Pushcart Prize Nominee
So Long We Become the Flowers
The fallen tree below my heart hears my thoughts. Her dead and wrinkled leaves cackle above me. Stray strands of my damp hair, in silence, mimic hers, like curls of willow over my open eyes. My cheek, unmoving and pressed against her bark, feels the memory of a smile inside the muscle. She’s taking care of me. She’s trying to be soft for me, unlike the frozen ground beneath my crooked, broken knees. The arching shape of her becomes the shape of me, and my stomach sinks up into my ribs, lungs deflating. I think they’re leaking.
Don’t go… breathes the bark into the slip of space between her body and my torn throat. She holds me.
There’s a similarity between the patterns of my fingerprints and the inside of my tree, with all her loops and whorls and knots. Where my fingers lie, curled like a dead spider, they feel the pressure of the earth’s gentle pull, and the gnarled rise and fall of her bark, making sleeping places for the little things that crawl. I don’t think insects creep. We say they creep to make us feel better when they catch us by surprise in a web woven from our own unobservance. I think, instead, they take the time they mean to take, never rushing, never fussing, only thinking simply of survival.
Behind me, I can hear the car hissing. The scent of oil blows through the air like sour breath from where it’s bleeding, the fluid pulsing out in sounds that could be gulps or gasps. A single amber indicator blinks at me in shock. From inside - or maybe outside - an animal howls. I think it might be stuck. It’ll stop soon.
Above us, the moon tries hard to find me. I think we’re playing hide and seek. Camouflaged in the mud and muck of the forest floor, perhaps I’m going to win. The still standing trees around me watch her. Their crooked bodies lean in funny shapes, fingers reaching, stretching, curling upwards, scratching at the stars like hags’ hands. Are they trying to scare me or shelter me? Protect me and my transformation, now I’m theirs. The moon passes behind a cloud. God calls off her search.
My fallen tree and I are alone again. Knots of moss and lichen look like tufts of hair across her carcass- white and grey - the colour of ash and ghosts. Her skin looks like an ocean frozen in the moment of a storm. Black and brown rise and fall in waves and meet in pools of my dripping red. I sound like an ending rainstorm. Pat pit … Pat… Pat pit…
The leg of a spider touches the edge of my hand. I feel the faint vibration of a memory of something that could be fear but isn’t. I watch him. Another slim, delicately-jointed leg. Then another. His tiny, seed-shaped body appears over the crest of my hand, and he begins his careful journey. In my observance of him I feel every empathetic emotion and none. He’s too small to feel the way I’m capable of feeling. If I’m still capable of feeling. I might crush him and not feel a thing. After all, my wide pupils are bigger than his whole body. Yet, I observe, his legs could encompass the entire soft shell of my eye if he ever found himself inside my skull.
Unaware of me, his hair's-breadth limbs brush and kiss my knuckles, the broken bones beneath what’s left of my shredded skin, each his little mountain until at last he steps from my hand and back onto the dark and buckled hide of my tree. He exists already as a ghost within the hollow cave of my ear and I swear I can hear his footsteps, his heartbeat, his thoughts.
Right beside my open eye, I see her, dressed in black and ashen white - a slit up each leg of her eight-legged, moon-shadow dress. The wind that prickles the ghost of goose flesh on my skin passes over her without a thought. She doesn’t move, poised against the peak of bark and sitting so serenely as if she doesn’t even know my friend is there. She knows he’s there, my little crawler, crawling on his little hands towards her. Close behind her. Right behind her. On her. Mounting her. I see the first of his long legs slip in sync with hers. Moonlight captures the movement of her head as she leans back and,
cheek to cheek with his soft spider flesh, she bites.
Now she moves, and so does he while I, so close and yet so far removed from them, observe and wonder at my first sixteen-legged spider. How exciting. How horrifying. How simply numb I am to see their little bodies jerk inside the quiet of a breathless forest, where all their cries are nothing but my hollow imagination joined in empty, humming harmony with theirs. I have no inclination to interrupt her pleasure, nor his demise; only to observe. Just observe. As the old gods around my pale flesh shell observe me and mine.
What do you want? My tree whispers.
The ghost of the person still inside of me whispers, but I don’t understand her. The words are a memory’s echo that make as little sense as the screams of my spiders.
I want to live.
I want to die.
I want to exist, and not, and hang between, hiding from the moonlight in the arms of my fallen tree, feeding her and loving her and allowing her to softly bite me back into the earth with her until we are the mud below my broken knees and backwards twisted feet.
This. I want this.
I watch my spider crumple from the back of his lover as she pulls him off and into bite-sized pieces. His limbs no longer twitching, eyes, for all I ever saw them, the exit wounds of a soul that maybe never was.
And what would you do, whispers my beloved dead tree, if I made you like me? The roots within her soul reach up and out of the earth, winding around my cold, crooked legs. Their antennae search and find the poking bones breaking out of me like crocus shoots. I feel her pull. I ask,
What do you want?
Memories of the moment when she tells me what she wants fade before her words are formed, but leave a lingering softness of reassurance and warm pleasure, like drinking wine. They seep inside me like sap; sweet and sticky. So I tell her what I’d do,
I would drink the rain… and dance in wind… and sing through birds… and laugh in leaves… and love like spiders love without feeling or fear or pain… and I’d be happy
Her core, where all the rings collide, sings;
Her broken bow moans and I feel her breathe down, feeding all the parasites that grow on her. The eating spider doesn’t notice anything, the red seed of her body pulsing with every gentle bite.
Happy…I remember this…
I remember it too. Vaguely. To call it a dream would be too visceral: the shape of bones below the surface of an unmarked grave. I remember the smell of other things than cold
and dirt. I remember what unhurt felt like on my skin, and I remember when feeling at all was a peaceful war inside a living shell that breathed and beat and bled at every exhausting moment of its own existence. Now it’s just the shallow footprint left behind to wait for old gods to find and feed on. But the footprint of happiness is still fresh enough that my tree can feed, and for her I remember happy.
I remember the drink the stranger bought me. I remember his breath against my mouth when we danced, and the moan of music in my ears, his quiet earthquake laugh, and the murmur of suggestion in my ear. I remember the frost of new night air and the smell of cigarettes inside his car bringing a rush of sacrilegious longing. I remember the moonlight losing sight of us below the trees as we rushed by. His flashing smile. Hands on me. On my leg. Stuck down inside my waistband. Not on the wheel.
And all his love, like spider’s love, that loved me so well it left me here when I so willingly gave myself to him for him to kill.
The car has gone quiet now. No more hissing. No more howling. Everything behind me is gone.
I feel the bulbs of mushrooms blossom slowly down my back through the holes the birds make; feathered gardeners plucking holes in their new tatty-sack for fresh life to sprout. My deflated cheek has turned to pulp below the weight of my sleep, and time has curled my hair into the moss. Where my skin has peeled away like sheets of dampened wallpaper, I feel an itch like worms’ teeth as what’s left of me begins to ripple.
Above, the sky has turned to soft, corn blue. The crows are back again. They call my name, landing on the limbs of hags to call for me.
Below me, I hear her singing,
Stay with me…
But the clouds have long-since passed over the inside of my eye to make space where my soul once was for the new ones that my little friend will lay. Finished with yet another lover, she crawls inside. I am home.