We were lost in the woods. He held the map sideways, trying to decipher which path we were on. Charles Bailey Loop or the connector? The David English Trail or the Wessel Castles? Which old dead white man who donated to the park service fifty years ago could lead us back to the parking lot?
Mushrooms popped out of the ground, some light brown, others neon orange. He liked to squat down, snap a photo of the white stems and underside gills. He said he was a naturalist in the vein of Charles Darwin. Great American beech trees towered over us, bare bark carved with hearts and initials of people who have walked the same trails as us and who, hopefully, had found a way out as well. If he were in a better mood, he probably would have taken out his knife and added our names to the list. The more cuts, the more damage to the tree, but he was a naturalist and what did I know?
I glanced up ahead and spotted a trail marker. Blue blazed the trunk in accordance with the Chestnut Hill Trail. I didn’t point it out.
I wrapped my arms around his neck, pressed my ear against his spine. I could hear his heartbeat going just a little bit faster. I pressed my lips against his ear, then unhinged my jaw and swallowed him whole.
He sketched me once, an artist in addition to a nature-lover. He made my nose straight; my body curved to the left in sultry lines. The drawing looked like the body I wanted at seventeen with my adult face photoshopped on. I told him to burn it. He told me to shut the fuck up.
Our words cruised through the air to land on each others’ tongues, cutting lacerations in our lips. He ran fingers through his hair; I gripped the sofa for strength. He grabbed my arm hard enough to bruise and wrung my skin like a towel. I broke his teeth in return. White enamel cracked under my fingernails. I kept the blackened remains in the front pocket of my overalls per my mother’s advice.
There was a party we had to go to afterwards. So I put on makeup, he combed his hair, and we tittered to our friends while drinking white wine, my arm intertwined with his. My friends complimented me on my “catch”. He was handsome when he tried.
My mother, when I went home for Christmas, told me a folktale from her Eastern side of the world. A poor serving maid once fell in love with the prince. She batted her eyes, put up her hair, but nothing could conceal her lowly birth. A love potion, she thought. But she needed a piece of the prince. While she changed his sheets, she found a hair. For a fortnight she kept that hair in her apron pocket until magic wormed its way into her voice. The prince loved and married the maid, but on their wedding night, she had to change into a red dress fitting for the occasion. Her old apron was tossed out. The hair was lost, the magic faded, and the prince had her killed.
“A sad story,” I had replied. My mother was too superstitious for her own good. She believed my father’s ghost was out to get her every time she couldn’t find her keys.
“Don’t let him get away,” my mother had said. “Always keep a piece of him with you.”
It was raining when we went home from the party. We had tired sex and fell asleep with our toes touching.
My mother ate my father when I was seven. My baby brother was barely a year old.
My parents had fought at least once a day, usually in hushed voices as they tried to convey their frustrations to each other without waking up my brother. They kept their arguments to nighttime, after tucking me into bed. I fell asleep to incomprehensible but intensely whispered words.
I had expected a divorce. I had a friend from school who had divorced parents, and it didn’t seem too bad. Twice the number of Christmas presents and bedrooms.
I came home from school to see my mother stretched out on the couch, belly bloated more than it was when she was pregnant. I touched it gently, feeling something hard underneath. A skull perhaps.
My mother opened her eyes then and told me it was fate. At some point, some day, I would open my mouth and someone would sit in my stomach, digesting. She said it calmly. In the next breath, she assured me I would find love and happiness in my life. Then my brother cried, and she waddled her way to the crib.
Our apartment straddled the line between city and suburb. Take the road one mile south and be greeted by green lawns, white pillars and freshly painted four car garages. Take it one mile north and have his conservative mother afraid to walk outside.
When we first moved in, he insisted on repainting the entire place. He couldn’t focus with the yellowy beiges and popcorn plaster ceilings. He was a modern man, and he needed modern surroundings to focus on his work.
So we went to Home Depot, and he picked out swatches. Three years of art school had prepared him for this very moment. He had a vision somewhere in his head, and I was not to interfere. Stand back and let the genius work.
But he couldn’t decide what color to paint our bedroom and handed me some swatches. I was still infatuated with the curves of his spine, his limbs that seemed to reach in time with his eyes. He was beautiful in all the ways I had been taught to prize. I took one out at random, barely paying attention.
“How about this?” I said. A bright orange that reminded me of the tangerines I used to eat as a child. They were horribly expensive here.
We laughed at the name: emergency zone. But we bought a gallon of it and painted our wall the color of a traffic cone. A glob of paint flicked from his slender fingers landed on my overalls. I shoved him against the wall in return, imprinting the slight indent in the shape of a five foot ten man in the paint. It might still be there.
I couldn’t recall how we had met. Maybe college, maybe a mutual friend. He had a confidence men liked to flaunt: a quiet assurance that he was right in whatever endeavor he was trying to do. I liked his hands, how they spindled out from thin wrists and pressed against my body.
He was more outdoorsy than me, always wanting to explore the natural world. Trees were his muse; I was fine with that. If my mother had taught me anything, it was that to be the heroine in art meant to die tragically at the end.
Neither of us were the talkative types, but when we did talk, disagreements formed between us naturally. With every breath came a new topic of heated discussion. So we didn’t talk, and I found him much more bearable.
There was a night, before we moved in together, when I went over to his house. We drank shitty beer that tasted like water, and I lay on the couch like my mother had. Holding the can, I giggled in a sudden drunken epiphany, remembering my mother’s swollen stomach. The ridiculousness only dawned on me then, fifteen years later. How absurd for your mother to eat your father. They should’ve just filed for divorce.
He asked me why I was laughing, slurring his words only ever so slightly. His friends teased that he was a lightweight, but he wasn’t really. He liked acting drunk more than being drunk. I told him about my mother, how she swallowed my father whole and I have never seen him since.
He went quiet for a moment, and I think I might’ve cried. But when I woke up the next morning, he was still there, arms wrapped around me heavily like chains. It was comforting.
My mother, after having eaten my father, told me to settle quickly. She had met my father later in life and wondered if that was why she was unhappy enough to eat him. Of course, it was all inevitable. Her mother had eaten her own father and her step-father too. Women were hungry in my family.
I wasn’t sure if my brother knew. My mother made it clear this was a woman’s curse. Or blessing, whichever you prefer. No need to bring in outsiders. She told him our father had died in an accident.
I asked her why our family in particular, and she shrugged. Men are men, boys are boys, and one day, your bile will break their skin and bones back down into proteins your body can use to grow. They are like trees to be cut down as firewood; mourn the life you’ve snuffed out, but burn them all the same.
“Besides,” my mother said. “Is it not a woman’s duty to keep a man inside her?”
I had worn my overalls to go hiking, the teeth I had once broken still safely tucked in the front pocket. After swallowing him, the denim stretched taut against my body, and the teeth were squeezed out like toothpaste. I collected them in my hand: one two three four, shards of a man I had meant to keep.
I sat underneath the beech tree with initials scarring its bark and waited for the swelling to die down. A man with a dog passed by. He asked if the baby was okay, then offered to call an ambulance.
“Oh, I’m not pregnant,” I said.
The man stumbled over apologies, then walked away.
I picked up the map he had dropped on the ground when I ate him, following the Chestnut Trail back to the parking lot. The keys to the car were somewhere in my intestines, so I called my little brother to pick me up.
“I thought you were with your boyfriend,” John said as he pulled into the parking lot.
“We broke up,” I replied, shrugging.
My brother didn’t ask about my bulging stomach. I wondered if our mother told him or if he figured it out on his own.
I threw my lover’s teeth out the car window, the black bits scattering in the wind like sesame seeds. A romantic friend once told me that marriage was the joining of two people in body and soul. I wasn’t sure I believed in souls, but bodies were as real as they could come.
My family found a solution to the serving maid’s problem. Hair and teeth, they were replaceable parts. They could fall out, get lost, be taken away. Who needed them to keep a lover when you could nestle their bones within yours.