Unburied (Lauren Butterworth)
The Unburied climbs from her grave and all the little pieces of her fit like unshattering glass. The femurs groan into the sockets of the hip, the ribs crack into the sternum. She picks at the dirt gritted into the dents of her finger bones and looks down at all the holes of herself. She sighs. It hadn’t been an easy climb, prodding at the dirt from so far below. It had fallen relentlessly onto on her tongue when she’d had one. Filled up the deflated cavity of her lungs. He’d done a good job of it, she had to give him that. It had taken years to claw her way out.
As she shakes loose decayed cloth from ankle bones, the tibiae and fibula, she looks down at the disturbed ground. No headstone marks her place, nor is there any other indication of a loving and unhurried burial. Not even a name. She cracks into place the vertebrae, so troublesome in skin but now easily rearranged, and casts her hollow eyes around her. The ground is sunken, bordered by lumps of dirt and clay like ant hills. Beetles scurry over capillary veins of old roots and sodden leaves. Otherwise the garden is much the same. She’d planted the wisteria herself, and the nasturtiums that the chickens loved so much, though not the birds. They preferred the fruit trees, mulberry and persimmon. In summer she’d hear their rustling from the kitchen window and entice them with seed. The cat, as she’d tried to explain to him, was much too obvious. Stalking in the undergrowth was all very well in the wild but it wouldn’t do in the suburbs. Here you had to be alluring, entice with sweets and smiles. The Unburied grits her crumbling teeth. She knew too much about that.
She limps to the tomato vine and rests her fleshless fingers—the phalanges, she remembers—amongst the wilted green. Stakes stand in graveyard uniformity, but the produce is long gone. What a shame. Her romas won ribbons once. They were always the sweetest, the boldest, and she’d pluck them from the vine and eat them right there in the garden, or, best of all, peppered on toast with avocado and cream cheese. She’d allowed herself little pleasures now and then. Not that it had mattered in the end. Imagine, she thinks, running her fingers along the curve of a rib, all the cream cheese she’d have eaten if she’d known she’d come to look like this. Even though she lived alone, she’d creep into the kitchen to lick the Philadelphia foil at 3am. It was silly, but, as she told herself every time she caught her reflection in the wide kitchen window, life was just too short. She stopped though, when Angus started staying over.
Angus was a skinny man with a flat brow and thin, wiry glasses. He wore checked shirts buttoned to the top and taught middle-grade maths but she couldn’t begrudge him that. He approached her at the farmer’s market and offered to trade a punnet of romas for a bag of zucchinis, ripened in his own backyard three doors down. He told her she looked beautiful, as though they’d known one another for years. When she puzzled at him he blushed, told her they were neighbours. Hadn’t she seen him around? She wasn’t used to being called beautiful and she laughed awkwardly at him and stumbled. She had always been too tall with flat wide feet and felt ungainly in her skin. She would squeeze into too narrow shoes so that her little toe blistered red, perpetually disfigured. She borrowed Angus’ gumboots that afternoon when he showed her his veggie patch, and pretended her ankle was swollen from tripping on a step. Must be why they didn’t fit properly, she’d said. She used to imagine shaving the sides of her feet away as though from marble. Metatarsal, the arch is called, that joins the toes to the foot. Angus told her that. She crouches. She wonders if, in death, her hobbit feet, shed of skin and tendon, had narrowed to delicate points. She measures the distance from side to side. She sighs. It was bone all along.
And where is Angus now? The house is empty, or seems to be. The garden is overrun, and paint peels from wooden slats on the porch. Dislodged shingles collide in the gutter and on the ground by the fence. She’d wanted to do the repairs herself, and one of the benefits of such an Amazonian form was the strength it afforded her. But Angus had insisted, and she didn’t like to argue. He’d never officially moved in, but his things began appearing in the house in tiny increments: a toothbrush, differently-branded milk and spare trousers, then books, a guitar, lawnmower and car keys that hung perpetually on the spare hook. It bothered her that he’d taken for granted that she wanted the same things as he, but she never could quite tell him that. It was easier to let things take their course. It was the same when he’d started buying Philadelphia light and frowning at her when she’d add a teaspoon of sugar—raw, she’d rebut—to her coffee. But what could she say? He knew what she wanted to become and he was only being encouraging.
She grips the twin bumps of her hips. She used to run her hands along the skin because it was one of the few spots where she could feel the bone underneath. Angus liked them too. She pulls her thin legs through ankle length weeds. Pushes against the back door. She is almost surprised when, softly, it opens.
‘Hello?’ she calls, or tries to. She has no larynx or diaphragm to project the sound. She knocks her fists against the wall so it echoes. There are juvenile tags on the floral wallpaper and though she has no nostrils or any olfactory glands to speak of she is certain it stinks of rat shit. She can see the evidence in the gaps of the floorboards and digs the shaft of her toe into the crack to clear it away. She stumbles along the hallway stupefied by the stillness, the strangeness of it all.
She’d lived alone for many years because she preferred it that way: space to potter, to paint and garden and besides, she had the cat, what else did she need? Her heel bones click on the wood like the stilettos she never wore. She feels as though she’s breaking and entering. One of those abandoned semi-transportables by the railyard, graffitied, with sunken floors and piles of empty beer cans. She stoops to brush away the leaf litter by the front door. Turns into the front room. The layers of dust would choke her if she had lungs, but otherwise everything is just as she left it: a stack of unread books against packed shelves, a comb on the mantle with hair in the teeth, a photograph of Angus and her askew on the wall. As she takes in the remnants of her life like debris it becomes increasingly difficult to ignore that which niggles her. The question she can’t ask herself. She picks up an envelope from a stack on the coffee table. It is addressed to a name she is only beginning to remember, and dated a year she can’t fathom. She slumps into a chair and feels the heart that isn’t there sink into the chest that once held it.
Why has nobody come?
She tells herself she can’t have a panic attack because she no longer has a nervous system to ignite muscle spasms or adrenal glands to make her hands sweat, but her bones tremble just the same. She runs her hands down the femurs to her knee joints. She notices a thin, hairline crack at the top of the tibia. She can’t recall, at first, what the injury could have been, but the effort is enough to stop her trembling. Then it comes to her, a fury of a girl charging through her into second base. She’d fallen, one foot stuck between the girl and the plate. The bone snapped when she landed. Her mum warned her about softball. She was too clumsy, she said, too awkward. But that field was a space where she needn’t pretend to be graceful or prim, where her size was a barrier to petite things that would try to sneak runs. The softball girls exuded a strange kind of femininity, confident and earthy, so different to those at school who seemed to know something she didn’t. She wished she could take that power off the field. For there she became what she was again, tall and chubby, without any idea how to shape her appearance to express the woman she was becoming inside.
The Unburied stretches her legs and twists her ankles. Tilts her head and looks at her toes. They aren’t particularly feminine. She’s already established that. But what makes toes identifiably male or female? She knows that the male ring finger is longer than the index, with the reverse the case for women. Angus told her that. He told her lots of things he thought she should know. All the fleshy indicators of her body, the ample mounds of breasts and thigh, lips that guarded inward passages, are gone to dust. Would the investigative stumblers who finally come to find her—if they come to find her—be able to tell of her softball injuries and clumsiness in stilettos? Would her bones lie to them of the person that she was? For what is there, she suddenly wonders, to indicate she?
She looks down. There’s an absence in her pelvis where her womb used to be. She rises and walks to the mantelpiece, marvelling at the emptiness. There’s a mug with mouldy dregs of tea, a thriving succulent. Strange. She would have liked to cultivate life, she thinks, picking up the little brown pot. Once she thought she had. A little seedling failed to bloom and was washed away in a stream of red. But she was twenty-three then and he was a backpacker in the laundry room of a London hostel, and if she still had the cheeks or the blood vessels to dilate she’d blush with the memory of the relief she had felt. She had begun to want though, near the end. Not with Angus though. She realised that the second time she was late.
She hadn’t planned not to tell him, but, like everything, it was easier. To add the weight of her decision to terminate to the anxious list of reasons she couldn’t love him proved far too difficult. Was it cowardly, she wonders, looking at down at her empty pelvis, or simply self-preservation? She remembers the way her stomach churned in the weeks it took to gather her strength. How she’d cringe when he made reference to the types of toys he’d allow their children, or how he’d like to extend into the back patio to allow for more northerly light, something they’d appreciate when they were retired. In the last year she’d taken to yoga and developed a new ease with her body. The bulges at her hips and thighs became striking in their curvature. It wasn’t because she’d changed measurably, though her muscles were defined, lifted and pert. It was her eyes that were different. The girl who had tumbled on the softball field and not shed a tear was still buried in there somewhere. She couldn’t be that girl with Angus. Crouching to poke her fingers back into that dent she realises, suddenly, that he knew it too.
But her fleshy impulse to swell with child was lost when the beetles and mites devoured it away. She couldn’t feel guilt anymore for what she had done. She wouldn’t. So she turns to the mirror above the mantlepiece. Runs her fingers along the bumps and hollows, the impressions of tendons and muscle insertions. The holes are soft. So are the joints in her shoulders. She traces thin fingers along the scapula. There is a dent. It is not a impression of tendon, it is not a muscle insertion. She remembers that heavy thunk and all her yellow bones rattle.
She turns. Sees the dent in the wall. The heart that isn’t there thumps hard. Her legs quiver, then break out to escape the room where the memories are erupting like vines from the dirt. They grasp. She runs. Back down the hall past the rat shit and graffiti, into the garden with the shingles that Angus didn’t fix. She collapses into the dirt by her unmarked grave. She rakes her fingers, tilling clumps of clay and worm warrens. She pulls them into her chest. Tries to fill her empty spaces with dirt.
The sky rumbles and rain turns the earth to mud. And so she begins to mould herself from sludge. She packs it onto the neck and clavicle, the spine, fills out the breastbone with pert little mounds. She rounds her hips and ass, big and womanly, just as they’d been in life. She can’t make them whatever she wants, she thinks, so fuck it. Let them be as they always were.
As she works, black birds gather. They peck at the ground between her feet, pulling worms like spaghetti. She ploughs her fingers and gathers the slithering bugs, presses them into the mud that fills the empty cavity of her womb. She had, after all, nurtured them there under the earth, along with all the other creatures that from her flesh made life. The house flies and blow flies, and the larvae that they laid. The flesh flies—Sarcophogidae—that birthed maggots with hooked mouths that scooped her oozing fluids. Moths that foraged through her once long hair. The birds, devoid of dinner, rustle their wings and fly away.
There’s a sound from the house. Footsteps that echo above rain on the tin roof. Rustling growing closer. She finishes rounding out her tummy, alive and squirming. She rises, striking now in her height. She’s never felt so like herself.
The backdoor creaks and Angus emerges. The Unburied turns her skull and widens her brittle teeth to smile. There is a gap where an incisor would have been. If she had a tongue she’d run it along the fissure as she had in that brief moment before the final blow.
Angus is white like a ghost. Like chalk. Like bone.
The Unburied and her squirming belly of strange fruit creep toward him. He is so still with shock it couldn’t be easier. She takes him by the hand, warm and wet with nervous sweat, and pulls him toward her. His grip melts her mud-hands to claws. She leads him to the disturbed and sunken ground. He struggles, but she is stronger. She always had been. And so she pulls him under. Puts all the pieces of herself back into the earth, fills in all her gaps with mud. Angus hardly makes a sound. Softly, softly, she packs them into the ground.
Lauren Butterworth is an emerging writer with fiction and essays in Wet Ink, Libertine, Indaily and forthcoming in Crush: Stories About Love. She is co-host of the podcast, Deviant Women, and co-director of The Hearth, a creative readings event in Adelaide. She is also an academic advisor at Flinders University, where she completed her PhD in creative writing. You can find more of her writing at laurenbutterworth.com.