smwrites: A woman sits at a typewriter, pages flying, a plug in the back of her awesomely big-curly hair. (Default)
smwrites ([personal profile] smwrites) wrote2012-11-10 06:26 am

“The Mouth It Can Heal”

“The Mouth It Can Heal”
Bees, goats, grapevines. What else?
Content notes: none

When these gentry farmhouses were built in the eighteenth century, nobody could get to them from the big cities in less than three months, and the rich still managed to live there. Nowadays, give the moneyed a few years of quick deliveries during the Unification and they got soft, so once the state boundaries came back up and a newspaper from Bryonie City needed to go through ten checkpoints before it dropped onto your doorstep – and it sure didn’t get to you in a week – they couldn’t tolerate it and moved right out, selling their old homes cheap. Their fashions and their news and their financial statistics were all out there on the Inside Coast, not in the mellow Twen Valleys.

The point being, I didn’t impoverish myself when I bought my little Mathis Estate, with its woods and pasture and three-bedroom home and hand pump well and barn big enough for sixty head of cattle. No, didn’t run through my funds putting up the hives for the bees or the grapevine trellises or even buying up thirty-six good goats to get dwarfed by that barn each night and a good bread oven for the kitchen. When I relied on a market that wasn’t there anymore – the taste of the rich for musky cheese, good honey, better wine, and honest bread, like they could somehow get a bit lower and more honest in life by eating it up – that screwed me over. At least the honey and wine and cheese could be shipped out, but it took a while for the funds to come back. Same as the newspapers my goods had to go through a lot of checkpoints, and not all the wine made it to the other side, and the sales weren’t what a person could live on.

So I ate my honest bread – it was too good to sell, anyhow – and I did some work for the neighbors. Inside a year everybody knew me for training up hunting dogs, tempting bees to hives, and getting a pond stocked with happy fishes. It worked fine. I lived a good life, me and the goats and the oven in the creaking old house.

I got around by a moped with an old ground squirrel necrogolem motor that responded well to prayer, violence, and being walked for a few minutes every couple miles. That day I didn’t mind the walking much, since the wind blew sweet with timothy grass and big open space smell. I needed to feed up the goats, but for the evening I could have a stiff drink on the porch and watch the fireflies come out.

To the sound of the squirrel’s cogs squeaking angrily I rolled down the dusty track of my drive and coasted around the side of the house to put up the moped in one of the barn stalls, which I’d repurposed into a little taxidermy mechanic shop for all those times the necrogolem pissed out on me.

When I came through the pasture gate, the goats failed to crowd over from the pasture to investigate me for food; they weren’t out grazing at all.

Hell and damn, they’d said a werewolf was over from Copica, and the pest could well be a herd-killer rather than a human-eater. That sort could kill even a cattle rancher’s beasts overnight, right down to the breeding bulls, and strew the entrails like garlands for kicks – nothing like what a wolf or dog pack got up to among the calves.

Still wheeling the moped because I kept a rifle strapped across the back – it being dangerous days, and me carrying the coins I made from the odd jobs in my pack – I went into the reeking comfortable air of the barn, boot-clunking and the gears of the moped squeaking, about as subtle as a white bison in summer. Between that and the how my breathing sawed at the prospect of a blood-dripping monster standing in a pile of my pets and business, I didn’t hear the singing for a bit, and it sure took my eyes a while to figure out what they saw on the other side of the barn all crowded around with intent goats.

Once I did understand, my hands let go of the moped and it went over onto my foot. I screamed because of the pain – right.

It – she, I would learn later, whatever that counted for – she rolled her segmented self upright and swayed there taller than me, her chitin all glossy black and her antenna twitch-twitching as she sized me up. She had a thousand legs colored like shards dripping blood with delicate hands. Childs’ hands. A raffesta. I had a raffesta in my barn. Good luck, I guessed, since their artwork sold for millions and they left it behind when they moved on, but right then I wanted the gargantuan insect right out my door. She curled her blunt head forward and presented me with that mask they have on the back – not a mask, really, but a flexible white spot with more muscles than a dozen humans can boast of, capable of making all sorts of fanciful shapes. For my sake she formed up a face up top, smiling pleasantly, ‘eyes’ as empty as a statue’s.

“Your animals are more charming than your neighbors,” she said to me first off.

“Who the hell are you?” I finally yanked my foot out from under the moped. “Mother of hell! You’re trespassing.” I know, I know, the raffesta are the oldest and wisest of all the sentient species, but I didn’t care too much for all those legs.

Her voice was most of the ways in my head and part of the ways a clicking of mandibles and a faint whiff of rotting leaf litter smell. “Will you tell the birds they are trespassing, next?”

“I’ve got respect for your type,” I said, “I consider you a person and that’s why I’m telling you—”

The goats began to bleat pitifully. The oldest of the rams nudged his horns against the raffesta’s side. She reared back and I watched with a faint horror as those mandibles stretched wide.

She began to sing.

Just my luck, thought I, her art’s singing. Can’t sell that away when she leaves. The thought sort of meandered away as I listened to the whole song, swaying a bit. I never could describe it to anybody else other than to say that I’ve never been touched so intimate before or after. When she finished off I asked kind of quiet-like, “What’s your name, then?”

“Sings Lullabies.” The mask winked, a mischievous smile on it.

I snorted and jerked down to get the moped upright. “Yeah, sure. You came up with that on the spot.”

“Will you think of anything else when you look at me?” She undulated forward, and that put me off a minute, but I wanted her to stay now. Even when she stood herself up in front of me, her mandibles level with my face, I still wanted her. “New names are the most honest names.”

I almost dropped the moped again going to cross my arms in a defensive posture. “Yeah? Then what do you think my honest name is, Sings Lullabies?”

Forward, forward she leaned, and her antennae brushed across either of my cheeks. “Honey.”

“No,” I said.

“Yes.” She swayed down and caught up one of my hands in her own; for all she had a thousand, this one fitted in my palm like my baby sister’s had. “It’s a pleasure, Honey.”

“Okay,” I said, maybe a little dazed, “okay, you can go right into the house while I feed the goats here.”

She made a sound like I thought the ocean must make when she moved by me, and the whole length of her body brushed against my calf, too.

Don’t call me coward, because before she went out the doors I shouted after her, “What’s that for, then?”

“I’ve been talking to the bees about you.” The raffesta tilted her head back; the mask reoriented so she might as well have been looking at me right side up. Wasn’t looking at me at all, her faceted eyes on the other side of her, but wanted me to feel that solemn stare. “The bees and the goats and the grape vines.”

“Only good things, I hope,” I said, remembering how my mother used to say that tartly – nobody ever said good things about my mother and she knew it – and I didn’t get an answer, just the ripple of the raffesta going out into the afternoon sunlight.

The goats crowded around me, wanting feeding now that their songs were sung. I never have figured out where Sings Lullabies spent that first night; like when you go to get something to swat a spider with and come back and it’s gone, she made herself scarce and I stayed up in bed staring at every sound, sure those unexplainable insect horrors that happen at night would befall me any moment.

Three days later, after she’d taken two boiled eggs from me and talked aimlessly of life and spent several hours unresponsive on my couch, I came home to woodchips on my front lawn and the sound of gnawing.

“What are you, a fucking termite?” I came scrambling up my front steps ready to cry and tear off some antennae and set aside some money for to replace my porch rails.

“I am a raffesta,” she said, and the mask made a dismissive face. She levered herself off the rail she’d been chewing on. “I do beautiful things. See?” Three of her little hands gestured open-palmed to it.

“That’s a damned lot to ask of a mouth to— Oh.” I leaned close, looking, because those rails had been splintering and a little paint-splotched last I looked, and now they looked glossed up and as finely turned as a pretty woman’s ankles. I never really thought about it before, but now I could see they were made out of walnut, good old wood.

“I have the other side entirely done,” she said, and to her credit she sounded not a bit self-satisfied about it. Just an artist reporting something she’d gone and done and you could look at it if you wanted.

I said, “Trespasser. Vandal.” And I went to look at the beautiful thing she’d done for me. By nighttime she had the whole railing refinished and was making happy noises about doing the deck next, and we both sat on the steps, me watching stars and drinking something stiff, her doing whatever occupied the eyes of raffesti during the night. I cleared up my throat and said, “You can stay in the guest bedroom, you know.”

“I like the basement,” she replied, and I didn’t want to imagine her coiled around the water heater with the cobwebs spangling her chitin – couldn’t help it, though.

I scratched at the back of my head. “That can’t be the nicest place you’ve ever been. I hear you’re feted in the cities.”

Her legs rippled and clicked, a shrug multiplied by a thousand. “After a century the museum grew stale and I could find no more wood to shape. I meet many people this way – traveling.”

“Yeah?” I thought of me, with my bees and goats and grapes and odd-jobs. “I never understood it, reading about your kind. From the Tree, really from it in the way the rest of us aren’t, wiser and older. We must be like ants to you.”

In the dark the light did not catch on her matte eyes, and her head was blunt and overlarge as she swung it towards me, the height of inhumanity. Somehow it still seemed a thoughtful stare. “You’re not so small. Many years younger, but not small.”

I pulled a mighty unimpressed face at her.

“In the time before this time, we had too much of poison to think much of art, although we always tried to make beauty of our burrowing.” She sighed, a noise that reverberated all along her body, an exhale from a great many little lungs. I felt the wind of it tug at my hair. “Why should we not enjoy company now that we have it?”

“How old are you?” That one didn’t get an answer, maybe because you didn’t ask a lady raffesta her age anymore than you would a human. I finished off my drink; anyways the raffesta wasn’t so coldly regal as the papers made them out to be, I guessed. Common knowledge said they were more interested in fixing what humans broke or did badly – buildings, mostly – than interacting with us. It occurred to me that I should be suspicious over what the bees said to her about me that this one took such an interest.

Except I knew when she asked, “What is your art?”

“Humans aren’t like raffesti.” My throat closed up a little. “We don’t all—”

Calm but overriding, she asked, “What is your art, Honey?”

“I used to paint,” I said – whispered, really. I didn’t feel very brave. “Abstract, mostly, with peoples’ faces in. I don’t always know who they are. Sometimes the strangers are really me beneath a lot of fat or makeup or scars or wrinkles. How I would look in a different world.” I paused a moment. “They’re not very good.”

“You keep them in the basement.” Sings Lullabies laughed – out loud, not in my head, her mandibles grinding against each other. “I’ve seen them. They are real artwork.”

I looked at the sky and listened to one of the goats complaining in the barn. If that kept up for much longer I’d have to check, but it quieted down. “You work wood and sing, then?”

“No. I work with my mouth.” She stretched her mandibles, delicate motion and a terrible long gape. “I—”

“I got work tomorrow early,” I said, flustered somehow and rocking on my toes as I got to my feet, groping after my balance in a way that one drink shouldn’t have made me do. Without comment, Sings Lullabies held up my glass to me; I mumbled and bolted. I stayed up a long time thinking of the creature in my basement lifting tarps from canvases. Thought of her saying, matter-of-fact, They are real artwork.

I came back from the vines to find my deck looking all high class polished and the front door newly carved – chewed? – with images of heavy grape vines, goats frolicking, the bees on their hives and flowers. I admired it a while, rough-scratched hands in my pockets, and wondered what exactly I did to deserve this. When Sings Lullabies was out of sight it got real easy to think that way: that a strange blessing had come to beautify this life of mine. The more time I spent with the raffesta, the more I felt like that in her presence. I took off my muddy shoes at the front door mat, touched a toe to the slick-soft grain of my deck in a sort of wonderment, and pushed into the kitchen.

“Oh, fuck you,” I said, faced with an easel and a half-painted portrait of myself deer-eyed in ivy leaves, lip lifted in coyote-snarl, hands splayed agitated in bee-wings fluttering. “Fuck you, I don’t do that anymore. I don’t even think like that now.”

Goddamn smart insect hadn’t waited around for me to come in and throw a hissy, though, which left me sulking around with no target and paints going dry on the palette. Those things cost, and my own half-painted eyes looked at me with a sort of beseeching air. I tossed the cup I’d been getting out of the cupboard into the sink, hearing the plastic clang dully in the deep basin, and stalked across to the painting, meaning to pack it all up and toss it in the attic, like that would keep Sings Lullabies away. Except the copper green and goldenrod and sienna on the palette couldn’t be scraped back into their bottles, and I’d meant to use them on the leaves, though how the raffesta could know when I’d only just gotten the ink and blocking on them I couldn’t say. Maybe the bees told her that, too.

She came in hours later, still picking splinters delicately from her face, using her hands in a motion that reminded me of a fly cleaning itself, and if she’d said anything about the painting I think I would have left and not come back until I knew she had to have moved on, all the wood prettified and no company to tie her to the place. But, “I like potato peelings,” she said, mundane and casual and all.

So I made myself mashed potatoes with the smoky cheddar one neighbor paid me with and a pile of wild greens I’d got on my way home from the fields; on a separate plate I put the peelings and the leaves that had wilted since I got them up from the ground, and I guessed it must be acceptable because she ate them all, delicately lowering her mouth to scrape up each piece.

A week from then she came in on me adding eye-shine and grey hairs to the canvas-me, nothing more, and I’d been at it an hour with a three-hair brush. She raised herself beside me like a snake ready to strike and asked, “Why did you stop?”

“That point you won yesterday for not saying anything? You lost it. Good thing you’ve got the extra.” My hand had jerked and put a grey thread through the eyes I’d worked so hard on. I thought, This hair’s name is Sings Lullabies.

She asked, “Why do you paint yourself often?”

“’Cause I like beautiful things.” It used to be the egotism of that made me blanch and shy, but you get too old for that fast. “The old bag in three of the canvases is my mother. Horrible woman. She loved me, maybe only me, and I miss her like hell.”

“Unique things,” the raffesta said, as if it were a whole statement on its own, and maybe it was. “You’re alone here.”

“When my partner left me it was with the words ‘I’m watching you turn into somebody like your mother’, and I said, ‘That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever told me. I always wanted to be her when I grew up.” The coyote-snarl wasn’t enough. I tilted up the edge and now the painting-me looked ready to bite or kiss. It had taken me all that time to build up the guts to say, “I haven’t been seeing you as much.”

“That’s why I need antacids,” the raffesta said dryly, and reached out a hand until one finger hovered gently over the painting’s lips. “Or would, if they were efficacious for me. —Tomorrow evening you will come up into the attic with me.”

I stretched even though my posture was at its best when I painted. “Sure. I don’t go up there much.”

In retrospect, she probably knew that from the cobwebs. Gotta clean, I thought and got a little fussed about it, but that stopped mattering the minute I saw the beams. She didn’t carve these like she had the house’s ornaments, but cleaned them, put a coat on them that made their honest, massive strength obvious. They didn’t gleam, but I knew they would last – maybe forever. I would be dust and gone and these beams would still stand testament to the home I lived in. I hadn’t even realized before that they were peg and notch construction, not nailed. Then she held out in her delicate hands a candle, and obediently I put my lighter to it.

She’d done more than clean; she’d imbedded little pieces of mirror into the ceiling, and I knew immediately that they were the stars, the constellations, same as that first night she’d sat beneath them with me. She whispered, “You look at them when you are in turmoil, but sometimes it rains.”

Our stars. I blurted, “This is the best thing you’ve done.”

She rippled, a shrug – not dismissive of the work or my reaction, but of her part in it. “There is a painting of your mother in the basement. Behind her is a man leaving through a door. Her hands are alligators and on her lap is a small, nervous dog. She has no feet and the home around her is twisted and strange. May I hang it here?”

I hadn’t thought of that one since my mother died; it seemed too cruel, no matter however much I admired her rough scales. I swallowed hard and said, “I think I’ll clean, first.” I hated cleaning, but Mama had enough of dirt as a live woman.

She dropped to her belly and made her regal way to the pull-down ladder; paused. “The bees won’t tell me how to steal their Honey.”

“I’m right here.” Maybe she thought she could get away with that, but mindspeak made lying hard – so did speaking with cantankerous old farmers, I guessed. “I can teach you how to harvest from the hives, if you like.”

Sings Lullabies must have been pretty old, herself, which I should have known from the legs but I only really figured out then. It delighted her to have coy words answered with brash. “Yes,” she said, laughing, and went down.

When the floor didn’t have anymore dead spiders on it, I hung up Mom; she looked right under the stars.

It took me another couple weeks to get the painting of myself done. The day I hung it under glass near the hives for my bees, Sings Lullabies took their combs from them on her own for the first time. After, she asked, “What of the grapes and the goats?”

“They’re easier,” I replied, “they can look after their own selves – maybe like mousers in the barn. These are your fireside tabbies.” A worker droned onto my shoulder, shaking smoke-fogged wings, and then launched away again to check on her mother-queen.

I left for three days to get a big canvas ordered up from the city and came back to half my floors scraped down and spat up to polish. By the time a shipping company got around to delivering my twenty-by-twenty, Sings Lullabies had finished those off and started on the wood siding, and the whole thing looked so swank that the deliveryman went away with a dissatisfied expression over my good-sized tip. He must have thought I was a big dog in those parts.

The raffesta helped me carry the canvas into the barn, reminding me somehow of a dancer, swaying there. The goats wanted to investigate but I’d gotten a little cordon set up before I’d left. They would make a good audience; I could’ve figured how to get it into the house, but this was better.

“Why did you stop?” Sings Lullabies asked.

“Are we at this again?” I dragged the table for my paints a little closer, touched the ladder leaned against the wall. “I’m gonna start taking away points again.”

She arched her neck and pressed her mask against the canvas; she didn’t use the pool that much with me, but now I saw she’d made a whole face, lips and all. Kissed my natal art like a god-parent kissing their soul-child’s forehead at the naming. “How many do I have?”

I shivered. “Dunno. Haven’t kept track. More.”

We worked through fall – which meant harvest, stamping grapes with my toes and laughing when Sings Lullabies curled herself up in the tubs and tried to wiggle them to pulp at noontime, and evenings with Sings Lullabies stretched up against my walls to lick the molding into grape-leaf curls. Then winter, which meant ten degrees cooler, slate skies, bare vines, drowsing bees, and Sings Lullabies asleep in my basement. The goats still wanted for attention, so it was to their pleasure that I spent most of my time with them out in the barn, fingerless gloves on my hands like a callback to my rebellious teen city days, paint going onto the canvas in big loud swatches. Lots of it needed to be pink, pink like grapefruits, because I wanted to put scarlet and silver over it.

The eyes I put masking fluid over, to be taken off later, because the canvas should show through. Like a soul. They would be less interesting realistic, matte black.

I would stagger back into the house after too many hours stretched thin over that artwork and I would find bread with honey spread on it, always warm from the toaster when I got there, and a cup of tea brewed amber with a sliver of lemon curled in the bottom. I never saw Sings Lullabies get up to do it, but sometimes I would hear as she settled back down, heavy movement in the basement like the sighing of the earth. It was one of those days where I’d gotten so preoccupied with putting the sky under the feet of my painting that I sat down to my sweet bread and tart-bodied tea and said, “My lover left me because I wanted the paint more than I wanted our bed. I guess it hurt so bad because I couldn’t argue. I kept remembering my father walking out on my mother, him saying, You love the kid more than me, and I wanted to explain, Art’s my kid. You can be in the room with us, but you can’t want more. I gave up on lovers and I guess I gave up on art, too, and stuck with the capricious unjealous things like the bees. I learned I couldn’t have my cake and eat it too, so I threw it away altogether.” I whistled my breath out between my teeth. “You can have your two points back, Sings Lullabies. I guess it wasn’t too much of a question after all.”

I got it done by spring, and the last thing I did was paint a white smear across a certain spot and press my lips to it. It tasted godawful and I gagged and held my lips pulled back off my teeth afterwards, goats laughing at me, but it got the point across. Had to.

When Sings Lullabies came crawling up the basement steps singing a sleepy, affectionate song, notes that felt like touches as much as words, I gave her the scraps I’d saved over winter and sat next to her on the floor, maybe a bit tense. One of her hands came to rest on my knee. She preceded me to the barn, excitement undulating her legs double-quick, and me following shyly shoulder-rounded in her wake. We came to the doors and I threw them wide, sunlight flooding all twenty-by-twenty of hard-won thick-painted canvas: illuminated was her blunt head, the glassy spread of her legs, beneath her figure the stars that were her stepping-stones and above her head the infinite beauty of earth.

The real Sings Lullabies who I had mirrored stood taller than human-high, tall as the painting and coiling down, looking at each inch of herself reflected through me. She paused at the mask, blank except for the shape of my mouth – but she did not let that rush her – and gave a chattering laugh at the detail I’d included on her chest that wasn’t a chest on a raffesta, but something like a groin – I’d checked some details in the city library, when I went to get the canvas. I made it anatomically correct because god-be-damned if I wanted something spiritual, and I never could lie too well. Least of all to someone who talked from her head and made me feel obliged to talk right back out of mine.

Her inspection done she came to rest in front of me, her arms spread, and she bent her head to show me her mask, as she so rarely did nowadays. She did not form a whole face there, but only lips, and they were my lips but more – the lips of my art, of someone who knew how to be in the room with us. Shaking I met the raffesta halfway, a chaste and obscene kiss, and the mask felt cool and fleshy and had a subtle under-the-skin movement, like a heartbeat. Maybe the aorta – that was in their head, part of the heart right there at the center of things, which made it sound more romantic than it probably was.

We were both old and we’d made a long enough courtship, though; that kiss broke and she lowered her mandibles to my neck, and I shuddered, raising my hands, at the strangeness of those mouthparts opening against my skin, of delicate hidden things brushing down my neck. I knew what sort of caustic and preservative fluids she could spit up and it only made me love her more, knowing she could but never would.

She touched, tasted, and her antennae brushed across my eyelids, and I slipped my hands down to touch her, thinking, mine, mine. I didn’t need to work so hard for it; I felt no revulsion of her. I’d spent the whole winter painting a lover down to her most insectual detail, and the nights I’d cried over it were long past. Easy, now, to undress, even imagining what blatting commentary the goats traded among them, easy to feel safe when the a dozen pairs of her hands stroked my hips and legs and her mandibles slipped lower. Tender, my fingers spread on her mask, the thing that was not her face.

“Oh saints,” I said of her mouth that fixed things, and then flushed, hoping nobody up top actually took notice. Just like with another human, you could feel against you when Sings Lullabies laughed; her mandibles gently pressed and would have chattered if they were not occupied. I gasped, “The bees told you...?”

“That their human wanted love,” said Sings Lullabies, “and I wanted a needful lover.”

     a postscript:
Sings Lullabies carved a frame for the painting of herself. I didn’t understand the motif until she explained, “It’s a heart. A raffesta heart.”

“It begins in the head,” I said, and now I saw the aortas, the way she had laced the long trailing organs into the grape leaves that represented me. I never could explain to her why it made me laugh press my face against her side and laugh.