We were losing parts of ourselves. A reporter discovered a trove of ears in a burlap sack. The leader said the papers were lying, and we weren’t sure what was rumor and what was fact. What happened to me, what happened to my neighbors — that wasn’t enough proof of all we had lost.
At first we knew only that we were missing pieces of ourselves. It was easy enough in the early days to say, Your hand? How strange. Are you sure you didn’t misplace it somewhere?
We know now about the field of hands, planted in the ground and waving like a crop of corn. The farmers who lost their collarbones and couldn’t shoulder any weight. The fishermen who lost their rotator cuffs and could no longer pull their catch to shore.
I myself lost my nose, and I can’t smell or taste the poison in the water. My father is missing his thumbs and can’t hold his tools. He spends his evenings telling stories of the old days, when things were better. My friend Salma lost her eyes. She lives in the district next to the leader’s palace, where everyone has gone blind. She comes to my house led by Milito, who cannot hear: his ears were at the bottom of the bag the reporter discovered. Another friend, Darciel, lost his feet, and when he visits me, he claws himself up the hill, his body scraping on the sidewalk. After he says goodbye, he lets himself roll back down the hill. Many women lost their kidneys, and their eyes and skin became as yellow as gold. In the dialysis clinics they gossip as if they are in beauty parlors. And aren’t they still beautiful, despite what they’ve lost?
Milito leads Salma up to my door. Darciel is not far behind, having just finished his scraping ascent up the hill. Salma smiles when I belt out my greeting.
In the afternoons the four of us, plus my parents, still drink lemonade in the shade of my porch. It’s not really lemonade, not with fresh water as rare as it is. I crushed grapes with lemons to make it. A bird trills in the trees. We haven’t heard such a thing in months — most birds have lost their wings and their voices — and we pause in reverence, except for Milito, who cannot hear it. Salma tilts her head in the direction of the song.
How did all this happen? It started with the natural world. First we lost most of the crops, and then the aquifers ran out of water. Then the empty aquifers collapsed into sinkholes, which made several neighborhoods disappear. But we weren’t concerned back then. We closed our blinds. We were tired. Our leader had promised to fix what was broken, no matter what the cost.
My mother, who lost her teeth, creeps up behind me as I am filling a glass. She mumbles a litany of praise for the leader, how he has given us such delicious lemons. How great it is that he has taken the seeds so we don’t have to pick them out.
I am tired of reminding her that without seeds we can’t grow lemon trees and have to beg for our fruit.
My father, sensing an argument about to ruin our afternoon, changes the subject and talks about how strong he used to be, when he could still wield an ax. He talks only about the past now, so we humor him. Like my mother, he supports the leader because of all the problems that need fixing. He waves his hands as he talks: they look like paws without their thumbs.
I found the valley of noses myself, a few miles north of the city. They trembled in the wind, inhaling the smog. Was that my own nose calling to me from down in the valley? To reclaim it, I would have to fight the police. If I wanted to take back what was mine, I would have to start a revolution. But I was alone.
The decrees read every week at the shopping mall said that there was never any excuse for violence. Never mind how our fights over rainwater give the police an opportunity to beat us. Never mind our missing organs, which disappeared so slowly and silently we didn’t even realize what was happening. Never mind our sick and injured dying in the gutters.
You knew that what went missing could be found: in a burlap sack or a palace. But if you tried to take back what was yours — the ear, the bone, the nose — the police would set upon you instantly, taking another part of you as punishment.
You knew when someone had tried, because suddenly their street would be a sea of white police helmets. You had to wonder about the police. They were people, too, people we knew well. One officer’s wife said that there were chunks missing from her husband’s back. So why were they so quick with the guns and the machetes?
When Darciel first lost his left foot, he went hopping through the streets looking for it. He thought he saw it in the gutter, but it floated away. Finally he found it in the water-treatment plant. It was there along with thousands of other feet bobbing on the surface of the water, yellow and green with fungus. Maybe it was the feet that poisoned our drinking water. When he reached in with a net to try to get his foot out, the police dragged him back and cut off his other foot.
Darciel regales us with accounts of what he’s seen as he’s crawled through the streets: A suburb of boys with no fingers playing soccer. Publishing houses filled with historians who have no memories and write their books in the present tense. A neighborhood — the one closest to the water-treatment plant — filled with people who have no brains. Farmers with drooping arms, picking wild raspberries with their toes, the juice dripping from their feet. A district of girls with no voices, who are coveted by marriageable men. When they raise the blinds in the morning, their mouths are open like O’s. My mother says they’re singing, but we remember how some songs can be screams.
I hand Darciel a cup of lemonade.
My mother asks him if he’s ever thought of walking on his hands. It seems easy enough, she says.
No, Darciel says. I never want to forget what was done to me.
Traitor, my mother says, slamming the door on her way back into the house.
Milito fingers the guitar, playing a song that he still remembers from when he could hear. Sometimes the song is so off-key that we wince. Sometimes it’s flawless, and we want to dance. Today the song sounds as clear as sparkling water.
You know what I love about us? Salma asks. We’re still mostly the same. Look at us, enjoying a drink on the porch.
I cover my face with my hand. I don’t want to be looked at. I was beautiful once.
My father scoffs. Milito helps Salma to the bathroom. Now we have to ask each other for help to do everything. (Except for Darciel, who refuses to let me push him in a wheelbarrow.)
Evening is falling. It’s getting dark.
Darciel says he passed by the palace, and the windows from the ballroom gleamed with light. We wonder what the leader has lost. Some say he has lost nothing. My mother says he uses all of our missing parts for the good of the people. He is not to blame for everything that came before him. You didn’t need that nose, she says. Nor Salma her eyes. She repeats the state-sponsored news about our soldier who was captured behind enemy lines: How he was being traded back one piece at a time. His kidney, an eye, and a hand were exchanged for the kidney, eye, and hand of one of our own citizens. Maybe that eye was yours, Salma, my mother says. You should be proud to help our soldiers come home.
Sometimes I wish my mother had lost her tongue instead of her teeth.
When my father goes inside, we make plans in hushed voices, and Milito reads our lips. A crawling man, a blind woman, a deaf man, and a woman without a nose — it will take all of us. We have rage enough for twenty.
We will sneak into the palace and release the arms to fight the police. The hearts to sound the alarm we should have heard long ago. The legs to carry our messages. And the eyes to bear witness.