By J. M. Bédard

Your main problem is thinking that there is just one other side. But you know better. You yourself are not so simply constructed, so uniform and binary. As you slip from state to state, so too do they. Things are never so fixed, there is no universal dividing membrane. Think of a honeycomb. Think of mountain ranges swallowed by oceans, of underground lakes, of stars bursting against the insides of your eyelids. Knee deep in green water, stand at your own swampy edges. The velvet surface is calm, for now. You almost can’t hear the laughter. So soft, only the gentlest chuckle. A cascade of cool fingers tapping cheerfully over the ridges and folds of your brain. Insistent. 

The shifting has been more pronounced recently, sliding and tripping out of one self into another. More erratic too. Moonlit drift replaced by crashes in the noonday sun. They gape up at you, the discarded selves, puckered and sagging in small heaps about your feet. Do you feel them, tugging gently? A hand at the wrist, a furtive lick just behind the knee. Emptied, perhaps they sense in you a matching space. Pick a face out of the mass and squint into it, if you wish, but it won’t help. They know how best to catch the light. Often, you’ll come to realize, that is the best way to hide. 

So walk on. Swallow the itch to tear off this body: you just got here. Pin the feeling firmly between your back molars and bite down hard if you need to. Hear it crunch. The relief drips out slowly at first, and then rushes all at once. A few thin streams venturing shyly between your eyebrows, then the spreading numbness. You should lie down for a minute at this point, at least until your face unfreezes. The water is thick here, equal parts vegetation and liquid. It will hold you like a cupped hand. 

For a time, this is the world: slow and dampened, still and shadowed. Your breathing is even, your limbs slime-slicked and shining. The coolness seeps through to the underside of your flesh—the raw rangy part—and soothes it as a dense balm. Thoughts cease their scurrying. Slowing, stopping, fragile furry bodies finally curling inward. They are strung with jewels, pearls of creamy fog adorning pelts and naked, shaking paws. It smells of wood smoke and old leaves and dead things and deep, deep below, a gentle laughter ripples. You feel it and then you wake, blinking in the damp. 

The selves stare back. Closer now, and bolder. They’ve been industrious while you rested, the one crouched on your chest just finishing up licking your eyes clean of the heavy air. It smacks its lips and sighs with pleasure, leaning back on its haunches. The thoughts too seem refreshed. There are more than you remember, forming a shining, living surface from the water. Waves of rolling spines and bucking backs, you are borne upon it. You seem to always forget this part, plunging frantic hands into fur and skin, pulling up tufts and shrieks as you try to swim to shore. There is none. This is the ground now, and the water, the air, and the sky. Because the thoughts have started to stream upwards, scrabbling over one another in their excitement. Feel it grow. The roiling is outside and within you, burrowing under your skin. Watch how it moves and stretches. If you are attentive, you may see some familiar shapes pressed hard against the flesh: a nose, a hind leg. A splay of toes. A long tail, delicately curving out of sight. 

Faster now. Panting thoughts carpet every surface even as it shreds beneath them, ribbons in their eager nails. Piercing brightness from the other side strikes out, hot needles in the close haze. The thoughts tumble and squeal, bouncing off their kin and rolling into unseen corners and edges. You won’t notice, but the selves have begun to gather them up, stuffing their bodies until taught. Borrowed eyes snap into place, old meat is smoothed over new bones. One self dances slowly in a shaft of light, but most retreat quietly, carefully. They wait. 

You scream. Sun splashed and sweat stained. Joints snapping, tearing, straining. The itch is back, and we both know that this time it is much too strong. You could grind your teeth to lumps before cracking it in two. Too many thoughts, racing and spawning and dying inside you. Your body knows what to do, even if you don’t. See how it moves? Watch the hands that aren’t yours find an edge, start to peel. Find the beauty in a well-placed nail slicing neatly into troubled flesh. The relief, the release. The satisfaction of hair pulled out by the root, of tired layers pried off and dropped away. The wrench of the ribcage is your favourite part, I think, as you shudder beneath glazed eyes.   

And then you are free. Smarting and stinging and unburdened. Reborn. Newborn. Young thoughts squirm in shallow, gilded puddles as you tilt your new face to the light. You smile, knowing you will burn brighter. You have already begun. You can see it all, the before and the after and all the various nows. It really was this simple the whole time, you marvel. Joy is a fever, scalding and tasting of blood. You need more. That ache you notice pooling in your gut is another trick of perspective. An absence or an abscess, depending. A void so deep the edges start to feel round. Run a hand over it and you’ll see what I mean. You don’t hear me, of course. Not over the freshly mewling thoughts, the murmuring selves. The exquisite thrumming of possibilities shimmering in thick strands, just waiting to be plucked. Reach out and grab one, they whisper, but you already have. Fingers too eager to rip again, to undo and pull apart. They tear and you sear. Writhing, scorching, melting in gold. You stream and drip with the world, a scream made liquid. 

Quiet, once more. Nothing but hissing and popping as you swirl and cool. And out from the bright corners: the selves. They inch forward sniffing the air, fine strands of spittle draped artfully from their lips. First the smiles, then the mouths. A quick glance around, squat lower, then begin to drink. 

I pat one on the back as I leave. See you tomorrow. 

J. M. Bédard (she/her) spends long runs getting lost in other worlds, and writes to find her way out. “Human, Too”, her collection of dark, surreal short stories, was published by Dim Shores in April 2021.

Image Credit: “Holding Paper” Kathy M. Bates