The first time Luda came to visit, I was four years old, and so was she. I woke in the middle of the night to find her sitting at the foot of my bed. There was something odd about her, misshapen. She was tiny and naked, more like a baby bird, a hatchling, than a girl. She held her knees up under her chin, one arm around her thin frail legs, and she was staring at me. I didn’t know who she was, or how she had gotten into our house, into my little room off from where my mother and father slept.
Suddenly, she looked up at the window next to the bed, startled, as if something just outside was about to reach in for her—and then she vanished. From where I lay, I could only see moonlight streaming through the gently rustling leaves. I decided I wouldn’t say anything to my parents, as they had no patience for stories or imaginings.
I woke up late, which was unusual. I was often the first out of bed. My mother wondered if I was ill. I felt a bit warm, and oddly sore. She lifted off my nightshirt and asked, “What have you done to your shoulder? Did you fall while you were playing? Did somebody hit you?”
I shook my head. She turned me so my father could see. “It could be a spider bite. Check the sheets to see.” Then with a slight smile he added: “I hope he didn’t swallow it.”
“Don’t put thoughts into the boy’s head,” my mother said sharply. It was too late. The thoughts were already there.
She prepared to corner Dr. Pavel at church the next day, but the welt faded over the course of the afternoon and by bedtime it was all but gone. Still she found him after the service and he took me to his office at her insistence, my shirt and jacket half off under the bright light over his metal table while he poked and prodded. Nothing. He shrugged, and I pulled my shirt back up. She frowned, and my father sighed in a what-did-I-tell-you way, or in a now-we-are-late-for-lunch way. I reached up under my collar, placed my fingers over the spot. Something deep under it curled on itself. I hope he didn’t swallow it.
Three years later, the welt returned, and so did Luda. This time there was blood, a spot of blood on the inside of my undershirt, as if I had scraped a wart or a mole. Not enough to soak through to the bedsheets, but enough that my mother’s eye caught it while I was dressing for school.
“What have you done there?” she asked. She pushed at it, and a droplet of blood welled up. She wiped at it with an old cleaning cloth that smelled of alcohol. She pushed again—something was under the surface, something hard like a sliver, a stone. She pushed and wiped, pushed and wiped, and up came something white and smooth, and out it popped, onto the red of the blood on the cloth. A chip of bone.
“I can’t say for certain what it is,” said Dr. Pavel, “or how long it’s been there.” He looked at my shoulder, which was pink and sore from all my mother’s efforts. The wound, however, had begun to heal. He brushed on some mercurochrome, taped a square of gauze over it.
“Lorincz, you get dressed and wait here. I’m just going to talk to your mother outside.” Her brow furrowed as he led her out the door, and it was still furrowed when Dr. Pavel returned and told me I could go. In the meantime, I had taken the tiny fleck and pocketed it in my handkerchief. It went into the little tin of treasures on my bookshelf.
My mother said little as we walked the three streets over to our house, and said even less at the dinner table. My father’s various questions were answered with a single word: “After.” Once I was in my room, and my father had closed the door behind me, I could hear my mother unleash all the other words she had been holding in. I struggled in vain to hear what she said, but her emotions were all too apparent: anger, and sadness, and fear.
That night, I awoke to find Luda once again at the foot of my bed. She seemed older now, though not much bigger. Once again naked and clutching herself, once again staring at me. This time, however, a thin trickle of blood flowed over the edge of her lip and down to her chin. A tooth, I realized. The tiny fleck was a tooth. Just then, she looked up at the window, startled as she had been before, and once again she disappeared. I realized I had heard one word from my mother’s diatribe, and that word was “twin.”
When I was twelve, just a few days after my birthday, I fell ill with a terrible fever. I was drenched with sweat, yet chilled to the bone. Overnight, the welt had returned, as large and round as a boil. Dr. Pavel had retired from his practice the year before, but he came at my mother’s urging and he brought a woman from the next village, a mudri materi. While my mother cried in the other room, Dr. Pavel turned me on my chest, took out a scalpel and sliced into the boil. With a pair of forceps he carefully nudged around and pulled out four, five, six tiny bones and a little skull. After that, the mudri stopped him.
“Enough,” she said. “She is not an infection. She is not a parasite. The boy holds the blood and flesh of two people in one body. She is changing him, and we must not fight that change.” She took my hand, and held it. “She will not let him die. He is her way into the world.” The mudri watched as Dr. Pavel cleaned the wound and sewed it shut. And then he left so she could speak to me alone.
“You are very brave, and very strong,” she said. “And so, too, is your sister. She is with us now. She is hurt and afraid. But she means you no harm. Do you see her sometimes?” I nodded. “Does she frighten you?” I shook my head. “Good. When you see her, you must welcome her, even if her appearance disturbs you. You will come to love her in time.” And then she placed her hand on my forehead, and I felt the fever melt away.
I am twenty now, at school in Kolomyya, far away from home. Luda is with me always, like a deeply held secret, as close as my breath. Freed from her bones, she is soft and round, her arms and legs coiled around her head, a wreath of flesh framing and cradling her face. Her mouth open, her eyes wide, her tongue, her toes, her fingers, her breasts, her belly, her kiska, her eyes, her beautiful eyes. I feel her in every part of me. I look in the mirror and she is all I see.
Excerpt from The Bone Mother copyright 2017 by David Demchuk. Reprinted by permission of ChiZine Publications, Peterborough. Photograph from the Costică Acsinte archive.