They gave nothing back to the world they’d been a part of, every inch of them succumbing completely to Rot.
Justine Witkowski’s debut publication – Welcome!
Artwork by Claudio Parentela
Between the Eyes
Silt caked beneath her fingernails, Nadine dug at the slit extending from her upper lip. It’d been raw the day prior, picked pink by her wandering hands and allowed to fester in the wet Heat of the bayou. It’d only found respite when she’d stumbled off her brother’s swampboat and into bed, still stinking of sweat and alligator blood. The electric fan at her bedside, paired with the window that’d been gummed shut with decades of grime, created a sanctuary from an otherwise relentless humidity, one that allowed even the smallest wounds to calcify.
On the boat the next morning, she peeled back the thin white crust that’d formed along the Cleft overnight, pinched the premature scab between her index and thumb, rolled it up and flicked it into the water. Disappointed, she watched as the skimmers beside it made far larger ripples, as if laughing at her contribution.
Look at that—look at us! Look at how much you matter!
Out of all the crawling life of the Atchafalaya, the insects were the only ones Nadine truly despised. The skimmers, with their quiet taunts, all the way down to the flies twitching and fornicating atop the bucket of chicken quarter at her feet, they were hateful and greedy, both flaws that Nadine, docile thing that she was, could’ve forgiven, had it not been for their Cardinal Sin. The insects – unlike the snakes, the alligators, the frogs, the catfish – left nothing behind when they died. They gave nothing back to the world they’d been a part of, every inch of them succumbing completely to Rot. They left no ghosts. There were no teeth or tarsals Nadine could wrap in a cloth and drop in her pocket for safekeeping. There were no flatbones she could run the callused pads of her thumbs over. There were no vertebrae or jaws she could take a toothbrush to, scrubbing every bit of cartilage out with boiling water and dish soap until the stink of death had been exorcized.
Utterly impermanent and therefore wretched.
The sudden movement of her brother caught her attention. He’d been still as a statue until then, having kept wordless vigil at the front of the boat since they’d left, waiting for the tug at the end of the snatch hook. As he drew it in, Nadine craned her neck to see the scaled body at the end of the line, beginning to hiss and thrash.
He grunted: “You gonna get it this time or do I have to?”
“Huh? Uh. . .yeah.” She swallowed hard. “Yeah. I’ll get it.”
“Go on, then.”
She fumbled for the notched .22 rifle from the floor. “It’s loaded, right?”
He made no effort to hide his impatience. “Just turn the safety off and it should be ready to shoot.”
Heart hammering against her rib cage, she flipped the safety lever forward and took aim.
The alligator was close enough now that she could hear its breathing growing thick and labored as it exerted itself. The hook’s cutting through its stomach, she told herself, it’s going to die anyway.
“Between the eyes and through its nose, Nadine!”
It’s too late for it to go anywhere else.
You’re doing what you have to. She shut her eyes and pulled the trigger. The shot seemed to echo through the cypresses, rattling all the way back to the floor beneath her feet. There was no impact. When Nadine opened her eyes, the pitiful thing continued to thrash and rock the boat.
“Damn it, Nadine!”
“Hold on, I’m tryin’!”
She fired again. This time, followed by a distinct crack and silence. He looked up at her, vitriol in his sunken eyes. “I ain’t movin’ til you put that thing down.”
“Right. Right. Sorry.” She emptied the bolt again, shell skittering across the hull, before returning it to its place and helping him pull the hulking thing into the boat.
The alligator’s fat legs twitched and stretched as dying nerves fired off before going completely still, spending its final moments covered in the same blood and algae that clung to her arms. Two twisting scarlet rivers trickled down from its nostrils, pooling into a sloppy grid between the crevasses of its scales. It must’ve been awful to die that way, tangled in the warm, inescapable slime of the swamp, mouthfullofitsownblood.
A sob began to crawl up her throat, one she tried desperately to swallow. A strangled yelp emerged instead.
“Come off it, would you?”
“I’m sorry, Jed!” she cried “I’m sorry—I can’t help it, it just—”
“It just what?”
She looked again at the alligator’s shattered cranium and back up at Jed’s stone face. He wasn’t worth telling. He’d never understand. “It’s nothing.”
“No, go ahead.” He crossed his arms. “Go on and tell me what’s got you cryin’ like some kinda pussy in my boat over some stupid reptile, ‘cause Lord knows that’s all it is! A stupid god damn reptile!”
“Takes one to know one.”
Jed took her home after that. It was fine, she decided, lying back against her headboard, stroking the skull of one of her muskrats. It’d never been easy for her to kill a living thing. Even surrounded by her carefully curated collection of wet specimens, taxidermy and bones, all in varying stages of bleaching and degreasing, it gave her no pleasure. Death was special to Nadine, though not so much for its occurrence but for what happened after.
There was no greater peace for her than the sound of a tree, trunk soft and corroded with Rot, finally falling in on itself somewhere far away, or a carcass, hissing and squelching with deathbloat before exploding in the summer heat.
Any time this happened, someone would always be fed, sometimes even born, but nothing was born to the hook in an alligator’s belly or to the bullet in its brain. She understood the necessity, of course. Once they’d amassed half a dozen or so, Jed would bleed them from the cottonwoods out front. Her mother and sisters would skin and quarter them. They’d pick what they could keep, often a tenderloin or two, and Jed would cram the rest into coolers, pack them into the back of his tincan truck and head into town for the weekend.
He’d stop at The Distributor first, where he made the bulk of his profit selling the skins, before selling the meat in a number of gas station parking lots. Nadine was the only one familiar with this process, at one time accompanying him almost every weekend. It’d been nothing short of a thrill for her, leaving The Bayou, looking up at the wide open sky, taking in the only faces she’d ever seen that hadn’t belonged to her family. And how those faces loved her! A much littler thing then, tow-blonde hair cropped to her ears and gap teeth acting as nothing but a cute distraction from the cleft. She was their a reason to approach, in affectionate curiosity.
While she’d never admit, she loved the attention, although more than anything, she’d loved what she’d shared with Jed. He’d only been sixteen then, shrouded in the aromas of unacknowledged body odor and their father’s Maverick Golds, filling every moment with conversation and jokes her sisters never heard, letting her play with the radio they didn’t know existed. He loved Nadine. Perhaps, she wagered, more than he loved anything.
Jed loved the one that came before. Not the one who grew out her hair or wore her sisters’ hand-me-downs, or the Nadine that’d named herself such a thing, but the barefoot boy that was lost to the Atchafalaya forever. He’d never said anything about the change, but she saw it every time she looked Jed in the eyes. He saw her as an imposter who’d killed his little brother. He hated her for it, and there was no amount of corpses, animal or other, that she could’ve presented to him to change that.
Nadine supposed she was lucky. No physical harm had come to her. She remained in her home, outcast as she might’ve been. For her family to have done anything beyond that, they would’ve been churchgoers, which they were not. For that, they would’ve had some fear of God. Which they did not. She was something outside the realm of understanding, and for all of their cruelty, it was not justification enough to be “Something Wrong. ” It was more than what many could say, although somehow, it never seemed to alleviate the Ache.
Noticing its surface growing warm beneath her touch, Nadine pressed a feather-light kiss on the muskrat’s skull, between the rounded holes of its eyes, before setting it back on the nightstand. She’d kissed that spot countless times since she’d first taken it home, so much that her lips had stripped the layer of invisible grease from its surface, leaving a smooth, white depression behind. Like everything in her collection, Nadine loved it dearly.
She couldn’t help but wonder what life might’ve looked like had she been able to place that love somewhere (anywhere!) else.
She hadn’t been aware she even possessed the capacity for such love until she’d run out of places to put it. She was nineteen then, although only four years Herself, and it seemed everywhere that littleboy had gone, she couldn’t follow. Everywhere he’d received an embrace, she stood with empty arms, and every tried-and-true source of love had been turned on its head. It seemed only the Dead and Inanimate would hold her anymore. They alone would receive her and her love as they were, as they always would be.
Nadine decided to stay in the room with her quiet, rotted lovers until nightfall. Staying away was the best thing to do after exchanging words with Jed, at least until things blew over. He wasn’t an angry person, nor a violent one. He was, however, a sensitive one. It was an observation she’d made many years ago, during those long, humid weekends they’d spent away from home, although it felt more like one of their many shared secrets, a part of himself he never seemed to share with the rest of them. He’d mull over the smallest things, often asking Nadine if she’d felt the same, if something had perturbed her as much as it had perturbed him. Looking for some sort of reassurance.
He was likely thinking about what she’d said to him on the swamp. Wondering if it was true or why it was said, all things Nadine never thought about before letting it leave her mouth. Only now, there was no one to seek that understanding from.
He would get over it, she knew, just as he always had in the past, and the normal tension they shared would settle once again. Until then, she left him alone.
Just as she expected, things returned to their troubled stasis, and she found herself on the swamp-boat once again. The world had grown warmer, and the chirping symphony of frogs and insects took on its summertime baritone of guttural throat-calls. Alligators, dozens of them, slithering over one another in courtship from dusk until dawn.
The breeding season was an entire family affair, with everyone’s lives revolving around it for the better part of a month. To best take advantage of the increase in activity as well as evade patrolling authorities during the off-season, she and Jed wouldn’t set out until sundown, remaining on the water until the first signs of morning or until they’d amassed as much as they could stay afloat with, usually being the latter.
Nadine didn’t mind sitting in the dark, sometimes she even enjoyed it. When she wasn’t tasked with holding the flashlight, everything around her became a part of a Hot, Sticky, Amorphous Darkness. There was no uncomfortable obligation of small talk every time she made the mistake of meeting her brother’s eyes, nor the sight of his hallowed face.
She felt as if she’d watched him age on that boat, witnessing the wispy brown peach-fuzz of his upper lip as it had come in —the only facial hair he’d ever been capable of growing—followed by a sharpening of his face as he’d entered his twenties. She’d watched him cut and grow out his hair depending on the seasons, while it slowly lighten from its initial russet to strawberry blonde. She’d noticed the appearance of crow’s feet forming around his eyes, after his twenty-seventh birthday, and they’d deepened in the years that’d followed.
It unnerved her to think about how many years they’d passed in that place, how long they’d been living in this contentious stalemate with one another.
How long had it been since they’d been anything more than ghosts?
She was grateful for the respite the darkness provided from the thought, regardless of how temporary.
Regardless of how fragile.
About the Author
Justine Witkowski is Studio Art and Anthropology student at the University of New Mexico. The processes of life, death and rebirth and their manifestations are something they’ve been exploring in their art and have sought to expand within their writing. “Between the Eyes” is their debut publication.