Needle on Bone

By Helena Bell

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I should have known you were an alien because of the tattoo on your left shoulder, how it was a surprise to me every time I saw it. You told me you'd gotten it on your 25th birthday; it was a design you'd been holding onto since you were 14. If something lasted nine years, it was forever. You said that a lot.

The first night we slept together, I traced those black lines with my fingertips. I thought about asking you to tell me the story again when you woke up. How it was related to your mother, your father, and the day they met. I thought if you could tell me the story one more time, that it would stick. I remember thinking that it must have hurt: needle against bone. You assured me it was such a small thing, it was almost over before you registered the pain. And when you walked out, all you remembered was the joy.

My mother used to tell me that a tattoo was a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling, and if I ever got one she'd clean it off me with a scouring brush. I believed her. Maybe because of that, I always had a thing for scars: a dent in my shin when I fell off a chair in high school; a red blur on my wrist where I burned myself on a radiator; cat scratches and freckles. Small white lines, smooth skin and rough. I liked how a body could be irrevocably changed.

Only mine were by accident. Yours was choice. Here, stay. When I try to picture you now, your shoulder, those thin, black lines, that is what I think they were saying: Here. Stay.

Aliens have been appearing and immediately dying in my grandparents' attic for as long as I can remember. My grandmother told me to ignore them, that they were just passing through our world, and if I didn't think about them, then they wouldn't think about me, and neither of us would be bothered by it. "It's like the sound of traffic," she said. "You know it's there, if you pay attention long enough you can almost make out a single car against the din, but you don't remember it, not really, just that it's there."

But it wasn't noise, it was pressure. When they came it was if the house breathed them in, then slowly breathed them out. When friends came over, I'd say the house was haunted and they believed me. One night we dared each other to spend the night in the attic. We hid under blankets with giant flashlights and waited for boxes to shake or the floors to creak or the lights to blink on and off like lightning. Nothing did. We got bored and chased each other around dusty armoires and hanging clothes. The most exciting thing that happened that night was when Harper Lillington tried to grab me and I scraped my back against an old gilt frame. It bled and scabbed over, but we didn't want to tell my grandparents, so I slept on my stomach with my shirt half off to let the wound breathe. The next day my shoulder hurt when I moved, and the air was a little heavier, the floor dustier, but that was all. We were disappointed.

The first time I remember meeting you was at work. We passed in the lobby on the way to the elevator.

Later, we met through friends.

Later, we met at a bar. We met in the grocery store. We met a dozen different ways before we started dating. I liked to think that you were waiting for me. I liked to think it said something beautiful about the tragedy of timing that it took so long. I liked to think it was a tragedy we would overcome.

I remember these meetings the way I remember art. The way my mother would take me to the museum and quiz me on artist, period, and brush technique. I could recite facts, the patter and imitation of understanding. She would try to explain the history and context, the way movements bled into and out of each other, but in the end all I could see were the bits and pieces, the barest glimpse of a fractured whole.

At the end of each visit she'd take me to the back of the building where men and women in blue uniforms would load and unload wooden crates from plain white trucks. I liked to guess at what they held: a Rembrandt, a student's Senior thesis, an Egyptian Pharaoh, extension cords. By the way the workers carried them, each box could be precious or mundane. Only by opening it, examining it, did we know if it had any value. Like pain, my mother said. We could leave it alone and it would be like it was nothing, but instead we liked to cling to it, turn it over and over in our minds until it was smooth and worn, but every bit as heavy.  

After my mother died, I went to the museum on her birthday. Then I went on mine as well. Then other days. I still couldn't tell a Kandinsky from a Pollock; I only knew their names because I liked the sound of them. But I still liked the idea of art being moved from place to place. Multi-million-dollar masterpieces being boxed up and shipped across the country. No different than produce, electronics, or so many pairs of shoes.

This is what I remember about our first date: we went to a restaurant named Mary's, on Fourth Street. You had seared gulf fish. I think I had pasta. Maybe chicken. There was some kind of red sauce that stained my shirt when I reached across the table to touch your hand. We must have talked about where we grew up. I would've told you about my mother, I would have told you I recently inherited my grandparents' house and was thinking of selling it. You would've said nothing, or made something up. I remember arguing about the post office: I told you that in the early 20th century you could ship your children to their grandparents if you affixed the right amount of postage. 53 cents was cheaper than a train ticket, and the mail carriers would look out for them. All those children, between one place and the next. I thought it was beautiful; you disagreed.

When you sell a house, you have to write a disclosure; you must tell them if it is haunted. It doesn't matter if you don't believe in ghosts, all that matters is that you have seen plates fly across the kitchen. You have heard the toilet flush in the middle of the night. You have felt uneasy in the basement.

When I told my real estate agent, this was what she expected me to write down. When I told her that aliens showed up in the attic, died, and slowly collapsed into a fine, sweet-smelling powder, she said that aliens weren't real. She said I should talk about plates and creaking floors. She told me to describe how in the mid-afternoon, the light on the staircase sometimes looked like a person.

Instead I wrote about the heaviness of the air and the way the dust settled as if it had fallen around the outline of a once living thing. I wrote about my neighbor who saw an alien in his backyard. There was a gate separating his property from the Presbyterian Church. He always meant to lock it, to keep strangers from cutting through his garden on the way to and from services. He never did. He said they were always so careful, and polite, and sometimes they'd grab a rake and help with the leaves.

One day an alien walked in. It was Wednesday. The alien stood in the middle of the yard, looking around. Then it disappeared.

He told me he couldn't remember what it looked like. Green maybe? Weren't aliens green? But I knew that was wrong. They're more like a mauve. Not mauve mauve, but the idea of mauve. The idea of a color that you've seen before, one you recognize, but when you try to tell someone else about it, it's not there anymore. That's what it was. The idea of mauve. The disquiet of mauve.

My agent crossed out every mention of "alien" and replaced it with "ghost."

We had two offers on the house. Both were from people who were only interested in the paranormal activity and I turned them down. I didn't want them to be disappointed.

This is the way an alien dies:

They appear in the attic. Sometimes they are still conscious. Sometimes they look around. Sometimes they are able to reach out and touch. My grandmother's wedding dress was a favorite item, because it was white and the neck was lined with small crystals. Then the alien shudders. The alien collapses. Dies. Within hours it will be as if they were never there at all.

When my grandmother was out of town, my grandfather slept in the attic. He would greet the aliens when they arrived, and he would carry their bodieswhat was left of themto the basement where he buried them. Eventually I did the same.

I should have known you were an alien because after you moved in with me, you would sing. Not every night, but some nights. You would sing in your sleep. I don't think you knew you were doing it. You never followed me when I got out of bed, when I walked up the stairs, and when I went into the attic and found an alien waiting for me.

Usually there was only one. Sometimes two. And once it was a family: Parent 1, Parent 2, Alien Jr.

At least, I think it was a family. You see a group, you assume. Once a friend told me about a hunting camp he'd been to. There were all these taxidermied animals and paintings on the wall. One of the watercolors had a group of ducks labeled Mama Duck, Papa Duck, and then a bunch of children ducks. He thought it was strange that men and women interested in going out in the morning to kill birds would want to think of them as a family first. I said maybe they never noticed the paintings. Maybe their spouses picked them out. Maybe they were there for the kids they sometimes brought with them.

I knew the aliens were dead because they didn't move. Because they didn't have a pulse. Because when I picked them up, their bodies fell apart like strips of cloth. Because I carried armfuls of mauve down three flights of stairs, dug a hole, placed him, her, it, them in it and at no point did any of them yell or cry or move or argue with me about the weight restrictions on items that could be sent via the United States Postal Service.

I knew my house could not be the only house in which aliens died, but I didn't know how to find the others. I didn't think I'd ever want to. We've probably been carrying their dead, burying their dead, blowing away the dust of their dead for centuries, only we don't remember enough to write it down. We don't recognize them on the streets, and when we see them in the attic we think the light slanting through the beams looks almost like a person. I should have known you were an alien by the way some people looked at us sideways, and then shook their heads. It was as if they knew, as if they sensed a deep disquiet they could not name.

My grandparents and I never talked about the aliens, but one night, after my grandmother got sick, she made me promise that I would let her die in the hospital. "You live in one place long enough, maybe you want to die somewhere else. Places have memory; we leave so many scars. Maybe that's why they come here. When they're ready." Only later, after my grandmother lingered three weeks in the ICU, did I begin to wonder if they ever misjudged the timing of their leap.

I remember I took you to restaurants. To lakes and beaches and mountains. I remember I never want to sit in the first few rows of a ballet again because of the loudness of the dancers' shoes, though I cannot tell you when or where I learned this, or how beautifully the dancers leapt.

I think we met again and again, and we went to the same places, and told each other the same stories. I remember you in layers, in the pattern and repetition. I remember you as sfumato, a blurring of lines, a sharpening of color, a pulling away like smoke. Outlines and dust. Needle on bone.

And because you were an alien, you believed that when you disappeared the loss would fade, leaving nothing but the joy behind.


HelenaBellHelena Bell is a writer living in Raleigh, North Carolina.  Her fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and The Indiana Review, among other places. Visit her website here, or email her at helenabell@gmail.com.

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