Dark Little Spaces

by Sam Burns Read author interview June 18, 2018

He took me to her. She was lying in her parents’ bathtub, her black hair twisted through her shoulders like thorn branches, the bands of her red flesh ribboning in and out of her bones.

The thing about me is that I’ve always been a jealous person. I knew from what he’d told me that she had been an attractive girl. I didn’t ask to see their prom photo. The picture in my mind looked beautiful enough.

But when she sat up in the tub and raked her boned finger across my cheek, I wasn’t myself. I was prairie grass, rippling.

We smelled like her for days after. We were sweet rot and blood in the earth, the shaded spot underneath the pines near my childhood home where both my dogs went to die.

*

We were married in August. We found a house by his parents and took reasonable jobs. We had one sedan and bought another. We cooked and cleaned and made love quietly at night and bought tasteful furnishings for our tasteful home.

In short, we had everything.

Like the rest of the neighborhood, we started leaving scraps for her behind the back door, little things we knew she would like: bacon grease and black flecks of crisped fat, the gullet bag from our Sunday chicken. In those nights, our hearts were slickened metal, cutting through the chores and the small talk and the T.V. The drape billowing above the heater was a miracle. Droplets became prisms. When he smiled, the corner of his mouth cut me open and I tasted our red.

But then she would leave, and we were ourselves.

The car started. Water was water. Our lists were made, crossed.

Driving along the grid streets, you could always tell where she hadn’t been. The people there looked parched, like they were waiting.

*

It was understood that she could not be kept for more than a day. This had disappointed her parents, but by the time we moved there she belonged to everyone.

We were lucky. She came to us often, unlike our neighbor, who was always telling the same story about her dead husband who came back to her in a dream: The well, the well. Go to the well, he’d told her. In the morning, four claws and a patch of fur drifted in the black. Explain that, she says, every time. No one can, which she knows full well.

The day she told me about her dream, not long after we moved in, she’d straightened in her wheelchair and gazed down at me with a smile. It had almost made me want to hit her until I saw the girl through the window, scraping down the road. My neighbor took no notice. I realized she was so complete a fool that she didn’t even know what she lacked. I became generous.

How intriguing, I said.

Worse were the people who trailed the girl all around town, palms cupped with offerings: scoops of pond mud, raw sausage links, snake sheddings that fluttered in their hands as if they were breathing. It was important to keep a close eye on them. Over the years, she’d been freed from all sorts of dark little spaces. Attics, closets, empty nurseries—it didn’t take much to fold her brittle frame and push her inside.

We were not like those people. We watched them from the front step and sat there with our fingers intertwined.

*

In those days, we kept the back door closed. Just once she followed us, clicking into the kitchen as I was making coffee. She cooed and traced her fingertips along the wall, got on her knees to taste the grit under the stove. The light bent across all of her white.

I shooed her like a dog. Out, I said.

She obeyed.

When I turned back, I thought he would be happy I’d done this, imagined he’d thank me even.  I’d forgotten what they’d been to each other: two teenagers, both in love and in bloom, until she wasn’t.

We looked at my self-righteousness, dripping between us.

He didn’t want the coffee anymore.

*

After the kitchen episode, I thought about the girl’s sour hair sliding between my fingers. I considered the snap of her clavicle as I shattered it with my good pair of boots. I watched myself wrapping her in cellophane like a gift and sitting her next to me on the front porch. While she clung to my shoulder, everyone from town streamed to our doorstep and congratulated me. I aced my prepared speech.

We were at the grocery store when I saw her again. She was hunched next to the dumpster, her sharp wrist spooning earthworms into her mouth. One of her followers, a flat nurse that could get pain meds if you needed them, dropped a handful of dead flies in front of her. She ignored them.

Watching him glance after the girl as we left the parking lot, I knew she was still with him.

For a moment I felt sharp, pricked by this little sliver of himself.

Then that faded.

I decided, instead, that it was precious. I folded it up as neatly as I could and licked it like an envelope. Then I pressed it into the skin behind my ear, where it hummed against me, bright white.

About the Author:

Sam Burns earned her MFA from the University of Idaho. Her short stories and poems have appeared in The Onion River Review.