Another sneak preview from our upcoming journal on Transcendence (issue 18), to be released April 28th at Octopus Literary Salon in downtown Oakland. (event info here)
I’m so cold, she says, the first thing, her voice small and far away, and he doesn’t know if she is saying it to him or if it is something she has been saying for a long time before he got here. He clears his throat, says her name; she turns her head, sharply, like a deer, on the edge of fright.
Hello? she says.
It’s me, he tells her, and puts his hands on her arms. When she moves dirt falls on her shoulders, skips down her dress. He’s aware that her back is only bones beneath the dress, skin shrunk against them like leather, but he doesn’t mind; he expected worse.
Do you know how long were you in the ground? he asks.
Eight weeks, he says, and she looks surprised, her eyes climbing the hill as though looking for something.
Oh, she says.
He met her on TV. She was already dead by then: in all the photographs beautiful, smiling, nineteen. She was buried a mile from his apartment and he went to her, every night, all night. The facts of her death did not deter him: brutal, raped, slashed. His love would fix all that. All she had to do was find her way back to the world, to him. If he wished hard enough, loved strong enough, she would. Did.
When he kisses her he can taste her teeth right behind her lips. There is no water in her; she can’t cry, she can’t spit. Everything on her cracks and splits. When he touches her he can feel her bones trying to remember how to move, clicking where the cartilage is almost gone.
Do you like it when I do this? he asks.
I will, she says, I just have to get used to it.
Am I your first?
She frowns. Why does that matter?
It doesn’t, I just want to know.
Well, you know what he did, she tells him.
I mean besides what he did.
Then you’re the first, she says, and he squeezes her hand, so happy. He says it: I’m happy.
She touches the hem of her dress, remembering something about it. Picking it out, putting it on. Being happy too. She couldn’t reach the zipper herself and someone had to zip it for her and that must be the sound she hears all the time, the teeth coming together, then being torn apart.
The cut is still there, a dark smile on her throat, but on the third night he can see something bright glitter beneath the skin: freshness, red.
There’s blood, he says.
Growing, inside. Can’t you feel it?
She swallows. The spot shifts, looks wet.
No, she says. She touches the white line of skin on her ring finger.
Not there, he says. Here. On your neck.
I can’t feel anything there.
No, she says again, and pushes his hand away, the bone-light brush of her without power, without weight. He thinks of holding her wrist, squeezing it. It would snap. Even a man like him would be able to hurt her. The other man, the bad one, was so big he could do anything. Whatever he wanted.
She looks tired, or maybe it’s just how deep her eyes have sunk in their sockets. It’s hard for her to really look at him; she keeps seeing old things, things that aren’t happening anymore, and the new things get lost beneath them. He tells her that her vision will get better; she knows it won’t, because her eyes aren’t really eyes anymore, but she keeps this to herself. They sit on the dark grass and he holds her hand, marvels at it, the split nails still flecked with polish, pink. There are lots of little things like this, things that delight him: the full white skirt of her dress, the ankle straps on her white shoes, the small gold hoops in her ears.
Did you know? That I was here? I came every night. I read you all the articles and the obituaries and stuff, remember?
She nods. She doesn’t say what else she heard: the dropping of his semen in the dirt, its slow sinking, the thirsty earth bringing it closer. The box stopped it from touching her but she still knew it was there, more and more, his crying out a whisper bleeding down to the roots of the new grass.
She shivers and he puts his arm around her. She can’t seem to be made warm but he tries, he holds her close, closer, and she makes a sound and it sounds to him like Yes.
He can’t take her out during the day—when the sun appears she is simply not there, doesn’t come back again until it is night—but in the dark she can pass as something still living. He is ecstatic when he sees her, less than a week later, changed; the bones don’t press so painfully against the skin, her eyes have fattened in their sockets. He has brought a comb and he rakes the rest of the dirt from her hair until it gleams. The wind strokes the tall grass. When they take their first step beyond the cemetery he is delirious, full of plans.
We could go out, he says. Dancing, walking, wherever you wanted to go.
Oh, no, she says, shaking her head. No, I don’t think so.
Why not? It’s almost closed up, he says, looking at her neck. And the dress fits now. You gained weight.
I don’t weigh anything, she says matter-of-factly.
He smiles. If you say so.
She looks down the road outside of the gate and stops, pulling on his hand.
What? he asks.
We shouldn’t, she says.
Shouldn’t what? You don’t want to go out tonight?
I don’t think I want to go out any night, she says.
I should go back to where I came from.
But you came from the ground, he says, giving her a little smile as he gestures toward the cemetery.
Isn’t that where I belong?
No, he says. Why would you even say that?
She looks over her shoulder, back to the hill, takes a few drifting steps to the gate: he takes her arm to stop her, his fingers meeting around the narrow bone.
You’re not giving this a chance, he says.
A chance? she says, and there is that look again in her eyes, like she is seeing two things at once.
Look, he urges. I’ll be with you the whole time. I won’t let you out of my sight for one second.
She swallows and her throat makes a clicking sound. I don’t want to get in a car, she says. It always happens in cars.
He doesn’t ask, what happens. Fine, he says, shrugging. We can walk, it’s just six blocks. A nice place. I promise, you’ll like it. Okay?
She is quiet.
Okay? he says again.
He gets her a soda water with cranberry; he drinks bourbon straight. She looks at the glass.
I could have brought you a clean dress, he apologizes. I will next time.
She shakes her head. It’s fine.
Take a sip, he suggests.
She puts the glass to her lips; the liquid somehow doesn’t make it into her mouth. She can feel it dripping down the front of her. The cranberry juice leaves a long pink mark and she scratches at it with a napkin, over and over.
It’s okay, he says, patting her knee. We’ll try again some other time. Did you taste it at all? he asks.
I don’t know, she says, and as she works at the stain on her dress her movements become angry, erratic. What is it supposed to taste like? she says.
What do you mean?
I can’t drink it! she half-shouts, the scarf around her neck slipping; she pushes it back up.
Hey, he says, leaning close to calm her. Shh. There’s nothing wrong.
Her fingers tremble. I still can’t really see you, she says. I don’t know what you look like.
Who cares, honey, you will, you’ll see everything just perfect in a little while, he says, draining his glass. I’ll put a song on for you.
I don’t want music, she says.
He tucks his lips, turns the glass of bourbon in his hands. I didn’t bring you here so you could mope.
What did you bring me here for?
To just… have a nice time. He shrugs. He can’t say what he wants, it is so deep, so difficult inside him. It will take time, he reminds himself; he can wait, he has already been so patient.
Remember this? he says, slipping the ring out of his pocket, putting it on the bar. She stares at it: something flickers in the amethyst heart, the scratched gold band.
Where did you get that?
I found it, he says, grinning. He offers it like a piece of candy, in the palm of his hand. It might be a little big now, he says. But you’ll grow into it.
I don’t want to, she says.
She keeps her hands clasped beneath the bar. He elbows her gently.
Just take it, he says.
She remembers the box it came in, white velvet, stamped with the name of the jeweler in silver letters.
But why? she asks. Why should I take it?
Because it’s yours, because it’s pretty. Why does it matter? Why do you make a big deal out of every little thing?
You’re always complaining.
She is silent.
Hey, come on. You look beautiful. No one can tell what happened to you. Don’t worry about it.
She turns back to him, her eyes fresh with tears; his chest clenches to see them. Water. Life.
It’s not that, she says through gritted teeth. Her cheeks are fuller, rounder. He still can’t believe how young she looks. Is. Was.
Can we try to have a good time? Please?
Yes, she says. I’m trying.
He finishes his drink in hard small swallows. You don’t know what life was like for me before I met you. I know you had it bad, at the end, but you came from a good family at least. Not me.
I’m sorry about that.
You could at least thank me.
She covers her face with her hands. He wonders what she is doing behind them— crying, or getting ready to scream. He looks around the room but no one is watching. He wipes his napkin against the damp bar.
You can go to the ladies’ room and clean your face, you know, he says. You can get that crud out from under your nails. You can make an effort.
She gets up from the stool and walks across the empty dance floor to the bathroom without moving her hands from her eyes.
When she doesn’t come back after a quarter hour he goes to look for her, his knuckles sorry on the door. Hey, you okay? he calls. No answer. He knocks again. Please, I didn’t mean it, just come out.
When he opens the door there is no one inside, just a circle of dirt in the wet sink.
She walks until the pavement gives way to tall trees and soft earth. This is a different place, not the cemetery, not the side of the other road, where he might go to look for her again. This way is steep; she uses her hands and knees to climb her way upward, her shoes slipping over the leaves, until the lights from the town are dim and she can start to dig.
She remembers this: the feeling of the dirt beneath her nails, the taste of it tamped hard into her mouth as the soil sucked her dry. There are white things in this earth, pieces of young roots, or teeth, or bone; she still can’t quite see. Instead she sees him, recalls the naked rage in his face when she threw the ring from the window, the ring he had given her, the ring she did not want. It is on her hand now, because of him, the other one, and she takes it off, throwing it once more into black grass.
Sitting in the shallow pit, scooping dirt over her legs like a blanket, she watches as the white dress darkens; there is no young man here, she tells herself, no ring, no knife. The dress is gone. If she is lucky, she, too, will disappear.
Maryse Meijer’s work has appeared in or at Meridian, St. Ann’s Review, Reunion, The Portland Review, Joyland, actual paper, and elsewhere. Her collection of stories, Heartbreaker, is forthcoming from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, July 2016. She lives in Chicago.