Moreen didn’t like her name. She changed it to M. Had tried Mo for a few years but that had felt too kind.
M lived above a thrift shop on West 14th at a time when every party in town was a public affair, including Sinbad’s Sugar Dance, which is where she was headed tonight.
It was 1927 and M had never felt more human.
The heat in New York that summer was cold. Everything felt damp. The silk shimmy dress was like moss against her thighs and her feet burned with the news of an oncoming storm. She ignored it all, concentrating instead on clipping her hair in place– just the way Mac liked it.
She and Mac had an interesting connection. He loved her like a rich caramel cliché and she was sticky with his intoxication. He had these honest eyes that made her want to swim to yellow shores, where each day the sea baptises the history from your blood.
She felt all this and yet she kept him away, at just the right distance to stay safe– the unnerving lightness of love was, after all, her greatest cause of anxiety.
‘What are you hiding?’ he asked the last time they were together. The shock of it sent waves of recoil lapping at her heart and across her throat and cheeks. He was the first person in the world to ever make her blush.
They had never spoken frankly to each other about their histories, instead, their conversations had been one long score of secrets, woven like lyrics and complimented with dance.
They had been dreamers.
They had been perfect.
But in that first blush Mac had seen deception, he had seen her in the arms of another man, he had felt her rip and bite at his heart. Mac wore his eyes on his chest and he didn’t like the way the blood looked dripping over his lids, yet he did not speak a word of his imagined discourse to M. He was, after all, a proud man.
M whipped herself into a frenzy of powder and feathers to Armstrong’s Heebie Jeebies, shuffling her feet in preparation for Slide, Baby, Slide– a favourite for her and Mac. Her mind was ahead of time, soaking in the wonders of the night where secrets get lost in the roar of celebrations, apologies catch in paper streamers, and lies glitter above it all like the whispers of ghosts.
And so when the telephone rang out from the corner of her sitting room, it made sense that she answered it with, ‘Mac, darling?’
‘I do hope Mac is not a human, Moreen,’ her grandmother’s voice was so close it felt like thought on her tongue.
‘Grandmother,’ she said, bleakly.
She hadn’t heard the pain of her grandmother’s voice in almost twenty years and now it cut small holes where the word human collected like bacteria.
‘I think it’s time you came home.’
Home was not a place M allowed into her thoughts and yet as she held the black receiver that smelled of dead moths they assaulted her with considerable buoyancy– those memories she had so carefully crafted into walls that held a remodel of herself.
Born a Daughter of Mayatora, Moreen had been raised by her grandmother. This choosing was a superstition that rode generational waves, crashing randomly through the oceans of bloodline and time, selecting only daughters for the cause.
One had broken against her grandmother two generations earlier, thus equipping her as Moreen’s most suitable guardian.
At age 5 Moreen was introduced to Volumes I and II (ten books in each) of the Encyclopaedias of the Human Species, but Human Emotions (book 4, volume II) was by far her most favourite.
Page 72 was dog-eared and crinkled from being devoured with knowledge hungry fingers. As far as the young Moreen was concerned, it was the most extraordinary thing she would ever read.
Inside those pages she found answers and questions with equal pull on her tides of curiosity. Books centuries old told of species evolution, encapsulating micro niggles of the ‘I’ while expanding the boundary physics of creation in the same breath as brother and sisterhood.
The human species was of the world, she read, and so mapping their trajectory was easy.
‘They don’t travel too far from the paths of habit,’ her grandmother had said, ‘and eventually you see the larger picture of the canvas we’re apart of.’
‘I will be the best human,’ Moreen said, aged eight.
‘You are not learning to become a human, Moreen,’ her grandmother reprimanded. ‘You are a daughter of the Mayatora– you learn merely to blend yourself. We are collectors for the cause.’
Moreen had swallowed the prophecy whole and for the next few years dutifully tuned herself to the ways of the Mayatora; defined as both a layer of human consciousness that shines brighter than the rest, and a collective movement working towards The Great Awakening.
Daughters of Mayatora are born to earthly bodies, into vessels with capacity to extract and store the bright essence– often referred to by humans simply as the soul.
Collected offerings are made to the Mother of Mayatora, a prophet scheduled to waken humanity when darkened bullets of mindless rage fall from the skies.
Her grandmother did not know when this would be.
The eventual completion of Moreen’s initiation involved her first reaping– to lift the layer of fine iridescent film at the edges of a person’s Mayatora and pull it into herself, as if committing beats in a bar to infinite memory.
‘It’s hard to understand,’ her Grandmother said, ‘but you’ll know when you’re ready.’
Moreen was ready on the 18th of May 1908.
It had been the cover of Three’s A Charm, a 10-inch record in the window of B. Bert’s Records, that caught her. It was the usual tan brown but something else sung out in a mix of colour and cloud– it was as if the record had enveloped a person into its grooves and their fingers leaked out, leaving smudges against the brown sleeve.
Fingerprints she thought.
‘They’re in town tonight,’ Bert’s son told her as she stood, unblended, gawping at the record as if witnessing its birth.
The interaction dizzied her and she tumbled from the store.
That entire day had slipped away, Moreen missed dinner to follow an ache that morphed into a confused paradise as she joined the crowd that pulsed in gathering at the stage front, hips twitching in unison.
Three’s A Charm was the third song that Marco Valentine got to before she could resist a note longer. The smell of brass mixed with F Sharp thickened the film around him and Moreen heard the understanding. His Mayatora poured into her, a welcome, soothing burn that travelled to the very edges of her consciousness.
When the screaming started Moreen could only see electric white, which gave way to tears of greasy grey hues as she blinked into the situation.
Marco Valentine had collapsed, fallen like a patriot– hand across his chest, a smile conflicted.
Moreen backed away. She hadn’t expected him to die.
She pushed through the crowd and ran home, her foundations dissolving all the way. What had she done?
Heavy, earthly tears tore out of her as she crossed the threshold and poured the details into her grandmother’s ears.
‘Ah yes,’ came the reply, ‘the ones with the fingerprints–’
Moreen had crumbled then, crying over her grandmother’s words to opening wounds of being cheated and undone. That version of Moreen was the loneliest and saddest she had ever been.
She ran away that night. With two dresses and the Encyclopaedia of Human Emotions bundled at her back she headed to the edge of the city and found work on a dairy farm. It was there she unlearned everything. Dedicated herself to the relearning of being human before moving on to life in perfume and parties and immersion.
Now, nineteen years later, M had achieved an appropriate version of young woman– the etched memories buried alongside growing pains and lost teeth. Her birth mark was a muted echo– it had been over a decade since she had even recognised a person’s Mayatora, and yet at the sound of her grandmother the solidity around her seemed to wave slightly.
The gramophone ran out of record and the needle’s loop-scratch cut into the dirt of her past, reminding her who was at the other end of the telephone line.
‘I’m not coming home,’ she said, evenly, dropped the receiver into place and listened out the bell’s memory.
M composed herself in front of the mirror once more. Her painted face rosed the air around her and the diamond and sapphire earrings Mac had brought for her focused her.
He had bought the earrings one lazy Wednesday afternoon on the road to San Diego where Mac was to meet with and hopefully secure favour of a record producer. That was the day she knew she loved him.
Mac was a fine singer and they had sat in a smoke saturated studio, him singing to the producers through her, her riding the tension of passion consumed within and rolling around that room. He had said she was his amplifier.
M smeared gloss over her lips as they lifted at the memory. She blotted them together and headed out the door.
Sinbad’s was only a few blocks away and Love Me, Baby, Thrill Me Kind came into earshot when M reached the line of blossom trees that bowed with reluctant grace.
She shouldn’t have ignored her feet. The storm’s promised force landed half a block away and the drama of its damage seemed to make her need for Mac more urgent– she had to tell him she loved him.
Finally, she needed him to know.
She pushed through the crowded entrance looking for him when her friend Lotti barrelled into her, ‘M, you dazzling goddess!’ Lotti said, ‘You must meet Bruno, he’s totally loaded and a smooth cricket on the dance floor.’ Lotti smoked a joint finely rolled and protruding at the end of a long, golden cigarette flute. ‘Bruno gets it from California,’ she said dismissively before lunging into a story about how she wanted to make sweet love into tomorrow.
Bruno asked if he could be the lucky fella and Lotti knocked him back delightfully.
‘–Lotti?’ M interrupted, shouting over the increasing volume, ‘have you seen Mac?’
The crowd, as if responding to his name, hushed slightly and parted, delivering him in perfect line of sight– one that caught M hard around the throat.
Mac was here.
With another woman.
And she simply couldn’t take her eyes of the glorious anguish of it all. The way his hand traced the lower back of the woman that wasn’t her. The way his full lips brushed against the neck that was not her neck.
Curled fingers linked, looping thorns into M’s chest with each knot of their bones.
This woman was beautiful. Painfully, irritatingly beautiful. The dark ribbon of her hair drew tendrils of agony shooting through M’s very core. It was too much– she was unravelling.
She’d fall apart– wasn’t that next? Awkward pieces cracked but she caught herself on the eye of Estaban, the regular bartender come local gossip; his expectant face was both giddy and remorseful. He had been watching her, waiting. M realised she had momentarily become Moreen. At least that was how it felt– insides falling on all that sharp edged pain.
And something else too, something new and chaotic licked at her mind. M found herself leafing back through memory of that old dog eared page 72 of her favourite encyclopaedia. She skimmed down the list, turned the page.
There it was.
She knew it now– and it was so obvious she was almost amused.
This was jealousy.
This obscure anguish of distorted pain was all human.
M slipped the knowledge on and it cooled her.
‘–I’m going over,’ M said, interrupting Lotti, who had been pattering to a sex-hungry Bruno about the intricacies of lace.
Sinbad’s awning flapped a clap chorus outside as chunks of her learned human broke away and crumbled into spaces of dark nature, she practically vibrated from all the breaking.
‘Oh no, darling, not the bests,’ Lotti replied, ‘Let’s get Bruno to take us someplace, there’s a party on at the Dalla-Anne Mansion. That’ll be so much fun. Won’t that be fun?’
M left Lotti hanging. She couldn’t imagine fun, not now. Not that kind of fun. She slipped an old smile safely into place as she closed the gap between her and Mac.
‘Mac, darling,’ she said, gently touching his arm and ignoring the pulse that passed between them, gap closed. ‘So wonderful to see you here.’
‘It–‘ he hesitated, ‘is?’
At notice of his accidental question he squeezed the stomach that was not her stomach.
‘It is,’ he went on, then, ‘here alone?’ Mac looked over her shoulder as if she’d suddenly sprout someone to match his treachery and M felt another break inside her.
When she didn’t respond he continued, ‘This is Mary,’ then turned to the beautiful woman and kissed the tip of her nose.
This gesture dove so deep into M that everything she had built, the well of humanisms she had so carefully maintained all these years, crumbled with a final, painful silence and muddy silt oozed into new spaces of her being.
And on the outside, she was flawless.
‘Right,’ she said, turned to Mary and extended her hand. ‘A true pleasure to meet you,’ she said, ‘I do hope you enjoy the evening.’
Mary laughed, perfect and unaware, ‘Wonderful to meet you, also. I’ve heard this place is the best.’
‘It really is.’
Mac looked saddened, she thought, by her composure. But that didn’t matter now.
Jealous acid had burnt valleys between them and the parts of her she had hoped no longer existed, shone with a fresh taste of brass.
The band moved into Slide, Baby, Slide, and she stepped back as Mary pulled Mac onto the dance floor.
M watched him embrace hips that were not her hips.
She watched as shiny, smudged fingerprints bloomed on the dress that was not her dress.
Her grandmother’s words uprooted themselves then, the memory of waterfall pain frozen for the words, ‘The ones with the fingerprints,’ she had said, ‘they’ll hurt you the most.’
In that moment M rose into a darkened state of peculiar happiness– it stroked the edges of film around Mac’s now pulsating Mayatora.
Even with his body occupied with another, it reached out across the hall, calling to her. She’d give him this last dance, she decided, before she consumed him within her.
It would be her last token of love.
Her last token of being human.