Death Outside Damascus

Death is an old woman today. Her back is bent, her mouth wide and gasping in the thin air. She has no teeth to gnash in frustration. Instead, her lips smack dryly against one another, seeped of moisture by her endless walk.
As the sun rises, she touches bodies of children with swollen bellies and dark eyes that shine with fear. Some lie on the floors of too-crowded homes. It was hot when they died. They are in green and blue shorts, pink and purple tank tops, red and yellow t-shirts. Some of the children, those outside, have been dragged into neat rows along buildings, to clear the paths for the living.
Death cannot see life, in any aspect. For her, all flowers are wilted, all trees burned or eaten by insects, all buildings destroyed. She finds these beautiful. They are all she has.
Death bends over one body, then another, performing the same act over and over again. She plunges a bony hand into the rib-cage, the other hand into the cranium, and scoops up the flickering flame and smoky wisp that reside there. She brings her hands together and the two combine into a pulsing red oblong the size of a large gem.
Today, Death cannot help comparing her spoils to cartoonish hand-grenades.
Death swallows each gem whole, shoving it into her toothless maw. Her appetite is wholly evaporated, but this is duty, really, more than privilege. She trudges on, feeling her stomach swell as its insides, black holes to an elsewhere she has never seen and never will, extend and retract too slowly for the pace at which she is working.
Death reaches those wrapped in pristine white sheets, corners tucked in to make them look like Russian dolls lying unpainted on an assembly line. She cannot look at their faces anymore. She closes her eyes, the bags below them sagging so low as to touch her cheeks, and reaches into each body. Her invasion is impersonal now, more horrific than she can bear, but it goes quicker when she doesn’t linger over the long eyelashes, the hint of freckle, the curve of the cheekbones, that make human faces unique.
It becomes torture. She walks quickly on her bow legs, bending and rising, each muscle in her form yearning for rest, for a moment’s pause, but this pain allows her to focus on something other than the sheer number in so close a space. Her throat is raw with the rage and hurt encapsulated in the sustenance she ingests and she begins to dry-heave. She punches herself in the throat, forcing her form to discipline, to rigor. It is always like this with massacres, she knows. But every time is like the first. She cannot become immune to it.
When it is almost full morning, Death feels the tug that tells her that she has almost reached the end. For a while. Enough time for her to recuperate, as time in her home doesn’t move as it does here.
She is within sight of the last and she creaks towards him, opening her eyes, ready to make this final connection a true one.
The man is rolling around, his chest is pumping up and down, as if he is still alive, even breathing. But Death knows he is hers. He is being pulled by the living, she can tell, they are trying to save him long, long after he has gone. Death waits patiently for him to be allowed the dignity of lying still. She can almost catch the wail across the divide, the sound the tells her there will be another very soon, but not like this man, no. Rather, Death thinks, one taken by his or her own hand. Only they succeed in making themselves felt to her, all the way from life.
Death kneels by the man’s side. He is thirty, bearded, his eyes a greenish-brown that may seem harsh or soft depending on the expression. His arms are still contorted from his asphyxiation. His chest in concave from where he has been beaten by human hands so eager to rescue him.
As she takes this man’s soul, Death watches his face closely, his cheeks and jaw especially, waiting for the moment at which the body’s tension is released from the burden and weight of sentience. She doesn’t see it, though she holds in her hand the evidence that it has happened. This gem, like all the others, pulses more rapidly than the usual ones do. Torn out of life so abruptly, their very souls are rebelling, Death thinks.
She puts it in her mouth and swallows, slowly, allowing the rough unhewn edges of an unwilling soul to cut her throat. Rushing up across her tongue – the taste of blood.

Relinquishment [Flash Fiction]

I abandoned my baby on the coast, the day the skies rained with fire and brimstone and God called the mighty wrath of hell upon me. I had the puling thing alone in the woods where only the birds and beasts could hear my screams of rage. I lose track of the hours that I lay there on rocks that I had coated with leaves. The leaves disintegrated beneath me because of my sweating and shivering. When it came out I didn’t clean it much, just gave it a rap or two on the back until it started crying and waiting for the next part that I’d been warned about. I didn’t feed it. It was my baby, but it wasn’t. It wasn’t. It did not belong to me and I had to give it back.
I left my baby on the beach where I had stolen the things to make it with. Back when I thought that it was the answer. But I learned differently. I learned with every rust specked nail that scaled me and turned me fish skinned. I made the baby out of curse words and spittle and the dust of murdered friends. I did all that. I did.
It is too late to repent. Either way I will die now and I long for the release with every bone that abandons my body in fatigue. But the baby which is not mine was to live a life. I despise it for what it has done to me. It disgusted me from the moment it stirred within me. I could not look upon its weak face and I will never know it if it ends up in Hell with me. But I know this – it was my responsibility and my mistake and I relinquish its life to another. I have done it enough harm. Let someone else choose to be cruel or kind.

Venison

Three winters ago, Mick and I went hunting. I didn’t know what I was in for. For one thing, the gun was so much heavier than I thought it would be. For another, I hadn’t realized how much waiting around happens.
Mick was so excited about my finally agreeing to go with him. He promised me that he would show me how to cook whatever we killed. When we first started going out, I couldn’t believe that he was the kind of person who went hunting. When I found out that he did, I was horrified. For a while there, I was going to break the whole thing off because it bothered me so much. But Mick was… well, Mick, and I guess I just sort of decided to see where things would go. I think I also didn’t quite believe him, because he has such delicate hands and he plays the piano. I couldn’t reconcile those long, large-knuckled fingers and his mild tenor with what I imagined hunters to be – rugged, rough, hairy manly men.
Eventually, though, I had to accept him in all his various incongruities, because there just isn’t a way to ignore a rabbit carcass roasting over a bonfire in someone’s backyard.
When he took me hunting, Mick told me that it would be a real adventure. I guess it was. We tramped all around through a forest with brightly colored vest things over our jackets so that no one would accidentally shoot us. We crouched down and waited, and breathed, and I felt the mist turning to a drizzle on the back of my neck.
I could hardly hold the gun up, let alone shoot, but watching Mick was fascinating enough to make the ache in my muscles worth it. There was something in his face that seemed akin to his concentration when he plays – but there was something else there, something almost feral. I didn’t, and still don’t, get it. There wasn’t anything exciting happening, but at every breath of wind and rustle of the leaves, his pale skin would flush and a small smile appeared on his mouth, but otherwise he’d stay absolutely still.
He killed a deer that day. That’s something else I didn’t realize – that we would have to carry something huge like that back to the car. Deer are much bigger than you think they are from far away. It was heavy, and Mick almost didn’t want to take it home, but I couldn’t stand the thought of him having killed it for nothing. If we brought the poor thing home, at least we’d be making use of it.
I couldn’t watch him turn the deer from animal into meat. I went to the bathroom and threw up after I saw him slit its stomach open, but I didn’t tell him. I pretended to be hungry, and, to be honest, the smell of the meat roasting actually made me hungry. It was easy to separate the venison from the deer I’d seen lying dead on the forest floor with its thick tongue hanging out and its eyes glazed and empty. I’m glad I never told Mick that I threw up, though.
We didn’t last for very long after that, but it wasn’t because of the hunting. It was because of his other passion – the piano. He got picked up by a touring orchestra and went to Europe. He cried a little when he said goodbye to me, and he apologized. He told me he would always remember me. I know I’ll always remember him too, especially when I see a deer or smell the telltale scent of venison.

Around the World and Back Home

Once upon a time, a little girl asked her grandmother what was on the other side of the forest. You see, this little girl had lived all her life in the little cabin that her grandmother owned, and this little cabin was on the edge of a large forest. Its treeline extended as far as the eye could see on both sides of the cabin.
You may wonder how it is that this little girl had never seen the other side of the forest; the town where her grandmother went to sell the chickens’ eggs and the cow’s milk and to buy provisions she couldn’t grow for herself was on the other side of that forest. You may surmise that the girl didn’t go with her grandmother on these excursions to town. You may assume that the girl was too little to walk across eight miles of winding, forested path to reach the town.
But the truth is even sadder than that – the girl had never been outside her own room since the day she was born and set into her dying mother’s arms. The little girl was very ill, you see, and too weak to leave her bed. She spent her days reading the books her grandmother exchanged at the library in town, and looking out of the window.
Why, you know what’s on the other side of the forest, my dear, the little girl’s grandmother told her when the question was posed. It is the town that I sell our produce to and get your books from.
Yes, Grandmother, I know, the little girl said. And what is beyond that?
Beyond that there are roads and other towns, the grandmother said.
And beyond those?
Beyond those, I suppose, there is the ocean.
And beyond-
Look here, the grandmother interrupted the little girl’s question, we’ve talked about how the world works. I brought you that book with the big maps in it, remember? Beyond the ocean is more land and more ocean, and if you continued to ask what was beyond and beyond and beyond, why, eventually we would come right back to this little cabin of ours.
The little girl sighed and smiled. I thought so, but I wasn’t sure, she said. So it doesn’t really matter that I can’t get out of bed, does it? Because even if I could walk all around the world, I would just get back here.
The grandmother bit back her tears, kissed the little girl’s forehead and left the room. That very night, the little girl died with a smile on her lips.
Her grandmother wasn’t satisfied with the answers she’d given to the little girl. If she had known that the little girl would die so soon, she thought she would have found a way to bring her into the world and show her all its marvels. She felt that by making the world seem like a small place, she had cheated the little girl out of her life. Perhaps, the grandmother thought, the little girl would have lived for many years if she’d have thought that there was something worth seeing out there. The grandmother had thought that the books the little girl read would convince her of that and would help her get stronger so that she could see the world. But the grandmother had been wrong.
It was the custom in the place where the grandmother lived to burn the loved one’s remains and keep them in an urn on the mantelpiece. But the grandmother decided that she couldn’t live out the rest of her life with the urn sitting there and reminding her of the little girl who thought the world wasn’t worth it.
Instead, the grandmother packed up some provisions into a bag, tucked the urn under her arm, and walked through the forest and into town. She walked beyond the town and into another forest and then into yet another town. She continued walking until she reached the ocean, and then she boarded a ship and sailed to the next continent.
It took her ten years, but eventually, she had walked and sailed right around the world. Hobbling home from the opposite direction of that she had started in at the very beginning, the grandmother held the urn tightly. But she was very tired, and the ground was wet with the spring rain, and she slipped and fell.
The urn smashed, and the little girl’s ashes scattered in the meadow as the wind picked them up merrily, as if greeting an old friend. The grandmother watched the gray dust that was once her granddaughter fly happily to and fro, and she smiled. There, she said to the little girl who she could suddenly see quite clearly before her. I’ve taken you right around the world and back home.

Talking to a Chair

“Mommy-Mommy-Mommy-Mommy-Mommy!” The shouts got steadily louder, accompanied by what seemed like an elephant pounding along the second floor hallway and down the stairs. It was amazing that a six-year-old could make quite so much noise.

Greer took a deep breath, trying to keep her temper. The kitchen table was littered with receipts and she felt as if they were all ganging up on her, trying deliberately to bamboozle her into making another calculation mistake and needing to start all over again.

“Mommy!” Rebecca stood in the doorway, hands on her hips. “Didn’t you hear me?”

“I think they heard you in China.” Greer sighed and took off her reading glasses. They made her head ache. “What is it?”

“If you heard me, why didn’t you answer?” Becca shifted her weight to one leg and tapped the other foot. Greer fought down a laugh; it was a gesture her daughter must have picked up from her, and it looked precociously adorable. But Becca hated being laughed at and saw herself as a very grown-up little girl. Greer remembered, vaguely, that she too hadn’t liked the feeling of being just a kid and therefore unworthy of being taken seriously.

“Because I’m working on taxes and I need to concentrate. If you needed me, I knew you’d come down here and talk to me like a civilized person instead of shouting all over the house. And I was right, wasn’t I?”

Rebecca dropped the pose and took the chair opposite her mother. “I dreamed about Daddy.”

“Oh, Becca… Was it a nice dream?”

“No. But Daddy was in it. So it wasn’t only bad.”

“Was Daddy nice?”

“Yes. He hugged me.”

Greer played with a pen, needing something in her hands to stop her from reaching out to Becca, because she didn’t like being touched unless she initiated it. The therapist said that children could develop these kinds of aversions, and Greer knew she needed to respect her daughter’s boundaries, but it was so hard, sometimes, not to be able to hug her whenever she wanted and smell her usually messy hair and remember how once there had been another smell beside it that belonged to the body hugging the girl from the other side and making a Becca-sandwich.

“Can I help?” Becca asked, picking up a long, half rolled grocery receipt and pulling it tightly around her finger.

“Thanks, but no. Why don’t you bring your spelling book in here, though?”

“Okay.”

Greer didn’t believe in heaven, so she looked at the chair that he’d sat in during dinner every night and spoke to it instead of looking up. “I hope you can see her. She’s only six and she wants to help me do my taxes. I really hope you can see her right now. You’d love her more than ever.”

Conversion

“Convince me.”

The whispered challenge echoed in the otherwise silent, empty space. The words didn’t seem to disperse and the lips that had uttered them were still curled aggressively around them. A skittering noise in the wall broke the spell of rage, announcing that the place wasn’t quite as empty as it seemed; there were mice in the walls, at the very least.

A statue loomed at one end of the hall. It was a tragic figure, mouth turned down, eyelids drooping sadly, shoulders drawn up in a helpless gesture. If it was expected to respond, it stayed disappointingly still.

“Convince me!”

No whisper this time; a harsh, ragged voice flew around the high ceiling and traveled up and down the walls. The mice stopped their scratching, fearful of the stranger invading their nocturnal freedom. Sharp whistles came from the speaker’s chest as air wheezed in and out of it. Illness was in the air. The statue’s frown almost seemed to deepen, perhaps in mourning.

“CONVINCE ME!”

The shout dispersed the quickest. Two thumps followed; the mice fled, thinking it was the cat jumping down from some high object. What followed was the most profound lack of sound, more of an absence of anything substantial rather than true silence.

Another Birthday

Freckled with the usual sorrows that inevitably mark the crevices of our faces as we grow older, Ally celebrated her fiftieth birthday alone, stretched out on a foreign beach. She was wearing an old one-piece bathing suit that had become baggy on her during the last year. She’d never known how strange a baggy swimsuit could feel; it was like she was wearing a second skin that had begun sagging and stretching. She wondered if people who lost a lot of weight very quickly felt this way about their extra skin, and then she remembered that technically she could fall into that category and that none of her own flesh and skin felt this way.

The sunlight felt warm on her skin and she fleetingly worried about skin cancer, before bursting out laughing. A passing local – she could tell he was local because he was wearing tight Speedos rather than swim trunks – stared at her, startled. She smiled at him but silenced herself. She was still capable of being embarrassed. Shame and modesty seemed to be human qualities that you didn’t lose, even after being poked and prodded and operated on over and over again.

Three to six months, they’d said. It was now the seventh, and she got to celebrate another birthday, something she’d resigned herself to not being able to do. So she took herself to somewhere warm and faraway, where people didn’t look at her with tears or panic in their eyes at the idea that she could go at any moment.

“Happy birthday to me,” she sang quietly to herself. The crowded beach was noisy and no one heard her, thankfully. She flung an arm over her eyes and decided to take a nap.