Refraction

by C.A. Schaefer

one
When I heard the first clink, I didn’t flinch. I was in the bath, and sometimes I liked to play sounds off each other. Soap dish, faucet, drain. I steamed up and cooled down as usual. I soaped my hair and scraped my scalp clean.

It wasn’t until I got out that I heard it again. I tapped my fingers experimentally against the ceramic sink. But it wasn’t exterior: I couldn’t prompt it. I could swear that it was simply two of my bones, kissing in the soft slush of blood. I stood, naked and dripping, on the red rug, and listened. The clink of the hammer on the dulcimer.

***
“You look different,” said my sister.

“I’ve gained weight.” My sister ate only small green things. She drank almond milk, flavored plain.

“I don’t think that’s it,” my sister said. Her gaze combed over my sweater.

“It might be cancer.”

“That isn’t funny,” my sister said. “This could be serious.” “You’re right,” I said. “I’m sorry. I’m sure it’s not anything.”

***
When I bit my tongue my heartbeat amplified, thick and hot, coiled just beneath the flesh of my left breast. Blood sank down my throat and then stilled and cooled, pooling down my esophagus. Made of/in China. A porcelain goiter nestled in my throat.

***
After she left I went to the animal shelter. Cats piled over each other in hushed, purring piles of fur and blinking eyes. I squatted by the kitten room and tapped on the glass. One bounded up to me and stared. She was underweight and had food smeared on the back of her neck. She was opaque: thin ebony fur and miniature brown paws. I paid twenty dollars and they offered me a cardboard box shaped like a house. Six holes for breathing.

I peered through them at her. She made soft little mews in her throat and dabbed at my fingertips, but in the next morning the joints of my knees collided and I heard another clink.

two
The first doctor told me that I had a psychosomatic illness, and asked me questions about my parents and sex life. I told him about the kitten and he sighed.

“I mean trauma,” he said. “Family problems. If you’ll forgive me—have you had a non-consensual sexual encounter lately? I mean—” He scratched his nose. “Anything that would cause you distress.”

“My sister is a size two,” I said. “She hardly eats.”

“Do you eat?” he asked.

“Hamburgers,” I said. “And fish and soup.”

He sighed. He wanted to write me a prescription for Xanax and Valium. I wasn’t interesting enough for him. He wanted sadness to manifest in my mouth, and I had none to give him. Just a kitten, bathwater, and blood.

“So tell me again,” he said. “Why you think you’re turning to glass.”

***
At home, the kitten licked my palm and I barely felt a whisper. An echo of sandpaper. I stuck my finger in her mouth and she bit me, but she didn’t even scratch the skin.

The second doctor took a seat across from me.

“My kitten licks me,” I said. I held my arms out to him. “I can’t feel it.”

He peered at my veins. Held a light to my ears and eyes, tapped the back of my tongue and knees.

“You said it feels like you’re glass?”

“On the inside,” I said.

“The brain manufactures sensation, you know,” he said. “If you feel carpet, or your cat’s tongue, you know that’s simply your brain interpreting the sensation.” He clamped his lip between his teeth and sucked.

“Even emotions?” I asked.

“Even those,” he said. “All hormonal, you know.” He tapped his chest.

“Even love?” I asked.

“And love,” he said. He cleared his throat. “Sadness.”

I waited for the story.

“I was in Africa. A school lit on fire. I went outside and there were children—burning—rolling down the hills. Like red and gold pinwheels. Fireworks.”

I wondered what chemicals had produced that story, if a squirt of growth hormone caused him to remember the child, alight with heat, glowing, skin ash, hair a wild halo. He would have worn cheap American hand-me-downs. Elmo grinning like a skull against his shirt.

“So,” he said. “Maybe you should see a therapist. I can’t see anything physically wrong with you.”

Not like a child lighting a path with her skin. I closed my eyes and took my purse.

“Thank you,” I said.

***
I went home and fed the kitten her dinner. I scooped up the smelly paste of liver and beef and chicken, and let her lick it off my finger. I cradled her until she cried. Her claws skidded against my chest. When I didn’t cry out, she hissed, then curled between the dresser and the wall.

***
“Maybe,” my sister said, “you need to get laid more.”

“Sexual humors,” I said, and spread my hands. She squinted at me. “You know your jokes aren’t even funny,” she said. “Not if you’re really sick.”

“I have a cat,” I said. “I bought her a Halloween costume. She’s going to be a mermaid.”

“For God’s sake.” She picked up her purse. “Don’t be one of those people.”

***
No, I wanted to tell her. I’ve always had a strange body. At birth, I disobeyed by breathing in the tar-stick of meconium, and they had to flush my lungs. During my first menstrual cycle I bled and bled. They were afraid of hemorrhaging. In bed, I wanted simply to be touched, to feel the reassuring weight of skins. Now I had a softness that had turned brittle. A place where hairs crackled under the tongue.

***
I went to a third doctor. He asked me to tell him of bleeding and breathing.

“It’s just that I feel strange,” I said. “Fragile. I’ve read about people whose bones are like glass.”

“Have you broken a bone?” he asked.

“A wrist,” I said. “Sprained, really. Fifteen years ago. I was sledding.”

He had me lie out on the papery bed and draw my shirt open. He palpated my freckles. Caressed my ganglia nerves. I opened and closed my mouth.

“There used to be legends,” he said, “of women who gave birth to cats and miscarried turtles. People who turned to stone. Now we have medical explanations for them all.”

“So there’s no more magic, then,” I said.

He shrugged.

“Birth, sex, defecation. Even the human instrument might be capable of flight.”

He slid the speculum inside of me. I felt it hold me up, peer inside my jaw. Needle-tight. No. I wasn’t lovely. Not a sweet cervix, photographed in candlelight. He applied pressure and then released. He delved inside my narrowness. Collected bits of me, poured me under glass and found me teeming with infection.

I saw his prescription on a piece of filmy yellow paper. A woman gone to glass is mere dysmorphia. Hand her the paper gown to carry communion. Cup half full of urine mixed with lye. Sleep on sheets colored convent green. Serve her water, red cough syrup, and grape juice.

I left without paying.

three
I stole the kitten and we made our way to the desert. We found an empty vacation house that was cleaned twice a month. The kitten thrived on the cans I brought with us, but still hunted scorpions and bats. I lined the master bath with towels and she slept there, dreaming of moths.

I tried to rest nearby, but found I could only sleep in the pool. The water pinned my body to the ground, where nets of lights scarred my skin. Underwater, I opened my eyes to the burning corpses of spiders. Dragonflies skimmed the surface. We danced with each other, the water, and the night.

There was a wall inside the pool made of bits of broken glass. Green Coca-Cola cups, blue cobalt, amber apothecary, and stained windows from a condemned church. St. Agnes of Rome, hair grown all around her body. I liked to sleep by it. Hours rose, and my lungs filled with fluid. The filters tugged at my fingers and limbs. In the morning, the kitten dipped her paw into the water and flicked the liquid off. I climbed out, clothes dripping and heavy. When I shed them, the light shivered over me.

I found I made soft clinking sounds when I walked. On my skin the water remained and beaded, dripping like jeweled pieces. My toenails were now translucent. The cuticles fractured when I tried to file my fingertips.

I held the kitten in my lap and promised her a name. We shuffled through stars and goddesses before I leaned to slip her off my tongue, a sort of half-mewl that sounded best in the dark.

We would have stayed there forever. She taught me how to trap, close my paws, and sleep in small dark spaces. She liked to purr against me and hear her sounds reverberating in my skull. I forgot how to speak to humans, and when I heard the family pull up in their white car, I almost stayed. She howled and crouched behind the pool filter. Her tail flicked the air.

We emerged during an electric storm. I felt their fear from the house, but gathered the kitten in my arms and swaddled her in newsprint. We ran down Olla, onto New Moon and through Crescent. If possible, I would have swallowed the light and kept it inside of me, crackling down my esophagus, spreading electricity through my marrow.

That night I dreamed of mad women and swan feathers. I picked through the canisters outside the grocery stores to collect bottles and tinfoil. Enough to weave a roof. She bit at my ankles to keep me present. She was afraid that I would wander. I wore a hard denim dress to disguise my thighs.

We found day-old bread and caught her mice with that and peanut butter. She hissed at dogs and men who came near us. We slept in a reservation graveyard next to a baby’s grave.

Near the border, two men met us and told us stories of roads. One was an old highway, the other through the high-walled gorge. The first said his wife had died and he longed for a second. He called his wife by different names each time: Lily, Ivy, Rose.

The other only shook his head. From each lover, he said, he took hair, and roped it in a bracelet around his wrist. They offered to let us travel with them. They said that they could make the kitten a nest. They said the birds watched us and waited for our fall. We were too soft, still: the kitten cried at thorns, and I rescued spiders from the lake. My footfall was too soft on the sand to frighten anyone, and I glowed with desert light.

“No, thank you,” I said. The last room I had been offered had been barred. I wondered what became of my sister.

“Still,” the first man said. “I think of Anna.”

“Are you sure?” the second man asked. “It’s hard for us as humans, being alone.”

I gave them each a piece of my hair, silver-blonde and full of sun, and they gave me the key to a motel room.

“Stay there,” they said. “For the week. You’ll meet a man.”

four
I didn’t. But he found me. I cut off my hair and plaited it for a wreath on a roadside cross. In memory of Sgt. Richard DeLaMare. We paid pilgrimages to his memorial and wondered what had murdered him. The kitten suggested a wild predator. With teeth, she said, and snapped her tongue. And claws. A big one.

“A big claw?” I asked. “I think maybe a metal machine.”

She flattened her back and hissed.

“I know,” I said. “That’s why we walk.” But my feet had started to hurt, in spite of everything. I welcomed the pain at first, but even glass could hurt. Razored cracks appeared on my soles.

The soft pads of her paws hardened. Her claws grew long and feral in the sand. We could not walk forever, I reasoned. Here was as good a place to settle as any.

***
She caught the rainbows that sparked off my skin: broken ones, a splinter of red and blue, purple, green. She curled in my armpit and tried to groom me.

We should go, she said.

“I’m so tired,” I replied.

Hunt more, she said. Be brave.

“I had a sister,” I said. “She must miss me.” I closed my eyes against the stone shelter.

No, she said.

***
She raised the fur on her back when she saw the man approach. I got up and offered him my hand.

“Hello,” I said. If he saw any strangeness in my skin, he stayed silent. His hands were full of purple sage. He had parked nearby.

No, said the cat again.

“Yes,” I said to her. “Now be quiet.”

He leaned his hand against the top of Sgt. DeLaMare’s cross.

“Do you talk to your cat?” he asked me.

I laughed and shrugged, muttered something.

“It’s not so strange,” he said. “My daughter is dead. I talk with her.”

I imagined cigarettes and cisterns, but he shook his head. Sgt. Richard DeLaMare was his cousin, and his daughter had been born at 24 weeks gestation. Toy sized, with miniature genitals, her skin a furious scarlet.

“Will you come with me?” he asked. The cat shook her head, but I ignored her and took his hand. We could trust him. His coming had been foretold. She stared at me, black pupils swallowing her eyes. I put her in the car.

five
Before the border, we stopped to play pachinko. We left the cat napping on the passenger seat. I worried that she would be stolen, and he patted the key near his breast.

“You’ll win me money,” he said.

It was true they came to me and hovered. One man said I was aglow in the casino light. They offered me glasses of ruby liquid, then clear. I was platinum. I craved the color of their skin.

A drunk man fed handfuls of nickels down my dress. He said he liked how the silver sounded on my skin.

“Like bells,” I said, laughing.

“Windchimes,” said the man.

“And stars,” said my drunkard.

The man pulled me by my hair and kissed me hard.

We moved to penny slots, then dimes. I counted each breath before I pulled the lever. We lost twenty-five, then won a hundred. I held ten thousand dollars before it shrank to five. His eyes narrowed. He ordered coffee and we left.

***
We crossed the salt flats next. I could taste this. Our feet scuffed against the crusted paths.

“My tongue is dry,” I said. The kitten seemed hot and limp, listless in my arms.

He shrugged. “I live near a river.” He kissed my temple. “We’ll be baptized in the belly of the green snake.”

He shook the money in his pocket. But his house, when we arrived, was cool and spacious, made almost entirely of glass. It was built into a hill, so that no one could look inside unless he wanted to be seen. I took it as a good omen and ignored the mutters of the cat.

Too many mirrors, she said. Too many other cats.

We swam in the river and made love in the dirty pools that churned white and hot. He rocked his belly next to mine. Each day, I crystallized from the internals out. Intestines were vivid, blown flowers. Womb, a piece of smooth, solid grey glass. A paperweight. My heart shivered and stilled. The sun pierced me, then threw its shadow at my feet.

Even my lungs were made of paper-thin, folded glass. I wore thinner clothes each day. Pale, threadbare cotton. Muslin sundresses. A voile curtain draped around my shoulders.

He undressed the empty dress and drew the disappearance through his fingers. I prayed him a magician.

***
The cat stopped hunting and grew lazy. She watched us dive into the river each morning. We climbed higher and higher, craving better falls. The flying birds hummed over us. When we swam, our bodies contorted into downward dogs and cranes. We leapt off cliff edges, bodies strung on the air.

On the last jump, he broke away from me and fell headfirst into the water. I could tell the bone inside his leg was fractured. I carried him into his house and he exclaimed at the coolness of my hands as if he had never touched me before.

six
“I’ll care for you,” I said. A doctor bathed his leg and barely spoke to me. But I was careful; I was healing. I ignored the soft muffled taps my elbows made and wrapped my shoulders in a shawl. Shadows made me more solid and substantial.

He always slept in his chair, then, encased in his fall. He murmured aperture and shutter speed to his eyes. He saw me again and again in the damaged optic nerve. I caught his periphery. The pupil dilated each time the lens flared.

The cat no longer spoke to me, but mewed and ate, chased feathers and dust.

***
“You take good care of me,” he said. His leg was bound up in a heavy white cast. I tattooed it with green markers. I wrote our names together and bound them with hearts.

“And so, my love,” I said. “And so.”

He waited, but I stopped there. I kissed his mouth. I would cook dinner. In the kitchen, I gathered the black kitchen knives in my hands. My hands trembled and clanged, and I wrapped my wrists in cloth.

One night, a little drunk on gin, I cut carrots and tried and tried to clip my own palm. I only wanted to edge my love line a little further south. I imagined liquid red glass, hissing as it cooled. When that didn’t happen, I imagined thousands of small fractures, tiny cuts scattered on the tile floor.

But I was intact. I only rang with disgust.

That night I helped him into bed out of his worn old armchair. “Will we marry?” he asked.

“Few marriages end up in murder,” I answered, but all the best do. Anne Boleyn wore her grey coat to her death. Scarlet sleeves, white cap, hands spread. Was it the girl who saved them?

The cat purred from underneath the bed.

***
On a rock near the house, I wrote:
glass is to Fahrenheit as
landlady is to Mark Cross overnight case.

***
I became more difficult to see.

“Do you see me?” I called, darting out of the house. “Do you see me now?”

He couldn’t, not always. He couldn’t catch me, waiting on the edge of the river. I became Proteus-bound, chained to a rock. Stretched out on his bed, the water took up my glint, and I was nothing but a reflection.

***
My lover got on the floor to pray. I sat in front of the light and folded my knees. They enfolded the sunlight and plied him with a spectrum. His mouth a shiny beetle green. The whites of his eyes full of scarlet sun.

He took my hand in his that night.

“I can’t see you,” he said. “Am I blind?”

“I’m right here,” I said. I took his hand and pressed it to my breast. But I knew what he meant. I was a haunt in his house. In moonlight I blended with the air. I faded into the floor that was bleached sand and bone.

seven
He brought me a midwife.

“Some days I barely see her,” he said, pacing as best he could. He leaned his armpit heavily against his crutch. Soon he would walk without any trouble. “She disappears against the walls, the coverlet. Color swallows her up.”

The midwife parted my legs and I waited for the speculum, but nothing came. She brushed her fingers down my thighs.

When she spoke, her chest expanded and I saw, as clear as anything, the tumors that grew mushroom-like against her neck.

“A glimpse of the Milky Way will cure her. Braid her hair with paper-whites and leave her be. Allow sweat to accumulate on her body.”

It wasn’t true, I thought, when he made me stand outside in the beating sun. I pressed my hand against the panes in the door. The cat pawed furiously at the window for me.

***
“What is glass?” asked the next. His friend, a philosopher. He stroked my chin. “Nothing but a clear, chilled surface through which light is visible. An irregular atomic structure. Amorphous, non-crystalline.”

They went to conference in another room. I leaned my head out the window, watching the shadowed ground below. My silhouette nerved the drapes. He learned to thrust his head nervously into the room and stare for me, and then he would speak.

“I’m getting better,” I promised. His cast was almost finished. Inside lay his leg like a shrimp.

“There’s radiation,” he said. “Targeted, precise.” He chewed his mouth. “Drugs. Therapy. Experiments.”

I listened. He had perfect words. He promised me a saline infusion, a transplant, a fungicide.

***
We should go, said the cat. He watches you at night. He is a hunter.

“He just doesn’t understand who I am,” I said.

She shook her head. I tried to teach you how to hide.

***
One night later she brought me a perfect fetal mouse, bloodless and colorless, nestled on the floor. I was not so strange to her after all. She gnawed on the tiny heart, sucked its slim tail between her teeth, and batted at the spine.

***
Go soon, she said.

“Not yet,” I answered. Time, to her, was strange and thick. I tried to teach her tomorrow, but she could only understand each ticking moment. I envied that.

***
“You’re talking to the cat again,” he said. He held the hairbrush loosely in his hand.

“Just a little,” I replied. He shook his head. When he brushed my hair that evening, he found nothing but beaded clinks and frost. One piece snagged on the brush and then broke on the floor. I picked the splinters out from the rug. He cleared his throat.

I woke up with the brush swaddled by my side. The bed was empty on his side, the mattress hollowed out with his body heat. I touched my fingers to where his lip had been just hours before. Now he was already cooling.

eight
I sold my two kidneys made of glass. When my pancreas failed, my blood went white, thickened with sugar. On the street, I pieced myself into vials. I made beautiful crystal, like sugar or snow. It was crushed into envelopes. People dared each other to swallow it. They mixed me with champagne and ice. One girl bought a vial and poured river water over it. She said it was a night she wanted to forget.

Each Friday, I cut my hair and watch it shatter on the floor.

“What happened,” I ask the cat, “to all my words?”

You speak, she says.

“To you,” I reply.

Her ears lift.

***
The cat sits on me in the hot summer afternoons and purrs. I feel her throat caught up in mine: she trembles me again. She licks my palms. We lay entwined in the clean empty room. When I ask her if she would have rather led a different life, she only asks what else there is.

“A family,” I say.

She murmurs and stares at the brass doorknob. “Do you miss the desert?”

What is miss? she asks. Sunlight and water, I want to tell her. Plaster and love. My sister and her milk.

“A house,” I say.

This is a house, she replies, and because she is right there is nothing else to say. I curl my head next to hers.

***
On a July day, we draw the curtains. The cat sits outside in the breeze, but I can’t bear that much light. I lie on the floor.

I am sand in the furnace. Heat at the back of my hand. If I run cold water down my breastbone I might crack. Housewives filling pans with boiling water are surprised to find the fragility of their glass.

When the cat naps, I walk past the train tracks to the empty warehouse. I climb through a broken window and gaze at the machinery. The air is full of dust and light. I climb inside an empty tank and close my eyes.

Consider me, rather than a woman, as a bottle or a flute. A sculpture, an urn. A cup or a bell.

When tapped now, I always ring.

C.A. Schaefer is a doctoral fellow at the University of Utah, where she teaches creative writing and had been a managing editor of Quarterly West. Her work has appeared in most or is forthcoming in Western Humanities Review, Tidal Basin Review, Black Candies, Drunken Boat, and elsewhere. She lives in Salt Lake City with her partner and two small beasts.

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