by Emma Kofman

Illustration by Claire Schlaikjer

published February 16, 2018

Sometimes I lie on the bed and my body lists towards your softer side and I pretend that it is your magnetism and not gravity that is pulling me towards you. We are lying in bed but are two different bodies, each with their own needs, and so we bought two twin mattresses and one king-sized sheet.

Your hand is pulling me closer and there is something about your touch mixed with my skin cells being dragged away with the rising post-shower water that calms me. A dissolving outer layer that I am shedding and it is getting everywhere and all over you. You can’t see it but maybe you feel it.

There are chattering voices all around us that night, striating the air.

The signs come slowly, slower than I’d expected. It is first the whispers, which themselves are first only at night. And then, not only at home, but also on skin, out and around, the whispers writing themselves onto me. Crawling voices and toes and paws on my shoulder blades, in the valleys of my collarbones. I am convinced you can hear them on me everywhere—rustling, gnawing.

I apply concealer. You kiss my neck and when you pull away your mouth is flesh colored.

When I first notice them, I’m making you a cake. The signs crystallize into a diamond and cut a hole into the bottom of a bag of flour. There are teeth marks forced through the paper sack; they’ve made paste in their mouths, mixing raw flour with spit. I skim a cup of flour from the top, hoping it’s not diseased or poisoned.

I feel your forehead that night, check for fevers, restless eyelids. I throw the rest of the bag out while you aren’t looking.

They are small and sweet and dead and smell like nothing yet because they are still so fresh. If you look at them without your glasses on they are just small grey clouds that moved too close to the ground and got caught. My droplets of skin condensed and rained down into dust.

I tell myself that if I just blew on them, they’d float away. So I decide to anchor them down.

“Will you come home with me? I’m scared of being alone again tonight.” My arm is stretched around your shoulders; my body is humming. You pick up on my vibrations but not on the words my fingers are carving into your arm as we try to walk together but jerk disjointedly around. “Will you watch me sleep? Make your eyes bright and erase all the smudges?”

“Babe, you’re hurting me.” Your shoulder rips away.

I am sitting in front of one, looking straight into its half-closed eyes and acutely angled and backwards neck. And I swear it smiles at me. With its teeth and chin. I stretch out my finger to see if it’s as soft as it looks.

Touching the mouse now, as it twists in the trap, pacing my index finger along the bridge of its nose, fluffing the fur up one way and smoothing it back down the other.

I reach over to the next trap and am comforting two now and I am sobbing. This one is different though, cold and stiff, its fur matted with blood.

Asleep and dreaming, there’s technology to keep fingernails from growing, to siphon that life energy from hands and transform it into something close to immortality. When you are eighteen, choose a nail shape and it’s yours for life. Intellectuals are impractical—their hands for something other than labor, they cut nails triangular and long.

No longer asleep, I startle awake to a snapping sound and brace myself to hear shrieks. But instead, there is only silence mixed with your light snoring and I can’t make out the grey that is writhing behind the grainy static air. You roll towards me and your features are all mashed up and trying to move but I can’t see a face in them, let alone yours.

No longer fully sleeping, I dream that the traps are all empty. I wake up and this is not the case.

Soon there’s nothing sad about them except I still don’t know what to do with their bodies. They are just sleeping dead babies. I first put them in my sock drawer, wrapped in striped fuzz, to insulate them as they hibernate for winter. But then there were smells, reminders of something more sinister than sleep; so the stuffed socks went into the freezer and did their best to keep them warm and laundry-scented as the temperatures dipped below freezing. I was glad for the first time that there were many. To share warmth.

We’re in a big, bright room that’s all frosted glass and sterile countertops and orderly cages. “We are here to buy a snake,” we tell the caged mice.

There’s a surprisingly good variety—candy ones, improbable and sour sweet, some like whips, darting around and licking the fake rocks, others Zen garden keepers, shaping the sand beneath them. And then we see it, wrapped around a log, green and yellow and killer.

“We are here today to give new meaning to bodies…”

The mice stop running in wheels and drinking drops from metal tubes mixed with gravity and look up at me. The surrogate sacrificial lambs ready for the slaughter.

“…To repurpose.”

The snake is in a cardboard carrier and hissing in the backseat. We didn’t buy a cage. We watch it take its first laps around the kitchen tiles, proud at this new thing we are already so good at. We didn’t buy any food either.

We wake up and it is filled with mice. Just body after body lined up and compressing up against the scales, straining them until they are about to fly off in glittering razor-edged flecks. The mice are all oriented differently within the lining of the snake and I can make out in some places only a foot, in others, snout and whiskers, tail. All the parts artistically jumbled into a composite still life.

We notice the snake isn’t moving but rigid and dead from its digestive exertions.

I do not eat for three days after this, feeling myself as full as the snake. On the fourth day I am finally hungry and it is like those babies you hear about—the ones who try and eat the breast right off the mother.

The lone survivor and I are staring at each other. The mouse misses its mother and we mourn her. I tell him, “There are ways of being alone in this world.”

I learn mice can chew through concrete, can climb up walls with their nails and teeth as grip. Our bed no longer an island, we sleep between the frictionless walls of the bathtub. The next night, as I slide down into the tub you realize I wasn’t just being spontaneous. You stop staying over.

The snake starts to smell, goes into the freezer. Full and ready for winter. Maybe come spring it will give birth to something. The mice already inside are caked in translucent crystals.

I try eating everything. Emptying the house to starve the last one out, to fill myself up.

The lone survivor is taunting me, is likely the reincarnation of Houdini. I go to sleep with baited traps, wake up to empty ones. I am feeding him still and I suppose this makes him my pet. We are cohabitating.     

I booby trap the bathroom save for a path from tub to toilet and toilet to sink. I get a medley of traps, some live ones that are opaque boxes. As long I don’t open the box and cut my nose off then I will never know what’s inside—if it’s empty or if there is something rotting within.

It stops eating the cheese, peanut butter, olives, its tastes refining. I try new foods, hoping it’ll slip up, apply too much pressure or move too slowly. Hoping it will keep eating something other than me. I fall asleep wondering if teeth strong enough to move through concrete could gnaw through bone.

The fridge is empty now, the freezer still full. I use my nail like a melon baller on the frozen mice, carve out chunks of icy fat and fur and bait the traps with them. I start counting down until Houdini’s hunger turns inward, cannibalistic.

If you run your fingertips over your teeth, they too feel like a trap.

He will not eat his kin. When days later the mouse flesh has shifted into puddles and remains undisturbed, I try using the snake. It looks like a beef Wellington and I cut cross-sections of it and lay them on top of the snap traps. The thin disguise is enough and Houdini’s appetite takes over. In a week the freezer is empty too, the snake entirely consumed. I wonder how he has made space within himself for such accumulation.

In my dreams I roll over onto my side and you are back in the tub with me, and I am grateful. I puncture you accidentally, with a toothy kiss. You begin to deflate, sinking beneath my arms and crumpling inwards. I grasp at anything, at all of you. The only thing within reach is a tuft of hair. It rips out of your head and is suddenly light, detached from the weight of you.

I wake up and Houdini is dead fur in my hands. No bulging eyes, nothing noticeable except for a temperature difference. I have wanted nothing but this separation, and yet.

I am staring at my palms and trying to transfer the warmth from the rest of my body into them. Make my hands a black hole for heat and have them boil. Houdini stays cold.

I bring him to the radiator, and lay him on top of it like a chestnut or an egg. I don’t know what else to do. I turn it on high, wait for him to reanimate. He is already there and on his way back.