Shirley first came when I was seven, slithering through the window on the smell of burnt plastic. She sat on the end of my bed, a dim silhouette that moved like static. She was silent at first though I knew that it would not last, that before long she would click her tongue against her teeth and out would come words; cracked and dust coloured. But for now speech evaded her, though she opened her mouth all the same, snapping it shut again to indicate where the full stops should be. She was slightly out of time, but the muscle memory lingered like a dancer out of practice. The night she came, I heard the spiders climb down from the walls and hide in the cracks between the floorboards, lines of them straight and scuttling, heard the silken wings of moths beating toward the dark. I did not know what else to do, so I sat with her, upright and untouching, until my eyes swam with sleep. I felt the bed lighten, heard the windowpane draw up.
Initially, my parents thought that I had an imaginary friend. Shirley started to visit in the day, when I was alone--in the dull heat of the garden, under the eucalyptus tree, her shadow stretching longer and longer; under the steps in the cellar, where I could not see her but knew that she was there, her lips opening and closing in the dark; by the sink in the bathroom whilst I brushed my teeth, never close enough to reflect in the mirror. I brought her cups of tea, the rubble from biscuits crushed in my pocket, pieces of toast with butter and jam. She ate none of it. At first I threw out what she did not take; then I ate for her, as if I was dining with an old friend, sampling their meal at their invitation. I brought her more than food: shells, polished lumps of stone, pieces of ribbon, and colored string. Once 1 brought her a bone, bleached white and smoothed in the river until it shone. She seemed more excited than I had ever seen her, smiled and smiled, laughed soundlessly so that I could see the dark O of her throat.
After my parents divorced, I went to live with my mother in a house made of wood. It was painted red and had four windows. The frames were soft and rotting, and where they sagged they made the house look bleary-eyed. Ivy had grown in through the walls and, though my mother tried to tear it out, it only returned, until at last we grew weary of the fight and accepted defeat. I grew to like it, enjoyed its persistence and its woody centipede arms. Shirley was dismissive of the house, walked through the rooms as though she did not feel them worthy. Her soft bulk filled up the door frames, made the ceilings stretch down to sit around her shoulders.
She learned how to speak when I was twelve. It did not come at once, as I thought it might have done but like a radio slowly being tuned. At first, I heard snatches of her breath when she was behind me, only ever a ragged in-out, but enough to know that she was there. One day, a few months later, came the sound of a tree being felled, and out of her mouth came I. For a while, this was all she could say. I replied you you you you you you. She seemed delighted, her face scrunching behind the thick frames of her glasses, the curls of her hair bobbing up and down. She came more regularly then, like she knew that the more she visited the more she would gain. She was right--a few weeks later came you. She strung together whole sentences from the two words, paragraphs of I and you streaming out as though she was worried that she could lose them again, as if she they were crowded in her throat. Sometimes she almost vomited them.
Petra and I had both moved to the neighborhood at the same time. We sat next to each other in school; she picked at her cuticles while I counted the freckles on her shoulder. Her house was neat and made out of red bricks, with a pointed roof the color of honey.
When Shirley first spoke a complete sentence to me she did so calmly, without indication of what she was about to do.My brave girl. My wise, brave girl. I was sitting on my bed when she said it, her, as always, perched on the end. I licked my lips in surprise, let out an intake of breath that I realized I had been holding since I was seven years old. I drew closer to her, close enough to touch her cheek, shining and waxed and red as an apple. I rested my head on her rough woolen skirt as she began to stroke my hair. She smiled.
After that, she was no longer separate but constantly with me, like the hum of the refrigerator. At times, I forgot she was there. Now I was the one who sat silent, listening to her Californian drawl, her whispered stories. The more she spoke the less I had to, until I became almost silent. My hair, previously pinstraight, sprang fluffy curls that I brushed out, pinned back away from my face. My eyesight worsened until my parents had to take me to the opticians. Sitting on the creamy PVC of the chair, I rested my chin on the bridle of the camera, looked at blurry houses and recited diminishing lines of letters. The reason for the ocular degeneration, the optician explained to my mother, was probably puberty. It was true: my chest had swelled, my thighs patterned with stretch marks. From my armpits, my groin, my legs, hair sprouted, at first soft and downy, then coarse and dark. It felt like a revolt. I began to speak more to Shirley then, no longer about food or school but about the way I felt that my blood had become hotter, thicker. About how I could only speak to her. Her voice reverberated around my body, seemed to vibrate from my bones at the same time I saw it spill out of the black hole of her mouth. She soothed me, told me in her gentle murmur that one day my flesh would burst with words until it formed a shape that made sense to me.
Petra was a few months younger than me, and yet was older in a way that made me feel shrunken, half-formed. She had moved many times in her life, and each time she had found it easier to leave less of herself behind, like sloughing off dead skin, until in the end she ceased to do it at all. I longed for her with an electric-hum intensity, my body filled with static. I talked about her to Shirley, to myself: her red-blonde hair resting on her shoulders, the soft skin of her wrists, the seashell-curve of her ears. Shirley shifted her weight on my bed, pursed her lips critically. Said she knew the danger of beautiful things. I wanted her to love Petra as I did. I took to standing outside Petra's house, describing to Shirley the cornices, the huge bay windows.
Summer came fast, storms loud and sudden. In between the rain the heat felt stagnant, the white cotton of my collar stained brown after only a morning of wear. I spent the nights listening to the sighs of the crickets, the soft howls of the neighborhood dogs. Shirley did not seem to be affected by the heat; never perspiring, still wearing her woollen cardigan, her thick knitted tights. I started to resent the feeling of her on my bed, the weight on the corner of my mattress, as I jostled and rolled in my thin sheet, trying to find a cool spot. I think she sensed this. Sometimes, now, she talked over me. Sometimes she directed the conversation to be about the house, about the dust on the mantelpiece or the rot that crept up the stairs and curled the wallpaper. I began to not answer her, to allow silences to form underneath her questions, but this did not deter her. She spoke enough for both of us, answered her own questions better than I could.
Our evenings were spent in sighs. I talked only of Petra's eyelashes, translucent in the sunlight. About her long, thin fingers. I did not know heartbreak then, but Shirley told me, sighing, of how it felt to be reduced to dust. To feel yourself dissolve and disappear.
Petra and I had the same birthday. I told the date to nobody, listening to Petra talk at school about the presents she was going to receive. Every room in her house was covered with thick, high-pile carpets; at night I dreamt of gifts covering every inch of floor space, sinking deeper and deeper as I tried to wrench them out. Petra stood there whilst I struggled, laughing flatly, the sound looped. When I looked back at her it was Shirley that stood there, a neat smile of triumph on her face.
For my birthday gift my mother bought me school textbooks and waited there, chewing her lower lip, while I eased the Sellotape off the packaging. When I saw the contents, she moved forward in a movement that almost seemed like an accident, a jerk so dissimilar to her usual careful gestures thatI winced. I know it's not ... She stopped herself, smiled nervously in a way that made my eyelids burn, my tongue feel dry and sickly. I felt Shirley watching me, her lip curled up, teeth exposed. It's a great gift ... Really useful, thanks mom! I gave thanks until I felt that the volume of my speech was beginning to make the situation worse. I went to my bedroom, where Shirley was already waiting for me. Her crisp blouse shone against my unmade sheets; it made her body look too white, too bright. I sat in my desk chair, rotting and riddled with woodworm, and looked at her as she came over, as she beckoned for me with her long fingers, nails wreathed in earth. She was excited-the air seemed to vibrate around her--although her eyes did not, could not change. She pressed her lips all the way to my ear until the skin touched, her mouth cold and metallic. We eat the year away. We eat the spring and the summer and the fall. We wait for something to grow and then we eat it.
Petra's birthday cake was white with pink frosting that ran bulbous along the edges. It's kind of embarrassing that they got me a cake, she said, flicked her thumb and forefinger into its scalloped edge. Her face had an edge of panic, a pinchedness to it, as if she'd been caught vulnerable. I hadn't seen her like this before; she'd always seemed at ease with her parents' wealth. I thought of her reclining on overstuffed sofas, soles resting on plump footstools--that's what money meant to me then, the simple comfort and ease of soft furnishings. She dipped her fingers into her mouth, saliva swirling the rainbow icing into a mess of neon, and then, with a sly look, withdrew them and stabbed the mixture onto my cheek. It was sticky, sweet--the smell of chemicals and sugar so fine it dissolved on your tongue.I shrieked in mock horror, widened my eyes into an exaggeration while she laughed. Go in there, clean your face, she giggled, pointing to a downstairs bathroom.I looked at her, eyes more relaxed now, gray like the scum on sea foam. I felt the mark on my face where she had smeared the cake. I wanted to hit her. I wanted to push her over on the floor and snatch at her hair and stick my tongue in her ear.I stared at her mouth, my skin prickling, blood rising hot and impatient. Her smile left her face, and she stared back at me, slowly licked her upper lip. It caught the light, pink and wet.
Her mother came into the kitchen, said Petra, honey, your uncles here. He wants to say happy birthday. Her voice was heavy with midwestern vowels. Her e's and i's contained a ghost of Petra--the slight dimples, the widening lips. Our faces, heavy and unwieldy, turned toward her. Coming now, Petra replied, too loud. I went toward the bathroom, heard the lighter-click of her mother's heels as she left the room, Petra's shuffle.
Petra's bathroom was clean and pale with soft towels, large mirror. An orchid heavy with blooms, fleshy and pink and yawning open, made me feel indecent. Shirley could not bear to be near me when I was with Petra, though she had never explained why. Now she straddled the side of the bathtub, a leg on either side, the gusset of her tights straining. I saw her, hair dark and static, breasts barely constrained by her brassiere, the bulk of her stomach spilling over each side, so different from Petra's taut perfection. Her tights were laddered near the crotch. I hated her more in that moment than I had ever done, certain she could not understand. She could not understand Petra, her blonde eyelashes, her throaty voice, the heat of her. Shirley's mouth was meaty and strange. Little flies flicked around her. Why are you here? Why are you here, Shirley? My voice was a low hiss. Fuck off. She didn't react, only blinked at me, her eyelids creaking open and closed. She'd never known me like this; usually my anger was directed toward other people--teachers, relatives, peers. When this happened she was sympathetic, kind, spread her hands like a preacher for me to lay my head in. Often I noticed the upturned edges of her mouth, the bliss that melted her features. But this time it was her whose name I spat, raspy and strange. She rattled, breath like an empty seedpod, mouth stretching toward me, before she disappeared.
I wet my cheek, smearing the frosting around my face, then rubbing it into my lower lip, circling the flesh, soft and damp, until finally I slipped my fingers in my mouth, licking off every trace of Petra's saliva. She tasted vaguely acidic, left a lemon tang against my tongue. I felt like I could taste all of her now--spit, sweat, blood--and gasped at the release, fingers scrabbling at the ceramic rim of the sink, capillaries swelling and stretching. A throb that swallowed my insides.
I told Petra about Shirley shortly after our birthdays. When I saw her I felt like I'd eaten too much sugar; a churn in the bottom of my stomach that meant I would soon vomit. I loved her for her gray eyes, her freckled shoulder, wanted her and wanted to be her. I wanted what Shirley and I had: to walk on her legs, put my feet on top of her feet. Crawl inside her skin, stretch my fingers up the veins. Where she would go, I would go too. Slowly we would look the same, think the same things. People would say are you twins? and we'd laugh because only we would know. I told her when she sat down beside me, her knee creamy and pale next to my thigh, both of us silent. I longed to touch her, even if it was just her leg or her arm or her foot. Instead I explained--stuttering, stumbling--how I had been split in half like a log; how in one half Shirley resided, a world of half-words and muttered truths; and how in the other there was me. And the words left my mouth, My brave girl. My wise, brave girl.
Petra did not leave like I expected her too, only looked me in the eye and--a sudden movement--kissed me. Her spit tasted of salt and coffee, the hint of a cigarette. A crackle of electricity fizzed behind my navel. I felt dazed, lightheaded. I twisted her hair behind her ear, cycled home faster and faster until I was slick with sweat.
As I entered my room I saw Shirley sitting there, expressionless. Her hands rested on her lap, heavy and bloodless. The whites of her eyes seemed congealed like undercooked egg whites, her lips looked pinched and cruel. When they opened the words poured out faster than the bones in her could move, oily and thick, spilling on to her cardigan, her tweed skirt. I was draining her, stealing from her, she said. Stealing her words. I was puzzled, tried to explain what had happened, but she would not listen. Her words came at me like darts; I had stolen her glasses, her hairstyle. Stolen the language she had given me. Her mouth became a black yawn of fury. She would take them all from me, live in my arms and my legs and see out of my eyes and when I opened my mouth it would be her that spoke. This was always the bargain, she said. Always the way it would end. She would swallow me up. Somewhere inside I would watch as she spoke to my mother, my father, Petra, with my tongue.
I thought of every word I knew, but Shirley knew what I was going to say before I could get them out. She said words I had not thought of yet, words I would think of a few seconds later. I felt her snap open my mouth, pour through it into my limbs, into the joints and the tendons. Filling my capillaries, flooding my veins. I thought of words I had never used, never even knew. I spoke in tongues, dancing my way around syllables. I felt myself dissolve around her. Soon I couldn't think of words at all, only strawberry-blonde hair, the taste of salt. Only a jolt of electricity. Only Petra, Petra, Petra. Only small creature swallowed whole by a monster. Onlyugliness and ruin and shame. Only journeys end in lovers meeting. Only chewing ruthlessly on the boards and the small sweet bones. Onlynot a fit place for people or for love or for hope. Onlywise, brave, girl.
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|Article Type:||Short story|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2019|
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