Authors: Sangu Mandanna
Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Young Adult, #Science Fiction
The Lost Girl
For Lekha, for whom I’d have stitched an echo if I’d had a Loom
Life and death appeared to me ideal bounds, which I should first break through, and pour a torrent of light into our dark world.
—Mary Shelley, Frankenstein
remember being in town with Mina Ma. I must have been about ten. She wanted to buy a lottery ticket, and I stood outside the corner store and looked in the window of the toy shop next door. There was a man in the shop, sitting on a stool with a knife and a large piece of wood in his hands. He worked at the wood with the knife, chipping and whittling away, shaping the wood into arms, little legs, a face. I watched him smooth the rough edges with sandpaper, then pick up a wig of soft, almost black hair and fasten it with glue to the doll’s head. Finally he sewed a tiny white dress and buttoned it around the doll. The whole thing looked like dancing. His hands moved so delicately, so
When I imagine how
was made, that’s how I imagine it. I don’t know the reality, of course; no one will ever fully explain it. Mina Ma once told me there was fire. Erik said they stitch us together. So I imagine my Weaver sitting at a great oak desk in a workshop. The sunlight glints off the wood. I imagine he’s got a bit of my other’s skin, a bit of her
, and he uses it to make me look just like her. To put a bit of her soul into me. As for the rest, he stitches me together from pieces of someone else, someone long dead, perhaps. He smokes out the old bones to clean them. He burns the old flesh to whittle it down. He uses fire to make me fit the mold he wants to cast. He stitches my infant self to life, weaving in little organs, a few fine baby hairs, a tiny white dress. He glues my edges together. It looks like dancing. But his hands—no matter how many times I imagine my creation, his hands never move like they love me. Because they don’t.
I suppose it’s one of those things I have always known. The Weavers create us, but they don’t love us. They stitch us together. They make sure we grow up knowing, always, that we belong to them.
It’s early. I can smell the wet grass outside, the sharp, clean morning air that turns warm and breezy over the lake later on. It’s too early to be awake, but I get dressed and tiptoe out of my room, past Mina Ma’s, to the French windows at the foot of the cottage. The windows gleam in the sunlight. Only a few weeks ago, they were dirty and splattered with eggs. The town kids thought it’d be funny. I remember looking at the pattern of egg yolks and having the strangest idea that it spelled
. That was what they called me, when they cornered me down by the lake a few days before the egg-splattering. I think they came because they wanted to know if the rumor about the girl in the cottage was true. It turned nasty fast, and I hit one of them in the face. He was twice my size. I got away with a black eye, a bloody lip, and a sense of savage satisfaction because I did what
wanted for once.
My other would have walked away. I don’t think she fights against something if she doesn’t like it; she has this soft, sensible way of accepting it. Erik and Mina Ma tell me that kind of grace is a more admirable quality than ferocity. They tell me that is how I should be.
Mina Ma thinks I like being contrary. “Sometimes,” she says, “I think that if she were a rowdy, angry little thing, you’d be soft and quiet
to be difficult.” But it’s not true. It’s simpler than that: I don’t think I’m much like her. I threw her favorite food on the floor when I was five. While she sat on her father’s knee and polished dusty artifacts, I secretly made sculptures of birds out of wet paper and candle wax. When I was seven, I begged Mina Ma to take me to a movie in town even though I knew my other hadn’t seen it. These are small things. Risky, but not dangerous. I’ve learned the difference.
I touch the glass of the French windows. I was very lucky to escape that fight without lasting consequences. My guardians were appalled. Ophelia should have told the Weavers about it. Only she didn’t.
Erik didn’t say much, but the disappointed look on his face spoke volumes. “We can only lie for you so many times,” he told me. “We can’t protect you if you defy their laws.”
tripped to my tongue, but seemed inadequate. It didn’t matter. Erik hadn’t finished. “It’s not just the Weavers, either. What about those little brats? Don’t you think they might tell their parents they’ve found an echo? People
I knew what he was really afraid of: hunters. That they might find out about me. Only I guess the kids didn’t talk, or Erik stopped word from getting out, because nothing has happened since. There has been no witch hunt, no flaming torches at our door. No quiet attacks in the dark.
I check the mail, littered under the slot in the front door. There are two bills for Mina Ma and a blank postcard for me. I know it’s from Sean, the youngest of my guardians. No one else sends me anything in the mail. He knows that, and he lives less than an hour away from us, but he still sends me postcards once a month. I’ve got them tucked between
These Old Shades
on my bookshelf, tied together with ribbon.
At the time, Sean made it clear he didn’t think fighting was a clever thing to do either. His tone annoyed me enough to say, quite unjustly, “Well, if it had been
, I bet they’d have battered you.”
“I don’t batter so easily, thanks very much,” he replied. “And if you’ll notice,
the one who can still eat without having to aim for an uninjured bit of my mouth.”
It was difficult to argue with logic like that.
I watch telly until Mina Ma wakes up and bustles out of her room. We make breakfast. Eggs and bacon. I don’t like eggs. It’s the yolk. The way it squidges out makes me feel ill. I try not to touch it when we wash the plates afterward.
Mina Ma laughs. “Don’t be so insufferably idiotic, child. It’s not
It’s like her to laugh and scold me in the same breath. I love her more than anything in the whole world. She left India close to fifteen years ago, when the Weavers offered her a job as my caretaker. We live here together. She raised me. Ever since she took me from the Weavers’ Loom as a baby, she has loved me. And ever since she chased a doctor out of the house with a rolling pin, after he referred to me as “it,” I have loved her.
Once we’ve put away the breakfast dishes, it’s time for my lessons. I put together a neat pile of textbooks and notes.
I have a routine that doesn’t change much. I study a girl far away. She’s the original to my copy. She haunts me. Everything I do depends on her. And on her parents, my familiars, the two people who asked the Weavers to make me.
I learn what she learns. I eat what she eats. I sleep. Mina Ma teaches me small things every day. How to make rice in a pressure cooker. How to pronounce Indian names and words properly. She tells me about Bangalore, where my other lives. I could find my way around that city blindfolded by now. On Tuesdays and Fridays, Ophelia comes to the house to check me over. She asks me questions, examines me, takes blood. No one would call her medically qualified. She struggles to do subtraction in her head, fumbles with her instruments and notes, and I often hear her saying rude things under her breath about “stupid big words.” But she’s learned enough about echoes to keep me healthy. All I care about, though, is that she’s friendly and funny and I can trust her. I don’t think I’d let a real doctor anywhere near me.
On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays, my lessons are with Erik. He homeschools me in things like English and math, from big textbooks and lesson plans that my familiars have gotten from her school. He gives me information about my other, helps me learn it. He also tells me about
world. About the centuries-old Loom in London and the Weavers who stitch echoes there.
And on alternate weekends, Sean turns up for a couple days. His job is to help me understand what life is like among regular people our age. I need to be prepared if I’m ever sent off to live her life.
“Do you have all your notes ready for Erik?” Mina Ma asks, coming out of the kitchen to find me.
I show her the pile I’ve put together. She glances at the clock. She wants to teach me how to sew a button onto a dress.
“Easy,” I scoff.
She chuckles. “If you can keep your restless fingers still for ten minutes to do it, I’ll eat my hat.”
It would have been nice if she’d had to take that back, but she’s right, as always. I have trouble even threading the needle.
When Erik arrives an hour later, I’m ready for his lessons. In fact, I am perched on the sofa with a look of such sweetness on my face, he stops short in the doorway. Erik is in his late fifties. He’s tall, with brown hair and eyes the color of a Mediterranean ocean. He can do anything. He’s the only one of us the Weavers will listen to.
“You want something.” His voice is resigned, but he gives me a twinkly-eyed smile. “And I’m sure I won’t want to know what it is.”
“A pony,” he says, straight-faced. “I’ll get right on that, shall I?”
I laugh but hesitate over bringing up the zoo question. My other went on a school trip to the zoo last month, while I had to make do with photographs and a description. I open my mouth to ask if I can go to one of the zoos within a hundred-mile radius of Windermere, “to get a better feel for what her experience was like, Erik” (a lie—I just want to go see exotic animals), but I bite back the words before they come out.
It’s Erik’s expression that stops me. His face does a funny thing. It’s like watching a light turn off. The amusement in his face, his smile, it all drains away, sucked out with the flip of a switch.
I’ve seen it before, and it always means bad news. My face transforms in response, and I watch him anxiously as he sets a thick envelope down on the table.
Officially Erik is a go-between. He is the only one of us who speaks to my familiars, through secure emails and disposable phones so that the Indian authorities won’t know about it. We have to be cautious because echoes are against the law in India, and my familiars could be arrested for requesting my creation. They send Erik school reports, descriptions of events and birthdays, and photos, all the tiny details about my other’s everyday life that I must know if I am to be as much
as she is.
And I learn these things. I learn to love or dislike people the way she does, or at least I try to, even on days when I want to hate them all.
I’d have given up years ago if Erik didn’t make me sit still and do it. When I have questions, he tries to answer. He helps me understand the laws, the rules, truths about the Loom and my creation. Nine years ago he told me what I am. He told me about the Weavers in London. About how ordinary people, who can’t bear the idea of losing somebody they love, can ask the Weavers to make an echo. He told me how they spend weeks, sometimes months, making each of us. When they’re done, we live. We breathe. Echoes. And one day, if our others die and we are wanted, we replace them.
And until we replace them, we learn them.
I set my jaw. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
Erik opens the envelope and lays things down on the table. First, the week’s Lists: what to eat, what to drink, what to watch, what to read. Next, a CD. It has a recording of my other’s voice on it. I’m supposed to learn how to speak like her, but I don’t do a very good job of it. Her accent is slightly less neutral than mine, and she uses different words for some things than I do.
Among the sheaf on the table is a set of journal pages. That’s where she writes about what she’s done this past week, where she talks stiffly about herself, her friends, and her family. She has to do it, but it’s obvious she hates it. She hates
Erik coughs. “I’m sure it will be mentioned in the journal.”
“Can’t you tell me first?” I ask, my fingers tightly knotted together.
He hesitates. Then: “She got a tattoo.”
My stomach drops. “Where?”
“Her left wrist. On the inside, between the bottom of her palm and the place where you wear a watch. There’s a photograph here somewhere.”
“Erik,” I say, and my voice breaks. “Erik, you
. Do you remember when the stray dog bit her on the belly? I was afraid I’d have to let a dog bite me just to copy her, but you told me copying scars wasn’t allowed.”
“It was what I fought for twenty years ago,” he says softly. “I fought to keep your bodies your own. I wanted the Weavers to stop making you mimic injuries and intimate experiences. It seemed too cruel. I eventually persuaded them to decide that having a description of those kinds of things should be enough.”
“It’s a tattoo,” he says. “It’s allowed. This is a change she
to make, and one that will do no harm to her or you.”
I think of the needles I have seen on telly, that needle in my blood, spilling fine ink into my clean, untainted skin. It would be all right if I wanted the tattoo myself. But not like this.
I recoil. “I won’t do it,” I say.
“You must,” says Erik, very quietly.
I seize the journal pages and flip through them, fast, frantic, until I find the words I’m looking for.
Got a tattoo today. It hurt a lot more than I thought it would.
My jaw aches with fury. I know it’s probably not true, because it’s not like her, but I imagine she’s satisfied, knowing she may do what she pleases and I will have to bear it. She will always win.
I crush my fist around the pages and fling them violently across the room.
“That was childish,” says Erik.
“I don’t mind being childish,” I say. “It must mean I’m a
“It’s a beautiful tattoo,” says Erik. “Small, delicate, very like you. You might grow fond of it in time.”
“I don’t know what it means to her,” I say, “but it will always remind me of what I am and what I can never be. I’ll hate it,” I add, passionately, “forever.”
“I know you don’t like hearing it,” says Erik, “but this is what your existence means. You
her. You must
her. Or all of this will fall to pieces.” His face softens. “It won’t help to fret. Put it out of your mind until it’s time.”