I dreamed of dismantling him. He wasn’t the first. I dreamed of dismantling others, too, before and after. But mostly him, for what he did to me when I was small and we were meant to be gorging on chocolate milk and graham crackers while we waited the half hour for my mother to get home.
She never did believe it, my mother. But then, she never believed any badness about me. Not that I could suffer it. Not that I could perpetrate it. She doesn’t mean to, my mother would say. She can’t help herself. And always, always she was apologizing.
I didn’t dismember him right away when I was big enough and strong enough and vindictive enough. For one thing, his relationship with Mother had soured and we’d moved away. For another, I was still trying to please Mother then. Everyone knows the worst thing in the world is abnormality, and I provided that in spades. She always thought it was her fault, something she’d done, a punishment. So I stopped lopping the heads of my dolls and bringing her de-legged, desiccated insects. I took my meds.
And she rewarded me. With ice cream and coloring books. And later with lipstick and lacy, expensive bras. But also with her regard. Her hugs, her smiles, her confidence and trust. We were best friends. She told me everything. Because if I was golden, so was she. Blameless, faultless, perfect. For a while, that was enough.
Sometimes I would slip. My mother would catch me dreaming of it, taking him apart the way I used to shred live moths and even once, covertly, a shivering, winter-doomed mouse.
What in the world can you be thinking of, wearing a face like that? she would ask, aghast, fist pressed to her jiggling, silicon bosom.
I would flatten my lips and narrow my eyes. Erase the smirk and the shiny, wide-eyed mirth. And then I would make something up. Something not gory. She knew. She must have known. But she accepted the lies, whatever they were. No matter how weak or unlikely.
But then my mother was dead, gone off to join my never-known and never-missed father. The police never could figure it out. The randomness of her death. The brutality. After, there was no one to stop me.
I buried what was left of him beneath the thorny vines behind his house. Later, I came back for the house. I liked the view. I didn’t even need to dip into mother’s bequeathal. Despite the convenient location and excellent shower pressure, the realtor was having trouble selling it. The locals were suspicious and superstitious. They jibber-jabbered and I made out like a bandit.
In the spring, the vines blossomed. Heavy, star-shaped fruits bent the brambles near to the ground. I plucked one. The skin was golden like a Nilla wafer and lightly furred like a kiwi. In the kitchen, I sliced it into eights along the points of the star. The flesh inside was soft and pink and juicy. It was unlike anything I’d ever seen. Despite the unfamiliarity, I leaned against the counter and ate it. So smooth, so refreshing and sweet, was the taste that I licked the juice off my fingertips like a cat.
I spent the night feverish and delusional, coiled around the low-flow toilet, vomiting. I imagined I saw my mother, rubbing her temples.
How many times must I tell you to mind what you stick in your mouth? she asked. And indeed, this was a childhood problem of mine, one I sacrificed to keep her happy.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
She shook her head. Why do you do this to me? Or perhaps she said “did,” for she rotted before my eyes, dropping into a pile of flesh and bones on the floor.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Imsorryimsorryimsorry,” I moaned into the porcelain.
I thought, too, that I saw him, the house’s former owner, smirking in the corner, pleased with his revenge. Paltry revenge.
“You’re dead!” I screamed, but he carried on chuckling and pointing and leering, nudging the shoulder of another man I couldn’t properly see. He was a shadow, more the shape of a man than a man truly. He radiated a feeling of sadness. My father, perhaps?
It was this shadow man I most wanted to rend. For looking, for witnessing, for seeing what was meant to be buried.
In the morning, the fruit that had only yesterday been ripe and sweet lay rotting in the grass. I didn’t bother to throw it away for every day new fruit grew, ripened, and rotted.
Despite the night I’d suffered, despite the evidence lying in the grass, not eating the fruit was a trial. Still it hung, ripe and exotic on the vine. Still I remembered the juice running down my fingers as I bit into it.
I clipped a piece of the vine and tried to grow a second plant. If I couldn’t eat it, I wanted at least to look on more of the beautiful fruit. The clipping took and the vine grew rapidly, but no fruit bloomed from its branches. The stars, it seemed, required particular sustenance.
The first vine continued its accelerated life cycle, and its decay drew animals. Scavengers scaled the fence and picked amongst the filth. Raccoons, crows, beetles. Their strong stomachs seemed to abide the fruit, though the corpses of other creatures, tricked by the ripe, still-on-the-vine stars, littered the lawn. Eventually, I ceded the territory. I gazed out the kitchen window, but stopped attempting to set foot in the yard.
Humans, too, were drawn to the sight. Neighbors stared, transfixed. They slowed as they passed, lowering their voices to whispers, gossiping as they held their noses. They had suspicions about the animal corpses, but none ever approached me, nor I them. Until the stranger.
He had a lame leg, which he dragged as he walked. His flesh was covered in scarred-over burns, but also in bright, winding tattoos. It was hard to discern what was self-inflicted and what wasn’t.
He followed his nose, limping around the perimeter of the house, and stood outside the fence, staring at my ripe and rotten fruit, my dead and living pets—for I had gotten careless about the back door and windows and now insects crawled in the sugar bowl and rodents curled on my rugs—not with revulsion, but with interest, as if he could look right through the blooms, inside the leaves, under the ground, and into the roots. He looked as though he could see, and was interested in knowing more. But no one was supposed to see.
He plucked a fruit and left. He did the same the next day and the next. He only ever took one fruit. He only ever took the tricksy, luscious-looking fruit. I grew curious.
One day I stood by the vine and waited for him, at his usual time, around noon. He thumped and thumped until he was standing just across the fence from me. He really was quite disfigured. But inside the ruin of his face, his eyes were human, as were the tongue and teeth inside his mouth.
“Nice to see you up close and without a glass pane between us,” he said. A hardhat was hooked to his belt. A house and a fire and a family twisted around his bicep. Everything about him was so on the surface. What kind of monster, I wondered, lay beneath?
One of the crows, the one I called Rook, landed on my shoulder and I drew my fingers down his spine. Caw, caw, he said.
“What,” I asked, “do you do with the fruit?”
He picked a fruit off the vine and spun it by its stem. I noticed that there were many faces inked onto his skin. Names and dates hid amongst the elaborate designs that flanked the faces. Sandra 4/18. Janae 9/29. Mostly women, it seemed.
“Perhaps I like to eat them.”
Rook picked through my hair, looking for grubs. I pushed his beak away from my scalp. Caw, he said.
“You must have a strong stomach. This fruit is poisonous.”
I thought of it, ripping him into little, inky, burned pieces. No better candidate. Mother would be so disappointed.
The man saw my lunatic expression, my sharp teeth and my big eyes, and he smiled with his twisted mouth. I noticed there was an empty, inkless space peeking out from the neckline of his T-shirt, above his heart.
“What is your name?” he asked.
And I told him, for I believe in fair play.
© 2016 by Carla Dash
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