Schism in a Soul So Tender

 

Schism in a Soul So Tender

I live in a many-peopled cabin. They will not let me work or clean, nor help tend the
animals. They will not let me run. On the days I rise from bed, I go downstairs and try to at least help with the dishes. But whoever is there, usually Aunt Terry, will not hear of it. She shoos me away, nudging me by my elbows back up the stairs and between the stale sheets.

Only women live in the cabin, for the time being. My aunt and cousin move in and out of the house; there are four of us in total. I envy their mobility, particularly that of my cousin Alice. She is only nine, with curls like coiled ribbon. She tends to the cows, giving them hay and ensuring they return to the correct field every night. It was my job, once, and I was wonderful at it. I could walk side by side with the animals, knowing they would not kick or charge or resent my presence. It is a skill none of the others have. Even Alice, calm as she is around the cattle, dares not go within a few feet of them.

This morning I tried to make myself useful. I all but begged Aunt Terry to give me a
chore, a task, anything to fill the hours, but she recycled her dissents and forced me back to my room. Not my actual room, mind, just the room I’m staying in for now. I’ve spent hours staring at the ceiling, memorizing its cracks and scuffs, its upside-down topography.

There’s a knock on the door, after which it immediately opens. No time to get up. Mother walks in, her face tired but her hair freshly washed, one hand behind her back. She sits on the edge of the bed, running her hands along the faded quilt.

“Terry says you went downstairs again,” she says.

“I only wanted to help,” I say.

“You know you shouldn’t.” She smiles at me, tucks a hair behind my ear. “Here, I was
going through some boxes and found more of Nanna’s old books. I don’t think you’ve read these.”

She pulls out her hidden hand and places three volumes in my lap. They’re leatherbound, titles unfamiliar. When I flip through them, I see how time has faded the pages, rendering them nearly illegible. The books range from 200 to 500 pages, enough to keep me busy for at least three days.

We’ve had no visitors to distract us from my situation. A landline stands guard in the kitchen, but it’s been mostly silent since my bed rest began. My friends called the first few days, hoping to arrange shopping trips and visits to the city. But my mother and aunt told them what had happened, why I wouldn’t be at school for the following weeks. My friends who had gone through it themselves Ashley and Tabitha, both a year older than me—sent assurances that I would be just fine. My other friend, Bailey, the baby of our group who had yet to experience the same, simply apologized and hung up. I hoped Tom Maurice would call, but if his voice crackled through our receiver, they never told me of it.

Alice comes in later. She carries a chipped white bowl filled with oranges, which she sets
on my nightstand. She stands by the bed for a moment, eyeing the books and sneaking glances at me. Some days I invite her to join me, we lie together and eat fruit and imagine ourselves worlds away. But this afternoon, I see the perspiration on her temples from running outside with the cows, and my stomach contracts. I thank her; she drags her feet as she walks out.

I peel the oranges, savoring the feel of their rind beneath my fingernails. The juices spilling down my hands are heaven—everything in this room, the sheets and the books and the wood furniture, is dry and stagnant and trapped in a fixed state. When I leave it, there will be no indication of the months it sheltered me. These oranges grew until my aunt or cousin or mother plucked them from the tree. They reveal layers, peel giving way to wrinkled slices giving way to stem. The slices cling to each other as I pull them apart, begging not to be separated from their brood. I swallow their liquid sunlight, pretending it’s enough to ease my withdrawals. Once I’ve eaten a few pieces, I look into the orange, the stem and slices remaining, and there I see myself. It’s been happening a lot, recently. There are no mirrors in the room, so I rely on the fruit to reflect my image. It never disappoints. I am always there, in the curve between slice and stem, in the peach pit and the apple seeds buried within the flesh. It comforts me to discover my likeness in fruit, plentiful and resilient. But I cannot help thinking of all those who eat me, and how even I eat me, and I wonder if the continuous death is worth the never-ending life.

I wipe my hands of these musings and resume eating. I lie on my side, allowing some juice to spill from my lips and onto the white sheets.

Aunt Terry comes in a few hours later to collect the bowl. She scowls at the slightly
orange, sticky stains from where the juice spilled.

“Up, up,” she says. She strips the sheets from the bed, bundling them under her arm. She looks around the room, at the empty mattress and the single wooden chair hiding in the corner. “Well, I guess you’ll come downstairs while I clean these.”

I do not smile, worried that a sign of my happiness will result in its confiscation. I follow her down the steps, lifting my nightdress to prevent tripping. The material fills my hand with its thickness, its texture grates against my palm —a relic from my grandmother’s sewing days. She died many years ago, but Mother ensured her clothes were well-preserved. I’ve worn it for five days, maybe six.

Though downstairs, Aunt Terry will not let me work. The grumbling of the washing machine makes the floors vibrate. I sit on the couch, listening to her prepare dinner, inspecting the painting which hangs above the fireplace. It depicts the cabin, set against a wistful sky and surrounded by grass. A horse is tied to the porch, staring out of the painting and at me.

Alice squeals, soft thumps announce her jumping on the porch. She runs through the door, grabbing her mother’s dress. “Someone’s coming!”

“What?” Aunt Terry asks, abandoning the kitchen, following her outside. Alice sees me, does a double-take, looks at her mother in confusion. “I’m washing her sheets,” Aunt Terry explains, pushing her daughter out the door with her. “Can you tell who it is?”

“Not yet, but it’s not the truck,” The door closes behind them but still I listen. Mother’s voice mingles with theirs.

“Looks like Rich’s car to me,” she says. Her eyesight is better than all of ours, she always says I could have been the same if only I ate more carrots as a child.

“You’re right,” Terry says.

“Daddy!” Alice shouts, followed by a few claps of her hands. The roar of wheels against gravel grows louder, then stops.

“Who do we have here?” Uncle Rich says.

“Any news?” Mother asks.

“’Course,” he says. “But can’t a man get something to eat? Been driving since this morning.”

They hurry him in, no one casting a glance at me in the living room. Alice holds one of
his massive hands in both of hers, Terry wipes at the dust on his face, Mother takes off his coat. They grab at him as if hoping that touch alone could impart the knowledge he has to share.

Terry and Mother go to the kitchen. Rich lifts Alice in the air, spins her around until she squeals. He stops when he notices me.

“Well, look who it is,” he says, words booming through the small room. Mother jokes that her brother-in-law has no concept of an inside voice.

Besides the general uncleanliness, he looks the same as I remember—portly, tall enough to reach the ceiling, a mole underneath his left eye, eyes that soften his whole appearance and make one glad to be around him.

“Food’s ready,” Mother says.

Alice runs to the kitchen, the squeak of table legs against the floor emphasizing her eagerness. Rich extends a hand towards me.

“You’ll join us?” he asks.

Mother wants to object, I see the words stringing together in her mind, but I take his hand and follow. Terry also tries to say something when I sit down, but Rich puts his hand up, the closest he can get to an order.

“She deserves to know,” he says. “Besides, it’s for her sake all this is happening.”

Terry acquiesces, sits beside her daughter and across from her husband. Mother joins us, and we pick at the ham-and-mustard sandwiches while Rich swallows them in a few bites.

“We found it yesterday,” he says, sticking a thumb under his waistband. “Hiding out in one of those no-name towns, working in a bar.”

“Oh, god,” says Terry. Her eyes flick to me, sympathizing with my misfortune.

“What’s it calling itself?” Mother asks.

Rich looks at the table. “Susan.”

Terry moans; Alice’s eyes widen at her distress. Mother’s hand tightens around her cup, her eyes turning to flint.

“It’s bold, I’ll give it that,” she says. “Taking my girl’s face, and her name too.”

“You remember how it is,” Rich says. He tries smiling at his daughter to alleviate her worries, but Alice is staring at Terry, whose head is buried in her hands. “It’ll do whatever it can to get by, don’t matter what kinda morality it’s breaking. We’ll take care of it now the same as then.”

Mother nods. “You’ll go straight to bed after this,” she says to me. “Gotta preserve your energy.” Turning to Rich, she asks when my father will arrive.

“Tomorrow morning, most like,” he replies. “It was easy enough to subdue the thing, but it kept trying to act up when it was awake. We used some a’ Terry’s pills to keep it asleep, so hopefully, that’ll speed him up.”

“Tomorrow, then,” Mother says. She reaches across the table, pats my hand. “You hear that, baby? It’s almost over.”

I chew and chew and chew on the sandwich until it turns to mush in my mouth, until it’s all I can focus on, until I wonder if I’ll choke on it, then I swallow.

I sleep on the sheets Terry washed. When I wake up, I feel cold. I will be allowed to walk today, to go outside and breathe fresh air. I want to lose myself in the sensation of stretched legs, exertion, running for the sake of it. But there’s a buzzing in my ears, not loud enough for a headache, nor quiet enough to be ignored.

A knock on the door, Mother walks in. A folded white dress rests in her arms.

“How do you feel?” she asks.

I shrug.

She lays the dress on the chair, sits in front of me on the bed. “Listen, I know it’s scary. But remember, this happened to me, it happened to your Aunt   Terry, every woman has to go through it. You’re not alone.”

“Do I have to be the one to do it?” I ask. “Dad can’t? Rich?”

Mother shakes her head. “We tried that for Terry. She couldn’t bear the thought of doing it. Your granddad did it instead, and a month later, a new one popped up. It was stronger than the first and put up quite the fight, but that time we insisted Terry be the one. She didn’t like it, of course, but there was never a third. I’m sorry sweetheart, but it can’t be anyone else.”

“What was it like for you?” I ask.

“Mine was tough,” she admits. “It tried everything it could to survive: begging, crying, screaming. It had all my memories, and it used ‘em against me to get me to waver. But I didn’t.”

“What if I waver?” Mother cups my chin as when I was a child. “We’ll all be beside you. It’s your hand that has to do it, but that doesn’t mean we can’t help.”

“And then I won’t have to stay in here all day?”

Mother smiles. “No, no. Staying in the room was my father’s idea during Terry’s second time. He thought the restlessness would help make the thing’s protests less effective. Today’s the last day you’ll have to spend here, I promise.”

I nod, thinking of the cows and the peace of standing among them, of feeling their massive bodies graze mine and knowing I was protected.

I hear my father’s truck an hour later. It roars, scaring the cows and Alice, even my arm
hairs raise a bit. I am still in my room, sitting on the bed, the white dress replacing my
nightgown. It’s an old garment, thick and long-sleeved, more suitable for the winter than our current summer day. It’s a size too small, causing my skin to billow where the neckline and sleeves end. The dress is not necessary for the day’s proceedings, but another touch of my grandfather’s—he was a theatrical man and embraced the ritualistic possibilities of this moment.

Someone knocks on my door, but they do not enter. When I open it, my mother stands before me. She takes my hand and leads me downstairs, where Terry holds onto Alice. My cousin cannot stop moving. She taps her feet, scratches her arms, looks at me and then the floor. They are both in cream dresses, similar to my mother’s, inappropriate for summer. Sweat accumulates at my aunt’s hairline, which she smudges away.

Mother’s grip on me is tight, I use her arm like a column for support.

“Where is it?” I ask.

“Tied up outside,” she says. “The boys are getting ready.”

A moment later they join us in their own cream shifts, less adorned than the women’s. My father’s face is worn, dirty. I have not seen him in two months, not since it appeared and he began hunting. I hope he will hug me, but he only glances in my direction and says it’s time.

We walk into the midday heat, to the post on the side of the house where I would tie the horse I had as a child. The horse died three years ago, heart bursting as I rode. Now, hands tied against the post, head lolling, my reflection stands.

The double is exactly that—same hair, same skin tone, every detail a perfect replica. I have not seen it since it first appeared, the same day Tom Maurice and I walked along the creek. He kissed me and I was so surprised, so delighted, I let him touch me wherever he wanted. The realization of my own desirability made me drunk. I slipped into the creek more than once and my shoes were still wet as I returned to our fields, imagining what I’d tell my friends the next morning. When I finished giving the cows hay, I turned around and it was there, naked and shaking, clutching at my ankles as it begged for help. But Mother had warned me—story after story of them stealing husbands, sleeping with other men only for the original woman to carry the child. So I kicked it and ran to the house, screaming for my parents. By the time I found them, told them, led them to the spot, it was gone. And so, the search began.

Today, the double is not naked. It wears a tattered dress, straps barely hanging onto the shoulders, chest exposed. Cuts and bruises adorn its face and body, likely my father’s doing. Its eyelids are purple, swollen, but they raise so that the double sees me.

Its features are stoic before noticing my family behind me, the knife that my mother presses into my hands. Unlike our clothes, the weapon is not ceremonial—it’s from the kitchen, and afterward will be used to prepare dinner.

Eyes flick from knife to me, family to knife to me. It shakes its head, pushes against the stake as if to merge with it.

“Please, Susan,” it says, voice no different from my own.

I watch the double struggle against the rope, expecting its form to break, its otherness to be revealed. But it remains in one body, a body no stronger than my own.

A hand pushes against my back, Mother’s or Father’s. I move a few steps closer, wondering how to hold the knife. I have only ever used it for cutting fruit, vegetables nothing that would resent the violence.

“You don’t have to,” it says, lips trembling.

Why didn’t Father gag her? Is this part of the tradition as well? That I listen to my own self die to live again?

It looks so much like me that I cannot register the resemblance. The moment feels like finding a picture of myself from when I was little, one I’ve never seen before, noticing my familiar features contorted in unfamiliar ways.

I raise the knife, preparing myself to plunge it once and deep and have it over with.

“Wait!” it screeches. “Just let me tell you one thing, one secret.”

I feel my family’s attention on me like a wet coat. My family, who has moved freely through the world while I’ve been locked up for months. My family, who promises this will be over but who I can’t absolutely believe. To listen to the double is to prolong my assured freedom. So I step forward, close enough for it to whisper.

Its breath is warm and shaky against my neck. The scent of it fills my nose, my own but mixed with blood and intensified by our joint presence.

“What you did, it wasn’t bad,” the double whispers. “Don’t let them tell you otherwise.” I hear footsteps behind me, my father’s. I am sure he has grown impatient. I do not allow myself to think, to listen to the words it continues to say. I force the knife into the double’s chest, pulling in and out and in and out, encountering less resistance each time. It whimpers, words abandoned. I look over its shoulder at the cows as it convulses, as it coughs blood into my hair, as its empty head falls onto my shoulder.

Everyone is too busy preparing dinner to help me wash out the blood. Rich at least runs a bath, making it warm to calm my supposedly fragile nerves. He leaves to help my father prepare the meat.

I scrub myself raw, dragging the washcloth against my face even after the blood is gone. I have an urge to take off all my layers, the clothes and the skin and the muscle and the bone. I want to be only essence, as it now is.

Mother and Aunt Terry cook a feast that night. I smell it from my room, my real room
with the blue curtains and flowered quilt and paintings of imaginary lives. I’ve been allowed back in, now that I’m clean and the danger is gone. I run my hands over the trinkets—music boxes, old jewelry, favorite books. Despite my months of rest, I want to crawl into my bed, disguise myself in the sheets, like a letter in an envelope. But I hear the clashes of pans give way to small talk, signaling that it’s time to eat.

The chatter ceases when I walk downstairs. Mother and Aunt Terry and Uncle Rich smile, Alice looks at me with wider eyes than usual. Father folds my body into a hug, lifting me off the ground as when I was little.

“It’s so good to see you,” he whispers into my hair. “I’ve missed you so much, Susan, so much.”

I return his hug, though absently. My attention falls towards the table, where every platter we own is arranged and overflowing with food. There’s the salad, the potatoes, the corn and other sides, but more than anything there is the meat. It flows like a river through the table, every other dish covered in what was once me.

We sit, we eat, Father serving me as the guest of honor.

“Let us be glad,” he says, his voice booming. “Our Susan has looked into the face of evil, and she has vanquished it. It’s thanks to her that we are all together again.”

The other adults nod. Alice looks at me, she has not stopped looking at me since I came down. I recognize in her still manner and raised skin the realization that I had when my mother told me about her double. It’ll be me next. It’ll be her next.

My jaw moves in methodical circles as I chew. I think it’s meat in my mouth, but I can’t be sure—my attention keeps going out of focus. I look at the platters and see it, her, for now, I can see that she couldn’t have just been an it. If she were, she would have disappeared, floated into the wind the minute I killed her. But she was real and substantive, she had a body that I killed and Father took apart and Mother cooked to a tender medium-rare. A body that I chew, that we all chew.

“I hear Tom Maurice has been thinking of settling down,” Aunt Terry says. She speaks around the food in her mouth, covering it with her hand in mock courtesy. Beside her, Uncle Rich shovels forkful after forkful into himself, hardly looking up.

“You and he always got along, right, Susan?” Mother asks.

I nod, my mouth full of her, having the decency to not let my future mix with her death. The memories of the creek do not bring the same excitement as before.

Mother sees my nod and shoots a glance first at my father, then Terry. They all smile and raise their eyebrows.

“Not hungry, Su?” Rich asks. He’s bent over his plate, a bit of juice leaking out of the corner of his lips.

I’ve had only a few bites, but I know that any more would make my body cave in on itself. I shake my head, look down.

“It’s been a long day,” Father says, laying a hand on mine. “You’ll have a better appetite tomorrow. Your aunt and mother will wrap up some of the leftovers, no trouble.”

I offer a grateful smile. Tomorrow my appetite will also be poor, and the next day and the next, until the meat spoils and no one can eat it.

“Oh, your friend Bailey, her mother called today,” Aunt Terry says. “Seems her time has come too. I doubt you’ll be able to speak with her, but you could call and leave a message of support with her parents. It helped us when your friends did the same.”

I mumble okay, thinking of Bailey with her pink bows, laughter that mixed so well with mine. I remember Tabitha and Ashley hoping she would be spared.

“If you’re up to it,” Father says. “Why don’t you go bring in the cows? I’m sure they’ve missed you.”

His words dissipate the fog, bringing the room back into focus. “Really?” I ask.

He nods, I look at Mother, she nods, I get up. The scraping of utensils against plates continues as I leave the cabin and walk across the yard. The cows have been grazing in the larger pasture all day, fattening themselves. They’re well trained, docile, and begin walking towards the barn once I open the gate that separates them. When I’ve watched, Alice has retreated at this point, sitting on the edge of the fence as they make their way inside. I stand in the middle of the gate, waiting for the cows to approach. And they do—calmly, slowly, as if they had not noticed my absence the past two months. First, there are only a few, then the rest follow, crowding together and parting around me like a river makes way for a stone.

When we are so close that I can feel how each of their textures differs, one of the calves tries to gnaw my hand. I flinch as its teeth graze my skin; it moves on, unaffected. My heart constricts. My resolve folds into itself, opening the door for fear—that the cows will stampede, that I’ll be trampled underneath them, that they’ll push me far into the earth, deeper than where the double came from, and no one will be able to find me. I hold my elbows, make myself smaller, but they only get closer. The cows don’t look at me—they rarely do, but the absence of their gaze never made me feel less close to them until now. Even as I search for the peace they once inspired, the euphoria that I could only attain in their presence, I know it is futile. By the time the last cow passes me, I am crouching on the ground, heaves making my chest swell and contract to such a degree that I feel I’ll burst open. The lack of connection stings as severely as a missing limb, as if it too was stabbed and dismantled and eaten by us all.

 

About the Author

Clara Mundy is an English, French, and Creative Writing student at UT Austin. She has previously worked for the journals Texas Studies in Literature and Language and Bat City Review.