got too deep in the bottle, she grew one, little by little, to sweep away the nonsense and cast off the bitter things she wanted to pretend weren’t real. When I was young, I had a friend my age named Daphne. She ate a lot of cake, coughed when she laughed, and once, we fell asleep at a classical music concert cradled in one another’s arms.
Daphne died when I was seven. Many families have sent their children to therapy for less, but I grew a tail. The smell came first and then the growth. I grew a tail, so everything was fine; I could use it to hide all the things I treasured about Daphne. My mother worried the whole time, wondering where the disappeared things went, and if we might find them someday. Just when it seemed like she couldn’t take it anymore, the tail disappeared.
THE NIECE’S EYES squeezed shut. I creaked forward and closed my fingers around the tip of the tail. It was rough. Its perfume invaded my head and mud filled my mouth. A soft tug, a gentle pop, and the tail inched free.
With the tap of steps in the hall, I snapped upright.
“You ready to go through her things?” Phil asked.
The girl checked her back and pressed her tail into place before she shuffled out of the room. “We’re ready, yeah,” I said. We went up the stairs together.
“THOSE ARE THE heaviest,” the mover said. He patted his back. “The shoulders are feeling it.” The boxes cluttered the room’s far corner.
Phil left us to our work because he was like that. Helena had introduced us: she said he was a gentleman, a man of few words, and college educated, too. Everything reminded me of her. I opened the box labeled “Night Things” and pulled out the sheets to make the bed.
“Are you tired?” I asked.
“Yes.” She crawled into bed and went to sleep on top of the covers with street clothes on, like she had to be ready to run.
I’d never been to Mexico, but my mother had told stories of her trip north as a kid. When they were outside Baja, a long way from home, they camped on a local seamstress’ land and offered to wash laundry in exchange. Mom hadn’t wanted to help wash, so she snuck off with a boy who was camping there with his family; they decided to look for treasure and dug a small hole by a pine tree. Wela found her, lifted her by her elbow and carried her back to camp. When they left the next day, Wela carried her on her back for hours.
What Mom remembered best was sweating and wincing in the hot sun, and Wela’s voice. But the picture painted by the stories was incomplete. How did they make it all those miles from home, and why did they leave? Did the trip take weeks or months or years? I tried to fill the holes with logic, but the final image felt patchy.
Helena had visited Wela a few times, but the niece had never been to Mexico, didn’t speak much Spanish, and had never lived outside of Pennsylvania. Like me.
I knelt by a box at the foot of her bed and watched the sleeping girl while unpacking a G.I. Joe. It was hard to think of her playing with toys in her home, where the cops found the killer, but not the murder weapon or Helena’s torn shirt.
Imagine: a little girl in a room with her mother stabbed in the heart, blood staining her mother’s shirt, white-washed walls spattered red. A killer that no one knew, who meant nothing to them. The girl, not knowing what to do, did what any member of her family would: she grew a crocodile tail. She popped the knife and shirt away, wanting to make it all disappear.
She needed that tail, but I was a selfish tía. I took it from her while she slept.
It wiggled in my hands, but didn’t resist when I pulled it off her back and ran from the room. I crossed the hall into my bedroom, where Phil slept, sneaking past him into the master bathroom. I cleared the countertop, tossed tooth brushes to the floor and cotton towels into the bathtub. I hopped onto the counter with my back to the mirror.
I lifted the still-squirming tail behind me and glared over my shoulder. Hands full of crocodile, I pushed up my skirt and watched the tail pucker onto my skin. Like a limb I never forgot, I sensed it there. It grew to fit me, to reach the ground, to swivel me around, ready to make everything that reminded me of my sister disappear.
I stumbled down the stairs, dizzied. The smell and taste of swamp rose up my throat, stronger than I remembered. Mud and grass.
Leaning on the dining room table, my hand rested only an inch from the vase full of fake flowers. My tail struck them off the table. With a jangle and a pop, they disappeared. Pressure released. Weight fell free from my shoulders.
My gaze landed next on a letter my neighbor brought to the door, which said he was sorry for my loss, like he felt responsible. I held the letter close as I marched out the front door and down the walk to the mailbox, pulling out the mail and serving it like a volleyball. With a swing of my tail, it popped away.
At the base of my porch steps, Reggie dug a hole, rubbing his stomach into the soil. A swing of my tail, the dog’s rear snapped, and he was gone. I had never been this decisive. Down the hall, I took a seat at the dining room table and picked up the newspaper Phil had been reading that morning.
My sister’s stuff still surrounded me. The coffeepot dripped in the kitchen, the loveseat glowed in the light from the television. I’d never be rid of this grief. My niece must have felt the same, cleaning the crime scene. She wanted it all to go away: the knife and blood-clumped shirt, but she couldn’t bring her mother back. Crouching, she cried, her mother’s body on one side of her and the open entryway on the other. That was how they found her.
But I was smarter than a ten year old. I had worn the tail before and knew what it could do. The tip of the tail glided up my arm, blowing chills up my body, slipping around my neck and into my ear, rough and sharp, so it prodded my eardrum. It made me forget detectives with too many questions. The funeral, sad murmurs from Tía Hava and Tío Dumbo—Pop. Helena and I walking into an empty house, Phil wandering in behind us, holding the niece’s hand. Helena saying, “Well, is it worth the price?” Pop. My older sister pulling Phil’s hand into mine, “C’mon guys, shake hands at least.” Pop. At Carson’s Hand Made Chocolates, my first job, Helena in line, waving. Pop. Me, a toddler, trailing my sister around the zoo’s monkey enclosure to hear the tales of Helena the great, adventurer, scholar and A-list actress. Today she searched the jungles of Congo to find the deadly snake-monster. Pop. Pop. Pop.
MY MIND TRIED to make a list of the things I had erased so far. They felt just out of reach. And there I was, leaning back in a dining room chair, with the front door open down the hall, and a newspaper in my hand. I never read the paper.
I closed the door, my heels clicking against the hardwood floor. I never wore heels.
I tugged them off and marched up the stairs. In my bedroom, a blonde man smiled and waved. I hid in the closet—of all places to hide from a stranger—and fumbled in the half-dark.
My hand caught on something sharp. On the ground next to me was a monument to what I had erased, shaped something like the legs of a plump man: glass and flowers piled to make the right foot, mail piled to make the left. From each pile rose furry dog thighs.
I took the tip of my tail in one hand and slid down the back wall until my butt hit the ground. The closet door opened and poured light into my eyes. The man from my bed stood over me.
“Hun, are you okay?” he asked.
When he leaned into my corner, I said, “Hey!” and thrust a foot into his stomach. He fell to the ground.
“What is going on?” he asked. “What’s wrong? Did I do something?” I couldn’t answer the question for him, but he looked at me like everything was my fault. “You never act like this.”
“Why are you here?” I asked.
He shook his head, crouched and held out his hands. “Calm down, hun. I’m here for you.”
My tail whipped around and it slammed into his face, sending his whole body flying. Limp, impossible. Before he hit the wall, he disappeared. My shoulders slumped, my neck popped, breath coming easier with this sudden release.
In the closet, his pale chest and ape arms appeared on the monument, a homunculus without a head. I couldn’t look at it any longer, so I left and slid the closet doors closed. I lay in the bed and thought how strange it was to feel familiar with sheets that smelled like cologne. I fell asleep.
Something tugged at my shirt. “Wake up!” a girl shouted.
“Wha, huh?” I tried to open my eyes, but found it harder than I expected. When they opened, they saw nothing in the dark. I turned on the lamp by my bed.
A dark girl appeared at the bedside. I crawled up the pillows. “Hi,” I said.
“Okay.” Strange dude and a little girl both in my house. I vowed to never leave the door open again. “Did you wander in somehow?”
“Huh?” she said.
I shook my head. It was just a little girl. “Let’s get you some food.” Let’s figure out who your parents are and send you home like a runaway puppy.
We walked down the steps and into the dining room, past the table and into the kitchen, filled with swamp fog. Dense and hazy, so that it was hard to see through.
The cookies I made earlier were on the counter, still on the cooling rack. The girl took one and the crumbs crumbled. She made a mess on the ground. She lifted my rug and twisted her hips. I wondered what she was up to (some weird dance move or something?), while I rummaged through cabinets, shifting boxes, looking for something a kid might eat. “Is mac n’ cheese still a thing?”
“You took my tail!” the girl screeched. “You took it.” Mud filled me up from my diaphragm, rising up my esophagus, pressing my skin. Heat. Slime. I swallowed.
The girl ran at me, arms stretched toward my back where the tail twitched. She stumbled into my stomach and knocked me back. My head hit the counter and I grunted. “It’s mine,” I said. While I drowned in the swamp, the girl tugged at my tail. I lashed it and she arced through the air like electricity jumping a gap. The look on her face: acceptance. Then, gone. I had defended my right to the tail.
Alone, I huddled in the kitchen corner, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead. When I stood and leaned out into the hall, I said, “Anyone else?”
The entrance door was closed. The house quiet. “Anyone?”
Something felt wrong.
I crept into the living room and sat on the chocolate loveseat. The tail twitched under me, nervous or annoyed, I couldn’t tell.
On the wall next to the large TV was the collage of photos. A lot of them were of me, but the only other person I recognized was my mother. A few pictures of me and the blonde man. In the bottom left, one of me holding a baby under water. I cradled the little thing in my arms, supporting the head.
I walked over to the frame and picked at the picture, scratched it free with sharp nails. A baptism, with my mother and me and this baby. My godchild.
The picture dropped from my hand and I twisted down the hall, up the stairs, into my room, with lamplight shining, sheets smelling of cologne and closet door closed tight. Muffled words echoed from inside. My tail twitched again.
“Oh God,” I said. “Oh God.” The tail thrust side to side with each word, like my own arm growing angry with me, disobeying me. On cue, my arm reached for the knob. It threw the door open, I closed my eyes and fell to my knees. “It’s my tail,” the girl said. “It’s mine. Why won’t you give it back?”
My eyes forced their way open and studied the figure, its flower-and-mail feet, glass-and-dog-hair legs, ape-like arms and blonde chest hair—up and up, until I reached the head: a girl with burgundy lips and brown eyes and a voice like fucking Shirley Temple.
“Tía, what are you doing? Tía, give it back. Why do you even need it?”
I pushed back from the closet, sliding across the carpet until I hit the bed. It was my fault, the girl up on this homunculus of memories, stuck in my closet, trapped forever in this nowhere land. She wanted just one thing. So I reached behind me and tugged on the crocodile tail. My hands crawled up its length, gripped around the base, and tugged again. The sound like grinding gears. It pulled back, sharp pain like tearing out hooks. My arms shook. The tail came loose.
“Uck.” I tossed the tail into the closet and it flopped like a fish. When I dropped onto my bed, the girl’s chorus changed to, “It’s so close, but I can’t reach it,” and, “Tía just give it here.”
The tail writhed on the ground, tickling me like a ghost limb. The tickle was a soreness deep in my diaphragm, the well that gave passage to the tail’s swamp. My lungs and throat filled with water.
TREES SPROUTED THICK in the house, vines grew to cover the walls, water dripped onto mossy earth, down the cascading stairs and into the bog that filled the first floor.
I knelt in front of the homunculus in my closet. It had my niece’s head, her voice. My niece, Martina Daniela Mia Moya, a girl who faced every challenge.
I pulled a coat down and hung it on her thick shoulders. I zipped it up so the cold of the swamp wouldn’t get to her. My hand brushed a vine hanging from the closet door, which squished with water. I pulled earmuffs from a box in the closet and slid them over her ears to keep her safe from bugs. “You should be warm now.”
“But my tail.” The tail bounced at her feet like an offering. I stared, but didn’t go near it. I stepped up and rubbed an arm across my lips, which still dribbled swamp water. “You said you were hungry.”
“I’ll be back, Mija.”
“Tía,” she said. “Mama loved you.”
I pretended not to hear her as I passed through the doorway, out of my room and into the bog that filled my home. A huge cypress had smashed a hole in my roof. Rain poured on my shoulders and the canopy shivered. I hoped there was food in the swamp somewhere.
A boat waited at the stairs. I plopped an oar into the bog and my past with Helena returned: adventures canoeing on lakes with fishing rods at night, when people weren’t around to scare the fish away. She pointed out the waves reflecting the moon, solitary, powerful, haunting. While images returned, I boated along, looking for berry-bushes or prey. What, in a swamp, was edible, anyway? My homunculus, Martina Daniela Mia Moya hungered, and, traveling my swampy home alone, I hungered, too.
The pictures from my wall in the living room floated past. I saw my mother and Helena and Phil (poor Phil) at the barbeque we had when my mom turned seventy. And one of me and Helena with a prize bass held up between us.
When I found the kitchen, I laughed. I laughed because it was as clean as I left it, with its coffeemaker and Mexican rug and tray of day-old cookies. The bog flowed to the door and then disappeared like it flowed right off the edge of the earth.
In the kitchen, a month’s worth of food waited. I floated the boat to the edge and slipped between the surface of the water and the frame of the doorway. Walking around the room, dripping, I touched the dry counter, the dry cabinets, the dry stove.
I bit into a cookie. Stale but fine, just fine. I finished it, but my hunger grew. I ate another and another. I pulled spaghetti, corn chips, and canned chili from a cabinet and dropped them to the floor. From the fridge a whole ham and a bottle of juice.
I wondered how long I’d have to ration our meals while trying to undo what I’d done.
I yelled for Helena to tell me if Heaven exists and how I get there from here. I didn’t even know if I could get out of my kitchen, back to the homunculus waiting for me in the closet upstairs.
And if I made it there, what then, in this familial game of hide-and-seek? Do I read her a bedtime story? Do I feed her until she is full? Do I comfort her, with her ape-arms and dog-flower-mail-and-glass-studded legs, and tell her everything will be okay?
Helena is a quiet ghost and offers no answer.