by Imaani Cain
In the beginning, there was a world and the world was Marya.
In every photograph littering my parents’ mantle, there are the two of us, smiling tightly under the heavy gaze of the camera. I am always standing just behind her, my hand cupping her shoulder. She is looking up at me, her own tiny hand reaching up to grasp at mine. Each of us is holding tight enough to be painful: afterwards, when we are finally allowed outside to play, we compare battle wounds. They faded almost instantly but we spent the night recreating them, stifling any winces we might’ve ordinarily made. We created a game out of it, racking up points for endurance and creativity.
“Minus five points if you flinch,” Marya would whisper under the covers, after we had faked being asleep so that our parents would not disturb us. She would cup her hands around one of mine and then bend my fingers gently backwards, watching my face intently for any changes. I wore a splint for the next few weeks but had not moved at all. Marya set it herself, her mouth curling with pleasure.
“Add five if you hold your breath,” I would say when we darted across the busy intersections, weaving around cars. I would make her do it twice, holding a plastic bottle of water captive until she made her way back to me, collapsing on the lawn with her chest heaving.
“Doesn’t it hurt?” the counselors asked her. They were all the same: terrified of Marya and what little they’d heard of her, and, to an extent, of me. This one, a solid-looking young woman with a stubby ponytail, would be no different.
“Doesn’t what,” she said, staring at her feet. A week ago, we had traded off pressing the tip of an iron to her ankle in hopes of recreating a tattoo of a daisy that an old babysitter had. We’d only managed four misshapen petals before being stopped, but it wasn’t the worst piece of artwork we had attempted to create.
“Your injuries,” said the counselor, sighing. In therapy, Marya was distracted more often than not, always picking at the scabbing flower or craning her neck to peer outside, where I would sit and wait for the session to be finished. I was not supposed to distract her, Marya had told me seriously, but she smiled every time I jumped in front of the window and waved at her. “They must have hurt,” the counselor added, “Marya? Are you listening to me, Marya?”
Marya turned her face to the counselor, blank and polite. Her face was open but betrayed nothing. It was a look we had practiced in the mirror and then on each other, thinking of ways that we could convey disgust without being too apparent. We did not give anything away that was not to each other.
“I want to ask about Maryam,” the therapist said. She was the fourth and newest one, and sat through their sessions on the edge of her seat with a placid expression. She had denied the briefing packet from previous clinicians, insisting on starting fresh. This was the only differing aspect from Marya’s transcriptions that she made for me: since I was not allowed in their sessions, she detailed every aspect of them for me to memorize. As the two of them usually spent their time in silence, they were usually boring reports filled with doodles.
“Time’s up,” Marya said tightly, and would not say a word more.
“You’re a danger to yourself,” our parents told Marya sternly at dinner. I had managed to avoid the lecture by pretending to be ill, but Marya performed an accurate mimicry of their displeasure afterwards, harrumphing and pretending to swirl around wine inside her imaginary glass. She was not as adept at it as I was, because it was not an innate talent, but she tried her best.
“We worry, sweetheart,” she cooed at me from the top of the jungle gym. We had stopped going to school weeks ago–first, without anyone knowing, and then in a way that was more or less sanctioned. The only stipulation was that Marya was meant to see the counselor every week, an hour that sucked up time that could have been spent doing anything else. Marya’s time belonged to me in sections now, and it left me feeling pinched and anxious. To counter this, I ushered her towards the park, which we owned in all but name. All of it felt solidly ours, made better by our former classmates giving us a wide berth, their eyes watching us uneasily.
I laughed. “Do it again!”
Marya smiled hard enough for me to see the dimple in her chin. I grinned back at her, feeling the dimple in my own. “We worry, sweetheart,” she simpered, fluttering her eyelashes. She puckered her mouth in a moue of surprise and dismay, the way our mother often did when she was forced to speak to us.
“We WORRY,” Marya bellowed, puffing her chest out. “sweet-HEART!”
I clapped. “Bravo, bravo,” I said delightedly, and when I shoved her off the jungle gym, she laughed until the ambulance came.
The cast did not help. The plaster of it was a disturbing shade of neon green and there was no way to pry it off. Our parents spoke in quiet tones about admitting us to the local psychiatric hospital. “It’s like a vacation,” our father told us brightly, spreading out pamphlets on the dining table, “and you can come back any time, right when you’re ready.”
“Why are you always trying to get rid of me?” Marya howled, her face flushed with rage. I watched her from the top of the stairs, memorizing the shape of her shaking back. Marya, when she was truly upset, was a performance that I loved above all things. I was able to portray Marya’s moods brilliantly, but seeing her in a state of fury was rare enough that my mimicry was always slightly off.
“You are out of control,” our mother said quietly. “The burns, your behavior. You remember what you did to your old au pair? We should have sent you off then.”
Marya became unhappy and withdrawn in a way that I had not seen since the au pair disappeared. She would not move over when I slipped into her bed at night, instead jabbing her elbow in my stomach or chest when I tried to move closer to her. Her transcripts of her therapy sessions became boring for her to write down. She complained that scribbling constantly during the sessions made her hand hurt. Marya preferred talking to the counselor instead, who she called “Ann” in growing levels of fondness.
“Oh, she’s Ann now?” I said when she came outside. She had a sticker on the lapel of her coat, one presumably given to her by Ann, and a picture she’d drawn of the two of us. In it, my face–just like Marya’s, with its freckles and flared nostrils–was a hideous scribble of pencil. From my wrists sprouted things that might have been fingers but looked more like claws, all of them digging into Marya’s side. “What is this shit?”
“You and me,” Marya said, snatching it back. She folded it up and put it in her coat pocket. “Ann said I have talent.”
“Ann is a spaz,” I said desperately, “remember? You said last time, I remember. You definitely said you hated her.” I reached for her hand, feeling for the first time in ages that I needed permission to touch her.
“We’re too old for that,” Marya snapped. She did not look at me, but when I reached across to turn her chin towards me, she jerked away. I did not flinch. This was a new part of the game, I was sure, but I did not have the rules for it. She had done things like this before: created new aspects to our game without outwardly saying it. Instead of pinching or burning each other, she would ignore me, or only give me painful things to consider. Last night, she had walked home faster than I could, and locked the door to every room she had gone into.
“Says who,” I asked her, trying not to sound frantic. “Marya, says who?”
She rolled her eyes. “Nevermind. God, relax.” Sighing loudly, she slid off her glove and held my hand delicately, as if it was some disgusting thing she was too polite to recoil from.
It was impossible to relax. In our bed that night, I curled into her body like a comma, counting the ways that we matched. It was a comfort to realize we still looked the same, even as Marya tried to distance herself from me. She began to speak about returning to school, of trying out new programs that would allow her to “explore creativity”. She worked steadily at drawing, urged on by Ann and our thrilled parents. She mentioned wanting some sort of fading cream to cover up the scars on her ankle. She said she wanted to join a painting club.
In her sessions, she spoke about me. I crept inside the building and listened at the door, heard snatches of conversations that included my name. “What is Maryam like?” I heard Ann ask Marya, soft and slow.
“Just like me,” Marya told her. “She’s me, but different.”
“In what way?” Ann pressed. I could not see her but imagined her leaning forwards, her eyes beseechingly pathetic. “How did you meet Maryam?”
Marya’s voice was quieter than I had ever heard it before. “When I was really little, at the park. I was with the old babysitter, the one I told you about. The German one with the flower tattoo. Ulli.”
Behind the door, I made a fist. I thought of all the ways I would want to hit her when she came out, and then forced myself to move away from the anger. It was quiet for a moment, and then, Marya’s voice, in its trembling soprano, bleated, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
It seems unbalanced to realize that we would not have met without Ulli the German au pair. Ulli, soft and plump with her lilting German accent, here to study English and take care of Marya while our parents worked at their respective jobs. She liked taking Marya outside more than her other babysitters had, and was not overprotective. Ulli allowed Marya to paint her nails and watch cartoons past her bedtime. She let Marya roam the park and the surrounding wooded area by herself, as long as she was within shouting distance (but often times, not even then). She let Marya meet me.
I was more daring then, more given to doing things that were bizarrely out of character for Marya. I would bite other children on the playground, and make up fantastic lies. I threw fits. I methodically broke all of the vases my parents brought back from their business trips, and destroyed the art sets I was given. I even screamed at Ulli, who Marya had loved and listened to unquestioningly before I had arrived. It was natural for me to act this way when I was first introduced to her life: I was there only there to overwhelm her, to suffocate the parts of her that remained, burr-like, in everyone’s memories.
Marya was thrilled. I was her identical id, free to destroy and create as I wished. It was magnificent, and since she was still at the age where it was appropriate to have imaginary friends, and her parents sighed over her “acting out”, but did not interfere. Marya began to refer to me as her other half, as Marya Martz the Second, which eventually became “Maryam”. In this way, I was my own person–but not quite.
“Wouldn’t you want to be Maryam the First?” Marya asked me, burrowed deep in our huddle beneath blankets. I bit softly at her shoulder, and then sharper, as if I wanted to draw blood, although I had stopped genuinely trying to harm her after a week. I had not expected to love Marya in the way that I did: ferociously and completely, in a way that I had only ever loved myself before. I did not want to consume Marya’s life, the way I knew I should have. I wanted to be an extension of her.
Ulli loathed my existence. She could not distinguish between us, but knew that there was something not quite right about how Marya would go from being docile and grinning to a sulking terror. She would look at both of us with the same barely disguised disgust, and began washing her hands immediately after touching us, as if she might catch some devastating disease.
“Despicable thing,” she would whisper at me when we walked outside, smoothing a hand over my hair, as wiry and spiraling as Marya’s. “You think I don’t know about your kind? You think I don’t know what you’re trying to do?”
The measures she took became less calculated over time: Ulli would pretend to splash and play with us in the pool and then turn and hold one of us under water, desperately chanting prayers. She burned sage in all of the house’s corners, and pressed the tiny silver cross that she wore around her neck into the side of our cheeks as we slept. She phoned her grandmother in Bavaria to ask for guidance, spoke to priests and anyone else she thought might help.
“What if Ulli makes you disappear forever?” Marya asked me worriedly. “What if one day I turn around and you just went out like a birthday candle?”
“She can’t,” I told her. “Don’t worry.”
After her therapy session with Ann, Marya was more withdrawn than ever. She ignored me on our walk home, and stormed up to her room, her back tight and dangerous. “Marya, c’mon,” I pleaded with her, “talk to me. Tell me what’s going on.”
“You want me to talk to you?” Marya sniped. “Why should I? Why should I even be around you, when you’re ruining my goddamn life? When you got rid of Ulli?”
My mouth opened and shut in a way I had never seen on Marya. I feel completely unbalanced: something I had not felt since she had first given me my name all those years ago. I felt entirely separate from Marya, my other half. Less of a facsimile and more of a shoddy replica, just a little bit off. “Ridiculous,” I sputtered. “You’re being absolutely ridiculous.”
Marya snorted. “You sound like Dad.”
“Fuck off,” I snapped, “don’t say that. I sound like you. I sound like you.” We were not playing the game anymore, but I wanted to hurt her. My god, I wanted to hurt her in a way I had not since we had first met on the outskirts of the park.
I had fought against so much of what I was for her. My first thought had been to consume her: a comfortable, natural thing to feel when faced with the original version of yourself. I had not destroyed primarily because of the wonder she had felt towards me, and the way love had seemed to spread through her body like roots. Like something healthy and strong.
The silence was thick. I looked at Marya, running through the list of things that made us the same: the spray of freckles covering our faces, the birthmarks behind our ears and our stiff, uncombed hair. I thought of how we had faint stretch marks behind the bends of our knees and an overbite that had not been entirely fixed by orthodontia. “I’d die for you,” I told her quietly.
Marya’s mouth tightened. “You’d kill for me,” she said. “It’s not the same thing.”
I tried to make peace with Marya, tried to show her all the ways I could be good. I copied the way she thanked strangers for opening doors for her, and the way she began to clean her paintbrushes methodically after using them. I did not speak to our parents at all, even when Marya reverted back referring to them as solely hers. I did not ask for impressions or for her to hold hands as we walked. It was supremely difficult, almost Herculean to do so.
“Have you thought about what we discussed last time?” Ann said to her, her voice pitched low and sweet the way Marya had mocked in past therapists. This time she didn’t laugh at all.
There was the sound of Marya scratching at the woolly fabric of her tights. “Yeah,” she said miserably, and then, much stronger: “Yes.”
“‘Yes’ what?” I asked her after therapy. I jammed my hands into my pockets the way Marya did, directed my gaze from her the way she did to me. “Marya. You owe me this much. What did you say yes to?”
“Tomorrow,” Marya said, giving me a smile that was as thin and as fragile as a violin string, “will you meet me at our woods by the park? Just us. Just the Marya Martzes.”
The one advantage to being a Marya Martz, even when you’re second, even when you are at best a copy, is that you know exactly how she thinks. I was not stupid because Marya was not stupid, and I could not command myself to be. I’m sure that, in a sense, I wanted to wait for Marya in the woods by the park in a way that sweet and lamblike, ready to be told that I had served well as an amusement over the years but that it was time for me to go. To disappear like the flame of a birthday candle, to cease to exist because there could not be two of us. It would only make sense for me to be the one to leave, I knew she would say, because I had come second. We looked exactly alike, moved alike and had not been told apart by anyone since Ulli, but it was clear to her that I was the imitation.
I had never loved anyone more than Marya, not even myself, and when I buried her beneath the beech tree where we had first met, I sobbed in a way that felt wholly myself.
I walked home with my hands in her coat pockets, left a voicemail in our parents’ voice for Ann cancelling the therapy sessions for the near future. “Nothing to worry about,” I said, in my father’s deep timbre, “Marya has benefitted an incredible amount from meeting with you. She’s better than ever.”
I went back to Marya’s school where I terrorized my classmates quietly and effectively, but took up with a group that was social enough. I burned the pictures Marya had drawn of me, began kissing my parents on the cheek before I went to bed. I told them art had been a phase. I rolled my eyes when they said my name in hesitant tones. “We should leave that all in the past” I entreated, and they acquiesced gratefully, forgetting the whole thing
Marya began to fade from the photographs and I took my rightful place: the second best, the copy reigning triumphant.
In the beginning there was a world, and the world was Maryam.