by Andrea Mae Camacho
Today, Seven has two arms, two legs, six fingers, and seven toes. Her fingers are mismatched. The thumbs are her own, but her remaining fingers—most of which she received yesterday as her share of Ma’s profits—are not. Seven cannot decide if she misses her two pinkie toes, and the ring toe Ma ordered her to surrender at the bakery in exchange for the family’s monthly bread ration. Out of habit, she runs her fingers through her thinning hair. The cold magnet of her scalp now feels familiar. With her tongue, she traces the gaps between her teeth and tastes metal. She sighs, purses her lips, and clenches her fists.
“Are you okay, Seven?”
Ten tugs at the hem of her dress. At the sight of his small hands—still even-toned, incision-free, without the telltale bulge of magnetic tissue where bone meets bone—Seven feels a pang in her chest. They’ll stay that way, I promise.
“Don’t worry about me,” she smiles, ruffling Ten’s thick black hair.
“Let me clean the big vases for you,” Ten offers. “Now that I’m older, I’m getting stronger!” He flexes his arms and laughs. Seven tries not to wince at being reminded of her youngest brother’s upcoming birthday.
“I’m fine,” she reassures him, “just a little lightheaded. The pill can do that to you.”
Ten frowns. “Does it really help?”
“Well, it keeps the blood healthy and steadies your nerves. It closes up all kinds of wounds and prevents the blood from spilling when they…when we….” Seven falls silent. She can’t tell him that the pill can only do so much. It cannot numb her body whenever a new part is attached or detached. It cannot repress the humiliation of her first Payment, nor the painful aftermath of her own Operation.
“I bet you can’t do this!” Seven says with a smile, before carefully detaching her left hand at her wrist, without spilling any blood.
Ten claps his hands, as though he had just seen Seven perform a magic trick. “Not now, but soon! When I turn seven I’ll have the Operation and be just like you. Maybe even better.”
Seven feels the smile on her face fade a little.
Seven still remembers what it feels like to be Ten. Like him, she too had looked forward to her seventh birthday. During her early years, Ma barely looked at her. The only time Ma spoke to her directly was when she forbade Seven from leaving the house. Her siblings, whom Ma frequently sent away on errands, warned her that bad things happened to small children who wandered outside the home without purpose. Frightened, Seven spent her early years mostly inside the house, dusting Ma’s figurines on the family altar, reading her siblings’ old books, and playing with her plastic doll, a hand-me-down, that had arms and legs that could be assembled and disassembled however she liked.
When she was six years old, Ma called on Seven and her big sister, Four.
“Buy us breakfast,” Ma said to Four. “And bring Seven with you. Show her how it’s done, then come back as soon as possible.”
Seven could not believe what she was hearing. She raced to the door, eager to tag along with an older sibling on an errand. The hustle and bustle of life outside the home gave rise to a feeling that could not flourish inside their home.
Her excitement diminished somewhat when she saw a poster as they rounded a corner. Congratulations to this month’s Child of Servus City! The words appeared above the photo of a child—Seven couldn’t determine whether it was a boy or a girl—hairless, toothless, but smiling proudly. But what disturbed her the most was the fact that the child had no hands, no arms hanging from his thin shoulders.
Oblivious to Seven’s distress, Four made her way toward the bakery. The odor of freshly baked bread and donuts made Seven dizzy with hunger. Four approached the baker then slowly detached a tooth and handed it to the baker. The baker, in turn, gave her a loaf of bread. With her right hand, Four carefully twisted off her left ring finger and said, “This is for the next couple of weeks.” The baker took it and nodded, as he reattached Four’s finger to his fingerless left hand.
Seven tried to wrap her head around what had just happened. Four had to push her out of the bakery.
“That’s it?” Seven managed to ask, grabbing Four’s hand, wanting to mourn Four’s loss.
“Not quite,” Four replied calmly, breaking off a small piece of bread and placing it in Seven’s mouth. “Give them something of yours, and they’ll give you something of theirs.”
Seven tugged at her fingers without success. “But what can I give?”
“When you turn seven years old, you’ll have the Operation.” Four said. “After that, you’ll be able to do what we do.”
From that moment, Seven couldn’t wait for the Operation.
She didn’t have to wait too long. Just two days after she celebrated her seventh birthday, Seven underwent the Operation.
“Try to detach a few strands of hair,” the Doctor said, as he examined her after the procedure.
Seven tugged at her hair, expecting it to come off like dried leaves carried off by the wind. But the magnet in her scalp was strong. She tugged again and again, surprised by the pain she needed to inflict on herself to comply.
“Now try to remove a tooth.”
Seven pulled her front tooth forcefully. The quicker she did it, the less pain she would feel. The tooth came away in her hand. She tasted blood in her mouth.
The Doctor rushed to her side. “Take this pill.” Seven felt her gums go numb; but the bleeding had stopped.
“Your body is still adjusting. The pain will be tolerable in time,” the Doctor reassured her. “I will call your Ma so you can rest at home.”
Less than a week later, Seven woke up to Ma’s heavy metallic footsteps drag against the floor of the children’s bedroom. “Seven. Get up. We’re going to the market. Dress quickly, we’re leaving in five minutes.”
Though her body was still sore from the operation, Seven leaped up in anticipation. She had been waiting for this moment.
Seven followed Ma with her chin held high. As they passed the poster of the Child of Servus City featured that month, she imagined what it would be like to be chosen as such. Perhaps people on the street would salute her, tap her on the back approvingly.
As they approached the fresh meat section of the market, Ma nodded at the butcher.
“The usual,” Ma said, right before grabbing a chunk of Seven’s hair and pulling it off. Seven let out a surprised yelp. Ma inserted her forefinger and thumb into Seven’s open mouth and yanked out her front tooth. Seven felt the blood gush from her gums.
Ma handed the hair and teeth to the butcher. “She just had her Operation.”
But the butcher refused to take them. “Your usual share for two teeth, no less. The hair’s worth nothing.”
Without a word, Ma poked her fingers into Seven’s mouth, pulled out another tooth, and laid it on the counter.
Satisfied, the butcher said, “Thank you and congratulations.”
Ma ordered Seven to wipe her bloody mouth and carry the meat that the butcher had prepared for them. As she retrieved the package from the counter, Seven felt a tightening in her throat. Hot, fat tears formed in her eyes, and fell to the ground.
It’s been over four years, but the humiliation is still fresh in her memory. Seven vowed that she wouldn’t let her younger siblings go through the same thing.
When Ma enters the living room—her aluminum fingers clanging and her heavy metallic feet stomping against the tiled floor—all the Children fall into a straight line.
One shuffles to the head of the line on artificial stumps—gifts that are bestowed on every featured Child of Servus City. The eldest, he’s completely bald, limbless, and toothless. His body all spent, he can no longer help pay the bills. But Ma has helped him invest in a full set of dentures, since he’s leaving with Two to serve at the residence of a City Leader.
Two stands beside him—also completely bald, limbless, and fitted with ceramic dentures. Like One, he received his own set of stumps from the City three months ago, when he was chosen as a Child of Servus City. But unlike One who wears the stumps like a badge of honor, Two is uncomfortable with them. He usually bribes Three to lend him a leg for a few hours. He also wears long-sleeved shirts to hide his missing arms. Seven senses that Ma doesn’t like him that much for that reason. Whenever their family earns an arm or a leg, Two never receives a leg replacement. Ma walks past and moves on to the next Child.
Ma used to say that Three was an obedient kid. But now that she’s an adolescent, she’s become stubborn. She usually takes a while to finish tasks. So even though Three still has one arm and two legs, Ma walks past her.
Nodding slowly, Ma regards Four from head to toe. Like Three, she has one arm and two legs. She’s almost bald—the magnetic strips are noticeable on the right, front, and back portions of her head. Ma opens Four’s mouth with the tip of her finger and smiles. Seven knows from their trips to the bakery that Four never complains and is quick to accomplish her errands. So it doesn’t surprise her when Ma says, “Four, step forward.”
Then she walks by Five and Six, both still holding their broom and dustpan as though they had been unprepared for Ma’s arrival. Ma heads straight for Seven.
Seven’s eyes drop to the floor. Her heartbeat quickens.
“A little afraid of me as always? Look me in the eye, Seven.”
Seven slowly lifts her gaze.
“You’re a good child. You obey me without hesitation. And you and Four have always been the perfect pair. Step forward.”
Knees slightly trembling, Seven obeys. She looks back at Ten, who is at the end of the line. There’s a space between them that Eight and Nine have long left unoccupied. She smiles at Ten, hoping to assure him that all will turn out well.
Seven tries to meet Four’s gaze, but Four is staring out the window. Ma heads to the family altar and lights two candles, then beckons Seven and Four to follow her to the front door.
Ma examines their bodies once more, tilting their chins and forcing them to open their mouths. Seven keeps her eyes closed.
“No one seems to be injured. Good! From each of you, I need an arm and two feet to pay for this month’s water bill.” Seven felt faint. “Back in the day,” Ma said, “water only cost us two hands.”
Just as Four and Seven step out the door, Ma calls for Ten. Seven whirls back and sees Ten stepping up and walking toward Ma. He shoots her a frightened look. But Ma closes the door abruptly.
“What’s that about?” Seven asks Four.
“I don’t know. We’ll find out when we get back.”
Four and Seven walk silently through the roads for a few minutes, crossing busy intersections, dodging cars, and inhaling black smoke from the factories’ chimneys. Outside a bakery, an infant is crying.
When they reach the highway leading to the Payment Center, Seven blurts out: “How am I going to walk home?”
Four raises one brow. “First time to lose a foot?”
Seven looks down and remembers that just a few weeks ago, Four had returned from an errand without them. But before she could apologize for being so thoughtless, Four says, “The pills will numb you for a time. You won’t even notice they’re gone.”
“Won’t Ma get you stumps?” Seven asks, thinking about the ones One and Two owned.
“Stumps cost a lot, you know. You have to prove your worth first, before Ma even considers buying you a pair. Or you can give your all to Servus City, and win yourself a pair. ” Four walks on. Seven doesn’t realize that she hasn’t moved until Four, several feet away, looks back at her and says, “Well? Ten is still waiting for us at home.”
Seven sighs. Right. She jogs up and lets Four pull her along. They reach a dull gray building and enter it through a revolving glass door. Inside, large metal vaults run from floor to ceiling. Uneasiness runs through Seven, who catches the smell of formalin in the air. No one else in the building seems to notice the pungent odor.
The sisters approach the counter. The Banker—a stern-looking woman with a “B” tattooed on her neck, and two metal arms, raises her brows at them.
Four takes two pills from her waistband. She swallows one and hands the other to Seven. “The Bankers don’t like blood.” Four then instructs Seven to detach her remaining arm and place it on the floor. “Now sit down.”
Seven understands what she needs to do. Carefully, she separates her feet from her ankles, a process that is bloodless, but not without pain. But the pill does its work, and Seven feels her lower limbs go numb. Seven stares at her feet, now beside Four’s arm.
“Leave them and go,” the Banker intones. “Hurry up, silly girl.”
Seven places all her weight on her right arm and attempts to stand on her ankles. It is as Four said it would be—as though her feet were still connected to her legs. But when she attempts to take a step, she loses balance and falls back.
“Take another pill,” Four says, leaning toward Seven.
Seven reaches out and, with her remaining arm, retrieves the pack of pills from Four’s waistband. With her remaining arm, she pushes herself up from the floor. She grabs Four by the shoulder, then places her own shoulder under Four’s armpit. Four staggers a little.
“The transaction has been recorded,” the Banker says. “You may now return to Ma.”
Four allows Seven to hold on to her until Seven has regained her bearings. As they exit the Bank, Four surprises Seven by saying: “Go home, Seven. Tell Ma I’ll be home soon.”
“But she’ll be looking for you,” Seven says as they hobble out of the Payment Center. “She will scream at me if I return alone.”
“No, she won’t. She’ll be busy tallying the proceeds from our transaction. She’ll think of me tomorrow” She points toward the path home. “Go.” Then she turns in the opposite direction.
“This is unlike you,” Seven says. But Four ignores her and keeps moving.
“Ma needs you.”
Four smiles sadly but does not stop walking.
“Let’s turn back, Four,” Seven pleads. “Ten needs us. Ma has called for him.”
“If Ten matters so much to you, then you turn back.”
“Where are you headed?” Seven asks Four. “Where are we going?”
Four does not answer. Instead, she enters a dark alley, and Seven follows. As she enters, a rotten odor hits her nose. Before she can ask Four what it is that they are smelling, she sees them, hanging from the branches of an overgrown Balete: five small human torsos, all headless and limbless. Vultures have gathered to peck at the remains, revealing strips of metal glimmering underneath the rotting skin.
Seven has seen that type of metal, that condition of skin. Shortly after their first payment, Eight and Nine had begun to leak blood from their mouths, shoulders, and hips. Within an hour, they were gone. Although it was too late to save them, the Doctor convinced Ma that it would be good for him to find out what had happened to the twins. He worked on their bodies all night. Ma had asked Seven and Ten to assist.
It was, the Doctor said, a case of the twins’ bodies rejecting incompatible body parts. The twins had managed to obtain replacements for the body parts they were made to give up as payment for the Family expenses. But Eight and Nine had not yet been prepared to receive replacement parts. What they had obtained in secret had caused their own bodies to rot.
Seven and Ten stayed up all night cleaning up the blood as best as they could, crying in each others’ arms. The rest of the Children couldn’t be bothered. They all grumbled when Ma ordered them to join Seven and Ten in scrubbing the mess that Eight and Nine had left behind. Except Four, who had taken the mop from Seven’s tired hands and attacked the blood-soaked floor. Seven was stunned when a few moments later, she heard Four snuffle, saw her wipe her nose with her sleeve.
“Don’t you know,” Four says to Seven, years later, in the alley, “don’t you know that all who are operated on end up here?”
Seven leaves Four leaning against a wall, contemplating the torsos twisting in the wind. All she can think about now is Ten. She hobbles back to Ma’s Home as quickly as she can.
Ten had started asking Seven about the Operation a few days after Eight and Nine had passed. Does he still remember how Eight and Nine had looked then, the pain they were in? Seven wishes that he didn’t, but it was reasonable to believe the opposite. No, he cannot turn into one of the bodies hanging from the tree in the alley.
An ambulance is parked in front of Ma’s. Suddenly, Seven is filled with dread. Which sibling, now?
One and Two are leaning by the door, watching the scene in front of them unfold with slight amusement. Three waves at her forlornly from the second-floor window, a rag in her hand. The voices of Five and Six squabbling over some small matter float from the garden.
Outside the ambulance are three men, all dressed in white. They look at Seven with mild interest but say nothing when she approaches and peers inside. Ten is inside, awake, but shaking and weak. His pants are drenched, and scratches mark his arms, legs, and face.
“Are you okay, Ten? I’m here.” Seven uses her remaining arm to haul herself up onto the ambulance. She drags her body towards Ten.
“That can’t be. You’re not even seven years old yet.”
“They said the City is facing a crisis so they needed to come early. What is a crisis?”
“Don’t mind that. We’re getting you out, okay?” Seven whispers, cradling Ten’s head. Ten nods weakly. Seven looks at the languid assistants outside the ambulance and decides whether she and Ten can simply hobble out of the vehicle on some pretext or other.
Suddenly, they hear the familiar sound of metal hitting the ground. Ten begins to whimper.
“Just a little bit longer. The girls should be returning from the Payment Center any time now…”
The ambulance door swings open. “Oh!” Ma says, “What a pleasant surprise!”
Seven stares at Ma, and a man in white—the Doctor. Ma is smiling, but her arms are crossed and her eyebrows are raised. The Doctor looks at Ten, drenched in his urine, and then at Seven. He takes in her remaining arm, its remaining fingers, her legs….
“These are the patients?”
“Yes,” Ma smiles. “They are ready for the Operation, Doctor.”
“But I went through The Operation!” Seven screams. “Years ago!” She detaches one of her thighs from her hip bone. But nobody pays her any attention. Ten cries beside her.
“I thought there would be two girls,” the Doctor mumbles.
“Well, the other isn’t here. For now, one girl will have to do.”
“Of course. Just call the City Hospital when the other one is ready,” the Doctor says.
“Perfect. Now if you will excuse me. It seems that I have a missing Child to find.”
Before Seven realizes it, she and Ten are tied down with rope. She screams and thrashes in the arms of the Doctor’s assistants. Ten does too. But the assistants easily pin them down. The ambulance pulls from the driveway. Seven looks back to see Three still waving sadly from the second-floor window. One and Two are retreating back into the house, and Five and Six are nowhere to be found.
The first things Seven sees are the white ceiling and the harsh lights focused on her body. Her limbs are gone, and her torso is tied to the bed. Aside from the muscles on her face, she can’t move anything. The only sound Seven hears comes from the ticking of a wall clock, yet the air feels electric.
“Where’s Ten?” she manages to say aloud.
“Getting Operated upstairs, as he should be.” The Doctor approaches Seven, checks her condition, then nods.
Seven draws in a breath. “Can I see him?”
“He can see you later. But I doubt you’ll see him.”
“What does that mean?”
The Doctor lays out scalpels and scissors on the metal cart beside her. “We’re pilot testing a new kind of Operation. Imagine: people pulling out their organs and using them to pay for goods and services. Organs are worth more, you see.”
Seven recalls the back alley, the metal glimmering inside the torsos, underneath the rotting skin.
“We’re using the most willing Children this City has—or its naughtiest. I hope you belong to the former category,” he chuckles. “The City holds a special memorial for its child heroes.”
Seven listens to the clock in the room tick loudly.
“Thank you for your service,” the Doctor abruptly says.
Seven doesn’t put up a fight when he holds up a saw and starts cutting apart her torso.
About the author: Andrea Mae Camacho is an undergraduate student studying Creative Writing at UP Diliman. Her work has been published in & Vol. 2, an online journal of the Department of English and Comparative Literature. She promises to write more stories in the future.
Social media: @andreaxcmch (Twitter)