The Business of Burning
But she had not turned back and now she is here, just outside this store in the center of Chinatown. Amelia thinks of how it will go. The staff will speak only Mandarin. She speaks only English. Unable to think beyond this, she leans against the rough bricks of the alley, takes a long deep breath, and closes her eyes. She envisions her anxiety, as her therapist has told her to do. Lodged in her chest, it is a durian fruit, large as a human head and covered in hard yellow spikes. With a series of measured breaths, she wills it into a lychee, pebbled and pink and small enough to fit comfortably in her palm. She cups her hand; then presses it flat against her chest. Opening her eyes, she pushes off the wall and uses the momentum to carry her through the door.
Because she is the store's only customer, both of the counterpeople speak to her at once. Startled, she says in a loud voice, "I'm just looking," and flutters her slender hands to point to her eyes and then to the large case.
Normally, when in Chinatown, she has already image-searched her needed ingredient online—apple-green guava or the plum-like mangosteen—can identify it by sight and buy it quickly, without questions. Today, this was not an option. The man returns to sweeping, the woman to talking on the phone. She tries another deep breath but the air is gamy and marked by circling flies. The store is one long white room lined in florescent lights. In the dusty bins along the wall, the curved spines of rambutan wave in the breeze as though underwater, flanked by rows of prim wife cakes, molded from almond paste and winter melon. She notices all of these things before she can bring herself to look into the case before her.
The glassed-in display is filled with gold-colored trays lined with pink paper, the pink pollocked with brown from the tumble of meat at its center. The only signs she can understand are the ones with numbers; so she is forced to go from mound to mound trying to imagine each back to its animal of origin. In the middle case, she finds what she is looking for. The pig legs lie in a tight row; detached at the thigh joint, studded with white knobs of tendon and bone, the skin cut so cleanly it looks as though it could be slipped off like a glove. A tidal wave of nausea rises within her, topped by a greasy slick of desire. She crouches down to get a better look; crosses her arms to keep herself from touching the glass. What intrigues her most is their lack of otherness. Each leg ends in a hoof whose every segment is like a smooth, fleshy finger. And then there is the skin itself—pale, wrinkled, entirely human—as though the tray were filled with a row of severed babies' arms. They are more perfect than she had allowed herself to imagine.
She motions the man over and points to the case, holds her hands the length of a pig's leg apart. Then she widens them and says slowly, "Whole pig." He says something she cannot understand. She repeats the motions and then the words, louder this time. He shakes his head. She notices a poster behind him and points to the year she was born: 1972, the year of the pig. He looks at it for a long moment, then at her and nods. He motions her into the back, into the room where the meat is kept and butchered.
She shuffles along the concrete behind him, reeling as though on the deck of a ship. The room's gravity is in its center, the floor sloping toward an emptiness topped by a dirty black grate. Staring down at the streaks of red decomposing to brown, her shoulder brushes against a pressure hose whose coils slither from their hook and tangle at her feet. She closes her eyes; thinks of apples and gardens; only opens them when the man takes her elbow. He leads her to the shelf against the back wall, where six suckling pigs nestle on a large metal tray. Then he steps to the side, holding his hands behind his back. She looks at the first and then the next and the next. Bends so close her breath flattens the faint hairs on their skin. But it is still not close enough to choose. Only when the man makes a small noise in the back of his throat and does she remember he is there. She turns and moves her hands in a scooping motion toward the tray, then gently cradles the air; asks, "Okay?"
The man's eyes narrow, but he shrugs his shoulders and walks back into the store. She watches him go. Then she steps forward and takes the first of them into her arms.
Back in the station, when Amelia's train arrives, she pulls the bag to her and steps into its belly, settling against a seat's synthetic blue. Looking around, she sees the car is almost empty. The top of the bag uncurls with a dry rustle. The suckling is there, pink and still. The excess skin on its legs and back sags like wind-rippled sand. If he were dead, she thinks, James would look like this. She grips the heavy bag to her breast, knowing she can hold it as tightly as she wants.
The feeling that someone had shoved a small, angry animal into a duffel bag and then strapped it firmly against her stomach marked the fifth month of her pregnancy. But this sensation of detachment did not worry her. For $150 an hour, her therapist assured her that closeness to her child would come as she grew closer to herself, a corollary Amelia was assured applied to her husband as well.
The sixth month was the one in which she spent almost every night after she got home from the gallery arguing with him about how it had happened. Her husband would ask why she hadn't fucking remembered to take her fucking pill since she only had to do it once a fucking day. She would rejoin that she had taken the pill every single day—even though she had gained five pounds and it had made her breasts ache and swell—and, since he didn't seem to remember, she would remind him that when drug manufacturers say the pill is ninety-nine percent effective what they are also saying is that it is one-percent ineffective. Then she would try not to cry. For before turning out the lights and lying rigidly on the far side of the bed, he would look at her in a way that made her feel not just naked but flayed, aware of every pound of her thickening waist, her heavy thighs, her spreading ass. She believed those would be her darkest days. Her therapist agreed.
The seventh month was when he stopped looking at her altogether and she learned that indifference was far worse than disdain.
In the eighth month, just as she stepped from a morning shower, he told her he was leaving. A small duffel of clothes was slung over his shoulder, as though he were just heading out to the gym. He would come back for the rest while she was at work. Without thinking, she let her towel drop and pressed herself to him, her wet, swollen breasts against his chest, her hand reaching down to cup him through his pants.
He simultaneously pushed her hand away and stepped back to brush angrily at the two wet ovals now staining the front of his white work shirt. He didn't even bother to say goodbye. She stood there, still naked, her mind gone tharn, empty except for the thought that this was the first time he'd said her name in weeks.
After finding her car, her first stop is to pick up her son. Taking the roads with more speed than usual, she glances in the rearview mirror to where she has strapped the white paper package into her son's carseat. Despite its careless slump, or perhaps because of it, the bag fills the space in much the same way her two-month old boy does.
A sigh escapes her, as it does every time she pulls into the circular drive of her mother's half-timbered Tudor. She lets herself in, nods a brisk hello to the maid whose name she can never remember, and speed-walks out onto the deck where her mother is bent over the same bassinet that once held her.
"How is he?"
The giant sunhat swivels and her mother peers boozily through the shadow cast by the elm. "Oh, we've had a lovely afternoon. Haven't we, Jameson?" she says, addressing her words down into the bassinet.
Amelia is furious. "Don't you think it's a little early?"
Her mother lifts her glass in Amelia's direction as though making a toast. "The sun is firmly over the yardarm, my dear. Did you finish your errands?"
While her mother chatters at her, Amelia creeps over to stare past the edge. He is there, curled as a comma. Not allowing herself to pick him up, she feels a warmth in her belly redolent of the time before her marriage, when her soon-to-be husband and she would tease each other for hours, giving into sex only once the feeling had tipped from desire into necessity.
They had met in a college economics class. Before taking the final exam, he had pulled a framed picture of Reagan from his bag and propped it on his desk. She was so amused, she finally agreed to his requests for a date. It was only later she learned that photo was more personal totem than practical joke. But by then she was too infatuated to care that she was dating someone who championed the War on Drugs and argued for the merits of personal accountability, even as they skipped class to get high and have sex in his dorm room.
These thoughts give way to memories of the first weeks after he left her, when if she was not in bed, she was in the bath, weeping while her skin grew pruned and milky, while she held her hands to her stomach and thought about how the obstetrician had made a mistake; she was not pregnant at all but had a parasite or a tumor. "Single mother" could not possibly apply to a person like her. But in the ninth month, despite all this, a small door had opened inside of her and her son found his way through.
"Amelia?" her mother asks. "Are you even listening to me?" She dings a bracelet against the rim of her glass. "I need—a ride—to the salon. Now, or I'll be late."
Amelia nods and gathers bottles and blankets into a large black tote. Leaning over James, she holds her breath as she picks him up, reminding her hands to cradle him as though he is a baby bird, his bones hollow and delicate, his small heart beating right at the surface. She walks ahead so she will reach the car before her mother, opens the door and removes the package from the car seat as quickly as she can with one hand; then eases it into the footwell and replaces it with James.
"What's that?" her mother asks, looking in over her shoulder.
Amelia shuts the rear door and opens the passenger's.
"Come on, Mother," Amelia says, helping her inside. "You don't want to be late."
"But—" she says, twisting in an effort to see behind her.
"Should we take the highway or roads?" Amelia shuts the door before her mother can answer.
The highway is a parking lot. After thirty minutes, they have gone two miles. The exit is not for another three and the sun is angled so it blazes just beneath their lowered visors. The traffic moves forward in jarring intervals, every minor encroachment setting off a cacophony of screeching brakes and horns.
From behind her Jackie-O shades, her mother says, "It's all these foreign drivers. You know what they say" —she glances over at the Japanese driver talking on his cell phone in the next lane—"about Driving While Asian."
She smiles at Amelia like a child who's deliberately knocked something over.
"You can't say things like that, Mother," Amelia says. Embarrassed her mother has given voice to her own thoughts, she looks at James in the rearview mirror in an effort to loosen her tightening chest.
"I can say anything I damn well please, darling. Our family settled this country long before those people stumbled off their shrimp boats."
Amelia swerves into the far left lane. It is going only slightly faster, but she can take no more of this. She needs to get James and the package home. There is a sharp throb over her right temple.
"Amelia!" her mother scolds. "Change lanes like a lady."
"What are you talking about?" Amelia asks, fiddling with the buttons for the air conditioner, which seems to have begun blowing nothing but hot air. There is a sound almost like rustling in the back. She reaches her hand into the footwell to make sure the package is not moving.
"A lady edges her front bumper into the adjacent lane and then politely drifts over." Amelia glares at the brake lights in front of her while her mother lays out tiny brushes, tubes, and cases on the dash and begins to put on her face. Opening a compact, her mother looks up at her. "You change lanes like a whore."
Amelia slams on the brakes, setting off a volley of honking and sending a cascade of plastic and powder to the floor.
Her mother's face holds a tentative grin, as though Amelia has begun an off-color joke and then not bothered to tell the punchline.
"Get out," Amelia says, reaching into her purse and shoving a twenty and her cell phone at her mother. "Get out of my car and call a fucking cab."
The sun has conspired with the faulty air conditioner to turn the small space they share into a sauna—and the horns are getting louder. She reaches over her mother and pushes open the door.
"You can't be serious," says her mother, though the panic spiking her voice shows she knows Amelia is nothing but. "You've seen the dead dogs on the side of the highway. Do you want me to get run over like a dog?"
A torrent of honking cars is now swerving around the passenger-side, the gestures of their drivers angry and obscene. Amelia grips the steering wheel at eleven and one and lays her forehead against the knobbly range of her knuckles. Head down, she stares at the powdery splotches of carnelian and slate ground into the floormat, at the shards of glass large enough to cut through a vein. Then she leans to the right, slams shut her mother's door and jams the gearshift into drive. Her mother shakes and mutters softly to herself the rest of the way to the salon. Amelia, James, and the suckling do not say a word.
Before going home, Amelia stops at the hardware store and buys a shovel, forty pounds of pea gravel, and a large bag of briquettes.
It is dark and James is at her breast. Outside the sharply drawn boundary of her arms, all the world is Monet. This primal, necessary act is the ballast that keeps her from disappearing. The rhythm of his hunger lulls her. These are the moments she imagined in the final month of her pregnancy, when she began keeping a journal of the baby's movements, looking on in wonder as whole body parts protruded from her stomach like million dollar special effects. In her head, she began a monologue of thirty years' worth of observations and lessons learned. This child would be her ally, her companion.
James bats at her breast and begins to cry. She rocks him back and forth and hums to him until he is quiet. Then she places him gently into the crib she has dragged out onto the lawn and goes inside to get the shovel.
In the moonlight, stripped to her white bra and slip, sweating Amelia is phosphorescent. Stray strands of hair gild her damp face. Smears of earth paint the rise of her chest, the swell of her stomach, the hem of silk at her knees. After an hour, the pit is complete. She crooks the red handle of the shovel beneath her arm and leans against it while considering her work. Three feet deep and two feet around. Gouged into the middle of her husband's golf-course-grade lawn like a cigarette burn in the center of a wedding dress. She rips open the bag of coals and hoists it over the edge. They exit the bag with a satisfying rush and she douses the heap in lighter fluid. With the kiss of a match, there is a flash of light accompanied by a loud whoosh. Then the coals settle down to the business of burning. She can see through the crib's slats that James is still asleep. She goes inside to get the package.
While the coals blaze, she settles cross-legged on the lawn and takes James and the piglet into her arms. Their weight is almost identical; she made sure of that in the store. James is soft and warm. She presses her face to the top of his bare fuzzy head and breathes in his spicy, faintly meaty scent. Shifting her attention to the suckling, she finds it much less stiff than she expected, warm from its time in the pantry. Loose skin pools at its joints and she again notes his similarity to her boy. Watching the coals, she rocks them both from side to side and hum them the sleepy little song her mother used to sing to her.
The flickering coals are mesmerizing. If she watches them long enough, she can see whatever she wants in the shifting blaze. It is like the fan in the maternity ward's recovery room. At night, when everyone had finally left, she lay on the hard, thin mattress with her baby on her chest, listening. Her husband had phoned, but was vague on the details of when he might arrive. She listened for footsteps she knew would not come. In the expectant silence, a phrase would pop into her head and then, a moment later, she would hear the words repeated in the creaking beat of the blades. But there was one phrase that stayed long past all the others, one that continued to repeat long after she had begged her mind for quiet—empty. empty, empty, empty, empty. She felt her slack belly and cried. empty, empty, empty. She held James to her chest until he screamed his displeasure but she could not get him close enough. Outside of her, he would never be safe. Outside of her, she would never be whole. empty. We are still connected, she told herself: he cried, her breasts leaked; he cried, her womb ached to have him back. But the feeling, like the phrase, persisted.
Weeks later, alone in her own bed, she dreamed of a game that was not a game. Her husband lay beside her, propped on his elbow. He leaned over and whispered, Do you trust me? She said yes with a backward tilt of her head and he held her hands to either side of the bed. He forced himself inside of her, pinning her with his weight, pushing against her in a rough rhythm. Unable to move, she felt his hot mouth on the front of her throat, his teeth like a hinged trap on either side of her jugular. In her head, she repeated, Yes—yes, she trusted him; but every other part of her screamed out against this violation. She screamed for James to save her.
Her own cries woke her, but only into that night's second dream. In it, she was standing above James' crib, so she leaned over and picked him up. Holding him to her chest, she kissed each of his perfect miniature fingers. He gurgled and pushed them into her mouth. She held them there for a moment and then moved her mouth down, till her lips met the hinge of his hand. With his entire hand in her mouth, her teeth encircling his chubby wrist, she felt her jaw tighten, heavy with the urge to bite down. Horrified, she ripped his hand from her mouth and thrust him into the crib with such force he began to shriek. Cowering in the corner, she punched herself hard in the leg and buried her face in her hands.
She was awakened in the morning by James' cries of hunger. Retrieving him from the crib, she brought him to the rocking chair. She pulling down the front of her nightgown. James latched on and began to suckle, reaching out an idle hand to grab a length of her hair, around his wrist, more delicate than any bracelet, a row of faint red dents.
After that she was afraid to be alone with him. Touching him only when necessary, she sat in the corner with her knees pulled to her chest and watched him from across the room. In the nights before this, she had been kept awake by thoughts of all the ways death could come for him—eating poison from beneath the sink, falling just the wrong way off the changing table. All the ways he could be taken from her. But now, wedged against his room's outermost edges, she fell asleep and dreamed of a James without limbs, a James still crying out to feed from her even as she fed on him.
Amelia sees the coals have gone gray at the edges, an orange eye glowing in the center of each. Getting up, she lays James and the piglet side by side on the soft lawn. She uses the shovel to spread the coals evenly over the pit's base and then pours in a layer of gravel. Returning to them, she picks up the giant roll of aluminum foil and tears the entire thing into long even lengths.
Hours later, when the sky has just begun to grow light, she rouses herself from the lawn and finds the shovel. With the first strike into the loosely packed pit, a hiss of steam escapes the earth, scalding her ankle. She ignores it and keeps digging. First she removes the top strata of insulating dirt. Next, the second layer of coals, which she removes carefully, tenderly. And there he is. The first glints of sun reflecting in the silver foil. She puts down the shovel and picks him up with large metal spatulas from beneath the grill. Setting him down on her finest serving tray, she places it on the table she has prepared in the backyard. The birds are awake in the tree above her. Using two serving tongs from her great-grandmother's sterling set, she pries apart the sealed ridge of aluminum, peels back the layers, and stares inside. His once pink skin has tanned golden-brown, expanded with the heat to become taut and glossy as cellophane. His eyes have melted from their sockets. James begins to cry. She looks down into the fleece sac slung around her chest and dips her nipple to the warm wet of his mouth.
While he feeds, she pulls the platter closer. She begins with the pig's foreleg, the memory of James' wrist still alive on her lips. Bringing her face to the trotter, she fits each toe against her tongue and uses her teeth to tear back the slick flesh. Moving up, her lips encircle the chubby pastern and she bites down as hard as she can, swooning at the elastic snap that accompanies the rupture of skin, at her teeth's easy submersion. She turns the platter and buries her teeth above the rear hock. The pleasure is so intense it feels like her chest is breaking open. She chews, picturing the ripeness of James' plump calves. Her tears trace a path through the slick of fat around her lips. James cries out once and leaves her nipple to leak a thin trickle of milk as he settles into sleep. Amelia strokes his cheek with the back of her hand, then turns the platter and bites into the meat of the jowls. She will not stop until the plate is clean.
Jessica Jacobs is the author of Pelvis with Distance, a biography-in-poems of Georgia O'Keeffe, published by White Pine Press in April 2015. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at Hendrix College and lives in Little Rock with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown. While her poems have appeared widely in publications including Beloit Poetry Journal, The Missouri Review, Poet Lore, and Cave Wall, this is her first fiction publication.