On a hot Thursday morning, deep in month eight of the red tide outbreak, Cicely and Zinnia walked together to Zinnia’s hideout to retrieve a cold bag of placentas. Cicely had been acting as a courier for Zinnia for six weeks, picking up placentas stolen from the hospital and storing them in Zinnia’s fridge. Zinnia, in turn, delivered the placentas to a doula who went by the name Anna. To-day, Cicely would meet Anna for the first time.
It was late, already almost ten o’clock, but the whole town seemed to be just waking up. A mist that had settled over the bay overnight was slowly evaporating as the day grew hotter. The sun climbed up Cicely’s and Zinnia’s backs as they walked westward, and their shadows grew shorter and shorter. Once on the barrier island where Anna lived, they scampered across the road and hopped over a low wooden fence and scooted down a steep sandy incline. They followed a trail that ran along the edge of the island.
“Here we are,” Zinnia whispered, pointing to what looked to Cicely like nothing but a tan-gled mass of mangroves and vines. But Zinnia ducked into a small opening in the wall of green and disappeared. Cicely clutched the cold and perspiring plastic bag filled with placentas to her chest and followed her friend. After duck-walking a few steps, she was able to stand up straight again, as the narrow trail widened into a clearing in the middle of which stood a trailer. The gray sand glade was shrouded in greenery except for a broad circle directly above the trailer, whose reflective aluminum roof gleamed amid a shower of sunshine. A propane tank sat next to the trailer. A red rubber hose grew from its nozzle and disappeared into the trailer’s recesses. A stout wooden post held up a green water faucet nearby. A thick cable of some kind ran from the trees and into a win-dow; it had been duct-taped to the side of the trailer to keep it from flailing in the wind. A pile of logs acted as steps up to the trailer’s rounded door. “Here we are,” Zinnia repeated. She looked nervous; she kept rubbing her hands against her thighs. She knocked.
Someone pushed aside the floral curtain in the door’s small window and then the door clicked open an inch or two. Zinnia reached up and pulled it open all the way. Anna wasn’t visible through the darkness inside, but Cicely followed Zinnia into the trailer. Holding the placentas with one hand, Cicely closed the door behind her. The space inside seemed so much bigger than it did from outside. A kitchenette was set into one end of the trailer; bunk beds stood on the opposite side. A laptop sat on the lower mattress. The screen showed a rainy streetscape cut through with headlights. The shwoop and screech of windshield wipers and the patter of rain filled the trailer. In the open middle of the room sat a furry orange couch, a glass coffee table, and an assortment of oddities: a bulging, waist-tall drum, shelves lined with small figurines, a stack of cookbooks big enough to serve as a chair. Flowery fabrics hung along the walls and from the ceiling. A curlicue-patterned rug stretched over most of the floor. Cicely would have described the vibe as trailer park opium den.
Anna herself was short and fat, draped in drooping fabrics. She hugged Zinnia tightly and did the same to Cicely.
“Let me turn this off,” Anna said, walking back toward the beds. After hitting pause on the laptop, Anna held an ivory pipe to her lips and puffed. The air smelled tangy from whatever she was smoking. Not tobacco, not marijuana—Cicely couldn’t place the scent.
“You’re just in time for breakfast,” Anna said, clapping her hands together. Her voice was high and squeaky. Anna walked to Cicely and held out her hands.
It took Cicely a moment to realize she wanted the placentas. “Oh, sorry,” Cicely said, hand-ing over the bag. Was that the breakfast Anna was talking about? Cicely had once opened one of the bags. Thinking about the metallic blood scent of the placentas inside nauseated her all over again. “I’m not hungry,” Cicely said, meekly, “but thank you.”
Anna shook her head as she placed the bag in her refrigerator. “Nope, nope. I insist. How can we do business together if we haven’t shared a meal.” Anna’s back was turned to them. Cicely looked at Zinnia and raised her eyebrows, but Zinnia just shrugged.
“Has Lisa’s stuff been OK?” Zinnia asked Anna. Cicely guessed Lisa was the nurse at the hospital who dropped the bags to her.
“So far, so good,” Anna said, clanging around in a cabinet and coming up with a wide Tef-lon-coated pan. She set the pan on her short white stove and turned the knob to fire up the burner. On the white plastic cutting board to her right lay a purplish lump of something soft and slick. With a long silver blade, Anna began cutting into the tissue, slicing out thin strips from the stringy clump of offal. Once that was done, she dusted the slices with rotund crystals of salt and poured oil into the now-hot pan. The fat filled the trailer’s air with a grassy fragrance. Cicely couldn’t believe it, but the gentle pain of hunger began to spread through her belly.
Zinnia sat down on the couch and pulled an Indian cookbook from the massive pile. She leafed through it, concentrating on the photos. Cicely tried to catch her attention, but Zinnia ignored her. Cicely trusted Zinnia, but why, really? What did she know about her? Cicely didn’t want to let her down, didn’t want to embarrass her in front of Anna, didn’t want to cost her money, didn’t want to admit out loud she was nervous, didn’t want to do anything that might jeopardize the peace she had made with life in the past few weeks. She had imagined that meeting Anna, taking on a bigger role in her operation, might free her from her dead-end waitressing job, might cancel out her debts to the landlord, might give her a way out of her life, but here she was, about to be force-fed another woman’s placenta and too intimidated to even open her mouth.
The meat hissed as Anna laid it delicately in the pan. The iron scent of the searing placenta drifted from the kitchenette.
Anna set a small white timer for four minutes. “Can’t move it at all,” she said, turning around to face Cicely. “The key is to just let it sit there and caramelize on one side.”
Cicely just nodded. Her face was hot and suddenly wet. She hadn’t eaten anything for breakfast and her stomach both hurt from hunger and churned with anxiety. The smell wafting through the air wasn’t as disgusting as she would have guessed.
Whistling, Anna walked to Cicely and put her hands on Cicely’s upper arms. “Tell me about yourself, Cicely,” she said. What? What did that even mean? “Do you have any children?”
Cicely shook her head.
“Me neither,” Anna said. She clasped her hands together and looked down. “My eggs are all cracked up.”
Zinnia tossed the cookbook she was looking at back on the pile. The smack of it landing made Cicely jump. Zinnia just picked up another cookbook and continued browsing.
“I don’t even know if mine are all right, really,” Cicely said. She had never before thought she might be infertile. She had risked sex without birth control a few times, knew it was stupid, but had never considered the possibility she couldn’t have a kid. It would be delicious relief to know she couldn’t bring someone else into this world.
“You’re young,” Anna said. “You never know until you try.” The pan went quiet and a sliver of smoke puffed into the air. Right as Anna twirled back to pull out the meat, the timer went off. “Perfect!” She scooped the blackened knob from the pan and set it on a white oval plate, then added another morsel to the pan. The green oil popped angrily.
Cicely tapped the taut skin of the drum that stood in a corner near the couch. She kept look-ing to Zinnia, hoping she would intervene, would at least say something, but Zinnia wasn’t paying attention. Cicely smacked the drum loudly. Zinnia still didn’t look up, but Anna heard and she walked over. She rhythmically rubbed the drum’s dry, scratchy surface then slapped it gently on and off.
Anna’s head drifted back and forth. She closed her eyes. “Kind of hard to believe this is real skin, isn’t it?”
Cicely jerked her hands away and took a step back. Anna cackled. Was she joking? Just playing on Cicely’s nerves?
“Kind of fucked up, huh? But someone like you, someone who used to work for me, made this.” Anna kept the rhythm going with her fingertips. “She worked at a hospital out east and once she started stealing placentas she started walking out with all kinds of weird shit.” Anna’s high-pitched voice was annoying before—now it sounded menacing, like that of a malevolent toddler. Anna straightened her head and opened her eyes and pointed to the figurines lined up on the shelf near the bunk beds. “From bones, mostly. Her boyfriend knew how to carve.” She took down a brown tea cozy that hung from a nail beaten into an exposed two-by-four and handed it to Cicely, who rubbed its rope-like fabric. “Hair,” Anna said.
Cicely tried to hand the cozy back to her, but Anna scampered over to the kitchenette. The pan had gone quiet again and the second lump was ready. Zinnia set the cookbook back on the pile. Cicely whipped the tea cozy at her. Pulling it open, Zinnia set it on her head. Hair on hair—the thought made Cicely laugh and eased some of the tension she felt. Zinnia had taken care of her, hadn’t she? Why worry as long as she was around? Cicely made up her mind: if Anna offered her placenta, and if Zinnia ate it, she’d eat it, too, hold her nose and force it down, maybe, but eat it. According to Zinnia, Anna’s clients reported that eating placenta helped them sleep more deeply, leached toxins from their bones, and even cleared up acne and made their breath smell better. May-be, Cicely thought, it could work miracles.
The timer rang again. Anna pulled three rolls from a small toaster oven on the counter then poured hot water into three immense mugs. From the cabinet below the sink she pulled a big jar that was half-filled with loose clumps of tea. She brought everything over to the glass coffee table, including the plate with the three nibbles of meat, which were caramelized almost to black on one side. Over the placenta Anna had drizzled fragrant oil and sticky strands of honey; she had then dusted the plate with toasted cumin seeds. No, it didn’t smell good, no, not that, but it smelled bet-ter than when Cicely had sniffed raw placenta.
Zinnia scooped tea leaves into her mug and snatched a roll while Anna brought over forks and knives and napkins. Cicely only vaguely remembered the last time someone had invited her into a home and prepared an actual meal for her. It was a guy named Jude she knew from back when she worked at the Ponderosa, a fellow server who fancied himself a chef. But his oven went haywire and his lasagna burned up so badly the top was ashy, so instead he ordered pizza and they got drunk on red wine and watched a movie from the seventies, which she remembered only be-cause all the men in the movie wore mutton chops.
“To our new partnership,” Anna said, raising her mug. She settled down onto the rug next to the coffee table. With her flowing clothes, she looked like a little mound of person there on the floor.
“Do we really have to eat this shit?” Zinnia asked, her mouth full of roll.
Anna’s expression turned hard. “Everyone.” She cut herself a small nugget and popped it into her mouth. Cicely was sitting on her knees, her butt resting on her heels. She watched Anna chew. Anna suddenly stood. “I’ll show you.” She walked over to a cork board that hung on the back of the door and pulled down a Polaroid. Shoving it in Zinnia’s face, she snarled. “This is what ended up happening the last time I let someone say no.”
Zinnia’s expression dropped and her face went pale; she handed the photo to Cicely. It showed the face of a young woman, her eyes closed, her head twisted at an odd angle, her hair glued to her forehead with sweat and grime. It was hard to tell, but it looked like the back of her head was resting on scratchy gray concrete. Snot trickled out of her nose and tiny pinpricks of blood dotted her cheeks and forehead, as if someone, Anna, apparently, had taken a tiny needle and repeatedly jabbed it into her skin. Cicely had just begun feeling comfortable in this trailer. The pho-to reminded her that she was involved in a criminal enterprise, and that she was in no way safe.
“If you’re in, you’re in,” Anna said, snatching back the photo. As she put it back on the cork board, Zinnia and Cicely exchanged stunned glances. Cicely thought Zinnia could protect her; this moment told her she was wrong.
With a wry grin, Zinnia cut herself a knotted chunk of placenta. Cicely did the same.
Anna hit play on a stereo hidden behind some drapes. The dulcet synthesizers of a New Age track radiated gently from the speakers. As late morning shifted toward noon, and the sun reached its zenith, the rays filtering through the windows slowly died out and the light inside the air seemed to soften. Anna rejoined Cicely and Zinnia by the coffee table. She stared intently at Cicely, who was staring intently at the black, gray, purple, red chunk of human at the tip of her fork. Cice-ly heard Zinnia begin chewing. Breathing deeply through her nose, her heart pulsating wildly, her stomach sending up desperate signals of no, Cicely crunched her eyes shut and took a bite.