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Tonight We're Wearing Waste Bags

(1,897 words)

You ask me to tell you a story.

I say, can it be a frightful one?

Mmm. You put your head on my shoulder. How does it end?

A human body is easy to puncture. That’s what I remember most from the information cloud in my spacecraft. It showed me how to identify the three most vulnerable areas: heart, lungs, and skull. The cloud also taught me how to inhale, how to release air, how to put one appendage in front of the other.

It never told me that being in a body would feel like a slow-motion strangulation.

Perhaps this is due to my extended stay here. I was never supposed to be here this long. An exploratory scientist, all I had to do was briefly wear a body in order to step outside, and onto Earth’s solid ground, for three hundred seconds. Those miniscule pockets in human skin you call pores would then collect the microbe samples I needed.

My spacecraft never landed safely, though.

This story begins with engines choked by scorching flames and burnt branches raining through black-orange screams. By the time the forest fire was finally extinguished, I had nothing left except this body I was now trapped in.

If you had been there in the beginning, this story would have different words than these. Instead I walked alone and barefoot for days through the smoldering cinders, hoping to reach the nearest area of civilization.

The forest disturbed me. It was my first contact with the angular solidness of your world.

On my planet we are molecules of complete harmony with nature, perhaps comparable to the smoke that rises over crackling pines or the mist that blankets the timid hours before dawn. You would know me as intimately as the water you drink. There would be no such thing as dimensions or physical limitations.

When my hand first touched a tree trunk, the weight of contact was overwhelming. I’d never felt another object in my hands before.

You touch me now, and I feel you only on one section of my body.

Your fingerprint has a beginning and end.

It is not infinite, the way I wish I could experience you.

Once I exited the forest and arrived in your main area of civilization, I realized I needed to protect the soles of my feet if I wanted to keep moving. I picked up discarded paper boxes and bound them around my ankles. Food was not hard to spot, but I had nothing to trade for the sustenance. I waited until the owners of the food discarded what they must have had no use for. My tongue brushed against strange textures and crisp edges and my nostrils burned with the pungent odors.

At the time you hadn’t yet taught me what suitable nourishment was meant to taste like. I had received no direction of how much or how often to eat. I relied on the pain in my abdomen to remind me of this body’s needs and limitations.

I remember well that initial night outside of the forest because I couldn’t see the stars anymore.

On my world we drift over stars the way children here tickle flower petals with their fingertips. Here, I couldn’t feel the firmament dancing between my cells. The only persistent sensations were the hard ground beneath my spine and the dusty gravel whipped up by the wind around me.

That’s when I first felt it. That five-spiked tingle traveling from the base of my shoulder bone to my wrist. I investigated the area of skin immediately and found no blood or sign of injury. But the ache continued. Phantom-like, yet tangible enough that all I could do to alleviate it was curl my fingers tight around my elbow bones.

In the weeks that passed, the invisible pain persisted. Whether I laid down to sleep on asphalt or in the metal shape of seating areas, whether I walked among throngs of humans or loitered solo in darkened alleys, it would return. Even though the discomfort only covered a small fraction of my physical body, it disquieted my entire form.

I could not understand it for weeks.

Then I discovered a way to conquer it. It was an accidental yet invaluable revelation.

You close your eyes. I don’t quite know why. Perhaps you are mourning, or weary, or in love.

You say, were you ever scared to do it?

I tell you no. How could survival be anything but relief?

It happened when I was searching for some food in a waste-disposal area and an open can of juice scraped the back of my hand. The cut was not too wide nor the bloodshed excessive. I would live; the wound would close. More importantly, while the cut was fresh on my hand, I was not attentive to that phantom ache that would usually appear. My waking energies were spent in cleaning and plucking at the split skin. Perhaps like an exorcism in blood, the ghostly throbbing did not appear that entire night.

The next day I went back to the waste area and pocketed the empty can of juice. Every time I felt that familiar ambush of skin prickling, I ran my fingertip around the sharp metal edge. The burst of red was short-lived, yet enough to momentarily eclipse the possession of pain inside me.

There are scars thick as coins around my fingers.

I know you’re trying not to look, but you are looking anyways, without your eyes.

You don’t say anything. You cradle the back of my hand with your fingertips.

After some days I lost the metal can, which caused me great distress. However, outside a local beverage establishment, I came across something even more potent: a thin white stick about the size of my small finger. It was burning on one end. It reminded me of the fire in the forest, the one that destroyed my chance to return home. The red and black embers echoed the glowing eyes of the tree bark as they were inflamed alive.

I held the stick to my hand and watched my palm bloom brown and terrible around it.

It wasn’t hard to find more white sticks on the ground. I had nothing to light them with, but others were generous enough to help me light them when I asked. It seemed like many humans also felt relief from such sticks. They even held them to their mouth, which I know is one of the tenderest parts of the body. They held it wrong, though. They held the burning end away from them.

You are crying now, your palm pressed to my face, right above the constellation of calluses.

Strange. When you touch my cheek like this, I feel it with more than just my skin.

It’s as if my heart is making contact with your pulse, too.

Then I discovered a place that offered water to wash with and food to eat for those who had none. Apparently there were other shelter-less like me in this community. A kindly human led me there and offered objects for bathing. Inside the bath area was a reflective shape on the wall.

That was the moment I fully beheld my body for the first time.

I had never seen my eyes before.

I did not want them. So I raised the tooth-cleaning device and pushed it through the black hole in the center of my eye. I pushed it through again and again until the dark spilled out to red.

Someone came in and stole my tooth-cleaning device from my hands. A variety of unexplained noises left my throat as they carried me away. It was hard to see after that, but then what was there to see except for starless skies and this endless abyss of unwanted skin?

That was close to the day we first met. I remember our initial encounter because it was after I was released from the indoor medical care center. I had nothing to compensate them for their care, so they returned me to the outside. I was drinking from the river beside one of the large gardens. You were washing your hair. You wore paper bags around cloth footwear and had yellow teeth.

You asked what happened to my eye. I told you how I had seen myself and hated what I’d seen. You nodded, like you understood what that meant. I didn’t know then, the way I do now, that sometimes even those born into these bodies have the longing to puncture and peel them off.

You say, I think I know where this story is going.

I ask, do you care where it has been?

No. Your forehead creases into my shirt. Not even a bit.

You offered me your sleeping satchel on that first night. It was the kind of starless night that bruised every hair on my arms. We laid side by side on stacks of crinkled paper, the satchel covering us both. I asked for your flame sparker, and you handed it to me. But when I pressed the burning end of the white stick to my cheek you cried out, a sound akin to emergency alarms on my spacecraft.

You held my hands, the way you are now. You held my hands and asked me what I wanted.

No one had ever asked me that before. I’d been asked why did you do it and where are you going and why are you still out here and who can I call for you but never what do you want—

what do you want more than anything

I thought of my spacecraft and of the petals of fungus in their pink clouds perfused with white. Of the gentle lullaby of enveloping stardust. Of this rotten sky without a light and this body that never opened wide enough for me to escape.

“I want to go—” I started, and then my vocal cords faltered. I bent forward, my broken skin pressed to your clavicle. I opened my mouth so wide my teeth stuck to the fabric of your shirt. The words I’d never spoken, even to myself, poured out like hard rain. “I want to go home.”

You held my forehead against your own and I heard me too.

You ask, do you want to know my favorite part of this story?

The next days, you taught me to catch frogs in my palms and to dry flowers in the hollows of tree trunks. You taught me to laugh when children point and stare at my face. You taught me to cry against the hard lines of your stomach. You kiss my bruises good night and good morning and I trace desert dunes in the soles of your feet.

I watch raindrops whispering down the moss-covered pillars of the bridge. Tell me.

Tonight we’re wearing waste bags around our bodies to keep us dry from the rain. The bags rustle like dancing leaves in the rising gale. We have found an extra-large paper box to sleep on together, and we were fed by a human who kindly gave us the bread he did not share with the ducks. There’s nothing in the night sky tonight, so I am thinking about the tangle of lines running across your palm and how they smile like the curve of comet trails.


Elena Sichrovsky (she/they) is a queer disabled writer who’s fascinated with telling stories through the lens of body horror. Through their work they like to explore the intersections of identity, grief, and rebellion. Her stories have been published in Apparition Lit, Baffling Magazine, Nightmare, and ergot, among others. Follow them on Instagram @elenitasich and Twitter @ESichr.

Radon Journal Issue 6 cover art
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