by Ariel Berry
It was just fingers, at first—a knuckle here, a thumb there—till one morning B shook hands with the minister, and B’s hand broke off. The next morning, J woke up and left his bed, his arms lying on the coverlet as if J were the one in the wrong place.
After that, it was eyes. A month ago, M sat bending over her embroidery, leaning close, when her eye squeezed out and bounced from her sewing to the floor. We used the leftover thread to stitch her lids shut, so we wouldn’t have to look into that gaping hole. It was just a coincidence, we thought, until J’s nose fell off in his soup a week later, and then old Y’s teeth stuck in a bagel, although several of us were inclined to believe that particular instance was just nature taking its course. We didn’t complain, none of us did, for fear our lips might drop to the floor while we kissed. The minister told us we got what we deserved.
On Sundays, we sat in the sanctuary, missing pieces, smelling of rot, the janitor scuttling in the background, lighting incense. For the children, it wasn’t so bad, mainly toes and earlobes, but for the rest of us it was worse. M always claimed the front row so she could hear at least, her other eye having plucked itself out too, thick black stitches pressing her lashes to her cheeks. R leaned against her, his arms thick and strong, his body legless. B had always been quiet, so it took several weeks for us to realize why he was silent now—one morning his tongue slipped down his throat, nearly choking him, until he spewed it across the room with his morning coffee.
Each Sunday we were less. The minister stood in front of us, lifting white hands, still his.
“Repent,” he said, licking his dry lips. “Repent, and be saved.” His eyes moved from face to face, searching for guilt. He frowned at M in the front, but she couldn’t see. Losing these pieces would make us whole, he said. We were better off without them.
At noon, when services were over, we exited the pews quietly, leaving bits of ourselves behind. After everyone had gone, the janitor walked the rows, dropping the limbs and pieces into a bucket. In one day, he filled seven buckets with arms, three buckets with ears, and five with legs below the knee. He carried the buckets out the door, whistling a tune. No one knew what he did each week with the parts. We were afraid to ask, to bring more loss upon ourselves.
We did try. J quit smoking; M took up yoga. On Sundays we were told not to worry, because that too was a sin; we didn’t want our brains falling out on the ground. Y, who still had his tongue but not his teeth, tried not to speak. But it was B who tried harder than everyone else: he knelt for hours in the grass, his lips moving soundlessly. If we touched him, it would take him several moments to recognize us, as if he were waking from a dream.
Among the teenagers, it became a game to bet on whose what would fall off next. We tried to discourage it, but they wouldn’t listen. When M gave out a shriek that we all heard for miles around, the teenagers ran to see if any of them could collect money on their bets. When they saw her shirt lying flat and empty against her chest, they cheered. Three of them won five dollars that day. R shouted from the window, called them scum. The next day, we saw that some of the teenagers were missing pieces of skin: cheeks and foreheads and necks. One girl lost her hair; it fell to the floor as she brushed it. After that, the game ended. After that, we were still.
Each time we lost something, the minister paid a house call. His pale, slim body remained untouched, still able to walk and pray and urge us to repent. He would sit a moment, speaking words of comfort and condemnation, eyes tense and anxious. The janitor always accompanied him on these visits, and it was he who slipped the parts of our bodies in a bag and walked back to the parsonage, the minister trailing behind. The janitor was the only one ever invited inside.
One night, we had enough. J’s baby died that day; its little lung fell off its throat and swam around in its body until it couldn’t breathe. We lit our lanterns and walked to the parsonage, those of us who could, carrying those who couldn’t. When we came to a stop, smoke was in his chimney, and in the window there was a lamp. R knocked on the door, M holding him up.
The minister opened the door. A bowl of split pea soup steamed on his table. “Welcome, friends,” he said. That made us angry. We moved closer to him, entering the lamplight. He stepped outside and shut the door behind him. “What’s the trouble?” he asked.
Those of us who had hands picked up the largest stones we could lift. Some of us remember someone yelling “go!” though nobody can remember whom. Some say it was B, but that’s impossible. The first rock punctured the minister’s abdomen; a few rocks later his intestines spilled out on the ground. He tried to shove them back in, but we got his hands next.
“Don’t. Please,” he said. “I’m not who you think I am. You don’t know what you’re doing,” but we stuffed his mouth full of rocks. Those were his last words.
When we were through, B got out his Swiss Army knife. Using his remaining hand, he cut out the minister’s tongue, and placed it in his own mouth. We carved him apart, dismembered him, made him like us. There wasn’t much of him to go around, but we tried to be fair. B cut off an arm, pressed it against J’s shoulder. He plucked out one of the minister’s eyes, and tried to put it in M’s hand. “No,” she said. She ripped open the stitches holding her eyes shut, and looked at him with her empty caverns. “I’d rather not see.”
J got one of the lungs, held it to the baby’s throat. It still wouldn’t breathe. B spat out the minister’s tongue, still mute. He left, carrying the tongue with him in his hand. Y, breaking his own silence, cursed and slipped away. We weren’t whole. The rest of us followed him, except for M. She said she could see clearly for the first time. She stayed and watched the house, tears leaking out of the holes in her face.
M told us that after we left the janitor crept out of the parsonage, and gathered what was left: just a rib bone and a fingernail, lying in the mud. He reentered the house and found a big pot, filled it with water, and set it on the stove, whistling while he did it. He dropped the bone and the nail in the pot, and, sitting down at the table, he slurped the soup.
Ariel Berry has a master’s degree in creative writing from the University of Maine. In the years following graduation she has spent her time reading, writing, and teaching. Her work has most recently appeared in Stolen Island, Gone Lawn, and Southword.