Issue One: Spring 2017

Return to Issue One: Spring 2017


MEGAN BAXTER

THE COOLEST MONSTERS

I lived for a season on an island connected to the mainland by a long causeway. Rocks were piled up along the road to build it further out of the sea but I waited for the day when the water would rise and cut us off. I worked at a general store that had been in business for two hundred years. The place was thick with memory and visited, on tidal cycles by lobstermen who needed sandwiches, coffee, newspapers, and beers. When there were no customers the store made its own noises, happily, like a woman at home all day. I walked to work past a cemetery where men lost at sea were laid to rest, or, at least, their names were, their bodies drifted elsewhere in the hugeness of the ocean. Their memories were pinned there, as if to keep the current from sweeping them out further, held down by the metal crosses and granite headstones. I feared that ground, empty under the scattered memorials and would hold my breath as I walked by. You could dig into it, and it would be just as a field or a plot in the forest, free from bone and coffin lid. A place for mourning, for sorrow, for resting, an empty box. I scared me that people invented what didn’t exist. They took their ghosts and planted them to grow out their own stories, selfishly while the real flesh spun into a deep eddies between continents.

—–

During the World Wars sailors hoped that tattoos would identify their bodies if they were dredged up, bloated, terribly white and blue, wiped out to sea by water or fire. A bit of skin would be seen by a man who had been a brother or friend and instead of being M.I.A. they would be declared dead. No hope, just the final grace of certainty. I’ve covered my arms and legs, my lower back with ink, carved up my flesh with needles. I remember my blood on paper towels, blood turning Vaseline pink, blood dark with ink and healing how my body wanted so badly to scar over, to force out the image. Only my right leg is naked; the rest of me would have to be skinned to hide who I had been. I want to know that I’ll be known, by someone, naked in life and naked in death. My body speaks for me, retelling its own myths, remembering the dream of a woman, the hawk, the eagle, the girl in the field.

—–

Viking berserkers slashed their tongues with knives before storming the beaches of northern islands, lands like snowdrifts in the surf. The adrenaline fueled their sacred rage, and they became the wolf-spirit, the small hero, a human with humanity bled out. They opened their eyes too wide, so all the white showed and stuck out their slashed tongues, dripping blood, feeding on what others created, they became the huge wolf packs of those broad shores, the beasts that cry in the darkness of a night too cold to remember when even the moon forgets the good times. I stuck out my tongue for my boyfriend; Ian, the one with a body like a Greek statue, shaped by kickboxing classes in the suburbs of Colorado Springs and he drew the razor over my tongue, or up it, or across it. The fear of it being cut side to side, the fear of it being severed down the middle like a snake. The fear of sharp metal in the mouth. The fear of flavorless, mute futures like drooling, mad children, falling from my lips. Never to speak or taste or sing. Opening for him, love and fear mixing like water and blood. My cut tongue so bright, that impossible reaction of body and atmosphere. The terror of pain and the terror at the rise, the blood, darkening the corners of everything, wondering, what am I capable of?

—–

Early in the spring along the old roads of New England the sound of sap striking the bucket rings from tree to tree. A ping like someone plucking a tight string of cat’s gut. The rhythm picking up pace as the day heats, like a heartbeat rising in fear. At three o’clock, when the sun rests high up in the empty canopies the sap runs wildly, losing all rhyme, it rushes; it runs itself desperately into the galvanized steel. The taps are drilled into the great veins that feed into separation of trunk and limb and the maple men find them like surgeons, beginning at the base, where snow still piles and then follow the bark lines upward. One tap for the young trees, four or five or six on the oldest maples, each their allotted blood draw, they give what they can without dying. There is a special bit for cutting the tree, different from screwing or biting into a wall. They knock the tap into the raw hole, the metal needle, stuck with a hook at one end from which the bucket is hung. The trees, coming to life, moving water from their roots to their crowns again, remembering upward movement, remembering blooming and the great storms of spring.  At the tap they are drawn out, their clear blood just slightly sweet. Their draining becomes the music of spring, horrible and excited. At death the boards of the old sugar maples bear the bite marks, the scars of all their years of service, like needle holes on the arm, circling the trunk. Decades of pain, of stunted growth all for sugar, for the tongue’s pleasure in the condensed snowmelt the tree made for itself, for its own life.

—–

The day I was brave enough to ask to be set free I sat on his bed looking at the tiles. I held my legs to my chest like a life vest. He agreed to break up but if the radio played a Rolling Stones song, he said we had to stay together. In silence, we waited, and ‘Wild Horses’ ran through the speakers, sad and true. The great beasts throwing their manes into a mystical sunset along the ridgelines in the Old West like beautiful naked women. His smiled at fate, his power that seemed almost impossible; like he was the god he hoped to be. ‘Wild Horses’ rushed in and licked the salt from the tear rivers on my cheeks with their huge, rough tongues. I rested my brow on their narrow foreheads; their big eyelashes brushed against my ears. Bareback, unbroken they left me there, looking at the tile, interested in my grief only briefly in the kind, quick curiosity of wild things, the things that find hurt in hurt, joy in joy.

—–

Swans came to the lake that year. Much bigger than any bird I had seen up close, white as snow banks in the moonlight. They shattered into their own reflections on the cold dark lake, they broke through their quivering swan mirrored and landed in the ripples of that form, swimming in white swan reflection, floating above the frozen bodies of cars, men, hungry northern fish, sunken shanties, snowmobiles, and trucks. I watched them from the beach in the last hours of light, wrapped in my jacket against late autumns almost winter-cold. The kind boy from my history class, Jason, sat beside me, always without his coat like he ran hotter than everyone else. What element would you be, he asks. I think of them all, fire, water, earth, air, their powers and truths, the women who each would be. I would be air I say watching the swans beat the currents upwards with their wings. They were created for rising, created for beating against the strongest force in the world, as if even planets, physics, or the weight of the atmosphere was nothing but the desire to be above, to see the world flattened, to be just a little part of everything, better, more beautiful than all of it.

—–

In the woods at sugaring time, I meet him again after many years. Robert, the boy who dragged my heart around, the boy I returned to as if returning was its own virtue. I think of one of the men killed in the Salem Witch trials sentenced to be crushed to death. His punishment was slower than the rest. Increasingly heavy stones were laid on his chest while he looked up into the clear sky. I imagine it the sky of spring through bare trees. At each stone, he was asked to confess to the impossible, the summoning of spirits, spirits that bring love or kill our enemies with just a drop of blood and a poem. He said no until the last stone broke his ribs, the bones punched through his lungs, and he drowned in his own blood. Each time we meet the stones gets heavier. Robert and I walk up into the deep heart of the woods. Love, love sits at the tip of my tongue like the taste of blood. On the way back to the sugarhouse I find a wasp nest woven onto milkweed, dried and swaying top-heavy in the snowmelt field. With my pocket knife, I cut into it and reveal each layer, the sleeping wasps, the chambers of their hearts, their home made from spit, spun in the hot mouth of summer. It looks like a dollhouse, the children in their bedrooms, the mother in the kitchen, the father in the living room, the cars in the garage. Frozen, either dead or sleeping, I don’t know.

—–

All the scars on my ankles and my inner arms are gone now. I used to be able to see them in the summer; they never grew as dark as the other skin. I used to fear the knives in their drawers, the scissors blades, the razor living in the mouth of the box cutter. I see him, Ian, yellow-haired, fatter now sometimes. Facebook suggests him as someone I may know. I still imagine killing him. These dreams used to keep me busy when I lay in fear at night, like counting sheep I ran them over and over again. He would be in the hospital recovering from some routine surgery, like appendicitis and I would walk in, dressed like a nurse, in the strange quiet hours of the hospital when Death reads all the worn magazines in the waiting rooms and drinks out of the fountains like a tall dog with thumbs and a long tongue. My heels would click down the hallway, neat as Nazi’s boots and I would slip a needle of poison into his I.V. and watch him choke on his own blood, fizzing like reddened dish soap bubbles. Or I would park a motorcycle outside a bar some place where the plains meet the mountains. The machine would shake silently between my legs. Wearing tight leather and soft jeans I’d push through the glass door into the sort of bar where no one pays attention to you, everyone drowning slowly like rats in a bucket. Nobody turns as I draw a sword from my back and cut through his neck as he sits, facing the alter of lit bottles, arranging peanut shells like tarot cards so that as his head falls it lands chin first on the bar, looking deeply into his peanut shell prophecy. The coolest monster, the woman who brings death. Kali, with her tongue bleeding onto her breasts, she will kill the whole world unless she is stopped by her beloved Krishna, his body pressed to the earth under her feet, the weight of the skulls around her waist crushing him. Stop, stop he pleads and she lets the lust run from her like animals fleeing a forest on fire, like swans flying ahead of the white cold of winter and becomes woman again, a lover, a mother, a girl.

—–

In the witching hour, all the monsters walk under the sky. Men become wolves. Women ride in the sky on brooms, in cauldrons, on wings that have sprouted from their backs. The dead rise and return to the places they loved. They touch plow handles. They stand at windows looking out, having let themselves in. They feel for the ghost bodies of ghost pets. Dead horses rise in their strength from their grave behind the barn, tossing their heads again in the painful light of the moon. The oldest dark things, the beasts and clouds of evil, lick at their lipless mouths with bloody tongues. Their many eyes roll toward the bright eye in the sky; they feel their power roar red in their skulls. This is the hour that I have to creep downstairs to use my bathroom. I am so scared that I stay in bed for as long as I can. I can hear the cold breaking at the fragile parts of the world. The trees popping as their veins explode with the frost, their vertical rivers shattering into ice crystals. The floors bite under my feet. Downstairs the windows stare like open eyes. I don’t want to look out and see what I know I will see. This fear radiates like the warmth of a fire; I can feel it pulse and move in the wind. The pilot light on the stove burns away, unnoticed during the day when there are brighter lights. It glows blue around the edges, it burns for burning because it has always to be on, awake when everything else is in the off position, a watcher, guardian of the hearth, of waking. Blue as the eye of a baby. I stare into it, I have never noticed it before. Blue like a sapphire ring-stone, or a wildflower, that rare color of peace, it settles in my heart, burning.

—–

I was always terrified of the graveyard of those lost at sea. The graveyard was about grief, about cuts that are picked over and over until they scar. Until the scar becomes the thing, the reminder, the pain made fresh each time, that gasp at the cut itself, the blood and its taste, sweet, salty, so bright that you wonder at your own hidden beauty, your oceans. But without pins, without places to hold them they follow me, like the ghosts of children, and I their mother, wandering through the corners of my futures. They ask me about the cuts; they want to know where the scars came from. Why I would let someone do those things, was it the pain, did it feel good? Pulling them off my skirts I look each of them in the eyes. I dig shallow graves in my heart desert and bury them alive so that the last thing they say is sand, is earth. I leave them unmarked. Coming back to this country I hope to remember only that they are buried there. I hope not to remember where, in case I want to kneel before them, leave a handful of blue flowers, water them with tears and from them grow again something that tastes like blood and looks like a dog of a child, with a huge tongue and eyes like the moon in winter.


About the Author

 Megan Baxter is a currently an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Art. She lives in South Carolina with her boyfriend and three dogs where she tends to a small, backyard farm. Recently, her work as appeared in Skirt! Magazine and The Open Bar at Tin House.

Next in Issue One: Spring 2017