"Alive" by Evelyn Coffin
The first time she saw him he could have been alive. He could have stood up and embraced her. His body was a dark pool of skin, real skin: pores, veins, muscles, fingernails, everything—she could have slipped into it and felt something; she could have slipped into it and become. His body had skin but the skin looked like honey, hardened, like polished wood, and that first time she felt almost embarrassed to be standing there, her palms damp in his presence in the maze of the museum, to see him stretched out and still and yet so forgiving of her aliveness.
She is smitten.
She begins to make frequent visits. The museum is free, and when she has an hour or two between shifts she heads there, slips through one of the ornate museum doors and winds her way to his glass case. She reads his biography until she has it memorized: when he still had thighs he was six-foot-six. When he still had a throat he ate rich foods, wheat and buttermilk his last meal, mummified within him in the peat. When he was killed they took a knife to his chest. When he was dead, they gave his body to the bog. She thinks he is beautiful.
To be polite she wanders the rest of the museum, though it doesn’t interest her as much. Some of the rooms are full of dead animals, and she tries to keep her face blank, look at each of them in turn. She feels like a guest here, stilled by gratitude for the invitation. There are entire hallways lined with heads, and in one room, a ballroom, the boxes of bodies stretch from wall to wall, hundreds of animals in dead-eyed waltzes, tooth-baring laughs, best Sunday skins all stiff and starched—not like the dead man, who looks like he breathes. She eyes an ancient fox, gives him back his grin. She drifts into the room with the gold jewelry and idly picks out the pieces she would wear: this fastener for her dress, this hammered plate for her neck, this ring to shine dully against her hair. In her hazy reflection she appears as someone else—she is draped in gold, and wishes she could take it back to show him, turning, asking, Am I beautiful? and finding the answer reflected back at her.
She returns to sit before him with her head bowed, a grieving young woman by a young man’s bedside, nothing between them consummated, even less reciprocated. She sits until they kick her out. Before she leaves she tells him, quietly: Next time, I will stay until it is dark and then bright again. She looks back, as she is shuffled toward the exit: the gash in his chest never closes.
She walks home in the rain and it darkens the shoulders of her coat. A bus splashes her, speckling her calves; she buys a crisp apple and looks into windows filled with soap and with expensive suits and with warm faces looking out. A red leather glove, sodden, waves up at her from the pavement. She is late. The stairs to her apartment are cold, and she huffs so she can see her breath and trudges up them with her head down, her hair dangling water drops, her hands fists in her pockets. Behind her door she hears a low rumble, the opening and closing of cabinets. He is swearing. She opens the door to his stony face. You’re late. I know, she says. I’m sorry. She keeps her face still, hangs her coat on the back of a chair, turning, as if asking, Am I beautiful? He is still standing in the kitchen. She goes toward him, gently tugging the glass from his fingers. She takes his hand, puts it to her face. What do you want? For dinner? He folds his hand into a fist and lets it fall to the counter, to the glass. Whatever, he says. Anything.
When the museum guard speaks to her she is carrying the bruise on her cheekbone in her hand, her elbow propped on her knee awkwardly like one of the dancing animals in the ballroom. The guard is a woman. She has short curly hair. Are you alright? the guard asks. She startles, turning her face away from the dead man. Oh, I’m sorry, the guard says. She smiles. I thought you were asleep. You come here a lot, don’t you, and she answers, Yes, I do. He makes me feel calm. The guard laughs, once: Ha! Like no other man, honey, she says, and she nods and moves off, and the dead man behind the glass holds out his hand for the bruise on her cheekbone as if she could give it away that easily, as if she could trade it for the hole in his chest. I wanted you, she tells him fiercely, willing him to believe her.
At home she cooks. Through the oven door she watches the chicken Kievs burn and leak their warm melting insides into the oven’s warm melting insides and the apartment fills up with the smells of garlic and burning. He doesn’t say anything when he gets home, just pulls out his chair. Without the TV in its cabinet the apartment is too quiet. They sit at the table and crunch at the burned chicken and she thinks of the dead man, hungry in his glass case, teeth bared. She clears her throat to say something. What? he asks. He is tired; he pushes his chair out and slumps toward the bottle in the kitchen. Never mind, she says. Later in bed he puts his hand against her face and his fingers over her teeth and she can feel them ache, naked and defined in her mouth. When he is done he turns his back to her. Outside in the garden the plastic over the bed of peppers rips loose, blows away: a shroud looking for a body in the dark of the city.
His plaque says they think he was a king, sacrificed for a better harvest, or a warmer spring, or fewer stillborn babies. His perfect fist speaks want. There isn’t anything I could have done, she tells him sadly. A couple of loud young tourists come into the tiny space and she moves to sit across from them, focuses on the dead man’s hand from behind. She feels like she’s in the hospital, sitting numbed and silent in the waiting room. Change the angle, and his fist looks angry. The tourists’ camera flash momentarily blinds her. Change the angle, and he might have lived. She shifts, realizing she is probably in the tourists’ photograph, just as behind the glass as the dead man is. She can see all the way through the ragged hole in his chest, and the tourists leave and the silence settles down around them in the low lights like a fog. She reaches out, touches the case. After she leaves someone will come by and wipe her handprints from the glass.
On her way home she stops in front of a shop display, arrested by the silhouette of a dress in the window. She enters the shop, makes herself smile at the salesgirl; she runs her fingers over a few sweaters, then asks to try on one of the dresses from the window. She doesn’t look at herself in the mirror as she shucks off her clothes in the changing room, only glancing up when the dress has settled around her legs. It’s black and skims over her body, its soft folds concealing her neck, a little keyhole in the front, just over her breastbone, like the dead man’s knife wound. She looks unfamiliar to herself. She puts her hand to the hole and turns and turns in the mirror, the skirt billowing out like a black lung and the laugh almost leaving her throat. As she leaves the shop she puts the bag with the dress in it inside her coat, holding it to her, and turns toward home.
When she gets in she again sheds her jeans and old sweater and slides into the dress, smoothes her loose hair back from her face in the mirror. She looks like a porcelain statue, cheeks and nose red and shining, eyes too blue, skin an agonized white: a Virgin Mary, a childless mother. She feels like an empty room. Rebelliously, she keeps the dress on while she cooks: roasted vegetables drizzled with honey, soft floury potatoes, a dark cut of meat. She pours herself a glass of wine and turns the heat up, wheels about the kitchen in her bare feet. The door slams; he comes in, smiling, and she walks out of the dark hallway toward him, her heart squeezing open and shut. He drops his smile on the floor with his coat. She turns for him, once. It’s new, she says. They sit down to dinner. He has not said anything; the ice in his glass clicks sharply as he drinks. Then: It’s warm in here, he says. D’you turn the heat up? She looks down. I thought, he says, we couldn’t afford that. Not since—. He stops. Neither of them says it out loud. Not till we get caught up with the bills.
She can feel the tears coming as he stands and goes to the thermostat. It’s been a year, she whispers at the table. We could have had him a year. He stiffens and she feels herself shrink. But we didn’t. And take that off, he says, coming back. Take it back. Put something warm on. In the silence left when the heat turns off she can hear the cold shriek through the hole in her chest.
Tell me, do you want me to go? Do I remind you of dying? If she stares long enough she can see his wrists pulsing with the blood in his veins. The hospital room again flashes across her vision, the fluorescent light reproduced in the pool of her blood on the floor. The dead man’s rippled body remains impassive. She stands up. They sacrificed you for nothing, she tells him harshly. She turns to go. She turns back. Don’t forget me, she says.
She begins to go to a café down the street. She curls her knees into her chest on lumpy chairs in the brick-walled basement and pretends to be doing work, but really she listens to all of the other customers, who talk to one another, constant, loud. The drink she buys has a nice name but it’s too sweet—something with froth. She misses the dead man, his muted tomb in the dark of the museum. In the café, she is less invisible. The way one of the waiters smiles at her tells her that he thinks she is beautiful and she wants to believe him. One Sunday afternoon he mistakes her order for another and gives her the wrong drink but for free. May I? he asks, and she lets him put his own cash in the register.
Later he comes down the stairs and asks her how she liked the drink. It was too bitter and she tells him so, then smiles when he energetically offers to buy her another. He leans against the wall and they talk a moment about coffee. He tells her he smells like it at the end of the day and it keeps him awake all night. She smiles again. She starts going later, nearer the end of his shift. You come here a lot, don’t you? he asks one day, and she says, So do you. He spills a half-moon of cream on the table. He says, How about we go somewhere else sometime? His eyes are brown and his skin makes her think of a deep pool silky with spring floods, and her swimming in it. He piles sugar into the cream while he waits for her to answer. She watches his hands as the cream absorbs the sugar crystals. Okay, she says.
She meets him at a bar with bright coppery lights strung across the front that jerk in the wind. She wears the knife-wound dress and her heart beneath it flutters. The man from the café gets there first, even though she’s early too, and he smiles from behind the window when he sees her. She walks up to him and she feels beautiful, the way she feels standing in front of the gold at the museum. The bar is low and dark and the poles holding up the ceiling look like vast thick roots and she thinks of the dead man’s twisted wrists and shivers. They settle in at a low table. He studies forests, he tells her, and nature, and how people should save them. That’s perfect, she says. I studied history. And why people should save things. She and the man from the café talk until the bartenders have put all the chairs on the tables and are leaning on their mops.
Outside while men and women empty into the amber streets he puts two warm fingers on her neck and his mouth on hers and takes her pulse. Your heart is beating, he tells her. She hails a cab for him, and they go off in opposite directions, two bodies full of the same warmth under the low-lit windows of the city.
She wakes him as she drops her shoe in the hallway, by accident. She gives him her excuse: she was covering a shift for a friend at work, it ran late, she’s so tired, it’s been so hard since—please. She goes to him with her arms out. His fist connects with her jaw before either of them can stop it. She falls asleep on the couch and dreams that she loses her hand, and that the man from the café paints trees on her new one. The next morning she probes the loose back tooth in her tender mouth and thinks only of forests, of roots. Her dress is crumpled on the floor like a body, its knife wound now torn wide, its arm rent. She kicks it under the couch and when he comes out of their bedroom to lie next to her, she holds him. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. It was too much last night, he whimpers. I’m sorry. She touches his hair. It’s okay. I know. It’s not your fault, she tells him. She wishes he would say it back.
She cooks him breakfast and he fills a bag with stones of ice for her. She wraps it in a towel and touches it to her cheek while he sits across from her, holding his gray face in his hands. I’ll leave tonight, he tells her. I’ll go home, see Mom, see the girls. He has three sisters. She has never met them; they live with his mother, hours away. A few days, a week. I’ll go tonight, he says again. She concentrates on stirring honey into his oats. After he leaves for work she tries to go back to sleep but only stares at the ceiling, bed like a raft in the blue morning. Across town he’s awake too, she knows he is, and she puts two fingers to her neck, takes her pulse, chokes out a laugh, smothering the sound in her pillow.
They next meet the night he leaves. And next, the day after. And that night. They stay out until it is dark and then bright again. They talk for hours. She wears a sweater because she has nothing else to wear, and he puts his hand around her back in the corner of a bar and says that he likes the waterfall of her hair. Together they pulse beneath the lights. Are you okay with this? he murmurs, tightening his hand around her. What do you want? he asks. Anything, she whispers.
She peels back the neck of her sweater, shows him her newest bruises. He touches his palm to her face, cool on her sore jaw. Her eyes are full while she looks at him looking. It’ll be okay, she tells him. Life is strange, she explains. And, later: Life is strange, he agrees out loud in her bed, the window open, the winds cooling the roof, the sky darkening to burgundy, the planets beaming steadily down on arms and legs and bent dark heads, together, the hours and the grasses in the garden all overgrown and trembling, the things they’d twined together by now indistinguishable. She rests her head on his wrist and doesn’t feel a pulse—just her own body, throbbing with life.
She cooks him a late breakfast. He has come home after just five days’ visit. He is earlier than she expected: the sheets are still out on the line, rippling like wheatgrass. When he came in he hugged her roughly, kissed her hello, but she pulled away, afraid her mouth tasted like someone else. She rushes to pour coffee, to drink it, burning her tongue. It is bitter, and she says so, out loud, idly adding sugar. He watches her hands. I’ve missed you, he says. Have you really? she asks. Have you, really? He doesn’t look up. Of course, he says. The girls say hello. He gets up from the table. I brought you something. He goes to his bag. It is a sweater, dark gray and flecked like stone. He hands it to her and goes into the bedroom. Thank you, she whispers, holding it.
She loves him so much she can’t meet his eyes. Let’s go somewhere, she tells him. They are holding hands in the basement of the café. She has a course catalog open in front of her; he is reading a novel. Thinking about going back to school makes her throat close up and she stares at their hands, entangled on the table. Okay, he says. You mean it? she asks.
I saved enough to sign up. Just to see. It’s an introduction course, she tells him, a kind of dig. He eyes the clothes she’s throwing into her little brown backpack: earth tones, gorse-colored knits, wool socks. She packs the sweater he gave her. What are they hoping to find? he asks skeptically. She straightens, her hand on her raincoat on the bed, and blows a lock of hair out of her face. Some kind of life, she says. Evidence. Of life—of living—of someone who used to live. Oh, he says. Well. Good luck. He drifts away and she looks after him. Miss me? she asks softly. He just walks into the living room. He doesn’t say anything. She stuffs her raincoat into her bag.
She meets him at the café and they drive into the mountains. His little car stalls on a hill thick with old pine trees, and they decide to just park there and walk to the top, their feet sinking into the pine needles, the rich smell of earth getting caught in their throats, making them grin and chase each other. They collapse by the moss-covered creek. Their hands sink deep into the moss and she wishes they would never come out; she closes her eyes, imagines mummification.
Beside her he breathes too deeply, and she measures her breaths to match him. They pick themselves up; on the way up the slope she points at trees. Deciduous, he always says, because she loves to hear him say it. When they reach the top he takes her in his arms and she says, Let’s not go home. Alright, he agrees, for now.
It is spring, and they can hear the plants breathing. They move his car to the belly of the mountain, the lowlands, the bog, and lie beside it and look up at the trees below the clouds below the stars. They undress and she anoints him with the peat moss that she pulls gently from the ground beside them. She covers his wrists, his chest, his thighs, pressing the dirt into his collarbones, ringing it around his arms, and he prays to her ribcage, her throat, whispering the word deciduous into her jaw and begging her not to stop, not to stop, not to stop. They lie tangled together like tree roots, streaked with earth.
She turns her neck west to look at him in the dark, his ribs like polished wood, limbs knotted in the moonlight, his body a pool on the ground. She tells him he is beautiful. He turns his head east to look into her eyes. When do you want to head back? he asks. Her face clouds over. Not tonight, she pleads, please not tonight. He sits up, brushes dirt from his shoulders, gestures at the moonlight caught in the bog waters in front of them. We can’t stay here, he says. She doesn’t say anything. We can’t stay here, he repeats, and gets up, flicking more dirt from himself and pulling his pants on. His body without the dirt is a pale column in the dark. He stalks to the car, opens the door, gets in, leaves the door open invitingly. She stays on the ground. For a while she watches the landscape of the clouds creep across her body, slip over her hipbones, cover and uncover the shine of her hair. He drifts off waiting for her to join him in the back seat. She gets up, silent, and leans further and further over the bank, searching: she has seen herself in the bog’s waters.
The next morning steam rises from the earth where she lay all night and the mountain’s backbone shivers with the rising of the sun, the forest more fog than tree, the trees resonating in the morning stillness. Small birds chatter in the branches like rain; the wind sways tall grasses that bend their slender heads to drink the water of the bog. The humped stone skeleton of a fence runs up the side of the mountain to disappear in a pile of sharp-sided slate. Under the thick peat on its surface the bog twists and churns, catches and gasps, its eternal inhale this morning more a sigh of recognition.
She is sitting in the long grass near the bog when he finds her, her limbs thrown loosely to the ground in front of her and her body up to her breastbone covered in the bog, her body stained, her body carved into its currents and hardening on its banks. She looks at him with clear eyes. I had to know what it was like, she tells him, in there. He extends his hands to help her up, attempts a caress. Shall we head back then? he ventures. She nods and dresses, looking down all the time at her earth-dyed legs, her earth-darkened hands.
They do not speak much on the drive back; he fiddles with the radio, and she looks out the window, absently rubbing dirt from her palms. When they arrive in the city she sweeps off the seat of his car, dry fragments of peat flurrying to the ground, and goes to him, accepts his kiss on her forehead. Thank you, she says, and he nods and they go once again in opposite directions. She returns to the dead man’s case in the museum. For once she is not reminded of the hospital, of the sacrifice; she thinks instead of the bog’s ancient quiet. The peat, beneath her clothes, covering her up to her heart, dries on her skin, stiffens in the silence. She leans toward him. Am I beautiful? she asks, and suddenly she is looking not at him but at her own reflection in the glass, her reflection enveloping his whole body, possessing it, her eyes huge and gleaming in her shining mirrored face, and she laughs, startled. The sound echoes in the tiny space and she laughs and laughs, until she is wiping her eyes and holding herself tight, and her laugh echoes through the room, past the gold and the dancing animals, and out into the arterial streets.
Evelyn Coffin is a fiction writer and poet from Spencer, IN. Her work has been featured in Cellar Door and Catch Magazines. Most recently, Evelyn's fiction was published in Pilgrimage Journal.
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