Julie A Hersh
A Thing You Take With You
It is quiet here at night. It's dark, very dark, and anyone who's out shouldn't be. The person who had just come to the city was crossing a bridge over the river. She knew it was a bad idea, but there was something even worse on the side she was coming from. Halfway across, two boys caught her. They needed help setting up their line of homemade cannons. She couldn't say no: that's what happens when you cross the bridge late at night. So she organized the cannons and packed the powder in, and the paper they handed her, and even did a very good job. Then the boys gave her the lit matches.
A line of ducks was crossing just then. The boys wouldn't let her sweep them away, so she closed her eyes and put her hands over her ears. When the explosions finished, she saw the foot of a duck, lying nearby. She put it in her pocket and crossed the rest of the bridge. She didn't see any duck half-waddling awkwardly in its new condition. She wanted to, but it wasn't there.
She walked around on that side of the river for what she thought was enough time, running from streetlamp to streetlamp until it was safe to go back. She crossed the same bridge back over the river.
Near the door to her building was a statue of a dead body. Rolled tightly in black garbage bags, with the feet sticking out clearly, and the head too. White masking tape around the neck and ankles. No one in this city would wrap their bodies so neatly, lay the tape on so it doesn't stray in white lines all over the bag. They don't need to be warm in winter. During the day the statue looked like rocks, a bench. You never even noticed it until dark. She daydreamed about carting over a wheelbarrow of dirt and throwing it over the statue. She would have to do it without touching it, in case the bags were thin and the stone underneath smooth and cold and mushy.
When she got home she took her jeans off and threw them on the floor; the duck foot rolled out. She didn't notice and stepped on it in the morning.
What is this terrible city? How cold is it, and how dark? There were no insects at all, and no soft, pleasant sounds. There was once a singer on a pedestrian street, but she left. And there was once a church, it might still be there, but inside all the people are frozen in place, so cold it is there. Praying, dipping, sprinkling, turning pages, kneeling, walking—no, not walking. All that, but frozen. And the choir or the organ frozen on, so singing or bellowing the one same note as long as the warmth doesn't catch them.
Every few days there would be a rampage, and she couldn't hold the door closed. She tried the first time, and then watched as a papery, thin yellow arm bent through the gap between door and jamb and turned the lock and gently, muscle by muscle, pried her away from the door. Then a group came in, all papery and paper-thin, all in colors, all in shapes. They seemed surprised by her. She didn't look like what they looked like here and didn't sound like them either. She tried to smile at the creatures. They took a few ounces of her blood, from the bottom of her left foot, and left, locking the door behind them. She'd sat in the dirty entrance hall on the floor, her pants soaking up the melted snow from her boots, waiting for her foot to stop aching. It was a long wait.
She had come to the city with a set of information, like details about the trip: your flight gets in then, and take this bus; and the monsters will be here and here, so avoid them. She hadn't written it in her notebook, but in general it was on that same page. It didn't say how to get away. But she decided after the first time to leave on those days. Her feet were the only things that could let her leave forever after.
She put the duck foot on a display shelf in the apartment, and a glass over it, as if it were a spider that would try to get out. She wondered how far the rest of the duck had gotten.
She tried to ask her next-door neighbor for advice: How to keep them out? And, for that matter, what were they? Her neighbor, usually an old, pudgy, cheerful woman who always grabbed her around the waist to move her out of the way when they passed each other in the stairwell, only shook her head and went back inside her apartment, which she had just come out of to go shopping, and double-locked the door.
She didn't run into her the next night, on her sojourn around the city. It was empty. She wondered if the entire city left on those nights, so that anyone who didn't know to leave became the target. When the citizens got home, they would know only by a grassy, gray smell that anyone had been there. They might dread it the same as the start of a day. It might bring something to mind for them, something underground.
She went to the river bank and saw the boys, as usual, but no one else. She crossed the bridge, hunching her shoulders and looking all around as she walked. When she got home, she smelled the smell. She aired the room out before going to bed.
During the day she went to her job and her lunches and bought clothes and bars of brown soap, like everyone else, and talked to almost no one, and avoided eye contact with the people her thighs touched on the bus, or looked at those cold, still, permanent people and then looked away. When she talked to people outside the city, she would say, It's cold here today, or It's not quite as cold, and the people would marvel at how cold not-quite-as-cold was. And until dark she also would marvel, at how the noises crashed into snow banks and disappeared, so that it seemed quiet, unless you caught the noise in your glove on its way.
There had been a piece of paper on her desk—a form she was supposed to sign, to allow her to live there—but it was gone. She spent a few minutes looking for it, turning over books and piles of things, but it wasn't there. In bed that night she found that the bookmark she'd left in her book, a scrap of paper torn from a blank page at the back, was gone too. She turned the book upside down to mark her spot.
She thought of them sliding through her front door, picking their fragile feet over her dirty hallway, finding the piece of paper on the table, perhaps eating it. Then climbing onto her bed, getting stuck in the squishy center; slowly pulling out that one small piece of paper from the whole book, then edging carefully off the bed. She thought about what their names were, and what the feel is of paper-turned-body, and what their voices would sound like: soft and fluttery and crispy, like paper; or smooth and velvety and metallic, like blood; or something she couldn't even hear.
She stayed home the next night. She didn't lock the door; she sat at her kitchen table and waited to see if they would come. Two did, sliding thinly through the gap, not opening the door. They didn't look at each other but only at her, as if they didn't know that the other was there or as if they were both one thing. She saw the document she had been supposed to sign, her name there like a label: taped to the chest of one of them, or being its chest. The document had yellowed a little and looked sturdier, like a sharp-cornered square of skin you couldn't tear with just your two hands. She did not see the bookmark but it must have been there too, torn to make two flapping fingers, or given to someone else, a gift of fingers. You can become a book or, if you play it right, you can become a whole body. Take just one sheet, there's your head. The rest of the body can wait.
The words on the flat heads moved back and forth like eyes. Words like sanguinate and permanent that were new to her in eyes. A blue scrawled signature formed a mouth. She wondered if her blood was still in them, and whose else's, who all was swimming together in those thin animals. If she could build a home for them in the corner of the room across from her bed, with a little blanket as a pad, and feed them her blood several times a day. Until they had grown more solid and could even run.
She had imagined they wouldn't take her blood if she allowed them in, tried to talk to them. That they would form some sort of communion in which she would understand them and they would come to love her. But after a few minutes she found she was lying on her back and they were taking blood out of her, out of the back of her thigh above her knee. When they were done, though they didn't look any fuller or satisfied or more healthy, they left the same way they had come. She couldn't get up to lock the door so she lay there on the crumbs and lint, waiting until she could move her leg again. It felt tired and old, like meat.
While she lay there she thought of her dead body statue, if it was still there or if it'd been collected. Maybe it was her. She could have lain down on it to see if she would sink through the bags back into the body from which she had come. If not, it wouldn't matter. The body is just a thing you take with you.
She skipped the next few feedings. She locked her apartment and went out, though it was cold and she wanted to stay home. She slipped on a patch of ice one night when she was leaving. She reached out a hand to stop herself and it landed on the body. She was half upright, holding her weight against it. She got up and kept moving but couldn't look at that hand for the rest of the night, or use it, in case it wasn't there—melted into the next or previous form of her body, leaving her with a dead ghost attached to her.
She arrived at the bridge about the time the creatures would arrive at her house. She had put all the papers away in drawers. She didn't know why; she didn't think she minded if they used them. The hunters pretended as usual that they were seeing her for the first time. She nodded to the ones she recognized and kept walking. She stayed on the bridge, watching the cold blue water go past. It was freezing. And she was worried the hunters were looking for the creatures. She wanted the creatures to win. They were the only ones who cared about her.
She'd made tea for them. They let themselves in and came into the kitchen to find her, sat down in the chairs she'd set out for them. She'd brought paper to see if that would make them stay, a stack of scraps she'd found, color-coordinated to match the trends of their bodies. She watched to see what they'd do, glue them on, perhaps, but they each looked through the papers, took some, left others, and tucked them in somewhere, a shirt pocket inside the body.
They all three drank their tea together slowly and quietly. It was a special herb tea from nearby that was supposed to give you strength—for the cold, and for the other things. She wanted to ask them where they had come from, and why they were. If they had given up on finding other bloods or were used to hers, so now it felt the best swimming inside them, touching all the inside corners of them. Her mouth was warm and bitter from the tea; theirs were turning soggy, a light green.
After they'd finished their cups, the creature on her right came over to her. He took her hand from around her mug, pulling gently. His skin felt warm, rough, leafy. He drew it to his mouth but then suddenly let it go so it sank to the bottom of its range, and he picked up the other and began the process over. Suddenly he had teeth, and he gently, slowly made a hole in her hand, the part at the bottom, near the thumb, and drank out some of her blood. When he was done, he folded her hand and pressed it closed with his few fingers. The two of them let themselves out the front door while she remained sitting. The apartment smelled like them, like earth and ink, not pleasant but made pleasanter by the fact that it was them.
But they didn't come back when they were supposed to, the next time. She waited, but she never heard anything, and finally she went to bed, late, feeling full of blood. They didn't come the next time, either, and eventually she stopped waiting and started going out again, so she would not have to be there when they didn't come.
She went to other bridges and helped with other slaughterings, put more paper in more cannons, and wondered if this was how they died. It was growing more familiar and it did not seem strange to be pulled into rituals by the hood of her coat. She did not collect feet anymore, or any other parts, and did not believe in ducks.
One night instead of going to the bridge, she went over to the body. She climbed onto it carefully, the plastic bags as clean and fresh as if they'd just been placed there. The body underneath was soft, human, and cold. She stayed there all night and died there, and in the morning got up, separated her legs—stuck with frost to the legs below her, her second legs—and stood up. She stretched, patted the soft, waxy body, brushed the snow off it, and went inside. There she looked at the duck foot: it was still warm and damp and almost mobile, like a duck's foot. She made it into a necklace and began wearing it against her chest.
Julie A. Hersh
is a writer living in New York. She has lived in four countries (most of them post-Soviet) in the past three years. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in journals including Cold Noon, Menacing Hedge, Syntax and Salt
and The Swamp
. In addition her her website, she can be found on Twitter at @jahersh