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Nest by Erin Slaughter


In Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, first published in 1984, you’ll find this insight from Audre Lorde: “There are no new ideas. There are only new ways of making them felt, of examining what our ideas really mean.” Grief, from the first crackling, surreal moments of its arrival to the boomerang effect of its pain, is certainly not new material for writers. Yet, in her short story “Nest,” Erin Slaughter unearths new ways of making grief felt. The result is both humorous and unforgettable.

The story begins two months after its sixteen-year-old narrator and her younger sister, Kate, have lost their dad. From its opening lines, “Nest” places us in the realm of the absurd—a dead father who simultaneously inhabits both a housefly and his eldest daughter’s hair. But the assured, steady voice of our adolescent narrator allows us to fully suspend disbelief and buy into each sibling’s manifestation of grief. Immediately, Slaughter reminds us that the most seemingly discordant emotions, like surreal amusement and lasting sadness, often live within one another.

What unravels from that initial hook is an immersion into how we navigate the comical, sad, and mundane trappings of the everyday—boyfriends who will take every chance to declare their Marxist beliefs; mothers struggling within inhumane work environments; younger sisters who can’t stop getting on our nerves—against the backdrop of a life forever altered by loss. Slaughter writes in her author’s note, “We meet our narrator in the aftermath, the slab of time when loss is a constant companion, coloring every interaction, the context of every day’s movements.”

As both the narrator and Kate work through a series of decisions, the readers are treated to fiction that is poignant and weird and fun. Ultimately, like the young women in “Nest,” we’re forced to reckon with questions about what our own decisions mean and why we make them. In one clear and brilliant line about one-third of the way into her story, Slaughter cuts to the emotional core: “How was anyone supposed to fill the whole gaping wound of a life?”  —CRAFT


 

Kate had been huffing around the house since our dad died, and now she was convinced our dead dad was inhabiting a fly she found stuck buzzing between her bedroom blinds the morning of the funeral. Also, she had begun to starve because she decided it was immoral to kill anything, even a vegetable. I didn’t really believe her about the fly, and I didn’t say anything to her about my knot. I had a hunch she might get jealous, and I didn’t feel like dealing with all of that.

Because she was two years younger than me, I’d watched how Kate had always reveled in any morsel of suffering, as if showing off to everyone how deeply she felt, how much she couldn’t help it. When she was a little kid, she walked around boo-hooing when a TV show ended, boo-hooing when the mailman left us nothing in the box, boo-hooing when she found out the Loch Ness Monster wasn’t real. She didn’t always have a handle on empathy, though, until she started boo-hooing about meat and vegetables. People think sadness and empathy are the same, or are at least some kind of shortcut to each other, but that’s not true. Sadness can be as selfish as anything, if you use it the right way.

Two months ago—a month before my sixteenth birthday, down to the day—our dad went fishing and drowned in Patman Lake. The funeral was the last week of school, so Kate and I began our summer early. That was that, I thought. I have a dead dad now, that’s fine, that’s manageable. But then, a little more than a week ago, his ghost started inhabiting a knot in my hair.

I first noticed it one morning when I woke up and was getting ready to go to the movies with Tom. Tom used to be called Tommy, but started being Tom when he took over his dad’s vacuum store and became a Marxist. Tom was my boyfriend of seven months, though we never officially decided to be boyfriend-girlfriend, and hadn’t even kissed. Neither of us ever had a boyfriend/girlfriend before and didn’t know how to tell when someone became yours, so when people said we were each other’s, we assumed they must be right.

I was brushing my hair when I noticed the knot for the first time. When I took the bristles to it, I got tingly and feverish, like I might pass out. In summer, the Texas heat crept into the cheap plaster of our walls, chasing the bite out of our AC, and I feared I was succumbing to heatstroke. I sat down on the toilet, and noticed each time I touched the knot, the walls began to swell and pulse, and it felt like a big rubber band was tightening around my ribs. I worried I might puke, which meant I would ruin my makeup and have to rush to do it all over again. But when I wasn’t touching the knot, I felt nothing, like normal. So I simply braided my hair, tucking the knot carefully in the center of the braid, and drove to meet Tom.

After the movie, we walked to the arcade across the hall to catch plastic pigs in the claw machine. I guess he noticed I was fiddling with my braid, or took my silent focus on deploying the claw at precisely the right spot over the pigs’ shining rubber bellies as something more.

“Are you mad that I’m becoming a Marxist?” he often asked when he sensed we were getting into an argument.

“You know, it just means that capitalism is against human nature, and people should get to have control over their lives. It’s not evil, like they teach you in school,” he said. “You’ll understand when you’re part of the workforce.”

I told him no, it wasn’t about the Marxism at all, I was just frustrated.

“Okay. Are you frustrated that I’m becoming a Marxist?”

And I told him no, though truthfully I wasn’t sure, I didn’t know much about the whole enterprise, and the only -ists I knew about were people who treated other people badly. Anyway, I didn’t get around to telling Tom about the knot, and since he never tried to touch me in a close-up intimate way, it hadn’t come up.

The knot didn’t seem to have much to say about the afterlife, but it liked to whisper nouns in my ear. Cow, cork, river, it said. Window, window. Countertop. Rabies. My dad’s human voice was different in the knot, like he was calling out through a plastic radio played from the far end of a sewer tunnel. I wasn’t sure if he could hear me speaking back, but it had become comforting, just having the knot there. A little reminder of un-aloneness weighing at the nape of my neck.

When I asked it what being dead was like, it just responded, Pictureframe. When I asked if it missed being with us, or generally being alive—things like pancakes, weather, etcetera—it didn’t say anything. The knot could be distracting sometimes, but if I focused on paying attention with the other side of my face, I’d learned to pretty much tune it out. I could even fall asleep with it pressed against the soft conched back of my ear, and listen to the knot dictate the course of my dreams as I drifted into abstract consciousness. Wrench. Iris. Clown. Utah, Utah. Albatross. Cantaloupe.

My mom worked all day in the front office of the paper mill, and had bigger things to worry about. She was starving herself for different reasons than Kate, like not getting a lunch break because some rich plant manager had something he wanted her to do, or because my grandma was getting onto her about fixing up her “shape” so she could start dating again. When she came home from work, she sat on the couch with her old wicker basket of nail polish and spent hours painting her fingers and toenails. I guessed she was looking for some way to fill up the time she would’ve normally spent with my dad. In the evenings, the paper mill exhaled and the smell of dying jellyfish descended on Texarkana. When the streetlights came on, you were supposed to lock your windows, so the chemicals didn’t suffocate your family in the night.


I waited until Kate was absorbed in the TV, and then I snuck upstairs to bathe. I locked the bathroom door, took off my clothes, then reached to the back of the cabinet under the sink until I felt the crinkle of plastic.

Admittedly, the knot had caused some issues when it came to bathing; mainly, that I couldn’t do it without my skull pulsing till I got dizzy and had to throw up orange bile into the drain. If the knot got wet, it started whirring in my ear like a busted dryer and yelling creepy nouns, like Gurgle! Rot! Intestine! Noose! Feces! Banshee!

So I’d been avoiding washing my hair, and instead, sprayed a layer of dry shampoo over my roots every morning. And because sitting in the bath also felt dangerous, in terms of how the knot would react, I cleaned my creases with a package of baby wipes. I’d read in a magazine that women did the same thing when they stayed overnight at their boyfriends’ houses and had to go straight to work the next day—some women even kept wipes handy in their purse for that very purpose. So really, I was just learning a skill that would be useful to me later in life.

If I tried to untangle pieces of the knot or clean it with the wipes I felt sick, so the way I groomed my hair was like this: I spit in my hand and used my spit to flatten down the hairs under the knot, then combed the longer hairs backwards, teasing them to cover it. It had the effect of a curtain that the knot could peek through, while still remaining hidden. Keeping it hidden was the most important part.


I never got to have a “sweet sixteen” like most people, since my birthday was at the beginning of summer, school was out, and my dad being dead was all anyone cared about. So when my mom announced she was going away to visit my grandma, I planned a party. Curling my hair hid the knot decently well, I realized in a flurry of anxious glee. I tried untangling the ringlets with my fingers, but the knot had overtaken more space, and there wasn’t much I could untangle. I smudged eyeliner into my shimmery bronze eyeshadow, and hoped I looked like a model who was still pretty even though she’d just woken up in a stranger’s bed after a big night of partying in the city, and not like a regular person who’d just woken up in her own bed after a big night of nothing. I was having trouble figuring out what to wear, since only three outfits still fit me comfortably and were a color that didn’t make my skin, as my grandma said, “washed-out.” I didn’t see anything wrong with looking washed, but it was one of those phrases old people liked to use, back from the times when a lady’s quest to achieve perfect beauty was the only hobby she was allowed. Still, I didn’t want to take any chances.

Since summer started, I’d been eating a lot more to fill the extra time. Because Kate was afraid to put even a piece of lettuce in her mouth, there was always something to snack on, and because no one was around, there was so much more time to fill. Eating helped me zone out of myself, into a mindless state of enjoyment, where what I wanted was in reach and I could take it easily. I folded food inside my body and folded my body inside rooms and felt calm. Everyone has to get outside of themselves for a little while, I thought. Nobody can be fully aware of every ticking minute in the day, or they’d go insane. How would a person fill up all that empty time? How was anyone supposed to fill the whole gaping wound of a life?

When I came downstairs, Kate was sitting on the couch wearing a baggy zip-up hoodie with a low-cut, powdery pink tank top peeking through. Gobs of lip-gloss made her mouth the color of a melted tangerine.

She said, “Make sure nobody goes in my room. I don’t want the fly to get out.”

I thought that was ironic, since she’d spent the week after the funeral tramping all her little friends over to come see the fly, like some kind of carnival barker. She’d go up there as if she was going to show off some cool new gadget and then come down boo-hooing while her friend patted her awkwardly on the shoulder, that crusty look in their eyes like they were just dying for the moment they could bolt.

“If the fly is actually Dad, don’t you think you’d want him to get out? Like, he wouldn’t want to live his whole time as a fly being stuck in your room.”

“That’s not the point,” Kate said. “I don’t want any of your dumb friends to see the fly, or touch the fly, or to know about the fly. Or doing anything weird with my stuff.”

“No one’s allowed upstairs anyway,” I told her. There was a knock on the door, and before I answered it, I checked in the hall mirror to make sure the knot was hidden.

Tom wore a blue shirt with black palm trees and held plastic grocery bags at his sides. He unloaded them onto the counter, revealing some plain, store-brand tortilla chips, a plastic gallon of vodka with a shiny red label, and two cartons of from-concentrate orange juice.

“Hope this’ll be enough,” he said.

“It should be good. It’s just a small gathering.”

“Who all’s coming?”

“Oh, just some people from school,” I said. “A couple drama club people, and the Clarks and them.”

He didn’t really respond to that, just stood there in my kitchen shifting from one foot to the other.

“Anyway, thanks for bringing the stuff, Tom,” I said, putting a little more sweetness in my voice than usual. “I really appreciate it.”

“No worries. Happy to redistribute my paycheck so everybody gets to have a good time.” He looked over at Kate, who, to my knowledge, he’d never spoken to before. “I’m a Marxist,” he explained.

“Cool. I’m basically a Socialist,” Kate replied, raking her hair out from the bunched neck of her jacket, though I knew she didn’t even know what being a Socialist meant and had probably just heard it somewhere.

“He’s taking over his dad’s vacuum store,” I explained, willing my hand over Tom’s in a way that appeared casual. He tensed up, but didn’t move away. “Taking over the family business, as they say.” I laughed the fake dry laugh of a socialite in a passionless but respectable marriage. I was rattling on now, but I needed to get into the hostess mood, and talking seemed to be working out my nerves a little.

“Yeah, I know that already,” Kate said, like I was the most foolish oaf she’d ever laid eyes on.

Tom just laughed with his head tilted down, and started mixing himself a drink as people trailed in.

I’d invited some boys from school, David and Brandon and Clark Katz, and even the other Clark, Clark Johnson, to the party, and they brought another girl who didn’t go to our school. The boys made parenthesis around her, chugging their vodka juice. Brandon said something and the girl threw her head back in an exaggerated laugh, a near guffaw, and clamped a manicured hand on his arm. The whole time, her bellybutton gravitated back to David. I knew from magazines that the bellybutton was a surefire traitor, a compass pointing in the direction of whoever you cared about most, whether or not you wanted people to know it.

After Brandon left to go throw up in the bushes outside, I stood with the girl and the remaining boys in my living room, nodding and smiling while I watched Tom and Kate out of the corner of my eye.

Mulberry, the knot whispered, muffled under a layer of music. Virus, pencil.


At our dad’s funeral, a woman from our grandma’s church gave Kate and me each a framed picture of him. They were cheap dollar store frames, plastic and white, and in the photo, his face was blown up slightly too big and the contrast turned up too high, so he looked unnaturally red and bloated. I recognized the picture from a fishing trip he took to Corpus Christi a few years ago, but someone had cropped out the ocean and photoshopped him into a suit and tie.

I threw my copy of the picture on my top closet shelf, sandwiched between some clothes that didn’t fit and my dad’s sweatshirt that I’d snuck to my room while my mom was at work. Everyone at the funeral talked in whispers and wouldn’t look my mom in the eye, because my grandma had told them all how my dad wasn’t “saved,” which meant his soul was getting incinerated in the down-below as we stood on earth eating lukewarm ham rolls, and nobody knew quite what to say about that.

Kate kept the photo next to her bedside, my dad’s unnaturally big face looking over her while she slept. If I had to guess, I bet she did something embarrassing with it, too, like saying goodnight to the picture before she rolled over. In the days between his dying and the funeral, I could hear her sharp cries pierce the wall between our bedrooms, like she was making sure everyone in the house knew she was definitely crying herself to sleep. I’d had to lie with a pillow over my head, and felt like I might suffocate.

But since the knot showed up, I could drown out Kate’s dramatics by listening as my dad’s distorted ghost-voice called out nouns through my hair. The nouns bloomed into images in my mind, then melted away to reveal new images, which dissolved into dreams. A petunia bloomed into a baby’s bottle. A wolf bled upward until it was a ladder. It was a type of hypnotism.

Sometimes, as I laid in bed in the dark, I’d reach up and squeeze the knot, dig the tip of my finger into its tangle, just to make myself feel bad. If I tugged on it to induce that woozy feeling, like my ribs were about to snap and slice me in half, I could make tears start to flow. I figured if I got myself crying and heaving in private, where I could muffle myself with my pillow, if I drained the bad feeling out like a pus-filled blister while I was alone, then it wouldn’t leak out accidentally around other people.

But mostly, I just tried to ignore it.

At first, my head was just a little itchy where the knot rested, but now I was always scratching, trying to hide my hands so no one noticed the brown crescents of scalp blood dried under my fingernails. I had to give up on wearing earrings because my hair kept catching on the backs, and had to start layering cover-up on the sweaty side of my neck underneath the knot, where I’d broken out in a bumpy rash.


When Tom went outside, I walked up to Kate.

“Potatoes died to make that drink in your hand,” I said.

“Whatever,” she rolled her heavily lined eyes. “Just let me have fun. I need this.”

“You always think you need something.”

Admittedly, I was being mean, but it bothered me how she could make such a big hoopla about starving herself and then just give up whenever she felt like it.

Clark Johnson walked up to refill his drink.

“What’s up, ladies?”

“Hey Clark. Having fun?” I plastered a big dumb sparkling smile on my face. Despite everything, I was committed to being a good hostess.

“Yeah, thanks for putting this together,” he said. He was standing between us, but his bellybutton was pointed right at Kate.

“Who’s this?” he asked, as if Kate were an interesting statue he was commenting on, instead of a person who was standing right in front of him.

Kate said her name and I said, “My sister.” I added: “She’s in eighth grade.” I knew telling him this fact would embarrass Kate, even if it didn’t embarrass Clark, which I felt it should have.

Clark said, “You’re drinking too? Want me to fill your cup?”

“Sure,” she said. We both stood there, silent, while Clark poured the jug of vodka, then splashed in some from-concentrate orange juice, and handed the cup to Kate.

“Thanks,” she said. She took a sip and her face screwed up, but at the last second she made it look like a pouty smile.

Clark looked in my direction and remarked, “You must’ve been getting pretty wild on the dance floor, huh?”

“What do you mean?”

“You know, your hair? Looks like you’ve been doing some serious headbanging.”

My face reddened, and my hand instinctively shot up to the back of my head. I knew whatever look was caught on my face was a stupid one, and desperately hoped Kate wouldn’t try to mention it.

“Thanks for your help, Clark,” I said, coolly. “See you later.”

“I’ll be around,” he proclaimed.

“He seems nice. Cute eyes, too,” Kate said.

I’d never stopped to consider if Clark Johnson’s eyes were cute, but I didn’t like Kate thinking they were, or telling me out loud she thought so. It spelled out something ominous.

“He’s just being nice to you because you’re my kid sister,” I said. “He’s a nice person. He’s nice to everyone.”

“I’m not a kid. I’ve done all kinds of things you don’t know about.”

“Like what?”

“Like all kinds of things,” Kate said. “I’ve kissed people, I’ve done stuff, I’ve lived a life.” She was slurring a little, but I couldn’t tell if it was real or for dramatic effect.

“Plus,” she said, “I had to get mature for my age. Most fourteen-year-olds don’t have to deal with seeing their dad’s drowned dead body. It’s not fair. It’s not normal.”

She clutched her plastic cup in both hands, and I wondered if it would break open and spill all over her. I sort of wished it would, so she’d disappear for a while.

“Not that you care, you’ve never even cried about Dad dying.”

The knot was telling me something, but I pulled my hair behind my ear so I wouldn’t have to pay attention to it, and in the process, snagged my finger on the knot. I winced, then flooded with anger.

“Whatever. My feelings aren’t your business, Kate. Anyway, I’m only letting you stay because Mom would figure out something was weird otherwise, but don’t try to talk to my friends. Nobody wants to hang out with a slutty middle-schooler.”

Kate welled with hot tears, her eyes red already from the slow ascension of booze, and in a show of great spite, she unzipped her hoodie and tossed it over the banister.

“Fuck you,” she said, “I’ll talk to who I please. And if you try to stop me, I’ll tell Mom you had people over drinking.”

She walked away, her small boobs poking through her pink tank-top like dried figs. For the first time, I noticed Kate’s bones pressed insistently through her skin, her neck taut and hollowed, her ribs like claws lurching outward under her shirt. My sister drifted through the room, a husk with a vaguely Kate-shaped aura.

The less space she takes up, the more people are going to want her, I thought, sickened by the truth of it. Clark Johnson had never bothered talking to me in all the years we’d been in school together, even before I started swallowing the surplus groceries Kate refused. Maybe all boys wanted was a girl they could fit in their pocket, to carry around discreetly as they went about their lives and take them out only when they were bored or horny or needed entertainment to burn up a few hours. But even though Kate’s body was shrinking, she wasn’t clearing space. Her sadness was so big no one could walk into a room without being sucked inside its orbit.

I understood then that no one would ever want Kate, not really. She walked around shedding pieces of her grief everywhere she went, and no boy would tolerate such a thing if they didn’t have to. Nobody wanted to fuck you if your grief was always watching. That made me feel sort of sad for Kate, but at the same time, better about myself. Any grief I had was translucent, unobtrusive—I was careful not to let it touch my real life. I was responsible with sadness, I kept it to myself, safely tied away from everything outside of it. Actually, I was a truly easy person to love, I thought. I kept myself so empty, anything could fill me.

Thinking about all of this, I caught myself surging with fondness for Tom. Who cared if he had aberrant social views, I thought. I thought, I will absolutely learn about Marxism, I will buy books on it and I will read them, I will even start recycling and stop eating meat if that’s part of it. I wasn’t sure if that was part of it, but I was willing to try. I thought about the way he tipped his head when he laughed his gentle laugh and all I wanted in the whole bright and gushing world was to make Tom happy, to be worthy of being his girlfriend.

I hurried outside to find Tom, pressing past classmates who clogged the steps by the porch, smoking cigarettes with a false sway of sophistication and one neurotic eye darting to check for any adult who might be lurking, waiting to punish them.

I spotted Tom by the bushes with Brandon. Brandon sipped at a bottle of water, swished it around his mouth, and spit it out on the ground. There was a splash, and the smell of the paper mill wafting on the breeze like a sea creature who just wouldn’t rot right. Beyond the border of the neighborhood, East Texas pines loomed like giants in lumpy trench coats. There was a bush-length between them, but Tom’s bellybutton was pointed so unmistakably in Brandon’s direction, as if he were being dragged by an invisible rope at his center. Anyone who saw them standing together among the bushes could see that even before the bellybutton’s existence, if the umbilicus at the center of Tom had been able to speak it would have said: Yes, this is the direction the hole I will become was meant for. My face grew prickly, not understanding exactly what I’d seen, but that I shouldn’t have seen it. I turned around and rushed back inside before my breath could be heard.

I looked around for Kate in the swirl of sweat and noise, but didn’t see her. Some boys were watching a movie where a man clutched another man’s blood-streaked body and howled into the empty, blinding white as snow melted around them. Under my dad’s plaid throw-blanket, one of the boys reached between the legs of that girl I didn’t recognize, who munched her bubblegum and pretended to pay attention to the death on-screen. There was a smell in the room, but it wasn’t the paper mill smell.

“Do you smell that?” I said out loud. One of the boys on the couch looked up but didn’t respond, and to the rest, I was a dimly lit ghost in the shadows surrounding the TV screen.

I realized after a few moments, embarrassed, that the smell might be coming from me. The knot, whose voice I’d blurred out for most of the night, had begun to emit an odor like moss and wet pennies. The smell of tinny lake-water.


I went upstairs and found Kate in her bedroom, crouched by the windowsill.

“Get out,” she said, but I didn’t.

“Sorry I said that stuff to you. I was just nervous about the party,” I said, though each sentence contained only a morsel of the truth.

“Whatever,” she said. “Your friends are lame anyway.”

“I know.”

“A person was in here smoking drugs. They could’ve let the fly out. They could have smushed it with their druggy hands.”

“I don’t think anyone was doing drugs,” I said. “It was probably just a cigarette.”

“Tobacco is a kind of drug,” she said.

“Okay, sure, I guess.”

I sat down next to her. Her carpet was abnormally clean, and I wondered if she’d been vacuuming it in secret.

“Where’s the fly now?”

“Here.” She pointed to a spot on the window.

“I don’t see it.”

“It’s right there.”

“I don’t see it,” I said, and then: “Oh, there it is.”

There it was, perched on the glass, rubbing its stick-legs together. The fly looked like any regular fly. In fact, how regular it looked made me wonder for a second if it wasn’t a real fly at all—it looked too perfect, like a computer-generated model of the culturally idealized fly. But even then, I didn’t think it was harboring the spirit of anyone dead.

“Flies puke every time they land,” I told Kate. “It’s the only fact I know about them.”

“Gross.”

“Yeah. Why do you think it’s Dad’s ghost, anyway?”

“Don’t say ghost,” she said.

“Okay, why do you think Dad is inside the fly?”

“You’ll say it’s dumb.”

“I still want to know.”

“I had this dream, the night before the funeral. We were ice-skating on this big pond outside the mall in Frisco.”

“We’ve never been ice-skating,” I said.

“That’s how I knew it was a dream. We were ice-skating, and then we had to get off the ice because it was cracking. And then, the mall authorities or whoever said they needed us to help make it become water again. So I was hammering at the ice with the metal part of my skates. And then, finally, the ice cracked open and the water got set free through the cracks. But then I realized the water was flies.”

“Anyway,” she said, “the next morning this little guy was stuck in my window, buzzing around. I figured Dad must’ve sent me the dream so I’d know to pay attention.”

“The water isn’t Dad, though,” I said. “It’s what killed Dad.”

As if she hadn’t heard me, she said: “Plus, if he could stay, why wouldn’t he?”

Kate opened her mouth to say something else, but the knot started talking over her. Jukebox, liver, blouse. Meteor. Arugula. My eardrums started to flutter, lightly at first, then thrumming and painful. I feared a moth had gotten in somehow and was trapped, thrashing its wings furiously inside my brain. Or maybe it was the fly. Maybe he’d swum right in and was vomiting all over my ear canals. The smell of worms and overripe loam was overpowering.

“Do you smell that?” I asked Kate, but she scrunched her eyebrows and I could tell she didn’t know what I was talking about. I bolted to the bathroom.


Before I understood water as a sinister element, rather than something that swam silent inside ourselves, an ingredient to our daily motions, I stood on the porch and cut Kate’s long hair to her shoulders.

It was an afternoon project in rare trust between us, the springtime weekends making us pollen-lazy and bored, and it turned out blunter than I meant for it to, but she said, “No, I like it,” and smiled as she swished her hands through it in the mirror.

Then my dad came home from fishing. He dropped his metal box, containing brightly colored baubles whose uses I couldn’t fathom, so foreign were they to my understanding of the slick, eyeless flanks he portioned onto our dinner plates, and said: “Why not, I could use a trim.”

I carefully cut the lines around his neck, his ears, took the kitchen scissors to the thick hair at the crown, his temples, careful not to disturb the ecosystem of swirls and thinning patches. When I finished, he glanced quickly in the handheld mirror and said, “Nice job, darlin’,” before taking the broom and sweeping everything I’d cut away from him and Kate down the steps and into our front yard. Kate’s hair lay in the grass like strands of stretched golden taffy mixed with our dad’s black tufts, the texture of wool sheared from an animal.

“It’ll make good homes for birds,” he said. And he was right, within days it was all gone but a few glimmering strands caught between the blades of sod.

Now those pieces of him and Kate were out there somewhere, forming the tenderest nest for a robin, and I wanted them back.

I stood in front of the bathroom mirror, truly looking for the first time at the knot in all its gnarled splendor, a nest for nothing. I glanced down at the scissors but did not move to touch them.

The knot was speaking again, not just nouns but broken noises, words sliced and sutured together: Bonegulf. Shineaway. Wake, shut, knifedive. It was ugly, a pulsing, repulsive tangle of what was once mine, what was once me. But I did not look away.

Bitterstar. Fieldswell. Oilaloud, oilaround, bite. Dive.

It felt important to hear what it had to say.

“Dad,” I said back to it, Dad, as if testing the word for the first time, my voice interweaving with the knot’s in a monstrous kind of music. I knew I was not speaking to my actual or past-tense father or to whoever was inside the knot, but that the word was only itself, guttural, a fractured cry like any other word. Dad, I said. Feeling the word slip through my mouth and away like lakeslime. In this way I will know you.

The knot writhed, language swelled and crashed, the words all sliding now to the unreachable bottom of some familiar, ethereal place. I broke through to my lungs. I will collect the pieces, I said. Swallowhowl. Wailblessing. I can get it back.

 


ERIN SLAUGHTER is editor/co-founder of The Hunger, and the author of two poetry collections: The Sorrow Festival (CLASH Books, 2022) and I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, PANK, Prairie Schooner, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Originally from North Texas, she is pursuing a PhD at Florida State University, where she serves as Nonfiction Editor for the Southeast Review and co-hosts the Jerome Stern Reading Series. You can find her online at erin-slaughter.com.

 

Featured image by Matt Seymour courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

This story began twelve years before it was written. My childhood best friend Rachel and I, in one of our teenage flurries of silliness, came up with the idea for an absurdist play where a girl’s dad dies and his ghost haunts a knot in her hair that she vows she will never brush out. Rachel joked, “We could call it, ‘Bittersweet Entanglement.’” There was no way for us to know then that the following year, the night before our senior year of high school began, my own dad would die suddenly, tragically.

I returned to the idea more than a decade later, during the long pandemic summer, when I found myself writing prose for the first time since I’d begun a PhD in poetry two years before. I was churning out stories to beat back the dread of struggling to survive from one global or personal crisis to the next, putting shards of my fears and hopes behind the masks of other people’s faces and voices, and making them play out situations in their world that I couldn’t in my own. I’d also reconnected with Rachel during the pandemic, so I decided to use the rare bout of productivity to bring “Bittersweet Entanglement” to life, overwrought title and all, for her amusement. The first draft landed at about 11,000 words—the longest sustained piece of fiction I’d ever written—and unintentionally, but fittingly, I finished writing it days before the eleventh anniversary of my father’s death.

Originally, it included a character named Rachel (who didn’t resemble my friend except in name) and much of the story revolved around the narrator’s failed attempts to be “normal” and to ignore pressing reminders of her grief, with Rachel’s superficial teen concerns and dramas serving as a stark contrast. I workshopped an early draft of this story with a group of friends I’d formed a virtual workshop with, and one of my cohorts convinced me that the heart of the story was rooted in the relationship between the sisters, and their opposite reactions to processing their father’s death should be rewritten as the central tension. The final draft now begins and ends with images of Kate as the narrator sees her after the tragedy, and as she was before.

We meet our narrator in the aftermath, the slab of time when loss is a constant companion, coloring every interaction, the context of every day’s movements. I believe that in many ways this grief-era is what people spend their lives processing, trying to escape or reclaim—not the instant of the loss itself, but the long afterward that defines how you react in crisis, who you discover yourself to be; the ghosts that move in to claim parts of you, and how you choose to move forward, with or without them.

 


ERIN SLAUGHTER is editor/co-founder of The Hunger, and the author of two poetry collections: The Sorrow Festival (CLASH Books, 2022) and I Will Tell This Story to the Sun Until You Remember That You Are the Sun (New Rivers Press, 2019). Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, PANK, Prairie Schooner, Split Lip Magazine, and elsewhere. Originally from North Texas, she is pursuing a PhD at Florida State University, where she serves as Nonfiction Editor for the Southeast Review and co-hosts the Jerome Stern Reading Series. You can find her online at erin-slaughter.com.