Swallowing Needles

Melissa Wiley


Closer to Honey

There were gold veins on her ceiling. If not gold, amber then, something resembling resin. They once were blue, the same as everyone else’s. Only so many years of sunlight filtering through smoke-stained curtains had altered their color, put light into the ceiling. Veins all the same. Someone hovering, then, above me. Someone whose inner wrists were all I could see of the body. Someone luminous, though not angelic. Not gone to heaven. Not waiting either. Never going.

My mom said the veins were only water damage, from years of neglect to my grandmother’s ceilings. She saw them fixing my attention as I lay on an old woman’s bed, waiting to be taken home again. With my younger sister asleep beside me, I held my hands up to the ceiling, studied the differences in the webs woven beneath our skin, found my own too solid for any light to invade my bloodstream. Six or seven years old then, little as I knew about the workings of the body, something inside me sensed my own veins could not turn golden until my life was also reaching its end. I half wanted to flood with light as well, half didn’t.

I knew water alone, however, had not done this. We paid our ceilings at home little attention, did no more than my grandmother to keep them from falling. Still they were smooth, white, clean. Rain too was colorless. Water alone had not made veins once flowing with blood fill with something closer to honey. Water had not illumined what stretched out from a hidden heart toward the fingertips of someone clearly dying. Maybe my mom didn’t mean to, but she was lying.

I was used, though, to her missing things, those she didn’t want to see, my grandmother’s dishes overflowing her sink, soft mounds of ketchup and mayonnaise begun to harden. My grandmother didn’t dust her clock faces, didn’t care to extend the life of her possessions, to clean them for even passing beauty. She filled her bathtub with dirty laundry, pants unraveling from their seams, blouses browned at their armpits that took her months to transfer to the washing machine. She never pasted wallpaper whose flesh was flaking back onto her walls more tightly. She did nothing with her days as far as I could determine beyond read Harlequin romances bought at the grocery, smoke cigarettes in bed, leaving their ashes to stain her sheets in places.

When my parents left us there on Saturday evenings, my sister and I had little to do in a house with so small a yard attached, with no board games or Barbies. We sat beside my grandmother, sharing a cushion on her loveseat, watching Westerns where grizzled men shot each other off rickety saloon balconies. We went to bed early until our parents came, tucked a wool cover beneath our feet, in this way hoping for time to pass quickly. I say this of myself at least, because my sister still recalls her with fondness. I nod, keep silent.

Three years younger than me, she fell asleep more easily as I lay awake, resting my hands beneath my head, wondering how blood vessels could live their own life apart from the rest of the body. I shifted my gaze toward a dresser whose mirror was occluded with shoe boxes, whose drawers stuck when I tried pulling them open. Most were filled with photographs from times when my grandmother wore fur stoles and silk dresses, considered herself pretty. Others were empty.

When my sister’s breathing slowed into something sibilant and soothing, I turned on my side and regarded her eyelashes, deciding to ignore the life pulsing on the ceiling. Her eyelids revealed their veins’ own fragile filigree, and I watched eyelashes long from the beginning lengthen into spider legs, growing restive, as my own eyes grew tired from staring. When I tried to pluck one or two of her eyelashes, when the pain woke her when I did, I told her I was trying to keep spiders from crawling into bed. To her, this made no difference.

She cried for my grandmother, who came always later than she wanted. Once she did, she gave my sister her wet kisses, overspread her half of the bed with a sour warmth, her gray tobacco breath. I was glad to escape this, to be less loved for being older, never the baby, for knowing better, as she said. As she straightened the cover over the edge of the bed, I studied my grandmother’s movements, watched muscle sag from bone, detach itself from her skeleton. I felt this one life was not important, saw she had lived long enough already. When my parents came, I breathed them deeply in. I held my hand up to their chins, their smooth faces.

Chocolate Receding

Last evening, I took a walk through a forest. In the slanting rain and wind, I walked back to my apartment from a gallery where a friend hosted a reception for a painting exhibition. I walked streets along which most trees have been razed to erect more buildings. Still I walked on forest’s bottom. The forest’s ghost was present. It rose like smoke from soil long overlaid with concrete, while the trees have done the same as my grandmother I never loved has done before me. Dissolved back into the collective.

Carrying my umbrella, I trampled those few leaves fallen on the sidewalk into ocher ashes. I ran across an intersection, the asphalt gleaming. I ran because no cars would wait for me to cross more slowly, though my light was green. Going many times my speed, the cars were hurried as their drivers sat stationary. Those spindles of trees left growing between cracks in the concrete interlaced their branches into a wooden webbing.

My friend who held the exhibition paints nudes, mostly women, who are more forthcoming as models than men. Last night, though, she told me she has found a striking male specimen willing to pose for her throughout the coming winter. She touched him on the shoulder, introduced me. He told me his name in a voice little more than a murmur, when I felt a pain in the space behind my sternum. A quiet recognition. Someone I want to love even though I’m a married woman, someone from whom life creates distance for this as well as other reasons.

The space between my heart and sternum contracts each time this happens, the space where I’m forced to swallow another man whole again. The space where my heart might expand but doesn’t, wanting to remain open. A space for beauty alone then, for movement. A space for beauty itself rather than a single image, which in time must vanish, become the ghost of a forest. Still my friend’s muse looked at me with light shining through him. His skin glowed golden. Although he was young and handsome, his bloodstream was halfway turned to honey. I could almost taste him.

I turned to talk to other friends, other artists, because I enjoy their conversation, because I have known since I was six or seven there is nothing you can keep here at forest’s bottom, least of all another person, not even your own life, its pleasures and aversions. There was little reason to speak to him any longer, to ask him questions. Still the pain I felt when I glanced in his direction told me it would take some time to swallow him, to clear the space, keep it open.

As I was putting my coat on, tying my scarf around my neck, my friend hugged and thanked me for coming. Looking again toward the man she would soon paint naked, she said he had recently gone to see a doctor, had received a diagnosis he was still trying to process. Although he as yet looked perfectly healthy, his blood tests had come back positive for a rare cancer, something malignant. He himself had been the one who asked her to paint him.

She said she met him only a few months before this, through another artist. I pulled my gloves from my pocket, and she confessed she was afraid she couldn’t do him justice. She admitted, though, he told her again and again how much he enjoyed her way of translating bodies onto canvas. He wanted to be made into art that would outlive him, hung beside other nude women before he lost all his hair, grew too thin, wasted into nothing. I had no idea if the light shining through him was there before his illness. I half wished I could unsee it, half wished I couldn’t.

I left and crossed the street, walked past a factory making bars of chocolate. A single rubber boot was frozen in a pond thinned into a shallow lake near the entrance. I crossed a bridge overarching a highway, when the smell of chocolate receding entered me with the force of a body. Once I passed the factory, it began to mix with pain made sharper from my friend’s muse waving as I left, saying it was nice to meet me. The sweetness and cruelty of chocolate kept in a factory facing a gallery.

I had no reason to be as affected as I was by his diagnosis. Yet this dying back into the collective is easier to accept when all that leaves you is a forest, when the person is old and ugly, when a face you find chiseled and attractive has not looked into your own with a question, when you have not stared back with a knowing that, although you are not someone he would notice were you not a friend of the artist, yes you would keep him. Had you the option.

Edible Fuchsia Flowers

The first magician asked for volunteers from the audience. I pointed down at my sister’s head when, smiling as he adjusted his glasses, the magician told me to come on stage instead. He said this was my punishment for volunteering someone who looked as unwilling as she did. Handing me his top hat, he asked me to confirm he’d hidden nothing inside it. I felt a small flap but nodded, did as he expected. As he performed his next trick, making cards disappear and reappear again, I continued palpating this same silk pocket. Before I came on stage, he’d produced several eggs from its crevice.

When I gave his hat back to him, I felt I knew something of his secret, felt he might have taken better care to conceal it. After asking the audience for silence, he pulled out a chick whose cheeps echoed down the hallway. His secret then became mysterious again, though the magician himself was balding, corpulent. He could birth a baby chick from a thin film of fabric, make life from something lifeless, but could never wound me with his beauty. I returned to my seat, when he chose a second then third assistant. I looked down at my hand, which had slipped inside the crevice from which things kept coming yet nothing was kept. I took a sip from my drink, and my sister whispered the act had been better with me in it.

Overhanging the rims of our cocktail glasses were edible fuchsia flowers. My sister and I ate their petals, their pistils, their stamen. Their taste was delicate, lingered. Fifteen minutes or so later when she mentioned the second magician was handsome, I purred and nodded. A man with blonde, tousled hair and square shoulders fanned his cards across a table overspread with velvet as I shifted an earring fallen from a previous performance across the floor with my shoe flat. Sounding a plaintive music, I watched the veins roping his hands dilate with the rhythm. He shuffled his card deck as I sat with my legs crossed, my mouth half open.

His card tricks finished, he reached inside his vest and pulled out a series of needles strung together like paper dolls with thread. He turned toward the exit, allowing us to study his profile as well as his shadow’s silhouette on the wall behind him. Each needle fell down his throat as if it were going to sew something together inside him, though the truth was the opposite. The truth was and always has been that needles are sharp things apt to wound softer organs. The best place for them to fall down a human body if they must do this is in the quiet place behind the sternum, where they can tear apart the stitches binding any image of any person. The face dissolves, but beauty itself remains, keeps moving.

The magician swallowed nine or ten needles in as many seconds with the room gone silent. His muscles had developed the ability to loosen in response to the threat of pain, of suffering, the reverse of human instinct. His face blushed then reddened into something painful to witness. My sister squeezed her hands into fists, and gradually he pulled each one of the needles out by their thread again. Unlike the first magician, he needed no assistant.

A couple days after this, he stood in front of me at an intersection not far from my apartment. The light changed. He crisscrossed traffic while talking to another man who walked beside him. Pausing on the other side of the street, his eyes seemed to smile while the rest of his face held little expression. A play of light across his lips, his forehead, sharpened all his edges. A leather sky darkened against the milk of his skin, a smooth and silken surface. As he reached inside his pocket, I turned in the opposite direction. I wanted to follow him but kept my distance.

Whatever allowed him to swallow needles without bleeding his liver, his kidneys, all his viscera dry and lifeless, this had been the opposite of illusion. Unlike the first magician, he had simply surrendered to something unpleasant, called it magic. He had taught his esophagus to soften rather than contract in the face of pain that never came for this reason. The needles he swallowed were only an extension of what is possible when the whole body loosens. I believe this without knowing from experience.

Smoothened into Cream

Of those old photographs once filling my grandmother’s drawers and shoeboxes, of those my sister and I’ve kept, there are only a few taken from times I can remember, when veins filled with sunlight straggled across her ceiling. In one my sister keeps framed, my grandmother sits on her loveseat holding her as a baby. I stand behind them on a cushion, smiling with my arms wrapped around my grandmother’s neck. She doesn’t seem to notice.

Her face evinces little awareness of how close I may be to strangling someone whose death two decades after this will cause me no suffering, will not be a problem. Her gaze is fixed on the baby she nestles in her lap instead, while her forefinger is caught in my sister’s tiny grip. From the serenity of her expression, she seems to imagine my sister is holding onto her with love when love doesn’t come into it. Although the photograph has yellowed with age, her finger still looks scarlet toward the tip.

When a finger, a strand of hair, a necklace is placed within an infant’s hand, it closes with a strength never replicated in the child, the adult, the adolescent. The instinct known as the palmar grasp lasts until the baby reaches five or six months of age. Afterward, it vanishes as if it had never been. Yet its brief appearance reflects, according to most scientists, our evolution from early primates who held onto their mothers’ fur as infants while swinging through the canopy of a forest.

The grasp recalls memories of a fall so harrowing our hands have not forgotten. That we find ourselves at forest’s bottom still seems strange to us as children. We look instead toward the sky, the ceiling. We search for life there, finding veins in what is only water damage, finding that beauty disappears on the ground too quickly. It takes some time for us to realize then begin accepting this is where life now happens. Yet the relaxing of the hand, the too easy letting go of objects, also reveals our bodies’ wisdom. It is our muscles’ recognition of our need now to dwell where streams empty into oceans, rivers debouch from mountains. Our need to soften.

For weeks, my grandmother’s breathing sounded like a rusted lawnmower engine. The tumor where her brain had been was the size of an orange, one of the nurses said when she came in to record her heart rhythm. Waiting for my mom to come back from buying coffee from a machine down the hallway, I imagined the orange rind turning rotten, a blackened rind attracting insects. The nurse suggested I speak to my grandmother as though she were listening, to ignore the gears grinding in the space behind her sternum. I held her hand, felt her pickled skin slacken, told her next to nothing.

I was not with her when the lawnmower engine turned from something merely rusted into a wholly useless mechanism. My mom, though, had been. Padding back inside our kitchen, she sat across from where I was reading a magazine, drinking milky tea. She sighed then said in my grandmother’s last breaths her blue eyes opened, radiant, though never fixed on any object. All her wrinkles then smoothened into cream. In her last breaths, my grandmother became young again, her skin luminous, silken. A dazzling, a beautiful woman.

My mom looked out toward the sun collapsing onto the horizon and said my grandmother was a woman born for a life of the senses. A life, then, wasted. My mom didn’t add this to the end, but I knew it was the reason she gave herself for why her mother didn’t do laundry more often, dust her clock faces. She had been waiting, even as an old woman, for beauty to stay stagnant, fill her spaces, rather than dissolve into the collective, rot at forest’s bottom. Over time, her disappointment hardened into depression. She had seen some beauty, felt pain from not having it, refused to swallow its fleeting expressions, keep a space open.

I also believed what my mom said she witnessed. I believe as much now as I did then the body holds these kinds of surprises when it allows itself to loosen. Our muscles have so many more memories to draw from than the fear of falling from times when all the world was a forest. I knew my mom wanted to see the end of her own mother’s life as tragic, yet because of the light that filled her veins and smoothed her skin, she couldn’t. Something coming through then, something perceived by the senses. Seeing the gold flowing through the veins in the ceiling but never knowing what the gold is. Rain too is colorless. Rain alone does not do this.

Sky of Yeast

My sister called me as I was walking through a conservatory not far from my apartment. Outside, light snow was falling. Inside the house with glass walls and ceilings were enough trees grown tall enough to form a canopy. My sister was baking bread as she was speaking, something she does most weekends, something she finds soothing as well as makes her house smell of yeast for days after. The smell, however, never dissipates completely. Another Saturday always comes around again.

I thought of her vaulted ceiling overarching her living room and kitchen, of her infant daughter looking up from the floor where she lay gurgling. Some of the yeast inevitably escaped the bread and floated to the dark rafters and creamy plaster in between them. For my niece, the ceiling sufficed as cloudless heavens, a sky of yeast. My sister cleared her throat and told me she was going to have a mammogram next week, for pain she hadn’t wanted to mention when she visited me last weekend, when we had seen the magic.

I was walking through a room of ferns, plants still too full of an ancient beauty to grow any petals, pistils, or stamens. Plants dating from the dinosaurs and that had outlived them. I sat down on a wooden bench after she said this. I ran my finger up and down the blade of a fern straying onto my lap from the breeze of a fan, its spores aligned neatly as pearls on string hung around the neck of a woman. Each time I ran my finger across it one direction, the leaf curled closer to me. It came closer yet also contracted, as if in pain, hiding something.

The evening before this, I ate with my husband at a restaurant where the food is warm and filling, the red leather booths framed with taxidermy. Throughout dinner, my husband’s attention had seemed to stray, his eyes looking past me. It wasn’t until we stood to leave that I noticed he had been facing an extremely beautiful woman seated behind me, looking my same direction. That he wanted to stare into her face and what he could see of her body I recognized as only human, yet before my sister called this had continued to hurt me. I was aware he kept certain images hidden in the quiet place behind his sternum. A place that to each of us remains private.

As I rubbed the leaf of the fern the other direction, it unfolded, from dying to life again. In response to my silence, my sister explained the pain in her breast, occasional discharge even though she stopped breastfeeding months before this, could be other things than what we both were fearing. I curled my spine, sank lower on the bench, ran my finger across my eyelashes as a small spider scaled some stones beside me. I closed my eyes and saw the face of my friend’s muse again, knowing nothing was permanent, only the continual parade of beautiful men and women. Far too many in one city to ever hope to see the same one again.

Before my sister mentioned her mammogram, I was going to tell her about seeing the handsome magician at the intersection, to ask her what were the chances without waiting for her to answer the question. Now, it wasn’t important. She had already forgotten him. I clenched my hand into a fist, released the air I was holding. As the muscles in my hands softened, I realized I was fine with most people dissolving back into the collective. I knew so few of them. But not my sister, who has long forgotten I ever plucked spider legs growing from her eyelashes, who loved my grandmother when I didn’t. I walked outside, felt cooler air descending from a sky left cloudless and empty.

Half the Blackberries

The evening I met my husband, in a bookstore café by accident, I was writing a paper for a class in metaphysics. At some point, he looked up from the book he was reading, asked me what I was writing. I smiled and told him the nature of existence, whether this life was real or wasn’t. I smiled because I knew how vague this sounded, though soon he asked me my conclusion. I told him I was undecided, though if the answer was illusion, the body disagreed with this, maintained its own reality. We spoke for more than three hours as I remember it, until the café closed and we walked together to the train station then took the train in different directions.

Among the many topics we fell into that evening, one of the few he still recollects clearly is something I confessed I once did to my sister. I’m still unsure why I told this to someone who was a stranger to me. I only know that some part of me wanted him to know who I was at bottom. There was beauty in him, and I was too young as yet to be conscious of the need to preserve a space for one face to dissolve so another can replace it, to allow for beauty’s movement. I also wanted him to have a clear image of me, to take more time perhaps than he wanted to swallow and forget this young, uncertain woman.

Deep in southern Indiana, I told him, I as good as made my sister, no more than five or six years old then, climb to the top of my dad’s grain bin. I ordered her to climb a ladder taller than I ever had courage to climb myself, simply so I could see someone standing at its apex, a small figure filling some of our rural sky’s emptiness. I wanted her, however briefly, to escape forest’s bottom. I told her I would never love her again if she didn’t do it. I am fairly sure I meant it.

That afternoon, my grandmother was visiting, escaping the smallness of her yard so close to her neighbors, her Westerns, her water-damaged ceilings. She sat in the shade of our back porch, smoking cigarettes, while my mom picked blackberries growing from the fence lining our garden. My grandmother lazed in a lawn chair for hours, eating half the blackberries. Had she not been there, my mom would have filled more pies with them, made more jam to sweeten our toast at breakfast. My grandmother, though, didn’t think about this, didn’t wash her dishes.

I was pulling weeds deeper in the garden as our dog sat at her feet. I heard her ask my mom about my sister, about where she’d gone for what now seemed like ages. From the beds of cabbage I was hoeing, I shouted she was climbing the grain bin. I said this casually. To me, my sister was taking too long to reach its apex. Shortly after she started, I had gotten bored watching, was only waiting for her to finish.

My mom abandoned the blackberries and rushed to the base of the grain bin. My grandmother followed more slowly, mimicking her panic. I trailed yet more lazily behind them. My sister, almost at the ladder’s tip, started crying once she saw she had an audience. She was wearing pink rubber thongs and complained her hands were starting to slip. I still have no idea if this was true or only what she feared might happen. Yet I saw the rungs were spaced at a wide distance for the length of her legs then. She was likely tired, the sun high and bright in the heavens.

Brushing her hair back from her shoulders, my mom climbed up only to bring her down again, after which my sister fell into my grandmother’s arms as if she were a baby. Had she let go while still on the ladder, had her grip weakened, she would have died, my grandmother said, disgusted, adding I should have known better than this. She had meant to punish me, but I knew my sister held on more tightly for this reason. I knew there was little danger yet of any of us falling.


Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press). Her creative nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, The Offing, Waxwing, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, Drunken Boat, PANK, and Queen Mob’s Tea House. This essay is part of a book she is working on concerning the body’s vestigial reflexes and organs. She lives in Chicago.

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