For her ache, she discovered a cure. It was simple, and comparatively pain-free. It worked on a basic principle—that a dull pain is negated by an acute one. To provide an explanation: A person wouldn’t mourn athlete’s foot, when faced with a sudden, vicious stab wound to the throat. That’s the beauty of piercing agony—the pure white sheen that overwhelms the clutter and mud of other, less immediate ills.
Her ache was felt chiefly in the lower stomach. Some referred to it as ‘heartache’, but for her this was anatomically inaccurate, even absurd. For her, it was located, specifically, in the pit of her womb. (She had not even known before, that she could feel her womb, lurking there inside.) The ache wrapped itself around her fallopian tubes and enveloped her ovaries, making them blueblack-inky-feeling. Her womb’s fleshy inner-walls were turned to ash from the grief of it.
To give a sense of the time before the cure: She had developed an odour that she was largely unaware of. It was not dissimilar to that found at the entrance to underground train stations at night in summer—heat and engine oil and sweat and animal and piss and sex rising, with a hint of rose eau-de-toilette. Before the cure, her skin had faded pink and grey; vague, hard-to-see colours, blanching meek in between the real ones. She had trouble being. Clawing, gnawing, gnashing—these had been the words for her then.
Before discovering her cure, she had lain awake at night, unable to sleep, because of the dry heat, curling in the corners of her. She hadn’t slept for months. Years, even. She’d lain clasping at air and soiled sheets, bunched in fists across the surface of the bed. Her insides had hissed and screeched at her like damp winter logs burning, until she’d felt that she’d sooner go deaf than suffer the sheer endless-wall of it. (Of course though, had anyone been there listening, under the bed or lurking outside the bedroom door, they wouldn’t have heard a sound.)
At this time, it would have been a relief for her to end. She couldn’t pretend she hadn’t dreamt of it; hadn’t savoured the taste. She’d imagined it to be like diving head-first into cool waters. Those electric blueberry-jelly waters photographed in catalogues, flicked through idly, while waiting around indoors for nothing in particular on muggy midweek afternoons. She’d imagined ending then to be like a floating outward, in the belly of that water, into nothing, in contact with Nothing. Forgetting the feeling of her body wrapped around her.
But now for a good part: She’d always liked to cook. And to eat! Even more than was necessary. She would have listed insatiability as one of her many defining faults. As a result, in her lingering confinement, she grew fat. A protective thickening of the flesh. Dulling layers swelled across her bones and thoughts. Food fooled her, momentarily, into believing that she was becoming full. Filled. (Similar to the ephemeral satisfaction of another tongue in the mouth, seeking strange, warm spit. Or semen burrowing in, warming the tummy.) Eating afforded her a vague respite, if not yet a cure.
Upon the eve of her discovery, had anyone decided, on a whim, to check in on her, they’d have found her chopping onions by the kitchen sink. The sink faced a window covered in a thin film of grime. The light outside signified day ending. She was making a tomato sauce with Italian sausage and rich egg pasta, and was going to eat it all up with warmed blood-red wine. Soft liquid food to— for a second, maybe—quench the dry ash of her womb. She diced her onions finely, and their odour combined with hers, creating a savoury haze. The slight movements in the atmosphere around her eddied cinders and fumes. The oil was warming in the pan. The radio played, some song about living, and she listened vacantly, through the din of herself.
It was in this absent, ocean-floor state, chopping steadily, that she managed to bring the knife swiftly and expertly down upon the very base of the index finger on her left hand (the one holding the back of the onion in place), severing it from the rest of her body. This was a surprise. Hot ash air escaped her mouth in a sharp rush, only to be sucked in again, quickly, between clenched-jaw teeth. She dropped the knife on the counter top. The sudden clatter was unpleasant. Blood spurted from the twitching finger, and her brand-spanking-new, fingerless stump. The blood felt exposed—it had not expected to be revealed to the world at this moment. It had been coursing happily through hidden tunnels and passageways, murmuring and giggling. Now it came in limp rhythmic waves, an unenthused ejaculate, shamed, the blushing crimson shocking in its vibrancy against the dusky evening light.
The radio played on—another song, something about love, or death. The oil began to emit a faint blue smoke. Impending fire. Too hot, careful! She turned off the gas with her remaining five-fingered hand. She paused. The room hung suspended. Blood trickled down her wrist over her elbow, soaking into the cuff of her dress. She knew it must be wet and warm, but she felt—
For as long as her memory was willing to unfurl, she’d known her ache. Now, without warning, there was only numbness—that long-sought void. The realisation flitted behind her eyes. But she didn’t blink. Her lip didn’t even twitch. She was careful not to openly acknowledge, to betray. Not even on the inside of her mind. Someone would see. The ache would see. She knew she needed to conceal the thought from herself, to keep in check this quickening of her heart. To steady now. She breathed through her nose, slowly, deliberately. She waited for the room to settle.
A little aside, a recollection of the world going on around her: At this exact moment, as she stood there, suspended, studying the remaining parts of the hand raised before her face, a cat-shaped blur leaped up onto the windowsill outside, and peered in with yellow orbeyes. It had been attracted from the hedgerow’s depths, perhaps by curiosity, or the scent of blood, or perhaps a conscientious awareness of the need, at this point, for a witness. It mewed, feigned a yawn, sleek pink-armoured mouth circling wide, and watched.
Without a word, without even a flicker across her long pinkgrey face, she quickly, asidedly—as though her thoughts were busy elsewhere, on tomorrow’s chores maybe, or the tomorrow after’s—bandaged up her loss. She used iodine and white porous cloth from the dusty first-aid kit, which sat atop the pine dresser that stood against the beiging wall to the right of the sink. (Note that the shelves of this dresser held no framed photographs, although there was plenty of space for them.)
She took up the knife. She didn’t wipe off what had recently been her blood before resuming her dicing. The severed finger, now turning a fashionable offwhite—‘ Severed Digit Pallor’—lay untouched to the left of her onion shards. The browning blood had trickled in a small pool across the grooves of the board, dyeing the layers of onion skin a fleshy pink. Its metallic odour mixed well with the onion’s warm wholesome one. She didn’t mention to herself what she was doing. The part of her mind in control of doing actions and the part of her mind in charge of taking note of those doings were not in contact with one another just then. She had cut the line. It was easier that way. At this moment, she simply was. A pleasant numb of Nothing. She didn’t rush.
She reignited the gas-flame, and tipped onion shards into sizzling virgin oil. They sloshed and hissed in the pan as she stirred. Their ruddy flavour rose to her nostrils.
The cat-shaped blur watched. It was black, and well-fed, with a red collar and a small silver name tag, but without a bell (for warning birds). The blur sniffed, reaching nose forward, before recoiling, compressing its body back in feigned indifference. It turned its head to the left and squinted closed its eyes.
She added crushed garlic and chopped tomatoes and a little squeeze of lemon, black pepper, salt and a few basil leaves. She added one teaspoon of granulated sugar. And still there was Nothing. The radio—yet another song, something about people and loneliness—continued to evince no reaction from her, although the sounds proved useful for distraction.
But she did realise, deep down somewhere in the quiet places, behind the radio, the hum and sizzle of the ingredients coalescing into soft red in the pot, and her busily clanking mind, that she could hear it, clearly. The absence. There was no screech, no hiss, no groan, no grinding flesh and bone. Anyone who entered her, at that moment, would have found inside only an echoing silence.
The sauce bubbled and reduced and thickened. With surprisingly little difficulty (considering her recent disfigurement), she opened the wine bottle that had been warming by the furnace, and drank deeply from the glass. The tannins slicked the inside of her mouth and throat with blackberries and spice; a thin blood-like film. Her pasta water was simmering and her usual place at the table was set. She lit a long thin white candle with a match, flicking the flame against the box with a sharp twitch of her wrist. Then, the finishing touch: She took out the sweet Italian sausage from the fridge, and smacked the pack onto the bloody chopping board. Her finger lay dead and unburied, slightly to the left. She had not actively remembered nor for one moment forgotten it.
She took her sausages, and cut them lengthways down the middle. She then cut them crossways several times, to create small chunks. She threw the pieces into the bubbling sauce. Next, as though it were just a nothing, not pausing at all in the flow of her motions, she took the finger—cool, like an old man’s cheek— and expertly slit it down the middle, from the fingertip to the amputated end. She put down her knife, and neatly removed the chipped nail from its bed, before gently tugging the long thin bone, the small rounded knuckles delicate and white, out from the centre. It came away easier than she’d expected. When she had divided it into two halves, running the silver tip of the blade along with careful precision—it was an elegant finger, she could appreciate that now—she chopped the flesh up crossways into neat little chunks, and, with a swish of the knife, scraped them down off the board and into the pot.
Now, how to convey the following…
It was the greatest meal of her entire life.
It was intoxicating.
When her plate was finished, she piled it up again, and again, until every last scrap was devoured and she’d licked it sparkling clean. Halfway through, insatiable, she opened another red with a pop, arm flung back, and drank straight from the bottle, whacking it down on the table between gulps and smacking her lips together contentedly. She ate with such furious intent that she lost her breath. Sauce spilled down her chin and onto her chest, embedding itself in little caking dollops on her dress and trickling down her décolletage into the rift between her breasts.
She had forgotten a person could feel like this. Her eyes dilated and her body grew supple and soft and willing. Her meat, cooked to perfection, was melting in the mouth. With each bite, she felt stronger. She wanted all of it, thick and red, and she swallowed it all, deep down into her belly. It flooded through her trunk and limbs, heating her from the inside out so that steam rose off her skin, making it glow wet burgundy; like the skins of fat men in saunas. Afterwards, she took the pot into her open lap, legs spread, and ran her remaining fingers around the inside, noisily sucking the last of the sauce off the tips. Her palms and crotch and behind her knees grew sodden. The combined odour emanating from her and her food became overwhelming. The air was dense with the heat and stench of it.
She felt, by the end, like she wanted to tip over the table and set the house on fire and fly screaming naked down the street, eyes ablaze. Sitting there, intoxicated and full at the kitchen table, belly bulging forward, she laughed in the face of her ache. It was really gone, she thought. She laughed, and laughed again, her head back, a guttural rupture booming from the depths of her.
At this point, the story can only provide a sense of things. Of the time after her discovery of the cure: She visited friends. She dined out. She chatted with her mother uninhibitedly, even, occasionally, giggling. She polished the hall mirror, she vacuumed the stairs and behind the couch, and her skin never looked so good. She must have been using new products, they said, because her hair achieved a sleekness previously undreamt of. She bought patterned clothes from high-street shops and pungent, organic cheeses from farmers’ markets. She caught the eyes of men who wondered what it might be like to sleep with her, and she smiled coquettishly at them, knowing. She wore purple, and brushed her teeth twice a day, every day. She was so ravishingly engaging, that not one person noticed her missing finger. It was so trivial, a nothing, compared to what she had gained!
She was the embodiment of femininity. Her womb glowed a radiant gold that blinded the women around her and made them secretly jealous. They wondered what her trick was. She was ripe and fresh and fertile, ready for plucking. People said it was a miracle. (Although they’d told her time would do it. They’d told her that time would cure her.)
The respite lasted approximately three months. Without her knowing, a blackblue-inky pearl of history and memory, an embryo too small to be seen by the naked eye, was creating itself from internal whispers almost too quiet for her to hear, and attaching itself, surreptitiously, to the renewed, viscous walls of her womb.
She went to plays by up-and-coming playwrights and tried oysters and laughed at comedy. She read Shakespeare’s sonnets on trains, sighing, and had wonderful sex on a picnic rug on a beach with a gentle, cooing poet from Pamplona. But something wasn’t right. The pearl was growing, feeding itself on her throwaways, the things she would rather not have known. That comment her sister made; the drunk man at the bar, leering. After a while, her house grew vaguely musty, and she would find herself running out of clean underwear every now and then. There was hair in the shower drain, and she grew uneasy. Once, she awoke in the night, slightly restless. She tripped up in her heels while dancing. She developed cradle cap on her scalp, like a baby, and found herself scratching it on dates with quite charming men, so that the flakes of skin wafted down dreamily into her main courses.
Well. It’s easy to guess what had happened. After those three months, she was back where she’d started. No, worse. Her body had developed a bluish-purple rash up her back which itched constantly, leaving blood and matter beneath her nails. Her eyes were sore, and at night, seeped a liquid thicker and milkier than water, which gathered in their inner corners, and which she found smeared across her cheek and pillowcase in the mornings. Her toenails were fraying at the edges, and there were red blotches on her thighs, where hairs refused to surface, burrowing instead back down into her skin. She grew desperate. She needed to be cured again. For longer. She resolved, hands rolled into tight fists (one with five fingers, one with four), to do whatever it took.
Now for the beginning of the end: This time, it took the lower half of her left arm, from the elbow. She made a roast, and feasted on it long into the night. She accompanied the meat with creamed potatoes and delicately steamed carrots and broccoli, dressed in lemon and butter respectively. She flavoured the roast with rosemary and garlic and covered it in generous glugs of oil, to keep it tender. She cooked it at a low heat, for hours. The smell filled the entire street on which she lived, making her neighbours’ mouths water with desire. She worked slowly, methodically. This meal was greater even than the last. Tears escaped her, and she laughed, and sighed, and she felt that she understood the expressions artists gave to saints in paintings. This time, the effects lasted a full year. Nobody noticed the missing limb. It was such a minor loss, for so great a gain! Time, they said. Time had healed her.
After the year was out, she barbecued a leg and ate it in the back garden with a bottle of chilled white, and pretty flickering candles to keep the flies away. Later, she made a meatloaf using the tender minced flesh of her breasts.
Her meals kept her going for another four years. She learned to play bridge and developed a fondness for origami. Her father died in the spring of one year and she wore a black dress to the wake. People brought sandwiches of salted cucumber and ham and cheese with the crusts cut off, and told her over drinks that he had been a great man. She changed supermarkets, as she didn’t like the customer service at her usual one and thought it was about time she did something about it. She accrued money and bought an opal necklace that was greatly admired by all who saw it, draped around her neck.
Finally, to tell the end—stories like hers must have an end: It was sunny outside, warm. The cat-shaped blur was lounging on the garden table, soaking it in. The cherry tree was blooming, and now and then it snowed down lazy white petals across the lawn. The daffodils were out, grinning and whispering in clusters, and the crocuses too, and small brown birds were flitting to and from the feeder hanging on the kitchen’s outer wall. It looked like a picture taken for a classroom with the neatly-written caption, ‘SPRING’.
She saw none of this. The pearl of ache had returned, yet again, as she now knew it always would. (‘Time’, the great healer she’d been promised, seemed to have forsaken her.) She was busy inside, in the shadows, preparing yet again. The curtains were drawn, and from the outside, had anyone been passing, by foot or by car, they’d have thought that perhaps she was away, or had moved somewhere else for a while. Yet there was a stillness to the house that they’d have had trouble describing to others. It would have given them an unnerving sense of anticipation; of potential energy being held, momentarily, in check. The house would have seemed to them somehow disjointed; not fitting with the world marching on around it. Like they’d popped in, quietly, to check on a dozing infant, and discovered a gleaming kitchen knife, resting there alongside it in the cot.
By now, her skin had developed an oily, translucent quality. Her blue veins pulsed limply beneath her cheeks, and along the underside of her remaining wrist. What hair she had left, between the raw blistered patches of scalp, was blanched grey and ratty. It could be found in pungent, damp clusters in dark corners all over the house, and in loose, thin strands across her clothes and bedsheets. Her lips had thinned to nothing, just more skin of face caving in over small stained teeth, with deep creases at each corner. They that had been so full! Her pupils, hard to detect under heavy lids, had become milky and dim. She found it difficult to see from them.
She had placed her bathtub over the fireplace in the living-room, and filled it with water. Now she waited for the water to boil, standing with her silvertopped cane for support. She wore her silk white dressing-gown, already dirtied at the hem. Wedging the top of the cane under the pit of her severed-from-the-elbow left arm, she used her right to drink the wine (dark red, almost black and heavily spiced—a special one, she’d been saving it), and garnish the bathwater with thyme, rosemary, onions and garlic, thickly-chopped carrots and celery, along with anything else appetising she could find in the kitchen presses. (She didn’t want anything to go to waste.) There was a drunken recklessness to her movements now, lunging and heavy; to how she threw back the dusty bottle, spilling its contents down her front in staining rivulets; how she lurched from kitchen to living-room, knocking against furniture and doorframes; how she flung in her ingredients, splashing boiling hot water across the carpet, and herself, leaving small steaming red welts on what remained of her skin.
What happened next seems inevitable, barely worth telling. But here it is: When the bath was ready, the room was filled with a hot delicious steam so thick that, standing in the doorway, it would’ve been almost impossible to see her uneven pinkgrey form emerge from under the dressing gown. If anyone had been there, and called out, to stop her, she wouldn’t have heard them anyway. (The ache was screaming in her now.) Anyone present would have only heard, too late, the muffled splash, the sharp intake of breath, as she lowered the last of her body into the boiling stew-water. They’d have been so confused as to what was happening, that there’s no way they could have dashed across the thickened, humid room in time to have saved her; to kick the bath from its perch and free her boiled, scorching flesh from cooking any further. They’d never have been able to discern, through the dense white wafts, or beneath the bubbling and swelling red skin, the expression of relief that flitted across her face. But it was there.
And besides—they may not have wanted to admit it to themselves—but had some poor soul been standing there, helpless, in the aftermath, in truth, the most memorable thing about the whole experience—the thing that would have stayed with them for years afterwards, haunting them as they sat at their children’s music recitals or dinner party tables or unwrapping gifts on Christmas mornings, the thing that would have filled them with that terrible, heady sensation of desire and shame, a sensation better not acknowledged, as a rule —was, of course, the smell. That smell! That delectable, mouth-watering scent, that snaked all across the room, that filled the house, the street, the nearby town, the country, for those lingering minutes, after.
Yes, it’s a blessing that nobody was there—whatever people might decide to say now, earnest and frowning, with the corners of their suit-jackets ruckling inward as they lean forward to shake hands; as they smooth hairstyles and flatten out ironed skirts and ties with clean palms, lamenting together in sombre under-voices, with the sickly smell of lilies and roses lacing the air around them.
Really, they should all be relieved. Because, knowing her as they did, they should know now, deep down, had any of them been there with her in those final moments, that this irresistible scent would have overpowered them. It would have forced them—entirely against their will, of course—to make their way over. To glide through the white, swirling room, nose in the air, saliva dripping down their chest, to the remains of her: so hot and flavoured and naked and willing. The scent—and their desire—would have grown richer, more overwhelming by the foot-thud, filling their nose, suffocating their mind, as they approached. Finally, it would have impelled them, once they stood by her side, to reach down. To touch, and gently pull away—so ready, the soft, yielding, hairless flesh, easing into their moist fingers—one last piece. To take just one inevitable bite of her.
And so it is probably for the best, that not one of those who knew her were with her for the last portion of her cure. Fortuitous, really, that she was entirely alone. By the time anyone thought to look, there was Nothing left to find. Nothing, but a few white bones cloaked in dust, a full-bellied, cat-shaped blur on the sill of the open window, preening itself with its coarse, thrusting tongue, and that final, restful silence.