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“Your Title Is Your Spine”
from A Vision of the Author After the Apocalypse
Destroying what’s unpleasant in the past is my therapeutic method.
Content notes: none

The red of dawn comes when the embers die to black crusts. There is a small blue blanket over my shoulders, and my tongue is sore with explanations repeated twice and thrice over. No, I don’t have insurance. Who doesn’t—? My father didn’t let me know it had lapsed. Is there anyone who would do this to you? There aren’t enough people left to be enemies. About an investigation… I know. There aren’t enough people left to investigate.

I have made one of the police cry, when I reached up to heaven and heaved out a scream. He thought me in pain when the only fingers I meant for my ancestors in heaven to see were my middle ones.

All in all a productive night, and it will earn me a nap until noon. There’s a sense of unfinished business, though, like to go now would be leaving the grave unfilled after tumbling in the corpse. I suspect it’s something that I need to be alone for, and though the cops are gone, the firemen are still packing in their gear.

One of the men leans against the truck, a crackle-covered book of poetry he found among the ruins held close to his eyes. The author is dead, obscure, and out of print, yet someone will still look for meaning in forgettable words. I wouldn’t have stuffed the basement with linen and newsprint and accelerant if I wanted the old louses of fiction to survive. With a glance across the rubble spurted with foam – I regret a little the indignity of that – I stride over to the man, the smile of a trauma victim on my face, and ask, “Please, sir. So little is left. Can I…” I hold out a hand.

He looks at the title, author, the name of the poem he’s halfway through, but it’s all too long to remember and I don’t think he’ll find it if he does. It’s with triumph that I tuck it under my arm, because I’ve been merciful, freeing him of its influence. Well, also I’m a bit vengeful, and the book in my grips is a symbol of what has cocked up my spine into a question mark.

“Can I…” His fingers twitch as if there’s another book I can take from him. “… is it safe?” I gesture at the rubble.

“The fires are out, but – no.”

“But if I walk around the edge…”

He makes unhappy sounds but sends me off with a nod and a vague gesture – ‘be careful,’ I translate, and ‘nothing that happens is my fault’.

Once I’m out of sight on the other side of a half-standing wall, I drop the book into a pile of melted insulation and splintered wainscoting and grind it with my heel, twisting and twisting until I’ve broken the spine and torn the pages. Kicking it aside, I stroll on, looking for – what? More survivors, I decide. God forbid the stacks of National Geographic have pulled through.

The noise of fluttering pages cants me towards the far back wall, the home of the reference books – hah! reference, if you wanted to know the state of knowledge in the ’80s . The firetruck being backed onto the street is of faint interest besides this sound, which grows more feeble and less recognizable as I come nearer. I think it might be the ghosts walking off the property, their freezing breath huffing with annoyance at the enforced move, ethereal baggage rattling over fallen beams and burst pipes. I laugh, but the mental image isn’t funny because it feels too mad and true.

No. There’s, impossible—

—a woman curled foetal in a nest of burnt leather covers and scraps of glossed magazine. Her small breasts are blistered from the books, all fire-eaten, that she clutches. They look like dead babies, I think, and so does she, because I want to close my mind’s gates against the obvious question. There’s a little voice called Fire Chief Morris which wants me to know that the floor isn’t, that the damage has made it unsupportable, but I stagger over toppled bookcases and fall to my knees in the ash beside this small body. Mutilated? I thought so, though there’s no sign of serious harm.

“You better fucking be alive,” I whisper, “because—” it’ll kill me to have killed you. But that’s not right, no more right than the nervous giggle that kicks out of my lungs. The hand I’m shaking her shoulder with isn’t good either. Letting go, I shout for help, then lean forward with my fists under my chin and ask, “Are you okay?” There’s the phrase, pruned and bland as an old woman’s prized petunia.

My face is made of words in the reflection of her eye.

“Why the fuck isn’t someone— For the love of Jesus someone help—” The firemen are gone, though.

“Murderer,” she calls me, too quiet for anybody but the guilty to hear, and I don’t I don’t think about how fragile the floor is and how sharp the beams beneath and how it would be easy, to throw her out into the center of the dead building.

The words are like vomit, acid and reflex, when I repeat, “Are you okay?” I could be sick with how trite I’m being, but it’s unreasonable to feel bad about one’s poor wordsmithing while kneeling next to the nude body – is it possible for your clothes to burn off, leaving you pretty well untouched? – of the library’s woman. There’s nothing reasonable in the line between her eyes like the crease of a well-loved book.

But her eyes are brown, and don’t reflect anything at all. She’s a madwoman in the wreck, and it occurs to me – is she a woman? Her breasts are so small and her hips narrow and her hands like a rat’s feet; but she sags, a little, so that I could fit my hand to the bottom curve of her belly and feel the give and wrinkle of it. In the crook of her legs is a discreet tangle of hair. Why do I feel ashamed, then, as if sexing something without sex?

A child would be easier to explain. Kids can be whatever they want; they can even be a well-loved book. “I don’t think I can carry you.” Yes, I can. “You have to stand up.” Please, stand up.

The carcass of an encyclopedia falls from her hands in flakes and a few live pages – elephant, illustration of a bull in musth intact.

“Are you homeless? Because it’s not safe and it’s not sanitary to be here.” I am hunched with embarrassment, so I lift my shoulders like I meant all along to give a nonchalant shrug. “I can give you a few bucks, enough to get to the shelter. It’s not too crowded, you know.” I don’t, personally, but it’s a good bet that no place is packed.

“Do you have a bookcase?”

I have never wished so hard for an answer to be no. “Yes. —For now.”

“Your uncle’s.”

I spit for an answer, which is shameful enough almost to overwhelm the confusion. “Here, let’s get you on your feet, okay? —Take my coat.” Other than the blisters and a mess gritted into her skin, there’s no sign of hurt on her, but she stares at the garment in my hand with incomprehension. “C’mon. Don’t do this. It’s a jacket.”

On those terms she accepts it, leaving me to halter a distaste at punning. Though she wraps herself tight, there’s too much leg and that openness of her face left, and I think about taking her home and giving her sweatpants and a sweatshirt and slippers and a bathrobe, all of it fluffy, all of it going on until she’s not so damned dignified and ethereal. Right now, she tilts her face into the light, and is unhidden. “Take me there. To the bookcase. To your home.” She looks around her. “The home that is not this.”

“I never lived here, and I don’t for a minute believe you did, either. Okay, though. Sure. If not for me, you wouldn’t have gotten all – charred. So. Yeah. Come on, my car is parked down on the street.” She would sound a fool if she said more, I tell myself. Anyone is pretty speaking short and sharp.

When we reach my truck, she reaches into the back and finds a linen napkin, evidence if I ever saw it; but she opens the passenger door and climbs in without comment. For the first ten minutes of the drive, silence, and her playing the damn napkin between her fingers.

“What’s your name?”

I never will see relief like that again, as if something has broken between us, and everything will be beautiful now. She drops the napkin and tells me, “Feral Child.”

“That’s…” I jerk back into my own lane.

“My title, yes.”

“Oh, sweetheart.” She’s a poor mad thing and I have her in the cab with me, which makes me think the illness is catching, but where I couldn’t make a case from the way she looked or where I found her, something about that word, title, takes away the edge of fear that has me driving too fast down this old road. Slowing by twenty miles per hour, I placate myself with speaking sense that I know she won’t accept. “People aren’t like that. But never mind – how about a nickname?” Something petty. I am a fool and a coward but I am honest, and I want to make her as small as I can, to make up for – earlier. “How about Fera? Think of Farrah Fawcett – even if you don’t have the hair. God. Did it burn off? I hear burning hair stinks.”

She smiles at me, puzzled. “Whatever you like. You…?”

“Kris. That’s not the whole thing, but the whole thing takes most of an evening to tell.” I dwell a moment. “The bookcase didn’t belong to my uncle. It’s my great-great uncle’s.”

“Yes But when people ask who made the case, you call him uncle.”

Quiet and more quiet. To get home means to follow turns and more turns, a spiral into the old place: an acre, a ranch house. Not all heritages can be castles. The wind against its glass rattles in old womanish complaints about mice under the floorboards and an elusive leak in the roof. Somehow the most important thing to say is, “I keep it painted.”

“There’s enough sun to see by.” Fera tilts her head towards the garage, eyebrow quirked.

“There are books in boxes from one wall to the other – same as when I was a kid, and it’s the same as it’ll end. But to hell with that. You’ll like it inside, won’t you? How long were you at the library, anyway?”

“How long has it been a library?” She’s out of the cab as soon as I shift it into park, which seems like avoidance – a way to make sure I take her question as rhetorical. When I follow her, though, and beep the lock on the truck even though there hasn’t been another person on this road in months, she is standing at the head of the walk, and turns to me. “I’m glad you burned it – which was better than abandoning it, and looking at it with hate when you drove by. —And there is still this. You cannot help but love the house in which you dwell, even if it is not your home.”

“You’ve clearly never hated where you lived.”

She shrugs, walks the path; on the way, I hear her murmur Taraxacum officinale, common dandelion, wood sorrel, Oxalis montana, and more, looking fondly down at the weeds on either side of the path. The front door doesn’t have a lock, because it lets into the personal library – but it’s strange that she assumes it will open for her. I jog the distance opened between us to ask who has taken her here before, though reason says she can’t have been when I’m the only one left of the family – and have been for the last ten years, and lived here much longer than that. The non-answer will be more disturbing than what I think up, but I’ll ask anyhow.

It pauses me to find her standing in the entryway with arms wrapped around herself, hands clenched white-knuckled on her flesh. My intelligent response came as, “The hell?”

She blushes. “There are so many people.”

There could be – there’s the door. I look for them, expecting a chorus of, Surprise! We played an awful trick on you because you burnt down what you family gave you. Then: “You means the books, don’t you.”

She smiles, and touches the spine of The Complete Pelican Shakespeare.

“Right. Come on – don’t you want pants? And a shower? I’m going to make eggs, too, with toast.”

“I will stay here.” She wanders to the shelves I’ve given over to Clancy and King, and leans forward to take a deep breath of the cheap glue smell.

I feel the grossness of my own intrusion – it’s my own home, dammit, but not right now. Let her have the place, then. I unlock the door – the real front door – and go to find food and sleep. It goes well. With my face flat to the pillow, the woman in the library seems like someone else’s problem.

At three o’ clock precisely by the count of the broken bedside clock, the sun reaches my eyes through the broken slat of the shades, and I grunt and claw out of bed in search of making myself livable. The first blush of emotional exhaustion has gone and left me keyed with the awareness of a woman in the house – somewhere. I never gave her a tour, which seemed sensible at the time, her knowing about the front door already. Now I think: what if she ate food from the fridge that I wanted? Petty, that, but citrus is hard to find. There’s no sign of her, though. I eat the orange while I wait for the pipes to spit out water almost too hot to be tolerable. The shower sluices off the last of my triumph, heats the unease from my muscles, steams me free of sleep’s lingering.

It’s all well until the door opens hard enough to crack against the wall – is that the noise of the handle going through the plaster? – and my yelp at the rush of cold air is chased by a hand tearing aside the curtain, seizing my wrist. Fera. How is she so strong? It near breaks my legs stumbling over the edge of the raised lip of the shower, wins me a barked shoulder when I try to scramble for the door frame as she drags me out into the open. When I want to hide behind my arms, she knocks them aside and roves her hand across my body, sweeping away droplets, terrified and too harsh.

What?” I ask her, and say ruder things, and catch please leave me alone before it can reach the air. “What, goddamnit, what’s wrong with you?”

“I saw the steam. With you in it.” She runs a hand through my hair, shaking water off her hand afterwards like it might be acid. Without her touch for a moment, I am alert enough to something other than my violated body and can smell her, see her: charcoal tinges her skin, so that I have the strange idea that she rubbed herself down with the newspaper I receive every Sunday and promptly throw in the trash, never having solved the mystery of how ones cuts off a subscription. It makes so little sense that only the odor of obsolescence convinces me. At least it has scuffed the dead library from her skin. “Even you,” her whisper brings me back, “even a prodigal must have been taught. This kills.” She holds a finger before my eye, a droplet trembling in the grooves of the pad.

I see my father holding me, bent over so that the rain struck his back rather than mine. Then: him in bed, body furrowed like an old man’s, and his words, No regrets. I’m like the brown paper wrapping a textbook, and my purpose— It’s a dumb family legend so I had the shower installed, after a lifetime of rubbing dirt away, masking sweat with oils. She has left smears of cheap newspaper ink all over me, and I want to rinse it off, so I turn away from her.

Her hands close either side of my waist – over the kidneys, although that doesn’t seem to be a deliberate threat – and she’s so small, I could break free if not for the fact that I am afraid of her. Afraid that she can hurt things that are in sympathy to her – to her delicacy. She seizes my neck with forefinger and thumb, at the top where it meets the skull, and says, “C one,” and goes down, down to the last, to “S five”. I burn with the knowledge of the unnatural angles of my body, and her hand running down the place where my ribcage thrusts to the side. Not bad enough for surgery, the doctors always said.

Your mother’s womb was full of liquid – my grandmother’s opinion.

“Kris,” says Fera, with disgust. “What a lie. Here is your title.”

“No. Here’s my spine. A screwy, ugly, troublesome collection of confused bones. I’m not what it is.”

“Yes. You are. You survived it.” She strokes a finger along the length where the angle is at its worst, and leaves, muttering something about hunger that I don’t bother to hear.

Yes? I mouth the stereotypical self-hate to hear other people stumble, not because I believe it, not at all because it’s heartfelt. There’s comfort and a mean satisfaction in the discomfort of others – that’s it. The ones who laugh are the ones I want to know. And yet she responds—

Survival? No. It’s far more than that, and less. It never has had the power to kill me, then or now, body or mind. I was a mean cuss of a kid with quick fists for whoever wanted to tease me about hunchbacks and hitched shoulders. I got out of breath too fast to get away from the bullies sometimes, but my grandmother called me a hardback book, the old kind that didn’t suffer for wear, and it was one of the few points on which we agreed.

So she’s wrong, this little mystic who is a part of the house, the library, the family. Scoliosis is a disability by courtesy of foreign eyes seeing sickness where there is me, and just like Fera doesn’t understand that I can hate the house, it’s not in her head that I could identify with my body rather than merely live – get by – in it. I get the towel to wrap around my nakedness, though she’s touched most of it, and cross the living room without once glancing over the back of the couch and across the island counter towards Fera, who roots through my fridge, raccoonish.

I will cease to respect her. Why didn’t she have the decency to be injured from the fire, or at least sick from walking nude and barefoot all across my house? I ask her, “Do you want a housecoat?”

“No.” She eyes leftover pasta.

Which is my dinner. “Hey. Don’t eat that.”

She finds a fork in the sink and opens the plastic container’s lid, and starts to pick out the cherry tomatoes. I let it be, because what I want right now is the phone and conversation with someone sane. I go sit on my bed with its twisted-up covers – I’ve pulled the fitted sheet loose again – and squint against the afternoon sunlight. The phone is old, with a cord, but I won’t replace it because it cradles between my shoulder and chin perfectly.

Dirk’s home phone rings itself to the answering machine, so I go for his mobile. The apartment is crap and I don’t blame him for how few things he does there: sleeps, sometimes smokes illegal things or does stuff, stuff I never ask about. He’s never been a very good person, but always a loyal friend. His mobile rings enough times that I begin to wonder if he might not have been lying about that new job, after all.

The phone picks up. “Hey, Kris.”

“You sound like shit.”

“It’s a shitty day.”

“Yeah.” I breathe out harsh. “I let a homeless person into my house. Also, the library burnt down.”

“I’m surprised you didn’t burn down the house too.” He laughs, thinking he’s making a harmless joke. “Seriously, though: congrats on that old burden taking care of itself. But I hope you don’t expect sympathy for whatever this homeless man did. ’Cause that’s a stupid thing to do, friend.”

“Homeless woman. She’s eating my pasta right now.”

“Ooh. Terrible.” His humor trails off. “There’s no one on the street, here.”

“All full of nobodies, huh? Come on, don’t be an asshole.”

“No. —I mean, there’s no one.”

He lives in one of the ’burbs, where a calm day shouldn’t be a shock. “Whatever. What should I do about this?” By now I’m whispering, though at first I thought I wouldn’t mind Fera overhearing what I have to say.

“Kick her out. Demand she engage in the horizontal tango to compensate you for the pasta. I don’t give a damn. There’s no one out here. It smells like the Old West. Gunpowder. Sweat. And somewhere there’s a swinging door creaking.”

“You’re a crazy…” But there is a noise in the background that prickles up my back with memories of spaghetti westerns. “You’re not in your neighborhood.”

“I’m at work. Don’t complain at me for answering my phone – for having it on – I can’t get fired when the boss is never around, and the customers only come when I don’t expect it. Right at opening, after closing. I let them in because I’m so damned bored by then, and sometimes I nap behind the counter.”

“The world’s bugged the fuck out,” I say.

“Your family has been fucking bugged out a long time. You’re like – like harbingers of this empty bar. Listen, I have to go, Kris. I really have to leave.”

“But what should I do?”

“Damned if I know. –It’s like the apocalypse. I’m not surprised your library burnt down. It wanted to get into the wind, to travel across all this weird shit going on and see, finally, that the world has gone stupid strange, like it is.”

Tears gather in my eyes, because I feel used; I shouldn’t – it’s a stupid theory from a stupid man. It would ruin everything, if the library wanted to go up in flames. “I burnt it down. Don’t make it—”

“You did always do what it wanted.” He laughs, shaky. “I really think you should kiss the girl.” And he hangs up.

I lower the phone, cradling it in my two hands. If I put it back on its base, I’ll have to stand up, and if I stand up it means dealing with all of this.

I’m surprised you didn’t burn the house down.

His thought is mine, now. Under the phone’s cradle is a book, something I always weigh down with one item or another. The Little Leftover Witch, which I loved as a child because my family didn’t approve of it. I could imagine myself as her, with books in place of all the magic shenanigans, until finally I came to the realization that all I wanted was a princess doll. When my sisters played at bookishness, clapping their hands with precisely the sound of heavy covers closing, and laughing with shush-shush page-turning noises, I would sit and scowl over the top of that fragile little paperback.

I touch the bent corner of The Little Leftover Witch, then pull it out from underneath the phone and take it with me into the living room. I’m still in the towel, though, and I’m shivering from the droplets that have rained all down on my shoulders and drawn life-heat out of my skin. I turn around and get the housecoat for myself, and cross out of the house into the front room. There are books lined up on the ground in a semicircle, a council. I put them back in their places. I wander through the shelves and touch the books, trying to slip my fingers between them, but there’s not any place to put in my childhood favorite.

Sometimes as I look for a reason not to kill everything that makes up my life, I seize one of the books, improperly, finger on the top part of the binding and threatening to crack it, and I think about throwing it to the ground. The familiar ridges dissuade me, and I leave them be.

The rain starts without my attention, though when Fera comes in white-eyed, her arms wrapped close around herself, I know that the rain has been coming down for hours. Her eyes are horse-like in their fear, her nostrils flared, and she stands too close at my shoulder, though not touching.

“Back off,” I try, but it’s as useless as I thought it would be.

“The truth upsets you.”

You upset me, and you’re not true. I mean, honest. What you look like isn’t what you are.”

She touches my elbow, but lets it be when I sidestep. “You wouldn’t be standing here if I didn’t have something to tell you.”

“You’re assuming that I don’t do this regularly. I do. What the hell else is there to do in this house, other than read and look at what I’ve read?”

“Oh.” In a small voice, half a breath. She might know that she was wrong about my spine, and to be wrong again must sting. “All the others are dead. Your family. You should be more careful to uphold what they were.”

“Why can’t you do that?” The Little Leftover Witch will have to live on its back, for now, balanced on top of other books.

“I’m from a different press.”

I laugh. “Old age, wear, and moving away – the rest of the world wasn’t library enough for them. My little sister was hard-used by someone who stole her in the first place. Until the modern world tempted us to spread out, we were a long-lived family. Look at me. Fera—” She grimaces at the nickname. “–Do you know what my grandmother said about it all, before she died? Did she go to the library and whisper it to the walls?”

“She did that.” Fera is cautious, looking at me sidelong.

“I don’t play the games,” I tell her, “but I know the rules. Don’t think you can intimidate me with them.”

She turns her face away, but not to pout. To look – what? Blank. Like the page where you could write your name, or the price of the book, or stamp ownership on it.

The light cuts out, at which I make an undignified noise; Fera might as well not be there, except that I stumble over her when I make for the door to the house, wanting a flashlight. She is warm, pressed against me, until I shoulder her aside. There are candles and a Bic in the kitchen drawers where I expect modernity; and a little blood spills – there’s a butcher knife here that should be hung on the magnetic rack.

Fera isn’t there when I get the flickering light going; I use that to look for a flashlight I know isn’t there, and finally head to the front room to make sure that she hasn’t hurt herself – that I didn’t hurt her, when I went past her all afraid to be in the dark with someone my heart called wicked. She waits where I left her, and there are shadows where her eyes should be, the light from the candle not enough to be useful – but a brightness like fire itself nests in the hollow of her throat. I want very badly to have driven her into town and left her in the ashes of the library after she touched me, even though that would have meant driving in the storm.

Kiss her, is what Dirk suggested, and when she leans in and up it becomes clear that she has the same idea.

Tongue on lips, one swipe, two, her intentions clear. She presses herself hard against me and frames my face in unwelcome hands. Her mouth against mine is the same set of sensations, but wetter. I never have liked girls, though it’s impossible to look at a woman’s naked body and not think about sex. What I want isn’t holding me, so I don’t hold her – after a thoughtful moment, I shove her with the hand fisted around the taper.

Her screech is so out of proportion to my violence that I laugh, that I double over, until I smell the pipe-and-dead-animal stink of burning skin. The candle flame has caught her, and an impossible fire eats from her upper arm towards her throat, climbs the hairs of her nape to her skull. Her lips are wet with her own spit, from where she prodded at my mouth with her tongue, and the flames catch on the wetness as if it is oil.

I think: the books, the house, the library. I seize her by the arms and drag her towards the door, and when she struggles I tell her: “You’ll kill them all. Feral Child, listen! Jesus fucking Christ, help me.”

She cooperates, then, and both of us fall over the lintel onto the hard path. Something breaks in me, a noisome moment that whites my vision but doesn’t matter, doesn’t even need to be attended to just now. I shove Feral Child away from me, get to my knees and roll her across the wet grass. The rain lashes, blinds me, steams from the spitting fire and triumphs over it at last.

I find out when I try to push myself to my feet that my wrist has broken; I kneel and curl up around the hurt for a little while, content to cry. My panting and Feral Child’s are inseparable, opposite halves of the same pain. When she forces me upright with hands to the shoulders and presses close, so that my thighs frame hers and her knees settle uncomfortably against me, I recoil. I don’t want her to lean against my chest as she does.

Lightning is no help for seeing, but the power comes back on, and there’s the electric light spilling out from the front room to show how her skin is runneling down her body. It is slimy, like chewed paper, when I close my arms around her with the idea that she doesn’t deserve to die – not by my hand. I don’t have the right to do that to her. I know enough about what water does to our ilk that it would kill her as certainly as the fire – all my care was for the building behind me. I think about taking her inside, but she doesn’t ask for that.

She only looks up with accusing eyes, and says in words like smeared ink, “You wouldn’t be anything without me. I made your family.”

“I am not my family,” I whisper. Her skin has begun to weep as the rain cuts down into capillaries and veins. It would be easy to lie and be poetic, but her blood is as red as anyone’s, not ink at all.

Her throat opens where a sluice of water curls down her neck and around her shoulder. She shudders as the artery in her neck spits blood in heartbeat pumps.

I ask, “Do you want to live?”

She tucks her head under my chin for an answer, and holds too tight around my chest. There isn’t a way to stand, with her like this. I settle my arms over her shoulders, loose, because it helps ease the pain to prop my wrist on her shoulder, and it’s uncomfortable to dangle my hands in the dirt. I sit like that until Fera dissolves – until Feral Child is gone.. Dropping the ruined housecoat to the ground, I go naked into my home. I would have liked some of this to have involved clothes, to make it decent.

In among the stacks, wetting the old rugs – will they mold up, and give me an excuse to discard them? – I look around me and see books. Beautiful, massive, wild. Only books.
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