2 Stories
by Blake Butler

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Year of Weird Light

I began to try again—and yet in want of nothing, as there was nothing I could taste. The hall outside my bedroom had grown engorged with dirt frittered full with raspy holes threaded by tapeworms and aphids, eating. I’d crack the door to let the looser dustings shake in so there'd be something I could chew on also. It didn't do much good. My tongue took to the texture of grass but my belly would not stop screaming, and the bug matter hung like gristle, my stomach so weak it couldn't grind. I could feel them moving elsewhere. I could feel the crawling behind my eyes. The old ceiling sat around me. The new ceiling: a smudged sky. In the idea of those unbent stars still drooling—the false hope of short-lived rain—I began to convince myself there would again be something. What something, when, regardless. I waited through the long phantasmic buzzing of the others so long gone, the other flooded rooms (my mother's, the tiny crib space, the basement where my brother went under first). When the sound of scissors filled my forehead I would swallow air until they wore away. I would rock and lick the salt of my kneecaps and laugh aloud and remember math. I'd been good at that garbage sometime. I'd been working on a wall. From my window I could see nothing of the yard—just the pinky pastel upchuck that had spread over everything. No sun. In the floor in the far corner where I’d once stood for being dumb there was a mouth. A man’s mouth—I could feel his gender in the bristle of his bridge, the texture of his breath. He was not my father, though I'd buried him beneath the house. When I came near enough he’d whisper, his voice ruined and raspy like beehive flutter. He mostly said only one thing over and over. He’d repeat until the words became just words, until even what short sleep came for me was slurred. To shut him up I'd spit between them and the lips would shrivel, bring a hum. You could hear him suck for hours, my taste some nourishment, a fodder. But soon enough again the wishing—like a hymn. Finally I took the dirt that would have been my dinner and meshed the lips over to make the floor full flush and proper. Then the world again was hushed and far off. I began to teach myself the words I’d need when things returned: the yes and please and bless you. The ouch and why and I remember. I tried to find my mother’s voice in my head, but the sounds from outside and in (me, myself) brought a blur: the electric storms, the shaking, the ice-melt, the itch, the rip. I continued to continue to try. I waited longer and the trying became a thing worn like a hairpin in my heart. Or more aptly like my fingernails—nearly an inch each by now, growing out of me some crudded yellow. In time I’d become sly and slouched enough to eat those goddamned slivers of myself. But before that I’d wish the mouth back. I’d lap the dirt and find a hole. One tiny nozzle down to nowhere, black no matter how loud into it I'd beg or bark or sing.

 

Gristle

           The meat had steeped in vinegar for fourteen hours. Its thick scrim glinted in the light. I stood in vigilance near the icebox with a flyswat, sweating. Somehow the aphids kept getting in. They'd laid eggs in the grass cakes. Burrowed my breast milk. Ruined the lard. We were so hungry. It was the seventeenth of September. I would celebrate my goddamn birthday.
           The boys were outside in the deep end, splashing to keep warm. It was frigid for the end of summer. Our skins were still raw from months of sun. In their beds I'd find my babies’ flakes like large translucent leafs. Jon was losing hair. His head had huge bumps bulging full of pus. The whites of Timmy's eyes were yellow. I could count my tumors like my freckles from young yard-stuck days in Kentucky.
           We had the rot inside us now. Even the dachshund, Roger, hung with fungus. He spent his hours heavy breathing. He'd been a good boy for many years. He'd been a gift.
           We were so hungry. Two weeks before I'd watched our field of cattle as they fainted in one long wave. As if God's translucent hand had come and swiped them down. Our whole herd, just gone, demolished. Their flesh had rotted in an hour. In another the field was swarmed with heathen—wasps and gnats and rats and roaches. The whole farm's fortune shriveled black and writhing. My husband Jack and I just stood there staring. We had to hold the dog to keep him from running to the swarm. I thanked God only that the boys were asleep.
           It'd gotten worse since then.
           Insects clustered at the windows. The wind had ripped our roof off. I could hear the kids in the pool now—giddy, whooping. Malnutrition had made them dumber. They needed protein, sustenance. We'd been eating paper, eating mud. What stores hadn't collapsed by now had been fully pillaged. We had no TV, song or excess light.
When the sun went down enough so birds couldn’t see to swoop, I carried the meat out into the backyard. Rain had turned the lawn to slosh. I'd made Jack's Cadillac's hood into a makeshift sort of skillet. The pink hammy flanks of Roger sizzled on hot metal.
           I'd explained Roger's recent disappearance by saying he'd gone on to find their Papa; that soon he’d return with our man’s hand clenched in his teeth and then again they'd neither leave. Jack, the motherfucker, had found an anvil and jumped in the pool they swam in now. I’d fibbed for that occasion also, said he'd gone to build us a new home: a mansion somewhere sacred, where we’d never wake to shaking, to weird bumps on our backs. When they frittered for more info—where? how much longer?—I snapped and smacked their chins. I couldn't help it. He'd given up. He'd left me here alone to raise two boys in a world where at night flies caked the moon.
           Jack—the man who'd sworn he'd stay beside me for forever.
           Jack—who by the time I found him had been picked clean. I'd identified him by his front teeth: each crowned from boyhood fighting. The gold had gotten us along another week.
           But now the plume of cook-smoke from Roger swam around me. The gristle jumped and spat. I started drooling—couldn't help it. I sliced a hunk out of the thigh meat, sucked it down soggy with juice. My stomach screamed in glee. I ate another—Happy birthday.
           I was thirty-three years old. Same age my mother'd been when she was ripped to bits by incensed cats. I didn’t feel so bad eating Roger, as good a puppy as he'd been. I nibbled his bitter liver and his kidneys. Something long gone whooped in my cerebrum.
           The wind was picking up. Rain spanked my face like little hands. I chewed so hard I bit my lip a bit. I tasted blood. My body surged.
           I ate the whole dog raw.
           Afterward I felt giddy, awkward, my stomach bulging as if with child. My heartbeat throttled through my body—rollercoasters. I felt embarrassed, somewhat sick.
           Before our roof I’d watched the Johnsons’ RV ascend. I’d seen whole sheets of land uprooted. Each night the CB blubbed with gossip: how the sky had stole a school bus full of children, our city bridge, an apple orchard. Even the stream that crossed the backyard had one night begun running upward. God was taking things back. Just a matter of time before my boys or me. If not tomorrow, then tomorrow. Things would continue in their way until they didn’t.
           Sometimes I still see Jack in the cracky black above the bed where I haven’t slept right in forever.
           My knees now shook beneath me. Saliva dribbled down my cheeks. I turned around to see the boys' bodies flapping, their heads bulging ripe on sallow mass. They looked so happy, even still. It took a minute to recall their names. The wind whipped so strong my hair now stood up over my head. The grill sputtered with the rain. I could feel its sizzle in my stomach—its metal issued through my tissue. I wanted more. It was my birthday. My teeth sweated for my tongue.
           The boys. These boys, my babies. These sons who wouldn't ever grow much older. Who before they'd had a chance of love or worship would be combusted, spored. If the rain didn’t take us, then the wind would, or the mud, the mire, the cats. They shouldn't suffer such long torture. I couldn't wait for the sky to dive.
           With both hands shaking the greasy flipper, drool now curling down my thigh, I called my boys to come in from the rain and sing my name.