Colleen Burner - Two Stories
A shallow pan of milk, its inside scratched black. Its outside is cobalt enamel, but this doesn’t stop the milk looking yellowy compared to the snow. It’s rich with cow fat so the slugs will find it, crawl away from the leek greens to indulge themselves more luxuriously.
I peel shreds from a platter of chicken in the refrigerator. With chicken-skinned fingers I scoop up the trail of congealed chicken juices like apricot jelly around the chicken’s perimeter. Delivered into my mouth it is flavorless and leaves me oily.
Someone used to sleep here, stay here. I do not remember what became of them. Noises like furious purrs. What did they eat? I have not been to the attic in a long time.
My hand slips through the wall without my permission.
Phantoms of leaks from ceilings and pipes, dripping one day and gone the next. I consider maybe it’s condensation from all this breathing but there can’t be that many lungs in the house. All the walls feel damp, including the walls of my body.
The radiators knock like they want to be let in.
Inside a Wall
Copper insulated wires and petrified mice and a crisp flick when I snap the lights on. Someday they won’t snap off.
Worn pink and raw by heat, cold, and wind. Everything outside eating away my good intentions and efforts to heal the house.
Bring contents to a boil, then simmer until milk thickens (about 3 minutes). Slugs should be engorged, but not bursting. Season with salt, serve in bone china bowls. Consider the bones the china was made with. Consider the way the porcelain glows.
You’re not supposed to watch things so closely, they said. As if there were some consequence once the watched thing realized there was an observer. Some doors have stayed shut for a long time.
Perhaps the house is keening, this leaking. When it breaks or drips, when it needs to desaturate what has been leeched from all the creatures living inside—it comes out like sadness.
I remember daubing blood from the doorway. In secret. I scratch and the blood wells up so easy. I scratch the door. Like an animal trying to reach the other side, leaving gouges, and blood. Time passes the gouges into scars, a marking of past events of pain. I clean with my tongue, also working in daubs, the properties of my saliva washing away anything that might be tasted. Like a raw, blind finger it approaches, probes, scrubs the door, animal hoping for the other side.
Turnips buried like small bald blind heads. What is kept dormant is kept safe.
What shakes in the corner? It consumes a darkness like Saturn devouring his son—cowering and terrific, frothing and seething.
My nostrils itch with smells of smoke, but my hand is cold on the stove. But I flinch for hours expecting the windows to burst from the heat of the flames.
I think they snake around a hidden chamber, a room locked between walls. There is some mazed secret. I can’t remember who built this trick, if the chamber is empty, if someone also fed there.
Skin cells shed by ancestors, dirt filtered in through window casings, earth tracked in under centuries of footsteps. All scratched out by a fingernail when I feel like cleaning. I deposit it somewhere safe and forgettable. Everything bleeds so easily when I scratch it. Comforting.
Bedroom to Kitchen
The knocking in the wall may be coming from my pulse. I sit with the leg drawn up and slit into the fleshy bulb of the knee, a silver dollar half moon produced by fingernail. The racket of blood in my ears seeps out of this new curved opening. I dash on some table salt, I wince and froth and grin.
Time passes and instead of scarring: a slug under the skin. I slit again and the stalked eyes come peeping out. The small slip of body tugs the nerves as I tug it forward; we lunge forward in a trail of blood and mucus and the wound is already beginning to fester as I drop the slug on the butcher block.
The bus driver was our only adult, and he quickly gave in to our Pleases and eager noises at seeing the beach, pulling over so we could pour out of the bus toward the gray sand, which was clay-like near the road and got finer closer to the water but choked the strip of low-growing brush in between just the same. We were scrambling toward the water when we saw the pile. One of us nearly ran right over it. It was a barrier made of bodies laying between what the water contained and us.
We looked at each other and assumed they had washed up out of the ocean. I counted a dozen or so, tangled with gnarled shards of driftwood and soggy clumps of seaweeds. Fishing nets wound around them, though it was hard to tell if this was intentional. They lay in the sand in a lumpy formation, limbs at wrong angles and backs in impossible arcs.
They weren’t much bigger than us, and were covered in long dirty hair, rusty brown, with fine strands like hair we knew, but matted in swirls and widely parted so we could see pale skin underneath. I watched my classmates. A few of the bolder ones reached out to touch a body, exclaimed it was cold, that something under the skin caved in under their hands.
“Throw them back! Throw them back in! We have to get rid of them!” some cried, moving to drag them back into the water so they might float on a current to someone else who could decide what should be done. A few wanted to get rid of them entirely so they might never have been known at all; they felt this burden of discovery was too great, too bizarre to be resolved. Groups of twos and threes grabbed them by the edges of the nets, hammocking them in, heaving them back and forth for momentum before letting them fly into the water.
Others said, “No, no! They had lives!” and began dragging the bodies, light and complying, away from the water.
Alone, I walked to the far end of the body pile, to get a closer look at what we’d found. Their faces and hands and feet didn’t have as much hair. They had fingernails, and it looked as though they kept them at a reasonable length, like we had been taught to do. They smelled like seawater and salted meat. Their eyes were closed, and they had long eyelashes, and noses and lips like ours, only rubbery and stained with decay. Some of the mouths were open, revealing short, gapped teeth. I looked into one of the open mouths and it was full of sea mud. I stepped back and stared at the faces. It was like looking through photo albums of people who were in your family, but you didn’t know their names yet.
One of us, I don’t know if she was pulling to or away from the water, uncovered something and cried out. The body looked the same as the others, but significantly smaller. Smaller than any of us. A child. The hair wasn’t as thick or tangled, and the face seemed more delicate. I ran over with a few others, and with a new panic we began pawing through the sand some of the larger bodies had been moved from. Mostly we found detached parts, arms and legs missing torsos. It was hard to tell why or how they’d been separated. The severed ends seemed clean, neat even, and slightly better preserved than the whole bodies. Had they been cut? we asked each other. Was it some kind of leprosy?
My own hands burrowed deeper in the sand, found something to close around and pull back up. I held another pair of hands, much smaller than my own. The fingers were spread out, as if waving hello or goodbye. Dirt under the fingernails.
I flung them toward the water. I saw the tiny splash they made as they collided with the shallow edge of a wave. I turned to keep digging for more and threw them just as eagerly, but my zeal lacked coordination and most of what I threw wobbled through the air and just barely made it in the water. A foot briefly skipped across the surface before submerging.
The ones who had been pulling the bodies away from the water saw what the rest of us were doing with the separated parts, and ran into the waves to save them. Maybe they would try to find matching sets to reassemble. The gray water lurched forward and back, white foam thick on the incoming tide and breaking over their own small legs and arms as they hurried to save what we had tried to hide.