When she was a child they lived, Mother, Grandmother, and Girl, all in one house in the woods. Two small rooms, one big bed, three sets of ten toes wiggling under one blanket Grandmother had made.
Grandmother taught her the old names for things, the ones her mother had taught her—how to speak to the fox or the stag in a name he would recognize. Grandmother and Girl walked through the forest with bare feet. The girl’s soles were hard like wood against the rocks and sticks and pine needles that nestled along the earth. But Mother’s feet were soft. She wore only the slippers she bought in town. She paced the cabin floor until the wood was polished clean from her steps. She told the girl, Your grandmother is an old, backwards woman. Don’t listen to her stories.
Every day Mother polished the girl clean as her floor. Rough brushes scrubbed Girl’s limbs until the skin sloughed off and left her pink and reeling underneath. But still, every day, the girl wrapped herself again in filth. Paw-prints in the earth collected rainwater, and she jumped from one small marsh of it to the next until her feet wore socks of mud. She pressed her nose into the bears’ shaggy hides and inhaled their musk. She forgot her own hair was white as spider silk until Mother squeezed the brown from it and into the bathwater. She nitpicked Girl’s scalp. She drowned her lice in scented oils.
Mother picked at the bramble-scratches on her daughter’s back until they bled again. She lifted the dirt out of the cracks in Girl’s skin with needles. Girl’s back burned as her mother scraped, but with each layer of grime removed, there was still another below it. Mother did not stop until she had scraped to the other side. There, against the inside of her daughter’s chest, rising from the blood-pink meat, was an orange fungus. She tried to pry it loose with a razor, but the edges of the girl’s hole had hardened into bark. They cut Mother’s soft, angry arm, left their splinters in her flesh.
Mother cursed Grandmother. She howled and spit at her like a wild-thing. But over her daughter’s protests, Grandmother told her granddaughter that she was whole now. She’d grown into a woman just like her. And just like Mother, even under her shawls.
Cole Bucciaglia’s work can be found or is forthcoming in publications such as West Branch, Timber Journal, Bartleby Snopes, PodCastle, Weave Magazine, and Extract(s). She is the editor-in-chief of Psychopomp Magazine and a former assistant editor of Crab Orchard Review
Artwork: Julia Gabrielov, specifically created for Gingerbread House #15