This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places
and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used
fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, events, or
locales is entirely coincidental.
Part One: Dry Rot
TINY GOLDEN BEETLE wriggled through the window and into my eye as I slept.
They'd been coming all week - the beetles, the roly-polies, the spiders -
searching for the way into our house, shimmying, wriggling, and weaving nests.
When I woke, I felt the beetle squirming underneath my eyelid, its filmy wings
fluttering and scraping. It made a small noise, an almost non-noise. Sh. Sh.
Momma must've opened the window when I fell asleep. The oversized curtains hung
across my bed and, in the dark, they looked like limp birds with wings of red
velvet. I rubbed my eye but the beetle wouldn’t come out. I turned on the lamp beside
my bed. Moths rushed in the open window and fluttered around me, against my
lips, crowning my head. The beetle wouldn’t come out.
I ran to Momma’s bedroom, crossing the hallway shimmering
with little slices of moonlight. She was awake, sitting up in her bed amidst
her magic relics and candles, reading a book, plaiting her blonde Scandinavian
hair. Momma never slept. Not when the moon was full. She saw me running down
the hallway and held her arms out to me. She batted the moths away from my face. I pointed to my eye, tearing, blinking
Momma held me on her lap, trying to extract the beetle,
saying the bugs were thick because the Wormwood star was high in the sky. I
couldn't see it, but it shimmered bright and bitter. Wormwood meant this would
be a year of poison. The insects knew this as the eye of the mad star beat hot
on their backs.
Momma held me still. She said warriors like us knew how to
endure pain better than anyone. She held my eyelids open. The golden beetle
crawled onto my Momma's finger. I told her to kill it or it'd be back again;
she released it on her windowsill where it flew away.
I was six years old, spilling out of her lap, but she
cradled me as she rocked back and forth. Warriors stayed close. We were once
Vikings who rode dragon-headed boats across the ocean, across the ice. We
replaced our flesh with metal to endure the cold and slew creatures others
couldn’t even have nightmares about, but still we loved better than anyone
else. Around campfires, many a story was told about us and
the monsters that loomed in the dark, quivering in fear at the mention of our
names. She said, “We will always kill dragons together.”
Later we crept downstairs, Momma holding a votive candle and
a gazelle skull.
“Do you need that skull?” I asked Momma in a quiet voice.
“Shh, baby,” she said. “I’m going to give you a treat.”
On the staircase, a spider furiously wove a web. I wanted to
tear the spider’s web down, because its fingers, thin, like the threads of a
wicker chair, were in my bad dreams. It carried a mark on its back like a
pirate’s skull. Momma told me it only needed a home. Give it this corner of the
universe. I pressed my back against the banister so I wouldn’t have to touch
the web. She laughed, shaking her blonde hair that could’ve been the ruin of
the Vikings. If she’d been born a few centuries earlier, her likeness would
have been a mermaid-figurehead for their ships.
In the kitchen she opened the window above the sink, turned
on the stove, and started to make us hot chocolate. I stood on my tiptoes and
turned on the lights. Roaches with silver feelers skittered away. I swear I
heard them shriek. Momma didn't notice. She was humming, weaving her fingers
through her hair.
“Turn the light off. We’ll dance by candlelight,” she said.
I turned the light off. Her skin was split, honey in
candlelight, powder in moonlight. I climbed up onto the countertop and curled
my toes so the roaches wouldn't scurry across my bare feet; she laughed.
“You've forgotten,” she said, “that you once slew a wolf pup
of the great beast Fenrir. I know when you remember you won't be afraid of
I inhaled and I could smell the milk-breath and musky fur of
a wolf. I saw myself in that den, with a silver axe, wrestling the pup. His paw
trapped my hair on the floor. I slew him and wore his pelt as a cloak. There
was a time when I believed that anything Momma said was true.
We drank the hot chocolate together in candlelight and
moonlight. She rested her head in my lap as if she was the child and I the
parent. In order to be a sorceress you have to learn to not sleep. The full
moon recharges you like a battery. You see the shimmer in everything, so you
can pull the thin, magic threads that connected everything and change the
“Drink your hot chocolate, baby, the milk will make you
strong. One day I’ll bring a goat into our backyard. I’ll feed her warm hay and
feed you her milk. You’ll be able to lift six hundred pounds. A thousand. You
could lift a truck if you wanted; you’d be stronger than the strongest person
in the world because you’re not of this world. Stronger than
Thor. You should go to bed, baby, you're falling asleep.”
"I'm not tired, I want a story," I said, nodding
off, the drained cup of hot chocolate dangling in my uncurling fingers.
She kissed my forehead, took the cup from my hands, and sent
me upstairs. A story for another time.
In my bedroom Fiddleback spun a web in my doorjamb. Its
poisonous bite could eat a hole through skin. Ants scurried across the floor,
carrying off droplets of honey. A scorpion clacked around my feet. I might've
once killed a wolf pup, born in mythology, but I never had to deal with
anything like this.
I ran back to tell Momma that I wouldn't sleep until they
were all dead. Halfway down the stairs, I heard the glass votive holder smash
against the wall. I stopped and listened; silence. I leaned over the side of
the railing to try and see Momma, but there was only an open kitchen door and
candlelight piercing the entryway. I crept down the stairs, treading lightly so
the steps wouldn’t creak. Holding my breath, I crossed the light and entered
Momma wasn’t there. Someone else stood by the kitchen sink
heaving, the gazelle skull tied around her head. Someone else with bleach and
blood oozing from her chewed fingertips. Cockroaches smashed in the sink. She
turned to me with Momma's body, but with the eyes of The Exorcist, eyes like
scratches of lightning.
The Exorcist didn't smell like Momma. She smelled like
antiseptic, like the sour fake smell of lemons and bad magic. A rosary of
powdered bleach ringed her neck. Her eyes were reddened by popped blood
vessels. I wondered if she still had Momma's face underneath the mask, or a
void where a human face once was.
"She's here," Momma said.
She pressed her lips to her mouth and in between grit and
blood-smashed teeth whispered the name.
Nightcatcher. The Nightcatcher's been here.
I grabbed my cup of hot chocolate from the counter. It was
sticky and covered in bleach. She grabbed it out of my hand and tossed it away
in the trash bag at her feet.
“There was poison in the food,” she said.
There was poison in the tap water. Poison on the doorknobs.
Poison in the teacups, on the window latch, in the sunlight, and in the pill
bottles on the countertop. Invisible poison that could not be seen, touched, or
smelled. Poison that would make tongues unravel, bones rot, arms fall off, and
turn a face into a dog's face.
Maybe I only imagined the walls throbbing, trying to squeeze
in on us, but I still couldn’t breathe. The Exorcist flung bleach onto the ants
on the windowsill. She grabbed a broom and rushed past me to the staircase
where she broke the spider's web apart. When the spider tried to flee, she
stomped on it, leaving a black and red smear between her toes.
The shadows were alive; the house was alive and it was
squeezing in on me. A chill followed The Exorcist like a ghost spot. There was
a monster that lived in her skin and wanted to poison us, a monster that not
even Vikings could kill. The Exorcist turned toward me but I knew I couldn't
look into her eyes. Even if she came to protect us from The Nightcatcher and
the poison, those eyes would sear me, burn me, and even kill me. I turned
toward the front door as she touched my shoulder; her hair was screaming, the
air was screaming. I grabbed the doorknob, turned it, and ran onto the lawn
then past the lawn. She called my name and told me to stay inside. Wormwood was
out. I ignored her and ran towards the woods.
It was almost winter. The grass
tilted to one side, brown and withered. The trees were skinny and as cold as
lightning rods. The moon hid behind clouds, casting everything into darkness. I
did not see Wormwood in the sky. Momma said it was a small, green star, just
above Mars. If you could drink it, it would taste like cedar.
I reached the edge of the neighborhood where the small woods
lived. I climbed over the barbed wire fence and the "Do Not Enter" sign
protecting the woods, hiking my dress up over my hips so that the hem wouldn’t
catch on the barbs. I thought I felt The Nightcatcher's shadow. She chilled the
air and all stories could be real. I fell on the other side of the fence and stood
up, my arms throbbing.
I ran into the woods. The branches and leaves hid the stars
away. I had been here several times before, but never at night, and never while
shadows pursued me that I thought wanted to eat me alive. I delved further into
the place where the dirt was dark and burnt. In the center of a grove, I found
a hollowed out dead tree once struck by lightning.It had a mouth like a door. I knelt down
and crawled inside.
In the darkness she reached out and touched my shoulder.
“This is my hiding place,” she whispered.
Even then, when I first heard her speak, I thought that
fangs and rattlers would want to borrow her voice.
“I can’t leave,” I whispered. “Something’s out there. Please
don't make me."
I felt a stirring underneath me, like the earth had begun to
crawl. Then a pungent smell like wet feathers. I pressed my head against the
damp old wood. Her hand slid down my shoulder and touched my palm.
“All right,” she said after a period of silence. “You can
I looked up. Her eyes were dark and shiny. Like Wormwood, I
thought. Poison. She sat cross-legged with her knees spread, and in the lap of
her skirt lay hundreds of glittering and squirming
roly-polies, spiders, and golden beetles.
I tried to say more, but my tongue turned webbed and dry. I
panted softly. She spoke my name.
The bugs in her lap shone like living crystal. She smiled,
her teeth full of feathers, and touched my cheek.
Then she opened her mouth and made a vociferous noise, a
clacking insect noise.
THE EXORCIST came, Momma used to be a professional storyteller. She called
herself Saga, the goddess of storytelling, she who drank from golden cups with
Odin. She carried a magic staff, wore a robe sewn with stars, and told stories
for children in libraries and huge sterile cafeterias. Sometimes I would go
with her and watch with the other children as she read to them from her
Wolf-Book, a tome bound with black fur.
"...And the princess awoke when she heard the thud
underneath her bed. She bolted upright and before the beast could flee, seized
him by the tail. ‘Let me go, let me go,’ the beast pleaded. But the princess
refused to release him until he danced with her.”
Momma was not a writer. She wasn’t born to sit down because
lightning coursed through her and kept her dancing. She made up stories on the
spot - hunters, demons, beasts, and new gods who flew across frozen oceans
– nobody but she and I knew the pages of the Wolf-Book were blank.
As she performed, I watched those bored, wriggling children
become still and listen with rapt attention. She had a different voice for each
character, from the deep-throated growl for the troll’s wife, to a soft,
dream-high voice for the ghost girl. Even Saga, her storytelling persona, spoke
in a husky voice like an ancient codex buried within a queen’s tomb.
"…She did not want to be a princess, she wanted to be a
night girl. Wild girl. And when the priest married her, the new husband’s
cloaks and garments were lifted to find, not the baron the princess’s father
had promised, but the beast that hid underneath her bed. She fled with the
beast to the underworld kingdom, where they lived out their lives in dark and
She finished her stories with a flourish, then bowed so low
that her robe touched the floor. The children applauded. The teachers always
wanted to ask her, “Where did you get your training?” “Where did you hear that
story?” “Who are you really?”
“A sorcerer never reveals her secrets,” my Momma said with
her hand pressed against her nose, and the children laughed.
Then she swept me up in the whirlwind of her starry robe and
we fled. She often took me out afterwards to eat cheap Italian food, and
sticky, thick caramel milkshakes. As I ate, she leaned over the table and
pushed the hair out of my face. She spoke.
"You don't know this, yet, but when you grow older,
you'll dye your hair a bright red because it's the closest you'll ever feel to
being on fire. You'll fall in love with the ocean because the boys won't be
"I'm never falling in love,” I said.
"You'll be a beautiful woman," she said,
continuing on as if I hadn't spoken, as if I was another character in her
stories, "once your face grows into those spark-devil eyes. You'll topple
During that time it was easy to forget that she took pills
to keep her from going insane — Risperdal, Haldol, antipsychotic drugs
with names that sounded like those of old Southern gentlemen. One time, when I
was still an infant, she'd been in a mental hospital. She laughed about it now,
mimicking her Trichotillomania, how she pulled her hairs out one by one. She
told me about the nurses with fat, frowning lips who
injected her with sedatives when she started to scream.
"You need to practice your coping mechanisms," she
said, mocking their sweet-sick voices, "Have you accepted Jesus Christ as
your personal savior?"
She told me about how they attached her to machines that she
thought were singing her lullabies in the night, via tiny voices rattling
through electrical nodes. How she told other patients she was their
deliverance; a robot-god imbued with a divine message. One woman fell trembling
in front of her, in dazed worship, and had to be carted away by frantic,
“I’m better now,” Momma said.“There was no way I’d stay for long in a
place like that.”
I should’ve seen the warning signs. Her pills disappeared
from the kitchen counter. She started staying up at night, unable to sleep,
even when the moon wasn’t full. Once, during a reading, her hands shook as she
gripped the wolf book and a seizure passed across her face. For a moment, only
a moment, she forgot her story. I was the only one who noticed, but on the ride
back home, she sat listless, like her head was barren.
“The best storytellers die young before they learn how to
forget,” she said.
Before, she used to let me roam everywhere by myself,
telling me warriors learned to forge their own paths. If mother’s stayed too
close, they created children that were chained and fearful. Yet now, she
started to hover, pulling me into her robe.
“Don’t stay out too late. Monsters eat the best children,”
she said in a hushed, crackling voice.
One night I awoke to find her sitting on the windowsill near
my bed, with the window cracked open and the cool night air blowing through. It
was quiet. She held her breath and stretched out her claw-cracked hands.
I sat up and pulled my blankets around me. She let her
star-sewn robe fall to the floor; underneath she wore a stained nightgown,
exposing her scratched collarbones. Her eyes reflected like animal eyes in the
light, and when she spoke, her tongue bled.
“Did you know, on the night you were born all my father’s
horses died? Their necks caught in the barbed wire fence behind the barn. Their
legs chewed by wolves.”
I drew my legs up underneath the blanket. The room had grown
small, too small, and the window bared at me like an angry wolf's mouth.
"I want you to know where we came from, baby."
I thought if I moved the window would chew me apart.
"We were once great hunters, and we can be again. This
world isn't meant for us. I've seen the place where your great-grandmother tread cloven-hoofed over the grass. She had eyes like wet
diamonds and she sang in a language forgotten, so
beautiful it would cause her prey to lay down, paralyzed, in the grass for her
to kill. She killed a great snake, a python, who fed
on virgin's blood and had terrorized a village for hundreds of years; its skin
became her crown. They worshipped her as a goddess."
Momma rose from the windowsill and moved toward me. I
suddenly didn't want her to touch me, the way she rubbed her fingers together,
violently, until her nails broke. She must've seen me seize up, and stopped at
the foot of the bed.
"Are you listening? Because this isn't a story."
"I'm listening," I whispered.
"When I was pregnant I knew you were a girl, because of
how fiercely you kicked. You are my little huntress. When you were inside me, I
was followed by fire. When I left the hospital after a sonogram, half of the
building burned to the ground. I started to have dreams of you and the lives
you lived before.
"Would you like to know? Would you like to know who you
"No," I said.
I didn't dare raise my voice. Was this my Momma who stood
before me, speaking in this dark language, in a voice like boiling water?
She reached for me, as if to smooth the hair from my face,
but then suddenly stopped. Her body shook as if electrified. She stood
paralyzed for a second. Two.
“Oh god, you hear that? She’s gotten into the refrigerator,”
She tore out of the room and down the stairs. I heard the
refrigerator door as she slammed it against the wall. I heard the food hitting
the floor as she threw it out, then the bottles, then the water purifier. She
screamed, an inhuman wail that went on and on.
The next morning I crept downstairs expecting to find a
murder scene, the wolf Fenrir's fur in the window jam and my momma's severed
hand on the kitchen tiles. But there was only Momma, humming and cooking French
toast. She wore her robe of stars and her Wolf-Book sat on the counter beside
her. There was no food on the floor, no broken glass. Everything had been
She tried to hand me a plate of French toast, but I didn't
take it. I searched her for battle scars, missing fingers. Nothing. I started
"Are you not feeling well?" she asked, setting the
plate on the counter.
She pulled me to her, smoothing my hair, feeling my temple.
"You feel fine. But it's been too long since we've had
a sick day together. I'll cancel."
She whisked her Wolf-Book away. We ate breakfast outside on
the porch, in sunlight. Everything seemed so far away. My hands out of
proportion to my body, the glass of orange juice a thousand years away. She
told me it was a lovely morning, a fine morning, and the flowers were beginning
to bloom. She and I would go to the fields, out in the woods, and pick them
together. We could weave garlands for our heads.
Maybe last night had been a dream.
But the next night she was back at my windowsill with her
eyes ringed red. She ripped out blank pages from her Wolf Book and scattered
them across my bedroom floor.
"The Nightcatcher knows we're here," she said.
"The Wormwood star led her to us. I don't have much time."
"Momma? Are you still taking your medicine?" I
She sat down on the edge of my bed, took both of my hands
and clasped them between hers.
"In my dreams, you were the daughter of a witch, and
the two of you lived in a cottage out in the woods. She taught you to walk
between reality and dreams. The village folk nearby called you deer-girl,
because of how silent and quick you were. Nobody could catch you, or see you,
if you didn't want them to. Every day you were becoming less and less human.
You made your own hunting bow from a great black cedar. You could strike a deer
in the heart and kill it instantly. You wore the blood and bones of a stag so
the does would follow you, believing you to be one of them. Once a king came
into the village, demanding your hand in marriage, your soul, because you were
beautiful and powerful. With an arrow, you struck the crown from his head. You
forced him to kneel before you and promise never to bother you again.
"When you came of age, The Nightcatcher arrived in the
village looking for you. She is made of night and eats the stars for
"She's evil," I said, despite my effort to ignore
her, the story taking hold of me.
"Not evil, but selfish and powerful. You would know her
by the cities she ruined that sat upon her shoulders, and by the river that
ushers from her mouth whenever she speaks. The Wormwood star belongs to her,
her emissary, and it poisons the earth at her command. It took all the gods to
drive her from the sky, so she made her home in the underground place, between
hell and earth. In the hush place. The night sky used
to be so much brighter in the old days. That is, until she took half of the
stars and brought them down into the hush place with her to light the walls.
She captured heroes and great hunters and made them slaves. To
play with.To amuse her. That's why she came
looking for you."
"But she didn't get me," I said.
Tell me she didn't get me.
"You could best a king with your strength, but not The Nightcatcher.
She collected rooms and rooms of heroes to enslave as her pets. She played with
gods like they were children. She hunted you in your own forest, like you
hunted the stag. She was fast upon you. She twisted your dream world so that it
no longer belonged to you. It became a labyrinth of nightmares. She took the
ground from underneath you. There was no escape."
"That's it?" I said.
"No, baby. Because you are clever, as
well as strong. Just as The Nightcatcher was upon you, you cut your
shadow from your body. It grew into the shape of a girl, your dark-half with
night for hair and eyes. The Nightcatcher seized the shadow, and you were
When Momma finished her story, a great and empty noise
roared in my head. My momma's eyes were like swirling plates. I felt hot, a
fever slamming into my skin.
"It's taken a thousand years, baby, but she's back for
us. And you've only got one shadow."
I shivered in her stare and waited for the moon to collapse.
She insisted that I go with her to her next storytelling. I
sat in the front row of a sloped auditorium, next to the teachers. She crossed
the brightly lit stage holding her Wolf-Book and magic staff.
She wore the gazelle skull to hide her face.
"Once there was a girl, the daughter of a gravedigger,
who was known for her ability to talk to the dead. She used to sit in the piles
of bones and whisper to them for long hours until they gave up all their
secrets. It was even rumored that, in the nighttime, that special time when the
sky was dark and the moon gone, she assembled the bones and, together, they
danced in the graveyards. She fell in love with a boy with blue eyes like cloud
light, with dancing sparks for fingertips. She taught him how to speak to the
dead. “Be quiet,” she said, “and they will sit on gravestones. The trick is to
Momma lurched forward. She was trembling all over, and her
eyes were red and raw underneath the mask.
"Do you know why we tell stories?" she asked the
She no longer spoke like Saga, the storyteller, wise and
calm. No, this was a new voice. An older voice, that spoke from the bone, that shifted underneath the dirt with blisters on its
The teacher sitting next to me squirmed in her seat. She had
nails ready to chew away. She whispered to the man next to her. I wanted to run
up to the stage, drag Momma away, and pull the mask off her face. I could
scream at her, “You are not my mother. I want the voices back that I remember.”
But I stayed where I was, and Momma continued speaking.
"Plato once said that storytelling was a sin because it
mocked true creation. Stories would lead people away from wisdom. But Plato was
an old fool who spit on the backs of his slaves and called it philosophy.
Stories are the essence of human experience. They teach us where we've come
from and who we can be. Storytellers are not only here to entertain, but to
give you a chance in the fight for reproduction. Through stories you learn to
avoid eating the blue mushrooms. To pray to the right gods."
The children’s silence was like a whip.
"It's why you feel so cheated when a story ends badly.
What was supposed to become a guide for you to successfully route through life,
has become a dead-end. A husk. It isn't just the story that dies, but you who dies with it.
“So what happened to the little girl and the boy who fell in
love in the cemetery? They who danced with the dead? Should I give you a comfortable
evil to fight? Perhaps a jealous suitor, with mined coal for
a heart? A bitter grave-digging father, who buries the boy in a crypt so
that the girl must free him?"
No, I mouthed. No. I don't know what you're planning but
nothing good could ever come from that deepening voice, that skull mask.
"You shouldn't trust a comfortable story. You should
know by now that only the heroes get to win, and even then, one day they will
come across a force so great and so vast that they're consumed by it. I want
you to know that the boy brought together the bones of a dead thing to dance
with him in the moonlight. But it was not a dead thing at all; it was an old
god with a mouth of crystals. With hands forged in the fires underneath the
Great Mountain that burned anything they touched.
“Every story you will ever be told will be a story of
possession. Every story will be about a love that you throw a chain around to
keep, and the thing that can steal her away. The boy was not ready to confront
the world of the dead, and he could do nothing to fight back. The old god
touched him and burned him alive. The girl felt him die, and awoke with a start
in her bed. She ran across the meadows and fields to the cemetery. She tried to
bargain with the god. She was reduced to one long shivering scream. ‘I will do
anything you want to bring him back.’ The god laughed. ‘I am older than the DNA
that was formed at the beginning of the universe to sew together your fingers.
You have nothing I want.’ Then the god threw her in an open grave and buried
My mother finished her story with a flourished bow. The
children stared with unblinking eyes, not daring to speak. Not even to cough.
The teachers applauded with prim, quiet little claps as they herded the
children out of the auditorium and back to their classes. My mother stepped off
The principal touched her on the shoulder.
“May I speak with you?” she said.
The principal was an older woman with collapsing cheeks and
a crisp floral dress, the kind of woman who’d never tear pages out of a
Wolf-Book, who would, in fact, never own such a thing as a Wolf-Book.
My momma’s eyes were dazed. She pressed her hands into the
hollow of her throat. The principal ushered her aside and they stood at the
corner of the hallway. The principal spoke in a hushed, racing voice. My mother
nodded and smiled. When Momma came to get me, she grinned wide enough to split
“I’m not allowed back anymore,” she said.
There was no caramel ice cream on the way back home, no
fortunes shared over milkshakes. No prophecies on my hair color or forbidden
loves. Only the long silence and her long smile.
How quick, it seemed, that one moment she could be the
bright storyteller in front of an audience of rapt children, possessed by the
voices of her characters, and the next she was the dirty savior with the
bedraggled hair, dripping water across the kitchen floor after she tried to
drown herself in the pool.
quick that one moment Momma could be telling me my fortune, giving me dragons
to fight, feeding me caramel ice-cream; and the next, scratching her face off
as she perched, bird-like, on a wooden rocking chair. She could be stroking my
hair telling me that blue looks best on me because blue matches the color of my
eyes, then the next she’d speak in a hollow throated voice, “Do not call me
mother, I am The Exorcist. Do not cry. You must be strong to survive this
TOOK HER TO the hospital where they bleached all the color out of her. They
replaced her blood with antiseptic and took away her robe of stars, her magic
staff, and Wolf-Book.
"What happened to Momma?" I asked.
"She stopped taking her medicine," Daddy said.
What I meant was, where has Momma gone? They pumped her full
of sedatives until her eyes were UFOs. They gave her paper slippers and told
her they were glass, that when the medicine started working again, she would be
a queen. The first time I was allowed to visit her in the hospital, I watched
her shuffle down the hall toward me with her slippers crumpling. These delicate
steps, as if the hospital walls were made of paper, as if she too was made of
She sat down beside me while the nurses watched from the
doorway. She opened her mouth enough so that I could see the scar on her
tongue, in the place where she'd try to sever it, giving herself a forked
devil's tongue. We couldn’t speak. Words were fat and sluggish, too big to fit
in our mouths. I wanted to hold her, but maybe she would collapse. Maybe I'd
squeeze her shoulders and find that she'd transformed into a morphine drip.
With Daddy, on the car-ride home, I curled up in the back
seat and cried.
"She's never coming back home," I said. “They took
away the most important parts of her and she's never coming back home."
I don't remember much about Daddy. He was a businessman, I
think, someone important - because I never saw him except at the end of the day
or during the emergency times when Momma went insane. He always seemed to be
wearing a gray suit, crisp and uncomfortable, though his hair was always black
and wild. He had a dark laugh. He told me once he was too young to be a father,
told me to call him Lex instead of Daddy, though I never did. He refused to
discipline me for staying up too late, for screaming, for being stubborn.
“Little demon,” he called me, and laughed his dark laugh.
Momma came back from the hospital listless and thin. Her
skin was pale. Daddy fed her pills with a spoon and stroked her throat until
she swallowed. He stayed up with her at night as she sat in the rocking chair
in the corner of the room. He taped her hands when she tried to scratch her
All of the color drained out of my Daddy’s face, just as it
went out of Momma’s. One night he bleached his hair in the bathroom and stood
in front of the mirror with his hands burning.
“I’m bad!” I said, desperate for him to laugh or pinch me.
“I’m a devil! I put black hair dye in the toothpaste!”
He shook his head and leaned close to the mirror. He prodded
the bottom of his eyes.
“You see those? Crow’s feet.”
“Lex, baby. Lex.”
He picked up his razor and shaved off all his hair. His
fried, bleached locks fell in the sink. The humming of the razor ached in the
back of my jaw. Momma appeared in the doorway beside me.
“Daddy?” she said.
"I'm not ready for this,” he said, and he set the razor
down and walked out.
I followed him outside into the garage as Momma cried in the
bathtub. He pulled his car keys out of his pocket and unlocked the driver’s
“You can’t! I’m bad! I’m bad!” I called after him.
“Oh Lily,” he said, “I’m so sorry.”
He wrote the number of the psychologist on the inside of my
skirt. He picked me up as I cried and he kissed me.
He said, "Schizophrenia made your mother into a rabid
horse. Remember when she calls you a little monster that she still loves
I sat on the cold concrete floor of the garage for a long
time after that, shivering, staring out down the driveway, across the
street.Nobody ever told me this
could happen. Phaedra’s parents divorced, but that happened across the street,
not here. Nobody ever told me before, that I’d have to sit in moments like this
without noise or distraction, waiting with a big yawn in my stomach. I didn’t
My teeth ached. My hands ached. I waited for him to return.
I thought if he knew how cold I was, how I lay my bare legs on the concrete
until I couldn’t feel them anymore, then he’d come back for me. I could summon
him to me with my pain.
But he didn’t come, and then I only wanted Momma to come.
She would pick me up and tell me that my eyes were brushfire and that I needed
to drink my milk to get strong. But then Momma didn’t get me; I got too cold so
I went into the kitchen. I found cold macaroni in the refrigerator and I made
myself a bowl. I set the bowl on the counter and the spoon beside it.
I couldn’t eat it. There were needles in my stomach and if I
ate I knew they’d all spill out of me.
NEXT MORNING MOMMA came into my room to wake me. It wasn’t yet sunrise and
gray spots of light lay across the bed.Her face was streaked and sad from crying.
“Get up, baby,” she said, “I’ve found Arachne and she’s
I held out my arms and Momma lifted me out of bed. She threw
me my pink pullover, and whispered, “Hurry” when she handed me my shoes. They
were the ones without laces, because I had yet to learn how to tie my shoes.
Then she picked me up and we went out into the cold.
The bald-headed sun sat above the train tracks. We entered
the abandoned lot in front of the woods. This was back when its owners were
still trying to sell it, so the grass was clean and trim, quivering with dew.
She lifted me over the barbed wire, and then she climbed
after me. She shook when she grasped the barbed wire, and her legs, so thin and
splintered, quivered in her frost-tipped boots. I thought she’d disappear
inside of her parka.
She took me into the woods. And though it was cold, little
blue flowers, azaleas I think, grew underneath the trees forming a carpet. Such pretty little blue flowers.
“There she is,” Momma said.
“I don’t see anything.”
She took my hand in her own, pointed it toward the flowers,
and said, “There. See her there?”
Something in the flowers stirred.
I saw her then, black and spindly limbed, as she emerged
from the rustling flowers. Someone wounded her. A black arrow stuck out of her
side, breaking the skin. And, though her body was that of a monstrous spider,
she had the face of a young girl.
Her expression was slack. A black viscous line of spit
dribbled down her chin.
“Momma,” I whispered.
She lifted me up in her arms. I buried my face in her
shoulder as she brought me toward the creature. I closed my eyes tight and
promised myself I wouldn’t look.
I wouldn’t look. I wouldn’t look. My heart squirmed. Oh God,
don’t let me look.
But I couldn’t stop myself. I lifted my head and looked as
the monstrous spider with the human face coughed and sighed. She stirred in the
grass and the downy ends of her legs squirmed. She had soft, black hair.
“She’s hurt. Who did this to her?” I asked Momma. “She’s
just a baby.”
Momma set me down in the flowers. I took several steps back,
tripped. I crushed the azaleas underneath me.
“A god did this to her,” Momma said.
Arachne opened her mouth to suck in air. In. Out. Her bloodless lips dripping black. When she moved she
stained the flowers black. A sticky web wrapped around her hair and
crystallized over her eyes.
“Why?” was all I could think to say.
“I don’t know,” she said.
Momma tried to move Arachne, but the baby monster screamed
with pain. She shook and trembled. I sat in the flowers feeling my eyes drop
out. I couldn’t turn away again. I couldn’t close my eyes. Arachne quivered and
gasped, her mouth opening as if to speak but she was unable to.
Eventually Momma gave up trying to move Arachne. She wiped
the blood spilling from the spider’s mouth with her dress. Then she sat down in
the flowers beside me, huddled in her parka, and buried her head between her
knees. It’s the last time I remembered Momma crying.
Arachne reached for me.
Her bristly black spider limb touched my palm. Gently,
slowly, I closed my fist around it, so small in my hand, and it trembled.
Arachne looked at me, opened her mouth, closed it, and opened it again. Her
eyes were the color of the azaleas.
Then she died.
For the longest time I wouldn’t let go of her, even when she
stopped trembling. Momma cried into her sleeves. I didn’t remember letting go,
but Arachne’s arm, limp and drying, slipped down into the flowers.
Momma took me home and I remembered opening and closing my
hands; they were black. They were black where Arachne touched me. Later I
searched for her, nothing left except the crushed flowers where I fell. Maybe I
was becoming schizophrenic like my mother. The disease’s acid had started to
eat its way into my brain.
I remembered my hands were black where she touched me. I remembered the black
on my mother’s dress that never washed out.
Part Two: Colic Poison Pyro Baby
I WAS FOURTEEN years old the cats in the neighborhood started losing their
eyes. My friend Phaedra owned a cat named Miss Margot - a lean spitting thing
that’d writhe and scratch whenever I tried to pick her up. Miss Margot went
missing for a night and came back in the morning with her eyes gone, two soft
shelled-out places in her head. She never bit again after that.
We blamed Charlie for stealing the cat’s eyes. Charlie because of his chubby body, pale quivering lips, black
glassy eyes, and hands too big for the rest of his body. His parents
were behavioral scientists who thought John B. Watson
should’ve won the Nobel Prize for teaching his son to be afraid of rats. When
Charlie was an infant his parents rattled his crib so he couldn’t sleep. They
rang loud bells in his ears so he wouldn’t touch the flowers. When he got too
close to a stuffed teddy bear he called Little B, they set it on fire to study
his coping mechanisms.
That’s fucking science for you.
By the time he was fourteen years old, Charlie couldn’t
sleep for more than an hour without rolling out of his bed and sleepwalking out
of his house. Sometimes he rapped on windows and jiggled doorknobs, calling out
for Little B. Other times he sat in the middle of my lawn, reading an invisible
book, chain smoking his sister’s cigarettes, and laughing at text that no one
else could read.
“Everyone knows it was you,” Phaedra said to him.
She picked up Miss Margot who’d grown listless. Soft.
Phaedra fed her tuna from her open palm. Charlie jerked his head as if someone
startled him awake from a long sleep.
“How could you?” Phaedra asked.
“I don’t know why. How can I when I’m asleep?”
The eyeless cats wandered the neighborhood: the Calico with
silky fur and red leather collar, the pregnant brunette, and the pair of orange
colored twins with fat beige nails. One by one they came back from the woods,
meowing and panting. That is, all of them except for my black cat Pluto.
Pluto came to me because of Miss Catherine. Miss Catherine
called me a dirty little loveless thing; she didn’t like the mud crusted
underneath my fingernails, my urchin hair, my jacket
that smelled like weed. Once I skipped school to smoke with her gardener in her
backyard. He didn’t speak any English except for the words “hello” and “drugs”.
Miss Catherine came outside with a rose between her teeth,
little puncture marks on her lip, uttering some incantation meant to revive her
“You used to be such a nice girl, before your father left,”
she said when she caught me.
I sneered and crushed the joint between my fingers.
“You can’t even apologize? Get out of here before I call the
police on you! And this is the last time I’m hiring someone from PrimCare.”
That night I went back to her garden with an armful of
summer fireworks and set her rose bushes on fire. While the flowers burned, the
black cat rushed out from behind the garden shed, smoke in her whiskers. I
caught her in my arms. She scratched ribbons into my bare skin, but I held
fast. She mewed, hissed, and spit but I covered her in my jacket and took her
home. I locked her in the laundry room and slid some moist tuna and water under
I kept her that way for a few days, waiting for her to quiet
down. But every time I turned the doorknob she hissed. Then Momma, on one of
her better days, let her out and told me to let her smell the back of my hand.
“Speak softly to her,” Momma said. “Shh.”
Momma crouched with her hand held out in front of her. The
cat crept toward her with tentative steps, her pink nose like a cool, floating
pearl. She touched Momma’s fingers with her whiskers.
“Her name is Pluto,” Momma said.
As though on cue, Charlie, sleepwalking again, appeared on
my lawn. He walked with halting, jerky, hypnotic steps as if his feet were
about to pop off. His clumsy troll-like shadow followed behind him. Just like
his hands, the shadow seemed too big for his body.
He lurched to my window and pressed his face to the glass.
“Little B,” he called out, “Little B.”
Pluto hissed at him as I wrapped her in the sheets.
“Little B,” he called out once more.
Charlie rapped on the glass. Once. Twice.
“Leave my cat alone!” I said.
I held tight to her in the night. I knew that, whatever
waited outside in the dark, even if it was a fat, depressed, adolescent boy
like Charlie, was waiting for the chance to grab Pluto; waiting to tear her
eyes out and leave her blind and stumbling.
In the morning Momma came to me with skin flushed and bleach
burning her gums. She smelled of blood and tin.
“You’re leaving again,” I said.
“I’m going to Alaska,” she said. “I’m going to start a
colony there, to build Skuldelev warships and take over the United States.”
She threw on her selkie skin and smiled. I knew that smile.
It meant she’d left her body, OBE, gone to wrestle the moon.
“Fine,” I said. “Have fun.”
When she left I screamed. I kicked a hole in her bedroom
door. I smashed the living room lamp against the floor, broke the coffee pot
and dumped the kitchen drawers out onto the tiles. I smashed wine bottles
against the wall, and overturned the kitchen table, which shattered the flower
vase that had been on top. I strewed flower stems and dirt across the floor, the
windowsills, and the chairs, and then ripped open bags of flour and sugar and
over the carpet.
Charlie found me outside huddled on the curb with Pluto in
my arms, my arms covered elbow-deep in flour. He came to me with his mother’s
funereal veil pressed across his face and a book of ancient mythology in his
“They’re going to lock you up one of these days,” Charlie
“Well, you look ridiculous,” I said.
He outstretched his hands against the veil.
“Nobody can see your face when you’re dead. When I get to
the spirit world, I’ll ask Persephone for a kiss.”
I pressed my face into Pluto’s fur and sighed.
“Do you want to walk with me?” he asked.
“Not when you’re wearing that.”
He didn’t move. I remembered when we were eight his mother
tied a snake to his wrist and told him it was poisonous. When we were ten, he
ran screaming into my yard because his father taught him to fear the cottontail
that lived in the mulberry bushes.
“Wait here,” I said.
I ran inside and grabbed Momma’s car keys. I never knew why
she thought she’d be able to get to Alaska without her car, and I didn’t care.
I went back outside, unlocked the car door, and got into the driver’s seat
“Get inside,” I said, pulling the seat up so I could reach
the pedals, “and hold Pluto for me.”
I drove out of the neighborhood with Charlie, past the
grocery store, then down Main Street. We lived in a small, murky town with
crumbling buildings and withering trees. An insect-ridden,
rotting town. The trains poisoned the ground. The factories poisoned the
sky. As a child I remembered blue flowers and lush grass growing here. Now
there was nothing left but whipped-back trees and the ashes of Miss Catherine’s
I drove onto the highway and sped away from town. Charlie,
underneath his mother’s funereal veil, sat beside me for a long time without
speaking, stroking Pluto’s thick black fur.
“You’re not a cat killer,” I said.
He pressed Pluto into his chest.
“Do you have any weed?” he asked.
“No. Miss Catherine fired her gardener.”
“Want a cigarette then?”
He handed me one from the pack in his pocket. I stuck it in
the side of my mouth.
“Keep driving, I’ll light it for you.”
He pulled out a lighter, flicked it on and brought it to the
tip of my cigarette. I inhaled and started to cough. The cigarette dropped down
onto the floorboards. I tried to stamp it out with my foot and the car swerved.
A black-flamed, hell-on-wheels Cadillac cussed at us as it careened past.
I pulled over into the grass, retrieved the cigarette from
the floorboards, and threw it out the window. Charlie exhaled. He’d been
holding his breath.
“Hey, you said you wanted to get to the spirit world,
right?” I said.
He laughed. A pale, shuddering kind of
sound. I couldn’t remember a time before when I’d heard him laugh. Misery
child. Dead teddy bear connoisseur.
I kissed him through the veil.
I grasped his cheeks, his hair. I smeared flour over his
skin. It wasn’t the first time I’d kissed anyone, you know. There’d been the
gardener with the cracked-chasm lips, whispering “drugs” in my ear like a love
story. And the boy from the nearby high school that I’d revenge-kissed for
calling me ugly. But never like this. Not with the heat and the veil between
us. Not with his eyes rolling up in his head as if he was dreaming; not with
the blood draining from my face; and not with my flour-encased hands turning us
into ghosts. My hands felt like bear traps. If I weren’t careful I’d break my
I leaned back into my seat and wiped at my mouth. Charlie,
panting, pulled the veil back over his face. I drove back home.
I pulled into the driveway and turned off the ignition. I
took Pluto out of his arms and she snuggled into the crook of my arm.
Everything seemed quiet, in a painful way, away from the blistering noise of
the highway. There was no engine to cross the space between the two of us.
Charlie held his hands up in front of his face, the fingers
“Trying to figure out if your hands are still attached?” I
Speaking felt like breaking a sacred thing.
“I’m trying to wake up.” He said. “It’s how you know if
“Your hands tell you all that?”
“In a dream you never know where your hands could be.”
He stretched his fingers further, further. I touched his
wrist. His hand was so taut I thought the veins might burst.
“The woods,” I said. “Tomorrow.”
All romance happened in the woods. Yes, we could be alive
together, climbing up trees and rolling in the grass. I’d toss off that veil.
Only the dead and boring, like our parents, made dates in coffee shops and
fancy Italian restaurants. Pass the wine, baby, no sex
until I’ve eaten my fill of garlic bread.
We’d be alone there.
The next night as I headed for the woods, I thought of the
story that I’d tell him. A ghost story, about a demon that I
once met in these woods. It would be almost comical, I thought, to get
him to believe that I met a girl who hissed like an insect. “And did you know,”
I would say, “that I found her in the hollowed out trunk of a dead tree? She
opened the folds of her dress and showed me the shining spiders she kept? She
was playing hide-and-seek with me.”
And when he trembled, I would laugh and say, “Don’t be
afraid, she doesn’t exist. It was only a story. It was only a dream.”
In the woods I found the demon with him.
She hung upside down from the trees dangling a teddy bear
from one arm. Teasing him, taunting him. Charlie reached out toward the bear,
his eyes those of the sleepwalker.
“Little B,” he called out. “Little B.”
She’d grown as I’d grown in the last few years, except she was
taller, leaner. Her dark hair fell across her eyes, twisted and dripping. A
spider crawled from her hand into Charlie’s hair.
She tilted her head back toward me and opened her eyes. Those wormwood eyes.
And just as I did when I was six years old, I ran.
“Little B!” Charlie called, his voice a metallic echo.
I only stopped when I heard a familiar meow behind me. I
stood at the mouth of the woods, near the barbed wire. A wet nose touched the
back of my leg.
She meowed again, a soft, weak sound. I picked her up from
the ground. Blood trickled down her eye sockets and stained her snout.
The demon replaced her eyes with wormwood, shining stars.
DID NOT TELL ANYONE about the demon that stole Charlie from me; I already
knew what they’d say.
“Little girl, those are not demon eyes inside of your cat’s
head. That is not a spider-headed child dying in the weeds. Schizophrenic -
just like your mother. We should’ve seen this coming.”
I’d be crawling across the floor in hospital ties, spit on
the cusp of my lips, eyes gurgling like a fountain, my mouth full of soft
Charlie didn’t mention the demon hanging upside down from
the tree with his teddy bear, but then again, he never remembered what happened
in his sleep. He could barely keep his eyes open in those days, even when he
walked barefoot across a carpet of sharp stones in his backyard.
“I’ll be a Houdini,” he said as the stones cut into his
feet. “I’ll be a Sufi mystic, transcending pain.”
Maybe he believed he could transcend the pain, even when he
started to walk like a cripple, bow-legged, wincing with every step. I asked
him why he no longer read from the book of mythology and why he no longer
pressed his mother’s funereal veil against his mouth. “Lost them,” he said. In
a place he couldn’t remember.
In the woods.
He took his shirt off. Streaks of sweat shimmered on his
back and his pale, chubby body quivered over the stones. When the stones no
longer hurt, he moved on to hot coals.
“I’m going to need you to light the coals for me,” he said.
I nodded, crouching in the grass, matchsticks in my hands. I
only ever saw the whites of his eyes since the pupils always rolled back into
his head. Maybe when we kissed, flour on my hands, black mesh on his lips, he’d
been asleep. Maybe he didn’t remember anything.
He stepped off the stones.
“I have a gift for you,” he said.
He gave me a pomegranate and showed me how to open it,
revealing the red glowing seeds inside. I ate one.
“Hades gave Persephone a pomegranate,” Charlie said, “and when
she ate it, she had to stay with him forever.”
“I know the story,” I said.
“Those are the seeds of hell. Now you’ll never again need
the sun to see.”
The more he sleepwalked, the more his
voice cracked, as if speaking to me from inside a collapsed cavern.
I gripped the pomegranate in both hands. I saw the demon’s
spider crawling on his neck. Her hair unraveling from the
trees, her hips the hips of a witch.
“Now,” he said, retrieving a bag of charcoal from the patio,
“I think I’m ready.”
I whispered, “Okay,” but I knew that, even if he reached
Nirvana through bare feet on burning coals, it wouldn’t save him. He belonged
to her. She who bewitched him with Little B.She who plucked out my cat’s eyes. She who made him reach out for her in the dark.
Momma came back home a few days later with her selkie skin
shredded and her hair in knots.
“Lily!” she called, “What have you done to the walls? My
I kept my hands at my sides. They still smelled of lighter
fluid and charcoal. Momma ricocheted through the kitchen, smearing flour on her
arms and face, flying through broken glass, flowers, and spilled wine. Scraps
of her selkie skin fell to the tiles.
“Baby, are you angry with me?” she asked.
I stepped barefoot on broken glass, and it sliced into my
heel. I stiffened.
“Why don’t you look at me?” She asked.
I didn’t want to tell her it was because I thought poison
would drip from her eyes to mine.
“Look at me.”
Why did my mother have to be a warrior chartered with
keeping the moon and sun from crashing into each other? Why did she have to
plant an acid seed in my brain, my sister Schizophrenia?
said. “Oh, baby.”
Her mad red hair shot up to the ceiling. She danced in
mid-air like Jesus.
“Stop calling me that,” I said.
I felt dizzy and dry-mouthed, but why?
“You’re bleeding everywhere.”
Ah, yes, that was why. Paralyzed from the waist down. My
blood congealed in between my toes.
Momma caught me before I fell.
She set me down on a kitchen chair. She spoke but I heard
only a ringing in my ears. She knelt and pulled the glass out of my foot, a
big, bloody shard of glass. From the looks of it, a piece of Momma’s special
Saint-Aignan wine I smashed, spraying it up the walls.
“There it is,” Momma said. “My Lily’s devil smile.”
I wanted to ask if she knew Charlie’s parents were
behavioral scientists - and by the way, can you tell that we kissed in your car
and the smoke smell will never come off the leather seats?And have you seen Pluto lately?
I lolled my head back, curled my toes. Pluto jumped up onto
my lap. Momma saw her wormwood eyes, the blood on her snout, and stroked her
“Someone’s looking out for you,” she said.
I imagined the demon, luring the cats of the neighborhood
into the woods, one by one. It was she who tore their eyes out and asked, “Do
you know a girl named Lily?” until she met the one who mewed a soft, “Yes.” My black Pluto.
At night Charlie chased the demon through the streets as she
taunted him with his teddy bear, laughing, always a step ahead. She lured him
onto my lawn and ran circles around him in the grass, the teddy bear held over
her head. Charlie ran after her with the soles of his bare feet blackened from
walking across burning coals until his legs gave out. He collapsed in the grass
outside, panting up froth, clutching at the sky. He cried for Little B. Always
I threw off my blankets and ran toward the door to go save
him, but the demon slammed her hands against my window. The force reverberated
through my house. I fell backwards into bed, clutching at the sheets.
She pressed her mouth against the window. She wore the
funereal veil, and bit down on the top of the teddy bear’s head.
I dreamt, sometimes, that she opened the latch and came into
my room, pale skin wrecking the light, wormwood about to collapse. But instead
of screaming, I opened my arms to welcome her into my bed. And instead of
destroying me with fang teeth, she curled up against me, shivering, trying to
warm herself underneath the sheets.
Pluto jumped into my arms. The window rattled and I held
tight to her. Charlie continued to foam and writhe in the grass, but I couldn’t
hear him over the hiss in my ears. A swelling noise, louder
than the blood in my throat, louder and louder.
She whispered. Let me in, baby girl. Let me
PROGRESSED FROM walking across hot coals to self-flagellation. While
muttering incantations, he beat himself with a cat-o-nine-tails crafted in shop
class of bits of leather and shards of glass. The kids at school called him
“suicide boy” while giving him wristbands to hide his cuts. To Charlie, they
were mute, because his brain was frying from sleep without rest. The teachers
referred him to a counselor; he fell asleep on the counselor’s desk when asked
if he had a “safe home environment.” Her recommendation to the teachers was to
move him to a desk in the back and let him sleep. Hidden in the back row, he
scratched at his wrists with a broken piece of glass. As his appetite waned, he
lay in my lap, underneath the bleachers, whispering of mythology.
“After Persephone ate the pomegranate, she could never go
home again,” Charlie said. “Well, except to visit her mother.”
“Why would she want to do that?” I asked, only
Thinking: I want to build a time machine. I want to climb
inside and go back before they set your teddy bear on fire. I’ll bring it to
you unsinged so you can sleep again.
“The god Zeus was in love with a beautiful woman, named
Leda, so he turned into a swan and raped her.”
He pressed his chin into my knee and coughed. I kept
expecting him to choke out glass. It was only spring, but we were already well
on our way to becoming insane that year. I still hoarded matchsticks and
firecrackers. Charlie kept hitting himself in an attempt to transcend the pain.
Phaedra started tending to carnivorous plants. As for Momma?
Well, she was the same as she’d always been. The last time I’d seen her, she
told me held a sword underneath her tongue. When The Nightcatcher came around
again all she’d have to do was open her mouth and cut off The Nightcatcher’s
head. With it, she’d grow a tree, and from that tree, feed the entire world.
Nobody would ever go hungry again.
“Once, a god of poison came out of the hush place, and
poisoned an entire town,” Charlie said.
“That isn’t in your mythology books,” I whispered.
He coughed again. There it was, a chunk of glass from his
cat-o-nine tails, spit and saliva in my palm.
Phaedra told me to leave him. That I was
addicted to the pain that broken people caused. She said all
fourteen-year-olds were, but I don’t think she paid much attention. She
smuggled Venus flytraps in her backpack and whispered Bukowski poetry to them.
She whispered to me with her nose in the mouth of Venus’ prickly hairs.
“And besides,” she said, “he kills
“No he doesn’t,” I said.
She didn’t hear me as she started a whispering frenzy under
her breath again, rubbing the Venus’s hairs with the tip of her finger:
she got up and lit a cigarette, she
was trembling all
over. She paced up and down, wild
and crazy. She had
a small body. Her arms were thin,
very thin and when
she screamed and started beating me
I held her
wrists and then I got it through
the eyes: hatred,
centuries deep and true. I was
wrong and graceless and
sick. All the things I had learned
had been wasted.
there was no creature living as
foul as I
and all my poems were
(1) “I’m in Love” by Charles Bukowski
Summer came and school let out. Charlie took me to the river
outside of town. His scars flushed red in the heat. His thin cotton t-shirt and
swim shorts couldn’t hide the whip burns and scars webbing his skin.
We stood on the bridge and looked down into the water. Even
in summer’s sunshine, the water below lay dark and churning.
“I used to come here alone,” he said. “I held my hands over
the water until I didn’t know where I began and the water ended.”
When I stared down at the murk, I knew Charlie didn’t take
me here to swim. I crossed my arms over my chest and felt my Momma’s two sizes
too big bikini underneath my clothes.
“I used to think it didn’t have a bottom,” he said, and then
nodded off in the middle of the sentence, his head dipping against his chin.
Nobody would think of swimming in that murky blackness. Nobody except someone who’d been there before.
Sleep deprivation could cause dizziness, hallucinations,
aching, paranoia, stunted growth, self-flagellation with a cat-o-nine tails,
and sleep chasing a demon across your girlfriend’s yard. Maybe it could cause
you to kiss her by the side of the river, like you’ll never kiss her again,
pushing grit and sand into her mouth with your tongue. Maybe you’d stand up,
knees shaking, point to the highest tree and say, “Think I can jump from all
the way up there?”
I watched Charlie climb the tree above the river until it
arched like an arthritic spine, until he couldn’t climb any higher without
breaking branches. I should have told him to stop, but I guess I wanted to know
if he’d actually do it. If he’d really jump.