She started with Elena’s books. Sylvia tore out the blank back pages first, then the title pages, the dedications: to my wife, who understands; for Mary Ellen, who asked for this story. Finally, the words themselves, the brittle pages of the story. She tore them into strips, sucked on them until they were soft, chewed them into balls and swallowed them.
Sylvia thought she could detect hidden tastes on the pages. The worn copy of Harold and the Purple Crayon that Elena had kept since childhood was faintly sweet, like store-bought bread. The sex guide tasted coppery, and Elena’s journals had a hint of fake cherry, like cough drops. The books of poetry were minty, but with a bitter aftertaste.
Sylvia dreamt that something grew underneath her tongue; a bubble of flesh, growing until she choked. She woke screaming for breath, jaw throbbing, the taste of blood in the back of her mouth. Her stomach felt like an empty house, filled only with dust and ghosts.
Elena’s letters were next. Torn into pieces, swallowed, hidden in the cavern below her throat. Sylvia could taste the dust on them, the fine desert sand that Elena said got into everything. She could taste gun oil, the military-issue soap, the hand moisturizer that Sylvia had mailed across continents and oceans, had imagined Elena running into her dry, chapped knuckles.
This stuff is worth its weight in gold around here, she’d written. You’re a goddess.
I miss you.
I miss you.
I miss you.
The words echoed in the empty part of her chest.
If hope was a thing with feathers, what was grief?
She swallowed the death notification from the Army, then the letter from Elena’s commanding officer: she’d been out to him, and he knew who Sylvia was. It included all the details that the official notification had left out, typed out in unadorned English: the miscommunication that led to the ambush, ground-to-air missiles, the crash, the fire.
We couldn’t recover her remains from the wreck, he wrote. I’m sorry.
Sylvia thought again of Elena’s hands. Had she worn that moisturizer that day? Had it sizzled in her pores as her skin began to melt? Had she smelled its perfume before she died?
It’s most likely she died from her wounds, and not the fire. She probably went quick.
Sylvia tore the letter into strips and let it dissolve on her tongue.
Sylvia stood at the mirror with her mouth open, looking at the back of her tongue. It had become a habit: pausing in front of a mirror, jaws cracking wide, peering into the hidden space at the back of her throat, each breath fogging the mirror. She kept expecting to see words imprinted on the red skin of her throat, black letters crawling towards the tip of her tongue.
When Sylvia spat, there were threads of blood in the saliva, mixed with something darker. Ink, maybe.
She dreamt that her teeth fell out, that she spat them into her hands: worn-down molars, sharp cuspids, stained violet with ink and pink with blood.
When the books and letters were gone, she ate their photos, the black-and-white strips from photo booths, the matte prints from their civil union, the out-of-focus pictures from their honeymoon in Puerto Rico. Still hungry, she started on Elena’s clothes next, the T-shirts with the dumb slogans, the cotton briefs, the lacy bras she rarely wore. Sylvia ate the sheets off their bed, both their bathrobes, a washcloth, a slipper. She ate Elena’s pocketbook. It took her four days and a heavy kitchen knife to finish off a pair of old boots, chewing and chewing and chewing.
All that and she still felt hollow, carved open like a canyon.
Sylvia dreamt that her skin dried and cracked along its surface. Her fingers grew, twisted, sprouted twigs. Her hair became the dry rustle of dead leaves. The only sound was the wind and the creaking of branches. She was dissolved in silence, all her thoughts and tears running out of her, soaking into the dirt. For once, it wasn’t a nightmare. She woke calm, not screaming like the wind.
Sylvia walked out of her house in her pajamas, into the cold, damp air. She ran her fingers over the bark of the oak tree that dominated the backyard, then knelt down on the grass and stared up at the sky through the branches, at the chalky moon, the glassy stars.
The calmness of the dream lingered on her. She stared at her hands, the bitten nails and torn cuticles, knuckles dry and chapped. She pressed her fingertips to the ground at the foot of the oak tree. It parted easily, and she came up with two small handfuls of dirt. Hesitantly, she put one in her mouth, pouring it past her lips. She worked it around her tongue, and then swallowed it.
Sylvia worked quickly after that, digging her fingers into the damp sod. She clawed up chunks of the ground, shoving handful after handful into her mouth. By dawn, she’d swallowed enough dirt to fill a grave. She lay back, her hands caked with soil to her elbow, belly distended, lips and chin black.
Finally, she thought. I’m full.
Nicole Cipri is a writer who grew up in Vermont, and now lives in Chicago. She works as a bookseller when she’s not writing, and subsequently has a lot of opinions about the written word, which she tends to overshare on places like Twitter and Tumblr.