Cannibals by L Mari Harris

Every hour we shed 30,000 skin cells. Some we’ll swallow back down, like an auto-cannibalism. Some won’t be ours, but they’ll settle in and stay. It’ll look like a place called home among the bronchi and the bronchioles, the ligaments and the tendons, the red and the yellow marrow. It’ll look like rooms called family, like a fortressing against the beliers.

 

***

 

I had a neighbor who could be a difficult woman, prone to emotional outbursts and cruel comments but equally prone to volunteer her time at church and her children’s school. When her husband left her for another woman, she fell quiet, chain smoking on her porch every night for months. I found myself holding my breath when I was near that silence, waiting, anticipating. What and why, I didn’t know.

But I had no problem imagining the details when I read the headlines.

She finishes her workday. Stops by the receptionist’s desk to drop off her famous chicken lasagna recipe. They laugh about Cheryl in Accounts Payable wearing a hot sauce stain on her new blouse the entire day. She walks to her car. Drives in the opposite direction of home.

She has held the pieces together as long as she can.

He’s living with the new woman now. But sometimes, when they pass the kids off at the Save Mart he pauses, and she thinks, There’s still love there.

She shoots the new woman on a gravel road. Sets the car on fire. Catches her heaving breath, watches the flames rise almost as high as the acres of corn flanking her, amazed she’s now free of the other and she can go back to what once was.

But the other never really left her. She carries the dulling weight of the dead inside her bones, where they lie together in a windowless cell every night, like a fortressing against the betrayers.

 

***

 

I often thought about that weight of the other my neighbor carried. The flames. The woman who replaced her. Breathing it all in. As if she left the front door open, a beckoning to come inside. But life pushes through. Memories fall back to a rarely used room. New neighbors move in and gut the unhappy house. And I forgot about all those 30,000 bits floating around.

Until the next year, when I watched an ending on an airport lounge TV an ocean away one late-summer day and pictured the beginning.

A man I will never know rises to begin another day. Picks the navy and cream tie his ex wife bought him just because. Grabs a coffee around the corner. Perhaps he reaches the lobby door at the same time as a coworker. Perhaps she smiles as he holds the door, and they both comment on the perfect blue sky. Perhaps he catches a trace of vanilla and bergamot, a heart note of lavender. Perhaps a few minutes later he shuts his office door and calls his ex wife. Something reminded me of you this morning, he’ll say.

And yet—an hour later, after the boom and the trembling and the fires take hold, he will leap from a wrested window, just ahead of the dismantling and the dust.

He’ll settle among so many others, until the shell shocked and the politicians and the first responders suck the bits back in, like a fortressing against the marauders.

 

***

 

The beliers. The betrayers and the marauders. The bits of the living. The bits of the dying and the already dead.

It’s too much for me, breathing in the dead.

I call them specks, motes, soot. Or, for the kids, I say dust bunnies as juice boxes are passed around.

Makes you suck in your breath a little, doesn’t it?

Don’t.

We’re too filled with the fallen already.

***

The story behind the story:

I came across the 30,000 skin cells shed every hour fact on one of my Google rabbit-hole excursions. The first word that popped into my head was “cannibalism”, because all I could ponder was how many of those cells do we breathe back in every hour, whether ours or those around us? And is it worse when those cells we breathe come from tragedy? I remember shortly after 9/11, some people speculated on the potential physical and psychical damage that may arise from Manhattan’s “tainted” air. I couldn’t stop thinking about that for the longest time. And I thought of my old neighbor, who a few years before, had murdered her soon-to-be-ex husband’s new girlfriend, set the car on fire, then stood there, watching her nemesis’s body burn. Tragedies and evil actions are all around us. I originally wrote this piece as a longer CNF, but I kept finding myself more drawn to trying to whittle it down to the essentials of image, cadence, and sound repetition. When I write, my goal is to stop the reader in their tracks, make them sit up a little straighter: Hey, pay attention. I’m trying to tell you something about the world here. It’s a lofty goal. I’m not there yet, but I’m getting closer.

L Mari Harris’s stories have been chosen for the Wigleaf Top 50 and Best Microfiction. She lives in the Ozarks. Follow her @LMariHarris and read more of her work at www.lmariharris.wordpress.com.

“Cannibals” was first published in Bending Genres.

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Photo by Yoni Kozminsi on Unsplash

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