I keep the fireflies of my desire stopped up tight in a bottle, its milk glass fragile, opaque. Pour them onto your hands, straw man. Let them gather in your palms so I may blow them across the sky to burn your night.
Soon the men arrive, six of them, packed like raw sardines against the smooth chrome of a beat-up Chevy just as in the dreams. She’s not afraid of them, not quite. Right now she’s afraid of the idea of the men, of their uneven peculiar maleness, that which separates her from them â€“ not that she thinks of them as entities separate from herself. The stale odor of sweat and cigarettes that emanates from the passenger door as it opens into the dark unrecognizable night reminds her of home, of a homecoming: of a reckoning, maybe.
They ooze from the car, pouring themselves into the night air, their scent mingling with the woods. She keeps her hands at her sides, suddenly self-conscious about them, their weight, their length, their heft. Hands almost like a man’s, hard hands suggesting roughness, hands suggesting â€“ what, exactly? She’s not sure why she’s embarrassed; she’s seen them all before, they’ve seen her; they’ve felt her hands and her skin, bare and creased as theirs, just as mottled. Even if it was only in a dream.
Assembled before her in a neat, almost military formation, they are strikingly similar in height, build, dress. In a line-up she would never be able to tell them apart, but perhaps she wouldn’t need to: perhaps each is a stand-in, a body double, a mannequin made of the original Man, of Adam, or of each other. Studying them, she feels simultaneously powerful and powerless, a single woman alone in the woods late at night, unprotected. Wanton. They haven’t spoken yet, as if expecting her to speak first, but she doesn’t know where to begin.
She clears her throat. To start this the only way she knows how.
“Of course you’ve done this before.” Surprised by her own voice echoing in the clearing, she pauses. Takes a breath. “Of course you know why you’re here.”
The men sneak glances at each other, one by one down the line, nodding in assent: Of course we know, of course we’ve done this before, that’s why you’ve brought us here, you know we’re professionals â€“ and if you didn’t know it then, you’ll learn it soon enough. They’re emboldened by these thoughts, shuffling weight from one foot to another, eyes gleaming. They’re made solid, real, by their proximity to her, a wall of waiting flesh.
“If you didn’t know, you wouldn’t have come. After all, you wouldn’t have even known where to begin, where to find me–where we would end up.” Now she’s talking rapidly, trying to cut through the men’s uncomfortable silence, their inevitability. “But none of that matters, now that you’re here.” She sighs, a slight choking sound, abruptly ending her preamble.
Minutes pass. She’s not sure what else to say, what signal to give, to let them know that she’s ready. Nervous, yes, but ready.
That she’s been ready her entire life, or at least since the dreams began. How long has it been now? She’s not sure, but it’s felt like years. Two years, at least, ever since she moved out of the city and into that sullen strange hamlet on the island far east of home. A getaway location, an escape from the stresses and bustle of modern life. Less than two thousand residents surrounded by the lake, and during the summer, the tourists. Quiet living, mundane â€“ too mundane, she’d first thought, too quiet. Until the dreams began.
How she’s relished those dreams, since overcoming her initial shock upon waking. How she’s come to love the six nameless men who visit her in her sleep, tormenting her with the promise that one day she’ll join them, she’ll become one of them. That she’ll become whole, at last. The six nameless men who now stand before her, whom she has known intimately, if not a little uneasily â€“ at least, at first. Touching every part of her with their burning need, their lust, their desire for blood night after night, the same dream repeating, never straying from its practiced rhythm. She was afraid of what it could mean that her waking self wanted it as much, if not more, than her dream-self; that she wanted to lose herself in the blades, in the violence, in the silence of a darkened wood. She was afraid until she realized that her dreams were only mirrors, and that which she saw in them was herself, sharp and crude, waiting for completion.
Aiming her gaze at the first in line, she gives him a curt nod, and he smiles back with his teeth like needles bared. He waves at the others to join him, and before she can register what is happening, they surround her as they always have: hands and legs tearing, ripping at her overripe skin, gouging and gorging themselves on her throat, her thighs, and she is happy. Elated. Awake. She knows that one of them must have the gun to end this, although she will never know from where it fired, from who’s hand, or when; all that matters is the moment of capture, of her release.
Just like that, I could feel the apocalypse behind me, peering over my shoulder at the half-finished charcoal sketch of a man and his dog. We were at the park, the apocalypse and I, surrounded by hundreds of other people — joggers, children climbing the jungle gym, couples making out on picnic blankets — yet somehow we were very alone. At least that was how I felt, knowing that his cold, appraising eyes were focused on my very incomplete work.
I expected him to say something, anything. Maybe he would point out the anatomical incorrectness of the man in his short jogging shorts (head much too large, inappropriately out of proportion for his impossibly skinny body), or maybe he would remark, aghast, at exactly how ugly the dog was turning out (he should have been a cute mutt; instead, he was looking more like Old Yeller being dragged out back to get shot). Instead, the apocalypse continued to watch, perhaps smugly, while I attempted to continue sketching as if I’d never been disturbed.
But he was disturbing me. After all, he was the end of all things, and I wasn’t yet prepared to let him take me.”
In this world of cars and computers, I celebrate your hands like birds that wing across my spine to refresh and to bless me.
Taking turns with the blade, we cut the apples of our hearts for the other to taste: tart slivers of self, biting and strong. We placed the slices, bittersweet and sacred, on our tongues to dissolve and to fill us; we sank back in our chairs, sated and whole.
During my lunch break I felt the hands of your words tugging on my hem. At first I’d thought them a little girl’s hands–slight, undefined–until I recognized the hard lines of experience creased upon their palms as yours. The sharpness of your nails scraped the side of my thigh: an urgent whisper. Still, I pushed them aside, smoothing down my skirt as I walked away from your hands’ telltale persistence.
But I have to wonder: was I right to ignore what your hands were saying? Was I right not to acknowledge their quiet insistent pleading?
The whiskey made him sound nervous, almost forgetful of time and place, almost lucidly dreaming through the telephone speaker. I will love you, he said, repeating himself through his slurred syllables. I will love you, you. I will. Love. Love you. I will. I will love. You, love. His breathing heavy. My mouth empty. Will I love. You will love. I will love you will love I will love. Moving closer to the voice beside my ear as the fan beat steadily. You. Steadily.
This is how I remember her: hips first, then dress. A natural weave, cotton. Ivory. An embroidered flower sewn above her heart.
Fingernails bitten to the bone.
With my mind’s eye I see her more as motion than as solid object, a lithe twisting creature, never still, in fact the opposite of stillness: a ripple through air. That practiced way she tucked an errant lock of hair behind her ear: my love in a single image, one fluid movement.
Still, she doubtless does not know my name. Still, that is certain.
“It’s not so difficult to die,” the voice–placid, confirming, feminine–said from behind the faded sea-green divider separating my toilet from hers. Startled, I shifted my gaze from the empty space before me–I had been contemplating either the indefinable smear below the coat-hook or skipping out of work early, both seem plausible–to the blank wall to my right, as if she had torn down the barrier with her bare hands. In a way she had: the silence of a restroom occupied by strangers is its own self-contained world, one with distinct laws and regulations by which we all irrevocably abide. Like in an elevator, we might smile, say hello, or otherwise acknowledge one another on our way in, but as soon as the doors shut, the room must remain quiet until the trip is complete. As she spoke, I became nervous like I was eyewitness to a crime, as if a mortal sin had been committed before me: a pair of anonymous hands splitting open the throat of the air. I began to unroll a few sheets of toilet paper, intent on busying myself so that she might realize her mistake in speaking when I was so obviously occupied.
“You see, we all do it everyday–dying, that is,” she continued, oblivious to my loud fumbling with the toilet paper dispenser.
“It’s a natural process, a ticking forward of the clock.” She spoke as if a smile, wide and inviting, was permanently stitched into the fabric of her face. As I continued to unroll the paper, my eyes drifted below the divider to the floor, where I could see her light pink lace panties resting in a heap, forgotten, across her feet–small feet, naked in ballet flats, stylish. Embarrassed at seeing her intimates, I became conscious of my own utilitarian cotton undergarments and shifted them higher up on my legs, as if removing them from her line of sight would make me disappear. Of course, this was fantasy, as my legs–long, thick at the ankles, ending in smaller feet than one might expect for calves of their width–remained on the floor where they had been for the entirety of this encounter, and as long as they remained there, she too could lean forward, peek through the opening below the divider, and confirm my existence. I debated with myself: should I hurry out without washing my hands in hopes that she would remain in her own stall until I jogged out of the room, or should I let her finish whatever it was she was doing so that she might leave before me, allowing me time to internalize all that had happened? On instinct, I remained seated. Given the choice, I will always wait for another person to finish her business and exit first, regardless of whether or not it’s practical to do so. Restroom encounters make me anxious–always have. There’s just something about speaking with someone after they’ve heard you defecating into an institutionalized porcelain hole that feels unnecessarily vulgar.
She seemed to be chewing on something–and by the sound of the strange smacking noises emanating from her stall, she was truly enjoying whatever it was she ate. In a way I was transfixed, rooted to the trunk of porcelain below me. I wanted to reply to her strange, philosophical meandering, but I couldn’t find the right words to say. Haven’t we all felt that way sometimes, I yearned to ask, that we’ve died time and time again, only to be reborn into the same untrained, unknowable shell? But I remained silent, always the law-abiding citizen, listening through a few long minutes of her eating something I couldn’t smell. Finally she stopped, and sighed. I imagined that she had licked the last of an ice cream with that sigh, then wiped the slick sweet residue off with the back of her hand. At last she spoke again.
“I can sense it in you, too, you know. That’s why I’m talking with you right now, like this.” I flushed, noting with a sense of pride her decision to say with you instead of to you. “It gets lonely sometimes, when you think that you’re only surrounded by people who are content with their lives as they are: pulling long hours at an unexceptional job, raising unexceptional children. Fearing the end. Fearing dying. Themselves dying, their kids dying, their spouses and parents dying. They don’t even realize that they’re doing it every day, that they’ve done it as many times as breaths they’ve taken. Slipping out of themselves to dream, to read a book, to watch a movie. It’s just as easy to die as it is to eat a delicious batch of cookies.”
That’s what it was, then: cookies. Either sugar or chocolate chip, I decided. “You just have to have the courage.”
I nodded. I had the sensation that we were together in the same room, having a conversation as easy and as regular as two childhood friends exchanging pleasantries about the weather. I nodded and I felt her nod, too; I felt her agreeing with me in our blindly connected way. Abruptly I could hear her stand, her ballet flats slipping across the floor as she shifted her weight upward. As if on command, I stood as well, finally ripping the long strip of toilet paper off of the roll, wiping myself clean, and buttoning my slacks without even thinking to flush. Unlocking the door, I stepped out into the harsh light of the restroom. In the floor-length mirror I could see my reflection, and I noticed for the first time that my pants were too long. I was so self-conscious that I felt nauseous. During our few moments together, I had begun to think of her like an extension of my self, as natural as my arms and legs: here was someone prepared to know me, to know me better than I knew myself–and I wanted to make as lasting an impression on her as she had already made on me. Turning away from the mirror, I tugged out the creases that had formed on my blouse during my time seated, and allowed a slight smile to alight on my lips–slight, so as not to seem too over-eager. But she hadn’t yet flushed her toilet. Without a word I remained standing in front of the row of green stalls, expecting her at any second to emerge. The time passed fitfully as I stood there, foolishly, believing that she might at any moment come out and invite me to sit with her down in the cafeteria. Finally I gave up, realizing that I had been expected to report back to my desk at least fifteen minutes previously.
As I walked through the door like a rejected lover, I heard the blast of the gun.