C.A. Schaefer is a writer and teacher of writing in Salt Lake City. She holds a PhD from the University of Utah, where she was a managing editor of Quarterly West. Her work has appeared in or is forthcoming from Indiana Review, Phantom Drift, Passages North, and elsewhere.
The desert had been under sea once, and so had she. She dreamed the salt water stinging its way up her body. It saturated her, and the sand beneath her feet collapsed. What was empty turned full, skin hardening into scales. Her own hands webbed together and then condensed. She shone, her boundaries permeable. Take shelter—
The car jostled her awake.
"I think we’re almost there,” said her husband, an archeologist. Said Richard, his name granite on her tongue.
She turned her head. Her chin was damp with spit. This morning their Crestliner (the first in the neighborhood) had been mint-green, but now vermilion dust had accrued on the paint, coating the hood crest and burying their axles.
“It’s too hot,” she said. She turned her head to look at their son. He was absorbed in the universe of his fingers, the workings of palm and knuckle and nail. Richard had named the baby James but since the woman was still deciding his true name, the name that would hum every time his skin cells repaired themselves and then sloughed off the old ones and scattered, she referred to him as James as infrequently as possible.
“There’s too much dust to open the window,” Richard said.
The woman shifted forward in her seat. Her dress and slip and girdle plastered themselves to her skin. Inviting the hot air into the car would free her, if only a little. But he was right, she knew: opening the window would mean another trip to the salon, another acrid wash so her hair would relax into seashell curls. And the dirt would coat the delicate membranes of their mouths, their soft palates, and the corners of their eyes.
“And we just cleaned the car.”
“Yes,” she said, “I suppose you’re right.”
She and her husband communicated only in full sentences. A linguistic waltz was necessary to navigate the space between their understandings. The other wives on their street sometimes overheard, and then gathered to gossip about the archeologist and his wife. But the woman and her husband never argued in church or over cocktail parties. Perhaps, the wives asked themselves, might it not be better to speak so precisely, so completely?
The boy remained quiet. The air conditioner, unreliable at best, was now leaking cold air instead of blasting it. It seeped out in thin, sharp bursts.
Richard kept raising his hand to undo the knot of his tie. He worked his forefinger
in and loosened it before he remembered that he was the one who had insisted on wearing the tie. He then let his hand settle languidly against the steering wheel until the air conditioner lapsed again, and his fingers crept up to undo the knot a few centimeters more.
“Ice cream?” asked the boy. “Later,” said the woman.
“Yes, later,” said Richard. “We won’t be long.” He pulled his hand away from his tie and slapped the dashboard of the car. The shadow of a fly flickered away from the windshield.
She shrugged and cracked the window by an inch. So what if they were all dusted with these wafts of tremulous orange and red and yellow?
“Tell me where to stop, then,” he said. “Alicia.”
It was the name she never cared for, and for a moment she considered calling an end to the day. She would clap her hands and take on the mother-role, her pink palms slapping together. Ice cream now!
Richard reached over and placed a hand upon her knee. Her skin immediately warmed.
“Around here,” she said. “There’s a cave. Turn. Turn left.” His fingers tightened, like stone on stone, crumpling her flesh.
The car drew to a stop. She looked at the cave: it was low and shadowed with red rock, a shaggy eyebrow over the single dark iris. A joshua tree nearby, and sage bushes tangled on the ground. A striped whipsnake vanished between two boulders.
“We’ll be cooler if you can park us in the shade,” she said. She rolled her window down the rest of the way and inhaled dry desert air.
“Yes, you’re right,” Richard answered. He started up the car again and the boy began to whine.
“Shh,” she said. “Just a minute. We’ll be just a minute.” Too many words. The boy clung closer to his bear.
“Will you take him with you?”
“I think so, yes.” She had not taken him in before. In other times, they had either left the boy with his grandmother or Richard had carried him in his arms while he walked circles around the cave, his feet scuffing slightly: he always stepped bow-legged, one foot dragging just behind the other.
They stood a few feet apart. The woman stepped closer and reached up and undid his tie the rest of the way for him. She tied this for him every morning, in a cruciform knot that she wrapped twice and then secured. Always blue ties. She insisted on that. That was the color that made his eyes gleam and reveal the gold flecks that reminded her of lizard-skin.
He kissed the cheek that she offered to him. She folded the tie in half and put it in the pocket of her dress, then hoisted the boy up onto her hip. The archeologist started to walk away, but turned around after a few feet.
“Perhaps a fish?” he asked. “I’ve become very interested in fish.”
She had been going through her coral purse for chewing gum, but stopped and looked up at him. The boy twisted, buckling against her grip, but she bounced him once, quieting him.
“I’ll just be over there,” Richard said. He looked at her not through his horn-rimmed glasses, but above them, squinting to see the outline of her body in the white light.
The woman shook her head. Inside the cave, she took out her lighter and held it up to see if there were any snakes here before she put the boy down. She crouched to examine the shadowy areas where the rocks clustered and brushed her knuckle against one of them. The layers of sediment sang together.
“Mama?” the boy asked.
“Yes,” said the woman. She sat him down. There were no snakes.
From her purse she took out a pair of daisy-patterned scissors. She held them uncertainly in her hand. This was the worst time. Her boy was already toddling back and forth in the dirt. He stooped down and dug his fingers into the ground. His blue gingham romper was smudged with rust.
She unbuttoned the front of her dress and shimmied out of it. Shoulders first so that it hung around her waist. Then she wriggled it past her hips and dropped it all down to sit by her ankles. Next the slip, the girdle, the garters. The bra, too. The air prickled the hollow of her back.
She felt her son’s gaze turn to her breasts. Did he remember nursing? Coaxing the milk forth had been a strange, reluctant process. Eventually she started buying the cans of formula and stacking them in the pantry. She had loved the shiny tin more than the powder they held, and wanted to melt that and feed him drops of trembling liquid quicksilver. She had played with that mercury once, as a child. Her mother had dropped it on a plate in front of her and allowed her to use her fingers to dip in and hold it aloft before she let the metal drip off one fingertip.
She hung the dress up from some protruding rocks. The scissors she dropped onto the ground.
Her boy stumbled towards the scissors. “Stop!” said the woman.
The boy sat down. Saliva collected in the bottom pool of his lip, but he didn’t cry. She folded up the slip. In the morning, she had learned to rotate her entire body in front of the mirror, examining it for any protuberances. Any lumps, any hints of fat or oily skin. The soft pooch of her belly hung loose without anything to guard it close to her. She skimmed a hand over her softness.
“It’s nothing,” she said to the boy. He nodded, once. “Look.” She gathered up a handful of the dirt and let it trickle through her fingers. When he turned his attention back to the ground, she picked up the scissors again.
Wouldn’t a knife be easier? Richard had asked her once, but she preferred the two kissing blades, as sharp as she could make them on their grindstone.
She tested the shiny silver edge against her fingertip. The blood was unconvincing, as it always was. Watery. A little greenish in this dark light.
She looked at the boy again. He grabbed a fistful of the sand and shaped it into a conical heap.
She positioned the scissors open-jawed against her skin and then began to cut. She cut starting from the slouch of her belly up and up, slicing through layers of swift- retreating skin and thick, ropy muscle.
Every time it created a low, deep burn, the skin unbuckling and unfolding to part before her, and then drooping at her sides. The muscles, still mending from last month, strained in reaction. She smoothed her fingers against the edges of skin and tendon. She did not bleed out of this area. She spilled dust from the broken edges of skin.
Then she slid her whole hand in and excavated herself. Past the withered human parts— the pink and crumpled uterus, the papery intestines— she found the bones. The further back she went the older they became. Or that was how it had always been. Lately, they had begun to tangle together, nestling in their sleep. In very quiet moments, in the dark, she could hear them clank against each other. But now they retreated from her fingers. She frowned and dove her hand further inside.
She found her stomach first. There were always reptiles there; some of them tried to feed on what she ate. Ice cream bewildered them. Hot cocoa and fried chicken, they said, were better.
She ran her thumb down the curve of her stomach, that fist-sized pear threaded with
veins, and felt a tickle of nausea. A reptile might emerge shortly.
But he had asked for a fish.
A sun ray slipped around her, puppy-like, almost laughing. Her old and dearest friend. Not him.
One of the commonplace old fish wouldn’t do, either.
If she reached down to the bottom of herself, she might find one of the sawtoothed fishes rocking back and forth, but they could sense her coming. It’s their rostrum that does that, Richard said to her once. To detect the slightest hint of prey.
Could she call what she did killing?
The fish hid around her bones. She had to dig her nails in around the filaments that anchored them into place. They retreated, clustering around the base of her spine. Sometimes they warped themselves into knobby vertebrae or pressed flat against her tibia. She reached deeper inside herself, arm twined inside her abdominal cavity.
“I need a fish,” she said. She gripped an oval object, pried it off her kidneys, and pulled it out. It was a reptile: one of the Aztec ones that had fled to her all these years ago and it quivered once in her hand before it fell still. Air made them quiet. She felt the bones inside of her ricochet in mourning, and she stroked the elongated snout.
“A fish, I said.” She tapped the reptile on its jaw. Sometimes the process of bringing them out could damage them. “Will a fish please come forward?”
She gripped the reptile once more— a threat, her index finger tapping the concave slope of its neck. Then she released it back inside. It squirmed and wriggled its way back to safety before it jammed itself in the bowl of her pelvis. Faint arousal crossed her, and she paused, swallowed, and then waited for the reptile to subside. They only huddled when they were anxious. She preferred them to swim about more openly.
“A fish, please,” she said again. Fish were always hardest. The other creatures craved air and light, even if it meant they lost the safety of her sack-like body and the fluids that preserved them. Fish knew nothing besides liquid and darkness. She reinserted her hand and wriggled it to entice the fish forward. It felt like beckoning the child out. The fish had helped her bear the boy. They had cocooned him, arranged their bones cathedral-like over the strange new thing she grew. And, for a time, the boy himself had resembled a fish. His translucent fetal skin had been cut with gills that healed over; his fingers were once webbed and inarticulate.
Another time, though, a fish bone had floated up and lodged itself in between her ribs and she had to cut open her chest and reach down past the flimsy heart and lungs and twist and untwist blood vessels to retrieve it. She kept it for herself afterwards. The fish had pleaded for its return, but she kept it, still, in the drawer with her stockings.
The boy had patted his sand into three small and ragged cylinders. He watched her, his dirty hand covering most of his face, and he ducked behind his palm whenever her hand moved. She slid her wrist back and forth, navigating the fluid depth between her stomach and the meaty liver, down deeper, and snagged a tail just above her ovaries.
She steadied her grip on the fish. It winced once more, strained, and then she felt the fish relinquish. It would come out of her in perfect white bones, as fresh as it had been when it had first settled inside of her. She set the fish on a bed of dust. She admired the perfect arrangement of the spine and the fins, the delicate mouthful of teeth, and the thin hooks that had once held dark, diamond-shaped scales. Soon it would all solidify: this was the only way to survive in the world she had brought it out into. The sand hardened around its bones.
Once it was almost finished, the woman reached up and took both sides of her gaping torso in her hands. She fastened herself together with a slight heave of her breath, rebuttoned herself from under her navel to the point beneath her breasts. She had sewn very small hooks inside the abdominal lining to keep it tightened together. Otherwise, she found she spilled dust at inconvenient moments. She slid the undergarments back over the raw seams, ignoring the pull of her skin. Then the slip, and then the dress. The hair was lost. She would have to go back to the beauty salon.
“All done,” she said to the boy. He looked up at her. His arms encircled a mostly-crumbling castle, the towers accompanied by gaping holes in the earth. She knelt down beside him.
“It’s such a pretty thing,” she said. She patted one tower. “We’ve done a nice job.” The boy stared past her, at the fish, and then he nodded.
“It’s good,” he said. She lifted him up and helped him brush the dirt from his knees and elbows, from the starched collar of his romper. She envied the fish their bones that held their scales perfectly into place. No soft expansions of fat were needed, no gluey nerves or raised hairs.
“Let’s go wait for your father,” she said.
Richard had disappeared around a lurching rock formation, but she knew he would circle back soon. The woman stood by the side of the cave with her boy’s hand in her own. She watched the boy take a tender, heartbreaking step, and tried to think of his name.
“Ice cream?” asked the boy again.
“Yes,” said the woman this time. “Soon.” She picked the boy up and held him close to her heart so that he could hear the deep, low strains of it, the ache of the stone palpating, thrumming between them. The boy— the not-James—looked at her and laid his head on her wet neck. When Richard returned, she took the keys to the car from him and got inside, rolled the window down, and pressed her face to the air.
Inside the cave, Richard looked at the bones his wife had laid out for him. He knelt down with a broad white handkerchief in his hand, and a small brush, and with the exquisite movements that she knew from his fingers, his ability to manipulate her skin, to suckle and bruise and stroke, he began to clean off her remains.