Everything in this house was first another’s. I am tired of our bedsheets, frayed from endless wash. I am tired of the green carpet crawling up the hallway, rubbed dull from stains never removed. The owner is a witch, her hair in thick black rubber coils around her eyes. Her crooked mouth, the blistered Romanian it spews. She is hiding the blood and the piss and the ash of this crippled boarding house in the carpet threads. I’ve never once, never once heard a vacuum go off in here.
So what is mine? My thoughts, my time to gorge on.
The kitchen is a slaughterhouse. The owner keeps the precious cleavers in her room, the blades wide as my thigh and sharp, you needn’t wonder. Always stewing flesh, coaxing the marrow to surface. The patience of a low, slow burn. Blood trapped and blinking beneath oil, blood in the air all afternoon. She spices by smell, by instinct; only a lesser woman would take notice. I ruin a runny egg, serve steak cool to the touch. Over-peppered, undercooked, else scalded to anonymity. My talents must lie elsewhere.
I seldom linger past the kettle’s boil and less if she should enter. You and I have so little, so yes, we steal, but what we steal is little. Careful as mice. Still, signs crop up, and endless warnings:
WRITE YOUR TEA AND DONT DRINK ANYONE TEA
KEEP SUGAR ON THE SHELF INSIDE. RATS!
NO GUESTS NO DIRTY PLATES NO TALKING LATE
It is only a week, you say. Two at the most. Only a little longer, bunny. Trust, won’t you?
Where do you live all day? In interrogation rooms and bars, in ashen women’s dressing rooms. The breast pockets of suits. The alleyway below a fire escape, leading to the detective’s dirty office. Murder, ache, revenge. The keys march on your typewriter, letters pounce on paper, and you live there.
But I’m out here, pacing a dirty box with a mattress on the floor and a dresser missing the bottom drawer. I rattle in the smoky room while you whisk yourself away. Blinders are a writer’s luxury you have taught me.
In bed at night, our routine: I listen as you recall the day’s pages. The fantastical detective struggles now with not just the object of his affection but with a brother who has cropped up from the past.
There’s tension. You’re a marvel to yourself. There’s finally tension.
All morning nausea threatens up my throat. Retreats. You are perfectly fine, you tell me, though what we have we share down to the crumb. In my illness I am alone. Out of our bedroom window, a plain white sheet of sky.
A brittle little woman, the house’s only other tenant, has taken a liking to you. And you, you see material. Nothing more tempting than a ruined woman. Sherry in the evenings and late into the night. She is impressed as you predicted she might be:
A writer! A writer in our little home! Who doesn’t love a mystery?
You fetch me comfort we cannot afford: mineral water in tiny Italian bottles. Salts to settle the stomach, the brittle woman suggested. An Old-World trick, you’re told. Even the witch owner agrees. The bottles become vases for the daisies you dot our awful room with.
Settle, bunny, settle. I brought you a book.
Writer, you are the gestural equivalent of a whimper.
Midnight I sit in the scalding shower until steam chokes the room. I won’t be doing that again: glancing in the mirror at a woman I want to hide from. Did you notice her? Me but not quite, come with the aching in my stomach, come with the scraping in my throat.
The money won’t last. You coo—you say we’ll float right through to a parade made in our honor, but I know better. I was to myself before you came, hungry but free. Now, the sound of mice like paper crinkling in the walls. The echo of the telephone in the hallway. Never for you, but hope in the writer is unwavering. Soon they will call. You’ve sent your pages, left your name. Soon they’ll come begging for your book. The money, the fruit.
Stay, bunny. You will see.
The pink curtain blooms at night. This is our favorite time. We can see the big orange streetlamp like our very own woozy moon. We take turns keeping one leg on the other, we thank the fan. At night I have your minty mouth against my forehead, your hands, intent. The hammer of the typewriter rests. Cats screech beneath us in the garden, long abandoned. Heat in their bones, the sound of want.
At night I remember why I agreed to follow you. The way you looked tenderly at me those months ago and said, Don’t hide in these decaying bookstacks, don’t be your mother’s daughter. You are the only person I have ever met who is devoid of armor and I had then more than enough to spare.
I found a book this afternoon. I sat in quiet and I read. That was your remedy, remember. I learned that Old World women would grind glass and mix it into salt to serve to their malicious husbands. Patience is a weapon.
What could have caused my illness? I hiss at the owner’s signs, I see the snake of her. What sense in keeping me around? Shards settle in my stomach, in my lungs. I know what I feel; this house is a crime scene, this woman is a murderer.
When you return with bread and milk, your face flushed like a cherub’s, I drag you to the foot of our bed and whisper my discovery. But you laugh at me as if in the company of others. Your head turns from side to side, your eyebrows carve upwards in disbelief. I know that you are spineless like the weasels in your stories. I know you are afraid that she will kick you out and keep your money.
Gin bottles grow like wildflowers every morning outside of the brittle woman’s door. You have seen her at night, you tell me, with her heels in her hands, fishing for the lock with her key. Guided her hand, guided her in. A sour room, big and fit for a wilted queen, your eyes took notes, always working:
Slips, cherry and nude, hung from a dull brass bedpost like shriveled ornaments.
You type and type, weave her into your pulp fiction. Everything is material, you tell me. I’d like to give you something.
I take the bottles and a sharpening stone from the kitchen. The hallway closet is full of boxes, the foreign labels I strain all morning to decipher. The owner’s daughter’s baby clothes, her little life packed neatly here. I once belonged to someone in this way. Swaddled, my progress mattered. A doorframe to track the miracle of my bones stretching me upwards. Age four, age six, then nine, a burst. A girl.
Nightly I crawl behind the boxes and bind my hands with kitchen rags to grind the glass down to a whisper, flakes trapped beneath my fingernails. The owner’s daughter, I know, comes rarely, to reach her mother’s ceiling fans with rags and send dust shrieking into the air. To bicker, to shove old clothes into the closet. When called, the daughter’s husband comes, a handyman. Silent and practiced like prized machinery.
I watch him in the kitchen, I like to. To press my back against the doorframe, to push against the splitting wood with the heel of my foot until he senses me, and then to busy myself, make like I’m working. His hands are big. A comfort, the way they tug at valves beneath the ancient sink. Wrenches, smutted with his fingers smutted with the pipes’ insides. At the stove, I peek over my shoulder and catch him thinking: running his tongue along the wall of his mouth, see his cheek puff out as if a bug were scattering in there.
I come with empty glasses and loiter, needy, tuck my hands in my sleeves. An excuse to watch the swell of his ribcage as he breathes the diver’s breath when he is on his back beneath the kitchen sink, squinting at rot.
No water, he tells me. Wait.
Yes, I linger. I like to. He lets me. Once, a tiny mouse—brazen, else foolish—had wandered into view and he slammed quick his boot down on the floor. Blood pooled beneath. He flushed an exhale, proud. And something hummed up past my thighs. A terrifying man, a trap built into him.
He said then, before lifting his boot, look away, and I would not.
We are both of us now deep in our work. I lace the owner’s salt. Her sugar too. The coffee she takes, ground to powder, the tea she gulps all afternoon. I lace it all and hide my ravaged hands beneath your maroon sweater. My clothes too light, too thin to mask the blood. In your novel you describe a woman, incriminate but irresistible. An implicating creature. What is the detective to do? She’s a poison, a fatal woman. That’s how you tell it and you are sure.
The owner groans into the phone in feeble English. The weeping daughter stalks the halls and carries bowls of broth, the rank of boiled bone in the kitchen. Even you have grown uneasy, looking over your pages at the door, toward the endless noise. But I race the morning, I let the sun come hobbling up to me, I betray sleep and you don’t even notice. Grind glass inside the bathroom until the doorknob trembles and knocking starts. I work with meaning; I have that now.
Where we first lived, do you remember? Somebody should have seen us. We were living in a shed in your brother’s backyard. He wouldn’t let us near the warmth. You’d gotten sick and he was scared of what you had, do you remember? The neighbors threw apple cores at us over the fence. You were sick to tears. Sweating and shivering, sweating and shivering. A fever punctured your thinking and you mistook me for another woman then, shouted another woman’s name in your sleep. I draped soaked towel after soaked towel across the rusted lawn chairs and felt my recklessness. Love looked like this: like quarantine I had to break. And still I held your frightened hands. But you won’t look at mine.
Come night you’re drunk and stewing, a roadblock in the book, right at the curtain draw; an undefinable, mystical pause in your brilliant thinking, a curse on your good fortune. The owner screams like a split pig. Who is supposed to sleep like this? Soon she will cave and ambulances will howl through empty streets. You hover near the typewriter, circling it like a dumb dog on a short leash.
I roam the house. It’s mine. I roam in night light. The husband comes and takes my hands; I terrify a terrifying man.
Darina Sikmashvili was born in Lubny, Ukraine and raised in Brooklyn, New York. As of fall 2020, Darina is pursuing her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan. She’s writing a book. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.