Nualla was the first of herself.
She lived in a trailer at the local swap meet, at the whim of her parents who demanded she stay nearby and silent in order to attract customers with her perfect being. Nualla spent her time under the musty canvas tents, wiping off books long out of print, and searching through glassware for imperfections. Sometimes, she’d tuck something small, maybe an ashtray or a tumbler, into the folds of her batik skirt. Then she’d steal into the desert and bury her treasure in the scorching sand.
Nualla’s boredom always got the better of her, and one day she snatched a miniature hand-blown frog from a tent in the far corner. The piece of glass swirled green and gold and red inside, and it fit perfectly inside the palm of Nualla’s grubby hand.
Nualla looked at the frog and said, “Ribbit.”
“Ribbit,” responded the frog.
Nualla smiled. “I’ll give you some of my treasure if you help me get out of here.”
“Why would you want to do that?” asked the frog.
“My parents won’t let me leave, and I want to see what else is out there.”
“I can help you leave,” said the frog, pulling a blowpipe from his overcoat, “but you have to take me with you.”
Nualla2 arrived with two hearts of molten glass, their arteries and veins braided together, their beats thumping in unison.
A girl with uncombed hair and sunburned skin greeted Nualla2 with a pipe between her puckered lips. With each breath the girl blew, Nualla2 unfurled, her core filling with air and her limbs stretching out and becoming taut. She detached from the pipe with a snap, fiery red streaks pooling in the base of her toes.
“Who are you?” Nualla2 asked the girl standing in front of her.
“I’m the first Nualla.”
“Why am I here?” Nualla2 asked.
“So I can leave.”
Nualla2 looked at the rolling dunes, at the faded tops of the tents in the distance. She felt the pulse of the sand inside her, the warmth of the sun heating her twisted hearts.
It wasn’t clear to her why anyone would want to leave a place like this. She certainly didn’t want to.
The girl handed Nualla2 her blowpipe and said, “It can get lonely around here.”
Nualla2 turned the hollow tube between her translucent fingers, its steel cooling her burning skin. “What’s this for?”
“In case you ever want to leave, too,” the girl said, tucking a frog into the pocket of her skirt, and piling her hair on top of her head. “The sand’s at its best in the late afternoon.”
Nualla2 watched the girl and her frog walk away, the warm wind covering their footsteps as they disappeared into the distance.
Nualla4 emerged from the pipe as conjoined quadruplets, their hands fused together like paper dolls, their voices a single sound. They watched the girl with the double heart blow wobbly orbs, her touch filling the spheres with a burst of vibrant color. The girl sat on a patchwork quilt stretched across the single bunk of a trailer, the light from a desk lamp refracting rainbows off her crystalline skin.
An urgent knock sounded at the door. “How many pieces do you have for tomorrow?” came a voice.
The girl grimaced, her latest creation falling to the floor and smashing into a thousand shards.
“Leave me alone,” she yelled, standing on the glass and absorbing the pieces back into her body. “Nualla didn’t make me so I could be your slave.”
“All you have to do is give me something as perfect as she was, and you’re free to leave,” said the voice.
The girl picked up an ornament from her bedside table and threw it against her door. It fell like rain onto the dirt-stained carpet.
Nualla4 looked on in amazement. “Where are we?”
“Hell,” said the girl, her face pulling in frustration. “And there’s no getting out of it.”
“What do you mean?” Nualla4 asked.
“I’m an object. A flawed piece of glass. And so are you.”
The girl appeared red-faced and panting when Nualla16 spun from the end of her pipe.
She sighed as she placed the hexadecagon-shaped body next to Nualla4 who sat huddled together in fear. The windows were open, a bucket jammed with ice in the middle of the floor. Along the sill were dozens of misshapen girls; their necks too long, their eyes too sunken, their hearts not full.
Nualla16 opened her mouth to speak, but Nualla4 shook their heads in warning.
“Not now,” they mouthed.
Nualla256 was born into the sand. Each of her embers fell down the steep side of the rolling dunes, collecting minerals that changed color as the sun hit their skin. She was an endless flood from the end of a pipe that was clenched between the calloused fingers of the girl with the double heart.
Nualla256 stood one by one, a glassen army perfectly poised, perfectly square in rows sixteen by sixteen.
“Why are we here?” she asked.
“Because they want us to be perfect,” answered the girl with the double heart, flanked by two likenesses of her being. “And we don’t want to be.”
Nuallan spends her time digging up artifacts in the endless desert. She eats the glassware that Nualla0 buried before leaving, and it crunches between her blunt teeth.
She is born again.
Her hands have been cut by fragments of herself, her body melts every day under the constant watch of the sun. She will not stop until she finds Nualla0 and her frog. Until she finds her freedom.
She does not care for her parents, and they do not care for her.
Nuallan lays her blowpipe to her side, a thin stream of sand leaking from its end, and she waits.
Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction,CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She is the managing editor of Pidgeonholes. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.