As young as seven we have seen them squat over small holes in the field and then stir their piss with long sticks to cause storms and hail. Where, we ask ourselves, do they learn these incantations? Although, of course, we already know.
So, we have forbidden large dogs, goats, mice, cats, toads, houseflies and salamanders to have contact with our women. It is sometimes necessary to fumigate them because they can talk to the fleas.
We search their bodies for places he may have pricked, for places that have lost feeling. But, all we find are the usual things.
There is a language of crows. A language in the order of cards; of the swill and spit left in a tea cup; of misplaced objects and raps on the table. Something in crooked handwriting. In sticks rattled and cast, in coins. In shapes found in the ashes of the dead. In the burning of sage or figs, wax dripping into water, the shape of the clouds, in second glances, in the ravings of lunatics. A language written in the erratic movements of dumb beasts or in the spill of their organs. A language of birthmarks, stars, palms, pendulums, dice, burning straw, dreams. Of visions from divine vapors.
When my daughter braids her hair I can see her lips moving around the name of some boy.
Some nights she and her friends make a clutter of girls in my living room. Legs and over large t-shirts. New breasts and imperfect skin. Their whispering interrupted by giggling. Stooped over a plastic triangle and a cardboard alphabet. Reading predictions in their accidents.
And I know that on St. Agnes’ Eve she lays naked under her sheets. Her hands carefully placed behind her head and she waits, like her grandmother did, like her mother. She waits for a hazy impression; an indistinct certainty.
My mother made me without help.
She planted each hair and shaped it; she fit each fingernail, polished, in its place; she grew small jasmine flowers along the walls of my throat so that the breath that carries my voice will be pleasant. For my teeth she chipped porcelain from the toilet. My perfect, perfect teeth. My skin is so smooth: it is like milk on your tongue.
While my bones were still suggestions in cartilage, she put her fingers to my face and worked out something which girls prefer.
My mother afforded these experiments by building explosives for the resistance at night. Nasty little bombs: soda cans that explode and press aluminum bits of shrapnel into the mouths of the enemy. Every morning three or four mangled lips will approach my mother for stitching. In this way my mother makes a living.
Could she see the legion of girls who will bend a little for this smirk? Does she know that I have paid careful attention to each story she has told me: each time and each way she was tricked? How I will work my way first into their ears and then into their mouths?
My mother’s name is Doctor Dominique Steiner and my name proceeds as you would expect.
My mother has thought of most things. She is perfect in her details. She tattooed every letter of the word into the bottom of my tongue except the last, that she inks in each morning. Each morning I kneel before her and offer her my open mouth my tongue extend and allow her to perform her little miracle. That word. If I speak too fast, it sparks.
Once I delayed. One morning I waited and watched her with my closed grin. Watched her grow frantic, begging me to open my mouth. I could smell myself begin to rot. My fingers stiffened. My nails begin to slip from their places. Of course I did relent, opened my mouth casually and let the stench that had collected there roll out. Her relief and then the realization. Her hands shook as she first wrote the last letter with her needle and then smeared the wound with ink. My sweet breath returned and the teeth of my perfect grin caught the tip of her finger before she could extract it. It was just a scrape, something very small.
I sometimes imagine breaking one-by-one each of my fingers until the last ones, which I cannot break without help.
For some weeks I would have difficulty with various things: opening the front door, tying my shoes. Perhaps I would gain an appreciation for these tasks that I used to do with such ease.
The fingers, eventually, would heal with new knots in them and a different sense of the world. With a numbness that approximates memory.
She meets with ghosts in that gray room of hers. Feeds them cold milk from her cupped hands. Everyday she grows thinner. Sometimes when the light behind her presses, I can see through her as through a veil.
Her body has merely its shape with which to make meaning. Like a pepper moth it can be torn in the force of two conflicting winds. That is to say it is inconsequential.
But there are more interesting possibilities. Of a much thinner sort.
God gave each of us a length, which, without exception, must be lived out. Suicides and unnatural deaths are forced awkwardly to live out their term in a half state, an unsure place. Craving the heat. Nestled together thin and unable to keep warm. Spread through the corners—gossamer strands, cobwebs. And subsisting off the fumes of alcohol and the warmth of fresh blood.
Perhaps even less. Just a desire; like a strong wind that can sometimes fill a shape. That can push in a direction with greater or lesser force.
Waiting over a newborn covered in the heat and red of their birth. Sitting by the pour of whiskey.
Who reach out but do not touch. But linger.
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MICHAEL STEWART writes odd, short things that have been published in an array of journals and a couple of anthologies. He is the author of A Brief Encyclopedia of Modern Magic (The Cupboard), Almost Perfect Forms (Ugly Duckling), Sebastian, an illustrated book for adults (Hello Martha Press), and The Hieroglyphics (Mud Luscious Press). Currently, he lectures at Brown University. More of his work can be found at: strangesympathies.com