Darley Stewart

 

It was possible to imagine Marianne in the bath. It was more than possible. It had to be done. Imagining and remembering Marianne were, for Scott, the same act. Scott remembered a time when Marianne was in the bath. He watched her long limbs sprawl in the bath. It was his bathtub; a very lovely deep tub made of malachite, the color of his childhood and recently some of his fecal matter. Marianne had never seen a tub like this in her young maiden life, but it was something that Scott had taken for granted from his heritage. The tub had seen through many a Scott and would remain until the last of Scott. Scott preferred not to imagine himself in the bath, as he knew what that was like – yes, he knew that image well enough, all he had to do was look in the mirror. Marianne was bathing in his malachite tub, not answering any phone calls, and completely sprawled in a manner that would not occur in his office building.

Marianne is bathing in front of him. It is happening before his very fogged, baggy eyes, which sag with the weight of many decades of scotch and cigarettes. Marianne is a great long sprawling beauty. The dimmed lights frame what isn’t fully submerged, but Marianne is no Ophelia. She is, in a sense, surrounded by greenery. However, unlike Ophelia, she is very much alive. Her lips are closed, concentrated on the act of bathing, not slightly open to drink in the mindlessness of death – her face and hands aren’t turned upwards, rather, as expected, her head is nodding downwards from a full day’s work, and her hands are placed behind her long aching neck, soothing sore points at the base of her neck, one by one. A cluster of flowers does not trail from her fingers, but there are bath salts and bubbles, and she is loosening her limbs into their embrace. She is as long-haired as she is long-limbed. Marianne’s hair is very blonde and long, and runs along the water, screams against the depth of malachite; it is more of an announcement than we ever expected her hair to be. Scott feels the shock of looking at her hair and limbs, an aesthetic jolt that slims his mind into a shape as thin and thimble-like as can be imagined, it is as though his brain has been shaved down to fragile stubs, and no one thinks very much about the shape of the brain anymore, its idiotic shape, its gelatinous quality, something you would imagine stepping on without a second thought, were it not encased in a human head.

Scott does not see Marianne’s body parts. They are there to be seen, but not in this unfolding memory. He remembers Marianne’s body rising through the water. They are lilacs bursting into bloom. They bloom from within the tub, gigantic clusters of lilacs, an entire lilac bush coming forth from beneath the still water. He smells lilacs overpoweringly, the scent of his dead wife, the ballerina, the beauty that ruined her looks and career to give birth to their daughter Page. The lilacs are large, syringa vulgaris, neglected by Shakespeare, common yet initially seen as a rarity, as some things are when first introduced, before they lose their flavor over time and are taken, slowly, certainly, for granted – and there we are, Scott whispers to himself, this is not a woman after all but a bush. Why should I feel guilty?

And he tries to recall everything there is to know about the lilac. The small thickets that protrude from her chest become larger as he looks upon her. The leaves range from light green to glaucous and spring from her belly button, the glands of her throat, from deep within her ears. They are covered in serene bathwater. The dense panacles of lilacs are there so vibrantly that he assumes for a moment that they are smothering her, but in fact they are emerging from her body. A smooth brown fruit, dry to the touch, can be picked from her body in batches. He eats just one from the multitude and thinks that he has never tasted anything so disgusting in his life. He spits out the seeds into the bathwater and is reminded of the cow’s meat he once had on his travels to Mexico, the dry rancid taste that stuck to the insides of his mouth and slunk down his throat. Why does the brown fruit taste like cow’s meat?

Later on that same trip, he had watched the slaughter of a tiny calf; its head rolled off in one lump, as though it were being pruned and would surely grow back, how casual it all seemed at the time. And now the lilacs are disappearing. Scott hopes that they will disappear in a languid manner, peeling back to reveal the delicate flesh beneath, droplets of water flashing on skin, on shoulders, fingers, kneecaps, water swirling around her, her mouth open and ready for suckling – and this is where Scott falters, for her mouth is not for suckling, or sucking, or fucking, but adapted for grazing – the top part of her mouth is hard, the bottom fully armored with flat-topped teeth, including eight incisors, and she is tearing bits of grass from a reclaimed wood planter next to the bath, her eyes push entirely to the sides of her black-and-white head from which all traces of blonde hair are removed. And Scott sees that her ears have the fuzzy appearance of very large, plush headphones sticking out like the side-mirrors of a car, but most of all, he sees that her nose is spotted, pink, and meets her mouth, which is unapologetically full of grass.

And it isn’t a bathtub, or is it? No it isn’t. It can’t be. It’s a long green lake unadorned with lilacs or beautiful female bodies. No it’s a long green river, a deep placid green. Scott can see that the edges of the river are framed by perfectly drooping trees of the same deep green. Grass is plentiful and flanks the river. She is walking on the food she is eating, and this is very upsetting to Scott. Marianne is very hungry. Her body is long, grey-blue, horned, with soft eyes. Her rump is wild. There’s a flicking tail at the core of it, long and living its own life, but the rest of the body is gentle. The ripping sound of plants being torn up from their homes and taken into the mouth of Marianne is upsetting to Scott as well. Where is the woman he once knew? Where is she? What is that man doing over there with a gigantic butcher’s knife, where did he come from?

Scott does not want to see what is happening next to Marianne. She is not a woman or a bush but a cow at the slaughter. Her blood is spilling everywhere. It doesn’t matter that she has been happily grass-fed. Lightning fast game processing: her body is being processed in under 15 minutes. A tall blonde-haired man is sharpening his knives above her; she is a slab of meat on a table. There is a savage art and skill to the swishing stabbing movements the man makes, cutting hard and fast into her body. She looks like a red closet waiting to be opened. A hook is flung deep into the flesh to secure the cuts being made on

the other side of Marianne. Slash and rip, slash and rip. It is already dead. Marianne is dead. He can smell her and she does not smell like lilacs. The blonde man with large arms and a thirst for slashing flips her over to reveal her ribbed anatomy. Now he can hear the texture of her bones. The man pushes on her and she makes little sounds like a picnic chair being sat upon by a fat person. A little crunching sound to notify the man who is pressurizing her with his hands. The precision tool, whatever it is called, is being worked between the ribs. The ribs of Marianne look clean. They don’t look like a cow who has been slaughtered shortly after eating sweet grass on the edge of a pure green Chinese river.

The body bounces with a new weightlessness. 

As long as Scott isn’t forced to eat Marianne, he will feel fine. He knows that the worst possible thing that could happen at this point would be to eat Marianne. If he ate Marianne, he would have indigestion and shit himself, then the doctors would say something, and Page would whisper back to the doctors. The worst possible outcome of all outcomes would be to have to eat Marianne. She is a fresh slab of meat on his plate now and he will not eat her. Page gestures towards the plate. “Daddy, please eat. It’s cooked medium-well.” He will not eat her. Scott will have tea instead, thank you, no use arguing about it. Marianne is on his plate and he is crying. He is weeping because how could he have allowed this to happen? Love wasn’t strong enough to prevent her from becoming a raw cow on his plate, they said it’s medium-well and got Page to go along with them of course, but Scott knows raw cow when he sees it. Marianne’s body broken up into parts and this is all that is left of her, the cruelty. Scott demands to see the rest of the body. Where have you put her? You fucking cunts, how could you do this to the woman I love, I will never forget, never. She is bleeding on his plate. He feels a tightness in his neck. He wants to walk over to Page, who is wearing an orange knit dress, carrying a grey Celine handbag shaped like an almond. He remembers his mother used to carry purses like that, but in brighter colors than Page prefers, though you couldn’t tell from the old photographs, where his mother was always smiling; that was the brightest part of those old photographs, her smile. Scott remembers his mother’s graduation day photograph; Mother, lined up with other girls, black and white, a row of smiling girls, scalloped edges of dresses hidden by the long dark somber graduation gowns. His mother wasn’t somber. She was a party girl and ended up with his father on Park Avenue and they grew up well. Scott is happy thinking about them and as long as he does not have to feast on this cutlet of Marianne, he is feeling fine and this morning is manageable, it does not have to end in tears.

Page is crying for no reason at all. She cries and the doctors whisper and it is all such a bore. Scott knows that there is no use in trying to walk across the room to comfort her and pull the doctors away from her, who always upset her and make things worse — his son is calling now, Page picks up the call on her iPhone and is shaking — and Scott knows that walking across the room will be a worthless task. His feet will stick to the floor and the floor will open up like a mud bath. He will sink into it and stay there. No use in standing up because standing is falling. He falls into his plate. The plate is hard and shiny, white and hard as enamel. He feels Marianne ooze against his ear. He wants to let his head cool against the plate forever. He wasn’t born on a plate of course, but he could die there. Scott wishes for death and has been for some time now.

On this white shiny plate, Scott can remember the past and imagine the future, or imagine the past and remember the future, as you wish. The plate feels hard and cool, Marianne feels soft and warm. As surely as these two contrasted sensations exist can Scott recall exactly how it felt when he made love to his wife for the first time, the day Page was born, and his grandmother’s name, Lila. He imagines the grass that Marianne has eaten, as soft as she feels now against his cheek, softened in one of her four stomachs, molded into wads of cud, passed back into her mouth for another forty chews, swallowed, pressed, given a ride through her blood, shat out. False or fading as a life may be, the plate serving Marianne is real. Scott tells himself that he can remain here. He opens his mouth and feels the air flowing in and out of him. He lets his tongue loosen.

A euphoric watery massage, her body bathes once again in the gentle lake of his drool. 

 

DARLEY STEWART is a fiction writer and essayist based in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. Her work has appeared in The Battersea Review, The Brooklyn Rail, Flapperhouse, Tin House, Five2One, Ocean State Review, and elsewhere.

Artwork by Bridget M