Born six weeks early, I’d oozed out on one of Biloxi’s sweltering moldy nights as Mom screamed Screw this fucking kid, just give me the goddamn cigarette!
Having clamped and cut my cord, the doctor pushed back on his rolling stool and handed me to a nurse who shoved me in an incubator.
I should have fallen like refuse from a plane, fallen into that purgatory called adoption, called foster care, fallen anywhere but back to her, yet by chance I was her last pawn against Dad, a pawn she continued jabbing even after stealing every piece she could from him, even after he’d conceded that he’d ruined her figure, her reputation, her life, and long after he’d introduced this movie star wanna-be to his family who’d just lost their land. Land that had survived the Civil War and Great Depression fell through their pale fingers like cigar ash flicked by shrewd brokers who’d leapt through Wall Streets’ fiery loopholes with the surrealistic aplomb of circus bareback riders.
Now even their future was lost to a daughter-in-law who was so goddamn crazy she’d laugh like a barking clown every time she told me this story.
Thank you to the editors of Doorknobs and BodyPaint for first publishing this piece.
Natalie longed for a permanent position so she could stop subbing classes the tenured ditched. When she asked the lithe Suzanne to give her oral report per the regular’s instructions, the class groaned like a sick wolfhound and Natalie knew she should have stayed in bed. Suzanne’s voice, a prison-gray monotone, driveled facts as profound as rats have tails, so Natalie chose not to reprimand the students who stared out the window or doodled or checked their phones. She even let two in the back row sleep, one slumped with his head and fully tattooed arms on the desk while the other’s torso seemed to be attentive but with each deep breath her head bobbed like those spring-necked animals that line cars’ rear windows.
Suzanne never glanced from her cards to notice even when a crimson snake’s head poked from between her lips, further impairing her enunciation. Natalie tried to rise but was unable to rouse or shout as she watched the snake slide down Suzanne’s body and realized she must be dreaming—not her first lucid one so, wanting that skin to skin, she reached for Sam—until someone gasped.
That startling sound snapped all eyes onto the slender serpent, its slick tongue tasting air as it sidled the yellowed linoleum. Natalie wanted to flee but could only move her eyes and saw that everyone appeared equally immobilized, statues with moving eyes in molded chairs. Not even a finger twitched as three blue racers whipped out of Suzanne’s wide mouth, followed by a slither of snakes that seamlessly skimmed down her barelegged body to the floor. The crimson snake wrapped a girl’s red boot as if having found its mate, but when scales met skin the girl leapt from her seat and shrieked, her desk slamming the floor as the snake twisted through air, smacked the blackboard and fell with a thwack.
Suzanne finally glanced up, clamped her lips round a coral serpent writhing to escape, and swallowed furiously till it disappeared back in her gullet. Soft rattles mesmerized the class and the booted girl sank to the floor, eyes glassy, head at a peculiar angle. Suzanne stretched tall and spread-eagled, as the renegade snakes throughout the room slid from pockets, packs, sleeves, to stream up her pale skin and under her loose clothes till the last slender tail slipped in the basket of her mouth. When the bell rang, the students yawned, stretched, then rose as if from a refreshing nap, and Natalie resolved to never sub again.
Thank you to the editors at Doorknobs & Body Paint for first publishing this piece as well as choosing it as the Dorsal Contest winner.
Six years had passed, yet having heard of Catherine’s return, Leo stopped in the doorway of her studio, his approach along the cobbled street masked by the ancient whir of her potter’s wheel. He could feel her like a phantom in his palms. She remained robust with deep contours, sensual swells, as she spread wet clay with her index and thumb, her thumb so unlike a baboon’s yet she had backed against him as fierce as a baboon.
He lit a match and watched her kohl-lined eyes dart in his direction. Holding her gaze, he drew the flame’s heat through his parted lips as if inhaling her, her thick graying hair loosely piled on her head as if she could contain the untamable.
“Leo,” she said as if they had seen each other yesterday, as if she had been expecting him, then returned to her piece, indenting shallow prints beneath the vessel’s wide ridge.
He had no words. Too many years between good-bye and hello. Good-bye, a note he could not read. He had to hear its words from a man he hardly knew as this neighbor translated the dark scratches along the pale perfumed paper that told Leo his Catherine was gone, would not return, could no longer live with their cruelty. He ripped the letter from this intruder’s hand, spit at his feet, and slammed the door, knocking one of her vases to the floor, its crackling chased him before it abandoned him to the emptiness of his hurried steps
“Hello, Catherine,” he said like a prayer. “You are back.”
“Yes,” she replied, eyes trained on the vase whirling between her palms.
“What do you want?” she said, looking up.
Leo noticed the ravens still perched in her eyes. Smoke filled his lungs as he drank in the soft lines around her mouth that had held him with the passion of a boa swallowing prey yet had also stung him with a wasp’s fury.
He wanted to strike her, hear her plead for forgiveness, beg him to allow her to return. Instead she returned to her clay, fingers scraping the hollow of the swirling vase as she swept the sides wider apart. Leo flicked his cigarette in the trench between cobblestone and whitewashed building, pulled a red silk scarf from his jacket pocket, flashed it in the air then snapped it open. Catherine’s head flicked toward him. Clasping the scarf, Leo shoved it in his loose fist. Her eyes widened.
“Leo, don’t ”
“Still deaf and blind.”
Her mouth opened but before her words touched the air, Leo’s hand turned, rotated back, arced forward and opened. A white, one-eyed dove flew from his palm to her shoulder.
Before the bird’s wings settled against its side, Leo turned from the earth-scented room and continued along the maze of cobblestones that wound through a town that would never be hers.
Thank you to the editors of riverbabble for first publishing this story.