The Earth Spins Widdershins

an excerpt

It won’t be long now until you are born, and your family and friends have all gathered in mourning. What a miraculous thing you are, an almost-creature spun from nothing into everything, and yet the people who will love you have come together dressed in grief.

A stone marks the place where lies the body that will belong to you. Soon, someone will come to take that stone away, and the letters and numbers that for so long have prophesied your existence will finally be erased, names and dates rendered into raw material.

Your daughter doesn’t cry when you are exhumed, even as she carries away the final handful of the dirt that covers you. This is how you are delivered, unearthed within a box of bronze that provides your yet unfinished meat with some small modesty— a luxury, though more for the living than for the meat itself. If her eyes are wet, it is only from the golden glare of the sun as it drags itself skyward from the western horizon. Your mother does cry, though, staggered by the cruelty of a world that would make a parent endure the sight of her unborn child. She is one of only two people who will know you from beginning to end, and that is a difficult responsibility to bear.

The ground gapes in your wake— an empty womb. You are empty, too, a scaffolding of bone and chemical, but all the parts are here, nearly ready for their arrangement.

The gathering leaves that hollow place behind, strong hands bearing you in your box to the somber building where they will see your face for the first time. Not everyone finds it entirely savory, putting you on display in this stale and premature state, but it’s not their choice to make. They sit in the back of the room, your best friend among them, holding the children’s hands and staring at black-tinted roses, waiting for this unsettling rite to be over. Your brother arrives late, and when he looks down into your velvet bed, red-eyed and trembling, he cannot find a trace of the father, the son, the brother, the man whom you will become.

When the service ends, the congregation scatters across the parking lot like a strange omen of crows. You are in the hands of professionals now, and they carry you away to a sterile room flooded with artificial light. They lay you out with reverence, slipping you free from the suit you are zipped and buttoned into, the blue tie you will wear at your best friend’s wedding. Few people will ever touch you with such tenderness again, not even a lover. There is little so intimate as preparing a body for life, and if asked, each of these men, in this moment, would say that they loved you.

Needles unstitch that which is threaded shut, opening a dark Y in your center, and from that cavity they pull forth gently the bag that holds those soft pieces of you, the sloppy and the limp, now laid to rest in their places between your bones like children in their cribs. With harrowing tubes and machines the masked men draw away the toxins sitting thick in your veins and pump sluggish blood toward the heart that sags between your lungs. One of them, with kind hands, wipes away the color that brightens your cheeks, your lips, the eyelids that droop unseeingly open as the caps beneath them are removed.

It’s the scalpel that finally makes you whole, a kiss of steel that seals you into the privacy of yourself. They dress you in sweatpants and a wrinkled T-shirt before tucking you away in the cold place where you will wait until it is time to go home.

And where does a thing like you come from? Were you strung together from some far-flung starstuff, woven by unfathomable fingers, just as this planet labored for a thousand centuries in the making of your flesh? Have you been traveling for a long time, wading through dark matter and riding the tails of comets toward the fragile human form that was made for you on Earth?

Maybe it’s not a matter of distance at all, but heat. When a body blossoms with spontaneous temperature, does the closest shivering parasite crawl inside to claim its host? Or maybe you are, and have always been, a ghost, haunting the place where it will someday become alive.

Your brother is waiting when they lower the stretcher from the back of the ambulance, when they carry you up the stairs of the apartment building where you will live for six years, and he is not thinking of planets or spirits or the nature of life itself, but of sickness.

He watches as they unzip you from your plastic cocoon, as they lay you down on the white tile of your bathroom floor, and then he holds you, he presses your stiffened face into his chest until the two of you are left alone within the stench of ripening flesh. A prenatal silence. And then he leaves, locking your front door behind him with a key that he will never use again. He knows that when you awaken for the first time he will not be at your side.

Surely it must be a miracle, this slow stirring of warmth, reflex, electricity, pulse, color, breath, dream. These ripening hours are nothing compared to the eons already expired in this anatomical labor, but it is only within its frantic final stitches that such work is given any meaning at all— flesh transformed, finally, into body.

Your brain awakens like a city at the break of night, voltaic currents igniting darkened grids, street-lamps flickering alive to frame shrouded pathways, and you, somewhere, can feel that gravity has irrevocably shifted. You are falling backward through a black tunnel, and when you reach for the white light that has expelled you it dwindles in a flash to a meager star, and that star is subsumed by a constellation, swallowed by a galaxy, lost forever as a new light dawns beyond closed eyelids, the harsh yellow of a forty-watt bulb. Your first thought as your eyes open is that you wish they never had.

This does not feel like a miracle to you, and maybe you’re right. After all, what are you compared to the dazzle of bullets torn from chests and foreheads, flying home to rest in their chambers? Somewhere there is a ship awakening with a groan beneath ten thousand feet of saltwater, rising to deliver a hundred breathless bodies to a world of oxygen, and then there is you, a quiet body on a bathroom floor.

You lie on this floor for a long time, curled into a question mark as your body shudders and foams through the final stages of its becoming. Even after the pain beneath your ribs recedes, you press your hot cheek to cold tile, thinking of nothing, and watch a silverfish climb the side of your toilet.

Thirty-six years, three months, four days, seventeen hours, twelve minutes, forty-two seconds. Your body understands the exact quantity of its mortality, even if your mind cannot. You don’t know how to calculate the number of breaths you will take before your last. You try counting anyway, but you can’t seem to make it past one without starting over.

Only a growing claustrophobia, the inescapability of your own skin, finally makes your fingertips twitch. You stand on newborn legs, bracing yourself on the edge of your sink, and close your eyes to make the impossibly long stretch of time laid out before you disappear.

It all comes out of you in a surge of water, spat into a mug, and pills tasting of chalk, plucked out of your mouth as they surface to your tongue, dropped into the empty bottle beside your toothbrush. Only then can you look up and meet the eyes of your unshaven reflection. You touch your face, a press of skin to skin that doesn’t quite register, unable to reconcile the idea of yourself with the man that watches you from inside the glass. You don’t want to be in this room anymore, so you go to the kitchen, flipping the light switch as you leave. The room and everything inside goes dark behind you.

Memory is elusive, extending ever-forward, never backward. It unknots with every step that you know you will take, each step that you forget you have taken at the moment of its completion. Something inside you aches, the phantom after-pain of a birth you already do not remember, and there is no relief even in the understanding that it is a temporary state.

You sit down at the kitchen table, empty but for a folded piece of paper and a pen at its center, and you watch the clock by the window. It seems impossible, how slowly even the fastest hand moves. You wonder why they are called hands anyway, when they are so clearly arrows. The image comes to you like a hallucination, three archers crouched low, bowstrings taut, circling each other in wariness for an eternity. Your face splits full of teeth, your first smile, and you can see in the window just how ugly it is, broken by spots of rain that crawl up the glass, but it’s enough. You slide the pen and paper toward you.

Camille Thevenot is from Las Vegas and is currently studying creative writing and Spanish at Sarah Lawrence College.

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