shelley jackson





The cancer appeared in my living room sometime between eleven and three on a Thursday. I am not sure exactly when, because I suffer from bouts of migraine, and sometimes I miss things, or see things that aren’t there, flashing shapes like the blades of warrior goddesses, the vanes of transcendental windmills. A little airborne sprig could go unnoticed some while.

It was barely visible, a pink fizz, like a bloodshot spot of air. It was so small there was no great wonder in its hanging there, the way a feather might rest on an updraft. It is hard for me to admit it now, but when I first saw it, I thought it was pretty. I blew on it. It drifted sideways, but when I looked for it later, it was back where it had been before.

The cancer grew with improbable speed. At first I watched it curiously, almost fondly. Near the center it distended and grew solid as meat. The branches divided and divided again. It was a starfish with split ends, an animal snowflake.

I did not speak of it to anyone. Once, the neighbor came to ask me to restrain my hedges. She was a nervous woman with a face too old for her hair. Her child was with her, that little blonde creature I had once attempted to befriend. The child paid me no attention, but stared past me in the direction of the living room. I intercepted her gaze out of instinct, not any fear I could have named.

I looked at the cancer every day. Perhaps it was as big as a chicken – no, a parakeet – when I set my hand against it. I took one of its twigs and bent it back on itself. I did this out of curiosity, no more. When the tips darkened and began to wilt, I let go and looked up. The little girl was looking at me through the fogged window, her white fingers like claws on the edge of the sill. When she caught my eye she dropped out of sight. By nightfall the limb had straightened itself again, though it was a darker purple where the damage was.

We pop our kitchen sponges in a bath of bleach and dig the moldy grout from around the sink; it is the season for dentistry, manicures, and laser depilation. We rinse the food off our plates the minute we are finished eating, scrape the soft sludge into the garbage chute with a shudder of distaste. Everything soft seems decayed to us; we wear nylon jogging suits we launder daily, we cut our hair or pull it back into flawless chignons.

Of course I tried to oust the cancer, though I felt ashamed of myself as I jabbed it with the broom, trying to force it out the window. I had tied a kitchen towel around my head, as if I thought the cancer might tangle itself in my hair in its panic. What a figure of fun I seemed to myself, especially when the cancer proved impossible to budge! I should be more clear: it was possible to shift it, but something invisible bound it to the center of the room, and the farther it was from that point, the more insistently it sought to return. (Not like an animal struggling, mind you. More like a buoyant object one tries to force under water.) Finally, I trapped it in my apron – I also wore an apron – and hobbled to the front door with it straining between my legs. On the front porch I met the postman. We looked down at the large mass struggling inside my apron. When I raised my eyes, I was met by such a grotesquely knowing, indeed sympathetic gaze that I dropped my bundle and stepped back, setting the door between us. After this I stopped trying to evict the cancer. Besides, I had thought of something worse than a cancer in my living room: a cancer tapping on my window, or leaning on my doorbell for all the world to see.

Another time I held a match to the tips. They curled into spirals, tight as watch springs, then turned to ash and fell off.

After the operation the little girl had stopped going to school. She seemed to live in the yard. When she spotted me at the window she stopped whatever she was doing until I went away. She was always carrying something: a large piece of chicken wire, a carburetor, a brick. I never saw her with a toy.

I knew that in some way I had secreted the cancer, sneezed it from a nostril. It was not from outside. Every success it enjoyed was evidence against me. In it, you could watch my fault take concrete form; it was a kind of malignant trophy. I thought I could live with it, at first. It is some comfort to get what we deserve, even when we deserve nothing good. Perhaps I was proud of my error, because it was so brightly colored, and took such definite form. To have it was to have something, that was certain. In private I might fit a ring onto one of its digits, a gaudy ring with a yellow stone. I looked at it, you could almost say lovingly: what lawless circus beauty. The stink of the big cats, the glare of the lights! I forgot myself, brought my hands close, almost petting the hairy fringe. But afterwards ran scalding water on my palms.

I thought I could guess the size it would end up. But it grew and grew. It was the size of a badger, then a goat, then an ox. I compare it to animals because it was hot, as if blood ran through it instead of sap. Its body heat tropicked the room. And though it resembled a bush, I guess, more than anything else its size, it had an animal presence, uncouth, yet sly, subtly critical, disturbingly womanly. If I looked away, and let my mind wander, I was brought back with a start by the feeling that someone was there.

Still, a great leafless bush, with smooth skin like the manzanita. The muscular trunk (it was hardly a trunk. The ganglion, rather) was scarlet. The limbs were streaked with purple, fading to pink toward the ends: pink fretwork against my ceiling. They grew thinner and more translucent, until it took a keen eye to make out where they no longer were. The air itself seemed stained.

We roll things, hard things, across surfaces, hard surfaces, because we have an unquenchable thirst for the clean sound of hard things hitting. We beseech the ovarian sky to let fall the rain it is thick with, we light lighters to purge the flatulent winds, we pull our bedsheets tight and our hospital corners have a truculent look that makes babies cry.

The feeling of plenty, of fruitfulness oppressed me. I seemed sunk in a fog of pollen. Breathing was heavy, repetitious labor, without hope of rest, like bailing water from a boat. The smell of bacterial abandon hung in my armpits. My hair was lank and tacky scant hours after I washed it. Yet I was in great health, my heart tolling in my rib cage, coppery new chest hairs sprouting amidst the limp gray ones. I woke up hard every morning. To cover these signs, I began wearing a loose jacket and baggy trousers, though my style of dress before had been neat to the point of prim.

I gave her a ball once. When I first moved in she still had all her hair, and was halfway pretty, though already frail. She was somehow downy, covered with fine hairs, which were invisible until the light made a halo out of them. It was a hard red rubber ball with a fine bounce. She took it without smiling. I looked out the window and saw her small, concentrated figure “at play” (if that is what play is). The ball bounced off the ground at the base of the wall, hit the wall and raced back to her hands; she threw it again. As determined and joyless as a repairman banging a nail. All afternoon I heard the echoing blows of the ball, a double beat with a pause between. Then she was called inside, the blows ceased, and that was the end of them.

Perhaps the cancer was innocent of ordinary intentions on me. It was no footpad. Yet there was something brutal about its vitality. It was blazing with health, pert, straining apart at every fork. It was not merely visible: it exposed itself, and seemed to glory in my chagrin. It was like Rumpelstiltzkin showing up in my living room looking for answers. No matter what I said, stomp stomp and through the floor he plunged in a brimstone stink, but he’d be back again another day, the hairy nymph.

The cancer grew bigger, until it was more like a place than a thing. I kept the door closed. I did not go into my living room for days on end. When my thoughts turned to it, my face went sour and I made a quick involuntary utterance: “Never mind,” or “I don’t know” or “I don’t want to.” I began to see the cancer waiting behind every conversation: a lure, a magnet. I sought to avoid it and discovered myself summoning it up. My conversations were all evasion and omission: I hid things that had nothing to do with the cancer, but that I thought might, in the end, lead me back to the cancer, which was therefore not just a cancer in the world, but a cancer in language, a ruined area where nothing normal could come to pass. I’m going to be found out, I thought. At times the cancer hung so palpably behind me, a great red nimbus, like the radiance behind the sacred heart, that I would turn around and look. Or is that something I saw in a dream: a little girl with white hair and white eyebrows staring at me from the red corona?

Her face was hard and hollowed, cheekbones like a fashion model’s, unpleasing on a little girl. Hard ridged ears that stood out from her thin neck, parting her wispy hair. One day she was beating a tree with a two by four; the bark had gone fibrous and smashed, like a matted wig. She beat it rhythmically, deliberately. They had operated on her skull; there was a bald patch on the back of her head, with a triangular welt in it, like an octopus bite.

We dig under our fingernails with frightening insistence, trowelling out tiny heaps of evidence. We use our teeth to chop at our cuticles until they bleed. Some people pluck their eyebrows, taking one hair from the right, one from the left, one from the right, from the left, from the right, and so on; then cry out in dismay. Hair is brushed until it frizzes, dreads are combed out and forked into great aureolae, or braided so tight our eyelids turn inside out. Manicurists and suppliers of facials batten.

One day when I came home the girl was crouching at the side of my house, beside the chimney. I hissed and raised my arms suddenly from my shoulders, a great bird, and she bolted, wriggling into the hedge. Her thin bleached legs stuck out for a minute, red shoes scuffling at the dirt; then they were pulled in after her. I saw that a few tendrils of red had emerged from around the loose metal ash door at the base of my chimney. I couldn’t see her, but I could tell she was still inside the hedge, watching me from between the leaves. I felt her eyes on me as I unlocked the door.

I went in and forced the branches away from the fireplace. The floor was covered with ants. A few days later, it was a tarry, mauve substance that made my soles stick slightly when I walked. The backs of my leather books bloomed mildew-white and green and the legs of my chairs grew fuzzy.

The cancer waxed stronger every day, every tendril a tine, metallic and purposeful. The yoke of every fork was swollen and fleshy. Tiny splits opened and leaked a purple ichor midges stuck in, and the smell was strong and sweet. At first the cancer had seemed to siphon water from the air like a hydrotropic plant, but one day I saw that one of its thicker roots had struck through the floorboards. I crawled under the house. The muscular trunk was sunk in the ground, spanning the gap between the floorboards and the earth, and it seemed to pulse slightly, as if something were passing through it, into or out of the house.

The sky looks like it hurts. We think about the way the sky looks and it frightens us. We think, what have I done to hurt the sky? Some people walk around with their stomach muscles clenched and invite other people to punch them there. Some people punch them unnecessarily hard, there or somewhere else. We worry that delicate glass things, spun glass fawns and vacuum tubes, may break of their own accord, and scatter floors with a crystalline, dangerous powder. People who are prone to nosebleeds sit perfectly still while blood flows out of one nostril or both, black as plums.

Once I opened the door and a white cat whirled around my legs and disappeared into the kitchen. Later I saw it waiting under a chair, watching me. When I opened the living room door again it shot across the floor and through it.

Later I noticed the ash door was standing open. That was how the cat got in.

Then one day I opened the door and the little girl was sitting on a chair beside the cancer. She looked at me bitterly. I backed out and closed the door.

The ends began to bend against the ceiling and walls—but I don’t know why I say this. I never went in there anymore. Perhaps I opened the door once, concerned for the child.

That last part is a lie. I detested the child.

One night I opened the lid of a casserole and found a steaming length of the cancer inside. It was strange and horrible to see it, and the saliva rose in my mouth. I reached carefully between the forking tendrils, took hold of the firm trunk and lifted it, the way you lift a lobster, and transported it gingerly to the garbage. I looked away as I dropped it in. The little girl must have crept into my kitchen and planted it there. If only I could have urged her parents to restrain her.

I went for long walks alone. On one such, I stopped near a playground. The sun had come out after a rainy night. On the damp dark concrete a group of boys were scuffling over a basketball, watched over by a grey-haired woman, a man with a whistle clamped in his teeth. Behind the court, across a bit of green, was a row of blue benches. In the rain-brightened air the sound of the basketball rang out, and the peeps of the whistle pierced my ears like quills. Real people play such games as these, I advised myself. Watch and see how it is done.

I stuck my hands into my pocket. In the depths of it something rubbery seemed to squirm. I withdrew my hands as if—what’s the phrase: stung? But nothing could have startled me more than that tentative, somehow fond snuggle. I felt again. Then plucked the tuber out and hurled it away from me. It bounced, even seemed to spring along from one limb to another, as if it were running, and shuddered to a stop next to the basketball court. A boy bent over it. The sight of the young body so close to that forked red thing was unbearable and I darted out across the playground, aware what a bizarre figure I cut in my giant pants, my flapping sleeves. I snatched the tuber. The boy fell back a step, his eyes on the thing I now held between two fingers, then he flipped his hair back and went back to his game. I carried the thing away the way you might carry a moth or a spider, making my hands a cage. I walked toward the blue benches. The woman and the man with the whistle were watching me. If I had been sure they had spotted the little red bouncing thing I would have held it at arm’s length, distastefully, as one might carry a dog’s stool in a baggie, but that would draw attention to it, and perhaps they had not noticed it at all, but only my peculiar scuttle, in which case better to move my arms as naturally as possible.

When I came back, there was a turd on the center of my dining table. It glistened, and it was full of red bits like snips of rubber band.

I decided to take a walk out of the city altogether, to a field all itchy with grass seeds sifting down and bugs climbing up on the long stems. The sun bit into the back of my neck. Halfway across I got down as if forced to my knees. I smelled the heat in the dry grass, a blonde smell. I sank my hands into the dry sheaves and suffered the bugs to walk up my arms. The blue vacuum above me sucked at the back of my head and made me feel strangely elongated. In contrast everything before me, bugs like tiny brooches, pods and plumes and burrs, was dense and small. I folded a hank of grasses around my fist and looked at the waxy stems lined up across the back of my hand. This is the real world, I said to myself. Pay more attention to it.

I dropped the grasses, and fell forward onto my hands. The earth was hard and deeply cracked. I strove my fingers into the earth. My fingertips grazed something smooth and the thought struck me, absurd as it sounds, that this was in some sense the jewel of the real, and would bestow on me everything I lacked: gravity, clarity, ruthless pragmatism. I started to dig, clawing at the sides of the crack. I lifted out the loosened dirt one handful at a time. The last revealed something red. I brushed the remaining dirt away. There in the cavity, twisting from the side into the cleared space, vital, acquisitive, was something I recognized. In the warm earth, coiling and humping in the darkness, the cancer had made its way to meet me.

It has gone under the ground, I thought. It might come up anywhere now.

Coddled tots will be given the root to suck. They’ll open wide: their innocence will drop out like a tooth. Their face will redden with concentration and grow older, tiny daddies in diapers and jumpers will suck a pipe, aunts suckle a cigar. Such sweets are not for kiddies, I shall warn, a hilarious oldster with a bee in my bowler. We will clip the fine ends and tea-cup them. A new brew will sweeten the tongues of gossips, but what will they say in their new voices, so high and so surgical?

The next morning I mused over my tea: possibly, I thought, I could make my peace with the cancer. I approached the door on stocking feet, opened it gently, smiling. The little girl had crawled into the cancer, and was sitting on one of the limbs like an owl, her knees drawn up. Her baggy stained underpants confronted me. She was staring at me with that fixed look, like a doll. I rushed to my room, and buried my burning face in my pillow. After a while, I fell asleep.

When I woke up I found myself sucking on the broken end of a branch. Had someone slipped it into my hand while I slept? A sweet taste was in my mouth and there was some sediment on my tongue, granular and faintly chalky, which made my teeth feel unfamiliar. I was breathing peacefully through my nose. I took the branch out of my mouth. I had hollowed out the cut end with sucking. Crumbling and dissolving bits like tea-soaked sugar tumbled out of it. The smooth skin was shiny with my saliva.

I set the branch down on the bedside table and carefully extricated myself from the bedcovers. In the bathroom I brushed and flossed, penitently, punitively, with a swollen heart. Then I went to the room the cancer was in, axe in hand. The little girl was still there. I hissed and darted at her. Reluctantly, she rose and went to the fireplace, parting the branches before her with her narrow white arms. The ash-door stood open again. A healthy child her age could never have fit through the door, but she dropped to her stomach in the empty fireplace and went right through it like a boneless thing, rocking from side to side, humping along on her elbows once she was partway through. There was a glimpse of sunlight, her red shoe. Then the door clanged shut. The invisible ends played against my face.

I reached in and caught up a hank, swung the axe at the taut strands. They did not part as easily as I had pictured; I had to worry at them, sawing, and when they broke the ends leapt like elastic. One snapped against my cheek and brought a tear to my eye. I stepped inside the cancer, hacking around me indiscriminately. The limbs shook only with my own movements.

Branches fell around me, springing up again to clobber my knees and ankles. The insides of the thicker branches, once I split the sheath of fibrous rhubarb stuff, was pulpy and pink. It fell out in chunks from the cut ends. Only the red corm was left, rearing up in the midst of the wreckage. It was my height. I swung. The axe bit into the body and stuck, a heavy bad feeling. When I pulled it out, gobs of the inside stuff spattered my shoes.

I stood in a still heap of red lengths. There was silence in the room. A pink clot detached itself from the ceiling and dropped at my feet. I looked up at the dot of mucus that marked where it had been. Nearby, other clots trembled, unsticking themselves. They rained slowly down on the body, on the murderer. The clot at my feet was shrinking into a widening disc of clear liquid. There was no epochal shift, no grind of planets swerving in their spheres. I was still guilty, perhaps I had always been guilty, in advance, for this moment. I saw her face at the window, then it went.