FICTION July 5, 2024


2012 – piss-varnished exhibition

The floor of my cell is cold and grey, and when my baby pees, I lie in the dampness and gaze at the rectangle lights on the ceiling. If I squint my eyes long enough, it’s like the black of my eyelashes hold up the stars in the sky. My baby lies beside me. She’s the color of air. My baby is smudged in grey pen ink because when people send me letters, I fold them into diapers. The words rub off onto her sticky body. Grey—never blue—because first, the prison people confiscated the sky, then any letter sent with blue ink, and now the blue-eyed guards avoid looking into my eyes. This is how I know they will kill me soon.


Earlier today I needed the quiet to end, so I banged my hands against the door of my cell until they bruised like pears. Now I hold my bruised hands towards the ceiling, folded open like a picture book, and make up stories about blue for my baby.

I tell her about lakes. I don’t tell her the prison people have already strung my throat with a hook and that soon I will have one last meal. I will be like a full-bellied tilapia—stuffed with lemony breadcrumbs. There will be a glass window as clear as my baby. Strangers will watch. I don’t mind because I understand that want—the want to watch a stranger die.

When my baby falls asleep, I let my hands fall to my sides, like paintings removed from the exhibition wall.


When the time comes, I will take my baby to the execution room tucked between my thighs, that place she first came out...I’ll shuffle slowly towards death, not because I’m dreading it but because I’ll be holding her for the final time. My body will grow cold in the chair, and my baby will fall to the ground as my muscles relax. A second birth.


If my mother was right, death is the sound of the highway, a scentless breeze.


On the floor of my cell, I watch my baby sleep. I think about that summer I met her father, David, my playmate turned lover.


Summer 1997 not this cell blue-skied jealousy

My mother smoked a joint and held out the stove lighter. 

“Make a wish.”

I was too empty to have any wishes, and trying to find one unhinged my jaw. After that day, it wouldn’t stay closed automatically. I would wrap duct tape from cheekbone to chin to cheekbone. Grey sticky residue instead of corner store blush. At mealtimes, I would unravel the tape before I sat down at the table.


A man named Ernie moved in across the street. He was a landscaper, so he offered to help Mother in the yard. He leveled the ground and arranged flat sandstone rocks like a patchwork quilt. When he pulled out the leaves, he left my mother’s favorites, the purple four o’clock flowers, evening flowers that waited till dark to open their blossoms—their name a lie.

Ernie’s home had three bedrooms, and he painted one blue and one pink because he had two invisible children named David and Maggie. Sometimes when he was raking his yard, he’d take a break and embrace his children. Mother couldn’t see David or Maggie, so she’d mock Ernie, saying it looked like he was dancing with the wind—That he was a poor dancer and had no internal rhythm. I am not surprised my mother does not see David and Maggie because my mother only sometimes seems to see me.

Mother would open the windows when she turned the swamp cooler on, and Maggie and David would crawl in to play with me. At mealtimes, they held on to my jaw as though it were a toy, chattering teeth, and would force my mouth open and closed, feeding me cabbage soup. Sometimes I’d hold my jaw with my hands and snap, trying to bite their fingers. My mother never noticed, not unless I laughed at the dinner table. Mealtimes left an aftertaste of bitterness because their father, Ernie, would always be waiting for them in our front yard—Like he was lonely without them.

I was left alone with my mother and my mother’s wish to die. I knew my mother’s wish to die before I knew her maiden name. I found her wish to die in the doctor’s note inside her purse. Attempted suicide, I read inside my head, the way adults do, instead of out loud. “What is suicide?” I asked her, and she told me it’s an old word that means someday.

I used to climb the tree my mother tried to hang herself from. The tree with flakey skin that smelled like cream soda. The branch was brittle, and she sprained her neck when she fell, gashing her foot on a stone. Blood on snow canvas. The tree bled green; my mother bled rust and disappointment in me.

The weeks after she came home from the hospital, we watched the same DVD on repeat—a woman walking around naked playing harmonica and the man who wanted to be her lover. Before he died, he took a sewing needle and plain thread and sewed her pink hair ribbon to his chest. He hung by a rope from an aspen, swaying back and forth like a bird feeder in the breeze. The ribbon stained pale by the sun. Leaves by the footholds of the tree like my mother’s suicide notes, which she’d left scattered around the house.

After my mother tried to kill herself, I’d check her rotisserie-chicken skin each time before I left the house to see if she had sewn in ribbons. I’d creep up to her bed, knock my egg fists softly on her body the way women learn to check for ripe cantaloupe, like the thump, thump, thump sound could prophesize my mother's death.

Coming home from playing with David and Maggie, I learned to look towards the aspen-lined walkway, expecting to find her hanging from the sky by string. Adults don’t fly kites, but maybe that is why they choose to hang themselves—an exercise in imagining flight.


Ernie would never hang himself.


Once when Ernie visited, I saw him suck antibiotic cream from the tube when he thought no one was looking, as if it were cake icing. I think he stole it from the bathroom because when he went in, I heard squeaky cabinets but no toilet noises. Mother used the antibiotic cream for her neck, for that red line that creeped around it like a choker, from the way the rope hugged her that first time she tried to die. I don't know why Ernie swallowed the cream. Maybe he had open wounds oozing all the way down his throat from swallowing fishbones.

When Mother wanted him to leave, she’d give him sparkling water in the can and tell him to take it for the road. Cold. From the fridge. He never opened the cans but stored them in his garage. He also stored soda there, Dr. Pepper. I’d bite the head and tails off Twizzlers and use them as straws. I’d walk home with Dr. Pepper breath, teeth stained red from Twizzlers. As I crossed the street, I’d scan the road, looking for my mother’s will to live as though it might be plastered to the median like roadkill.


On the hottest day of summer, my mother stripped off her clothing, took the shelves out of the fridge, and enthroned herself. I felt embarrassed for her, to have such a wrinkled, fatty body. I felt embarrassed to be her daughter, so I went to the front window.

Ernie set up the kiddy pool across the street and dumped salt from a blue cardboard container that had a picture of a girl and an umbrella. Maggie had said she wanted to go to the ocean. Ernie lay in the pool, fully clothed in the soft green pantsuit he always wore, his face submerged, opening and closing his mouth, releasing large bubbles. Maggie and David let their jaws fall, laughing. As I watched them, tears dripped into my mouth. Saltwater sprinkles—I could almost taste-pretend I was in that kiddie pool with them. But I was the Epsom-salt-container girl. Abandoned in the gutter. Disintegrating with a fake umbrella.

In August, when Ernie started forgetting things, there was a sick part of me that wondered if he would forget David and Maggie—that they would understand what it’s like to be forgotten.

Ernie had insomnia. He'd light a flashlight, put lures on his fishing rod, sit on a camping chair in his backyard, and cast the rod towards the pine trees. He’d cry when the lures got stuck in the trees, and he’d bite at the wires, trying to break the knots. When it didn’t work, sometimes he’d curl up in a fetal position on top of the uninflated kiddie pool, on the sandstone rockwork of his yard, sobbing. We’d turn on the radio, Dixieland. When the music was loud enough, his cries didn’t sound much different from the sound of a clarinet. A girl at school told me boys don’t cry. I wonder what kind of life that girl has had, a life where she didn’t fall asleep to the sound of a grown man crying. Lullaby.

David and Maggie told me they were forgetting Ernie’s smile. When Maggie asked, I stole quarters from my mother’s purse. We snuck down to Albertsons, and I bought the fish that were left. Trout and tilapia. Fish in a landlocked state wrapped in a plastic burial shroud. We ran home kicking pinecones. I held their boneless hands. It was early morning and still dark when Ernie began stringing lures to his fishing pole. We cut the fish from the plastic wrappings, and when the lines got caught in trees, and it was dark enough that even I seemed invisible, we speared the hook through the fishes’ mouths. He cackled when he reeled one in. He didn’t notice the fish was gutless and smelled like plastic. He bit into it raw. Inside his house, he turned on Hank Williams and loped about the room yodeling. We stayed out back under pine trees. Maggie wrapped the slimy fish plastic over my hair like a wedding veil. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to marry Maggie or David.

David told us that the famous Mozart’s father was a musician too. No one wanted to hear his pieces. He sold his compositions—or the paper he wrote his compositions on—to the market, where they were used to wrap dead fish…Just to have enough money to feed his son.

Before I went home (walked across the street, climbed the rain barrel, popped the window frame open, and crawled into my room), I took the fishing hooks and twine from my pocket and left them in the gutter. I didn’t want my mother to look in my pockets for a way to die.


I had worn down the branch she tried to kill herself on. I’m the reason she fell instead of hung. I am the reason she was stuck alive, and I was the reason she wanted to die.


Invisible friends fade as slowly as other childhood friends, like summer sidewalk chalk. As I grew into a woman’s body, they became fainter. I imagined one of them filled the space in my right bra cup, and one of them filled the space in the left. When I graduated high school with just barely passing grades, and my mother didn’t show up to the ceremony, my jaw was locked and I almost cried, but then I felt invisible fingers massaging my face. By then, Ernie had moved into a nursing home. The withered tomato plants in his garden bent in the wind. An homage.

2012 – candy necklace and light milk

I always felt David and Maggie might be looking out for me. The day before I was convicted, David showed up in the woods with Dr. Pepper and Twizzlers, and we made love on stained sheets underneath a pine tree. He said he liked my jacket. I didn’t even tell David that I liked to buy everything secondhand so bits of the previous owner's skin cells would be absorbed into me. It made me feel like I could be more than myself. That I could be more than the empty space inside my mother’s grave.

I couldn't see him, but I didn’t need to see him to love him. His kisses were day-sky silvery blue. He smelled like Earl Grey tea with sugar mixed in like all the stars in the sky I’d never see again. He was forest fire, grey smoke, smoke of smoldering pinecones and pinion twigs: the light warmth of fire starter or smoke from a joint.


Before they brought me to this cage, I had a meeting with a lawyer. He clicked his tongue after each sentence as if he had to make sure the roof of his mouth was still there. I didn’t trust him. He wanted me to have a story about how it was because of a man that I killed the woman in the purple dress. People would be more sympathetic if it was a love crime—a romantic love crime—a heterosexual-romantic love crime.

“Tell me about the woman,” he said. “The woman that you killed.”

I met the woman in the hospital emergency room where I had worked as a medical scribe since graduating high school. She only looked like my mother from a distance—girlish, with curly red-brown hair and bangs cut a half inch above her eyebrows. She had managed to tie a noose before her husband called 911. I wanted to trace my fingers around her throat, feel the velvet-soft skin against my fingertips, and for my fingers to weave together like the strands of rope.

That night, when I came home from work, I found her on every part of the internet that I could. She had signed three different petitions to legalize assisted suicide.

One of the days I followed her, I watched her through the cracks in a McDonald's bathroom stall. She had taken off her romper to pee. The toilet seat was covered with thin paper made from a quaking aspen field—green blood of silver-white trees that once filtered dappled light on the forest floor.

I drove to her house one week after her birthday. She opened the door with a bottle of Windex in one hand and a paper towel stained blue, speckled with squashed ants, in the other. She had been cleaning her baseboards. She told me this as though I were her old friend.

I bought an Ikea bag full of all the ways I had imagined helping her die. I wrapped them in shiny gift paper. I wanted to take her to an aspen grove, but I got scared and felt hurried, so we stayed in her entryway room.

I had brought the branch that broke when my mother tried to hang herself, which I had whittled into a stake the day I turned eighteen and my mother moved out of the house. When I used the tree stake to break this woman’s flesh just above her sternum, she hiccupped. I could not kill her with the branch; I had to use the gun. I thought that because she wanted to die, she would be quiet. I thought her voice would be as soft as her skin. Her whimpers were different from my mother’s.

Afterward, I held the stick again, pulling it down between her ribcage, trying to gut her like a fish.

She was wearing a candy necklace when I killed her. I noticed it after it was too late, marinated in blood. Now, she and my mother are both in my dreams. They sit below a tree sewing ribbons into each other's bodies. They are dressed in matching denim skirts. They hang themselves from trees with candy necklaces.


When my baby was born early, my jaw dropped at her beauty. I dreamed the prison guards could see her. The dream guards pressed their knobby fingers into her skin as if trying to annotate her body. I told the day guards, not the dream ones, that I have a baby, and her heart is a caramel apple. They told me that if my baby’s heart really was an apple, underneath the caramel there would be a sticker that would confirm my baby didn’t belong to me but to a factory. They took me to the prison doctor who told me my baby is imaginary, but I’d never imagine a baby into a place like this, a world like this.

She is all mine, this blood-orange grapefruit baby—silver flecks in her eyes like a mirage in the desert sand. My baby is a crow’s nest. My baby is a shattered-mirror mosaic. Someday people will make pilgrimages to collect bits of her erosion, as if she were eggbeater Jesus.

We don’t have windows here, just the fluorescent lights underneath rectangles of tired light. I name one rectangle the sun and the other the moon. I toss blanket fuzz balls in the air and tell my baby archaic stories about cows jumping over the moon. I tell my baby about that time when cows weren’t born in petri dishes. Once upon a time, cows weren’t kept in boxes until they were slaughtered, wrapped in plastic paper. I don’t tell her that I will be slaughtered. Soon or sooner. I wish they would wrap me in the letters people from the internet sent me. Like I was a fish being sold at the market.

My baby doesn’t drink at my breast, but my baby drinks the manufactured light like milk. When I’m hungry, I kiss her on the lips. My baby will tuck little bits of lightness and warmth behind my lips.

Julian Iralu (she, her, hers) is a Naga-American from the Angami Meyase clan in Nagaland, India. She grew up in Gallup, New Mexico. She was a 2022 PEN America Emerging Voices Fellow, a 2022 Gish Jen Writers’ Room of Boston Fellow, and a 2020 GrubStreet Emerging Writer Fellow, and her novel-in-progress was shortlisted for the 2023 First Pages Prize. Her writing centers around family violence, the horror of the every day, and the Naga diaspora.
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