Itself at the Heart of Things
by Andrea Corbin
“The acts of life have no beginning or end. Everything happens in a completely idiotic way. That is why everything is alike.” — Tristan Tzara, 1922
On the floor, I hiked my skirts up and began to disassemble myself, starting with my left knee.
“How is that going to stop the Szemurians? How is that going to protect us? Can’t you help me, for God’s sake?” Benoît said this, sounding increasingly frantic, on each pass through the sitting room as he tried to gather up whatever he could — to board the windows, bar the door, barricade the entire house, as though that were important. He broke apart the dining table we had found on a trip to Lyon in 1921, so he could use the boards to block the picture window. It had been a good table, or at least we had good meals at it over the past three years.
The house in Paris would stand or not, and Szemuria would come or not; they would try to burn down the house or not. Or rather, I heard they would, raining war down on us like they themselves were War. Of course the house was inconsequential, so I unscrewed my kneecap and set it on a bedsheet I had spread beside me for that purpose. It was a delicate process because I didn’t want to deny myself or others the option of reassembly in the future. The future was questionable, but no matter; I didn’t want to be destroyed. A small amount of blood spotted the sheet beneath my solitary kneecap.
The Szemurians sent no messages or envoys, only dreams to every one of us a week before. Benoît and I had different dreams; the papers suggested everyone did, and visiting the café confirmed — “They came like colossi, feet crushing our belching, rattling cars, and they screamed smoke and fire into the air and burned us alive,” said Mme. Höch, a kohl-eyed woman, hands shaking as she picked up her espresso. The man with her, his beard sharper than Benoît’s and his cravat tighter like a noose, almost knocked the delicate china out of her hands and said, “They were like eagles, massive, claws grasping for each of us as we ran through the streets, claws digging into our flesh and bone, and dropping us from on high, but yes! Yes, they screamed, screamed like nightmares.” — but in the end these were only dreams, I said.
Benoît loomed in front of me with a hammer in his hand and nails in his pockets while I carefully snipped and tugged and set my tibia apart from my fibula. “I’m going to need help later on, when I get up here,” I said, gesturing at my torso, my shoulders, my hands.
“We’re securing the house, and then we’re going to the bomb shelter.” Having woken up to absent neighbors and quiet streets, he’d concluded everyone had decamped to shelters, like before.
Benoît’s dream: He lay in bed with me and we couldn’t move, frozen while bombs dropped all around us, small explosions of dust, cratering the road and city, never touching us but deafening us. He said I tried to speak though neither of us could hear; he could barely see for the dust of the bombs, and he wanted to know what I was saying, what was I saying, what had I said?
What the papers said, after the night we first dreamed of Szemuria, was that Szemuria was coming for us and we had to defend ourselves and our way of life. Defend our property, our values, the strength of character, the pure blood, the modern freedoms, and I stopped listening, feeling that the right thing to do was disassemble myself and wait. It took several hours to find the right tools, and to launder and bleach the sheet, and to clear the floor to lay out the sheet, and then Benoît stepped on it and I had to wash the dusty shoeprint off again.
Boom! Boom! Here they came. I could hear them, like in my dream, the Szemurians at the edge of the air.
An hour into my work, inside my right thigh I had found a key of unrecognizable substance. Heavy, like iron, but a faintly pearled sheen to it; rough, like iron, but always cool, no matter how long I held it; lastly, it was not black like iron; and finally it fit nothing I knew of. I put that key piece of me at the corner of the sheet, away from my dismantled legs, to let it watch over me as I continued to work. Benoît shuffled in, all the windows covered, all but one door sealed tight, and sat by my side. I could see the gleam of exertion on him, smell it on him. All that work he had done to protect something.
“We have to go to the bomb shelter,” he said, again.
“The Szemurians are coming.”
The screwdriver pressed into my hip socket, sharp and painless. With a little more leverage I could — but when I leaned my head on Benoît’s shoulder and closed my eyes, I was transported back, back, back to a time before we bought the house. Before our marriage, before our dreams, before the war. Before all this. But not before the Szemurians. They were always there, whether we knew about them or not. With my eyes closed, I could feel toes in sand, wet sand at the edge of the beach, smooth and pale sand. We took the Métro through the city, a train farther still, until we were at the Mediterranean, in a chȃteau owned by his parents. The chȃteau is no longer there, or anywhere.
It’s almost another country, the sea. The south. The warmth of the sun is different. You turn golden and caramel and rosy, or at least we did, me the rosy, daring the sun to burn me. Things made sense, then.
Benoît took the screwdriver from my hand and threw it so hard that it stuck into the wall. He gathered the corners of my sheet, the key falling into the mess of bones and muscles and tendons and parts unidentifiable, so I’d likely never be able to put all my pieces back together without the aid of an anatomist, and I laughed as he picked me up. “Perfect.”
Things never made sense. We only thought they did because of how little we knew.
“I’ll take care of you,” Benoît said, scrabbling for a good grip on me. No knees to scoop his arm under. I held the makeshift satchel of myself, and he held me, and we left.
The streets looked the same as always, except they were moving away from me as I looked over Benoît’s shoulder, my nose pressed to his wool coat, inhaling home and Gauloises with each breath, each step away. Boom! Boom! A great drum, out of sight.
“Do you remember when we were married?” I asked into his neck.
“You wore a beaded ivory dress and black silk top hat. You removed your shoes halfway through, to the alarm of the priest and my mother, who were unsettled enough by the hat. When you did, you put your hand on my shoulder for balance. I almost kissed you right then, but I thought it would’ve killed my mother to upend the order of the ceremony like that,” Benoît said, with that lightness to his voice that meant he was close to crying.
“That was the day Germany declared us all at war.”
Benoît’s hands tightened around me. “You toasted to all our deaths.”
“Not until we were alone,” I said, it being important to remember that I have tact, sometimes.
The streets were not full of retreating citizens, defending citizens, fighting citizens as we made our slow way. Everyone was gone. Not a one stayed to defend any way of life, after those dreams. All the Parisians were missing, and what was left but us?
“We didn’t die,” he said.
Benoît marched, breath harsh with effort.
“You looked very handsome at our wedding. New waistcoat of sapphire, the hint of vines traced out in threads of silver, like kelp, like an ocean, like a garden, and you stood so tall and proud that I don’t even remember who else was there. Did you know? I don’t know if my own mother was there. I don’t remember taking off my shoes. I remember dancing with you, each of us with a daffodil in our hand, stolen from the garden,” I said, watching the arrondissement go by, the shadows deep. The sun hid himself behind thin clouds but the shadows were strong. “We fled to Zurich the next month.”
“Zurich was nice.”
“You were the last thing that made sense.”
With a heaving sigh, Benoît stopped in the middle of the street. The air hummed like wind in empty bottles. When I was young, I would line up bottles on a shelf below the window and listen to them sing; this was the same. I closed my eyes. It sounded like something from heaven, or dreams.
Benoît walked a short distance and set me down on grass. He took the white sheet from me, unbundling it and arranging the items with care, piece by piece. He peered at the key before setting it among my bones and sinews, where it gleamed like a memory I couldn’t place.
“I’m sorry I threw your screwdriver,” he said and stretched out next to me. Under us, the grass was cool, dirt flaking onto my palms, and the wind still sounded like bottles. Benoît slid his fingers between mine. It was his first soft gesture since his dream.
“The Szemurians are coming,” I whispered.
“What can we do?”
The sunset might have bloomed with orange fire, or pink and purple luminescence, or a shade of teal that no one had seen before, but no one saw it then, either, if it did. The low booms, still, like a heartbeat in the sky. Benoît broke the window of a corner shop and found scissors, a butter knife, a finicky wrench, and a mallet, returning to me with his arms full. He also carried a small sack. This is what was in the sack: two gas masks, a ball of red twine, a muslin shirt, a lady’s silk scarf with a pattern of peacock feathers painted on it, a handful of colored ribbons, and a jar of paste.
When I saw that, I kissed him.
“What have you done to your fingers?” Benoît asked. He took my hand, now lacking the pinky and ring finger, and kissed my palm, his lips dry and gentle.
“I felt anxious, waiting,” I said.
“Now you have to wait longer,” he said. He stretched his right leg out in front of me. In the sky, angular and pale shapes formed, like new clouds. “I can’t do it myself. Help me, please.”
The day I was born, a lark sang. My mother told the story this way, as though a lark singing made a day any different from another. Larks sing every day. The day I began school, a lark sang, and the day my father died, a lark sang. The day I began school, my grandmother fell and never walked again. The day my father died, my mother wept, my cousins wept, my brother wept. The day I met Benoît, yes, a lark sang, and so did a robin, and boys and girls across the country, but also a lark was killed and devoured, and a robin, and boys and girls across the country fell ill or died. The day I married Benoît, the war started, a lark sang. The day we fled to Zurich, a lark sang. And the day my brother joined the army, and the day he died in a watery trench. A lark, singing. Always.
A lark sang, invisible in some nearby tree, as Benoît and I took each other to pieces on the grass.
“Don’t tell me about it again,” I said to Benoît, as he started to talk about his dream. The Szemurian dream.
“I didn’t tell you all of it,” he said.
His rib was being difficult. Next we would try the rest of my left arm. There wasn’t much more that we could do for each other. An arm each, a head each, leaving enough to hold each other, and not enough to come apart entirely. We would lay ourselves out in all our parts, reordered and useless. The closer we drew to that moment, the more my dread dissolved into a gas, transmuted into a cloud that could drift away and burn up in the sunlight.
“The bombs fell. There was silence. You and me, in our bed. All of Paris gone, all of France, all of Europe. Our bed, in a wasteland. There was a great silence after the bombs fell,” Benoît said, and paused to grunt as I pulled away a set of ribs and lung, bone and flesh, parting with the sound of a boot in mud. “A great silence, then a voice. We were the last ones, all that was left. The voice spoke in a language I didn’t understand, hard consonants and guttural vowels stretched out into low melodies, but I knew that the nothingness was where we were going to spend the rest of our lives. No gardens, no country, no chȃteau near the sea. No trees, no larks, no friends, no art…no more anything.”
I wanted to ask what he thought the voice said, but more than that I wanted Benoît to keep talking, so I said nothing.
“After the voice, I could move. After the voice, I sat up, put my feet over the side of the bed to find the nothing coated in a powdery dust, colorless for the combination of every color that used to be. I stood. I turned back to reach for you, and you — you were gone.”
Benoît put his whole hand over his face. I couldn’t live for his weeping. The last of me shattered, no matter how solid my shoulders, my neck. What was left of my mouth at last confessed, “I had a dream, too.”
Surprised into calm, he said, “You never said.”
With a soft twist, I pulled Benoît’s hand from his wrist and set it to the side. Carefully, I wrapped his other hand around the stump of arm that remained. “Hold that still,” I directed, and snapped my own hand off. Pressed it, wrist to base, until it took. “They can’t take me from you.”
Boom! Even now, scattered, intermittent arrivals: boom!
I wore a gas mask, the lower part torn away, the rest covered in muslin. Ribbons lined the edges, tracing in stripes from darkest to lightest. A braid of red twine drooped below my right eye, wafted in the air, tangled in my arms, looped around Benoît’s wrist, danced in a breeze, and connected underneath the left eye of Benoît’s mask. Benoît looked out from the eyes of two peacock feathers, the scarf pasted over his mask and hanging down, billowing with every breath of his. Or my mask was peacocks, and his ribbons, if you counted differently. His legs were longer than I was accustomed to, and I stumbled, needing more effort to skim the ground. He fell behind, needing slightly quicker steps on my legs to keep up. We ambled through the streets, learning our new parts. We wore masks. We walked, stronger with every step.
Szemurians in strange vehicles rolled through the sky like smooth tanks, a shining mechanical cacophony supplanting the sight of clouds and stars. Some landed, and out walked Szemurians into Paris, like Parisians returned. They were shaped like Benoît and myself and everyone else we had known on the planet and yet entirely unlike us, which is to say, they were themselves.
The building where we lived before Zurich, where we lived when we were first married, had a cluster of Szemurians looking up at it. One admired the flowers in the front garden, pulling them from the dirt. They chattered senselessly as we approached, their vehicle floating a few centimeters above the street like a lost bank vault. The outside was bright silver and muted steel. The door opened into a well-lit interior, with wood-paneled walls and a lush, intricately patterned carpet that reminded me of a garden path.
“I dreamt that you came and nothing changed,” I said as we stood between those Szemurians and their vehicle. The Szemurians silenced their talk and looked at us, wide-eyed, shocked to the very core by us, by my words. One wore a morning coat of dove gray, another charcoal, dark fabrics; the dresses stood out like gems of emerald and garnet. A gala we had missed. “I dreamt that nothing changed, except everything was worthless. The franc was worth nothing again. French meant nothing, and my words went unattended the moment anyone recognized them as unrecognizable. I could do nothing. I was a ghost.”
The Szemurians stared. The one in the top hat twisted his cane in his hands. “Drent?” he said, stilted, confused, imitating. “Goase?”
I turned to Benoît, caressing his chin. “See? No bombs, my love. No craters or dust.”
“But that leaves us ghosts,” Benoît said, worry tugging at his face. The Szemurians were starting to chatter again, around a building that grew increasingly strange to me.
“This isn’t a dream,” I said. We pushed the scarf out of the way and we kissed, uncertain who was who, exactly, where he was and me, with his hand springing from my wrist, my wrist down to his arm, and back up to my neck stretching and my mouth kissing his.
While the Szemurians stood in the streets of Paris, I ran, bringing Benoît and the rest of my self into the Szemurian vehicle. Before the closest Szemurian could follow us inside, we slammed the door. From my pocket, I pulled a pearled key, cool to the touch.
No more booms.
Outside, the stars made no sounds, and their lights reflected in our eyes. Back in Paris, a lark sang.
About the Author
Andrea Corbin is an author, and the founder of the Speculative Boston reading series. Her short stories have appeared in Shimmer, Flash Fiction Online, Crossed Genres, The Sockdolager, and Recompose. Her interactive fiction has appeared in Sub-Q, and more interactive fiction projects are available on her website. She lives in the Boston area.
About the Narrator
Blythe Haynes holds her Bachelor of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of Alberta, but calls Toronto home, where she is an actor, voice artist and producer. She is a co-founder of Gangway! Theatre Co. with playwright K. T. Bryski, and together they focus on Canadian, female-based stories. Their show Six Stories, Told At Night debuted at the Toronto Fringe Festival this year and was shortlisted for Best of Fringe. If you missed it in July, you can catch the show on October 4th in a one night only performance at Toronto’s Theatre Passe Muraille! She can also be heard in an upcoming episode of Campfire Radio Theatre, Gerald. Find her on twitter: @HaynesBlythe or check out Gangway!’s website for more details gangwaytheatre.com
Select voice credits include “PRISM, We Are New(s)” (2018 PARSEC Nominated, Apex Magazine) “Woods Ferry” (PARSEC Award-winning), “The Night Delivery” (Campfire Radio Theatre), Six Stories, Told At Night (PARSEC Award-winning audio drama podcast, KT Byrski Productions.) Select Theatre Credits include Canticle of Light (Missed Metaphor Productions) Ashes of Forgotten Rain (Nags Players), The Polar Bear King (Gangway! Theatre Co.), Mary’s Wedding (Toronto Fringe Festival), In His Name (Canadian History Project).