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My Body, Herself

When the cave’s ceiling crumples, so do I. Through my body, stone kisses stone. I die.

Afterward, footsteps pass by my head. I track them to the opposite wall, the one clear of debris. (If I’d been cowering there, I’d still be alive.) The bearer is wearing my dress, and when she reaches into the pocket (huge, I realize in death, a childish pocket), she withdraws a cigarette and lights it by means unknown. It illuminates her. She is like me in every way, from my muddy calves up to my black braid and the budding zit on my jawline. She slumps against the wall, and just watches me like that.

Two years pass, each one marked by the distant, almost imperceptible rumble of Fourth–of–July fireworks. In these two years, my family notices I am missing. Only twice do they come close to me, by accident: a discordant swarm of search–team voices drift down through an obscure network of crevices and shafts. I cannot answer, being dead.

She just stands there and smirks as the cherry grows dangerously close to her mouth, until the voices fade like twilight.

She smirks a lot over these two years, but never says a word. She also smokes a never–ending chain of cigarettes, all procured from that same place, where the morning of my death I’d shoved a single one so deep that when I drew it out later, it was hairy with lint from the seam of my pocket, and in disgust I’d put it back.

After she burns through it (and she doesn’t tap it against the wall to loosen the ash or drop the butt to the ground or do any of those things: she smokes it until it is literally nothing) she pulls another one out. Or the same one, maybe. It’s hard to say.

Then, one day, she says her first word: chase. Or maybe it’s the past tense.

What? I say. Chase or chased?

(In death, my voice is not like the vocalizations of a living woman, the conversion of intent to exhale to larynx to vocal cords to air vibration to sound. It is something like telepathy; I form and send the words and also perceive them, the way you hear your own voice, but I suspect that if a living person was in that cavern with us, there would be nothing but silence from the mangle of me.)

She says it again, only now it sounds like chaste. The word is clumsy in her mouth, like she’s spent this entire time accreting language by osmosis, and the effort of the word is extreme.

Every so often, she walks around the circumference of the cavern, circling it like there’s chalk on her shoes and she needs to take an accurate measurement. When she passes out of my line of sight (in death, my sight feels like the parameters of a dream, where I perceive the physicality of her form between two points, and then once she has walked beyond those points I sense her more roughly, like a bat might intuit an insect in the dark, something between sight and sound) her footsteps continue unabated, patient. Is she taking in information? Occupying herself? Trying to show me something?

Another year goes by, and she touches me for the first time. She comes and sits next to my bones—which are still darted through muscle and tissue, though both are temporary—and runs her fingers along them. I don’t expect to feel anything, but I surprise myself by shivering, or doing something that feels like shivering. She lies down next to me, looks at me. (She is still smoking.) When she is this close, I feel like we are on opposite sides of a mirror, though this is generous: I cannot see my body but I know we are as different as an apple on a branch and an apple liquefying on the ground beneath it.

It is unsettling, being so close to my own face. She blows smoke toward the partially–collapsed ceiling. The longer she lies there, the more I become able to feel what she feels. The last fragment of cigarette turns to ash in the valley of her lips, and I feel a flare of heat between my own.

She makes a sound that resembles a purr, and then flips over on her stomach and tucks her arm beneath her pelvis. I gasp at the sudden sensation, so muscular it’s as if I’ve been shocked back into my own body, even though none of the nerves she rolls between her fingers exist in me anymore.

She presses her face into the stone and I can feel the fragments of rock pressing against, into her forehead, and it is not better or worse than the rocks crushing me. We both, I think, come. (In death, orgasm is the opposite of being crushed; it is an outward pulse, an expansion, like riding the shockwave of a dying star.)

She bucks against the ground, and then is still. I worry that she has died. I want to call her name, but I do not know her name, so I call my own name instead. She turns her face back toward me, a lit cigarette impossibly tucked in between her teeth. She laughs, the cigarette stuck wetly to her mouth, and it sounds like a small animal being stepped on.

Death is not the loneliest thing.

It might be the only thing she can say, but she is right to say it: I was chased down here. I provoked what I should not have provoked (or, more accurately, refused what I should not have refused), and then I had to run, and when I could run no longer, I had to hide.

I knew that a network of caves was spun down into the earth at the edge of this steep hill, accessible by a tree I’d climbed many times. And so I ascended for the last time with my last dress bunched up around my waist and my last shoes knotted together and slung over my shoulders.

If he knew I was there, if he heard the rocks collapsing and ran, or if all of it was swallowed by the sound of fireworks, I will never really know. But even as I was vanishing into the crevice, I could hear him calling my name.

Loose pebbles tremble against the ground. Fourth of July, again.

Happy birthday, I say to her.

Chase is still the only word she knows, and she says it while standing, sitting, watching, pacing. I remember that it is a boy’s name, though not the boy’s name. I wonder how it is she learned it, with no one to teach her. She might have pulled it from the fragments of my memory when she was born out of me (Athena, erupting from the head of Zeus). She might have learned it from the voices which hunted for me in those weeks afterwards. This is a wild–goose chase. We’re chasing our tails. Let’s cut to the chase. It’s not like she was chaste.

Then, one day, she knows the word Yes. She says it strangely, the eh in the middle snuffed out. It sounds like ys, ys, like the mythical Breton city swallowed up by the ocean when its sloshed, spoiled princess handed the key to the devil himself.

She sits and smokes and pouts and says chase and yes in every iteration that occurs to her. Chase? Yes. Chaste, yes. Chase! Yes! Yes, chase, yes, chased, chased.

Four years in, she gets the idea to start digging. I watch her move rocks with the unhurried pace of an animatron.

In time, she builds a small hill. Every so often, she tries to ascend it. I say things to her. You cannot leave only knowing the words chase and yes. Stay, and I’ll teach you all the words you need to know. Don’t go.

She does not hear, or if she hears, she does not listen.

(In death, despair tastes like a soft, watery fruit you desperately want to eat, even though the surface is dotted with mold.)

She reaches a place where the wall goes from smooth to irregular, and a single, veiny tree root dangles lushly from a crevice, the only evidence of the outside world. She reaches up and grasps it, and then pulls. There earth gasps. Something falls, and a narrow band of light cuts through stone. It skewers her in her chest, and she looks at it curiously.

The she looks up again, and her hair ruffles with the very smallest breeze.

She presses her fingers into the hole and makes a sound like a scolded woman. Oh, she says, or maybe it’s O. Oh oh oh. She tries to press her face to the crevice, but the cigarette strikes the stone and falls. It patters down the hill of rocks and rolls along the ground and stops, a curl of smoke rising.

She looks down: at it, at me. Then she looks up at the crevice. Then she scrambles down the rocks.

You were very close, I say.

She hooks the cigarette over her lip and climbs again. I cannot close my eyes, and so I see her go up. The cigarette strikes the stone again, and falls. She chases it down, and then ascends again.

Many years pass this way.

Then, one day, the cigarette rolls a little further than normal. It pops from one stone to another and gets a little extra bounce near the base and finds its way to the cathedral of my bones, where it worships beneath my clavicle. She descends the hill of rocks and comes close to me. She kneels down and tilts her head to the side.

Listen, I say to her, if they chase you, you don’t have to run. You can fight back. But you can run, too, and there is nothing wrong with running. You can chase or be chased, there’s nothing wrong with either of those things. I feel stupid because I know so little. This is the only real thing I know, and yet I don’t know it at all. It’s your choice, I clarify. It’s always your choice. Choice sounds a lot like chase but they are very different.

She reaches under me and withdraws the cigarette. Then, for the first time, she does not lift it to her mouth, but turns it sideways and stares at it for a long while. (In death, time moves differently, but now I can see the way the light changes behind her, and it takes her three days to decide.)

She stubs it out on the ground.

Then, she reaches behind me, and from my broken ribs she lifts a stone. It is not a particularly large stone, but it has a round belly and a sharp edge. She jogs it up and down in her hand, and I realize she’s trying to show me its heft. She stands and drops the stone in her pocket, and begins to climb. Don’t be afraid to make noise, I say to her. (In death, advice feels futile, since people gave you advice and you’re dead anyway.)

She looks down at me, and then slithers her hand up the gap. Her forearm is immersed, then her shoulder. Stones and earth move aside for her face. She pushes her body through and up and out and I am watching her and I am laughing. (In death, laughter is like a swarm of chattering birds ascending into the air and taking your skin with them.)

The above swallows her upwards. She is just legs. I hear the far–off beginnings of her sound.

(In death, hope is like eating an apple while smelling an onion: your body tells you a terrible thing but your mind tells you something sweeter.)

I am not upon the earth, not sitting on the grass. I will never feel grass again. But if I had been there, I know what I would have had the privilege to see: a young woman, born screaming.

Award-winning author of 'In the Dream House' & 'Her Body and Other Parties'. Finalist for National Book Award. Essays in NYT, New Yorker & more.