by Kirsten Imani Kasai
“Help me,” my father said. “Pick up the legs.”
I complied. Each thin leg, detached from the trunk, weighed no more than a short stack of bricks, two bags of flour or a money bag for the bank’s night deposit slot. It didn’t fit in the barrel though, I recall that clearly—a foot sticking up over the rim, a stiff white flag of surrender.
Forty-three years old and already on his fifth wife, my father’s appetite for matrimony, and its dissolution, was insatiable. I didn’t even know her name. I met her once, at father’s Haymaz fête. She struck me then as the weakest of the lot, more runty and insubstantial than any of her predecessors, and I foresaw the brevity of her reign. It seemed he had dispensed of her almost before the clerk finished penning her name on the marriage certificate, blowing on the wet ink and scattering droplets across the vellum.
My father whistled a jaunty tune as he snapped tendons and broke the fragile bones of a woman to whom he had professed “love and forever.” The disposal was conducted at night, darkness to hide his crime if not his shame, slogging through Neubonne’s waste pits. The Telec river coughed up its vapors and sputum. The air smelled of rotted eggs, burnt hair and flesh, and the eddies of green-black filth that clogged the shore and plastered the hulls of boats. Tankers clanged in the harbor. Somatic scavengers pushed leather skiffs down the river, fishing up bits of stuff to reclaim and sell: clothing, stripped from that woman’s body and tossed into the water; her rings, sacrificed to the river bottom’s silt.
Arms crunched and crumpled inside. Torso stuffed down, and lastly, her head, childlike and small, its curling brown hair sticky with blood and fluid. It occurs to me now that my father always chose small women, perhaps to make their vanishings easier. Was my own mother tucked inside one of those refuse barrels, bones swimming in lye, her body chemically boiled down into soup?
In a rare and startling show of affection, my father had said, “Son, learn this lesson early. Women aren’t worth the trouble.” He laughed, amused by his own quixotic folly. “I don’t know why I keep trying.” He leaned upon the barrel’s edge, pounding in the pieces.
The way he shoved and wrestled those broken limbs into submission so evocative of his approach to life, his refusal to bear resistance or insubordination from anyone, even a corpse. I remember how the wan moonlight illuminated his face and spilled stark shadows in the hollows beneath his eyes. How he tugged a clump of satiny hair from the rusted barrel lip and set it free on the wind. “I must be a hopeless romantic.” He’d grinned at the notion, fancying himself a soldier of love.
We celebrated my father’s regained freedom with a visit to the Teatro Antiqua, one of his favorite retreats. “You’re thirteen now, my boy. It’s time you became a man—start growing calluses on your heart and your balls!”
The Teatro Antiqua is a beautiful place hidden up in the hills above Tarquin Bay on Plein Eire’s west coast. You can’t hear or see any sign of it as you approach on the unpaved single lane crisscrossing the hillside. But suddenly, canopies of metal flowers surround you and hang over the road, their curled petals baked in cracked enamel. There are tents and curtains and panels of heavy white linen that hide crimson interiors where sinful things take place on red cushions and carpets, where stolen girls in white lace dresses dance and flash their deformities, kicking up legs clad in red-and-white striped stockings and tattered red high heels. We had our own cottage there, a permanent construct of wood and plaster to rival the main theater with its ornate swags and flourishes. We remained for a week, him in the bed and me on a pallet on the floor beside the gangly teenage maiden assigned to serve us.
Her name was Althaira because of the large, star-shaped birthmark on her left cheek. Althaira was my first love, shy and tender, quiet and sweet. She was fifteen and had been at the Teatro since she was six and sold to the gray lady and her traveling caravan of somatic children. She had round ears like a dormouse that she hid beneath her long, thick hair, a quarter-inch split that shot upward through her top lip, and a pronounced cupid’s bow. She would lie next to me on the pallet at night while my father slept, and I’d run my fingertip over the split, faintly fuzzed with the softest down. We spoke softly and endlessly but did not kiss. We lay face-to-face exchanging breath, Althaira’s slightly sweet and nutty air whistling between her teeth and split lip, an innocent offering that I would draw down over my tongue and into my lungs, keeping her close to me.
My father caught the fondness in my gaze and set out to destroy that childish, limpid joy of first love. Althaira danced in the chorus line and sat naked in the salons, a living adornment, but being a favorite of the gray lady’s, she was not yet broken into service. I told my father that I should like the honor of being her first, and asked him to buy her bride-night for me. He’d chortled and slapped my back, gloating with pleasure at my blushes. The exchange was made, the papers signed, and Alhtaira bathed in aromatic oils, her hair curled and plaited with bright red ribbons and flowers—it was a mark of favor to be chosen by the son of Matuk Morigi. She came to our cottage wearing a white lace gown and wooden sandals with tall risers. I reached up to rub the familiar spot on her lips and she nipped my finger between her teeth, took my hand, and led me inside. “I’m glad it’s you,” she whispered, her temperate young voice the only comfort I had ever known.
But my father waited in the bed. He took my love and banished me to the corner. I was not permitted to flee the room or Althaira’s sobs, or to cast my eyes from her suffering. When it was over, Althaira lay naked and silent while my father snored beside her, one of her plaits twisted around his fist, its crimson petals crushed and dark. I slept slumped over my knees, my arms wrapped around my body to hold in the last of her warmth. Althaira was my starlight. She dwelt inside me with the grace of a soap bubble, beautiful and airy. She was the sun and sky, but my father spoiled her for me. His voice filled the darkened cottage. “You’ll thank me someday. Love is a terrible weakness, and I’ve spared you its pain.”
I know what it’s taken for me to become my father’s gravedigger and cemetery man. I know what I’ve given up and all the things I can’t give back, like the feel of waterlogged dead flesh, the smell of shit and piss that stains the bed beneath a body when he wraps his tie around its neck and pulls it tight. The cuts on my fingers from rusted oil barrels or the stinking river slime that coats my boots and rots the leather. I know that all of these things have eaten into my soul like tapeworms, that they drift around inside my body and chew away at it, making the little holes into big ones. We left the morning after Althaira’s bride-night and I never saw her again. She took her light and heat with her, and left me cold.
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