Still Life

Jules Hogan

 

Shell

 

Raised on a scratch of land near the mountains, Ahnani watched dust settle into afternoons. Grandmother performed witch-magic and bred Rhode Island Reds. The circadian clock of the seasons. Circadian, like cicada, who left their husks dry and cracked on telephone poles and broken trees.

 

Grandmother fried the chickens in panko and bacon grease. Smell so dense she had to open a window. Soft white bread, peas and carrots. Sunday lunch after church, all the ladies in their wide flowered hats. Cousins rode bikes up and down the unpaved street, played baseball in an empty field. They cackled like crows, threw rocks, called her haunted.

 

You are like the cicada, Grandmother said. Soon you will break free. Ahnani imagined herself crawling under the soil, pulling clay over her head like a blanket. Sleep now, for seventeen years.

 

As her hair grew long, Grandmother plaited it into tight and even braids. She wound rubber bands around the tips, kissed the pattern traced onto her grandchild’s head. Grandmother read from the bible and hung bottles in the trees, to keep the haints away. She poured water on the fires that neighbors set in the yard. Planted beautyberry in the scar marks. Grandmother taught Ahnani to dance, hips swaying in the kitchen, door open to let the music cleanse the night.

 

Ahnani learned to bear the violence on her shoulders. Rivers run red with the blood of your ancestors, Grandmother said. Your history is what makes the cotton grow. Can’t take that lyin’. You gotta learn to rise.

 

Fish

 

Where they first met: Debo’s Bar and Grill, where Ray’s band played Thursday night jam sessions. First, Ahnani noticed his hair, long and brown, free-falling around his face. She imagined plaiting it like a horse’s mane, sewing flowers through it, tying it in knots around her pinky. Second, she noticed his eyes, brown and catching, reeling her in.

 

She leaned into the wall with a martini and turned a cherry stem against her tongue. Knotted and swallowed, a spell for possession.

 

Be careful, she said, after he kissed her in the womb of night. I’m not what you think.

 

And what am I thinking, fortune teller? Ray asked, his hands on her spine, her shoulder, his fingers stitching to all her bones.

 

How to answer that question? Shape shifter. Changeling. Stories of children stolen from beds, replaced with fae. Stories of women found in alleys, the refuse of men. She touched his denim sleeve and whispered in his ear, so that her teeth were hot on his neck. First, he kissed her, hard and fast.

 

I’m not gay, he said.

 

Me neither.

 

Then, I guess, can I take you out to dinner? You’re the most beautiful creature I ever saw.

 

She swam against his current. Moths flicking kamikaze into the streetlights above. She lit a cigarette and he watched her, how her hands transferred the fire, how the lighter disappeared into the curves of her hips, how her body was a magic trick.

 

They walked long miles in the wet empty streets. Summer rain had cleaned the air. The humidity steamed off asphalt. The screams of barn owls in the fields, the ghosts of the south.

 

Fruit

 

Ray ate with his hands. At the Dragon King Chinese Buffet, elbows on the table, sleeves rolled up. Chow mein between his fingers like hair. He ripped into a chicken wing, teeth opalescent with grease.

 

Ahnani sipped her wine, white and cool, fresh after the heavy dumplings and MSG, umami. Chopsticks she never learned how to use. Nails acryliced into violet spikes.

 

Tell me what you do, he said. A command. Licked scallions from his teeth. She imagined reaching out and plucking them, slipping them into her own mouth.

 

I’m a receptionist, she said. I told you that. I work over at Gestamp and answer the phones, send the mail.

 

Maybe you did. Maybe I was just too distracted. He winked.

 

After dinner, a walk down Main Street. Shops all closed. The bar, pumping with bass and guitar. Hillbilly music. Shouting and stomping music.

 

Ray slipped his hand into hers, leaned over and kissed the top of her ear. At Dragon King, he drank whiskey on the rocks, was properly tipsy. His hand was warm and dry, rough in places and cracked, like the tectonic plates under their feet.

 

Take me home, Ahnani said. She imagined him licking into her. Arteries opened. Unlike the horror movies, he’d leave the lights on. She stared at the pits in his cheeks and imagined herself being unpeeled like an orange.

 

Oh yeah? he asked. What do you want to do?

 

He drove, and she trusted him. His trailer behind a chain link fence. She followed him through the door, into a room that smelled like pot and sweat and wet cement. He turned on the lamps and lit a bowl. He slipped the offering to her lips, held it while she drew.

 

It happened like she expected. His thrusts a call for war. Her nails knives in his back. He wrapped his hand around her neck and pushed the air from her. The room darkened and he slipped his thumb into her mouth. Slapped her back alive. When she came, her body called out its white flag. He finished on her chest, tangy heat between her nipples.

 

Candle

 

Friday night and she waited for him. Pork chops in the oven. Green beans on the stove. Instant mashed potatoes on the table, congealing. She pressed her palm into them, imagined this was what brains felt like.

 

Ray came through the door in a storm, his face gray.

 

Babe? she asked him. She reached out to touch his shoulder but he pushed her off. Ice in his eyes.

 

Just give me my damn dinner, he said.

 

Ahnani reheated the potatoes, scooped beans and meat onto a plate. Slid it in front of him. Whiskey and ice in a tumbler.

 

I wanted peas, he said.

 

She refilled the ice tray. I’m sorry?

 

Peas, you goddamn bitch, I wanted peas.

 

She turned to the sink, hands shaking. Eyes focused on the tray, filling and refilling, water spilling over the plastic edge and into the swirl of the drain. Crash of plate into the linoleum.

 

I can make you peas, damn it, you don’t have to explode, she said. Her voice a quiver of arrows.

 

If I can’t eat what I want in my own goddamn house, I don’t know why you’re here, he yelled. Hand at the nape of her neck.

 

Ray, Ray, Jesus Ray, get your hands off of me.

 

Down to her knees.

 

Eat it, eat it off the floor, you stupid bitch. You gonna act like a bitch, you can eat like one.
Mashed potatoes in a soft heap, gravy gray and thick. Hot on her tongue. Ahnani smelled blood, felt grit bite into her knees.

 

Hound

 

Her life quiet, hemmed at the edges. She remembered the azaleas her grandmother planted, shorn in the winter, covered in plastic bags. Ray came and went in unpredictable tides. She titled the other New Ray. New Ray was cold, sharp-toothed. New Ray fucked. New Ray believed incomprehensible myths about the Deep Web and secret governments, a race of alien people who controlled the strings.

 

It was New Ray who decided she was pregnant.

 

“Don’t do that, Ahnani,” he said, as she brought a menthol to her teeth. “Pregnant women shouldn’t smoke.”
She held the cigarette, still lit. How to explain the physical impossibilities of this?

 

Don’t smoke, don’t drink, don’t eat fish. She never liked sushi. New Ray blessed her flat belly with his ear, listening for the thudding of an unborn heart. Old Ray painted the extra bedroom yellow, hung curtains.

 

Old Ray brought her sunflowers and lilies. He washed the kitchen floor. He hung new shutters and opened the blinds. Old Ray was made of light.

 

New Ray questioned her stomach, as if it held a secret.

 

What did you do with it, he asked. His voice a growl. Liquor in his teeth but that wasn’t what made him mean.

 

Play nice. Roll over. Show your neck.

 

His hand over her face, grabbing the skin of her cheeks. Pucker up. Brought her head to his mouth.

 

You’ll never be a real woman, you bitch.

 

Threw her to the bed and stormed out into the night.

 

Egg

 

The feathers began appearing in her pubic hair, up the path to her navel. Downy at first, soft. Ray ran his fingers through them while they watched television. He blessed the filaments with his teeth.

 

I told you it would work out.

 

Ahnani wondered if the feathers were connected to her pregnancy, somehow. She imagined a nest, laden. Little bird babies, born of the biological imperative to stay alive.

 

Ahnani tried to put New Ray away, rituals and experiments. Was it this dress? That lipstick? Those words? He came out stronger, his eyes deeper. Ahnani could see a physical change in her man. He bought a gun and always kept it near him.

 

For protection, he said. For the baby. He kissed her belly. Ahnani tried to feel for an extra heartbeat. The baby would be the size of a beer can by now, she thought.

 

Days, when Ray was at work, Ahnani stayed in the trailer. The temp agency she worked for stopped calling her. She pulled feathers from her navel and watched tiny beads of blood form. She researched pregnancy on a variety of websites but could find nothing about spontaneous growth of plume. She shopped online, buying slinky silver dresses and bejeweled heels. Shawls and scarves and fluffy slippers. Pearl earrings and gold necklace chains. She maxed out her credit card and then Ray’s. She told him this was for the baby.

 

As the boxes arrived, she carried them into the spare room. Made a nest of silk and lace and leather. She hung the jewelry from the lamps, threw the scarves over the windows and lights. The room took on a soft, umber glow.

 

She tried shaving, but the razor caught in the tangle of the down. She felt an itchy tingle as feathers sprouted around her neck. At night, Ray gasping next to her, his hands on his chest. Her body bruised, sore.

 

She tried to imagine what type of bird she would be. A raven? A peregrine falcon? A gold eagle? Or an ugly bird, a trickster, a thief? A magpie. A crow. Even as the feathers spread, as her bones reorganized into strange patterns, Ray still believed in the baby. He brought her folic acid tablets and chocolate. He burned the palms of her hands with cigarettes if he caught her smoking.

 

Her feet became scaly, her toes, curved. She watched her talons with a new joy. Ray threw lightbulbs at her, as if it were a game. They shattered in her hair and she imagined slicing through the tendons in his neck.

 

He disappeared for two weeks. New Ray, with Old Ray over his shoulder like a dirty bag. Ahnani stayed in the trailer, preening. She rubbed coconut oil through her glossy tail feathers. Her wings were growing, spreading, long and thick, which made clothing hard. She wrapped her new body in printed cloths and towels. She kept the television turned to the game show network and watched Family Feud and ate popcorn from the greasy bag.

 

Nights, she roamed the woods, naked but for the gossamer feathers. She found a deer carcass in a roadside ditch, the bone partially exposed, yellow and grimy. The smell slickened the night but it did not turn her. She touched the ribcage and thought how it looked almost human. More human than herself, this new creature she had become.

 

When Ray returned, he smelled of sweat and smoke, like the rancid bottom of an alcoholic’s trash.

 

Where the fuck have you been? Ahnani asked him, not turning from the television.

 

The band, we toured, New Ray said.

 

Toured some other woman’s body, I’m sure, Ahnani said.

 

Why do you give a fuck? Ray asked.

 

Just stating the facts.

 

Ray came fully into the room. He reached out to stroke the top of Ahnani’s head.

 

Don’t touch me, she said. She turned to him. The dark filament along her neck and chest, her shoulders bristling.

 

What the fuck? Ray asked.

 

I told you not to touch me, Ahnani said.

 

Ray reached back, pulled a lamp off a table, swung it at her face. She dodged, and screamed, a striking sound from the depth of the forest of her.

 

He jumped for her, grabbing fistfuls of feathers in his hands. He pulled. Blood sprang along her chest and she ripped her talons into his back.

 

Ray rolled to his feet, pulled the gun from his jacket.

 

I didn’t want to fucking do this, he said. He pointed it at Ahnani, held the trigger in his finger.

 

I should’ve known you’re a fucking monster, he said. I should’ve guessed. I was gonna do this the humane way. But someone or another has got to put you down.

 

He pulled the trigger and she sprang upward, wings catching the dank air in the trailer. Glass shattered as she exploded out the window, leaving a trail of feathers and blood. She caught wind above the treetops, and followed its current, between the broken teeth of stars.

 

________________

 

RUNNER-UP for the 2020 BARRY HANNAH PRIZE

 

Jules is a writer and advocate from the Blue Ridge Mountains. You can read their stories or essays in the Raleigh Review, the Sonora Review, McSweeney’s, Appalachian Heritage, or elsewhere. Jules is a fiction candidate at ASU, where they currently serve as an associate editor for Hayden’s Ferry Review.