Excerpts from BELIEVE ME, THE SURVIVAL THIS TIME
Following the incident, Red has not been able to sleep soundly. In her dreams, the incident haunts her in the form of a wolf that looks just like her. Same mouth, same jaw, same eyes like moon plates. It walks across a red poppy field. She thinks she is not wolf enough to confront it, not human enough to stow herself away. She lowers herself to all fours. What do you want from me? she calls out to the incident. The wolf gestures as if she must know by now, that in a field of endless red, the two are extensions of the same heart, tethered to a fate that has yet to reveal itself. You are of me, the incident says, and I, of you. Red poppies shake in their field. They carry the incident’s weight as it stomps through flower head after head.
Red wakes up often flooded with a sense of doom. She conjures the following words from her mouth: “I am safe.” Says it three times to make it stick.
“The incident demands to be described,” says Doctor of Red’s dreams. He speaks gently but his words sometimes feel like glass, like it can mend or cut. Red has not figured out whether he can be fully trusted, a court-appointed psychiatrist who must think that her reluctance to talk about the incident is suspect. At least for everyone else, it has been a thorn in their liver. For Red’s mother especially, who cannot see why she can’t just simply say it. There was a crime. It happened. Red lived. It needed to be said. I come with only blood/ on my sleeve. What should we call such/ witchery? What should we call such weight? Another question: What happens after the weight gets its name? And: Who could believe a wolf-girl who fits the shape of the crime?
It has been said that wolf-girls are not to be trusted. Their eyes too yellow, their mouths too tinged with the copper smell of blood, all to say their forms are too much in their muchness—their animality, as an excess in passion or appetite. That her excess would become her enemy in life and then later in the investigation of this incident was of no surprise to her. She was such a fine animal for all her days until she wasn’t anymore. This seems to happen to every wolf-girl coming upon their first incident, and to be honest, Red was surprised it took this long to be officially declared a problem.
It was not that describing the incident was difficult in terms of the sequence of events. It was actually pretty simple. The incident took place on a wolf’s summer day where the heat bore down on a body like wet fur. Red was walking alongside the road, had hoped that she could avoid the mosquitos that way. They bit her all along her ankles, little pink blooms in a senseless constellation. When she bent her leg towards her back to scratch, she heard a voice behind her. Someone familiar. Hi there, she said. Her nails dug into her skin. How good it felt to take care of such intolerable itch. She felt someone looking but it felt too good to keep scratching the itch until finally one bitten mound on her leg bled. Without thinking, she wet her thumb with her tongue and placed it upon the open wound. Before she could open her mouth to speak again, she was on the ground. Something—and perhaps it was many things—shattered within her.
Doctor looks at Red and then the clock. “Let us conclude today then with a reminder,” he says, stifling a sigh, “sometimes the truth can set us free.”
It’s not as though I felt my body. It’s not like I will ever return. Sometimes Red lingers in the final seconds of her appointment to stare Doctor in the eye, trying to see what he sees, if he can in fact see through her eyes to the truth, whatever that may be. It has been a year since the incident. Although she had collected every type of wound—the bites on her chest, the planetary bruises on her stomach and thighs, the stitches that required her fur to be shaved down to her naked flesh—they had all healed by now. The only wound that would not heal, that meant something to her and only her and no one else, the opened mosquito bite on her ankle that had aged into a purple disc. While the nurses tell her to rejoice, she feels a deep mourning move inside her. Who will believe me now, she thinks, without the right scars?
Proof. A word that has become synonymous with the incident. The trouble is, the matter of Red’s body aside—the ghost of its violation, its visions of death that visits night after night to remind her of her suffering—that the incident seems to leave behind no records at all. What would such record even look like on her body? The wounds, healed up, look like tiny pink stars. None seem to spell out the narrative that the police want, the court, her friends who have quietly continued their lives without her, and her mother, who has moved in since the incident, afraid for Red and of her.
It had grown increasingly difficult to live with her mother. “Please,” her mother says, “tell them something so they can help you.” The other day, she had learned that Red’s aunties, loud women who drank and gossiped and played mahjong until morning broke from night, had omitted an invitation to their weekly game. When Red’s mother confronted them about it, they tried to deny it at first, but after prodding, admitted that they were tired of hearing the same non-story again, about the stubborn daughter who could not get her life right. Perhaps Red was faking it, her injuries, and perhaps nothing happened at all. Something shameful, they wagered, that no girl would want to admit that they participated in freely, if she knew what they meant. Their lack of subtlety was clear, Red’s mother understood and then relayed to Red later with much frustration. Red reaches out her hand to touch her mother’s shoulder, but her mother speaks, cutting the gesture: “Don’t you see how this is affecting everyone?”
Perhaps it would be better, Red thought, if she disappeared. red as was here, as becoming as becoming not here,/ red as note and gone and not… The memory of someone’s hot fur tangled in her own, its unbearable weight still pressing on her flesh. She remembers the teeth glinting against a spark of sun, those happy knives coming down so hard that she felt she had never known her own meat before, how tender it could puncture. Let me be gone, she recalls thinking in the moment. Let me be one less body in the world, fall away into shadow such that when he moves to strike again, he would smack against nothing.
The first time Red said the word survivor, it rolled around in her mouth like a giant loose tooth. She was six when she went with her mother to the dentist, her young teeth so sharp that they cut the tender roof of her mouth. She learned to talk and eat carefully even as her mother warned she was a danger to herself. Red’s mother sat her on the dentist chair and with the gas mask over her snout, she was told to count backwards from 10, a lolling number that lulled her fast to sleep. When she woke up, her cheeks had ballooned to a comical size and she felt her head full of cotton.
“You’re quite the survivor,” the dentist said, patting her on her head and handing her a red lollipop.
“I a sur-fi-for?” Red’s mouth spat out when she talked and was told not to talk anymore as she healed.
When Red woke up hours later and felt the inside of her mouth, she was surprised to find that the crowded sharps that she knew so intimately, those teeth she counted one by one to fall asleep at night, were mostly gone save for a handful with at least a human finger length of space between them.
Now, as she considers the word survivor, something she has come to associate with the feeling of extraction, of pain and absence, it bears a familiarity that she cannot quite put into full words. When she first met Doctor, he called her a survivor, something he must have learned as part of the progressive psychiatry lexicon. “What are your feelings about being called a survivor?” he asked after she brought it up as a question. “What do you think you have survived?”
Red answered that what she survived was the interrogation. Smarting off but also it was the truth. When she woke up from the incident, the paramedics surrounded her, telling her to hold still. When she moved her head slightly, her whole body contracted in a terrible pain. But there was the sky before her, blue and moving with heat currents. She did not know whether to be relieved or curse herself for living through it. She barely had time to decide before the police came and demanded to know about the other body. “What other body?” Red croaked. Those would be her first words after waking. The police and paramedics exchanged looks, and suddenly Red understood what they meant. The towels and bandages in their hands were drenched and they held the volume of more than one body’s blood.
“Do you not remember?” Doctor asked. He asked it kindly first and then let the next question fall sharply onto his office floor. “Or is there something you’re not telling us?”
the difference between a hung jury and a hanged man is breath in envisioning justice. This, Red knows intimately. The memory locked somewhere in the caverns of her body. Red as blood and traveling, the memory parsed through many cells could both sustain and assail against her. The body encountering the outer limits of its trauma struggling for one continuous breath. But it will take more than breath; it will take a whole new set of lungs, a new body, a non-wolf and non-girl body, before it can be safe to tell.
“No, I don’t remember,” Red said to Doctor, which was the most available truth at the moment. Sometimes in the spaces, there is fear. Choose one.
Several days after the incident, the police visited her at the hospital and asked again, “What do you remember?”
“Nothing!” Pumped full of fluids that made her numb all over, Red’s patience was short.
They put a photo in front of her. “Do you know who this is?”
Red looked and saw the bright face of a young wolf, one who looked just like her except with a longer snout and a trunk for a neck. She did know him, in fact, as someone she knew a long time ago. Her head hurt and she asked to sleep, to resume the interrogation another time.
As the police exited, she overhead one of them say to the other, “Isn’t that crazy? Do you know anyone who could have survived that?”
The nightmares double their visits to Red’s already plagued mind.
Some days before, the news had reported on the anniversary of the incident in the small town. In footage panning over the road where the incident occurred, there were scenes from the year before, of bouquets left to dry on the roadside, cardboard signs that said “Prayers” and a tiny stuffed bear that had rolled onto its back unattended. What could they have been mourning? Red thought, watching the screen, and then realized it was her half-life they were after. How quickly the town had left the vigil to rot, that after mourning Red, they had promptly forgotten her.
In her nightmares, the incident visits in a revised form—a red field where the poppies are submerged in a shallow pool of blood. The vigil of flowers and prayers and stuffed animals litter the field, their backs drenched in unfamiliar pollen. In the far distance, Red can make out land where the pool ends. Red thinks, For those of us who live at the shoreline/ standing upon the constant edges of indecision/ crucial and alone there is a choice. She is nowhere near the shore, not even close enough to make any decision that can alter her life. A crushing thought. As she takes several steps forward towards the land, the blood gets deeper and thicker, the poppies less like cushions and more like thorny flowers. The floor beneath her feet pricks.
At Doctor’s office, Red finds a note in his pad that says: Patient has begun to present forms of sick speech. “What is this?” she demands though she already knows. She has revealed too much by not revealing much at all. Doctor removes his glasses and shakes his head, saying, “You shouldn’t have seen that.” Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill, but as spreading infection, as making the whole body ill.
In her nightmares, this sickness sits in her heart; it bore a hole through her. In the red field, Red can hear Doctor’s voice resounding across the sky: “She has lost all control of her delusions” and “There is reason to believe she is a danger to herself.” But I am not sick, Red thinks, and then, her voice, small and faltering, I must be sick. The sky thunders and a cold whips around a shivering Red. She continues to move towards the shore, her body sinking further into the bloody depths. It grazes her chin and the liquid’s copper scent feels much like her own.
The news footage plays a soft melodic tune across the vigil images before it defers to alarm. The sketches of a snarling wolf unfurl across the screen, the wanted figure still at large. Red, squinting, thinks the wolf looks just like her. She touches her ears, her teeth. A monster. Perhaps this is what the police were after all along.
To Doctor, Red asks “Do you think I’m a killer?”
Doctor stares deep into the yellow of her eyes. He says nothing but his hands—whether he’s aware of it or not—reaches for the closest blunt instrument.
How does it all escalate so quickly?
In the nightmare, nearing the shore, Red’s head goes underwater. While previously bobbing on tiptoes, her feet begins to kick like propellers until she is running in blood. Its viscous liquid seems to want to fix her in place. She tries not to think of all the blood she must have drank, how it must be filling up her belly and lungs. It seems to be fighting with something within her. The ghosts keep knocking on her body’s thick walls. She chokes and her insides rattle with the cries of every ghost, their haunted histories crashing against each organ. The more she fights them, to try to stay afloat, the more they push back. She refused to let them out.
Her feet touch ground again though her head is still submerged. She reaches out to touch a sandy incline, but something catches hold of her foot. She slips and feels her head bounce against the poppies beneath her, their swollen bodies smacking sharp against her own. When she manages to flip herself over, the grip still binding her feet, she sees a mirror image of herself. The other is stronger though and pins her to the poppied ground, seeming not to need any breath while submerged in the blood.
On the day of the incident, Red recalls, she did not want to die. That day, she looked upward at a face that looked too much like her own. His violence was sudden and also familiar. His body touched hers once before. He folded upon her, the whole of him, and she fought every whimper inside her to stay awake, to remember it all with eyes.
So it is better to speak/ remembering/ we were never meant to survive. Red pushes against her nightmare self, surprised at her own strength. When she lifts her head, she can taste the air again. The air, it tastes like rain.
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