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What Wasn’t Swallowed Was Exhaled

Story by Tucker Leighty-Phillips (Read author interview) January 7, 2019

Because he had passed, and she had read somewhere that dust was primarily composed of skin particles, she found it imperative to stop cleaning her home. She took it a step further, not allowing herself to rearrange any item from its final resting place. Outdated cookbooks blocked the kitchen counter, the sink choked with thirst at the spigot, the door opened so rarely that it ached when it was. Groceries were stored in an icebox at the backdoor, and were eaten on top of it. She had to leave to perform movement, the house a station for stillness.

The dust, those tiny flecks of skin belonging to a love-turned-memory, had slipped from the body before he had passed over, taking the fall and compiling on the loveseat, the coffee table, the corner crevices of each room. His bodily remains covered the house like a fresh sheet of ash after a great-lifting bonfire. The body itself  had been taken, stowed away in some corner of the earth like an ephemera jammed into a shoebox alongside old love letters, photos, other sentimental trinkets of previous lives; little lies we hold and tell ourselves mean nothing, secret memorials of untruths.

But the dust. The dust remained, and she let it settle, hoping it would provide company in a house of stillness. She slept on her stomach, arms tucked into her chest so as to avoid a sudden turning. Despite this, she awoke sometimes, in the silence of night, tip-toeing into the quiet corners of the home, where she would place her face close to a tabletop and take a deep inhale, swallowing the dust, sucking the air almost threateningly, slurping it upwards like a piping broth on a day of chill. Each particle ingested felt ceremonious; some tasted like a sweeping red flare brushstroking a night sky, a crashing timbre of cymbals in an evening orchestra, clams soaked in butter and parsley. This was a risk, this swallowing. Other specks tasted like hurt; a stubbed toe on a sharp corner, a pinprick of a trusted needle, a tiny grief or gutshot. Yet these particles, in their illustrious spice, blended and created something new altogether; a taste so rich that she found herself face to table, sucking the flavor from her teeth with her tongue, digging into crevices for morsels that had gone dormant. She took a key from the table, his old house key, and ran her bottom lip from bow to blade, letting the dust in the creases gather in her mouth and sneak down her gullet. The swallow of it shivered down her throat and fogged her stomach like a dewy country morning.

What wasn’t swallowed was exhaled, offered back to the Earth as deposit. When she breathed the dust out, she felt its menthol refrain against her tongue, artificially cold, a balm, almost a healing. Maybe the dead don’t turn to dust, she thought, maybe it’s where they go to hide. Like most nights, she crept back to bed, making her best effort to leave no further impression.

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Notes from Guest Reader Nancy Au

I selected Tucker’s gorgeous story because of the way he uses language so lyrically and fearlessly, the intimate yet definite ways that his protagonist exists in their world, and the solace that his words bring to me, as a reader, when I think about everyone that I’ve lost in my life and how, with allowing the dust to settle—with tenderness, with stillness—I might find them again.

About the Author

Tucker Leighty-Phillips is a first-year MFA student at Arizona State University. His work (fiction or otherwise) has appeared in Whiskeypaper, Lunch Ticket, Maudlin House, and others. He is an associate fiction editor at Hayden’s Ferry Review. You can find him on social media (twitter, Instagram) at @TheNurtureBoy.

This story appeared in Issue Sixty-Three of SmokeLong Quarterly.
SmokeLong Quarterly Issue Sixty-Three
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