Too late, he realizes that he fell in love with a woman who lives outside of herself. The confines of her body, the skin pulled taut over muscle and bone, do not hold her. She is spirit, and soul, floating aimlessly with nothing but strings of sinew to keep her tethered to the earth.
The man watches her, enraptured. He has learned all of her movements. The violent jerk of her hands, the tapping of her foot, the snap of her eyes as she watches him, the walls, the rain. She paces. He jokes that she will soon wear grooves into the floor, but she does not laugh. She looks down at her feet and frowns, worries the skin of her fingers instead.
He moves in with her, or, more accurately, moves in without her. The colonizer, armed with easels and acrylics and canvases, has no flag, makes up for it by bringing cheap, modern furniture. Swipes the flowers from her windowsills, clears away her curios and collected items and replaces them with his art. He scrapes an ugly leather armchair across the hardwood and just like that, he’s there and this is his house too and he has ideas on what “they” should do with it.
The woman hates the way he talks about the house. What they should do with it, do to it. She says this much, but the man is an expert on these things. Tells her not to humanize a house, but when the house rots, she rots. He refurbishes, redecorates, and the ceiling cracks, bits of plaster falling into their breakfasts. The roof sags and she along with it, columns and legs snapping, bending in strange directions. Brackish water pours from all the faucets, bile from her belly into the sink and bathtub. The foundation, which has survived floods and lightning and violent winds, sinks.
The woman says that he is killing her. The house has always been a castle, fortified walls and a gator filled moat, but now it’s poisoned, she’s poisoned. Paint fumes and sawdust have killed the guards, the gators. And if he stays, changing things, moving things, she will surely die, and he along with her.
Anxious, terrified, the woman retreats into their bedroom, which she has claimed as her own. She builds a barricade of dirty laundry and quiet, lays still under a mound of blankets until sleep takes her. After one month, two months, the room reeks. He has tried, in the past, to bring her something to eat, but she leaves it all to rot. The nightstand is over run with past meals, fly-ridden and moldy, and stagnant bottles of water. Roaches have taken the walls, the floor. Flies land on her face, but she doesn’t move. Not enough energy to flinch, not enough energy to swat them away.
The man sneaks in when she’s sleeping. He can barely see her what with piles of blankets and clothes obscuring his view. As he steps in close, closer, he can hear only the sound of her rattling breath, the skitter of insects, the incessant buzzing of flies.
He strokes her cheek. Awake, she would never allow this. The man looks down on her, piteous and parental, and watches the knit of her brows, the twitch of her mouth. Poor thing, he thinks. Even in sleep, she is restless.
The man wonders what she’s holding inside. What does she dream about? What lies beyond the stinking flesh, the sluggish heart, the pitch-black eyes that hold nothing, everything?
He knows she will never say. She tells him, when she is strong enough to lift herself and take some bread, that she is dangerous, twisting. She tells him that there’s a fire inside of her, blue burning and violent. That even when perfect, she’s never been right. In her moments of clarity, eyes crystalline and tearful, she holds his face in her clammy, dry hands, looks him in the eye and tells him that love won’t be enough.
He raises his brows at this, hums condescendingly. The man imagines himself plucking the melancholy from her eyes. He wishes to pull back her scalp, remove the skull cap and reveal the swirling, grey-pink of her brain—
What he means is that he wants her, all of her, every nook and cranny, even the rooms she has sealed off, restricted. Denied. He paints a portrait of her, pinker, paler, a finer portrait than the musk-and-roach reality. He imagines her as Leda and he as the swan, he as Zeus and she as some airy, faceless nymph: always him above her, hungry, needing. Always her below him, legs thrown open, face trapped between pleasure and pain. Swan craning its neck to peer in, Leda turning her reddened face away. In early versions of the portrait, there is rope.
Anyways, when he meets other women — he loves her, but is soon sickened by her. She is harder than he thought, too together for his liking. Looking the swan in the face, kicking at it, pulling its feathers.
She says, “What’s going to happen when I burn you?”
He smiles, exhales through his nose. “You won’t.”
“I burn everything.”
Playfully, coyly, thinking of other legs and arms and cleaner rooms, he says to her, “Not me, baby. I’m ice water, cold as anything.”
And then, naturally, she sets the two of them on fire. A spark catches in the corner of the room and consumes the curtain, the wooly carpet. Piles of stinking laundry, styrofoam boxes and cellophane candy wrappers are devoured by bright, blue flame. The iron bed frame sears his hand when he grabs for it. The smell of them, melting fat, charred bone and meat, is rancid, gagging.
Through the black smoke, the man sees her, this woman. But she is not a woman. She is crackling skin, red and bright with golden scales. She is snarling, teeth bared and mouth full of gas. Her tongue, which he has kissed and sucked, is forked and blue with flames.
Her mouth moves, but through the din of disaster, he can’t hear her. He has to come in close, close enough to taste the sparks and ash that fly from her, to make out the words.
She says, “I told you so. I told you.”
And in the morning, the room is black and he is bemused, startled, to find that the goose downing from the pillows and mattress have all turned to ash. Feathers, all feathers, stick to him, stick from him. His clothes smell of gasoline.
She’s still asleep, soot on her dark cheek, fist full of charred sheets. He watches her and she lets him watch her. The man leans to stroke her cheek, murmurs soothing words like, “I know. I understand. We can fix this.”
Her eyes snap open, pupils slit and flinty. She grabs at his wrist with her dry, dry hand and leaves a bracelet of bubbling skin.
“Not me, baby. I’m ice water, cold as anything.”
The woman disagrees. She thinks he’s more like oil, black, slick and heavy on her skin. His smile is greased. His hands on the small of her back, on the back of her neck are wet, disgusting.
Because of him, in preparation, she sleeps for days. She is aware of what is said, what isn’t said, and she allows his faults to build a tinderbox. In the privacy of their — her — bedroom, she molts. She drops the curved hips, the soft smile. Her manicured nails become like talons. She fills the space entirely, blocking him out with the smell of rot, death. He brings food when he thinks she’s sleeping. She waits until he’s gone and then she eats, devours, most of it. The rest she leaves to mold.
Alone, still and reflective as a mirror, she can plan. Secluded, she can conjure up catastrophes, decide who lives and who dies through the storm. How to blow a tornado and leave the house standing. How to be a volcano and not get burned yourself. How to put out fires when you’re the one with the matches.
But then again, why should she save him? The woman has seen how he dissects her. He thinks he is a scientist, clever, and that she is his experiment. She can see into his mind, can see how he pulls her apart and sets her neuroses into petri dishes for further examination. He strokes her face as if stroking a pet, murmurs to her like calming a spooked horse.
He tells her there is beauty within her, and brilliance. When he makes love to her, he fucks her as if he is the holy body pouring blessings into her wicked soul. As if he is the one who deserves the worshipping, the sacrifices. As if she were the pitiful sinner, the desperate thing who only needed to bend and kneel.
That man, this man, compares her to works of art. He paints her as a frail, white thing, something that needed constant guarding. He calls her Ophelia, Lolita. Persephone before the underworld, sweet Penelope waiting at her loom.
She is not Lolita nor is she Ophelia. She is no worshipping maiden, no empty vessel. She is the woman clothed in the sun. Better yet and more true, she is the dragon itself. She is curling black smoke and wrathful fire, fingertips and toes set ablaze. Does he not know? Does he not see how she has hoarded his love, his time like forbidden treasure? Doesn’t he know what dragons do when their hoards are threatened?
Can’t he smell the gasoline?
Sometimes, when is she strong enough to put on her mask, her skin, she warns him. She takes hold of his face, strokes his cheek, tries to tell him all that she can do. He’s an idiot, a boisterous fool so he laughs. He thinks her misery is a joke, that her anger is inconsequential. She won’t really change, will she?
She says she’ll burn him. He says that he’s water.
So, of course, she sets the two of them on fire. She changes shape, chuckling and choking, skin melting and body turning serpentine. Her eyes become like slits, her tongue forked and hot. Through her fire, she sees his oil slick skin and confused eyes slowly becoming aware of her. She shows him all that she knows, all of his his misdeeds. She shows him the others she has burned, the men and some women, burnt bones and scorching breath.
Come morning, she pretends to be fast asleep. Through her lashes, he watches as he sifts through the remains, the ashes. He sniffs at his clothes, tentatively strokes her cheek. She burns his wrist and takes his face into her hands, claws digging into the fat of his cheeks. She lets soot and smoke fill his lungs, lets him asphyxiate on her glory. Her scales cut him, but he does not squirm, does not flinch.
“Do you see?”
He nods, eyes darting here to there to take in anything, everything. She can tell that his mind is muddled, that it’s bending and breaking to understand. Her tail, teasing, slips up around his legs and tightens around his core. He gasps, runs his hands along the gold of her scales.
“You,” he says. “You.”
She nods. Yes, her. Her, truly. Her, finally. She regards him, his scars and his bruises and burnt flesh. He too is transforming. From the god to the worshipper, from the pitcher to the vessel. He is filled with oil, his hands, his mouth a tinderbox.
The woman unravels her tail from around him. He falls to the bed, scrambles away. He looks up at her, eyes stinging, chest heaving.
Later, when it is quiet, when they have aired out the smoke and tossed the ashes, he draws her a bath. The woman allows him to run a cloth over her face, her scales and her tail. Tomorrow, together, they will heal his scars and hers, glue their pieces so that they are whole again with only faint lines of gold between the cracks.
For now, the woman sits in hot red water, legs over the tail of the tub and a hand caressing her cheek. His touch, she thinks. For the first time, his touch is water. Freezing ice, cold as anything.
Artwork by Lorna Simpson, "focus"