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All That is Needed

Daniel Mowery

Mel’s life came with a knife of her own, as did everyone else’s. Hers was double-edged, the tapering of the tempered silver licked at the light with a delicate poise on both sides, prismatic and symmetrical, two rivers layered on one another like leaves of moonlit lilies, running down to melt together into a razor-sharp point. Her handle was carved from cherry wood and fit perfectly into her palm, as it had been made for her, and had grown with her, and would continue to do so until she was buried with it. It was set with her birthstone—sapphires the color of August skies—and the rich, auburn color of the handle, with its shocking embellishments, complemented and contrasted beautifully the blood that would run down it.

Though as of late, she had given much more flesh than she had taken.

It always grew back, but sometimes not as smooth nor as beautiful as before. Like everyone else, she had gotten used to it when she was young so the smile that was expected, whether taking or giving, had become not only habit but ingrained, to where she could not stop it even if she wished. It would be rude to do otherwise. For that was the beauty in giving and receiving in turn, to find pure happiness in generosity, reciprocity, to receive with appreciation, to give without reservation, as was expected. Always a please and thank you, and yes, of course, take all that you need, it’s no trouble at all.

When Mel was a young girl, she and her sister, Charlotte, would take turns with such love and devotion, always giving more than they took, always with unconditional altruism. There were many times when they did not even have to ask. When Charlotte sprained her ankle and could not play with the other kids, Mel gave to her gladly without request or thought. She sat on the bench with her, bringing books and snacks, and pulled out her cherry wood knife to shear a strip of skin from the bottom of her foot, offering it with a genuine smile. Her sister beamed back with gratitude and, as was polite, thanked her. The two of them rested their throbbing feet on the bench and drank their juice boxes together.

The same happened when Charlotte got knocked up, and the fetus died and sepsis bloomed its black roots, and Mel had to take her over two state lines. Before her sister walked into the clinic, they sat and cried together in the dusty Honda Accord, the crowning dawn whispering lavender and scarlet, and Mel brought out the knife, sawed a square block of her ribs, and gifted it with a grieving, encouraging smile. Her sister could hardly accept, her tears pooling onto their laps with the sweet, gracious blood.

But did her sister not do the same for Mel when her fiancé cheated on her? For months, he had carved from her more and more, flinching away from Mel’s knife when she needed it most, while she asked for hardly anything at all but was made to feel greedy and selfish. He had severed her heart when he told her if she had been less demanding, more giving of her flesh, he wouldn’t have had to take it in the harsh ways that he had, or had to find a more willing blade somewhere else. So Charlotte sliced a corner of her own heart to hold its place while she healed, wiping the blood off her own red oak handle.

Were not their two knives almost identical in shade and shape?

Did her sister not give her an entire arm when the pastor came for his tithes, flayed her tongue, and amputated the hidden patches that she would forever hide with shame, taking what he wanted with a smile and a thank you, but never the please? And did she not have to smile as they all wielded their knives and asked for more, as she was told she must do? But that frozen, empty curve of the lips would melt and soften as she and her sister would share a bed, crying and holding each other through the dark and lonely nights, filling in the wounds and cavities with the gifts of each other.

Those stolen swathes of skin and muscles and veins and tendons that had been ravaged from her regrew mottled, dimpled, and discolored. But the ones that her sister meekly asked for, the pounds and gallons that Mel had given so lovingly, they replenished soft, and glowing, and supple for the next pierce of the cherry wood blade.

For her children, Mel did the carving herself. They were too young, uncoordinated, and their technique loving but lacking. She did not even wait for them to ask, cutting a slab from her thigh, the curve of her breast, cropping her tongue and her eyes and her ears, all tucked under their pillows, arranged just so on their plates with precision and adoring devotion. They always said thank you, though they could not know exactly how deep her blade had to plunge to keep them happy. She remembered the smiles of her own mother and father as they had carved from themselves and let her sit on their laps to learn to wield her knife on her own, asking for nicks and pricks here and there. She wondered if the butchering had been so exhausting for them as it has been for her.

But lately, she feels alone and depleted. Her husband’s knife has dulled, the sweet-smelling cedar handle cracked and coarse, the serrated steel spotted. With two kids to support, he works two jobs. She can see the bleeding holes and the scars he has inflicted on himself every day and every night. She no longer feels right asking him for a little blood, to let her shave a small layer of skin at the end of the day as he is stumbling into bed, mauled and emaciated. She has asked, and he groans underneath his smile, the assurance that of course it’s okay, take as much as she needs. He tries to still the shivering as her knife tries to move quickly and efficiently, doing its best to swim shallow and restrained. So she has stopped asking, and he has stopped offering. Though he still makes his own requests in the dead of the night and she gives as freely as she can, her own skin has grown pale and thin, her knife hand trembling, her head growing fuzzy, the lines of laceration no longer straight and graceful but jagged and raw. For what has she left to give?

Every day she faces the gleams of a thousand blades. A fingernail for her son who forgot his project due the next day, sliding the blade underneath the cuticles to the root and flicking her wrist, popping it off like a fleck of paint as they fold paper for the diorama until three in the morning. A cheekbone chipped when she knows her table will tip better for cutting a button lower on her shirt, two slices up the corners of her mouth when they tell her to smile more, and the trickle of blood when her manager jokes about firing her if she doesn’t allow him hug her tightly at the end of her shifts, with his hips pressed forward and his dirty topaz pommel needling into her pubic bone. A kneecap pried away when the PTA asks her to volunteer for the bake sale this weekend, asking if she can take off work a day, and then stay late to help clean up. A streamer of goose-fleshed skin from the base of her neck down to her tailbone, a long ribbon of filet, as the husbands and fathers and teachers and customers watch her without shame, fingering the shafts of their knives absently, dreaming of how her skin would feel under their keen edges, and the silent gouges their wives and girlfriends take from her throat and brow and waist. The bowl of her stomach, scooping out the entrails to take her mother from the retirement home to the doctor, where they tell her she is running out of time, cancer and Alzheimer’s gorging in a gluttonous race. The flanks of prime meat and the buckets of blood milked every month by lenders, the mortgage, the rising prices of groceries and gas, the compiling doctor bills, the overhanging guillotines and scimitars of a cruel and apathetic world that she cuts into neat little portions, places in envelopes, and then licks the adhesive where the paper has dimpled and dyed pink from the overflow. And does she not smile through it all? Because it is the polite thing to do. To give, and give, and give, and to make the people who receive truly believe that it is no trouble, it’s fine, really, to insist. She’s always happy to give, and always, always, has that polite, sweet, kind smile.

She stops talking to her friends, to her sister. There is not enough time, and she knows their slaughtering is every bit as gruesome as hers, and she cannot bring herself to ask for the tiniest pebble of bone, the smallest morsel of warm, reassuring tissue.

When the children and her husband are asleep, she sits in the kitchen, the only light from the amber street lamp through the window. She turns her knife over in her hands in the dark. Here, the blade does not have its warm tone, its smooth texture. It is as dark and rough as scabs, the sapphires scuffed and dead. The blade has begun to blunt, losing the honed edge that she had admired her whole life. The silver is corroding, chipping along the edges, exhausted and overworked, rotting on the undernourishment of its masochistic labors. She raises it slowly, blade down in her fist, and pricks her fingers, ten in turn. She punctures the knuckles and her palms, splits the heart line, probing the ethereal veins in the back of her hands, her forearms, pain blazing in the shadowy places behind her eyes like fiery insect bites. She forces a sad smile, a reservoir for her tears to slink into, as she offers gratitude to herself, please and thank you.

It happens on the day of a massacre. She has given so much flesh and ichor by now in such a sadistically short time, that she feels she does not have enough blood left to contract the muscles of her face into the mandated smile. She had worked late all that week, double shifts, losing her toes and her forehead in the process, her body sore from pinches and quick, secretive knife flicks. Mel is throwing her daughter, Emma, a birthday party at the park, which has scalped Mel, the sun beating down on the raw, pulsing pate for the cake and decorations and presents she really can’t afford. Stubbing fingers down knuckle by knuckle for park reservations, invitations, favors from the other parents, promising them her flesh in advance, whenever it was convenient for them to come and claim what they needed. She has sliced off her lips and her calves to her husband, shoulder blade to her mother, scooped out her eye to cook for the church youth trip fundraiser. She is weak, and her smile is fading but still there.

At the park, in the midst of the festivities, her daughter disappears. Mel finds her behind a copse with her uncle, Mel’s brother-in-law. Michael is all smiles, his fingers circling around the hilt of his charred bone and onyx knife handle. He tells Emma how lovely the little birthday girl is on her special day, how beautiful and ripe at an age of eight. He draws his knife as he speaks, kneeling next to Emma, smiling, asking cordially and graciously while already moving to make the cut, starting at her collarbone, working down towards her chest, his other hand bracing her small, thin hips. Her daughter’s eyes are screaming, but she is smiling at them both, just as she has been taught, just as expected. Just like her mother, and her mother before.

This is when Mel surprises herself.

“No.” She says it with hate and disgust. Both Michael and Emma look up at her with incredulity, baffled. Michael smiles, apologizes, and asks again in that quick, smooth way of his, raising his knife once more, and she grabs his wrist. She twists it and yanks him out of the trees, back into the sunlight. Her knife is in her hand, and it is under his jaw, digging slowly, strongly into the soft spot, and it twists. She can feel the blade coughing, tremoring with shock at this new sensation. This strength, this breach in etiquette, this black, deadly rage in full disregard of the rules, the expectations, this inconsiderate audacity, as she takes what is owed her and more without request, without remorse, the empty spaces filled with apathy for the appalled eyes watching her. Michael is confused, he is terrified, but he is still smiling. He tries to speak, but her blade punctures his tongue, pinning it to the roof of his mouth. “She has nothing that you can take.”

Her sweet, good girl interrupts, “No, Mom, it’s fine, he can take all he wants, it’s okay.”

“No.” This time, it is not enough, so she takes more. She takes for her daughter, and she takes for herself. She pulls the knife out, the cherry wood burning in her palm, the sapphires flaring brightly, and she plunges it back in past the hilt until her fingers are inside his jaw, surprisingly animated with convulsing muscles and ligaments plucking in taut strings around her knuckles. The tip pierces deeper, cleaving through tissue like ice breaking apart a river into foaming breakers, until she can feel the hitch of furious scribes on the inside of his skull. She takes for the pain, the fear, the shame, the guilt, the nausea, the mutilation. She takes not what is wanted, not what is needed. She takes because it disgusts her, to prune the biting brambles of this world and of these people before they can seize her daughter in their inescapable grasp, before the ugly scars can mark and mar her forever. She takes so that the flesh can’t regrow. She takes, and she gives nothing in return. She plunges until Michael falls to the ground, and he does not stir. She does not smile, and she does not thank him.

Mel does not smile anymore, unless she wants to. People have stopped asking of her, they have stopped talking to her. She still gives, and she has started to ask, please and thank you, but she requests little and takes less. She only gives with the cherry wood knife; she does not let any other steel, silver, gold, copper, or iron tongues taste her. Always please, always thank you, but the smile, the assurance that it’s okay, please take what you need, is rare. If given, it is meant. She is teaching this to her children, to her husband, to anyone who will listen.

This lesson she carves from herself, the thickest, sweetest meat that she can cut from the deepest part of her chest. It is decadent, still pulsing with a tender heartbeat, and dripping with loving, viscous blood, so warm that a pleasant steam curls upward from her palm. It is the best, most precious thing that she can offer you, and if you listen, she will place it in your hands with a smile, a please, and a thank you.

Daniel Mowery lives with his wife, daughter, and dog in Greensboro, North Carolina. He works in residential construction and loves reading, writing, and music. His work can be found in A Thin Slice of Anxiety, Roi Faineant, and Suburban Witchcraft.

Twitter: @DMoweryWrites

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