by Clio Jabine —
Your new friend has red fingers. When you ask her about it she shrugs, the ruin of a half-dead creature still screaming in her gap-toothed smile. She wears Doc Martens and a ragged flannel and in your head one very small voice whispers “lesbian?” while another sighs, long-suffering, and says “art student.”
She has two blond pigtails and a mouth full of blood. You are not sure why this doesn’t concern you more.
“So, uh,” you start, and quickly realize you have no idea how to initiate this conversation.
She crooks one manicured eyebrow, so blonde it’s nearly nonexistent. “Go on,” she says, and her voice is like the deepest sleep, or maybe it’s just a little too raspy for someone so young.
“What’s with the-” you gesture vaguely at your own mouth.
craggy black dirt, muddy tracks on the kitchen floor, red rain boots stained deep brown, the smell of rain, the smell of formaldehyde
Her eyebrow continues striving upwards. You imagine it could just keep going, up through that powerful forehead, perhaps grow wings of its own. You find yourself rather invested in this idea. “Go on,” she says, and you have the feeling of skipping in time like a scratch in vinyl-
you are all empty space, lover, just the memory of a thing built around a hollow center, a planet without a star to orbit
“The teeth,” you say, finally, and hope it will be sufficient.
She smiles at you- broad and malicious- and says, “They are sharp and good for biting.” Really, it’s the confidence she says it with, as if you’re the one who’s crazy for thinking this is not a perfectly acceptable thing to say in casual conversation.
You take a sip of your drink. “I believe you, hipster dracula, but I was more concerned about the color. Haven’t you ever heard of a toothbrush?”
She blinks, once, and then touches a red finger to her red lips. “No point to it,” she says, chewing absently on her fingertips.
Of everything, you are curious as to why this upsets you the most.
“No point to dental hygiene?” You’re not sure if the overwhelming strangeness of this encounter hasn’t registered yet, or if you’ve just become accustomed to strange things. “I’m, uh,” you bite your lip, “not sure that’s correct.”
“Eventually,” she says, and reaches her hand into her mouth, casually, “your teeth will turn black and rotted, and fall out.” A sound like car tires spinning on damp gravel forces itself into your ears. She smiles, her hand sunk all the way up to her elbow. “I see no reason to prolong the process. Ah-hah!”
god of the instruments, god of war, god of sharing toothbrushes, god of shame, god of abandon, god of ‘i love you please don’t leave me,’ god of ‘i love you please tell me this isn’t happening,’ god of ‘i love you, i have to go,’ god of broken mirrors and snake oil, god of cinnamon toast crunch, god of castaways and pirates and all the hidden unloved creatures- god who pulled you from the garden and set you trembling in the streets of Brooklyn, the whole treacherous world ablaze at your feet-
She smiles like murder, bloody-mouthed, and extends a flat palm in unstained, communion-cloth white. Resting on the exact center of her palm is one red tooth. “For you,” she says.
She lays the tooth in the exact center of your palm, very carefully, and then guides your fingers closed around it. “For luck,” she grins. There is a new hole in her smile.
“Thanks,” you mutter. There is something in your eye. “I’ve been, uh, fresh outta that lately…”
You blink hard a few times, finally reaching up to rub your eye, dropping your new good luck charm in the process. “Oh-” you start to reach for it, but it never hits the ground.
The girl next to you has pale fingers wrapped around the stem of a glass half-full of red wine. “Hey, dude,” she says, only a vague sort of concern in her voice, the kind reserved for strangers acting a little suspiciously, but not enough to be afraid of, “you alright?” You blink, and she stays put.
“Oh,” you say, and take her wine glass from her, downing half of the heady liquid in one fell swoop, “just checking.” You hand her back the empty glass. “Can never be too careful, these days,” you pay for your drinks and nod once to her. “Take care of yourself, now.”
The road is dark and it has been that way for a while now. You remember what it was like to walk this highway in daylight, and the stink of sun-warmed tar: it had been more like dreaming, back then. Desert surrealism, sand in your mouth, drum sergeant heartbeat, days of endless wonder. In the nighttime the dreamscape is abandoned. This land of pavement cracks and the world captured in spilled gasoline ripples into nothingness.
And what? The girl you will kill is walking beside you in bare feet. She leaves bloody footprints on the blacktop. The girl you will kill is crying on the shoulder of the highway. You have smashed each streetlamp as you passed and now your hands are bloody and she has seen this already, she knows what it means.
The girl with the pigtails finds you slumped on the steps of the church, a bottle on the ground at your feet, whispering the words to a prayer you knew when you were some other girl in some other life.
She grabs you by your shirt collar and yanks you upright, slamming you into the wall. You are not afraid. You have not been afraid for a while now. “You think he’s listening?” She demands an answer, her eyes wine-dark and churning. “You think, out of seven billion, he’s listening to you? An addict who can’t even say her prayers right?” She kneels in front of you, or maybe she falls. Her palms are bloody. She carries tragedy underneath her fingernails and leaves the tar-stink of it on you with every lingering touch. “Tell me, Harper. So many times he hasn’t come when you called. Why do you still ask?”
“I’m not asking.”
She grabs your hand and drags you to your knees, tangling her fingers in your hair. “Do you even realize how many times I’ve had you in my jaws? Something in you- I don’t even know what to call it- keeps dragging you away from the edge.”
“Primal survival instinct?”
She laughs, once, jagged. Her expression is as unfathomable as atoms. She holds your face in her unclean palms, tenderly, with a strange buried kindness you can’t begin to understand the cruelty of. “Maybe,” her voice is tired. “But-” she sighs, and looks away for a second. “There’s nothing protecting you, Harper. No divine right. No perfect destiny. It’s just you and me, kid. And I-” she laughs, again. “I hope you run as far and fast as possible.”
“Oh, believe me,” you say. “I’ve got quite the pair of legs on me.” “I can see that,” she just looks at you, strange, beholden.
“I did track in high school,” you offer, and your mind is a carousel long after the fair is closed, your body is a weapon to be utilized by whatever power can contain it.
She smiles, looks up at the sky. “Looks like rain,” she says, and touches your cheek with the back of her fingers. When she lowers her hand, her palm is bleeding. “Harper?”
“Do you have any matches?”
piano tiles shattered on the floor. bent strings across the altar. the shards of wood strewn like palm leaves on consecrated ground. your savior comes. your savior comes. your savior-
we buried you in the garden behind the church, sweet, misguided girl, where we once played cops and robbers with the sunday school kids. games of make believe and warm honeyed days are your rest eternal, we hope, for you who carved her name from where it was written and replaced it with the words of another. i don’t beg for forgiveness, anymore.
if i could i would have kept you warm somewhere unseeable within my chest, beside the rib from which you glimpsed your creator. if i could i would have killed you more softly. if i could i would not have killed you at all.
You and I and the girl with blonde pigtails are sitting side by side in a church pew, bony knees knocking together. You and I and the girl with blonde pigtails are humming the Battle Hymn of the Republic. You and I and the girl with the skeleton fingers are watching you die, are three background characters in some cosmic comedy making the most of their unwritten fates.
The you who will be me makes a face as the you who won’t be anyone wheezes, like a marathon runner with a bad cold, or a dog hit by a car. “God, I wish I would just shut up and get on with it.”
In response, the you who is more blood and ruin than living creature coughs, an ugly sound like drowning, almost certainly to spite the you who sits beside me with clean white hands.
Death sighs, having discovered a flaw in one of her blonde braids, and begins to untangle the knot. “God’s not listening,” she mutters, and you and I roll our eyes in unison.
She purses her lips and looks sideways at us. “Just thought you could use a reminder.” She has all the snobbish disinterest of a preteen suddenly too old for games of make-believe. I imagine blue mascara and bubblegum lipstick and begin to feel better about the whole situation.
“If anyone needs a reminder, it’s that one,” you say, and nod towards the you broken on the marble steps of the altar, a certain familiar disgust in your gaze. I reach out to pat your arm and feel rather like my own grandmother.
“I think she’s had all the reminders she needs, yeah?”
Death looks askance at us, but for once doesn’t speak, instead developing a studied interest in the half-ruined wood of the church pew in front of ours. After a second she reaches out, peels back a strip of wood, and takes a bite out of it.
You and I, and you, turn in unison to look at her.
Oblivious, she crunches happily on it.
“That can’t taste good,” the you that will be me says.
She looks at us, finally, her mouth red with splinters. “Mahogany,” she says. “Fruity, with an aftertaste of smoke and undertones of manufactured shame.”
“Oh,” you say, “my favorite.”
I laugh, but she continues to study you intently. “It should be,” she says, pausing to chew for a second, “seeing how often you indulge.”
You look at me, one eyebrow crooked, and I wonder if mine is doing the exact same thing at the moment. “I’m beginning to think I need a summary of our dietary habits,” you tell me. “I don’t recall church pews making the cut.” She frowns and disappears.
We look at each other.
Death reappears, now on your side, and kicks you hard in the shin. You yelp and jump about a foot in the air, slamming your knee into the pew.
The you that is dying on the ground and I laugh together, though I’m not entirely sure you’re not just choking.
we are choking, we are drowning, i remember this, i remember this, i don’t want to remember- the crack of boots on ribs- sing, oh goddess, she who holds the wolf between her teeth and teaches it mercy-
“I meant the shame, and you know that.” Death snaps. “Don’t make yourself seem stupider than you already are.”
“This is why nobody likes you,” you rub your shin.
“I can think of a few other reasons.”
god of betrayal, we watched you die, and your ribcage breaking was the sound of a violin dropped on a concrete floor. god of sweetness, we made you out of the hyacinths in the backyard and the acrid ache of incense, we wove your statutes from the law of the creek and the streetlamp, we wrote your commandments in the gravel and watched as passing cars were transformed into holy soldiers- spreading the word of the one come to save us- your savior comes, in a white kia sorento, and on her brow is a sparkly pink tiara from party city-
Wet coughs draw our attention to the body on the steps.
your savior comes. you tear her out of the strains of berry-ripened august. you worship her in a laundromat, on a clifftop, down on your knees with a knife in your hand. you sing her praises in the heathen moonlight.
Death tilts her head towards the you that is staining a white marble altar to crimson. “Don’t worry,” she says, chewing on her lip, “you had to do it.”
your savior comes. a club bathroom rings with music. the ocean crowds the edges of your vision. you choose. you choose. you choose.
the killing of something sacred should be beautiful, and so there are candles on the altar and flowers in our hair when we tie the ropes around her wrists and undress her as carefully as a child prepared for a bath by loving hands.
“It wasn’t like that,” when I don’t say anything at all, you choke on the silence. “Wait-” your eyes shatter, like glass, or streetlamps. “I didn’t do that,” you whisper, “tell me we didn’t- please-”
the killing of something sacred should be beautiful, and so we strip you naked and watch you shiver, and we think about truth and death and beauty and worship and love and love and love and love and love and
Around us, the blaze is catching. The pews are gone. The church is a ruin. We three are kneeling beside a girl with broken ribs and blood in her mouth and orchids painting her body black and blue.
the killing of something sacred should be beautiful, and so we call your bruises flowers, and we call your broken ribs snapped violin strings, and we call your death a sacrifice, and we call ourselves holy no longer-
“Harper,” Death says, somehow addressing all three of us at once, “remember.”
The you who will eventually be me covers her mouth with her hand. She appears to be choking. After a second it hits me, and I remember that we are sobbing. “I did this?” She asks.
how could we forget? it’s simple. bury your god in the garden, and then shut your eyes.
The you on the altar is a masterpiece as she dies, but not the kind you admire. The kind from which you would like to turn away. A car crash. A tragedy. A church burned to the ground. An addict dead on the pavement. She twitches. She begs for air. She suffers.
how could you forget? it’s simple. sow wildflower seeds in the fresh new soil. watch the young creatures bloom. dream about her sometimes, or-
You try to turn away, shivering like an alcoholic too long without a drink, but I grab your arm. “No,” I say, gently, “don’t.”
how could I forget? it’s simple. I didn’t.
“I don’t want to see,” you sob. “I don’t want to- don’t want to watch her-”
“Her?” Death asks, and for once her voice is soft. “Call her by her name, child.”
Shaking, terrified, creating and destroying yourself every second, you turn back and look yourself in the eyes and whisper, “Harper.”
The you who will not exist in my time gurgles. Maybe she is trying to say something. Maybe she is remembering our betrayal. There are only holes where her eyes should be.
You reach out, and- listen- I love you for this- you reach out, and you take this dying creature, this rotted thing, in your arms, as if she is the lamb carried from the field of slaughter, as if she is the child lost in wartime, and love carries us aloft on her shoulders, three Harpers and between them, the world-
I hold the hand of the you who is long since dead, and the church burns down around us, but we remain untouched.