BY SARAH ROSE ETTER
My man has gone bad again, rotted milk. I can tell. I stare across the red sea. There is a dead volcano in the distance.
“It’s so beautiful,” my man says about the scene.
“It’s interesting,” I say.
We’ve arrived many years too late. In the photographs, the volcano looked imposing, a force to be reckoned with. But here, we’re surrounded by abandoned attractions, busted dusty buildings, the dormant once-burning mountain in the distance.
I stare at the volcano, which continues to do nothing. It is a distant mother to me. The rot growing inside of him draws me closer.
The sad shacks here sell souvenirs: Old lava stone, small bronze volcanoes, postcards featuring another time. At some shacks, women with bursting bellies take our money.
“They call them lava babies,” the women say, rubbing their stomachs. “The way they come up out of the particular heat in this town.”
There are signs when your man has changed. For instance, he wears an odd new hat. For instance, he wears terrible new pointed boots.
“Who was the last person you had sex with that you loved?” I ask.
“You are nosey,” he says.
“Can we take a picture together?” I ask.
“We shouldn’t have any proof,” he says.
I bite the lip. I try to behave for my man. In my head, I deconstruct the word: P-R-O-O-F.
The first time I saw my man, a new section of my heart ballooned.
Oh, there you are. Oh, where have you been?
A gust of fresh wind roared through the red chambers.
Now, he throws me onto the hotel bed.
“Missed you, look at you,” whispered into hair, then skin.
We move our bodies together in the strange hotel room. The rot scent deepens when he gets closer, when he takes pleasure. It drives me to moan in a way that I don’t mean.
After, our pulses do not match. I keep checking, my head hard against his chest, his heart stuttering below the skin.
I rove my hands over his skin as if discovering a rare flesh gem. It has been three months since I’ve seen him.
“That hurts,” he says, squirming.
I dig my hands into his chest. I want to claw his heart out and inspect it. I press harder.
He takes my fingers and moves them in a different way.
“Soft, soft, gentle like this,” he says.
I press my fingers down harder, nails in the skin to leave lines. I run my hand over his stomach. There is a new strange bulge. It is growing, I can tell.
I want to crack him open. I want to touch the rot. I cannot leave well enough alone.
We tour the dead volcano. We walk over old chasms and silent fissures.
The tour guide explains.
“The word volcano is from 1610. The Romans used the phrase to describe Mt. Etna, because they believed it to be the forge of the Vulcan, who was the Roman god of fire.”
“Vulcano,” I say.
“Yes,” the tour guide says. “Or burning mountain.”
“How many people have died here?”
My man clenches my hand tight. The pressure means I am being strange again.
“Ma’am, are you aware lava can move as slow as nine inches per hour?”
“But surely this volcano has killed many people?” I ask.
Everyone on the tour pictures it: Bodies drowning in the lava, flesh singed off the bone.
“What happens when lava touches human bone?” I ask.
My man drops my hand. It takes time for rot to show itself. Soon, his skin will sink and yellow from his badness.
I look down at dusty ground that was once very hot. Further beneath our feet, the plates hiss and shift. Or worse, the plates do nothing at all and we are only still.
My man’s silence becomes a new raw sound.
We exit the tour. It is Father’s Day. My father is alive in the distance. I pick up the payphone. My man stands close, listening to every word.
“Helllloooooooo?” my father falsettos. This is his favorite joke.
“Happy Father’s Day!”
"How’s my favorite daughter?”
“Your only daughter!”
Laughter peels up out of us. There is true joy in the world. I had forgotten. I remember I have a life back there. I have a desk and colleagues in a city where the skyscrapers rise up and glint knife-like.
“How is it out there?” he asks.
“We just toured a volcano!” I say. I look up at her. I can feel her watching us.
“What was that like?”
“Dusty,” I say.
“Well, you know what I always say about volcanoes. The dustier, the better.”
Again, the peeling. My man is nothing like my father. My man has never made me laugh like this. I stand clinging to the plastic connecting me to my father. I peel and I peel and I peel again, shedding there.
My volcano mother hovers above us, watches the scene silently.
I told my man to cut his hands off and mail them to me so I could press his palms against my skin. That was two months ago.
Now we fuck sadly.
“You are so beautiful,” he whispers.
I turn my head to hide the wetness on my face.
“Do you think I’m stupid?” I whisper.
“What did you say?”
I don’t respond. He keeps moving.
Suddenly, it slides into place. P-R-O-O-F. Another woman is in the distance, more alive than the volcano. She rises up in a red smoke, eyes blazing. I can sense her now, a new burning mountain.
He is inside me, but she is here with us now. She is wrapped all around his heart, claws and strings.
I want to remove my skin. Each place he has touched is cursed.
He knifes the bright frosting of a donut in two. He slides my half to me.
“It’s so nice to be here with you this morning,” he says.
I put the sugar in the mouth. I want to cut out his tongue. I want to remove his eyes.
“You’re so kind,” I say.
“God, you look beautiful today,” he says. I run my hand over his belly, his abdomen still bulging.
A decaying horse will offer its ribs up to the sun as its flesh rots away.
“Today’s special is the volcano donut,” a woman announces from behind a counter. “Black lava icing on a red velvet cake.”
The town slumps all around us, held up by plywood and a few nails.
The volcano is still there, quiet and massive. I slide the silver knife from the table and into my pocket.
This time, when we move our bodies together, I can feel her breath on my skin where it should be his breath. It is her hands on my body, her inside of me.
“You feel so good,” he says.
After, he puts on a film, which casts us in the blue light.
“Everything feels strange,” I say.
He pulls me into his arms, tight enough to break my ribs and bones. For a moment, the tenderness swells. My heart expands again.
Then a scent of rot catches on the air. I remember myself.
His snoring marks the time. I slide from his grasp to fetch the knife from the bag. The blade is sawed and toothed.
I open the blinds and the window. I want the volcano to watch.
I slide his shirt up, his bare belly blaring pale in the television light. I run my finger over the bulge. The rot grows stronger.
He wakes when I slide the blade against his skin. He lets out a shrill scream.
“What are you—”
But it is too late. By then, I’ve already made that single beautiful incision. I press my fingers against the bulge on either side.
The blood bubbles up from the slit, then makes way.
He passes out, his head against the pillow.
The scent grows stronger. I part the incision further. His liver comes into view, the organ discovered, that long lost planet.
Instead of deep burgundy, his liver is stark, pale, albino. The organ gleams out from the viscera like the white of a giant eye.
“I knew it,” I whisper. “White livered.”
The sun rises, shooting light through the window. He is motionless. The bad organ is a pearl, gleaming.
I stand next to him. Time passes. I wait until the flies gather around the wound.
Sarah Rose Etter is the author of Tongue Party (Caketrain Press). Her work has appeared in the Black Warrior Review, Salt Hill Journal, LIT, and more. She is the co-founder of Philadelphia's TireFire Reading Series and a contributing editor at The Fanzine.
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