It started with a hint dropped in the depths of my stomach, like a key, while I was asleep. When I awoke, my senses were sharper, as if my body had been nearsighted for years and I finally found the right prescription.
Later that day, my new wife–we’d been married just shy of six months—was getting ready to go out. She was talking to me out of the closet over the music of metal hangers sliding.
“Lisa’s man dumped her. She needs a shoulder,” she said, and immediately followed with an exclamation point of a hanger roll. I came and stood by the closet door. She was wearing a black bra and blue panties, mismatched, just the way I liked it, and her thin arms moved through the clothes fast, searching like trained dogs. She turned.
“Oh Henry, you scared me.”
I stood quietly, thinking. Her hands rested on a navy blue silk blouse, fingers feeling the fabric.
“What?” She asked.
A hint of color bloomed on her pale face. “My friend,” she said, tasting the words.
I wanted to say, you don’t have any friends, but that seemed rude, so I said, “Where’d you meet?”
“At the coffee shop,” she answered too fast.
I nodded. It was possible. But as I began thinking, I realized, she’d been going out every night for the past month, or longer. How could I have missed it?
“What about last night?” I asked.
“What about it?” She said, chewing a nail.
“Did Lisa’s man dump her yesterday too?”
“No, just today.”
“What did you do last night then?” I asked. I wanted to ask “what was your excuse last night,” but I was afraid to, in case my suspicions were true. What would I do? Would I leave her? I didn’t think I could. But could I live knowing she’s sleeping around?
“Last night, I went shopping for clothes. Honestly, Henry, you’re being weird. You never cared before,” she turned back to her task.
That was a lie. I cared. But it felt like I’d been asleep. I went back to bed and pretended to read.
When the door shut behind her, I felt small and unsure, the way I did that night on the beach when I proposed. The waves crashed against the shore, nearly drowning my words and the moon looked on in disapproval.
“You don’t want me,” she’d said, or it could’ve been, “I know you want me.” The breeze made her hair especially wild that day. It moved medusa-like round her shoulders.
“I must be free,” she’d said, or it could’ve been, “Set me free.” Truth is, I couldn’t care what she said because I wanted her.
So I’d said, “Marry me,” after her silence told me she was done trying to discourage me.
She sighed. That I heard.
Then she said, “Alright.” Or maybe it was, “We’ll fight.”
However she felt about marrying me, she let my mother arrange everything, even pick the puffed-out frilly dress, which, by contrast, only brought out her wildness, her otherness, her not.
Reluctantly, I got up and went back to the closet. I had a strange feeling like I was entering the room where somebody just died. It still smelled of her, sweat mixed with lavender. Even straight out of the shower, she smelled of sweat. And I loved it, God help me. I loved everything about her. Since the day she walked past me at the café, and her scent, like a wand, rose me to my feet and made me follow her for blocks, until she yelled at me to go away. When I didn’t, she sighed, walked to the park and sat down on the bench, leaving room for me.
I sat on the thick carpet looking up at her clothes, or what was left of them. Was she giving them away? Did she move in with a lover? Below, shoes and boots laid naked without the canopy of clothes that I helped her move.
I woke up with my cheek hot and itchy on the carpet. My watch read 11:48. I stumbled out of the closet. The bed stared blankly at me. The house protested being awoken with a few creaks reverberating through its dark spaces. She was obviously not back. This was unusual, but not unexpected.
I thought about calling the police. But I thought about it lightly, just as something I ought to do. I was fairly certain she was with her lover, and I didn’t want to look like an idiot. So I simply sat on the porch, feeling sorry for myself, and very lonely.
When the sun lit up the sky to the East, I went inside and settled for the comfort of a breakfast shake. The buzz of the blender drowned out the silence and loneliness, but just for a moment, until there was a loud unpleasant crunch and the motor chocked.
I turned it off and looked in, but I could see nothing in the purple mush so I poured the shake into a glass. When I looked in the blender again, I noticed a light chunk of something stuck on the blade. I touched it—hard and cold. I took the blender to the sink, pulled the stuck piece off the blade and ran some water over it. It had been mangled by the blade, but it was definitely a small bone with some skin around it, which didn’t feel like chicken skin. I felt a dry heave coming on.
I told myself I was sleep-deprived and hence not to be trusted. I told myself that it must’ve been a chicken bone that fell off the counter last time we made dinner and ended up in the drawer where I kept the blender. Just to prove to myself the possibility of such accident, I went to look in the drawer. There, among the potato masher, a grater, and a collection of peelers was a thumb, a brother of the one that ended up in my shake.
I darted for the trash can and barely made it.
When it was relatively safe to step away from the can, I poured the shake out and ran the water, watching the pieces of thumb getting caught in the mesh and feeling sick again. I thought I smelled the smell but I didn’t know what I was smelling for.
How I missed the familiar sound of her boots on the path, I do not know. I was definitely unwell. I pulled down hard on the paper towel roll and it unwound a long strip (nothing was too much in this case). I crumpled the towel and used it to pick up the thumb from the drawer and throw it in the compost. I dumped the mesh contents and the mangled bone after it. Then, to the sound of her boots nearing, I pulled down a loaf of sliced bread from the top of the fridge, tore the plastic, grabbed half of the slices and threw them on top of the compost bin.
“There you are,” she said poking her head with blood-shot eyes into the kitchen. She wore a dress I hadn’t seen before, it fell above her knee, exposing her legs. I was aroused in spite of everything. She walked up to me and hugged me.
“Sorry I didn’t come back sooner. We got too drunk and I stayed over,” she said into my chest.
“What happened to your other dress?” I asked.
“Threw up all over it. Had to borrow Lisa’s. You like it?”
She stepped back and watched me, her brows frowning in concern. Her scent was different, stronger, making me think of lion cages and rain, and it turned me on terribly. She came closer again and wrapped herself around me, bringing our lips together sticking her tongue in deep, before I could tell her. She tasted of sex and meat, and just as my mind began conjuring up images of breakfast in bed with her lover, she hopped up on the counter and pushed down my pants, revealing my obvious appreciation of everything that was her. With a blissful smile, she impaled herself on me.
Things continued in a similar way after. Some nights she wouldn’t come back and wouldn’t tell me where she was going. I stopped asking. She’d return in the early morning, refreshed and hungry for me. I would spend the night in aroused anticipation, drifting in and out of sleep. Her closet kept growing thinner, no matter how many items she acquired, or ‘borrowed.’
Also, I kept finding small human parts all over the house. More thumbs of all sizes in the kitchen drawers, yellowed toes in my college coffee mugs, the ones I rarely use, except when we’re low on dishes, one dried up ear in spaghetti pot. I discovered that one when we tried to make dinner together. She was washing the bowls when I dumped the dry spaghetti on top of the thumbs in the compost.
“Spaghetti’s gone bad,” I complained.
“Is that even possible?”
“Possible if you don’t make dinners for a while.”
We had to get Thai takeaway that night.
I stopped dry heaving and quietly composted the findings, treating it like any other job I was doing around the house, like washing dishes. There was never enough bread in the house anymore.
I don’t know how long we would’ve gone on like that if I hadn’t gotten hit by the car.
I was walking back from one of my nightly trips to the store for bread, through the fog, thinking about her legs, and how perfectly they fit around me. It would’ve been a good way to go. The impact stunned me and then something caught me, held me, lowered me to the ground. Her face was in front of me until I lost consciousness.
I spent three days in intensive care. Those days are lost to me except for her dark eyes, bright in front of me, and her voice, soft whispers in a language older than the skies.
When they released me, she took me home, helped me get up the stairs to our bed, laid me down gently, and stuffed pillows all around me, like I was a newborn, which in a way, I was. It was all new to me. The vase with strange symbols, between hieroglyphics and kana, that always stood on a little table by the window seemed fascinating. I spent hours turning it in my hands, feeling the rough cool surface of the metal. My fingers looked plump, meaty. The wall color, which I always thought was basically white, turned out to be light pink.
“Did you know?” I would ask her looking all over, “Our walls are pink. How is it we live surrounded in pink?”
“Pink?” She would say looking around in surprise. “I s’pose they are. Looks like your mum’s been here.”
There it was, a smile hidden under the pale reserve. I kept looking at her. She was wondrous, enchanting, beautiful, and most definitely wicked.
She spoon-fed me, watching me out of her endless eyes, forehead creased by worry. In the evenings, she undressed me and wiped me down, slowly.
As the effects of narcotics started to wear off, and I was getting more independent, I began to notice that her skin had turned ashen and when I ran my fingers along her arms, it felt like sandpaper. Her hair had lost its shine and her eyes looked darker than ever.
One day I woke up from a nap and she was rummaging in the closet, muttering. Clothes and shoes, what was left of them, were lying in piles outside the closet.
“What are you looking for?” I asked, attempting to sit up.
She poked her head out, slipping on a smile, “The dress I borrowed from Lisa, remember?”
I nodded. Of course I remembered. I also knew it had been missing awhile and that the item she was looking for (or I should say items, for there were too many to count—fresh, soft ears) I’d composted last week, before the accident.
“How you feeling?”
“Better,” I lied.
A real smile brightened the ash of her face. She came and stood by me, not touching.
“Think you’ll be okay if I stepped out for a bit? We’re out of food,” she said looking at my stomach, scratching her arm.
“‘Course,” I said.
“Okay,” she said and not even a minute later her bare feet drummed out a fast beat down the stairs and the front door slammed. I wondered if she remembered her wallet.
I closed my eyes and let myself wonder if she’d seen those parts attached to a body or picked them up somewhere. Where does one go for human spare parts? A lab, a morgue, a funeral home?
I drifted off. Then, my heart woke up before my mind, as the intense throbbing light broke through my dreams. I was sure the light was a police car and she’d been caught.
I rushed to the open window and predictably collapsed with my stomach across the sill. I lay there inhaling through the sharp pain in my ribs. When I finally looked down at our street, I didn’t see the police car or anything of the sort. The moon was full and proud in the sky and its light flooded the room and bathed the neighborhood in myth. I groaned and blamed the throbbing effect on the meds.
I heard a laughter and looked to the right to our neighbors’ house—the elderly Swansons. The house was unusually alive for the hour. Inside, shadows moved in the amber light and conversations spilled out the open windows. People, dressed in dark colors, smoked on the porch. An unmistakable shape of a hearse was in front of the house. Mr. or Mrs. Swanson, I wondered sadly.
I was just about to drag myself back to bed, when a movement caught my eye. A shadow shifted in the side garden that we shared with the Swansons. I kept looking, nothing else moved…a chill prickled at my neck. A presence out there, just a few feet away, I felt, saw me watching.
I stared, paralyzed, into the shadows, until I was looking into the whites of two eyes, moon-cold. I glimpsed a small movement and my stomach tightened, breath trapped in my lungs. It was her–my beloved. I couldn’t say how I knew, just the way you can tell a familiar person from afar.
Then her eyes were gone, but I could see her head jerking, tearing at the prey, wolf-like. I was grateful for the darkness, for I couldn’t look away. I searched for the glistening evidence of blood, but saw none. I was trying to make out a shape. Images of those thumbs and ears rushed in. Mr. or Mrs. Swanson, I wondered again, and dizzied, slid down onto the floor, head heavy…a rushing sound as if in a tunnel…then nothing.
It was her sobs that woke me. In the soft grey of the morning, I was half-slumped against the wall, in an awkward and painful position. She sat at my feet, hands over her face, hair matted. Her dress had strips torn out of it.
I tried to shift to a more comfortable position and she looked up slowly, resting her pink-red eyes on mine. We looked at each other for a long time–just looked. Her pain and my pain became one and I too cried. She moved closer and I put my palm on her cheek.
She kept her eyes on mine and moved closer still, as if I was now the wand that drew her in. She wedged her shoulder under my armpit and lifted me up. I suppose I always knew she was stronger than she looked. She helped me to bed and lay down beside me. We fit perfectly, as always. I put my face to her breasts and inhaled.
“Who are you?” I whispered.
She stiffened. “You know me, Henry.”
“Not all of you. I need the part I saw too.”
She sat up and watched me, biting her lip, scratching her arm. Finally, she said, “I feed on souls.”
I was confused. “But I thought I saw you…”
“You saw me preparing the body.”
She gave me a long look. Then she must’ve reconsidered, because she sighed and said, “I do eat it, but I’m not after the…physical–meat, blood. But I eat it to get the soul before it has a chance to leave. I never kill. I replace the…corpse. Always. Collect all things of life…leaves, grass, earth, bones, chestnuts. Make a doll. I dress it, in my clothes.”
She stopped and watched me, waiting for the answer to the thinned-out closet mystery to register in my eyes.
“People see the doll as the one who died, the one I took. The spell usually lasts long enough for them to be buried or burned.”
She shrugged, “I make mistakes.”
I kept seeing her head jerking in the moonlight. “Mr. Swanson?” I asked.
She shook her head. “Only women.”
She was quiet a moment, her fingers tracing the flower patterns on a quilt on the bed. “I don’t really know,” she said. “It’s just what I do. I thought about this before and decided it must be because I didn’t like men. It’s an intimate thing, you know?”
I shook my head. “Say more.”
“When I take a soul, I become that person. I mean, I’m still me, but I’m also all the people whose souls I’ve taken.”
“Must be confusing.”
“No, it’s wonderful actually,” her face brightened, “but men’s desires, thoughts, feelings never appealed to me, until…you.”
She went back to tracing the flowers. I fought back the question on my lips. But I needed to know.
“Why me?” I said and held my breath.
Her eyes welled up. I didn’t know what to make of it, so I waited, in heavy silence. When tears began to roll down her cheeks, and her body shook, I felt my own well open. I rushed towards her, swaddled her in my arms. How small she felt.
“Because you love me,” her words were hot against my shirt, ”and because you taught me to love. It’s terrifying and beautiful….”
She pulled away and looked at me, “I love you, Henry.”
“Come,” I said laying back down. She arranged herself next to me, her head on my shoulder, and we lay like this, spent from the truth, drifting in and out of sleep, until the sun licked the walls of our room.
She stirred. “Henry?”
I smiled a lazy smile.
“Will you keep me?”
I chuckled, then opened my eyes. She looked hurt, unsure.
“Yes, yes,” I said.
“But you must promise me something.”
She rose on her elbow and the worry crease was back on her brow. “What?”
“When it’s my time, take my soul. Don’t let me rot.”
Surprise and wonder on her face, she touched her lips to mine.
“Of course, Henry. Anything. Anything you want.”
Alina Rios grew up in St. Petersburg, Russia, and now lives in Seattle, Washington. In 2013, she was shortlisted for the Gulliver Travel Grant. Her poetry has appeared in Rust & Moth, Neon, StarLine, and is forthcoming in Camroc Press Review. Her fiction is forthcoming in Beorh Quarterly. She edits technical documentation for Tableau. To learn more, visit www.alinarios.com.