They invented watches for us, the boys they sent to die. Belted green-glowing clocks around our wrists, light enough to tell the time and dark enough to keep us hidden in the mired trenches and the green-glowing pools we washed in when our heads and skins had turned to mud.
In the factories we left behind, the radium girls mixed salt and spit and glue, shaped the tips of camel hair brushes between their lips to paint the twelve numbers undark. Doorbell buttons, the letters at the ends of theater aisles. And the babydoll eyes that glow green from the cradle at night, the baby’s arm tight around the belly of the doll that stares and stares when I can’t sleep.
When the baby cries, the radium girl goes to the cradle. She is lampshaded torch bulb in her negligee, brightness held inside fabric knit too tight for all the green to go. Below the dress, her foot on the rocker beneath the bassinet is a nightlight. Her hands and her head and her feet glow.
Her heel to the ground, she presses her toes against the curving wood and the cradle creaks and sways. Even after the baby stops crying, the bassinet moans, and the radium girl’s foot pulses. I see her glowing toes three times, dots flashing in the dark, and then slow, the entire foot extended over the curve of the rocker drawing three wooden sighs, and the dots of her toes again. Morse code. She’s telling me SOS.
My foot is wrapped quiet in our blankets; she can’t hear me say I know.
A story to explain the way I am:
First, there was a light. Second, a noise. Then a hand with fingers blasted to bits, a shine of gold and a leather strip in the wreckage, like a child in a building braced with dynamite. I woke up in a tent; they’d taken my watch arm away.
She wrote me a letter before the baby, before the arm went gone. About how they carried the dust home in their pockets. How they sprinkled it in their hair, how they shone at night. How they painted their fingers with it, rubbed it in their gums. How the factory was covered in it, the chemical tremor. She blew her nose and she found a shimmer.
From across the ocean, I envied her handkerchief.
After the veteran’s hospital ran out of arms, the radium girl took me to a movie. We followed the painted numbers to the back of the theater; people stared. We weren’t supposed to come back but we did come back but we didn’t come back right.
The screen: Which self? Man has two - as he has two hands. Because I use my right hand should I never use my left?
She breathed heavy. Leaned against me, her head on my shoulder. She had a glow then, but a glow like any cherry-cheeked girl, a haze of light around her. And my shoulder. My shoulder.
Behind us, the strip tattooed between the reels until everything turned inside out: an X-ray animated, bleeding white to black and black to white. The reel stopped ticking, frozen on the monster inverted, his face made of shadows stretched wide on the screen, black-mawed and white-haired, pupils white and the whites of his eyes black.
They asked us to go home and not come back. At the door to our apartment, she said, “I’m sorry.” The first tooth dropped from her mouth at the sound of the ess.
The radium girl leaves glow-in-the-dark on my stomach. Radium salt dissolved in water. The wetness of her tongue. She dusted the factory for it, mixed a paste and scaffolded herself, paths drawn down her hardest bones. A blueprint of cartilage, tissue, carcass, relic. The doctor told us radium is like calcium but different in one important way: both bury themselves in your bones, but only one breaks you from the inside out. He said today would be her jaw’s last day. The mandible gone tomorrow, the way of her teeth: chin sewn to neck, metal girders fastening together her mouth’s leftovers.
But she calls today the last day. She taught me to hold the baby in the still-there arm. To help her balance. The radium girl thinks she might toddle someday; I won’t have to hold her, the two of us alone. But they are both made of bones that want breaking, hollowed-out insides like shrapnel inside their skeletons, marrow blasting all the time.
Her hips are hard and her elbows sharp but I don’t complain. She paints me green with it, her mouth moving up and down with it.
They said when it happened, I crawled out of the trench and after my arm. Crept around the falling shells. They said I had to want to live. Had to need to live. Had to want the watch back, had to need the ring on the finger so ragged it might’ve been someone else’s hand. They lost my ring at the hospital, attached to the hand attached to the arm they threw away.
Her rings fall off her fingers; she is skin and bone and not much of either, cotton cord and gold ring hung heavy.
Just before bed, she leans over the cradle and the baby holds her hand up, reaches for the glow. The radium girl’s hair shocks green out the tips, and the baby shocks back, the salt sunk into her skin, the blast built into her bones.
The first time we saw the doctor, he called it a mistake, birthing new life through a broken body. She was still healthy on the outside then, her mouth rose-red though its insides were an already-played carnival game, the clown’s teeth pitched out or loose. She couldn’t eat, she’d lost weight, her joints hurt all the time. She wanted to be healthy, for the sake of the baby. He gave her an address and she gave it back.
She found a nurse, a radium girl’s sister, who checked in once a week. They picked through magazines and sent off for anything that promised weight gain. They mixed the things together, endlessly patient, mashing her meals. And she gained a little and then a little more.
The nurse took the baby’s heartbeat each visit. Pressed the listening trumpet to the radium girl’s stomach and held my ear against the narrow end and I heard their two hearts beating: hers a thudding and the baby’s a hummingbird’s.
When she was eight months in, the doctor called us in for tests. The radium girl gained weight, not much, but in her belly. He took a picture of her behind the X-ray. It developed inside out, mother and daughter both dark against the white behind them, their bones too bright, their own radiation. And the baby, curled there, her watch arm like mine, cinched at the shoulder, a nub and no more.
He sent me to the waiting room; in the surgery theater, he peeled the radium girl open, he removed the green-glowing child, he sewed her back together. In the nurse’s arms, the child was gummy-mouthed and crying; the doctor was coating the stitches with radium salve.
They exhumed a radium girl last week. Wrapped her jaw in photographic paper. Her bones burnt through the black. In the dark, white spots specked and popped like water spilt in hot oil, fire spilt on skin. We are constellations of our burning.
I do not touch the radium girl, even with the arm that listens still, because the radium girl will break if I touch her.
She wants to kiss my shoulder but I don’t want her near my shoulder. She will kiss the end of it, and then there will be nothing left of it, an endless shoulder with only so much room to kiss. Better to move her away from the shoulder and to the places there are remaining, so I twist as best I can with the balance of one arm and she turns toward the other side to kiss the hand that is there. We are the toothless and the armless. I am sharpened collarbone and she is knobby-kneed. We are skull showcase; this is how bodies would have been built if bodies had been built wrong. Her mouth is full of gums. Maybe she said, “Let’s die together.” She is covered in firefly bruises.
When the lights are out, her breath is undark. It is a mist of her. It is a mist of her that rests like condensation on my chest. We glow.
Three years old. She doesn’t grow. She doesn’t speak. One arm like her father, no teeth like her mother. She is more fragile than other children, body breaking all the time. It’s easier to call her baby.
The doctor says I’ll be alone soon. Soon, I’ll lose them both.
But maybe her life is slower than ours were, her half-life eking half-lives from half-lives. Maybe she could live forever.
The radium girl settles on top of me, her hips creaking under her. She puts her mouth on mine and breathes radon.
Her breath was sweet once. Her breath was foul once. Her breath was breath once.
Her chest is empty. The weight of a body with nothing in it.
I hold her last breath.
–Caitlin McGuire (from Ninth Letter)