The first time it happened, it felt improper. The tears felt pleasant though, clean, running on her cheeks.
The first time it happened there was no concession. And the first time may not have been the first time. There could have been other accidental times. Times she didn’t recall or weren’t necessary to remember. It would be comfortable defining the first time as the first time she remembered the pain.
She had come out dry from her shelter just following the afternoon rain, thickening the early evening air. The rain had left puddles laced into everything.
The tiny ponds served as hopsctch markings for delighted herds of children in galoshes. Red and yellow and blue like retro picturebook inks and—splash, splash—shallow fountains, up and up!
She ignored the other children and settled finally by a larger puddle off to the edges of things. Her orphan puddle was rain runoff, next to an old sewing machine factory. The factory sign was brown tin, jutting upwards in drive-in fashion. The sign said: “Sewn at Home” and was the last recognizable era marker of an indistinct rustbelt.
She made quiet rotations about the perimeter of the puddle.
Examining the pool, she cocked her head quizzically, stared down through it. She put her face in close, clearly seeing her own eye looking back at her. When she blinked the movement came unexpected to her brain and she breathed hard through her nose.
Some few earthworms lay at the bottom, gray, the skin detaching, floating away in fuzzy amebic shapes.
A lighter wheel rested among the sediments.
Ants not waterlogged seemed to hover, strange divots in the surface tension.
Upside-down beetles bobbed, legs in the throes of praise.
The worms, she plucked them from the bottom first. She tore at them, shredding and swallowing the pieces. The ants were messier because as she went in to retrieve them the insects floated from her mouth’s displacement in the water. Instead she performed quick krill gulps, taking in many ants, mistakenly inhaling the lighter flicker.
It went down her, the lighter flicker, a mass too large and without any buffer of organic material.
The sensation paused her.
It felt like the flicker was taking a pounding roll down a thin staircase. The staircase was inside her. She hopped around, bending her legs in full leaps off the ground. She felt herself widen. She took a minute, ate some more and drank some more in quick sessions. Then she repeated the process and started feeling less distraught and giddy, waiting until the shakes in her legs stopped.
The boy wasn’t there. Outside of his room, the sill was bare. No food. Perching on the boy’s window plank, she whistled and made soft taps on the barrier. There were no sounds from the interior when she put her head close to the glass.
She couldn’t sleep. She couldn’t remember her mother.
It had spun about inside her all night, the lighter flick, turning a proper axis, jagged rims catching at her inside things and dislodging them roughshod. Delicate sheets. The rotation, or dreamsense of the rotation, was such a pronounced feeling at one point that she awoke, that she got dizzy and felt a tall vertigo, folded in headfirst on herself.
Come the next day she arose late from the floor and went to the boy’s window. His room was empty, already in school, but he had left her the corner of a bread slice on the sill.
She picked at the bread, starting with nibbles on the edges. The brown crust had the nice sunflower seeds stuck into it.
After she had finished she stayed on the sill. She hadn’t felt right about the morning; now she was starting to feel worse. Bread was gumming up her insides. She felt nauseous. The world felt unsteady underneath her and strange cravings were presenting themselves as remedies. Sharply, she wanted to eat sand. Not a mouthful, but her stomach was asking for a few of those tiny grains, like the ones on the beach.
So she went and carefully picked some granules off of the bedform of a low-river sandbar and swallowed the sand particles. There was a dead crawdad tangled in some fishing line just above the watermark.
Feeling slightly better, she realized she had a rabid desire for things she hadn’t eaten before, something other now than sand. Her small legs twitched; she felt a springing tension in all her movements.
The river ended in a reservoir where there was a small park in the shape of a crescent. She hopped around in the grass for few minutes, saw something sparkling between the seam of warm green sod and the concrete of the sidewalk. Most anyone else would have missed it, but she had these eyes.
It was an earing stud with a gold base. She canted her head and watched the diamond-simulate twinkle as it caught up the sun. Then, sheepishly, she ate the earing.
She didn’t return to the boy’s house that day, or any day after. She craved more things off the ground. More things of the boy’s world. She wanted desperately to talk and stand confident like he did. But more than anything she wanted to eat.
So before she went to her shelter she went back to the submerged bedform on the river. She poked at the crawdad and saw some of the creature’s fluids ooze up. The fluids were green and yellow. Untangling the mudbug from the lines, she ate up the fishing weights and the fishing hook and moved on.
From then on she ate the artificial things she could spot on the ground.
But how she was getting lumpy. Uneven lumps in her belly that protruded with stark bulges. She was constipated, but felt full in a way that was pleasant to her, as though she was growing some necessary part of herself. It was after the sewing factory that her lumps became animated.
A window was blasted out of the place. Inside she saw the abandoned makeshifts of transient camps. Grubby sheets, mostly, and other bedding linens. There were plenty of empty green bottles, clear bottles, aluminum cans, piles of desiccated feces in the corners. She climbed upwards to the old bins and located round cogs, needles, washers, and screws, all coated in dust. The relics of an old business. She ate what she could of the instrument pieces and rested.
There was a swimming inside of her, aggregating and getting larger. Her belly bulged and twisted.
The boy was home.
Little leaves were gathered in the corners of the sill. He didn’t see her until she knocked at the pane. He had a look of excitement when he came over, his high, french cheeks shot up and his eyes got real small, squelched when he smiled. It looked as if he was going to pull the window open but he hesitated. He furrowed his brow like he didn’t understand, lost gaze looking inward.
Watching him and his fingers unlock the window latch was when she noticed her reflection. She considered the blurry image of herself in the glass. There were bald spots all over her head and she looked at the patches curiously for a moment, forgetting the tumorous rumblings in her abdomen.
Pin shot and red. What an impoverished creature.
And she blinked, establishing cognition for the first time that it was her blinking back at her own self. And she wasn’t afraid. She was disappointed; some instinctual magic she had really liked had sublimated away. She was ugly. She was ugly and she wanted to attack herself, or the image thing of her.
The boy opened the window and watched her. He ran a finger up her cheek, but she just stood there. He tapped his index finger on her nose holes and didn’t see a reaction. Then he walked away. Not slowly, but purposefully. Just away, through the door and into another room of the house.
It was his brother who had taught the boy to feed her, the boy’s brother now gone to the armed forces. Armed forces sounded better to the boy than The National Guard.
By his brother’s tutelage the boy had left bread by the window every morning with consistency. His brother had told the boy to press the loaf slice between his palms before leaving it on the sill.
“Get your smell on it good.”
The same time every morning. Then they would close the window and leave the bedroom. After a few days the bread disappeared immediately. It became habit that the boys would watch from the back of the room, holding themselves very still.
“Let her get used to you.”
Step by step, every day or two, the males would get closer to the window and watch her eat the food. Sometimes she got skittish and ran off before finishing.
Eventually they left the window open and she let them get in good proximity. Enough so that the boy finally reached a timid hand and touched her. That touch was a very special thing to the boy. She froze when they made contact, tense and strict in her posture. They would whistle at her sometimes, but she didn’t whistle back. The boy had never heard her whistle. The boy thought that she might not know how. He himself had taken years to learn.
Now, this day, the boy fetched her bread, but she didn’t eat when he set it by her. He held the bread up to her face. He mushed the bread over her mouth and she shook her head, finding breath around it.
After more of the boy’s concern, she attacked the him briefly, weakly. It was a strange vision of the boy now, the boy anymore just odd shadows. She opened her mouth and bit down several times at him before everything blended into a haze.
The boy saw her stomach open up after she stopped breathing. It wasn’t gory or visceral. It was neat like a cartoon. Her stomach made gaseous motions, pushing up and down in some areas as if she was ingesting amounts of something too large for her.
Years later, the boy would see a picture in a schoolbook. The creature coming out of her innards looked like a silverfish. A thing with body coils made from cogs and washers. It had long, spiky antani made out of what looked like needles. More needles made up its legs and what seemed like a rigid tail. It crawled out of the bird and made a single circle, as if chasing at its own tail, before it tried to crawl back into the the bird’s bursted insides. It got halfway back in before it fell apart, pieces rolling this way and that, one leg sheering off then another, the head buried in her gut.
In the morning, the bird was still there. Her stomach a confetti of junk teeming around her midsection. The body was hard, as if she was plastic, and her small legs were brittle.
It was his mother that pushed the hard carcass off the sill.
Gripping it with fingers daintily at the end, his mom used a green crayola with a ruined tip. At first the bird was flat and didn’t give, dried into the wood. After some effort, the bird gave and plonked to the ground below, taking the gearings with her.
His mother gave the boy a breathless look, her mouth half-drooped. Then she left.
“John, I’m going to need you to throw some dirt over that bird outside…The one he was feeding…I don’t know, sick I think…Bit at him yesterday…Pecked, something, we need to get someone to look at his hand.”
The boy looked at the sill. There was a discolored outline where the bird had been, a slate color on the chiffon wood. He noticed a little bead off to the side of the outline. He picked the bead up.
It was a bugle bead. It caught the light. The bead turned translucent and some threads of electric color bled out of the ivory.
He dropped the bead into his mouth and swallowed it. He swallowed fast because he was afraid that someone might come in and witness this. Then he looked about. His room was empty. The cardboard-colored door was shut.
Later that night the bead would twitch inside the boy. In pace the bead grew into a high tree and the boy would smile less and his cheeks grew less roseate; his eyes became more fixed. He had lost something of space in his arteries .
From then on a corrosive thread ran through the story of pain and time in that there was no way to understand which came first. And for the rest of his life the boy would walk away from the void of both hurt and chronology without ever seeing the edge of the world or a bird belting and skirling into the crashing spray.