The first time he told me he didn’t dream at night was the first time I realized that I was suspicious of him as a human being. Still, standing here outside his window looking in at him asleep, I was reminded of my compulsion towards him, wondering if I could insert myself into his night mind. His hand cupping his cock, his tattoo of his wife’s initials on his shoulder. He was all mistake and entitlement, small yet taking up a lot of space.
I could make out his body held by the sheets, the way one foot was exposed, his head tucked too deeply into his chest. I thought about the energy it would take to right his head so that he wouldn’t snore so loudly. I craned my neck to scan the night table for his CBDs, wondering how deep he was into a world that was as empty as the hillsides I had walked along to get here.
When we met, we were just kids, scuffed knees and braids. I had been living in the heat of the suburbs, a few stories up in an apartment building built of carpet and microwave. He came from the country, rode in on his bike like it was a pony, threw rocks at my window. He had seen me looking out, pressing my hand against the moths that crawled sideways against the glass towards my bedroom light. He barely had to motion for me to come down to join him under the streetlight. When we got face to face, I saw right away that he had a crooked grin. We rode his bike down to the graveyard, sat on tombstones sharing gum, him looking at my legs. It was the beginning of a pattern, him looking until I felt compelled to show more, opening my shirt. He squeezed my nonexistent breast, just a nipple, the same as his, but squeezed it till I winced. I punched his arm. Later that night was when he told me he didn’t dream, and for years I wondered about the containment of dreams. That maybe he was living his out in real time, that his life was such that he didn’t have to harbor an unlived life beneath the sheets behind closed eyes.
In silence I moved around to the front of his house, my hand in my dress pocket. The heaviness of the knife weighing down on soft material, the way it fingered a hole in the seam, made me feel grounded, like I was a part of this world. His tools were scattered across the deck. I let my bare foot rub the length of the mallet. Sometimes, he had told me, when he was most angry, he would slam blocks of pavement, delighting in the sound of wreckage.
When we were 16, he had delighted in the sound of me. I was wreck and slam, quiet yet hungry. The way he held me up in the hallways after school, whispering that I belonged to him. I hadn’t really thought of myself as property before then, but there were some romantic as well as practical notions involved in being owned that were appealing. For one, it would be a respite from the football team. It would also mean that someone loved me enough to claim me, to draw a line around my body, to piss away predators and abandonment. When he said it, when he had me by the throat and whispered you are mine, a small gasp would escape that he would lick off my lips. He told me that he loved getting me pregnant, the way I became full, one part him and one part me.
When he picked me up from the clinic two counties over, I had leaned across the bucket seats of his car with a mascara smeared face to place my hand on his inner leg. Very lightly, I felt him brush it away. Now, with my hand on his door, I felt another boundary. One of wood and knob, built by him. Yet I could feel myself so effortlessly sail through, to arrive in his kitchen, where he used to feed me meat.
I walked over to the counter. I did not need light or pause. I laid the switchblade on the cutting board stained with blood. I pulled the other knives from the wall mount, admiring the curve of the boning blade, the cleaver which seemed cliché given the circumstances, the paring knife that I had borrowed while canning nectarines. I let myself bend down to listen to them, for one of my abilities is to hear the stories of knives. They sing right out of their blades, a cut of bird song. The cleaver moaned guttural of cracking bone, the paring knife crescendoed to the removal of soft flesh. And yet, it was the switchblade that sung the loudest of all the knives, and tonight, it sung the song of the first time he cut me.
I had been straddling him in the grass of his family’s ranch, reading a poem he had written for me. My hair was short, a messy cut, I was only 24, wearing combat boots and a bomber jacket. He had been playing with my necklace, a small shell on twine, wrapping it around his fingers, tugging it against my neck. When I was done reading, he told me that I was more beautiful than any poem that he could ever write. My eyes grew big and I bit my lip, excited. ‘Are you truth telling?’ I demanded. ‘Sure,’ he said, laughing. I reached back to his boot beneath my body, pulled his knife from his sock and released the blade, holding it to his throat in mock anger. ‘Tell me the truth,’ I whispered. He leaned up, kissing me hard, gently taking the knife from my hand. He released my neck and took my arm, keeping his eyes locked on mine. I knew not to look down, I knew what he was going to do and that I was expected not to wince this time. He cut the incision on the softest part of my arm, tracing my iron with his carbon steel, then raised the wound to his lips. He drank from me, and I thought this meant I was prettier than any poem he knew. But really, now that I was in his kitchen listening to the knives of his home, I understood it only meant that he had cut me.
Of course, boys don’t know north from south and they wander away on bikes with faster wheels the older they get. I was left in that shitty town that smelled like walking meat and slur. Before he left, I had stolen his knife, kept it in a box he had carved for me. Two swallowtails, like those tacky tattoos that everyone has, but he made them look pretty, like they were diving out of the wood. He knew I didn’t want what everyone had, but he gave it to me anyway, always making it pretty.
I pushed the bedroom door open with my breath. His clothes on the floor smelled like ash and fish, like he was one-part campfire and one-part swimming hole. I walked past his sleeping form into his bathroom to suck on his toothbrush. I could taste that fancy toothpaste, the one flavored with anise. I looked into the shower, the place where he had called me from, sending me pictures like he couldn’t even get dressed without needing me. The soap he lathered himself with while telling me we were one. All one.
It was a long drive down a straight shot of a highway to meet him at the estuary, my red car sleepy with age and diesel. When I parked, I saw the water had flooded so high a baby cow had got stuck in the reeds, her little stiff legs all straight and hoofed, her bloated belly lapped against by salted water. I just stood there watching her as he closed in behind me. I could feel his warmth on my back, wrapping his hands around my throat, me confusing my lack of breath for love. He loved me so hard I dropped to my knees, tasted grass in my eyes, saw my nose bleed the banner of his lust as my tooth cracked against his steel toed boot. Two feet and a body, I was sky bound then low again. I saw him roll me down to the ledge of the bank, the way he tipped me over with his foot, his hands in his pockets. That stuck with me, how casual the whole affair looked. Couldn’t quite tell if it was an accident or like they say on TV, premeditated. It didn’t feel causal though, it felt like death.
My pink dress spread like a valentine around my body. My hair seeped against the algae, and like a magnet, I was pulled towards that baby domestic bovine, my arms catching my own bloat in the cold of night. When I opened my eyes, I saw crawdads crawling up my legs, I could feel my lungs filling with water like I was in utero, breathing but drowning. I could see blood swirling around my face, my eyelashes had grown in the night, my hair turned white. At the bottom of the river floor sat the skull and ribs of the baby cow.
When I dragged myself back up out of the estuary, clinging to acidic mud and cow shit, it was the feeling of drowning that remained. It felt as if the entire world was caught in the deepest parts of my lungs, and no matter how hard I coughed, I could not release the world. Both our cars gone, the pullout overgrown with blackberry bramble and hemlock.
I walked down that highway of perpetual night, coughing and spitting up blood for two years. Made a car crash now and then (no fatalities), but mostly watched children watching me, their faces turning towards the edge of headlights, seeing my dress drenched through, me cursing them perverts through bloodied teeth.
I spent a few years in the cow fields. I would nurse off the mama cow’s teats, watching the milk twist and turn through my organs, catch in my bladder and then leak between my legs. I would crawl onto the bone of the cow’s back, wrap my arms around her thick neck, wipe the flies from her eyes. Owls would screech above us as I rode her through the fields, as close to a lullaby as I could remember.
Spent some time in a diner with a flashing neon sign, waitresses heavy with dyed red hair and cracked knuckles. I kept to the restroom, sniffing handprints on the bathroom stalls. I could smell the toddlers down low, arms snatched by paranoid mamas clutching diaper wipes. Higher up, a drunk teenager, grasping for balance, one hand on each side, smelling like Peach Schnaps. Higher up on the wall people slammed bodies during the 2am shift, before or after burgers, quaking the whole establishment through pleather miniskirts and unzipped coveralls. I never did get to see it. As long as I was there, people would walk in, take pause, avoid looking in the mirror, and walk right out. I sighed deeply, my bare feet on the cool tiles of highway lore.
Did you know that most women are murdered by someone that they know? It’s true. I don’t want to get all statistical on you, I’m not trying to act like I am smart or some part of a trend. But, I have to tell you, once someone murders you, you have to wonder if you ever really knew them.
Not only that, but from this side, it looks like there are a lot of ways you can die. Like, sometimes, it’s not even your whole body. Little pieces of you die off, disappear, go missing. When I was walking that highway, I saw all sorts of body parts floating past. A pair of lips belonging to a child, after being told to shut up, the bottom lip trembling. A whole side of a woman got caught on a 35MPH sign right out of town, curved and plush, dead from being told her body was fat and ugly. For two whole days, I could not shake this stranger’s heart, it just floated right along beside me, the aorta all jagged and raggedy from being pulled from someone’s chest. You could see the bruises of meanness on it, the places it had atrophied blue. Sure, I had bloody cracked teeth and eyelashes caked with water fleas, but at least I had my feet. I didn’t have to float.
But I could. I could float right up next to him and I did. Let my body hover over his, the water dripping from my dress. He rolled to his back, still asleep, his pretty little throat exposed. My drippings pooling in his sheets. It’s true what they say, he pissed right on himself, like a baby. I let myself get real close to his face. I could see that little boy who pinched me. The one who cut me. The one who got me pregnant and rode out of town like he didn’t know me. The man who came back to treat me like trash. I licked his lips, just to see what that crooked grin tasted like. It tasted like the moment before you scream because I am prettier dead than any poem you’ll ever write. His eyes opened as I pulled out his knife.
Kelly Gray (she/her) is a writer and educator living among the redwood trees on occupied Coast Miwok land. Her book of poetry ‘Instructions for an Animal Body’ is forthcoming from Moon Tide Press, and her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Atticus Review, River Teeth, Bracken Magazine, and elsewhere. She is currently working on a chapbook of short stories that examines the messy intersections of love, abuse, tiger paws, and knives. Find out more about Kelly on her website.