It was my idea to start the morning with a dip in the lake. Once we’d unwrapped each other from the tangle of limbs and sheets we’d become during the night, I sat and looked at the ripples of Steven’s back. If I thought we had enough time I’d have leapt on him again right there. I’d have flipped him over into odalisque and started painting him for days. But he’d paid for drinks last night in large bills, covered me when I’d gone all in. So he’d have to be busy. It was a Thursday morning. It only made sense to put the night to bed.
Then he exhaled softly and his shoulders collapsed into the rest of him like two newborn foals into grass and I pictured a body wet. Steven’s, but not from the shower, glistening with live-water and first sunlight. I never got ideas in the morning. I looked away, turning back into his thighs. (God.) I couldn’t wait.
He stretched and I felt him drift against me.
“Hey,” I said.
I threw my legs over my side of the bed. “Got anywhere to be?”
His hands just barely brushing my hips. “You have somewhere in mind?”
I wiggled away, stood a little, leaned some. Glanced at the bedside clock. 5:41.
“You got an hour? Maybe two?”
Steven’s chin on my shoulder, looking into me. “Sounds promising.” He smiled.
“I’m hitting the lake for a bit. You can come along if you’re interested.” I slid off the bed completely, onto my feet. A natural dismount.
He rolled back over to his side of the mattress and sat up, feet-forward.
“Can’t see why not.” He looked over his shoulder and smiled, his whole face opening up. The smile turned to yawning and I grinned a little back.
We dressed quickly and left Steven’s place. I wore his drab marine corps crew neck sweatshirt, drowning a little in the fabric. It fit him like a glove, but he had five inches on me at least, and several pounds of well-apportioned muscle. I’d gone out without long-sleeves last night, but mornings left me cold, and this one was the same.
Steven was poured through shorts and a V neck T. We walked beside each other down the street. I hung back a little bit, as he outstrode me. As I hesitated pleasantly. It had been my idea to swim at dawn, but I didn’t mind if he took the lead for a while.
We passed the usual assortment of buses and delivery drivers and traders on their way to wherever. I’d seen the requisite jackets and ties in Steven’s closet last night while he brushed his teeth, wondered if he was high-finance or just a weekend dresser. We’d met casually—almost didn’t, in the noise and press—so there were open questions. Which was fine. So far as concerns could rise, I figured I knew the angel’s share. Steven was warm and fresh and pleasantly weighty in the right places, spring in his step.
I walked faster to keep up, to be just-not-against his right side. I could feel him smiling down then and let my shoulder brush his, kept walking. We stayed that way for blocks, not touching, not a lot.
Then, the lake in newborn light. Clouds wisping through the sky and trippling through the waves, shadows and sunbeams at dawn. Almost too early even for seabirds, there were just a few, here and there. They flocked in masses later in the day, when there were teeming lunches all around to tempt them.
I stripped my jeans and slipped out of my shoes, folded everything into a stack and looked right. Steven was still.
“Do you still want to get in?” I asked. It was new to see his face without a hint. “There’s coffee not too far. We passed it on the way.”
He twitched, then looked down at me. “No, no of course.” He peeled the shirt and shorts off effortlessly, left them rumpled on the ground.
“You need help with that?”
“With what?” I said.
“The sweatshirt,” Steven pointed. “It’s a little much for you, I can tell.”
“It’s a joke,” he said quickly. “Just thought it was funny, you swimming over there already.”
I laughed, shrugging, then crossed my arms over my head and pulled it off, sleeves first. I pressed all the ends together and set it on my pile. The sand was cool between my toes, still silky with night. I squeezed them together and dashed off down the beach.
I crashed into the water hard, eyes closed. Diving onto the surface from a run was like hitting a quilt spread out on the floor expecting a mattress underneath. Bracing. Cold. Then, my body giving in to wild steadiness. Just a mute moment of deaf-blind motion.
I opened my eyes underwater and saw silt lightly dusted with pebbles, looked down my light brown legs at my splaying pink toes. I got my bearings again and ran further into the tide before going back under. (God.)
I started stroking hard, pulling myself out further onto the lake, water lapping over my feet and back and shoulders. Below me, a cloudy blanket of watercressy leaves stirred and waved. I rotated up and gulped a breath of air, stared back down.
It was like peering at a great green lung, bronchioles reaching and retracting like fingers. Not for the first time, I wondered how lake and sea plants grew without open air, how they breathed. What it must be like to be joined in a living bed. Did each plant root itself, or were they all one being, like that poem? I swam.
After another minute or so, I looked back. Steven still idled standing in the shallows, his dry hair catching light.
“Come on out,” I shouted, “It’s great.”
I saw him shake his head no, then scratch his scalp, right elbow cocked over his head like a crooked wing. I swam back.
“What’s the matter?” I said
He huffed out a breath, looked away, turned back to me. “So cold.”
I must have stared at him harder than I meant.
“And it’s like the lake’s alive.”
“Yeah,” I said, “that’s the idea. You never swam at a beach before?”
“You do swim?” Had I taken it for granted, somehow? “Aren’t you a marine?”
Steven squared off and took both my shoulders in his hands, looked down hard. “Yeah, I swim. At the Y. In a friend’s backyard. Hell, even here, at noon, when there’s someone in the chair.” He pointed down the beach to the empty lifeguard stand.
“It’s like the lake’s alive,” he repeated.
I shrunk a little bit, tried to slip back down. He held me firm.
“Besides,” he sucked in air, let it out. “It’s just a sweatshirt. Sorry to disappoint.”
I looked back up at him. Took him in all over again in newborn light. His blue eyes half-closed, but spinning sun like dewdrops. (God.) I gripped his left arm with my right and stood up again.
“Come on. Let’s grab breakfast. The night’s not through quite yet.”
He smiled, took my left hand in his right, and shoved me back into the water.
Another moment deaf and blind. I stood and pushed him, just a little, laughing.
“Unexpected,” I said, when I found my lungs again.
“I think I like that.”
We go out into the cold dawn, my father and I, driving the pickup down the gravel road through the misty hollow toward the tall dark line of trees. Behind us, my mother and the girls turn on the lights.
My father does not speak, and neither do I. We almost never speak in the mornings. He drinks his coffee—black, no sugar—in an open mug that he holds with one hand as he drives. I spread my hands along the handle of the ax in my lap, and plant my feet flat and square in the work boots that are just a little too big.
I am as good as any boy.
My father drives along the center of the deserted road and the mist rises to meet us as we descend into the basin like an ant crawling down into an open palm. Its breath filters into the cold cabin through the window that he always keeps open, no matter the season.
My mouth is dry and tastes bad. My empty stomach distends with nervous anticipation. I wrap my arms across my chest.
“You cold?” my father says. He does not look at me.
“No,” I say, and press my shoulders back into the seat to still any trembling.
The road curves away just before the line of trees, bending sharply like an elbow crooked in defense, before it runs on through the mist toward the intersection a mile down. We pull off right at the corner and park in the few yards of bare grass on the edge of the forest. The grass is sparse, flat, and gray, and does not rise after our boots press it into the frost-crusted ground.
My father walks before me, along the narrow path that we have worn into the forest’s fringe, hemmed to the edge by tall tan grasses, which whisper together in the winter morning. He carries the tarp, and I carry the ax in one hand, though it hurts my arm, and the wood of the handle feels as rough as my father’s hand.
The ground is littered with fallen twigs and branches like so many burnt-out matches, all torn from their berths by the weight of the ice a few days ago. My foot catches on a slick round branch, and I stumble. The ax slips in my hand and nicks my thigh. I set the ax down on the ground, and inspect the rip in my jeans.
“You okay?” my father says. He heard me fall, but does not turn around.
“Yeah,” I say.
The wind licks across the gash as the blood begins shyly to leak. I stand and tug at my jeans to cover the cut.
We find what we want another hundred yards in—a dead maple tree listing over to one side, its roots clotted with clay. It’s not overly large, its girth only a little wider than what my father can span with his fingers. He lays the tarp down and takes the ax from me and goes to work almost at once.
Around us, the air presses in, damp and cold. The mist is thinner here, but I can still see it, mingling with my small breaths like fine wool twisting on a spindle, turning silver as it catches the light. All I hear are the sharp sounds of my father’s ax, interspersed with the noises of the branches as they knock lightly against one another.
The sun is up, but not visible, and the spreading light only makes the emptiness of the forest more apparent. Without the ax in my hands, I have nothing to ward off my own impending sense of intrusion. I knot my fingers together and look down at the dark stain on my thigh.
The wind is in my ear and it is so very like a breath that I startle and turn. Across the clearing stands a yellow birch, its bronzed bark warm, and veiled by mist. I walk up to it, my cut forgotten, and run my hands along the bark. The skin beneath the bark is smooth and golden and I imagine my fingers peeling it away, every last strip, until the tree stands naked before me. I could carve it, could trace every desired curve into reality, could make it mine.
When I see her, I realize she has always been there. She steps around the column of the tree, and presses herself up against it. Her eyes are an oddly bright green, and her skin is a few shades darker than her golden hair. She rests her smooth cheek against the curling bark of the tree. She is barefoot, and wearing only a thin dress, but does not shiver.
“Hey,” my father says, right behind me, and I jump and turn around. My face feels flushed.
But he merely extends the ax to me. I look from the ax to the girl and then to my father. He smiles, and I can’t help it—I smile back, feeling my shoulders pull back like the sepals of a flower as it spreads to receive the sun.
“Thought you could give it a try,” he says, nodding at the ax. I nod too, and take the ax. I’ve held it many times, but never swung it.
“I’ll load up what we’ve got,” my father says, and walks back to the tarp.
I turn back to the yellow birch. The girl is still standing there.
“I guess you’d better move,” I say. She doesn’t. “Seriously, you need to get out of the way.”
When she still doesn’t move, I reach for her hand to tug her away, but my hand meets only the smooth bark of the tree. Annoyed, I reach for her shoulder, but my fingers go straight through her, and I feel nothing but a faint warmth, like early morning sun on my skin.
I shriek, louder than I mean to, higher than I’d ever want.
“What’s wrong?” my father says. He’s looking at me, and again I look from him to the girl. My arm is still elbow deep in her shoulder. I understand, then.
“Nothing,” I say. “A bird just startled me.”
The girl still stands with her arms wrapped around the tree, but I raise my ax, placing my feet in the same stance I’ve seen my father do a hundred times. I aim for the bark on the other side of the tree from her, just in case. And I swing.
It’s wrong as soon as the blade bites into the tree. I can tell. My elbow hurts like I’ve wrenched it. I shake my arm and it goes numb up to my wrist. But it’s when I pull the ax from the tree that she falls, her golden hair floating down around her. She clutches her thigh, and I can see the wetness of the gash outlined against her dress as she pulls it flush against her skin. Still she says nothing. The wind stirs, and I smell something sweet.
“Hurry up,” my father calls to me.
“I can’t do it,” I say.
“You’ve got to finish what you started,” he says.
I do not reply.
“Do you need me to do it for you?” he asks.
I hear him walk up to me. He reaches for the ax.
“No,” I say. “No, I’ve got it.”
He folds his arms. I’ve seen this look before, and I root myself to the hard ground and raise the ax once more.
The second cut is much deeper, and the one after that, and I do not look at the dismembered girl until the tree has fallen. She looks up at me, her golden hair fading to white against the gray ground, her green eyes turning dark. She still says nothing. I hate her.
We leave her there, my father and I, as we haul the wood back to the truck. My cut reopens with every step, but I plant my feet wide apart and do not limp.
I am as good as any man.
You want to tell him about the color red. That will be your opener. Wait for the party to die down a little bit and find a corner and open with a bit about the evolution of language. It was the New World, you’ll say, and the South Seas. Pumpkins and papayas and abundant citrus fruits. Split off and created the color orange. But your hair, see, will always be red. We don’t know why. I guess some things are too timeless to change. And he’ll crack a smile, maybe, and run a hand over the crest of his tightly curled hair.
You’ll want to wait for the right moment to lay it all out there. He’s sure to attract a small crowd once the readings are over for the evening. He didn’t read his poem. He recited. He performed. You could feel crisp intake of air in the room as he stood with a mic in one hand and the other flying. You were the hardestworking muscle in an overheated heart. You in the ballroom, feeling bright red. Him up there, the subject of his poem miles away from sight.
You’ve spent the last several minutes figuring out where on the bill he is for the rest of the weekend. Creative Writing, of course, but he’s into everything. Peninsular Languages, Pre-Medical Studies, and Continental Philosophy. He keeps busy, for a pulsing, flush-haired poet. Maybe you’ll glide from his hair to the breadth of his ambitions, maybe you’ll lightly wonder aloud why we call biology the study of life, as if that weren’t what art was for.
He’ll probably laugh with one eye and say that art isn’t study. It’s love play.
You imagine the parting handshake for the longest. You don’t want to have trouble meeting his eyes, and working out just what color to remember them. You hope for hazel and a firm clasp, things to recollect and interpret from fresh angles. The poem was round, but came at you like the night train, loud and ardent. The subject of the poem was nowhere to be seen, but everywhere present in the pulsing of the room. You’ll tell him you loved the poem, were glad to meet him.
He’ll smile, maybe, and you’ll see white and red and forget the other colors.
Did neither of you come to the hotel alone, will neither of you leave the city that way. You wonder how he wakes up in the morning. You flush red at the thought of him at night. More of a pink, really, but that’s almost always the last color word to be invented. A softening of associations made with ardent, rushing things. You look at your hands and think about the cello, remembering the fingerings you made on its long neck. You didn’t bring an instrument to Nashville. This is a university event.
You look for him at the edges of the party, smiling. You want to tell him about the color red.
“You utter, utter bitch!” I growl through my teeth, hesitant to let my voice echo in the cold air of the church. My left hand covers the crucifix dangling from my waist and I squeeze it until my knuckles blanche and I can feel the pain of the metal digging into my palm through the cold.
I kneel at the railing, keeping my shoulders soft and my chin down—my posture is demure and pious and the priests will not see anything amiss if they pass by. My head is veiled in black and the shadows of the lace cast by the candles on the altar will keep my wet cheeks and bright eyes shaded from questions. As the wide Salamanca sky outside dims and brightens with the passing clouds of midwinter noon, I press my knees into the cold seeping through the little kneeler on the stone, leaning my forearms on the communion rail, pressing in. Every breath I take, slowing my rhythm, is more agony that I cannot give voice to, not in this place, and I lean harder and squeeze harder and at least my knees and hand can feel some of this pain if Mary does not.
Will not. Would not.
I have prayed to her all my life and still she is silent. Her Son is bloody and at least he is a man, physical, hungry, weeping, anxious, bleeding, dying, grieving.
But not her. She does not feel this human stuff, this sort of grief. Her eyes are mellow, her cheeks slack. She is either an idiot or a stone and in this cold evening, she is a stone.
She will not feel this. She never felt this.
She let her Son give her in her old age to a crazed boy among his followers, and she did not speak. She raised Joseph’s numbers of children and her son, and she was never shaken. Stone or fortress, I do not know. I know she never rolled over to her husband in the dark and pleasured herself and him. I know she holds her child in her arms for eternity, and lets him die and holds her peace. And still we ask her: holy mother, pray for us.
What a bitch. Did she ever know love? Could she, the perpetual virgin, the sinless, know what it meant to hold your lover, to find abandon in his eyes, his touch, his openness, his heart? Did Joseph love her?
With my eyes, I trace the lines of her robe, her veil, her hands. I look at my hands, so thin, so cold. No one to take them, tangle them, warm them, squeeze them. So empty. I clutch the crucifix, my palm begins to sweat from the pressure, despite the chill. Her hands are soft, langid, and they are full of her Son.
Her eyes are flat. The Son does not look at her, nor she at him. Did Joseph love this woman, this stone?
He could have divorced her—the Jews did such things. But he didn’t. He had to have loved her. He kept her. He fed her, he raised his son and lowered his reputation. He knelt in the muck—the ass shit, her shit—with her when she birthed her baby and he lost his business and country when he fled with her and her son to Egypt in the thin hours of the night. He gave her everything and never asked for anything. No once. He knew. He must have.
I catch myself rocking into my thoughts, my jaw dripping with silent tears. I look up at the Virgin, from her bare feet to her old man baby and her slack hold on his body, and I want to dash him to the ground, to stab her sacred heart and see if she will cry out, to see if she will feel anything. The red of the glass candle holders swim in my tears and run into her blue gown and the gold of the altar wall and the white of the altar and I stand up, slowly, my knees weak and unsteady. I wobble across the stones, clutching at the wooden rails as I go past and stumble into the second pew. I ease my hips onto the wood and let my belly sink forward. I rest my arm on the back of the pew in front of me and lay my forehead on my elbow crook and I look at myself, the soft swelling under my gown, the splay of my knees, my flatly black shoe toes shaded under my skirts.
Juan loved this, loved the arc of my hips into my thighs and lowest belly when I sat. He would run his hand on the small of my back and down the crease at the top of my thigh and then he’d look at me, his eyes dark and merry with the gift he offered.
But Mary never felt that, and still we ask her to pray for us. Blessed are thou among women, for you have never known a man’s loving touch.
I wrap my wrist along that line, my fingers curling under my belly. It is not enough, though, to erase the ache of his touch, his warmth, his laughter. I would be held, but none can enter my veil of grief in this house where the mother is Queen as Mary is Queen of heaven, and here the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away, blessed be his name.
Mary must have sang a song when her Son died. Did she bless the Lord’s name then, too?
My hand slips through the slit in my skirts and around my pocket and I lay my fingers, cold though they are, along the smooth curve of my skin and hold myself, pressing on the child inside. The Lord giveth.
I stroke my fur and here he is again, Juan in the sunlight from the window, laying across my thighs, his dark curls shading his eyes, his teeth flashing as he laughs, then disappearing when he kisses my fur. His mumbles from under his hair about how I smell, how he is intoxicated.
The heat from my cunt warms my fingertips and the touch cuts through my tears. I start and inhale, and then I fall into a yawn and he is back, Juan kissing my shoulder in the dark when I start and twitch as I fall asleep in his arms the first night, the feel of his smile pressing into my neck.
The baby makes me wet all the time and I think: what a waste. He is gone, but he is always here, and so I am full of his life and wet for his love. I am suddenly weak with exhaustion and the darkness under my veil and in between the pews swaddles me in my devouring want until I gasp a little and bite at my own arm when I am satisfied.
The church is darker now, and the priests are singing. I must go before the prayers; I must eat something today and think of the child. I stand again, strong and satisfied now. My fingers are rank with my own scent and damp, and I face Mary and she stares past me. I climb up the altar and over the railing and brush past the red lights at her feet and I lift my right hand and kiss my fingers.
And then I make the sign of the cross on her lips and on the head of her Child, and I light a candle at His feet.
This is my body, I say. Broken for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.
I walk out of the cathedral into the winter light of sunset, the cool blues flinty against the cold pink of the clouds. I do not look back at the main enclave, where he lies under frozen flowers and under a blanket of incense and smoke.
He is not here, but he is with me. And Mary will not pray for us.
He can see it—the exact moment it happens—the moment the skin of his lover’s face pulls back around her teeth, as if every inch of flesh is trying to creep as far away from him as possible. One Mississippi, two Mississippi, and then she’s screaming, and he can feel his own skin sloughing off around him, as easy as a skirt slipping to the ground.
She scrambles backwards until her back hits the headboard, and her hands with those long nails are brushing with repeated futile strokes at the skin that lies loose and supple across her shins, the inside still glistening with blood and pus. He winces at the touch of her ragged nails before he realizes that he can’t actually feel her, that she’s touching it and not him.
He rears back then, feeling the skin continue to split along his back like a thin layer of dough. It’s been a year, and it never dissipates—that moment of panic when he sees that skin lying open like a burst sausage casing. Once, he’d made the mistake of standing in front of the mirror when it happened. His eyes changed in the moment just before, and he stared out of his own eyeholes as they hung suspended for just a second in front of him, before his entire face slowly detached from his skull, followed by the long, stretched-out skin of his neck.
He’s scratching at himself desperately, pulling the skin off his back in ribbons, and—oh, god—why won’t she stop screaming? He bares his teeth at her, and growls, feeling the fur along his back rise, and she freezes as her screams fall away into irregular sobbing breaths, and her eyes start to lose focus. She’s going to faint. He has to get her out.
No, it’s her house. He has to get out. He leaps off the bed, and feels the loathsome skin cling to his haunches and trail behind him, fully encased around his still human feet. But not for long. He hears his nails lengthen into claws as they click against the floor. He bounds through the door and down the stairs with relief, before he remembers his torn skin lying in pieces across the floor upstairs.
The skin spills over the side of the bed, one inverted foot closest to the door. Pale except for the thick clumps of dark hair at scalp, armpits, and dick, it gleams in the moonlight shining in at the single curtainless window. It is vulnerable, repulsive, and he wants to hide it, protect it, bury it.
Any other month, he would leave the skin on the floor, and flee into the moonlight, and run pursued by euphoria until he collapsed and came to himself, naked of fur and itching in his baby-soft new skin as he stretched out across a damp carpet of leaves. But he is here in her house, with the woman he loves and will never see again, and his torn empty carcass is lying on her bedroom carpet.
He walks forward, with his tail between his legs, and he stands over the skin, and he eats it, lapping up every strip of skin from the moonlit squares on the carpet all the way up the bed skirt to the last bit on the blanket. He does not look at her again before he leaves, his belly already roiling as he runs down the stairs. He leaps through the screen door, and vanishes into the stand of trees, where he vomits at last, hidden from the relentless eye of the unsleeping moon.