helianthus

fiction by Catherine Thoms

helianthus

          The summer I moved to Brooklyn a sunflower took root in my sternum.

          I did not plant it there, nor did anyone plant it in me that I can remember (although there were some hazy nights). Not once during its germination did I notice, here it is sprouting, or, there it is blooming, but when I thought about it hard enough I could vaguely remember taking care in the shower, angling my body just so, that it might drink its fill. 

I’m told I had an aunt once who grew sunflowers, in a little house by the park. I wish I could remember; they must have towered over my head. My mother says that sunflowers are difficult to grow but here I am, there I was, a sunflower grown from the loam of my own flesh and skin. 

          I considered a number of solutions that summer but never once could I bear to cover up my bloom. The men leered but did nothing more. This was not unusual. I was accustomed to the male gaze leveling at my chest but I was unprepared for the women, for the way I recognized my own earthiness in the floral whisper of their auras. They were softer, gentler. They would lean their heads close to mine and brush their fingers against my petals lightly, knowingly, as if they were an innuendo, or as if they too harbored secret blooms somewhere beneath the layers of fabric and skin and summer sweat and knew something about them that I didn’t. Perhaps they did.

 

          Years ago now, on the sidewalk just before the edge where DeMun ends and begins again, there was a cluster of sunflowers that hung from over the top of a neighboring picket fence. Sometimes in the mornings before it grew too sweltering I would put on my white dress and pass beneath them to drink iced tea on the Kaldi’s patio and watch the happy families with their children and their dogs. Once, an old man approached me sitting alone at my table and solemnly, wordlessly, offered me his newspaper. It was not a grand gesture. The world did not quieten, the spectating sunflowers did not bow their brown faces in reverence or turn to watch as he passed down the street and out of sight, but I felt seen nonetheless.

 

          Come September, the petals of my sunflower begin to wither and wilt, shriveling into a languid fringe that twitches limply with my heartbeat and stirs only in the strongest winds. I want no one to see me, no one to touch me. I devote afternoons to lying naked in bed with the sunlight spilling across my chest, convincing myself I can still see the heliotropic shifts of my petals responding as the sun travels across the sky and up the walls of my apartment. I imagine I too am stretching, yearning for photosynthesis.

          I am reminded now that some people find sunflowers disturbing. Something about the spiral pattern of the seed heads and the way they appear to be full of holes has the power to make one uneasy. Trypophobia. I remember this word as I’m walking down Sterling, pitying the husks of someone else’s one-time garden drooping in a sidewalk plot. I feel no kinship with these concrete cousins but it’s still a validation that I’m not the only one in this city who’s fading. 

 

          When the time comes I wrap my fingers around its barren head, softer and smaller than an infant’s skull, and twist like a lightbulb. I make my hand into a trowel and I scoop the sunflower out of my skin. In the place where it was, I expect rawness, pain, but there is only pulp. When I look closely, I see that it consists of the remnants of fallen petals and that they have stained the hollow of my chest between my breasts with deep shades of goldenrod and saffron. I wonder if it will scar. I wonder if it will bloom again.

the palimpsest lover

fiction by Catherine Thoms

the palimpsest lover

          You told me you could read me like a book so I searched my skin for spoilers and I peeled the offending pages from my face, my neck, my hands. I spread them out across my bed and got to work rewriting what I wanted you to read, scribbling over the scraps of myself with sonnets and sweet words, villanelles and whatever else I thought you might have seen in me. They made you so happy and cost me so little that I decided to write you more, tearing at my shoulders and my shins, my breasts and back and abdomen and even at the insides of my thighs where it was soft and I didn’t stop until my body was red and raw. 

          When there was nothing more to give you but tendon and tissue I stripped the best lines from my favorite books and I pasted them over my excoriated flesh so that you wouldn’t see how flayed I had become. It was dark when we took off our clothes and I hoped you wouldn’t notice if I shed transplanted pages, but in the morning light there was nowhere to hide and I watched you gather them up in your hands and say gently, sadly, What’s this? What’s this? I felt naked then and embarrassed and exposed so I snatched them back and fled, and with nearly nothing left to lose I scoured the backs of my elbows and the soles of my feet and even the tiny patches behind my ears, harvesting all the remaining untouched spaces of myself until my fingers came away crimson because I thought it was what you wanted, because it was easy enough to give. 

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Catherine Thoms

Catherine Thoms is a Brooklyn-based writer, bookseller, and goldfish cracker enthusiast. She tweets at @c_thoms137, where she likes to think she's funny on occasion.