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Still Life

Heather Bartel

She met her husband at the morgue. Death did not break but bound them. The sensation of his flesh, warm, pulsing, in a room full of bodies that never returned her touch, never gave her breath, never breathed into, never breathed out, still, preserved and motionless—the touch of his hand a reminder of life beyond the cement walls and fluorescent lights, traffic above ground, reminded her that not all bodies functioned in a state of pre-burial, the promise to be buried, wedding vows, her heart beating over the still body on the table, her eyes looking into those that gave nothing in return, like glass, a reflection, but unlike a mirror, a pool of cold coffee, of undigested bits, teeth to be polished and thread into a necklace, a mouth a cave, no longer able to chew. He brought her a sweater and he brought her a steaming mug of tea, and lotion for her hands, and a fresh pair of gloves to slip into, and he made her promise, sometimes, to love him in the sunlight. His eyes stayed open when they were awake, closed to blink on occasion, reopened, still searching, still taking her in, and in his eyes she could see a reflection of herself, what she knew he was seeing, flowers bursting open and her bleach-stained clothes. She felt sometimes as if she’d spent a lifetime fading, as if hers had been a lifetime of dissolution, of shattering, teeth grinding in her sleep, grinding as if into pieces of gravel, teeth smashing into dirt. When they kissed she understood the invention of the lightbulb. When they fucked she liked his mouth to be open, his hips to be gentle, his hands to be rough. She liked the blossom of blood beneath her skin to darken into purple, fade into yellow and brown and green. They liked to lie together after lovemaking and tell future ghost stories. They liked to imagine their future haunting grounds, the afterlife a second honeymoon. She asked him to let her unbury his body, if he died first, to see how he faded into unliving beneath the dirt. She asked him to find her when he was a ghost, to haunt her, to kill her, to walk her down the aisle to another altar, to vow that nothing will do us part this time.

Her vow was to remain loyal to his living body. Her vow was to remain in the land of the living. But every day she went underground, every day she held the hands of corpses and wondered if somewhere their spirits were living on as ghosts. When he held her hand she wondered what he believed he was holding onto, she wondered if he would hold her hand as she died, if he would hold her dead hand, she wondered if it was possible to hold the hand of a ghost. She wanted to stop breathing, sometimes, just to see—a breath up to the top, held within the container of belly, chest, throat, she’d relax her shoulders around it instead of letting them creep up to her ears, she’d lose the feeling of desperation, the need to exhale, sink into loss of sensation, her vision would begin to blur—and he would always squeeze her hand, returning her to the fact of her body, returning her to body, to time, to himself, to life. Every time she tried to hold her breath into ever after, he’d coax her back to life. 

In the beginning her body functioned differently when he was around, straying from its routine, the routine altered by having another body around. She couldn’t shit. She never needed to. She didn’t feel the fullness of bloating or the ache of building pressure, the gas, she just couldn’t, didn’t need to, didn’t, and for the first time she thought she understood what it would feel like to no longer carry the burden of the need to release. A body without function. A body without rhythm, without process, a body without worry or weight or sensation—she thought this must be the only true experience of relief. And when she shit for the first time with him in the house she felt betrayed by it. She had been hoping a small part of her had discovered how to die. 

He was a surgical intern at the hospital when she met him. He wanted to do the saving, the resurrecting, mending hearts to keep them beating, performing small miracles so the blood would continue to flow. There was something about his ambition she found impossibly charming, the way he could cut open a chest and see it as something pulsing, as something with years left, the battery in a car or a computer’s hard drive—he was interested in maintenance, in maintaining a life, in repair. Her hands handled the already broken, the expired, the lifeless. She could dig into a heart if she wanted to, she could tear it to shreds or squeeze it with all her strength or throw it against a wall to see if it would bounce. She was not responsible for repair. She was not interested in maintenance. She only wanted to hold a dead organ in her hands and imagine the same model inside of her, the functioning organs, imagine them in total stillness, turned to nothing of value like the object in her hands. In their bed she made herself as small as possible, curling into the heat of him, as if on a rug before a fireplace. She vowed to love him more when the fire burned out. 

What happened to you? He always wanted to know.

Do you remember?

Did it hurt?

What happened to you, dear, oh, my dear, what happened to you?

The truth was she’d never heard voices. Never felt the chill, never seen a shadowy figure or a sheet-covered apparition, never blinked to see a body before her she thought had been real had disappeared. Her encounters with the supernatural were nonexistent. Still, she believed in the world within her own, a next realm just beyond her heartbeat that remained inaccessible for now. She called it forever. She believed that what remained inaccessible to her was the rest of her life. 

Why do you keep holding your breath?

Why do you cover your face with the blanket when you sleep?

Why do you need to hear my heart is still beating?

I am here, you are here, I’ve got you, I’ve got you.

Can you hear me?

She’d been collecting for years. Entire albums in the cedar chest, black and white photographs she’d found at antique stores, unnamed faces staring back. She knew they were dead now. She wondered if they were ghosts. She wondered if she kept looking at these images, if she memorized their features, if she traced the replication of their faces with her fingertips, would they become real to her then? Would they find her? She wondered if she kept staring into the dark corners of the house or could find herself in one of the places in the photographs, she wondered if she could go to them, or if she could bring them to her. She wondered if she could hear the loose cadences of voices, laughter, breath, make out the shape of a body within the shadows, enter into the darkness herself. 

Her favorite was a photograph of a woman in a party dress. Her lips were painted and her hair was curled and her eyes sparkled; she was dancing, she was laughing, had danced, had laughed. She called this woman in the photograph Mother. She imagined this woman as the one who had carried her, pushed her out of her own body, the woman who had given her a name. She kept this photograph tucked in her mirror. She’d found it when she was sixteen. Mother, may I? She’d ask. She’d cock her head in imitation, paint her lips and pin her hair and reproduce the sound of the image’s captured laugh. She’d cock her head. Mother may I see you tonight?

Why are you crying?

Why won’t you touch me?

What happened to you, dear, what happened to you?

Why are you crying?

Why do you keep holding your breath?

She cut her own hair one night over the bathroom sink. She cut it with the kitchen scissors, haphazardly, leaving uneven strands falling just below her chin. The woman in the photograph stared back at her staring at her altered reflection. It looks like shit, doesn’t it, Mother? She didn’t care about the damage, didn’t care about the style, didn’t care about the way her hair framed her face, didn’t care about the mirror, didn’t care about the mess. She considered it a test, the way she rested her head on her husband’s chest at night to hear the familiar rhythm of his heartbeat, unchanging after all these years. She was reminding herself she would still be beautiful: she knew her hair would grow even after she was dead. 

When she was thirteen years old her mother was dying. Her mother was dying and then she died. Her mother died and then she was dead. Since she was thirteen her mother had been dead. She remembered the body, the way it had walked to the kitchen in the morning and opened the fridge, the hands as they held a bowl of blueberries, the teeth and the tongue that were visible in the motion of the jaw as it chewed, the motion of the swallow, the implication of digestion, she remembered her mother in the morning, and the blueberries, the way she had said the word antioxidants as if it would save her. Her mother was dying but she still hated her, she wanted someone else to be her mother, she wanted a mother who wasn’t going to die, a mother who wasn’t going to leave her, she wanted a mother who was already dead. She wished her mother had been dead before she met her. She wished her mother had only been a ghost her whole life. She did not want to be haunted by this woman standing at the fridge, dying, she wanted to be left alone. 

For their fifth anniversary, she took him to a showroom to pick out their future gravestones. He told her this was a morbid way to celebrate their life together. She told him it wasn’t a celebration, it was an act of proactiveness, of productivity. But she could sense he was growing tired of their games; he did not tell her ghost stories anymore and left the room when she pulled out her photo albums. He seemed to bristle when she put her hand on his chest at night, as if it were going to reach inside of him, or squeeze too tightly around his neck, as if he could sense she couldn’t love him as much as she wanted to while they were alive. He seemed to believe she wanted him to go first, that she could not much longer stand to be the wife of a man in living flesh. He knew how good she knew she looked in black. He knew how solemnly she would draw all the curtains, check the boxes marked widowed, talk to his photograph, unbury his decaying body, look for him in corners, see him in dreams. 

When should I have seen it?

You’re crazy.

You’re not a ghost, you are crazy.

I should have known. 

What happened to you? Stop crying. Goddamn it. What happened to you?

When she was thirteen and her mother was buried, she filled her pockets with dirt. Back home standing in front of her mother’s mirror, still dressed in black, she rubbed the dirt onto her face, she let it fall into her hair, she streaked her eyelids with it and squeezed it in fistfuls, dirtying the floor, she took it on her tongue. She watched herself in the mirror as she swallowed, then put on a deep purple shade of her mother’s lipstick. How funny, she thought. The dirt kept the dead buried and the plants alive. 

Sometimes she wondered if she was already a ghost, if the bodies around her were inconsequential and irrelevant to one another, if she was just a presence, if, because sometimes her hands grew so cold, she had transformed, over the years, into an iteration of the living dead. How could she know how much of her life was real? The way she dreamed of faces she did not recognize, the way she dreamed of communion with all of the faces in her photographs, the way she had entire conversations and experiences in her dreams with people she hardly knew upon waking, made her wonder if there were multiple ways to make distinctions between the boundaries of dead and alive. Perhaps she was only real when she was dreaming. Perhaps the disconnected images embodied her truest form. Perhaps she would only be real when her body stopped moving, when she was buried, when she came back to life as the ghost she’d always wanted to be, the spectral matter rising from the grave, her spirit filling the air, her long-anticipated rebirth. 

For her fifteenth birthday she tried to hold a séance. For her sixteenth birthday she bought herself a Ouija board. When she realized the equipment was of no use to her, she began collecting the photographs. She began focusing on the body in order to discover its spirit. She took anatomy courses to study the bones and the muscles, to learn all the systems of the body, she bought a copy of Gray’s in college and drew diagrams on the wall. A word she found commonly associated with anatomy was medicine. A word she found commonly associated with ailment was cure. She was not learning the body to cure it of its failings, nor was she studying anatomy to study life, at least not this, her present one. She wanted to know: Why bones if they supported material primed for decomposition? Why the steadiness of a heartbeat if it would one day stop? Why a body at all if it could not step beyond the confines of the photograph? Only the image and the ghost of a body could remain. 

He hadn’t thought much of at first what seemed like a quiet fascination. He met her in the morgue; of course there were corpses on her mind, of course she knew dead bodies almost better than ones still alive, had held the object of future rot in her hands, had breathed next to the non-breathing, had acquainted herself with those who could no longer speak their names. What had been professional became personal and what was personal became private and her private life became mystifying, dreadful, unnerving. He had heard the way she said the word mother, walking down the hallway as she sat at the mirror with the door closed and locked. She had asked before their wedding if he believed in everlasting love. She had asked if he believed in ghosts. She had asked him a lot of questions he did know how to answer. She had asked him a lot of questions he had ignored. Their bedspread was the color of a wilted flower. He had thought she would be the one to want to die. 

What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened to you? What’s happened?

They were married in the winter, everything white, her dress and her fair skin and the paper cranes hanging from the ceiling and his semen on her chest and the cake and the frosting and the freshly fallen snow. Her lips were red, and the flowers. She never thought much of blood, only that the color of it matched exactly what she imagined for the walls in the kitchen, not the red of a tomato or the red of rose or an apple or a cardinal or a fox or a cherry. The red of what rushed within reminded her only that she didn’t need it, that her body would still be without it, still be a body though out of order, a body still and quiet, height and weight unchanging, height and weight and hair and skin and teeth and nails and bones irrelevant. She wanted blood-red silk to line her coffin. She wanted to keep a book of matches inside. 

Once she found an image of a woman with her nose; it was like looking in a mirror, looking at the nose on the face of the woman in the photograph. She held the photo next to her face and tried to match the smile, the shape of the eyebrows, uncovering any further resemblance. What was clear to her was that this nose was neither a coincidence nor a chance discovery of a long forgotten distant relative, a great aunt or a cousin, someone her mother had never told her about, someone she had never met. The truth was that this woman with her nose was proof that she was getting closer, that the realm just beyond and within her own world was opening a door, she could feel the draft. The truth was that she had found traces of belonging there: if she blinked, she could see herself unbodied, her nose no longer hers but belonging only to her body, a body, the body she’d be leaving, have left behind, the body of a ghost, and of the ghost the body of forever, the wide open space beyond the corners of the house and the tether of the daily news.

But how would she do it? Pills or poison or knife or gun or her hands pushing down on the pillow pressed against his face in the night. Would she wound or disrupt or strangle or smother? Would he see it coming, a look in her eye, a suspicious behavior, something hidden behind her back, something covertly poured into his morning coffee, would he know? Would she let him? Would she gather his things and pack them in boxes, would she drift over the divide that marked his side of the bed, would she start taking pictures of him and make a new album, would she go off running secret errands, would she offer him tea, would she take him dancing, would she kiss him without closing her eyes? Would she watch him sleeping? Would she count his breaths? Would she dig a hole in the backyard, would she buy new sheets, would she draw x’s to mark the days off on the calendar, would she pull out their vows, would she prepare his favorite meals, would she follow him in the morning when he went running in the park down the street? He began working longer hours at the hospital, he began working more nights. He slept in on-call rooms instead of their bed, he drove past the house to see if her car was in the driveway before he pulled in, he hid the kitchen scissors and the cleaning products under the sink. He ordered an x-ray just to see for himself that his bones remained unshattered, that nothing was visibly fractured yet. 

Nothing will do us part in part because we are no longer living this part in life only do we part, going partway together, we’ll part ways together and what part are we afraid of, the squirrel falling from the tree?

She dyed all the curtains so they matched the color of the skin of a plum. She dyed the bedsheets and bought new towels, painted her nails, rubbed her dead mother’s lipstick onto her mouth, wrote her name on the glass of the mirror. And beneath her name she wrote the word ghost. And beneath the word ghost, the word hungry. She marveled at her reflection, her body’s ability to expand and fill. She had promised herself she would be a corpse by forty, but as the years ran together and closer, she began to make a different kind of preparation, she began to feed herself with relish, she was ravenous, she baked cookies and pies and devoured hearty soups and stews, she brined her own pickles and canned her own jams, she buttered stacks of toast and plucked olives into her mouth, one after the other, she finished entire wedges of cheese. She let herself sag and overflow, just enough to grow familiar with excess. Just enough excess to make her feel heavy, heavy enough to sink. When she was ready again to feel capable of floating, she stuck her finger down her throat. She wrote in the steam on the mirror, don’t look at me

What’s happened to you? 

Stop screaming.

I’m not looking at you.

Stop screaming.

You are making me lose my mind.

What’s happened to you?

You are out of your mind.

Goddamn it.

Stop screaming. 

Stop screaming.

You are out of your mind.

It wasn’t a crisis so much as an unbinding. She was removing the tether, unspooling her promises, undoing the ritual that had made her feel closest to life. 

It was this unanticipated possibility of another life growing inside of her that made her ill. It was the wreckage of her entire future, her future of dying, the miserable change in plans that would force her to think in terms of birth. 

My love.

Can you hear me?

Are you sleeping?

Oh, my dear. I am here.

Am I dreaming?

I am here, you are here, I’ve got you, I’ve got you.

What has happened to me?

They were buried in bedsheets. They were buried in bubble bath. They were buried in hospital scrubs and disinfectant. They were buried in the backyard, a pile of leaves, a pile of snow, an unforgiving moonbeam. They were covered in stardust and the afterglow of kisses, he was covered with freckles, she was covered with ink. They were rolling on the picnic blanket, wrapping themselves into insignificance, wrapping their scents into cotton, into cavern, into secrecy, forever, and after, ever after, wrapping up what they would let go. 

What has happened to me?

Oh, my dear.

What has happened to me?

Please don’t let go.

She met her husband at the morgue. Death did not break but bound them, their names etched into the marble of their future gravestones, the headboard they rested against each night. And hers said I am and his said yours, because that was what she had wanted them to say, what she wanted to take with her if they never met again as ghosts. She used to think they would part with the word until, but now she felt more certain preparing herself for the word if. If we meet again, if you find me, if you keep looking, if we die together, if we ever die at all. 

Heather Bartel is founder and co-editor of the literary journal and community, The Champagne Room. Her work can be found or is forthcoming in Qu, MAYDAY, Fence, Heavy Feather Review, Grimoire, Miracle Monocle, and Birdcoat Quarterly.

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