An excerpt from Virginia
    Shelley Berc
Chapter One


When I was a little girl in the city of Baltimore, I dreamed of a beautiful white pony. The pony had a purple plume on the top of its head and whinnied and kicked up the earth with its pointed hooves. I fed it sugar, holding my palm out all the way open as I had been taught so the animal would take his reward without biting me accidentally. The thick pink lips curled up to allow the brown buckteeth to extricate their prize. Suddenly the pony's teeth became a man's-a dark man's, whose eyes were as black as a cloudless night and shone with a blazing iridescence. He licked the sugar from my hand in soft slow strokes. How thick and soft was his tongue! Then, looking up, he held his hand out to me as I had done just moments before to the pony. It was a long hand with graceful fingers, slender to the bone and I took it in my child's hand, which was plump and rosy and smooth. I could see in the man's hand how the blue veins pulsed with blood through the narrow wrist and the creases in his palms were wrinkled and weathered like a tattered map. I know now that those lines and creases held stories I could not read being young as I was and without experience of the world. I looked around for my pony . . . I looked everywhere . . . then the man stared me into looking back at him and I saw he had the body of my pony and his big grass stained teeth. He whinnied at me and his tail lifted and a loud stream of piss steamed out and spattered my slippers. The pony's member hung down and swung lightly almost mournfully after the emission. As I grasped the man's hand or he held mine (I know not which), his hand turned into the pony's sex. It was thick and muscular, dappled with the jutting veins and lifelines of the man's hand. I bent over and touched the velvet crown with my lips and I licked around its rim with the point of my tongue—one full revolution like the sun I thought and then around again but now, backwards—like a crazy clock—I almost giggled—making time run backwards—but my mouth being full, I could not. The man smiled, the breath ran out of him in a contented sigh but when he drew his next it was a horrible rasping gasp and his smile turned into a grimace and he began to choke me with his hands that had become a thick fleshy rope--it was the pony's member wrapped around my neck, turning tighter and tighter until there was no space left to breathe. I bit down into this killing flesh which I cared not whether it be of man or beast, hand or sex, bit hard til the being yelped and blood obscured the cord's pink blue flesh. Then the sky shriveled up and the sun became a searing pinpoint that melted off the organ that was still leaping in my hand and shuddering upon my mouth, suddenly leaving only a bleached bone. I was holding the atrophied hand of a skeleton at which point screaming I awoke.

I never told my mother the content of those dreams when she came running to my bedside to hold me quaking and sweating under the counterpane. I never told her each time she asked in her concerned matter of fact way—'what is it my dear?' It was the 'my dear' which silenced my confession, 'my dear' that silenced my heart and all the truth that might pour from it. It was Baltimore when the city was still young and I was but nine and the sound of hammers pounding and buildings raising was everywhere and the salt of the sea flicked my nostrils as I ran through the streets like a wild animal and I was in love with horses and the sea, in crazed love with the sea whose breathe greeted us each wondrous day and mystery night. The night and the sea tore into me each time I crept into bed and closed my eyes and the wound they made grew dreams and the dreams became the hopes and fears of all my days.

Chapter Two


When I first met my cousin. I did not like him.

He was handsome enough—slender and graceful with dark carefully wild curls and a thin mustache, which was also dark and well clipped though slightly lopsided as if in his trimming he could not distinguish a straight line. His complexion was milky, a white angelic shadow that scared me in its paleness and made the dark luster of his hair terrifying. I would look once and he was all sweetness and light, look again and he was hell's angel. He changed back and forth like a storm-threatened day as he introduced himself to us that first time. But I was the only one who saw it--my mother and grandmother were charmed. He had those southern gentlemanly manners that always cover a brutal hysteria; a reverential bowing that can swiftly turn into twisting your arm behind your back. I knew it the moment he stretched out his hand to her and with the other hand clutched upon her shoulder, gently kissed my mother's cheek. She was too far from childhood herself to see the predatory nature in this movement; she only saw respect and a filial sort of love. But I was fresh from the playground and I knew. I knew what this was. He brought my mother daisies he most likely swiped from the next door yard, bowed low to her when he entered our doorway, called her by the family nick name Muddy. He called her Aunt Muddy to add reverence to familiarity which raised in me a degree of rage that made me long to kick him. But I forced myself to maintain a cool demeanor—I lowered my eyes and slightly smiled to assure him he had nothing to fear from me, to convince him I was innocent, malleable, and without common sense. I knew immediately he was a powerful foe and I would have to bide my time. He made mother laugh so hard that I could barely understand when she told me to bring him up to see Grammy in her bedroom. The old lady was immediately taken by him, too and instead of mumbling and growling as she usually did around us, she nodded and cooed. Then Katerina the cat who didn't like anybody went and rubbed against his leg and showed him her belly. It was disgusting beyond my ability to tell. While he was lovely to my grandmother, she clearly didn't know he was her son's child or if she did didn't believe it—his hair was too dark. She didn't like black-haired people as a rule—she said to me once, they reminded her of the niggers (which we had become too poor to own). She loved her son David— this boy's father—who was handsome and fair—he could never have made a son that looked the way Eddy did. I imagine this was what she figured in her strange patchwork logic though all I really know is once she decided he wasn't her grandson, he became her knight in shining armor. She worshipped him like those silly girls I've seen in church who can't focus their eyes, they're so in love. Bedridden and incontinent and often times confused beyond this world, her revolutionary war widow's pension was what kept us alive; any resentment we had towards her was eaten with our daily bread so we kept it to ourselves. She snored a great deal and talked in her sleep saying things and making noises that caused my mother to blush and send me from the room. But I would listen outside the door as she relived her nights abed with the heroic grandfather I had only met as a bronze statue in one of the city's smaller squares.

The first visit of Cousin Eddy was followed at the respectful distance of a week by another and then the distances grew shorter and within a month Mother announced casually as she fed my toothless grandmother her mash, 'We really need more money. My sewing brings in a pittance. I have been thinking of letting the parlor downstairs. Oh not to a stranger or anything. But our Cousin Eddy, Davy's boy,' she stressed as she put the spoon firmly and deeply into her mother's lax jaw. 'He is an up and coming journalist you know. We can add a bit to our income and help a young member of our small family at the same time. And with our dear boy Henry just drowned at sea and both our husbands dead these many years, well, Mother, it would be nice to have a man in the house.' My mother was a large, exuberant woman and had fed the slop so zealously in her excitement that the old woman began to choke and our concentration shifted to the bringing up the hardened gruel lodged in her throat. I suppose mother took this as an end to the discussion and a tacit assent because Edgar Allan moved in with his single suitcase and a plaster bust he called Pallas the next day. He tried to make friends with me, he tried very very hard. He decided to call me Sissy, as if I could ever be a sister to the likes of he! He made my blood run cold with his trying and I savored ignoring him in such a way that it was impossible for him to tell if I was being rude or slow witted, like his sister Rosalie. Soon the rest of the family, even the neighbors started calling me Sissy, too. I felt that my real name was lost forever and I disliked my cousin even more.

I was devoted to my mother. I wanted to save her from this intruder in our lives. Often they would stay up after Grammy and I were long in bed. When I was supposed to be sleeping I would get up from the bed I always shared with my mother and peer over the banister to watch them in the downstairs parlor of our little house. They would be whispering so as not to wake us, which forced them to sit closely at the wooden table where we ate. They would often pass the time in reading aloud . . . Byron was popular as were the latest Gothic ghost tales. He had a magical voice—deep and resonant, warm and playful with a quality that drew you in to whatever he was saying as if he was saying it only for you. Sometimes he would murmur something to my mother and she would start to giggle like a girl which I had never heard her do. From my aerie, hanging above them over the staircase, hidden in the shadows I could see him stretch his hand out to her as if to tell her a secret and leave it there for a long time on top of her big, red hand. He would rest his long slender fingers upon her short fat ones very quietly as if afraid to scare them away. They would sit like this for hours and I felt a flood of fury in my heart and a gnawing in my stomach because I knew there was nothing I could do to tear those hands apart. I wanted to race down the stairs and shove him away. But I was sure to be punished if my mother saw I was not sleeping because, as she told me over and over again, a child needs her sleep if she is to grow healthy and strong, if she is to live at all in this world with the fevers and consumptions and grippes that ring around our lives like hungry flames.

So I did nothing as he sheltered my mother's hand in his. She seemed embarrassed at first but she did not pull back. After awhile, she even took her other hand away from the folds of her black bombazine lap and placed it gently over his other hand, patting it softly. All four hands, one cupped above the other, in a pile like dough to be baked—one pair cool, perhaps a little clammy, the other warm and cozy. I think she said 'poor brother's boy'. I know he wept. I could see the reflection of his tears magnified in the candle light illuminating his face into a field of tenderness. But the sound of his grief was horrible—a high pitched girlish squall that dispelled any sympathy I might have felt looking at his face made even more beautiful by the wavering motion of the single flame. My mother ssshushed him, 'ssshhh, you'll wake the child' she said and when he continued his howling, in desperation she pulled him close to her breast, my breast, and rocked him there until he quieted. I felt my being lunge over the banister and leap at his throat while I stood shaking and mute in the cold and darkness above them, unable to move or speak. Beneath me they rocked and rocked and the sounds of whimpering and soothing grew into a patterned song between them. His long fingers reached up over and over to her blouse and she gently grabbed the hand away, over and over to stop him. Finally as if he had worn her out, she let him fuss blindly about the row of jet buttons on her neck and his hands worked together opening up the dress and each time she tried to stop him, his wretched howl grew louder. In this way his hands uncovered her bosom. I saw it gleam out of the shadows—one after the other he scooped out the brown freckled balloons and laid them gently atop her widow's weeds. She did nothing as his hands clutched and released spasmodically upon them. Why? I wondered, why? Suddenly with a sigh that was not a sigh of defeat, that was like no sound I had ever heard before, my mother's own hands were on her breast picking it up and pressing the nipple into his shuddering mouth. He quieted and she left him there sucking and nuzzling as she pulled the folds of her black dress around his head to hide what they were doing. From whom I wondered, from what—the night, the stars, the house, an old dazed woman, a sleeping child? I hated my mother most for this concealment. I listened to their little noises, her soft exhalations like our cat when she was dreaming of mice, his odd, insistent gurgling followed by gulping sounds that seemed like the stifling of hysteric laughter. My small teeth clenched, my throat burning with tears, I wanted to claw his eyes out. Again, I could see myself leaping down from the upstairs hall into his lap like a wild animal and with my short ragged nails digging out the dark orbs that left my mother so entranced and me so alone. His nails pressed in and out of her breasts, like Katerina's when she is in ecstatic joy and she tears your flesh quite innocently and there is so much pain you have to hurl her off to stop her. I could see him doing the same to her. I saw the spots of blood obscure my mother's fair fat nipples. But she did not cry out nor cast him away.

Before he came, I was her sole and beloved companion. After father died and my brother left to make his way in the world and Grammy went confused and paralyzed, I grew up quickly to take their places and give her the nurture she needed to keep all three of us alive. I was never age six or seven, eight or nine—I was five years old then suddenly a grown woman in a girl's body, a body that enraged me because it couldn't keep up to the responsibilities I had to face. I leapt over the years of childhood to be what my mother needed me to be. We planned everything together, decided everything together until the day she announced he was coming to live with us. Suddenly my mother had become an adult all on her own and I was treated as a child, the child killed with responsibility and care and now she wanted that sweet obedient thing back. How could I tell her that that Virginia was dead. We had killed her together.

That night, after I had fallen into a troubled sleep, I saw a huge golden-green wing three or four feet high shimmering on my bed. It seemed to me to belong to some giant prehistoric insect that had somehow lost its body but buzzed on as if it was yet whole. When I touched the wing, it made me shudder—it looked soft but it was brittle, it cut my hand when I stroked it and I bled or it did a strange verdant blood. The wing itself vibrated in a deep basal way and the living creature that owned it I now saw hovering above the giant wing. In shape it was worm-like and enormously fat as if glutted with blood which dripped ruby red from its porous iridescent scales. In appearance it looked to be an elongated heart trussed together like a veal roast with juice bloodied strings around it; and its colors were so bright-reds blues greens like some kind of phosphorescent reptile. It was in my bed and try as I might I couldn't kill it—it was so slippery that it escaped my violent thrusts. I screamed. Then I saw my cousin enter the room and come over to my bed. Do you wish me to help you, he asked in that mellifluous voice that nauseated me. I was so paralyzed with fear and shock that I couldn't speak—all I could do was wonder how this creature had entered my room. All the windows were closed and there was not a crack big enough for it to squeeze through. How had it come to hover in my house—on my bed? My cousin raged around the room trying to catch or to kill the miraculous thing. But it eluded him, too, almost teasing him to get close and then at the last moment flitting away. Finally Eddy, exasperated and worn out opened the window and it slithered onto the ledge and flapped its green brittle wings and flew away. I kept wondering what kind of creature it was that seemed so slow and was yet uncatchable, so ugly and so beautiful, so fearful that it took my breath away. I could never say what it was. But I always knew from the moment I saw itI knew it was my heart.

Shelley Berc is a novelist, playwright, and essayist fascinated by the interstices of history, science, and metaphysics. Berc's novel, The Shape of Wilderness, was published by Coffee House Press. The New York Times called it "a vividly imagined parable . . . a strange and potent book . . . a fantastical world of unusual sensuality and invention." Her novella dante: a girls own guide to the divine comedy is currently on the Web at Exquisite Corpse. Berc's other fiction and many chapter excerpts of her novel Light and Its Shadow have been published in Bomb, Exquisite Corpse, Chain, Web Del Sol Review /Editors Picks (chosen for best literature on Web), 5_Trope, In Posse Review, and Linnaean Street, Taitlin's Tower, and Paumanok Review. Her fiction has been nominated for two Pushcart prizes this year and has been cited in Best of Web literature in PIF and Gargoyle.



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