What she learns, Colleen, later on, is that swallowing is the easier part. By then her throat, her jaws, her muscular stomach have grown hard and used to the unsteady traffic of billiard balls, live frogs, hat pins, human hair, soap bars, steel wool, razor blades. Going down is—not easy, never easy, nothing is easy anymore—but a practiced sequence of contractions. She is tough as nails, and her teeth are sharp and honed on tin cans.

It’s the return that gets her, still. Down, she’s working with gravity, at least, and there’s a pleasant tidiness to a table cleaned down to the boards. Up, though; she burns with the strain, aches to split herself open directly instead of passing a week’s worth of assorted garbage through the unready flex of her mouth.

She locks her teeth against the inevitable, but the six ball won’t be denied. Colleen jackknifes and deposits a whole pool set on the bedspread.

A Voice Crying from the Fields

Blood calls out to her from within the concrete of an alley. Colleen crouches, among the garbage cans, the gum, the shit, to listen.

“They found me out,” it tells her, “my sisters, as I figured they would, sooner or later. I wasn’t clever or cautious, I can see that now though not at the time. They found me out the first time they counted the money, the first time they measured the delivery. They beat the shit out of me, and for a moment I thought that was all, that pain might be enough, until they propped my head against the wall and leaned a foot into my neck. The money, the drugs, the drugs, the money; what has become of my daughter and her father?”

“I don’t know,” Colleen tells it, fruitlessly. Blood can only question, never hear. She wipes her heels clean on the wall and continues on.

The Black Cat’s Sign

Colleen steps down from the mural into the golden syrup of a late September afternoon, and puts forth a hand to steady herself. There are hands to hold her up (six, with between four and seven fingers each: ninety-three dactyls all together). The wall behind her is all eyes — Argus, the ever-vigilant, closes now one, now another, and watches the seven points of the compass equally. The painted sun in the painted sky is a crown pierced with a sword.

She wanders lost down familiar streets, knowing the bones but learning the skin. How tall the buildings are now! She marvels at the byzantine growth of walls, the renaming of avenues. Rutger has become Powell, and Havard, Wada. Japanese streets now run through Japantown, and Portuguese through Brasilia, but still: the architecture is pressed into her clay. She could no more forget her coming and her going than she could lose count of the hairs (236) on her palm.

“Report,” the Devil says, and she feels one long-boned finger (five dactyls) pressed against her cheek, holding her head from turning. She shivers, and leans into its touch, humming tunelessly. “What have you learned, and what have you made?”



It might have been otherwise:

In a high place Colleen shivers against the cold, hungry, starving, pinioned by desire. She dreams of food, warmth, egg whites, whiskey. In the flame of her lighter comes an angel dancing.

“Colleen,” xie says; voice of flutes and scorpions. “We have seen you. You are seen.”

“Where were you,” quotha Colleen, “five years ago? Where were you then?”

Angel speaks, in tongues of flame: “Watching, always watching. We turned on ourselves as you turned, cut as you cut, burned as you burned. We bruised as you bruised. Do not think—”

Colleen snaps the lighter closed, fingers burnt. She sucks at the sear, mouth full and watering against the savor of meat, cooked flesh rich and velvet on her tongue.

Not By Bread Alone

There’s a trick to it.

Nickel, steel, resin, and a sharp point. Keratin, cotton, hair oil, and perfume. Grave dust, copper, blood. The hunger has come back, and worse than ever before. Colleen is a wild fire, drinking bleach, eating hair, swallowing soap, choking down chalk. Live frogs and pool balls. Her jaws crack and fracture around the succulence of a jade plant, crassula ovata, plant, roots, pot and all, the thick well-practiced muscles of her throat shattering it, tamping it down.

She dreams of food without desire. Takes her sheets apart and slurps them in, cotton, linen, skin flakes, sweat, blood, unguent and jism, a fragrant revelation of six months of laundry and strangers. The hammer of the sun has pounded all color from the walls, from the paintings, from the carpet. She knows to the second how long that takes, inescapably.

Her broken jaws and shredded tongue are canny, canny. Sensitive as fingers, wise as knives they dissect, distend, break apart; she boils it all to atoms in her acid and counts the neutrons.

There’s a trick to it, or so the devil told her: to never think of it. Colleen, alas, thinks of nothing else, and her traitor hands lift something new to her infidel lips.