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John Benditt in conversation with Nancy Pearl - University Bookstore Wednesday, February 25th, 7:00pm
Jonah and the Whale
“CAUTERIZE my heart,” I said, so he reached a branding iron down my throat and he did. Living hurts much less now, and the occasional remembered searing at my chest is a tolerable price.
“Now you do mine,” he said, but I took the broiling spike of metal in my hand and looked down his pink mouth into his pillowy throat and I said no, I can’t.
“It’s the right thing to do,” he said—right because he wanted me to do it, was asking me to do it, had a love he loved (but how much, really?) on his side of the country and a love he couldn’t love (couldn’t, but did) on mine. In me.
For a week my cauterized heart denatured the electric ropes hooking Sacramento to New York, but then I started feeling itchy stings like bed bugs on my skin. “You’re coming in through my pores,” I reported. “Won’t you join me here in full?”
“It’s wrong,” he said.
My cauterized heart stayed still and stable. But my trunk erupted red and lumpy, allergic.
“Then plug my pores,” I said, so he poured hot glue down my skin from neck to ankle and he did. Living hurts much less now, and the occasional adhesion that sticks me to my bedsheets is a bearable price.
“Now you do mine,” he said, because he had been breaking into painful purple hives for days, but I took the heaving glue gun in my hand and looked at his languid fluid movements and I said no, I can’t.
For a day my stoppered skin repelled the sloughed cells floating between Sacramento and New York, but then I started gasping fizzy, unbreathable air out through my lungs.
“I’m breathing you,” I told him, “just not enough. Won’t you join me here in full?”
“It’s wrong,” he said.
“Then solder my windpipe,” I said, my heart unmoved and skin unreactive but lungs gulping like surfaced divers, so he melted the back of my nasal passage down my trachea and he did. Living hurts much less now, and the occasional hitch at the beginning of my breath is a sufferable price.
“Now you do mine,” he said, because he had been wheezing deoxygenated air for hours, but I took the torch in my hand and looked at his solid shapely nose and I said no, I can’t.
I DIDN’T mean to eat him. But with my heart cauterized and my pores plugged and my nose soldered, he had no other way in.
I’ve made him safe inside me: drinking tea to keep him warm; downing rich stews with heavy cream to keep him comfortably cushioned. I can’t tell what he looks like anymore, only what he feels like: a kick in my gut, a curled knee in my stomach, a ticklish yawn against my ribcage, a forearm snaking to the base of my throat, fingers sliding through my aorta each time he stretches and wakes.
But still he tugs on my uvula, reaching back behind my heart until my mouth springs open.
“I’ve done everything you asked of me!” he shouts from inside me, his voice echoing and strange. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
I swallow his hand back down and close my mouth, and what I want to tell him is: Living rightly is a sin, Jonah, as long as it keeps me from you.
Courtney Sender‘s flash fiction has appeared in Esquire and The Carolina Quarterly, and her full-length fiction is forthcoming in The Los Angeles Review and nominated for this year’s Pushcart Prize through J Journal: New Writing on Justice. She holds a B.A. in English from Yale University and an MFA from the Johns Hopkins Writing Seminars.