The Rash began in early winter, but Eloise did not get the urge to write until February. Snowflakes melted into rain on the morning that she decided to rip off her left thumb nail.
The idea did not creep in as most did—it shattered overtop her and lodged like glass into her hair. There was never an opportunity to ignore it: only the word ineffable, thick and fluttery and delicious, and her need to write it down. Just to taste its gloss. The squish of it through fingers.
It took her forty-six minutes to dislodge the nail, and another ten to write the word onto it with thin-tipped sharpie. After the shock, a pulsing pain of little heartbeats— like prism-eyed bot flies digging into angry flesh as if it were a sandbox. She hid it underneath her pillow.
Eloise didn’t even know what ineffable meant—her brother Bodhi had torn it out of their Dictionary so he could teach the beavers in the marsh how to read. The pages still bore half a semi circle of safety scissor edges, hidden beneath jagged finger nail marks where he had lost patience and ripped the page out. Their father started taking their books and piling them up in the kitchen cupboard after that. They used the pages when they ran out of Band-Aids.
When her thumb healed, she tried to visit her brother downstairs so that they could compare the colour of their scabs. When Lisa stopped her at the end of the hallway, Eloise lied and said that she was only getting Bodhi water.
Her Step-Mom shook her head and said that Bodhi won’t bother with water soon enough, not like water is all that special or anything. Bodhi isn’t all that special either, we’re all just ants here you know and that Jamsie said on the Q 101 News last night, the one at eight pm with that little blonde slut and her geometry tattoos, he said that the water down here in The Pump ends up beingtoxicfor the mindfor peoplelike them, for Bodhi, with The Rash cause they can stop it anytime they want to you know but they think the wet is actually living, like it’s micro-aneurisms or something, and that it’s giving them false hope and they’ll get maggots soon enough, the lot of them, And I mean they can stop it if they want to, but we shouldn’t be giving them something to make them think anything’s going to be going away and that Bodhi don’t wanna be lied to.
I’m not lying to anyone, Eloise said.
She left to go meet Margaret in the parking lot of Mr. Desperate’s. In the front yard, leftover snow sifted through grey sky. Clouds stretched in thick, artificial lines, like expired taffy, unspooling over itself. Grass grazed the driveway asphalt, long dead. The property scraped winter thin—a butter dish of dirt stained, hollow ice, rough when neighbourhood kids tried to mould it with their palms on the way to the bus stop. Everything blistered.
Margaret was feeding a stray cat pieces of her fruit & nut chocolate bar when she got there, her hair clipped back into her ball cap with a red carabineer. Pine needles littered the ground and stuck to the bottom of Eloise’s boots. Margaret ate the wind back up as she spoke.
I don’t know if I can date someone who only has nine finger nails.
Are you breaking up with me?
No, she said—It’s just a thought. A working-out-of-things. I’m thinking about it is all. I want you involved in the process.
Eloise told her she’d buy the gloves that miners wear—thick like rocks. She told her Lisa had some old, bright blue nail polish. She told her she loved blue.
It’s your thumbnail. It’s a big deal.
Eloise paused to tell her how shitty her mom’s meatloaf was, but a ripple of pain shot through her tongue, and her jaw tightened down.
Margaret walked away and the cat followed.
The next morning, Eloise peeled a strip of skin off her left calf. It fell into her hand as if it was supposed to be gone, like string cheese. The words came once it was dry:
Pine needles. Margaret was angry today. It hurt and I loved it.
She blew softly on the sentence to keep the sharpie from smudging, then pressed the strip of skin flat with Bodhi’s copy of Oedipus The King. She sobbed.
She thought about the paper runs. When Ed locked the front door and told them to come back with kindling and something to use as starter before they all froze to death. They’d wait under the stop sign at Brooker and Baily where they knew the older kids came on their paper routes. Sixteen-year-old giants against an eight-year-old Bodhi.
Bright green Fisher Price wagons stacked with plastic wrapped flyers and copies of the Sunday Times. Sidewalk scuffs on Bodhi’s white light-up Velcro shoes. He would walk right up to them as if he weren’t two feet shorter, glaring heat into the ice of their laughter while Eloise watched from the hedges. His hands trembled.
Gimmie the wagon.
They looked at him as if he were a baby bird drowning in a storm drain at the edge of a sidewalk. One of the boys with a jacket too small to fit his long, gangly limbs turned back to the others with a sad glance. Bodhi’s voice cracked.
Are you—are you deaf? Gimmie the fucking wagon.
A pause. The boy’s winter breath made him look as if he was smoking.
Fine, Kid. It’s yours.
It didn’t always go this well—sometimes fists full of Bodhi’s shirt collar fabric, sometimes their screaming faces so close to his that spit splattered against his trembling mouth. The boys left, and Bodhi grabbed the wagon handle with shaking hands.
El—get in so they don’t flop all over the place. No, like this. Hold on so you don’t fall out.
She figured the whole city could hear her laughter as she toppled foreword into the papers with each bump in the sidewalk—the stack would fall into her lap and cover her tiny body. He walked backwards and yanked the wagon foreword an inch at a time with both his hands so he could talk to her while they went the long way around the construction zone. I’m bringing it back tomorrow. The wagon. I—I’m sorry. I’m sorry El. She looked at Bodhi as if he were a God—sweat glistening and commanding stature and everything that would keep her safe. The air echoed with the scrape of plastic wheels against cracked concrete.
Lisa left, and Eloise sprinted to her brother’s basement bedroom. The light switch shocked her when she touched it. Curled comic book pages molded at her feet. Neither spoke, but she could feel him against the door like when they were younger, a warmth that she could feel was near her. She hadn’t seen him since his lips had peeled off a month earlier, but she remembered the way he puffed out his cheeks like a fish to make her laugh, even through his pain. Carefully, she flattened the strip of ankle skin out and pushed it underneath the door. Shuffling. A moment later, something dry and rippled was thrown back through the gap and onto her side. Part of his palm. Two words—Stop Writing.
She folded the skin and put it in a dampened pillow case tied at the bottom of her bookshelf with Bodhi’s others. A cat scratched in desperation at her broken window screen through the night, hungry for poetry.
* * * * * * *
It spread faster than Bodhi’s—they’d always done everything at the same pace, but the Rash treated her in a way that she hadn’t seen on him. He liked haiku—slept a lot. Her words crawled into her ears and plugged them until she picked off skin and wrote them out. She could hear the ocean but could never get the smell of it out of her hair. Voices she did not know cheered and brought her gifts when she discovered that dead leaves drying to the shovel in the shed looked a way that only she could see. The scabs began to spread and scar before the ideas had even arrived. She told no one.
One morning, after she clipped a square of thigh skin onto her curtain rod to dry, Margaret called and cried and explained that the stick of Tuesday sun hurt her eyes too much to go outside, and asked if Eloise would bring her pot belly pig with her to work at the pioneer village.
I love European Birch, she said, pronouncing each syllable of the pig’s name as to not accidently call it ‘bitch’. She hated pigs, but missed Margaret’s fingers. When she lost her own, she wondered if Margaret would open things for her. Like bags of chips.
Margaret’s pig didn’t look like her, but Eloise told her it did when she picked it up because she wanted her to think about it for the rest of the afternoon. European Bitch slathered sweat and course hair onto the front of Ed’s leather jacket as he squirmed in her arms. She gripped him tight for the long walk and explained how angry Margaret made her. She told him so that she wouldn’t have to write it down.
When she got to the Cultural Centre, she poured out the rest of her water bottle into a Tupperware container from the staff room for European Bitch and locked him in the Pioneer Village chapel. She took a second outside the wooden door and prayed to a random deity that the pig wouldn’t die of heat exhaustion before she came back, because guilt from a revenge killing of your girlfriend’s pig had the capability of creating wonderful and exhausting poetry.
She picked a louse out of her straw costume hat and changed into the long, grey pleated skirt with the burn marks through it—from that time that she thought she could iron—and a white button down blouse. Squinting in the blazing sun was key—sunglasses were a little too sexy for the turn of the century. The words burned. Somewhere outside, a little boy screamed that he had seen a bee and twelve other kids accused him of lying as if he had testified in a court of law.
Lila Sanders shouted from outside the door. Liam’s Mom wants to know where Liam’s popsicle stick is. The one he left here three weeks ago. She’s sure we didn’t look properly last time. Look again she says. She doesn’t have all day she says they have hip-hop camp at 9:45. They live an hour and a half, two hours, they live three hours away she says. Do you even know how much gas costs? Do you even know what the Liberals did to the gas prices?
Eloise peeled off a piece of skin from the inside of her elbow, wrote gas prices— Liberals on it, and flattened it out inside her phone case. Stuffed her sleeve with party store napkins.
The kids sat in a lopsided circle in the centre on the school house floor. Sucking the water out of wet mittens and licking slices of store-bought cornbread before crumbling them in their hands. Eloise passed around a mason jar of butter milk and let them each shake it wildly until it became a greasy monstrosity that sort of resembled butter. Mary Shaw admitted that she was lactose intolerant through the echo of her third milk glass and began to weep of guilt. Gravel caked Eloise’s skirt as if each stone had been sewn there.
She thought about how Bodhi used to fill dollar store plastic bags with expensive corn flakes and stolen coffee creamer for her in Elementary school because he knew how much she wanted cereal; A bang and the screeching of skin against tile when Ed found out;Bodhi being dragged across the kitchen floor by his hair and begging not to be locked out in the dark; blood pouring from his nose onto the concrete of the front steps.
The bags would sit in her denim backpack throughout the day and spill and the warm liquid would seep into her ringed notebook pages and every time she went to practice her daily times tables the book would smell faintly like sour milk. She smirked proudly at lunch hour and gloated to Bobby Joiner and Jen Carson that she had a brother who made her breakfast whenever she wanted—slurped it up through a bite mark in the bottom corner because only children subjected to the harsh rule of helicopter parenting were forced to wield utensils. The cereal softened and congealed into a lumpy mass and Eloise ate it all, spoiled creamer flooding down her chin.
A shriek. Look look, Jonah look. It’s a beaver look it. I saw it first it’s a beaver.
Chaos. Tiny bodies fumbled and sprinted outside onto frosted grass. Eloise could tell from the school house steps that it was dead. Necks craned in desperation to see the body in the riverbank.
Moira stroked the beaver’s limp tail and screamed. A kid Eloise had forgotten the name of tried to see how many times he could use the word ‘rabies’ in a single sentence. Flies swarmed the flesh but wind still rippled through the fur like breath.
She remembered zipping through the groves of dead saplings in the marsh behind Jamieson Industrial, sharp twigs catching her cheeks and scratching skin as she sprinted after her brother. Soaked socks and stolen rain boots filled with bits of acorn shells.
Bodhi. Let’s be Beavers and you can run the bank and I can be the beaver lady who buys sticks at the beaver store.
Can I take care of your beaver babies? Can I teach them to write French?
No. Bodhi, just no. I’m a widow who has too many sticks than she knows what to do with. I exchange them at the bank so I can buy expensive bourbon for my ladies’ book club. You’rethe banker.
Bodhi filled a plastic grocery store bag with twigs to bring back home as kindling for the woodstove. Piles of birch and broken pine branches formed in their make shift shop. She slapped her palms on the top of the pond water—splashed through water striders like she thought a beaver’s tail would’ve. Shrieks of laughter and algae caked finger nails. They stuck bark shards down cracks in the dirt ground, baked dry by sun. They thought screaming Jack & Jill until their throats burned would wake the beavers in their dam beds and convince them to wander out into the mud. Damp shade. Bird songs they’d try to whistle later but would never remember.
Burs caught deep in her thick auburn hair. Bodhi sawed locks of it off with the dull Swiss army knife he stole from the YMCA lost-and-found. Sorry—I gotta cut them out El don’t be a pussy. Ed would rip em out. Really yank em. Like a chainsaw starter rope. Hold still.
She felt like Bodhi and the beavers had pre-arranged this agreement—both groups needed sticks for their houses; both did what they could to keep dry when the wind began to chill; both just wanted their own space. A safe place.
Even in winter, the body began to smell. Marion Gilly took her cotton pink toque off and placed it gently over one of the dead beaver’s ears.
We should put him back in his house.
But Miss El there’s bugs and even ladybugs too.
Leave it be.
She thought that if she looked at it long enough—really carved it into the backs of her eyelids so that she’d see it when she blinked—that she would never strain to remember the gloss in its gaze. The ripple of skin under thinning hairs. The smell. She would never forget, so she would never need to write it down. A fly walked across the beaver’s wet eye. Eloise swore she saw foot prints.
* * * * * * *
The gap in the middle of her chipped lime green dresser, with flaps of her skin stretched out in different sections, became the poetry laboratory.
The wood was blue when Ed had found it at the dump—Eloise liked to scrape the paint off with her finger nails when she was bored to reveal the green underneath. She would sit and scrape and seethe with hatred for the lady with the lime green paint who got to fill all three drawers with mink fur coats and emerald studded scarves, who definitely had a father who paid the electric bill and didn’t splinter drawers with baseball bats in their yard for the wood. Whose neighbours didn’t trace the word verminin the condensation of the Volkswagen corpse held up by bricks in the driveway.
The scabs stopped drying. Purple soaked through every jacket sleeve and stained socks; school books; box springs; locks of her own hair.
She awoke to the smell of infection at night, screaming, sweat stinging raw patches on her neck. Lisa came in without knocking—set a cup of camomile on the floor beside the bed.
I was up anyway—you know how the bugs get. The damn Pump.
She did know. Horse flies were avid readers. None alive in winter though.
Did I wake Ed?
No. He’s out in those Marshes—cattails and all—a beaver hunt I guess, like those ones he used to bring you out on, it’s dangerous in the dark you know, with all those teeth and all, rows of em, not that any beaver wouldn’t…well not that they wouldn’t—
Be afraid. Of Ed.
Lisa smiled as if she hadn’t quite heard what Eloise had said, but her own teacup slipped through trembling fingers and smashed against the hardwood floor. She moved to clean the mess with unparalleled speed.
I didn’t want to bring you water. Jaimsie said on the TV—
I know what he said.
Her eyes were drained—blank.
Ed would stoke the fire with the two of you, you know—if you stayed dry long enough to burn better.
She left without closing the door. Eloise could hear the desperate slurping of a straw at the bottom of a juice box whenever Lisa spoke—lifeless. She wondered if her father was still thirsty.
* * * * * * *
Margaret starting calling.
At first, the messages asked for things back, then quickly became warning calls that she was coming by to drop off things of Eloise’s. Like the scrunchie Margaret had made her out of the thong she got on her sixteenth birthday, lace unwound at the sides and elasticity gone and faded bleach marks layered over period stains. Sunday morning sex echoed in her eardrums when she put it on, she claimed. I can’t just wear sex in my hair if I’m trying to date again you know. That’s fucked up.
The next week, boxes of items that didn’t even belong to Eloise began to show up on her front lawn. Packages of partially eaten Boston cream pie flavored chewing gum; lens-less glasses frames shaped like hearts; a large wooden placard with the price tag still on it, with the words To Thine Own Self Be True painted across it in hot pink script.
She tore skin. She wrote more. Margaret began to call until Eloise picked up. I don’t want to interrupt your creative process. I’d just like to read some of it is all. Your work. Not by myself obviously. You’d read it to me. If you want.
Eloise ignored Margaret and everyone else. On the thirteenth she walked all the way to The Cove and back, making sure not to step on any rusty nails in the construction zone near The Pump House. She dragged her feet through the slush of storm drain melted snow and decided that all of it could hurt a little less. She would stop thinking about things that weren’t herself. She would take baths and not care if they were pretty or not. She would not need to write.
The ripped piece of newspaper was on the kitchen counter when she arrived back home. A portion right above the headline—that little gap between the larger lines of font that left a section of the paper empty enough to write on. She hadn’t seen writing on paper in so long that she didn’t even recognize it at first. Couldn’t fathom why anyone’s words could matter so little that they could be separate from their body.
Bodhi’s dead. Last night I think—in his sleep.
Gone to bury him.
She sat and waited for her father. The wooden spindles of the armchair dug into her spine. Breathing took work—thick and slow like molasses through a syringe. She couldn’t remember the colour of his eyes—whether they’d been Ed’s or their mother’s. She did not write, but watched her body peel. Fall into autumn in the reflection of the floor tiles. Sloughs of browned and reddened skin flaked off like leaves, wet with rot beneath. She waited.
The door opened and she did not blink. Did not look up. Ed sat in the chair across from her. His dirt caked nails tapped the table top. He stopped. She waited for an explanation that he would not be able to give her. For words that were not his.
Don’t look at me like that.
Her gaze did not leave her shoes.
He did it himself, you know. They’re saying that people can stop it if they want to.
He coughed. Wet and full, like choking.
You doing it too?
The two of them sat with the same slouch. Floorboards exhaled. He looked at the shell of her skin on the ground.
The beavers’ll come for that, you know.
* * * * * * *
On Valentine’s Day, Margaret called and asked if her and Eloise could break up again.
Last time wasn’t very private. And I didn’t say enough. We could make it more intimate. A better story.
Eloise agreed. She had nothing left in her body to give up for Bodhi. Nothing that could write him as he was. She wrapped duct tape around her raw knuckles and left to make the trek downtown.
Her and Margaret laid opposite each other in the grimy porcelain tub. Eloise itched her wrist for the seventh time in twenty minutes and Margaret pretended not to notice.
What are you thinking about?
About your brother—it’s just so tragic. And how much prettier I’d be with a boy’s name. Is that sexist?
Her voice made the sentence sound like that part in a jazz song where the vocalist sings noises. She reached into a takeout container floating in front of her with soapy fingers and piled a handful of Lo mien noodles into her mouth.
I don’t know.
Eloisewondered how long a person’s saliva could survive in another person’s mouth. She wondered if hers was breaking down Margaret’s Chinese food. If Bodhi’s ate through the dirt like ants.
When you write about this, you’ll give me a better name right? I mean you obviously will, right?
Her gaze settled on Eloise’s scabs.
I’d like to be meaner than this. I don’t have the energy right now, but you can make me meaner, right? I mean it’s sexy and all, in the bath, but it’s also somean to do it right here because I’m rejecting you in all your openness. You’re baring it all out to me and I’m refusing you but it’s also sexy.
I guess so.
It’s obviously the best thing. For your art. Heartbreak is just, somuch. You’ll write about it for the rest of your life. Your life. I’ll be in your autobiography.
It’s hurting me you know. The writing.
No, not an autobiography—acknowledgements. I want the acknowledgements.
The luke-warm water wrinkled her finger tips. Dark layers of dead skin rolled up as she rubbed her arms. She imagined her brother floating somewhere, down a mudslide. She read somewhere that beavers were vegetarians—but they would never be able to resist him. They’d be crowded around a log at the centre of their pool, fighting for a place at the table, flossing their teeth with his words.
* * * * * * *
They walked to the marshes through thick dark. Margaret’s boots shifted with her steps. She took them off after they gave her blisters—sank her feet into the damp moss. A better bath than the last. Eloise let the dirty water flood into her sneakers and soak her socks. A haze hid the moon and dulled the sheen of slick frost on snapped sapling branches. The crocking of the frogs echoed in their eardrums. Raw throats sang for the dead. The beavers slept.
She stepped into a deep crater of icy moss and the clumped green water rose up to her ankles.
Margaret—let’s pretend we’re beavers.
She scooped the mud up in her hands and let it sit in her scarred palms, heavy and cold. Her fingers did not feel like her own, as if they could fall off into the murky water one by one and she would hardly notice. Bodhi would’ve called it something like knuckle stew. She shuffled foreword in the thick sludge until the mud embraced her calves and the water slopped up to her knees. Margaret stood beneath a slightly uprooted maple tree and aimlessly picked at the green of the bark. Eloise turned around in the mud with effort and shouted.
Do you love me more than you loved your brother?
The frogs’ singing turned to a symphony of screams—so loud that Eloise assumed that she had gotten away with acting as if she couldn’t hear her question. But Margaret’s gaze narrowed through the haze and her lips trembled. Somewhere off in Eloise’s left ear, she swore she could hear the rip of Bodhi shearing off his lips with a letter opener. She took five struggling steps back towards Margaret and tripped —gasped when the freezing water splashed against her waist. Her stomach spun with the smell of rotting algae.
Eloise. It’s important.
She stepped back up onto firmer ground and walked to the maple until she was an inch from Margaret’s nose. Dark water dripped from her jeans and soaked into the moss. Margaret moved her foot to back up but Eloise gently cupped her face with dirty hands. She could not feel the skin on Margaret’s cheeks through the mud.
Yes— Eloise lied—I love you more.
The mud left dark handprints. Margaret opened her mouth to speak, but Eloise had already turned around, back through the mud, back into the marsh. She did not feel the edges of her hair hardening into icicles as the murky water passed her chest. She did not feel the scrape of the dam logs on her ankles as she walked through them. She did not feel the sting of her dead skin wrinkling with wet and peeling off, did not see it curling up and floating with the chunks of half melted ice sheets and the water striders on their midnight skate.
Margaret craned her neck to watch, but the haze kept what little moonlight they had up in the treetops, and the farther Eloise walked, the more the outline of her body blurred against the dark. Bodhi was out in the water somewhere—the breath spooling out the top of the beaver dam would be his.
Snowflakes swarmed Margaret’s thick curls and she did not wipe them away. She let them halo her head in white light while the frogs screamed and tears spilt down her muddy cheeks and the marsh became nothing but a dense black backdrop.
She smiled. The Pump swallowed Eloise whole.
Sydney Brooman is a Queer fiction writer, slam poet, and a Fourth year Honours English Literature & Creative Writing student at Western University in London, ON, Canada. She is also serving as Western University’s Student Writer in Residence. Her recent publications include the Gateway Review, Occasus, Symposium, and the PLASTOS and GLITCH editions of Iconoclast. When she isn’t procrastinating, she’s putting in her full effort into that thing you really like. No, not that one. The other one.