“Carve This Flesh From Off My Bones”

The woman stands at the edge of the firelight. We think of her as “the woman” now, since she is the only one left. The rest have died in childbirth or starved. Some of the children and men are still alive, but we are starving too in the longest drought anyone can remember. In a season this dry, the fire devours the pinyon logs like a maddened dog. A single spark can vaporize the hair on a child’s head. The pale-faced children huddle near the fire, a few bald, nearly all of them motherless.

The woman is looking at us. At the children, too. She watches us men arguing over the scraps of a stringy jackrabbit. Why should we feed the children first? They have not lived so long as we have, and so they have less to lose. Memory is all we have left—our crops withered, our goats long dead, the village surrounded by a desert like an open mouth. Everything is wanting, wanting, and there is never enough to go around, so we will not apologize for taking whatever little we can to stay alive.

The woman turns. Her eyes fix on our jutting ribs, the children’s stick-thin legs. From her sleeve she pulls a sharp knife. We square our shoulders. Is she coming for the last bite of rabbit, or for our throats? But no. She says, I am tired of this flesh, I am tired of fighting, and the children need fed. She grips the knife and begins to cut long strips from her own flank. Her hand is steady and she does not cry out in pain. We always knew women were witches.

She lays her meat in an empty iron pot by the fire. Her pale skin begins to run red. She strips her belly, then her chest. She cuts the flesh from her legs, separating the fat from the muscle. She carefully pulls the knife over the curves of her hips. We glimpse the white of her bones before they course with blood.

She cuts deeper. She carves the meat from her arms, her back, even her cheeks. The pot is heaping now. We watch her and are silent.

Finally, she is finished. She stands before us as a collection of bones held together only with tendons and ligaments. Her eyes still glint from their sockets. She is redder than anything we have ever seen, redder than the howling mouth of the desert at sunrise. With a skeletal foot she pushes the iron pot into the fire, and it begins to sizzle and sigh.

The woman says, I thought that without my flesh I would feel free. But I am only cold. She pulls the heaviest cloak from off our backs, her bloody finger joints staining it at the edges. She wraps the cloak around her shoulders. Then she turns, and leaving us to our feast, she walks into the dark beyond the firelight. She walks into the desert that can never be slaked, and our nostrils fill with the smell of her flesh.

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About Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom

Elizabeth Hart Bergstrom is a queer, disabled writer whose work appears or is forthcoming in Hobart, BUST, Soaring Penguin Press, and Audubon magazine, among others. She holds an MFA in fiction from Sarah Lawrence College and has studied at the Tin House Summer Writers Workshop. She was born in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. For more, visit lizbergstrom.com.