In WHAT BECOMES US, the superstar new novel by Micah Perks, twin fetuses tell the story of their mild-mannered mother who abandons a controlling husband to start fresh as a small-town schoolteacher in upstate New York. It all looks ideal, but her seemingly lovely new neighbors are soon violently divided by the history she’s teaching—the captivity and restoration of colonist Mary Rowlandson.
I was fain to go an look after something to satisfy my hunger
excerpt from What Becomes us
Nine weeks pregnant, end of February, our mother waits on the sidewalk in the gloaming, all her worldly belongings in the two new suitcases beside her. Above her, the high Santa Cruz sky is morning glory blue streaked with pink. She smells the eucalyptus trees and the brine of the ocean six blocks away. Pregnancy has intensified her sense of smell, so that its as if she’s coated in tiger balm and wearing a necklace of seaweed.
There’s a zip lock of saltines in one pocket of her newly purchased used wool coat, a paper bag filled with papaya pills in the other, and on her thin wrist she wears a knobby bracelet that claims to massage her pressure points, proven to cure morning sickness, which Mother has all day.
We’re still too feathery for her to feel us, although now she knows we’re both here. She saw us on the ultra sound, a pulsing yin yang. Each an inch long, we are see-through things, our skin as thin as paper. We’re the liquor we swim in, and the liquor passes through us. We twirl and twine and double somersault in love-drunk motion, no telling where one of us ends and the other begins. How much did Scheherazade love the Sultan? Or Joseph love Pharaoh? Or Huck and Jim love their raft? How can we pry apart love and need? Three minutes without her and our hearts would stop.
Mother is an agnostic, but we know the three of us are not alone. We don’t have delusions of grandeur, we don’t expect God, if there is a God, to intervene in our tiny drama, but still, we know someone is out there, listening, perhaps deciding our fate. We feel a watchful eye over our miraculous transformation, our cells furious division. We pledge to bare witness from the womb. We will sing the song of our mother, which is also the song of ourselves.
So, to return: when the airport shuttle turns the corner and trundles towards her, Mother grabs her cousin Molly’s hand. “Don’t tell Steve where I am. I’m having the lawyer send the divorce papers to your address.”
“Not to freak you out, but I don’t think your hubby’s going to be that easy to get rid of. But, whatever, focus on your escape to freezing hicklandia. Or focus on those gremlins.” She pokes Mother’s belly. “Everyone needs a couple of monsters inside. Especially you. Especially you without me. Remember in sixth grade when I slapped that kid who kept bullying you in the lunch line? He just stood there breathing on your neck and whispering your name over and over. Evie, Evie, Evie. His lips were so close to your neck it was disgusting. It was like you had to wipe your neck to get his hot skanken’ breath off it. And you just stood there in Evie La La Land.”
“I think he had special needs.”
“He had the need to be an asshole. Like Steve.”
The shuttle driver pulls over beside them, rolls down the window.
“I’m a pioneer woman now,” Mother says to Molly. “A pilgrim.”
The shuttle driver climbs down and grabs a suitcase. “It’s the beginning of a great adventure,” he says.
The shuttle drops us at SFO, where mother throws up in the airport bathroom. She plods through security lines, boards a plane, flies through the night to JFK, dreaming of being eaten alive by a two-headed slug.
We confess that when mother first saw us on the ultrasound she was a little taken aback. The midwife pointed us out, her finger tracing our double pulsing lima bean shapes, explaining brightly that this is why Mother’s morning sickness was so intense. She went on to describe “What multiples mean for mom”: higher weight gain, more frequent check-ups, risk of high blood pressure, possible bed rest, premature birth, C-section. Mother hissed, “Steve.” She told the nurse that Father had a twin sister who ran an eco-tourism company in Costa Rica. The nurse tried to explain to Mother that twins weren’t passed down from the father, but Mother wasn’t really listening. She was remembering the Alien movies, the milky creature uncoiling out of a burst stomach. Then she imagined her breasts attacked by two giant-headed babies, mouths like suction cups. The nurse asked her if she was feeling faint and brought her some orange juice in a paper cup. Mother took a sip, imagining the bigheaded babies turning up to look at her, and they were two redheaded and freckled Lindsay Lohans from The Parent Trap. She even fleetingly imagined giving one of us to our father, just dropping the extra baby off in a basket with an explanatory note. But then the sugar from the juice began to rally her. She told the technician who hovered over her that she was surprised, but fine, totally fine, shazam–instant family. A gang, a frat, a cult. She even said, “Yay,” and shook her fist in the air.
At JFK she switches to a propeller plane, where she throws up in the small white bag provided, lands in Syracuse at seven am, rents a car, heaving those two suitcases into the trunk herself, and drives an hour south, the directions propped above the radio, the way the Japanese pilots navigated towards Pearl Harbor.