She showed me her palms. Small and white.
At six years old, it was the butterflies. Collected in an old VHS case and placed, casually, in the freezer.
Then of course the baby bird, zipped up in a sandwich bag. Its tiny last breaths rising; plumes of thin fog against the clean plastic.
She just showed them her palms. She said, look there is no blood.
And finally, junior high. The kitten in the microwave. Howling like a fire alarm. Cliché and final.
She always found new reasons, or none, to press gently on the fragile throats of the things she loved. And, truly, she loved them. She loved everything, and it was just different. Like the way some people grit their teeth when they’re happy or bite their lip until it bleeds or feel certain about their decision to stop returning their mother’s telephone calls. We are just at different levels, she would tell me, and I feel safe on mine.
Summer moons were her favorite. The bright light. That’s how she saw herself. Ahead of the darkness; a film of newness to combat the dullness of the same world she woke up to every morning. Did you know our moon is pulling away? Did you know our bodies are the same as the earth? In another universe you are already dead.
She was a hunter. Naturally. A perfect shot but aimed to damage. She sat with them though, waiting for the cold to set in. She let me watch. She loved me I think or whatever it was.
She wandered home at dusk every night. Her father would always be waiting. He was a sad man. She didn’t know why. She had never felt that way.
Her room was always the same. Stagnant like a shallow summer creek. The nativity set standing dusty in July. The paperweight. The old television whining like a fire alarm. Orange light trying to fill the spaces between old text books full of dates, full of numbers and lines that made sense to her. Like how to properly clean a hospital gown or the exact way each saint was martyred and the year they chose to die for something she couldn’t believe in.
She held books like they were made of glass, her fingertips lightly supporting the spine. Her voice rushed into the words and the words clutched tight around the edges of her lips, a quick certainty. She read to me often. We never touched. She moved away. I found a book on my doorstep in the morning.
The thing is, I loved her too. Maybe even in the same way she loved. I would have let her touch my throat. I would have touched her until the cold set in. I would have offered her my palms.
It was quiet. There was starlight sometimes through the barn wall slats and the straw was soft enough. She thought nothing. She didn’t make a sound. By the time they were ready to let go they found her with holes. Edged out spaces that used to be smooth. Animals poking in and out from some kind of rodent, something with tiny teeth.
He thought about her veins stitched close to the leather of her insides. He wanted to touch them and he did, at least he remembered how it felt.
He wondered if war used to be as quiet as she was waiting.
Before there were guns maybe there were just young men kneeling in silence. And this wasn’t true but there was so much blood on the ground he thought it might be. Maybe they just waited for the enemy or circled like snakes, the quick send off and recoil, a thousand lockets of hair from a thousand lovers clutched tight against their skins.
He thought about their skins and wondered who would love her next and would he press his lover’s back against the leather of her insides? Would he run his hand the length of her body and memorize it? He traced it in the air now. He remembered like she was there. The small of her back, the quick incline, the slight plateau and back down, the last stretch over her and oh my god or God, he hoped, because of all the blood but oh my whatever-the-fuck-is-next, his father wouldn’t keep her. Not without him.
He wouldn’t watch her go either. He would look the stranger right in the eye at the handshake and the man-to-man she’s-all-yours sendoff, but he wouldn’t watch her go. Not with his dead son still wet in the ground and some kid the same age driving off into the sunset with the radio on. I mean, it would be sunset too for chrissake.
Would he tell him the story about the only son, sacrificed his life so some kid could drive that god forsaken car down whatever fucking road he wanted? Probably. He was sentimental like that. Taught his son to love cars the way you love a woman.
“Memorize her with your hands but listen for the heartbeat first. She shouldn’t have to say a fucking thing.”
My mom talks anyway. Always. She isn’t afraid of the silence—she just isn’t afraid of her own thoughts. All those years and he still listens though.
They fell in love in the usual way. Their differences slipping easily one inside the other like those Russian nesting dolls she collects and he hates. His terrible jokes nestled in her wit; his quiet contemplation stark against her incessant second guessing. I remember at five years old we saw a bird in the parking lot. I was in the backseat and I watched my mom’s face go soft and then confused and then scared. She turned to my dad and asked if the bird was okay. And then she insisted, “He’s okay, right? He’s going to be okay?”
Its neck was broken.
My dad looked at the bird struggling to stand and then at nothing. They loved so deeply everything that was alive and mourned every last breath they witnessed. Birds and mice and rabbits and whatever else showed up on their doorstep.
“He’s okay, right? He’s going to be okay?”
She always asked him that when it wasn’t okay and sometimes he cried and said nothing and sometimes he lied and said yes and sometimes he got angry and said no and said stop asking me it doesn’t make it okay just because you keep insisting it might be okay and I can’t make it okay just by saying yes.
She will ask him that this time too.
He will cry and say nothing.
Maggie Dillow grew up writing terrible teen poetry in Chicagoland. She moved to South Dakota in 2013, after waking up naked in the Badlands and thinking that maybe the Universe was calling her to the Black Hills. She was right. When she’s not writing you can find her in the woods.