No One Worships What They Find
Under Their Fingernails

Fiction by Kathryn McMahon

 
Last night I was cold and maybe dead and the fire ants came for me like they do. They swarmed my sheets and ferried me away into the ground, then bit me and bit me until I shrank to their size. It burned, and I think that burning made me alive again. I paid my respects to their queen and apologized for any ants whom I’d squished. She told me not to worry, not to worry, but could I please assist her with just one small favor?

Of course.

She wanted me to help broker a peace treaty by eating grubs with the king of the centipedes. The grubs were vats of earthy ice cream. The king was so ferocious but misunderstood, I might have fallen in love with him—he reminded me so much of you with all the danger there—but I refused his advances and climbed out of the ground ahead of the chirring queen and her army.

Outside, I was still small and, what do you know, I was at your place. Looking up at it, I felt even smaller. The first ant soldiers were pouring out of the soil, so I trekked through the grass, scaled your house, and slipped beneath the crack of your window. See how I know you.

I crept into bed with you, but that was not enough to feel safe. It just reminded me of the old times when I would forgive you in the dark because I’ve always been a little more afraid of the light. There’s a scar over your eye that matches the moon and its shine. You never told me who gave it to you, but I can tell it’s from a fist you used to love. Your mother is left-handed, isn’t she?

When I touched the scar, you shivered and it loosened for me. I used to wish you’d let me see the things lurking under your skin—when they were asleep (and before they got hungry). Would they meet me inside? I crawled in and was alone.

Disappointed, but also relieved, I tasted your blood to be sure. It tasted like mine. One more thing to make me less afraid of you. I chose an obvious map and walked among your organs. Your lungs. Gallbladder. Your ferocious and misguided heart, curled up like a dead centipede. I would have fallen in love with it again, but I couldn’t leave without checking your liver for spots or necrosis.

None.

You said being around me was poisonous. You lied.

You should know it doesn’t take much to separate an organ from its kin. To make it feel worthless. What good is a duodenum without its stomach? The membrane between whole and broken is nothing when you have my kind of rage, barrel-aged like whiskey. Evisceratingly smooth. I bit into you like rye and fire ants. Oak and smoke and mandibles. I could cure you of demon triggers, I could. Except for your skin—I would never touch your skin. It’s too pretty. (Mine is an oracle speaking in secret greens and tongues of yellow-purple. But we’re all atheists here, and no one worships what they find under their fingernails.)

Behind the capillaries of your eyelids the sun is shining red and judging me, so I wriggle my way out through a sour ear pressed to the pillow. Now here we are, and dead fire ants are thumbprinting the floor, and the queen is in the corner wailing about her treaty, and the sheets need washing.

Kathryn McMahon is an American writer living abroad with her British wife and dog. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Passages North, The Cincinnati Review, The Baltimore Review, Jellyfish Review, Split Lip, and others. She has received nominations for Best Small Fictions, Best of the Net, and the Pushcart, and was a finalist for the 2018 Smokelong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellowship. On Twitter, she is @katoscope. Find more of her writing at darkandsparklystories.com.