In the bathroom, I lifted the gray folds of my brain to get at the pink parts—stuffed toilet paper into all the tiny holes I cut so it looked like a field of red flags waving—paper tulips, love notes!
Flies, in their toxic green tuxedos, crawled into the mesh and mess of my mind’s lapis soup, ripe as the earth’s rib-eyed meat.
Running my mouth like the bathtub tap, I ate the toilet paper—my voice, thick as a shroud of bells while my face, bright as a pill, or the tiny ghosts that lived inside me, fell like dominoes.
To section off was to intensify, to deaden, as if to steal my own screams, abstract as an overture, as I balled up, tight as a pin curl, my arms, hot as an electric fence.
I was five years old. While hanging onto the toilet, madness, mean as a bull, pulled me out of this world.
In the back room of my skull, a golden prowl commenced, like the skin on my mother’s fists. Which had landed on me for soiling my underpants, the color of a beat-up door.
I covered my head, let nothing invade it, not even the genius of flowers, dressed in wire jackets, heckling leaves on their demented stems.
A crack in a boulder can never be an entrance to a cathedral, but anything and everything can be broken open.
My brain felt like an elegy for the gopher, a baby, whose footpads had scrabbled as I dragged it from where it was clamped to the shiny green trap.
Spun from the same cells as me, I noted its ears, tiny colorless petals, and at the tips of its articulated fingers, ten frantic claws.
When I struck it, as my mother had me, its mouth opened, stunningly wide, a scream so silent, it was sucked down my throat.
I hated that I couldn’t salvage a thing. Couldn’t skin and eat it, stuff or display its fur on the mantel—it was just a bit of breath I buried under a stone.
Of course, I memorized its breath, let it become my text for decrepitude, my usher unto death, companion for ten thousand years.
I’ve always been too weak for human touch, especially after my legs, faster than a rabbit’s, were splayed by my father, followed by the slap of his thrusts, urgent as a thug’s.
The smell of apricots thickening in the air and my mother’s voice, an ice pick.
There’s a Buddhist story about a woman chased by a tiger. When she comes to a cliff, she sees a sturdy vine and climbs halfway down. But there’s also a tiger in the pit below.
And two mice—one white, one black—gnaw at the vine. No, they’re rats.
My skin was vacant, a ripped sack, my bones insistent—when he hooked into me, like blood from a wrist, sinking, he smelled like the inside of an ear, like hospital curtains, like a flagpole in the dead of winter.
And, sorrow upon sorrows, in went the vinegar of the damned.
That Christmas I received a set of panties so jumbo I called them thunder pants.
Wherever I went, I wore my thunder pants. I loved the way they left deep red runnels around my midriff and made my bottom look like a Greek column of clouds, or billowy rainbow parachutes.
I was seven when I showed off my thunder pants to grocery store strangers, believing my bottom was factory-perfect. Inside my already dead eyes, a red tapeworm wiggled and slipped into my brain.
My mother’s hair, it was wavy as a seaport, her teeth, tombstones with my name engraved on them as she dragged me, like a potted plant, out of the store.
She shoved me into the car, which had a grille like a shark bite. As it roared up the road, I shivered the way petals do when wind grasps a stem too thin, too breakable to hold.
Inside my mother and me, something raised and gathered like a scar. We were an ache—a gash sealed for someone other than ourselves. Remote and lonely as a star.
In the psych ward, the curtains smell like the inside of an ear. By mid-afternoon, the window darkens, a clot: blackness wells up, pooling—pushing even the clouds from the sky.
All night I wail, the “O” of my mouth, an open drain. As I had in a crib heavy as a submarine.
The next day, my mother came in, yelled, you’ve ruined me. The vein running up her neck stood out, a blue cable.
Was she teaching me what was good to know: that life would be low pitched and solo. That dream was just another word for tunnel. That being born means the same as to barrel—the way a train does from its station, the way I had from my mother.
In the car that day, she cut her brakes. How they screamed, like banshees. My face, shaped like an egg, my thunder pants, I wet them as she beat me.
After she kicked me out of the car, I got lost trying to locate wherever she expected I would go; my head dummied, as I wandered among that which rises and vanishes, oblivious. Like children.
Here is the question—my question: is humiliation the Buddha’s first noble truth? Would I find it among the forest’s deep ponds, glittering like butterfly eyes, the cosmic flight of bats, the apple moon, a drowsy owl, the tang of the blackbird’s song?
When I got home, my bedroom door was ajar. My mother against its inner wall, cracked, the way a map shows little can be useful.
She straddled me, shall my life twine break? My leg slid off the mattress.
While the moon dropped into the swamp holly, I walked into the back of my eyes. Through their gun slits I could see the faux faun tethered in the front yard.
It, too, had been punched. Alongside it, a dead sparrow, intent as a scholar.
When did I deserve this? When did I not?
In the living room, there was a painting of a nude woman. While her back was being flayed, she pissed jewels onto the floor. From her turquoise beaded crotch.
Weren’t her cuts called attese, meaning wait or expectation? Didn’t she also wear thunder pants?
That night, I fingered my welts: an inch above the elbow. Left toe. Ankle. Ear to ear. Like a swinging bridge.
I thought of it as cinema. The stuff in between the bones. To move and be elastic. To leap. To land when you fall.
In the psych ward, I draw the cuts. Attese. Pigeons alight across the street on a cathedral slim as a heron.
When did I become inexpressible, anemic, frail and suspect to the mysterious offenses I committed as a child? I know I’m not allowed to live in music, or trees at sunset, that I do not exist at all anywhere, except as an echo, or complaint.
As I’m pulled through the part that hallucinates eel and angel, the strange blue fin that sweeps a camouflage of dust into me, what good is anything?
This place. It forgets, is taken in like a pill that makes me calm and dreamless, beneath the silence of the rain: knocke, breathe, seek to mende.
Obsessed, bewildered by the shipwreck of the singular, I’ve chosen to be numerous. Among walls caked, as I once was, by own feces.
Truth cherishes no one. The lie, however, has its favorites. A brain is made of them: little mercies, islands, wounds.
There’s a woman here who’s so many people they can’t know one another. Like old children, they can’t know even her. The hubris of shame says, divide, divide. Her face tears away from itself.
Skin knows. It has a history of knowing, of taking just so much—the deader the shadow, the longer it lasts.
Once I cut a frog to see what was inside. In the tiny bowl of flesh, a measure of light. It ached the way light does. Not because I made it ache. No, it was some other law.
My father, he cut me, then said, every thrill in us creates unease, which gave him permission to risk the journey; to go a little farther.
But then, he asked, what of the childhood made larger in us? Is it like a cello left in the woods?
Is there a wilderness that calms? If so, where is it? What in the sky cools the land it stirs? Or the brash magnolias that wave their silks, flag down the wind?
So many grains, so many little tombs of dust on the windowsill. It keeps me humble: the deceased, always slightly larger than their time, larger than me, just as a breeze is larger than the clouds that blow it.
What is it that I forget—cell after cell like petals on a grave, so often strange, my veil of skin ruffled, as if I grieved the blind color of too much light.
How can I not remember? How we were pinned to each other, an armless sleeve? White shadow of the wound that is no wound. The wind in the leaves and the sound it made.
Why feather the eye with flowered branches? Is it not for the glow of the naked nerves that the night bird opens the dark, if only for a moment?
To the pincers of ants dismantling a bird, I leave the bitter patch at the tip of my tongue. To the porch light haloed in a scribble of moths, I leave my girlishness. To the hole that is my throat, I leave the flesh around it.
To the dream I can’t remember, I leave the one I won’t. To my father’s memory, the music box.
No larger than a bird coffin, it ribbons out a thin, silver trickle of a tune, as if to say, yes, music is the sound numbers make on the verge of sleep or extinction, that it sends its arrows through the ear’s window, clean through and yet attached, shattering.
That’s why a monk I read loved music, not merely for the holy signatures, the geometry of tones that are its body, but how that body dies again and again, how it slips its box like steam, like gold.
Ask any star in the Greek toy chest of stars, any sphere, and it returns to an image of this, to the singing of a thing I wound, or someone else wound, the grind of a song it never tired of.
A lullaby. How like a box to hoard its measure of nothing we speak of until the box of darkness inside it breaks, confessing the way an old grief confesses.
But then, it is never enough. Like the small murmur of a child in her bed, talking to a god she has only heard of: if I die before I wake.
Either way she dies, she wakes.
When the mobile of planets wheeled over my crib, their shadows darkened the yellow walls: a ripening pear. My mother frowned, touched her fingers to her nipple, placing there the word milk, then took her hand away.
The syllable drifted to the floor of my body, a shiny lure swivelling through the dark—my first intimation of need.
When my mother leaned down to kiss me, she pressed her face on the pad of my silence; then she withdrew, jostling the planets.
The mornings here are no less strange: I shiver in my blanket, still puzzling out what’s in this thing—if you can call it a thing—this brain that cracks like a criminal.
My father tied my hands behind me so I couldn’t bite his hands, which were an invisible fire. Above us, a mud-dauber wasp nest hung, like a pan flute; and above it, a cloud.
May I say: I don’t want to be entered ever again. I have no use for it. Never did.
It has been winter for a long time—and no pulse in my pillow, which is hard as a shark’s fin.
Pills the color of a dense skull. Forgiveness, is it that yellow hole in the sky? Or what’s hidden in the genius of flowers?
When the wasp nest fell, a bloated head, my father’s gold tooth glistened, a fairy tale.
While the wasps stung me, my screams peeled back, like wallpaper. Or was it my hymen they punctured, a communion wafer?
As I tore into the house, there was a jar of mums on a table near the window. Their yellows were yelling at each other. It was as if someone was calling from the end of a long island. Docks were vertical and warlike.
While running, I became texture. I was clawing at the palm of one hand and the bee stings with the other. Ahead of me, my mother, with her magnified eyes.
“My soul,” I yelled, “it’s just the length of a baby’s.”
I went up the stairs at a dragger’s pace. On my mother’s hand was an amethyst: a cube of lilac in hospital light. Maddish, reddish, her fists were clenched, but her body was an album of liquid astonishment. Or decrepitude. Which I loved.
While birds swept across the sky, like pot-bellied angels, I fell into the abyss. I went straight into it, head down, heels up, and was even pleased to be falling in such a humiliating position, and I found it beautiful. And so, in that very shame, I became an incomprehensible bloom and the voice that howls out of it.
Of course, they locked me up.
Here, where I dream I’m turned by the corpses of three girls, girls who starve after devouring a bowl full of a thousand flowers, I wake up, screaming, while swatting at the bees seeping into my hair.
The nurses come in, smelling of spoiled milk floating on an oil spill. As the needle, long as a proboscis goes in, bits of my body migrate: bone dust, breakage.
Evil is a growing thing. It has its own gravity and never answers to its name. It’s a hole into chaos. Like my mother’s cigarettes, the smoke, stylish, slim as a sparrow’s breath.
The journey through is perilous. There are stations. None pass.
How to break free of these lace-frail lilac fingers disrobing the black sky from the windows of this room: I sit helpless, waiting, silent—as in, the sky is hurt, a blue vessel.
Here, we pass through each other like weary sweepers, haunting through glass doors, arcing across gray floors faint trails of dust—from these cold floors, a film rises, like smoke from altars.
How easily the myth of one life wills itself into another—how strange to witness my own nameless shape.
There’s something like a museum about me, a feeling of great space and flames that burn unseen, a deployment of teeth, teeth in boxes that come swish, these teeth, swish swish. In boxes.
How can I cut away the razored insistence thrumming inside my head, the birdlike torturers in the elevators, the labial ear fallen to the ground, the decapitated hat of the black rose, dice made of water, gall on a sponge stick, an armpit with the reversed letters of the dead in its crosshairs, or blind muscles, or blood and urine in a cup?
I can’t because when the madness tells me that my eyes are dismembered silk, my saliva a bubbling apocalypse, or that time is a black piano filled with ice cubes, I know I belong to those of us who sleepwalk beneath glittering shelves of ice, dressed in cold light, confounded by doorknobs, by the sea in our dreams.
When the lightbulb pops, hard as candy corn, I use a shard to cut a smile behind my knees, attese. This while the grubby fists of stars prick the dark, like a rash.
From the TV in the community room, a babble like a nursery rhyme. Even the world is talking to itself, and in its endless repetition, I begin to recognize that the plot of my life is the subplot of madness.
Cut and cutting, I dance, stiff and flawless in the TV’s blue, fatal light. My madness, which is full of bounty, takes it all in. Moon with a faint dent. Clouds squishing like grubs.
This is the beginning of seeing past sight—in which what’s interior becomes the visible architecture for the living self, like a photographic plate.
When I say, this grotto’s full of dust, no one turns the lights on. No one holds me or tells me that the flatness in my brain is a metaphor for every kind of death, a pulse which rings louder than a mouth full of ulcers and steel.
Eyes wider than graves, I remember my mother setting fire to broken-off caterpillar nests while my father practiced a duet with me near a window that opened onto the lawn.
Fragments of music collected, like a water stain, above our heads.
Again, he said quietly. His fingers, slim as a miser’s.
I counted time, like bolts in a bowl. We stared straight ahead, as if driving through a country we’d seen so many times we forgot to look.
The caterpillars writhed under the pink torso of dusk—my mother stood with a can of gasoline in her hand, piano notes tangling with the oily smoke before thinning out over treetops, and she let them go like that, without listening too hard, without trying to piece anything together, not even me.
“The Genius of Flowers” is Elizabeth Kirschner’s first work of short fiction and will be included in the collection Because the Sky is a Thousand Soft Hurts, forthcoming from Atmosphere Press. Other publications include six volumes of poetry and an award-winning memoir, Waking the Bones.