Savaging the Dark

Christopher Conlon

SAVAGING THE DARK

Straight? What’s straight? A line can be straight, or a street. But the heart of a human being?

— Blanche duBois

1

I am not I. This is not me. I haven’t come to this place, this end, this. I’m in a dream—a fever dream, vision, hallucination. Or a film, insubstantial figures of shadow and light flickering before me. Unreal. It can’t be real. This is not my life.

Connor’s green eyes watch me. His arms are above him, wrists handcuffed to the bed. I’ve had to gag him: one of his white T-shirts rolled up like a rope and tied tightly around his head, between his jaws. It must be terribly uncomfortable. I want to run to him, set him free, stroke his hair, weep on his shoulder, say, It’s all right, baby, I’m here, and have him put his arms around me as he used to, hold me, whisper into my ear, I love you, Mona, I love you so much. That’s impossible now.

He wears nothing but a pair of old shorts. They’re stained yellow. The color runs down the crotch of the shorts and onto the bed under him. The stain darkens the sheets, as if it were blood running out of him, not urine at all. Otherwise he’s naked, his skinny, hairless white chest quickly rising and falling, his pale legs splayed before him.

The bottoms of his feet are dirty, I notice. I slip the pistol into my belt and move to the bathroom, grab one of the faded old motel washcloths there. I run it under the cold water faucet for a moment, wring it out, and come back to him.

“Sweetheart? Let me wash your feet. They’re not clean.”

I crouch down but with an intake of breath he pulls his legs back.

“Come on,” I say. “Don’t be shy. You’re dirty.”

He studies me, his eyes wide. Sweat glistens on his skin. I reach out a hand—slowly, gently, as you might to a wounded bird. Finally he allows me to take his left foot in my hand. It smells, I notice, but I don’t mind, not really. I move the wet washcloth over the foot carefully, making no sudden moves. I don’t wish to frighten him. I’ve never wished to frighten him. Not once in my entire life.

I finish cleaning his foot and study it closely—the smooth uncalloused heel, the cute little toes. This little piggy went to market… He seems to tense but I look at him tenderly, shake my head, try to let him know that I’m not going to hurt him. Instead I lean close to his toes and kiss them, one by one, on their soft undersides, the sides that meet all the disgusting undergrowths of the world. I run my tongue between the toes slowly, watching him watch me. I lick the graceful arch of his foot and the tender heel.

Finally I put the foot down and reach to the other. He allows me to, doesn’t resist. I study the foot closely. A small blood streak on his heel. Black smears—dirt? oil?—along the arch. Bits of the motel’s shag carpet clinging, even tiny jagged pieces of plant.

I can tell from watching his eyes that he doesn’t trust me anymore, doesn’t believe I’ll do the right thing, doesn’t perceive that everything I’ve done has been for him. I’d hoped that washing his foot for him would convince him but it hasn’t, not yet. But then I realize. Anyone, his mother, a nurse, could hold his foot and wash it with a wet cloth. A stranger could do that! But a stranger would not, could not do what I decide to: taking the still dirty foot in my mouth I extend my tongue to it, lick it slowly, suck it, swallow the grime and the blood and the oil—yes, it’s oil—and take them all inside me, take away everything that makes his life unclean and bring it into myself. Bits of carpet, bits of thistle and grass. He watches me, as he always does. He doesn’t try to move. Once he flinches slightly and I remember that he can be ticklish. But this is no time for silly games. I keep on cleaning the foot with my tongue and lips until it’s as clean as the other. Then I put it down gently. Surely he knows now. Knows that I love him, and how much, how dreadfully, how unendurably.

It occurs to me that it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen Connor cry. He cried a lot, once. Now, no. I suspect he doesn’t want to give me the satisfaction, doesn’t wish to allow me to see him open and vulnerable. Connor is closed to me now. I know that. He doesn’t need to tell me. Yet my life is nothing without him, this eleven-year-old soul-stealer, this heart-thief. My life is absolutely nothing without him.

I hear a car pulling up fast in the parking lot outside, tires on gravel, automobile doors slamming, voices. Through a slit in the curtain splinters of light play on the wall opposite us: red-blue, red-blue. There is no siren. I’d thought that there would be sirens. It’s quiet, really. I can hear their crunching footsteps and the static sounds of their car radios. How like a movie scene this is, a scene from some ’30s or ’40s crime picture by Fritz Lang or Raoul Walsh. I wonder if Connor realizes it as well.

Will they knock on the door? And if they do, will it be gentle, a meek little tapping like a shy child might make? Will a soft voice say, Excuse us, ma’am, we’re very sorry to bother you, but would you mind terribly opening this door? Or will it be like in the movies, all bluster and man-noise, the banging on the door like the sound of a cannon? Open up, police!

Or will they not knock at all? Is that why they’re gathering out there so quietly? Waiting?

Connor hears them too. I can tell. I sidle up next to him on the bed, pull the pistol from my belt again. His eyes widen as I switch off the safety. I want to touch him, caress him, hold him. I want to love him forever. I want to rip him to shreds.

2

Memory. The exact moment I knew that I wanted to be a teacher. I’m in high school, walking home after classes one day, books held close to my underdeveloped chest. It’s a cool autumn afternoon, breeze caressing the branches around me, maple leaves tumbling before me in the road. Though I’m wearing my favorite blue cardigan I’m aware that my checkered skirt is a bit light for the weather: my legs are cold. I walk quickly to try to warm up.

Across the street I habitually take to get home is a soccer field. I rarely take any notice of it, or of the middle-school games that are played there, but that afternoon something strikes me about those shouting pubescent voices and I stop for a moment to watch. It’s a boys’ game: eleven- and twelve-year-olds in blue uniforms and gold ones charging up and down the field, jumping, kicking, falling. They don’t strike me as being particularly adept—there are missed kicks everywhere, balls flying the wrong way, boys skidding on the grass and landing on their bottoms. And yet they’re clearly having a good time, and I find myself enjoying their energy, their happiness. Lithe young limbs, arms skinny or muscular, legs fish-pale but quick. And their faces: I can see in some of them the men they’ll become, the growth, the expanding, the hardening of features that will happen. It makes me wistful, somehow. These beautiful boys seem perfect, as if they are in their exact historical and emotional moment, as if someone should figure out a way to hold them there, suspend time, keep the game going forever.

I don’t know how long I stand there, but when the referee blows a whistle and the game ends it’s like being pulled abruptly from a dream. Daily reality slides into me again and I shake my head, move on. I think one of the boys in gold has vaguely noticed me, this tall older girl (all of fifteen!) staring at them from across the field. He seems to watch me for a moment before he turns back to his coach and friends and laughter and Gatorade.

As I make my way home it seems to me that I could enjoy spending time with such children. Certainly not as their coach—I’m hopelessly maladroit at all sports—but perhaps as their teacher? I wonder what it would be like. I think about my own teachers: Mr. Arnold, Mr. Vale, Ms. Owen. It’s hard to imagine being them, standing in front of a classroom each day, talking, handing out assignments, grading tests. Though I spend five days a week in their company they never seem entirely real, somehow. And yet I know I’m smart, maybe as smart as some of them. I remember being shocked the previous school year when I’d overheard a student asking our English teacher, Mrs. Rocca, what old black-and-white film had the line “I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship”—and she didn’t know! I was so embarrassed for Mrs. Rocca that I didn’t have the heart to step into the conversation and tell her it was from one of my all-time favorite movies, Casablanca. My fellow student, a girl named Mary Rainey, went away empty-handed.

I don’t think about the boys on the soccer field again, not for many years. But from that afternoon I have it in my mind that I will be a teacher, that it’s my fate. My destiny.

* * *

But I was still half a person then, not a whole person. Since the age of twelve I’d been half a person, as lost and as clumsy and as despondent as any half-person would be. There was no whole me, no Mona Straw, only a crude, partial simulacrum, a shattered shipwreck, a body torn asunder. Sometimes I would look in the mirror and lite ...

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