We Are All Made of Stardust (excerpt)
by: Emily Monroe
Salliem felt a wet grip tighten around his neck. Breath slipped from his chest as easily as memory and his throat numbed, stuck in the limbo between life and death. Near the door, a trail of wet footprints stained the floorboards black. Leading into a puddle whose hands clutched his throat. He was pulled upright onto his bed and he could see that the thing holding his neck was a woman. When he looked closer, he could see that this creature was like no woman he had ever seen before.
Her skin glistened ice blue, her hair framing her face wild and thick as weeds. He couldn’t help notice that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever seen in his life, but it was a cold sort of beauty that sent a deep fear into his bones.
The woman dragged him by the throat, pulling him through grass, dirt, and stone until they were standing at the mouth of the river. There was not a single star, and it was impossible to draw the division between water and sky. Instead, he stared into an endless pool of black that drowned his vision. They dove inside, slicing through layers of blue and cold and foam and fear until they were standing at the mouth of a cave. She released his neck and he choked, spitting water through his nose and mouth, looking to her for help, until he hiccupped and realized that he could breathe underwater.
When the woman swam past him, he noticed that her legs united into a single mass quilted with scales. She was a mermaid. He had heard stories of mermaids; how they walked on land disguised as women, luring men underwater where they could never escape. But he was not afraid. He took the mermaid’s hand and followed her into the depths of her cave, plastered with bits of shell smoothed to gloss by the current.
The inside of the cave was dark, lit only by the filtered reflections of stars. But even in the dark, he recognized the person who crouched inside. He knew her thin arms, her pink face. Miss Ruth slumped against the wall, her eyes wide and watching him. Even in the depths of the river, illuminated by the mermaid’s iridescent cave, she looked like she did not belong.
Salliem tried to swim to her, but the mermaid held his hand tightly, forcing him to stay at the mouth of the cave. He watched as a shadow filled the space, a shadow that morphed into a figure, its face blurred and features indiscernible. He pulled harder, trying to reach Miss Ruth so that he could find out what was happening, but his body was paralyzed by the mermaid’s grip.
“Let me go,” he said, but when he looked back at her, her face was stone. Her expression had not changed and he knew that it never could.
The figure had sprouted arms and legs and it was hovering over Miss Ruth, pinning her against the wall so that she couldn’t move. She was trying to swim up, her legs flailing as she struggled to reach the surface so that she could get air. But the shadow stayed pinned against her, holding her body immobile.
Salliem called for her, but his words drowned in the depths of the river, soundless, unuttered. He wanted to get closer, wanted to know what was happening. Why couldn’t she move? Why couldn’t she breathe? But he couldn’t reach her, and he knew it was too late.
Her face turned blue, her cheeks swelling as a rush of bubbles poured from her lips. He watched as her kicking slowed, and finally, stopped. He looked into her gray eyes that seemed like a vacuum to recede forever. The shadow flitted into the waves and he watched as Miss Ruth’s body floated up into the water, higher and higher until she was gone. There was nothing left but black water.
He woke up drenched in sweat, his hands dripping with salt water. Dampness spread like a corpse on his sheets. He stood up and went to the window, drinking in air as if he would never be able to satisfy this unquenchable thirst. The reflection caught his face and illuminated his skin in the night. Pale blue in the dilution of stars drowned by sky. When he opened his mouth, all he could see was black – black spread like tar over the pink of his tongue.
* * *
When she woke up, she looked to her left and he was lying beside her. His eyes still closed in sleep, his hand stretched across the bed in hope of holding her close to him. She watched the quiet contours of his face, the curve of a cheekbone that held the stretching of that smile. The smile punctuated by that shining tooth that hovered inside of her dreams. A flash of gold catching the bit of moonlight that lingered in the early dawn.
She wanted to wake him – or better yet to climb from bed and pull the cleaver from the nail on the kitchen wall. But he was helpless in the growing light, his mouth parted against the pillow in gentle sleep. He was harmless. It had to be a dream – everything must be a dream. As she watched him beside her, peaceful, she knew that she had just suffered from a terrible nightmare. She laid back and closed her eyes, begging for the return of sleep. In sleep she could forget the reality of the villain sprawled across her sheets. In sleep she could beg time to reverse its flow and crawl backwards to the pivot of yesterday.
But sleep wouldn’t come. Exhaustion pressed against her bones without mercy, but her brain would not quiet. And before she could slip into unconsciousness, she felt the body stir beside her.
Maybe it wasn’t too late; maybe she could still crawl from the bed into the safety of her kitchen. She felt the pull of an arm around her waist and she opened her eyes to see his face hovering above her. His mouth closed over the sparkle of that tooth, but she knew the exact place of its resting. She knew before he opened his mouth that he would come closer to her and place those lips on the flesh of her neck. And she didn’t need to look to know that his body was already situating itself against her, maneuvering until the moment when his eyes would close in pleasure. She could do nothing but count down the seconds until it ended – would her breath run out with counting?– and beg for insanity. Because if she was insane, then he was nothing more than her lover. A man she had invited inside of her to linger in the places that once belonged to her.
When it was over, he picked up the clothes strewn across the floor. He smoothed last night’s wrinkles from his shirt and pulled it over his head. He grabbed her hand – the hand of a corpse – from the bed and pulled her up. She followed him to the door, her body weightless in its ascension to heaven. Its plummet into hell.
“Don’t worry,” he said, leaning close to her to brush his dry lips against her cheek. “I not gon’ tell no one what happen. I gon’ keep we secret.”
She watched as he jogged away from her house, his body shrinking along the path until he disappeared completely. The first hint of sun climbing into the sky and electrifying damp trees and the crumbs of mascara stuck to her cheeks. She closed the door and sat down on the couch, trying to feel. She even closed her eyes, pressed her hands against her chest where she believed her heart must reside. She counted backwards from ten, begging her body for its cooperation, but as she reached one she opened her eyes and collapsed against the cushion. She could feel nothing.
* * *
This cannot happen to me, she thought, so she woke up the next morning, showered as usual, and began to clean the house in preparation for the week. Her body slackened as she reached for the broom and for a moment she thought she might cry. But she knew that tears never solved anything, and besides it must have all been a dream. She heard her father’s voice in her head. What’re you going to Guyana for anyway? You think you can save the world or something? The laugh that echoed, rude, in her memory. She knelt down and dipped her fingers into the bucket of bleach at her feet. She let her fist relax in the cool embrace of the soapy water, waiting to see if her skin would brighten. If her skin would be cleansed.
She was trapped in the jungle that had overgrown her mind. Stepping through drooping branches into a crumple of leaves, she searched in vain for the sun. The hum of crickets, birds, blurred her vision until she collapsed into wet brush. But she was not cleansed.
She wanted to ask for God but she did not know how to pronounce his name. The letters slid across her mind, but she could not unite their sounds. She once thought he was an illusion; now she knew he was a lie. Instead she looked up into a finger-locking of leaves pressed against the sky and she began to sing. A slow drawl of melody, it almost failed to break the barrier of her lips.
If her neighbors happened to stray past her house and steal a glimpse of the white girl crouched on the floor, soaking her hands in bleach and singing, they might guess that some obeah spirit had overtaken her body. The victim of a jumbie who pounced upon his prey in the cool of dawn without mercy. But she wasn’t thinking about her neighbors. She only wanted to fill the house with sound until his memory quieted inside of her. She let her voice swell louder and louder until the roosters crowing outside were nothing but the muted memories of expected sound. The notes blended closer and closer in pitch until they merged into the drumming in her brain. The pounding of blood, hungry, as it devoured the fist clump of gray matter. And still, she was not cleansed