Natanya Ann Pulley
He said it was to absorb my power. The way they talk about cannibals in the movies. He said it was because he had a hole inside him that he stuffed and stuffed, but could never fill. I told him we all have holes and he said he knew it and it didn’t matter what I thought as he started with a toe, which I thought was unwise. Start with the shoulder. So little meat in the fingers and toes.
Still, there I was inside him and I could hear his grumbling, then the weeping, and I worried I’d find someone else in there with me.
But I must have been the first. There was more than a hole. There was an expanse. An expanse in him, miles wide. Miles deep. Miles high, more than that because there are more than three dimensions inside each of us. It was miles back in time and miles into dreams. Miles and miles of him and no hole to find.
At first, I kept quiet. I worried I’d wake him at night or disrupt him in a meeting, while ordering coffee, or when he’d fall into a reverie doing the dishes. The water, the scrubbing, the thought of cleanliness. Pruned fingers.
Eventually there were too many miles, too much of him. And when I got tripped up in his ligaments to get a better ear on a conversation he had with some detectives who came by, I heard myself catch his breath. I don’t know if he heard it too, but it began a long line of me trying out hums and breaths and coughs and guttural rhythms. I didn’t want to spook him with my words and I was never sure I could.
I don’t know what power I brought to him, if any. I don’t know of anything called strength in the two of us. But I do know that I could howl and it kept him up at night. I could scream and he could try to shake or run me out. Sometimes he’d run and I’d say words. Nothing of sense or sentences or significance. I’d say some words in any order and he’d try to run them out.
If you were to have asked me before if a person could live inside another, I would have said yes. I would have said that many of the men I’ve known have lived in me. I took them with me wherever I went. I would have said that mothers and celebrities live and die in us. I would have said nice things about childhood too.
But I wouldn’t have said that I walked miles in another person or that I found nothing and he found nothing and instead we were a walking, breathing nothing. We’re not solid things with a hole to fill and hole edges to maintain and sod and grit hauled from other parts of ourselves into this chasm. No, we are an emptiness, and when we feel a hole, it is only because we came across something solid for a brief moment and thought we were solid too. The lies he told himself about what is solid. The delusions he had of ground.
I remember when I too lived in a skin of my own and thought myself whole. So it mattered little when he confessed. When the police shuffled about looking so much less than the thinking and flawed machines on TV crime shows. When there was time time time as he waited for paperwork to sign. Even some somethings later in a courtroom with my father and sister near, it mattered little. They nodded and sobbed and held one another. Holding onto each other’s nothingness in hopes that what was made solid by their arms stayed within them. My children in another room somewhere, another life somewhere. And my husband a crush of himself, so much smaller than I remembered. My consumer saw them too.
I knew he wouldn’t be able to live with me here, wondering what was to become of us. I thought this so often and imagined the possibilities of us as not us that when he tightened a sheet or rope around his neck, I was pretty sure he wanted to know too. When he swallowed me, when he thought me a strong spirit to ingest, he didn’t know how little I was. He didn’t know we’d grow exponentially into nothing. But I must have known. The way I always knew I was meant for nothing. And I don’t say that to suggest my life was meaningless or that I did not do sometimes great or good or worthy things. Just that, like others before me, I was told I could be put to purpose. Which meant the living of everyday without purpose was meaningless. Which meant I created meaning to be purposeful and created purpose to be valuable.
I don’t deny the desire to be valuable or purposeful. But I won’t lie and say these are finite or concrete things that are measurable or inherent. I don’t see this as the power my consumer wanted.
When he saw me, he saw something out of a catalog. Mother of two, loading groceries into a car. That is when I first felt someone watching, the familiar hint of being seen. And the two little ones are okay. I know this because after the initial stun and ache to my senses in the grocery store parking lot, I could hear him turn on the A/C in my van before closing them in. It was hot out, I believe. It’s hard to remember now. Not the details, but what hot is. What it means or feels like. Everything feels hot and cold now just as you’d expect it to in space.
The news confirmed the children were safe and this meant a great working chain in me could stop its twisting and the slack made it easy to give up entirely. If I say I am nothing without my children, you will feel sad for me or think me powerless. I simply mean we are all nothing without our imagined purposes. And my purpose in those moments was in the arms of their father backed by our lost and capable friends and we had money and were white and there were no illnesses to hold us back. It was sickening actually, all our capability housed in our bodies and skin and bank. I don’t feel sorry for us, not really. Though I had a few things on my to-do list that day left to do and a hidden wish for something salty and fat to snack on later. And those things still bite at me—those things (more than others) make me feel the way I was left undone.
When the man hid in a corner and wept, I knew it would take much longer than I had hoped. I wouldn’t tell anyone this—that I just wanted it over with. But there he was, a child in a corner. And I was a thing on a table. And there was nothing in between us but the past. Which sounds like I could have made a future if I tried a little harder—talked him out of it, talked him tired until I could free myself or wait out my own rescue.
Instead I thought of this strange little clearing in our yard when I was a child. My parents had bought the house and property and the land was overgrown with cattails and cottonwood trees and something that made my eyes itch. Among it all was a little clearing I found by chasing a kitten. In my memory it was far from the house and the road and the driveway and no one could see me, but perhaps it was clear to adults where I spent my time. Dragging buckets and branches and rocks, making seats and tables for my far-world guests. Feeding the cat imaginary food in a real bowl, much to its madness. I built a world in that clearing and when I was pulled from it for dinner or baths or chores or church or shopping or all the worst things in the world, such as making new friends on the block, I would lock a part of myself away. All taut. This place where I had a world—still dangerous, but all mine.
There might have been hours on the table and the first were the ones of nerves and excuses (maybe he made a mistake and will let me go), followed by hours of acceptance and wetting myself and finding the bindings tight. And then the hours of waiting and nothing. Of what one might call giving up or giving in. It was in those hours that I finally felt normal. Perhaps this is why he thought me strong and why he rose from that corner. When I said I was finally where I always knew we all were to be. We are all of us tied to slabs as we imagine the choices we make leading us further in life instead of closer to death.
I wonder if he saw this in me at the grocery store.
If I smelled—not weak, not a victim or lost or too vulnerable to the world—but aware of this hunt. Of the world’s hunt. Women and girls know early on we must remember to survive. But most imagine themselves smart, strong, different, chosen, lucky, fortunate, blessed, wise, exceptional enough to avoid the claw and jaws. Most imagine themselves not as creatures, but as whole selves thinking and feeling and rationalizing their way through the world. They plow and mow down overgrown landscapes and think they have tamed the wild.
Which is not to say that I really knew my destiny or that I am beyond or better than any of them. Just that sometimes I felt more animal than person. More space and emptiness and imagined life than what I was told I should see and believe. Perhaps he saw this when I was looking at a small jar of sweet pickles. The way I chuckled thinking about all the ways we try to dress up a cucumber. And my youngest made a little doo-doo sound because she was getting used to her own voice and her brother kissed her head as if her personhood was coming along so well and he was so proud and wouldn’t we all be happy in the evening with our pickles and dinner.
Bah, maybe he saw none of this, just an opportunity. My back turned, the lot empty, a quiet day, the right day, a Tuesday. Something telling him now.
It’s probably delusion that gives me the small satisfaction that I saw it coming. What pride there is in foresight. What satisfaction. The world an equation and not a mess of mishaps. The gurgles and choking. The body a shudder. He almost called out for help. Then the silence.
I’ve nothing to say to my consumer when he arrives. I hear something shuffling and as his body grows cold and I can only walk along it as if on the edge of a cliff, I imagine it is him. Where are we, he will ask. Or, what are we? As if I should know. It will be like that moment before the knife sliced in, before the pain and the confusion, when we saw one another as we are. He was scared and bound to this solution of his and sorry, so sorry in his face and the slump of his shoulders and the way he kept looking away. And he didn’t muster the strength until he saw it in me—I was bound to this solution too. Building imaginary lives in a clearing. We are nothing but his need to consume and my acceptance of all the ways humans are consumable. It was almost a sacrifice, I say to comfort us. Almost.
Natanya Ann Pulley (@msnattyann) is a Diné writer of fiction and non-fiction. She’s published work in numerous journals including The Collagist, Drunken Boat, Entropy, McSweeney's, Waxwing, and As/Us. Her essays have been anthologized in #NotYourPrincess: Voices of Native American Women, Creating a Compass: Essays for New Creative Writing Teachers, Women Write Resistance, and more. A former editor of Quarterly West and South Dakota Review, she is the founding editor of the Colorado College literary journal, Hairstreak Butterfly Review. Natanya is an assistant professor of English at Colorado College. Her story collection With Teeth will be published by New Rivers Press (Fall 2019) and her writing can be found at natanyapulley.com.