2019 Prose Contest Winner
At noon, the women move into the house. It is one story, wooden, abandoned. There are shotgun shells rusting under the deck. Plates have been broken. At the property line: scrub weed overgrowth, a paddock rotting at the joints, earth torn to red and filled with rain in a wide, bloody circle. The air smells sharp, clinging to the memory of horses. The mountains are close. The thunder closer. The women set down their packs.
Look, Jehanne, says the one called Lorraine. A gold-winged warbler.
So it is, says Jehanne.
The gold-winged warbler lifts up from the bee balm and titters a few hundred yards, where it settles on the idea of a truck. The women can see the windshield is broken, but the wheels are intact.
Do you think the engine works? says Lorraine.
I don’t know, says Jehanne. She places a hand on Lorraine’s shoulder.
The pantry is still filled with tins of food. So is the closet in the hallway: nothing but cans of soup and green beans from floor to ceiling. An ax sits by the wood stove.
Survivalists, suggests Lorraine.
Mice have shat on the kitchen table, eaten holes in the couch, but left the mattress
untouched. Lorraine lays down on the mattress and hides herself with the holey quilt. Jehanne touches a coat and moths burst from its chest. In the bathtub, white mushrooms bloom out of the drain.
A quiet sound, repetitive. The honk of a mallard in couplet form.
Can we eat those? asks Jehanne, bending down to peer.
Lorraine strokes her hair.
Jehanne plucks a mushroom.
I think they’re oysters, says Lorraine. Perfectly edible. Or they could be poisonous, I can’t remember.
As Jehanne stands, the folds of her flatten and release the smell of yeast.
There are no pills left in the cupboards and the mirrors have been broken, but there is a tube of toothpaste in the medicine cabinet, and–-prized find–-an unused toothbrush. The women straddle the lip of the bathtub and take turns brushing the other’s teeth, fingers tilting chins and wiping spare foam, spitting clouds down into the porcelain basin below.
Night comes. The rain grows more fervent. A crack of lightning reveals a mule deer and her fawn eating knotweed. Lorraine finds an old lighter and cooks the bathtub mushrooms in a pan on the stove with the last of the gas. They consume them with their hands. Then they sit on the porch and watch the rain. They lick their lips. Lorraine puts a pot under the gutter. It is soon full.
We’ll be happy here, says Lorraine.
I think so, agrees Jehanne, though she eyes the driveway.
A clap of thunder. The trees tremble.
I have to piss, says Jehanne.
Do it here, says Lorraine. I like how it smells.
Jehanne stands up and walks to the edge of the porch, where the floorboards grow soft and rotten. She undoes her jeans and squats. Lorraine crawls forward to close the distance between them. She breathes deep.
Jehanne juts her pelvis and a spray catches Lorraine on the nose. Lorraine laughs.
The women fall asleep on the mattress, their backs pressed.
The morning comes crisp. The women, sleepy, try to crawl inside each other’s bodies.
Lorraine’s sinuses are clogged: her head rears above the tangle, snuffling.
Cedar pollen, Jehanne suggests.
Lorraine plugs her left nostril and honks. A crinkle of mucus lands in her hand.
Ugh, says Lorraine.
She wipes the mucus on the side of the mattress, then looks sideways, shy.
Sorry, she says.
In response, Jehanne plugs her own right nostril. Her palms catch a green snarl. On the other side of the mattress, she wipes her own snot.
Now we both live here, says Jehanne.
Their kiss is slow, and a mouse skitters somewhere. In the corner, a beetle rolls a ball of dung.
Lorraine is disturbed by the discovery of the spice rack.
Who leaves behind their spices? she says, lifting glass jars of cinnamon, turmeric, and fennel from the second drawer beside the stove.
Jehanne is preoccupied with the photographs on the mantle. A man in a Stetson stands beside a wagon. There are flowers in the field behind him.
Who, says Lorraine, finding a cast iron skillet in the broiler below the oven, dust caught in its creases: Who leaves behind their skillet?
Jehanne strokes the quilt folded neatly on the back of the lounge chair. The arms are worn down at the ends. Stuffing is escaping the seat.
Like a Rapture, jokes Jehanne.
No cast irons in heaven, laughs Lorraine. She opens a dusty jar with no label and
breathes deep. Ground cloves.
Jehanne pushes aside the yellow gingham to watch a falcon hover aloft. The falcon must see a mouse in the meadow. The mountain peak looks a tired kind of blue.
For now we’ll just be grateful, says Jehanne to herself.
If I find baking powder I’m making biscuits, says Lorraine.
The falcon dives.
The women walk through the knotweed to the truck, left in the dirt like a seashell. The wheels are frayed and flat. The red paint has chipped and the sides are dinged, the stick shift has rusted into park, the windshield is shattered. Lorraine lifts herself into the passenger seat. Jehanne walks around to the other side, where she pulls herself up by the steering wheel into the driver’s position. They sit together. Jehanne plays with the wisps of hair curling at Lorraine’s temples.
Remember when we drove to the McDonald Observatory?
You ate that whole bag of Hot Cheetos on the way there. You couldn’t stop farting.
And we saw the rings of Saturn, says Lorraine.
Jehanne kisses her forehead.
Lorraine puts her hand on Jehanne’s thigh.
I think we’re safe, says Lorraine. If you wanted to.
Jehanne takes a deep breath. The wind whistles through the holes in the glass.
Lorraine takes her hand away. Instead, she reaches up and strokes the tendons straining in Jehanne’s neck.
The women, barefoot, look down the road. In each direction, the roots of trees have lifted the asphalt by the hems and broken the fabric. An aspen, felled in a storm, hovers precariously just before the westward bend. Dried leaves rattle, bone weary.
We’d hear them first, says Lorraine.
She strokes Jehanne’s arm.
You’re right, says Jehanne.
The women look at one another. Their lips are so close, they could pass one sigh
between them. The nettles gasp.
The women stay in the summer mountain house. They begin to indulge in patterns. They grow accustomed to cooking weeds on an open flame in the yard–dandelions, purslane, amaranth, clover. Lorraine finds a bee hive, rank with goldenrod pollen, and the women take to smearing honey on their cheeks. They bleed freely all over the furniture; the mattress grows freckled. They wear the former owners’ clothes. The wife’s moth-eaten flowered frocks, the husband’s undershirts, pants held up by rope knotted at the hip. They sleep soundly, jump on the busted lounge chair, evict the pantry moths, encounter more mushrooms pushing out of the cracking foundation. There are berries bright in the bramble behind the house. The lap of the land provides.
Jehanne unfolds the quilt to shake out the moths and lays it down on the ground outside.
Lorraine, calls Jehanne. She takes off her clothes and folds them neatly.
Lorraine emerges from the house, sun glaring off the dark pubic puff. Amaranth and a pile of bathroom mushrooms that have been cooked on an open flame are now heaped upon the chipped porcelain plate in her arms. Jehanne has filled two cloudy mason jars with fruit wine from the pantry. The women sit naked on the quilt and raise their jars in a toast.
Merry Naked Picnic, Jehanne, says Lorraine.
Merry Naked Picnic, Lorraine, says Jehanne.
They clink their jars.
Lorraine comes out from the bedroom, cheeks flushed. Jehanne keeps her attention fixed on the frayed guide to birding in her hands.
I miss our dildos, says Lorraine.
Jehanne turns a page.
It takes forever without them, says Lorraine.
Jehanne bites at the skin in the crease of her thumb.
What if we just did it in the same room, says Lorraine, It would go a lot faster. Maybe I wouldn’t be so crabby.
Jehanne puts the guide to birding back on the shelf.
Well? says Lorraine.
We’ll see, says Jehanne.
Lorraine smiles and kisses her temple.
On the thirteenth day, in a spell of heat, the women walk to the edge of the paddock, and find a pit. The pit was dug by someone with a shovel. The edges are dulled by the growth of weeds. The skeletons have been picked clean, bleached, and half-buried. Neither cross nor gravestone; the gravedigger had been careless, hurried perhaps. The women bend down and study the bones. Crickets roar, as if signaling a storm, but there are no clouds on the horizon.
Twelve, counts Jehanne. She rubs her neck.
Somewhere, an eagle screams.
Coincidence, says Lorraine. A bad batch.
Pretty bad batch, says Jehanne, and kneels down to push dirt into the hole. Clods of earth rattle into eye sockets.
Husband murders wife, says Lorraine. Sister murders brother.
Maybe, says Jehanne, and pushes more dirt. She thinks of the man in the Stetson on the mantle.
Bad berries. Or cholera. Bacteria. A bear.
Lorraine catches Jehanne’s hands.
We’re safe here, she says. Can’t get sick here.
No, Jehanne says, we aren’t safe, not anywhere.
The women scrabble like animals, snagging their fingernails. It takes them hours of palming the earth and tearing their skin to fill it.
The women sit on the porch and watch the sun die out, slips of spit thick in their mouths. Lorraine plucks a piece of grass and, holding it between her thumbs, presses her lips against the gap. She blows. A sharp scream sound is made.
Don’t, says Jehanne.
Lorraine chews on the grass and studies Jehanne’s profile.
I feel shocked, says Lorraine.
Jehanne nods. Her scalp feels too tight. She rubs herself. The crickets are in riot: the heat has flattened all possibility of peace. The mushrooms cannot be discouraged. They appear to be bursting from the foundation. Jehanne yanks at the buttons on her shirt and rips it off her body, her chest now bare in the severe dusk. Her nipples peak.
Who dug the grave, says Jehanne, And when?
She cannot stop thinking of the man in the Stetson on the mantle. She can’t remember now if all the skulls in the pit were the same size, or different. Had she imagined the identical indent on the brow bone? Had any of them been a different size, or given any indication that these skulls were not all duplicates, multiplicities of one man?
It feels important to know this, says Jehanne.
What can I do? says Lorraine softly.
Jehanne puts her hand on her eyelids. She cries.
Lorraine unbuttons her blouse and lays it down on the porch steps. She crawls to
Jehanne. Straddling her lap, she presses their chests together until it hurts. Jehanne buries her face in Lorraine’s shoulder.
This is disappointing, weeps Jehanne.
It doesn’t mean anything, says Lorraine.
Jehanne pulls back.
Lorraine we saw it, says Jehanne. Lorraine we said. If it ever came to this.
We don’t know, insists Lorraine. We aren’t scientists.
We don’t have to be, says Jehanne. We just have to pay attention.
The women glare at one another, their breasts aching.
We aren’t going to agree, says Jehanne finally.
No, agrees Lorraine.
Well then, says Jehanne.
The rest of the evening is spent.
The women go to sleep and when they awaken, they know things will now feel different. Now it is all negotiation and little to drink. To make matters worse, the rain won’t come. Scarcity causes the women to wander, to whine. Jehanne spends afternoons sat at the end of the driveway, watching the road. Lorraine smears her hand with honey and strokes herself, coming in quick, frustrated fits.
They find a lake one afternoon, and though it is too filled with algae to drink, they want to enjoy it nonetheless. They strip down naked and plunge into the water, mud sucking at their heels. Lorraine reaches, but Jehanne dances away.
Move in my direction, says Lorraine.
I am rooted here, says Jehanne.
Jehanne cups a breath in the palm of her hand.
Lorraine thrashes. Water is sent into the air.
You don’t want me, says Lorraine.
We could be carriers, insists Jehanne.
We came this far! says Lorraine. How far we came, only to be timid in the face of love!
I don’t want to kill us, shouts Jehanne.
See the vultures? says Lorraine. See the maggots?
Lorraine climbs out of the water and stomps off into the woods without her clothes.
Jehanne has a nightmare. In the nightmare, the man in the Stetson on the mantle is in bed with the woman from the fridge. Both of them are naked, save the Stetson. The man in the Stetson, atop his wife, plunges himself inside her. She tips her head back. They pant. As they pant, a growth forms on the back of the man in the Stetson’s naked thigh, and another man in the Stetson springs forth. The woman from the fridge cries out, and from the center of her forehead comes another woman from the fridge. These new figures grasp for one another and begin to couple. Another man in the Stetson is birthed from a thigh. Another woman from the fridge is birthed from a forehead. Soon the room is overly peopled.
Jehanne, Lorraine is saying: Wake up, you’re screaming in my ear.
Each day now, an impossible ask.
I want you.
I want us to live.
Don’t you want me?
Don’t you trust me?
The women sleep on separate sides of the mattress.
New rings of mushrooms people the pasture. Orange and fragile, gray and flat, white cups with pleats ringing the walls of the chalice, long white and narrow tubes, wide red caps, undulating cream waves of more oysters. Strange, that so many mushrooms should grow in spite of this spat of drought: there hasn’t been rain for weeks. Lorraine kicks, stomps, uproots.
I am rotting, Lorraine whines. I am a wet log. I am losing my rings.
Jehanne doesn’t respond. She rubs at her groin, where her labia are now always coated in a stiff crust of discharge. The house fills with its perfume.
The humidity isn’t high, says Jehanne. All these growths.
The fungus are like wolves and your yeast a lone howl, says Lorraine.
Perhaps the moon can cure me, says Jehanne.
Cure, says Lorraine. I hate that word.
One night, unable to sleep, Jehanne can hear a creaking. Might it be cauliflower, edible, creaking as it grows? Or a young and dreamy-eyed doe? She goes to the kitchen, where she finds an old flashlight in a drawer. She turns on the flashlight and comes out to the yard, searing a mushroom cluster with a sharp cone of light. Jehanne sees a cloud surrounding the red cap, undulating outwards. She shifts the light to the other clusters. They, too, are engulfed in the same kind of cloud. The air fills with spore fog.
The women sleep in different rooms.
At midnight, Lorraine tiptoes to the lounge chair. She watches Jehanne’s chest rise and fall. The quilt is sliding off her chest. Lorraine gingerly lifts the quilt and tucks Jehanne back in. Jehanne opens her eyes. The women look at one another.
I love you very much, says Lorraine.
I love you very much, says Jehanne.
Lorraine goes back to the bedroom.
Truce? says Jehanne.
Truce, says Lorraine.
They shake on it.
Two gal pals, says Lorraine, smiling.
Two gals bein’ pals, finishes Jehanne, smiling.
Their hands warm and between them.
The women have agreed not to fight. They go for another swim. Shy, they change with their backs to one another. The skeeters dart around their intrusions as they step into the lake, shivering. After a moment of quiet, they agree to play a game of light and dark. Lorraine cannot leave the sun, Jehanne must remain in the shadows. They can tease but they cannot touch. The first to leave their territory, loses.
The women jeer, squirt, dance just out of reach. Lorraine pants, treading water so the muck doesn’t touch her feet. Her breasts, ample and heaving, leave a wake.
You can look, says Lorraine.
No baiting, says Jehanne. She shivers, and the movement sends the smallest of tides to crash into Lorraine’s neck hollow.
Yes, says Lorraine, her hands squeezing her chest. A nipple pops between her thumb and forefinger. Her eyelashes cast shadows. Beat me bloody, my turgid fish.
I can see your cards, says Jehanne, but her hand is absently playing with the curls of her pubic hair, kinked when dry, soft when wet.
The water sloshes.
Can you imagine how wet water moccasins get? Lorraine begins to pant.
Lorraine, says Jehanne, but Lorraine’s head has tipped back and her throat is like the moon, pitching light back into the air. Jehanne stumbles and almost leaves the darkness.
Oh yes, all those scales, says Lorraine. She pushes water onto her neck. The black scruff under her armpits gleams in the sun. Oh yes.
Jehanne’s fingers are moving in and out of herself. Her opening pulses with a deep, burning itch, and when she thrusts a third finger inside of herself, harsh and unforgiving, she is surprised to find that pain causes her relief. Jehanne keens like a loon. A green, mossy lather gathers between her thighs. She recalls the last time they had sex–a year ago, in their old kitchen, on the floor, a bowl of salad upturned beside them. Jehanne tries to summon a memory of the city. The glass buildings, the bridges, the row houses made of blood red brick. She can see that husband and wife in the park, who screamed at the doubled woman and threw rocks at her until she ran. Jehanne remembers the period of duplicates, seeing a friend at a bakery and then turning the corner and finding the same face repeated. How long they’d hoped it had just been déjà vu. She still smells the acrid stench of their house burning down.
I know we shouldn’t, says Lorraine: But don’t you want to?
And the memory of Lorraine moaning, the way she shudders when she comes, the mousey smell hiding behind her ears, the sour taste of every crinkle. To crawl inside her again. Jehanne hesitates. A trout comes up for air, snatches a gadfly from the surface of the lake. Lorraine lifts her finger to her own mouth and sucks.
Yes, says Jehanne, and bursts into the sunlight.
Now collide, women’s flesh: the breasts the bellies the loins the thighs. Their need is cruel, prophesied, and they bite tug shove to tear and bruise. They push and buck and slide. She forgot the feeling of the other’s thighs, hairy, plump, she keened for the crush of a tongue. There is a space between a neck and a shoulder where a lip fits into bone cup. Fingernails–-jagged–-she cries out at an insular snag, but no stopping. They create a tide. The roots of the trees open to receive it. The sun blots out. A cloud rises up around them, spray and splatter and mist. A fog settles on the surface of the lake. Thunder. A wind. Here is the moon, waning or waxing, almost invisible beside the peak. A heaving. A moment when the mother multiplies. Thousands of years of volcanic ash and lake silt, disturbed, dance and settle in folds of skin.
The women cling to one another and pant. The mist around them scatters.
What’s? asks Lorraine.
Oh? pants Jehanne.
No yes, Lorraine insists, something…
Oh, says Jehanne, wait, I think I…
The women turn away, backs pressed together. The muscles of their backs ripple, and a retching sound echoes against the trees. From their lips bursts a red mist. It sits above the surface of the water, thick, inert.
Jehanne wraps her arms around Lorraine’s waist. Lorraine sighs, pressing herself into Jehanne’s lap. Jehanne begins to buck, gentle. Lorraine can feel nipples hardening into her shoulder blades.
Again, says Lorraine.
Yes, says Jehanne.
Rain falls on the lake and their bodies.
The women do not sleep. The air turns red.
The women awaken to the smell of fungus. Mushrooms have pushed up like ghost bouquets between their legs, against their groins, into the space between their breasts and their elbows, threaded through their hair. These are large, much larger than the bathtub growth, and sturdy. A field mouse finds shelter beneath the white umbrella beside Jehanne’s hip. The women laugh and rub against the mushrooms that devour them. Where crushed, a new shoot sprouts up, as if caught in a time lapse. Lorraine, ass in the air, shoves an oyster inside her and plucks it back out again. The suck and release echoes through the forest. Jehanne bends and licks the head. Now they are more frantic, groaning, pressing their bodies into the ground, mushrooms yielding to their plush. A moan–-from where does it originate? Clasped hands and grunts, and laughing, and smiling. The aspen grove atwitter. The soil drinking the red, frothy air.
How many days pass of their frolicking, a song upon their lips? How many acres of mushrooms? The grasses thrive, the moss blossoms, the birds all birth, and the hymn of the rhizome is seductive, and even the bees are fooled.
At last, the spore cloud settles and the new growths slow. The women, wordless, naked, rise and make their way towards the house, hand in hand. It is difficult at first to find their footing. The entire forest sits beneath a blanket of white mushrooms. Nothing moves–-no wind, no rodent scurry, no bird song. The women are being watched.
They emerge from the woods at dusk to find the old, familiar meadow consumed with fungi. The old truck has all but disappeared beneath the fairy knolls. Lorraine sighs and takes a step forward, but Jehanne grabs her arm.
Love? asks Lorraine.
Look, says Jehanne.
There, on the porch steps of their house, sit two figures.
The figure on the left stands. In their hand is the ax from the kitchen.
It’s the owners, says Lorraine.
But Jehanne stays stuck.
It’s the neighbors come to check, says Lorraine.
Announce yourselves, yells the figure.
When did this happen, I don’t remember this happening, says Jehanne, pulling the hair from the crown of her head.
Who approaches? the figure calls. Their voice sounds familiar.
Oh no, says Lorraine.
A moth sputters through the haze.
Jehanne moves between Lorraine and the house.
Come closer, says the figure.
The figure on the right stands. Their dress ripples, though no wind blows.
Jehanne, says Lorraine. Come away now.
Jehanne looks at her hands, wrinkled and rough from the lack of water.
Yes, says Jehanne.
The women run. Their pace is slow–-the mushrooms are thick and thigh-high, and the women must beat the heads with their fists until the rhizomes recoil. The women thrash through the thicket to the lake.
There, on the shore, they see themselves.
Jehanne watches her own mouth bite down on Lorraine’s shoulder, her arm around her waist. Lorraine watches her own eyes bulge, her own hips buck. The women hear their own voices come back to them: yes, more, grunts, groans, gasps. Their own naked bodies bucking, the tide lashing their own breasts.
What is this? whispers Lorraine.
The women watch themselves come, loud and oblivious. For a moment they lay against one another, panting. Then, as before, they watch themselves retch, clouds of red clawing through their throats and spewing into the open.
In the forest, Lorraine clutches her throat.
On the beach, Lorraine looks up.
Behind them, a third Lorraine stands in a dress and gapes.
Six figures stand in the dark red air and recognize.
How many times have the women duplicated, and then flung themselves into exile? Why can't they recall? And which versions are they of themselves? The first? The thirty first? As one version of them runs through the woods, a second version slithers against one another and the third version feels it, quivers in unison, hair rising on their necks, reaching, their memories as blank and untroubled as an open plain.
Root rot. How irrelevant is the origin when faced with the future, incurable and loud?
Three Lorraines and three Jehannes form a geode of gaze.
It’s so hard to make sense, whispers Lorraine in the woods, unsure which Lorraine she might be speaking from. Whose mouth is this? Are they all three confused, or is one of them coopting their consciousness?
Jehanne swallows. As if she’s grown eyes like a spider, she is aware not just of her own vantage point, but also of those of her duplicates. She lifts a hand and sees in fractals. She wonders if the others in the city had time to be so dazzled by their own conflations, before they shot each other. Or before they died. As is the natural course. Jehanne swallows.
The women in the woods sit down upon a mother log, the other four watching them. The sun will set soon. We bob our heads up and down.
I don’t feel uneasy, says Lorraine, her hair caught in the crease of her mouth.
No, agrees Jehanne: Rather, amiable.
I want to please them somehow, says Lorraine. She looks up at the mountainous cleft of Jehanne’s chin.
Lorraine leans down and strokes one of our heads, tenderly, and miles away another of us feels her affection and glows. We increase.
Are you cold, my love? says Lorraine, kissing the sharp neighboring shoulder.
Yes, says Jehanne, I know it’s hot but somewhere far off it’s cold and I can feel it.
Do you know, says Lorraine, so can I.
We, clever children, lift up our breath, and we mark them with our spores.
Night falls. In the house, the women lay down and kiss tenderly.
In the lake, the women press together and kiss tenderly.
In the woods, the women rest and kiss tenderly.
Down below their feet, in each and every location, we harvest the seeds we have scattered, and colonize the roots of the women. We teach them to drink, to fight off diseases. We mutate their language, we become their language. From each and every living mouth comes a breath that is ours. Hail mycelia!
We breathe heavy, little lovelorn prepubescent, and in doing so spit out our spore, small sperm in the spreading dusk. In the meadow, below the mountain, the women multiply. We watch. First two, then four, then six, now ten, now twenty. We grow, encouraged. We are all of the same root system: we can feel the joy of the muscles above us. We look up at their naked human flesh.
Jehanne, say ten Lorraines.
Lorraine, say ten Jehannes.
They reach for one another, all twenty, and we toss into the air our wind, our spores, our seeds for planting. We swell and engorge. We throb for miles, we can feel it underground, down where forest fires cannot reach us, down where the worms cannot bite through our veins. We slip our fingers inside our clefts, we bloom by the lake, we run up the thick thighs of trees, of mountain peaks. We grow breasts and nipples, we grow pubic puffs. We press, tight. We scramble up the drain. We sprout up from the bathtub. We throb. What is felt in the meadow is felt on the mountain. The wind, our breath, lifts the seed into the air and tosses them into the wet. Our glossolalia. Pain in the east is felt in the west. Beyond, the bulbs froth in the dark soil. A bud sits on our chest and screams. We birth it.
Words from the Judge, Camille Acker:
"The Misdeeds of the Root" starts simply enough: 'At noon, the women move into the house.' Ever after, the narrative grows more complex with each sentence. The story widens and deepens, telling an unabashed love story, radically embodying the two women at the center, and ultimately letting even the reader inhabit this insular world. I turned away once or twice feeling like an interloper in the midst of this intimacy but I always turned back captivated to once again witness this unmistakably original world.
Bridget Brewer is a writer, educator, and performer based in Austin, TX. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming from The Best Experimental Fiction of 2020, Tarpaulin Sky, FANZINE, and others. Currently she is at work on a geo-erotic horror novel and serves as co-front person for a queergrass band. She can be found at bridget-brewer06.com.