by Paisley Rekdal

Paisley Rekdal

So after M died, she turned
to the dog. His copper eyes, the sinewy
haunch muscles. The way he perched
by the door of M's study as if
sensing the body he missed
behind it. Something she would not
let herself feel, dry-eyed
at the funeral, refusing to gather
up the pants that still hung in his closet
beneath which the dog slept, breathing in
M's last particles until,
out of some extravagant kindness
or pity, she gave the dog
one of his sweaters. She watched
as the dog circled and pawed at it, tearing
at the tissuey material in his attempts
to fall asleep. Impossible
not to love such need, she thought, telling herself
it was this passion to come as close
as possible to what he'd never possess
that attracted her: she could not stop
touching him, pulling him
to her, gathering up the thick folds
of neck skin between her fingers, kneading
into her palms the hot popcorn smell
of his feet, his ears. Waking
in bed to a misty smear spread
across her sheets, red welts on her chest
from where he scratched and bit her.
She wanted to make the dog feel
for her some part of what was powerful
about his grief for M. She even began
to hate M's things, the cashmere sweater
now tossed in the trash, books and pants
burned, pictures of him swept
off the bedroom shelf. Grief,
her mother said, when she came to visit,
excusing her daughter's furious
disposals. Though be careful you don't
lose control of yourself, she warned,
as if too much feeling must be
a diminishment. The same lecture
she'd been given in high school
the night a boy came hours
late for a date, and still she ran,
uncomplainingly, to meet him. Aren't you
ashamed of yourself, her mother had said
upon her return, meaning
how willingly she had let herself
be debased. But love was a debasement.
In their first few months of courtship, M
had liked to crawl at her feet
during sex, eating the crackers
she held out as communion wafers, dressed
in the priest's black chasuble
he'd found for them: some nightmare-
colored sheath he'd scared up
from a local theater closet.
And she'd indulged him: their marriage,
their sex, she couldn't help it,
even when he asked her
to beat him, she did it: she'd never seen
anyone want something so nakedly before.

Three months after M's death, the dog
got fleas. And she watched him, mesmerized,
scratch at the thin skin of his ears, biting
at his legs and belly until they bled,
until she too let herself become
infested with them: her clothes, her sheets
speckled with the fat black pinheads
feasting on them both, the blood they shared
raising welts over her ribs. One body,
M once said as they lay, tangled
together, her legs pressed between his—
or was it his between hers?—their long limbs
muscular and bare, covered in the late
afternoon light with the same
gold furze of hair. How close she'd come
to really loving him. You must get rid
of that animal, her mother declared
one night at the kitchen table, horrified
by her necklace of bites, her wolfish
eating habits. How greedily
she ate: the sad result, her mother said,
of living too long alone. You're little
better than that dog, her mother scolded her,
at which point she rose from the table,
tossed her food to the floor,
and got down on all fours to eat it.

Last updated August 26, 2022