Fiction · 01/10/2018

I Was Burning Before This

These are things my father’s hands touched: lighter, wrench, knife, kittens, a brick.

My father did it. Submerged the kittens in the black river. Did he do it with his bare hands? Did he feel their pulses dwindle? I got to keep the mother, she was our rat cat. I used to glimpse her crushing a velvet body, nibbling a tiny ear, but after the kittens I didn’t want to look at her. I put her out in the shed. There, she slunk in shadow. She had a way of clinging to the edges of things. I wondered what she thought of herself.

That left no one to sleep in my bed. Not the cat. Not me either. All night, I’d lie awake with my eyes shut, imagining I could see through the skin of my lids. I saw black. Then, lights. Someone once told me the lights I saw are veins — fluorescent blood, fleshy flickers. Me, I liked to think they were secret messages. My body is a palimpsest on which years of a life have been written. Only I can read me. If you tried, you’d only see the surface of something that has been overwritten many times.

I have always known what would happen.

I’m telling you: after the drownings, my father came into the house, clean as slice of white bread. He put his hands on my mother. He put his hands on my mother’s mouth and on bottles and on the radio dial. Fuzz music filled the house — lousy music — a man coughed static and sang about God and trouble. My parents laughed and staggered. The way they twined together, as if they were one person, as if both were my father. I liked to watch, and hated it. I was unseen in the corner, but then they made me come out. They suggested I dance. Like I was an animal. They said, Go on girl. My mother clapped. I was never a good girl.

I’m the girl who breaks teeth. I’m the girl you overlooked. I’m the one on the highway median in the flimsy dress holding the paper sign. I’m the girl everybody sees and nobody sees.


A week before the kittens drowned, Ivy and I had found God. We both had the spot where, if you touched right, you could feel God talking to you. Where the feeling lit, we rubbed. A new game. We had a fort, a hiding place. Old vines twisted in a dome, nature-made. We filled it with moss and leaves, soft and pretty things. Girls are soft, unlike boys, a girl’s touch softens, she brings to the surface sensations that get lost in you, buried too deep to feel. Ivy touched me on the inside.

We found the spot where God resides. We lit the holy light, and it burned through us. We had never known before what being made in God’s image meant.


When I told Ivy about the kittens she agreed: fathers were devils, but maybe my father really was the devil. Sucking souls, we imagined he was. He’d said, Nuisance. Said, Worthless mouths to feed.

I would have fed them from my own portion. What men know of women is that we appear consumable. But they don’t realize how ample, how extensively we can spread ourselves to feed. I was not born a girl for nothing.

You could do something useful, my father would say, looking at me. Those hips could do something useful.

These were boys my father brought to me: mangy, missing teeth, man-boys who hunted measly creatures purely for the pleasure of pulling a trigger, boys who grew up licking the barrels of guns, chewing their mother’s breasts for a taste of copper.

To be a daughter where we lived was unwanted. Stories of lost girls, I heard. Girls who disappeared. Girls given to appease some threatening beast. Girls who became animals themselves.


I encountered one of these lost girls once — not long after what I’ve so far told. Clinging to the riverbank, what looked like a girl. She had pulled herself from the water by the root of a tree, but lacked the strength to pull herself completely out. Weeds curled in an eddy around her naked legs. The kind of girl, if girl, she was: stripped, fleshless nearly. Something about her reminding me of me.

Was she my shadow maybe?

“How did you get here?” I asked. “Did my father do this?”

She didn’t respond. I touched her body to feel if life leaked out. Cool, slick. Then, she jolted. Her eyes that were my eyes looked at me. She let go of the root. The water folded her beneath.

That night in bed I searched my body for the mark where my shadow might have torn away. Found no evidence. But there were other things. The story of everything I had lived was written on my body. It was almost to an ending.

On my body, I could see what would happen if my father found out what Ivy and I had. He would want to take it. To consume God.

The kind of girl I am. I’ve said. This is not the only story you’ll ever hear from me. What I’m saying is: I’m rewriting.

Fire spreads forever, or so it seems to me. Fire gallops like a horse.

You can burn everything that comes before this:

That night, I packed a bag. I roused Ivy. We found our way in the dark. Two girls against every known thing. You’re supposed to hold a torch to God’s flame. Just a signal — unmissable. Still, I didn’t want to hurt anybody. So, before we started running, I poured a can of gasoline around the shed. And what it felt like?

Like watering roses.


Sarah Jane Cody was a finalist for Pleiades’s 2018 G.B. Crump Prize in Experimental Fiction. She holds her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. You can find her on twitter @sarahjanecody.