Chapter 2 (him)

I leave the bandages on to sleep, so when I wake up in the morning my face is wet. My stomach hungers, but I ignore it and stumble to the bathroom. I don’t look in the mirror on purpose, so I concentrate on my fingers, shaking in the air. I yank open the wooden cupboard and grab the black roll and flee, before I can see anything else. My eyes are like sea kelp; brown and pale. I don’t think about who told me that.

The Skeleton Cook acts concerned as I walk into the fridge. He doesn’t move. I find the backpack by my right knee on the shelf inside and I lug it with me through the throat, like it is a weight. The only weight here is the wetness on my face.

I grab the half-full jar, open it to the ice, place one hand flat in the air above it. I use my other hand to tear the bandages from my face, and I only let the blood fall halfway towards my hand. I exhale, though my mouth, savoring the feeling of dryness. Until the blood starts to prickle on my skin again. I point my fingers down, closing them like a beak, and the blood rushes to where I point. The jar is only three quarters full. I stare at it, wondering if I have made the jar too big. Or if there is less blood than last time.

I push the worry away, and focus on detangling the hanging black bandage from my hair. I do not know how it got there, since I ripped all of it away with my hand.

More blood drips, still, and I keep funneling it into the jar. The drops make ripples silently, as I tear out the old bandage. I leave it in a wad on the table, and wrestle with the black roll one-handed. I don’t think about my face. Certainly not my face.

The tape comes off the roll with a squeal, and I let my blood-funneling hand go for a brief moment to tear it off. And plaster it across my cheeks, my chin, my jaw. I tear off more, and cover my mouth up to my nose.

My hands form into claws when I think about it. Brain, no more thinking about it. My face. My skin, my hair. No.

I put the lid on the four-fifths full jar. I do not worry about why it is less full than last time. I will just have to come here. Again. I put the jar back on the shelf. I grab the backpack, to put it back on its shelf in the cave’s mouth. I clearly didn’t need it.

***

I find an egg in the garden. One-hundred and four steps. I think yesterday it was buried by the snow, behind the mushroom caps, only today the sun is busy melting.

I didn’t bring the backpack. I was only here for the crawling fungi, the capped mushrooms, the seal’s-fur herbs. My stomach and my dry tongue convinced me I had to eat. And now, the egg.

It is speckled magenta, like the mother knew her child was bold enough never to need hiding. Or the mother knew her child would never survive in hiding.

I set the mushrooms I have gathered cap-down, beside the egg, and run a hand across it. Vibrating, faintly, to these curse-wielding hands. I recoil at its touch. The warmth.

It is only four blinks, one exhale before I touch it again and the vibrating is still there. I lift it from the snow and it is as big as my head, but lighter than a skull.

I leave the mushrooms where they are, since they will not wander like crawling fungi. And walk one hundred steps to the house, cradling an egg’s warmth to my stomach. I close my eyes, in front of the door. Imagine me, slow dancing, a living, breathing creature cradled under my heart, under my skin.

I snap my eyes open, snap the door open and Skeleton Cook is waiting there, to catch the magenta speckled egg before I stumble. I tell Skeleton Cook to keep it warm, pile some blankets around it, use the sitting room I never sit in. I wait until Skeleton Cook is gone, talus foot-bones tapping, before I crumple to the floor curled around my empty stomach.

***

Okay, brain, let’s remember: the way his deep eyes gazed into yours, at your lips, like you were liquid to his drowning. You’d only ever seen a real bakery once in your life, but he made you think of it. The way his hand in yours looked like somebody mixing two flavors together. They way his dark red lips must have looked melded to your violet ones, eyes closed, hands trying to melt your skin together.

This was back before, when you were a boy, when you were so terrified of your bodies touching that not everything you told him was the truth. Religion, true, but you would’ve given that up for him in a heartbeat. You already had, had already forgotten nearly all of this religion except for the name. The Aktanhin never chased dreams of putting together skeletons, pooling blood with magic, cursing crushed flower petals just to see how fast they’d die. You told him it was because you were Aktanhin. Your people were Aktanhin. The pure.

Brain, you killed your first person before you knew the difference between a girl and a boy. You killed her by mouthing the words to make her heart too weak to pump blood. Kolariq found you the next day, before the funeral. Offered to teach you. Offered to teach you how to kill, better, gather blood and bones and words entirely for cursing. The opposite of healing.

Remember, if Kolariq never found you, you never would have found him. Him, who called your eyes sea kelp. Him, who saw the ways your body didn’t quite fit you, even when you tried to hide it from him. Him, laughing in the water. Him, holding you like you imagined you could hold a child–but you couldn’t. And he couldn’t. And he is gone now, brain. And I am here now, brain.

***

I crumple to the floor, curled around my empty stomach. I rise, walk one hundred and twelve steps to the garden, and gather the mushrooms. The crawling fungi. The seal’s fur herbs. I walk one hundred and sixteen steps to the house, aquamarine blood staining only one side of my soaked-through bandages.

***

I go to the heart of the cave one more time, with the backpack, and tear off the bandages again. I point, and the blood flows, filling to the rim of the jar. I open the backpack, take out the flee-berries, the elger moss blossoms. I use the knife to crush the berries on the jar’s rim, plant the tiny blossoms in the sticky juice. And I put the glass-ice lid on top, twisting it so it is entirely stuck. I breathe the words, through my prickling, naked lips, and the blossoms wilt. The juice sings. The jar seals, a capsule removed from time by the sweetest scent and an intoxicating song. Even time gives in, sometimes. Especially if you curse what it loves.

I don’t ponder it. I put new bandaging on my face. I put the jar on the shelf, grab the backpack to put it back in the cave’s throat, leave the fake refrigerator that has always been fake. The Skeleton Cook is dancing in front of the stove, because he thinks this means I might eat dinner, but my stomach heaves at the sight of mushrooms. I don’t want food.

So I go and say hello to the cat. I raise her from the rug she is sleeping on, all pale-yellow bones and missing teeth. If I tilt my head I could picture the sweeping tail that proclaims her as a sea cat, but those bones were missing when I found her. Supposedly skewered on the end of someone’s fishing pole.

The cat circles around my knees, bones clanking. I sit down, toss the rug over her, and pretend to pet her. If I close my eyes, the clanking bones could almost sound like purring. If I close my eyes, the fibers of the rug could almost be fur. Which is why I don’t close my eyes.

This is just a skeleton sea cat, covered by a rug, bones clanking because the invisible strings holding her together aren’t quite strong enough. That happens, with missing teeth. Missing tails.

I stand up, and go back to the freezing kitchen. Skeleton Cook has managed to put unmelted water in a skillet, and the mushrooms are floating in it. The heat comes from another rock, this one old and hot. I wouldn’t pull blood from them even if I had no other rocks. Because this rock is generous. Likes heating things up. I give them scraps, sometimes. For the favor.

The water steams, and Skeleton Cook dances in front of the stove, stirring mushrooms. He plucks a seal’s-fur leaf from the counter and puts it on the water, where it spins around like a madfishers’s boat, green in a maze of beige icebergs.

Skeleton Cook stops dancing when he notices me watching. I go back to the room with the sea cat. Since I’ll know when the food is ready. My stomach heaves at the thought of mushrooms, but I push it down. And stare at the magenta speckled egg in the corner, by the wood wall, in a nest of blankets. I don’t let my fingers touch its smooth surface again. I don’t let myself picture myself slow dancing, a baby beneath my skin.

I pet the sea cat under the rug.

***

For the record, brain, I never liked the taste of salt water. The same goes for tears. But the memory of you, him, Kolariq and the other boys, jumps out at me. And we are no longer sitting at the table in the alcove, eating beige mushrooms, melted orange crawling fungi, sweetened and spiced by a single herb.

You were in the water, feet digging into the wet sand, staring furiously at the red ink you were supposed to be maintaining in a circle. Since you were doing it badly. He grinned up at you, and since he practically asked for it you swept a hand to claw a gaping hole in his circle of underwater blood.

Yours, naturally, was pounded, dissolved to nothing by the waves. Kolariq sighed from shore, wide skirts fringed wet. You stared at those skirts, once, until Kolariq explained they were worn by a man owning land, a family. You revolted at the thought. Less so when he explained that he had never had anything of the sort. He just liked to get them bloody. You still thought, wondering how anyone could own anything. Even their own skins. Even their own blood.

He tackled you, laughing, and you managed to take a breath before you both went under. It was startlingly clear, that salt ocean tinged with blood–and the image of him, hair framed by the sun that is crystallizing in water, is etched in stone in my mind.

***

I finish eating. I stomp up the creaking wooden steps. I leave Skeleton Cook to clean up my plate at the empty table. I find my bed, like it is a seabed, only this one only smells of one skin, mine, and I am trying to hold back salt tears from mixing in my blood.

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