[TRIGGER WARNING: Some readers may find this story disturbing]
My cock is throbbing so I pull it out.
My wife lolls in front of the TV, spread out on the sofa, eyes glazed and mouth open, illuminated by flickering light. Her empty–eyed stare is so vacuous that it looks like she could have died there, stuffing her brain with the shopping channel.
That’s the thought that draws my fist down the shaft of my cock. I squeeze its flaring head. I push my pelvis toward my fist as though I’m fucking her, fucking her corpse.
From the TV, some bimbo’s voice drones about semi–precious gemstones at $39.99. I’m so hard that I can barely wrap my fist around my cock. Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.
I rinse off in the bathroom, tuck in, and go to work.
When I get home, the TV’s still on but she’s not in front of it. Her bathrobe lies deflated. I imagine that she’s disintegrated like a staked vampire, but there she is in the kitchen, rattling cupboards.
She’s taken a shower and so her hair falls lank and wet to her shoulders, split ends already dry. She’s slapped makeup on her black–eyed horse face. Her eyes are flat and muddy; there’s no difference between iris and pupil. Her eyes don’t shine like other people’s eyes. They don’t go red in pictures. They’re blank, dead swamps.
The door gets knocked on. My wife shoves the cupboards closed and grabs her purse. Creaking hinges swing open. Her two friends hunch outside, as blank–eyed as she is, their teeth yellow and sinister as they flash grins that don’t reach their eyes. Though they’re greeting her, their stares hunt me down.
All three wear mismatched clothing, loose and odd–fitting. Cracked, filthy nails extend from their fingers. Their hands twist like claws into predatory poses.
My wife joins them on the front step. I can’t identify one from the next. They’re one disgusting flock. The door slams behind them.
My wife’s bathrobe still lies discarded on the couch. It used to be pink but it’s whitened with time and bleach. Chocolate, grease, and menstrual stains track the cloth.
I masturbate on it. She and her friends dying in a car crash. Metal slamming through their heads. Windshield fragments slicing through their necks. Their thighs spurting arterial blood. There’d be no change in their lightless eyes. Just alive. Then dead.
I leave another stain.
A note from the author:
There’s truth in all fiction. Writers are never separate from what they write. Don’t believe anyone who tells you otherwise.
I’m not going to kill my ex, but I probably should have.
Don’t tell anyone I said that.
If she turns up dead, it could be a problem.
My wife sneaks into the bedroom at midnight. On the carpet, her feet sound like claws digging into dirt. She leans over my side of the bed. Humid carrion–breath smothers my face. I pretend to be sleeping. One ragged exhalation. Two. She finally withdraws.
She retreats to the window. Clothes rustle as she strips. Pretending to shift in my sleep, I turn to face her. Through half–lidded eyes, I watch yellow sodium–vapor light swab her body. Shadows pool in the loose, wrinkled skin that drapes from her neck, arms, and stomach.
A horrible smell fills the room as her bowels open. White shit pours down her legs.
She squints at the bed, impaling me with those dead–black eyes. Light shines on her crooked front tooth.
The noise of claws–in–carpet grows louder, closer. She scrapes her way into bed. I smell her shit. I feel her eyes. She knows I’m awake. All I can hear is the crackling of her murmured laughter as she stares at me through the dark.
By the time you see the shit running down your wife’s legs, it’s impossible to understand how you could have been blind before. How could you have looked at that woman and seen skin running smoothly from stomach to thighs? How could you have stroked the inside of her knee and thought it was soft and tender? People will try to tell you that things changed. You, her, the relationship. They lie. There was always shit coating her feet. Her eyes were always dead and black.
When I wake in the morning, she’s genuinely asleep. Snores tear from her throat. I’m struck by the image of her heart seizing as she sleeps, panic clawing her awake, her fingers raking the air as she scrambles to breathe.
I work until I jizz on her pillow. It dries next to her drool.
When I’m showered and dressed in slacks and button–down, I head to the kitchen. The smell of my wife’s shit travels with me. Frantically, I check to see where I’m fouled. It’s not on my clothes. I undo my belt. Not on my cock.
My eye catches a spot on my thigh. The smell isn’t shit after all. It’s black, rotting skin I smell. Death, not excrement.
I find a bandage to cover the necrotic flesh. Adhesive doesn’t damp the odor.
The bathroom mirror tells me that necrosis is mottling my spine. Black rashes creep down my legs. I watch a new spot appear inside my elbow. Blood bursts through the skin and a puzzle–piece–shaped lesion dapples to black, exuding a charnel house stench.
She’s killing me. This house is killing me.
I have to get out. I pull my pants up, button my shirt. At the front door, I pause with my hand on the knob as dark instinct draws my eye to the inset window. Through leaded glass, I see shadows. They come closer.
At last, I can make out one of my wife’s friends approaching the porch. Saliva drips from her slack jaw, trailing down her chin. She stares at the door for an evil second and then paces down the front steps and turns, heading for the gate that leads to our backyard. Her steps are spasmodic, disjointed, but she travels with a determination that makes her path seem inevitable.
She breaks from sight, but before I can calculate my freedom, my wife’s second, identical friend passes by on the same route, her expression a perfect mimic of the first’s vacant–and–hungry look.
I wait, breath incipient, fingers still closed around the knob. The woman departs from sight, but as I expected, it’s only moments until the first returns. Without altering her path, she swivels her head toward the door. Her eyes catch me as if she can see through wood and glass.
Realization hardens in my mind.
They’re circling the house. Circling me.
My ex wears stretch marks like jewelry. They shine when the light hits. She laughs when she sees me staring. She jiggles the fat under her arms to make it swing.
My ex has three men. She doesn’t bother to hide them. When I go to check the cars, they’re always there. They attend in rotation: first one, then the second, then the third, and then back to the first again. They stand behind her when she opens the door. They’re thin–haired and weak–chinned. They stare at me with mouths agape, spit shining on their gums.
My ex laughs and pats their arms with simulated affection, sneering at me as if I could ever be jealous of the new men mired in her trench.
I hamstring my wife with a knife from the kitchen and tie her by the wrists to the hooks on the ceiling that some prior resident used to hang light fixtures. Her feet hang above the floor. I can see now that they are scaled, the yellow keratin cracked and dry. Talons droop, fissured but sharp.
Her baggy stomach overhangs the greasy feathers of her legs. Her fingers poke, half–flesh and half–claws, out of her ragged wingtips. Breasts swing, bare and sagging, nipples pointed toward the floor. She stares at me, grin still jagged, eyes still dead.
A flood of shit drenches her legs. It splashes me. I jump back and curse. Laughter scratches her throat as I retreat to the sink to scrub my hands and shirt. There are spatters of blood as well as shit. I leave them to stain.
Her feathers are matted with feces, but I armor myself with gardening gloves and grab a bucket from beneath the sink. I pluck one forearm–length, broken feather from her tail. Oily black residue slicks my fingers.
I pluck a second and a third. Pained, creaking noises escape her mouth. I pull another. Freshly exposed pink skin puckers where the quills were ripped out. Specks of fresh blood redden the shit on the floor.
She swings her head back and forth, trying to watch me, but I keep to the shadows behind her so that she never knows where pain will strike next. Her hisses rattle as I make my way down to where I’d once thought she had calves. Now I can clearly see where her skin calcifies into the scales of her giant bird feet.
Her strong thigh muscles remain intact. She kicks. Limp talons swing toward me. Even lacking precision, they are heavy and deadly. I dodge out of range.
Back in the kitchen, I grab a stronger knife. She watches my return with fear. I bend to the task of sawing through her bird–ankles. Scales and bone give way with a consistency like rotting teeth. Viscous yellow ichor oozes from the wounds. She throws her head back, neck working as she births a vibrating, interminable screech.
From outside the house, I hear the heavy thump of wingbeats. I go to the kitchen window; her friends are swooping past, enormous wings outstretched as they glide in circles around the house. Their foul feet dangle, gore glistening on their claws. Naked, red necks emerge from their feathers, capped by identically grinning faces. With each pulse of my wife’s scream, they lunge closer, talons clenching with excitement.
I laugh. My wife’s screech ascends in pitch. Her wings and legs flail, striving for impossible escape.
When I fucked my wife, it was masturbation. Cock hot in that slack, cold body of hers; her gaze wall–eyed and half–focused; her tongue protruding from the edge of her mouth. Fuck and grunt and think about whatever: women’s fingers pinching their nipples; vulva spread and hot; sweat slicking smooth thighs. The mind can be wherever it wants, but the cock remains in that distended cunt, working and working toward a little pleasure. All the heat and blood and life — that was mine, never hers.
I return to the bathroom to mirror–check my necrosis. Spots cluster everywhere. Blood blooms to black on my chest, my elbows, the underside of my scrotum. Her very presence is decay.
I drag the knife through a necrotic flower, trying to cut it out like rot in fruit. The knife slides through the soft, pulpy wound, revealing the inside of my arm. It’s a monstrosity. Black veins branch across muscle that’s purpled like a bruise. Geysers of strange yellow substances, more viscous than pus, burst out of the fibers. I reach in to touch the muscle and my finger pushes straight through. The bone is no longer white and smooth, but rough and porous like pumice.
The smell it emits is sweet. It’s the smell of perfume on a grieving widow. It’s the smell of a sachet pinned to a corpse. It’s the smell of a banshee’s sugared breath.
It’s unfathomably worse than the rot and the shit.
My ex took the house and both cars and our address book. She slid her fingernails into my chest and cracked my sternum. She prized out my heart, a great pulsating ruby, and shoved it into her mouth. Her teeth tore through it. Her lips were covered in my blood.
Still, I had to listen to my friends bleat. “You used to be so in love.” “She could be sweet, though, you’ve got to admit it.” “Sometimes people just grow apart from each other.”
Idiots, all of them. Can’t see the shit running down her legs. Can’t see the fouled feathers. Can’t see the blank–mud–black she stares back at them as they fawn.
New necroses colonize my left hand. I’ve got to finish this. Got to get out.
I stumble back into the kitchen. Every few seconds, the air cracks beneath the vultures’ six–foot wingspans. The house rumbles beneath me. My wife stares at the window, still screaming, but she no longer looks afraid — instead, she’s smug, satisfied.
One bird dives against the glass. It creaks but doesn’t shatter.
My wife’s scream becomes something like a laugh. I slap her across the face. She keeps laughing as I push past her and rush toward the window.
The second bird lunges for another strike. She stares at me with naked hunger. The proffered sacrifice means nothing to them. One trussed, dying victim will never sate their ravenous bellies.
My wife laughs and I snarl.
It would be wise to bolt for the front door while the birds are at the window, and hope that I can run fast enough to get past them. But I can’t run, not now, with my wife still hanging from the ceiling, half–dead but still grinning, still mocking.
My fist finds my cock. No need to dredge up images this time. My desires are richly, extravagantly present. The blood dripping from her plucked flesh. The sawed–off remains of her ankles. My fist draws back and forth. I aim upward like a fire hose, ready to loose myself into her face.
Suddenly, pleasure vanishes. I look down and there’s my fist, white and clenched around a necrotic shaft. The flesh is soft. My fingers start to sink in. I tear them away. Tatters of black flesh adhere to my hand.
She laughs and I slap her again, but it gives me nothing, a slap against all she’s done to me.
If I’d really killed her, I’d have bought a butcher’s knife and relied on the internet to instruct me on how to joint her, cut by cut. I wouldn’t cook her. Wouldn’t want her rump roast churning in my guts. Wouldn’t want her to be part of me forever, infiltrating my lungs and stomach and fingernails.
No, I’d cut her up to make it clear that she’d never been a person in the first place, never been anything but a grinning sack of meat.
Wings slap the air. The bird strikes. This time, the glass breaks. Fractures spiral out from the impact as if the window had been struck by a bullet.
I can imagine what will happen next. The birds will dig their talons into my rotting flesh and shred me. They’ll push their faces inside my skin. Their teeth will slice sharply, wetly through my muscles. One will pause and lift her head, mouth and cheeks crimsoned with my blood, so that she can watch me watching her feast. The other will seize a long, glistening tube from my abdomen. She’ll tip her head back and choke my intestines down her throat with a series of avian swallows.
Still, I can’t leave, though, not yet. This time I won’t just let her — me — her — leave me. The knife–handle is solid in my grip. She watches helplessly from behind those mud–eyes. She spits. Saliva splatters hotly onto my cheek. My arm draws back. Knife plunges into that distended nightmare of a stomach. It rips upward through her sternum and then tears into the flesh of her hidden, bloody jewel. Shit spurts down her legs, sprays my body. I stare back at those swamp–black eyes, behind which flickers the base consciousness which would — which did — devour my heart.
Her death plays out just as I’d imagined. Her eyes don’t dim as her life pours out. Just alive. Then dead.
Remember, this is a story.
It has nothing to do with me. It’s an extrusion. A waste project of the imagination.
Forget what I told you about writers who claim to be separate from what they write. It was bullshit. It sounded good enough for fiction. I’m telling the truth now. It’s all just stories.
One of the vultures dives when I pull open the door. Even though the knife is in–hand, I strike out by instinct. Her nose crunches. She spits. I hope there are teeth in her blood.
Her feathers strike my face. Her wing beats deafen. The wind driven by her flapping tries to push me back into the house.
Precariously, I maintain my footing. Past the vulture, I can scarcely discern a streak of fresh air. Whether or not I persevere, I’ll always treasure this in my once–eaten heart — this time, I won. This time, there’s one fewer harpy shitting on the world.
Rachel Swirsky holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop and graduated from Clarion West in 2005. Her short fiction has been published in venues including Tor.com, Subterranean Magazine, and Clarkesworld Magazine, and been nominated for the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, the Sturgeon Award, and the World Fantasy Award. In 2010, her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers in the Queen’s Window” won the Nebula. Her newest collection, How the World Became Quiet: Myths of the Past, Present and Future, is forthcoming from Subterranean at the end of September. It has a Shaun Tan cover!
Swirsky wrote this piece after talking to multiple editors who worked with horror stories, all of whom reported receiving many submissions about men murdering their wives or ex–wives. Despite the fictional veneer and supernatural justification, many have the feel of personal revenge fantasies, and most characterize the women through disturbing, misogynist stereotypes. Swirsky wanted to see if it was possible to write a story that included all the markers of the trope but nevertheless subverted it.
If she was going to turn into a harpy, she wouldn’t want to be a vulture–harpy. A Macaw harpy? A bird of paradise? A cassowary? So many better options.