Over half the string is swallowed, its remaining twenty feet coiled in the man’s lap. He’s skinny, this would-be yogi, his flesh taut about his ribs, sunburnt and flaking. It’s been years since he fashioned the string from a long strip of cloth—twisted it into a braid and knotted it every five inches. Each cleanse, he soaks the string in a solution of proteins and amino acids, flavors it with beet extract and cardamom oil until it is stained brown and red. Now the string dangles from his lips like a bloody stream of drool. Three more days to swallow—days of meditation, of lucid dreams, of penance.
Tomorrow the mustached landlady will shout at him through the thin door: his rent’s overdue, the neighbors are complaining about the smell again. He no longer notices the mélange of fermenting cabbage, sweat, and urine distilling in the seven glass jars lining the sill of his only window, of his only room. His landlady refuses to believe anybody buys the distillate, but once he hands her half the rent money, a transaction that always leaves him feeling weak and sinful, she will shift to her post-payment shouting, the heat from her aura cooling, souring. He will try to press a tisane of lemongrass and licorice root into her palm along with the soiled bills, but she’ll throw it back at his bare chest and tell him to put some clothes on, a robe or anything. She won’t look at the string spooling from his mouth. Will not know where to cast her eyes. His eyes, too, will fall to her feet and her legs that threaten to burst from her nylons like trussed sausages. They disappear into the folds of her long sleeve dresses, always so dark against her pale skin. Sometimes a gold cross will peek from below her second chin, and he will remember that she, too, is a woman of God.
When ten feet of string remain, he will wake from another vision, this one of him making love to the landlady, her girth crushing his frail frame, breaking his ribs, pressing the air from his lungs until he is empty, emptier than he’s ever been before. He will stripe his back with a sheaf of bulrushes, his arm swinging mechanically until a white cloud envelops him and he can hear the roar of the ocean.
When less than six inches hangs from his mouth, he will walk to the beach and commit his visions to murals in the sand. With the heel of his foot, he’ll dig concentric circles and sweeping curves. He won’t look up as joggers scatter the patterns, as they avert their eyes from his nakedness. When the cloud behind his eyes dissolves from white to red and the harsh cries of gulls give way to the shouts of the park police, he will wrap a sheet about his waist and check the plastic cup for offerings. Dollar bills and cigarette butts and shells and perhaps a necklace of black beads that he could offer his landlady the following week, if only she would allow it to rest between her breasts.
By the time she shouts at him again, the string will have begun to pass. He will count backwards as he exhales, will keep his pulse from matching the steady pounding at his door. He cannot bear to answer and will continue to pull the cleansing string inch by inch. It will emerge perfectly white, the color of sand, of gulls, of doughy flesh.
Joshua Jones lives in Maryland where he works as an animator. His writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Monkeybicycle, SmokeLong Quarterly, Fanzine, Necessary Fiction, Juked, and elsewhere. Find him on Twitter @jnjoneswriter or visit his website here.