SPRING 2013 (Issue 78)
 

Ashley Chambers

The Fevered Woman

 

1

The woman searches for her fever’s clammy neck in the vast darkness that surrounds her. She establishes the face first. The woman can’t see her fever’s face, but she knows the contours of its expression by heart. The face is elderly, eerily reminiscent of her mother’s face except that it is also androgynous. It’s a face that looks like it’s suffering an irreparable brain aneurysm. The expression says the aneurysm doesn’t hurt because the face survives in ecstasy even as it dies, and this is the face the woman locates in her search for her fever’s neck.

The woman traces these qualities with her fingertips. The face’s expression is trapped beneath a thin membrane of heat, something like a human skin doubling as a fever who is also its own person, an empty container with a spirit not exactly human but not entirely nonhuman either, a skin like a doubled complexion existing both inside and outside of the woman. This is the face’s first, last, and only expression as far as the woman is concerned. This is the only face the fever has ever revealed to the woman in the light, and this is how she knows the face’s expression now in the dark. The woman believes this fevered expression outlasts its welcome as it lives and dies in the certainty of her hands tonight.

Her fever’s face levitates inches above her own face in this moment, and the woman digs her left hand’s fingernails into the wrinkles of her fever’s supple forehead like this forehead is composed of sculpting clay, not a fever. She suffocates her fever’s open mouth with a single sweaty palm.

The face says, “Ooohhh,” and it’s unclear even to the woman if this is an exclamation of pleasure or pain.

 

2

This is how the fever happens for The Fevered Woman. The woman’s left hand emerges from the length of a shape that, for the sake of convenience, we will call her arm, and it shows her fever’s open mouth its palm, certain that it is human in its palmness. The woman with a human palm resists the impulse to respond to her fever’s sharp teeth even as they break the delicate intersections of her m-shaped life line, and she uses her right hand to draw her fever’s hairless skull closer to her face and then finally to grasp her fever’s neck. Her fever’s neck is unnaturally twisted away from the front of its body such that her fever’s back responds by resting against the woman’s belly. The woman lifts her head, lighter without needing to support the weight of her fever’s head, up and against her fever’s face. The woman holds herself in this place of familial intimacy for several seconds.

When the woman feels her fever’s facial expression departing its dying face, she breathes a breath in the shape of a single sword, larger at the bottom and narrow at the top. She kisses her fever’s mouth through the back of her hand, using her sword like a tongue between her index finger and middle finger.

“Goodbye kiss,” the woman tells her fever.

The woman rotates her neck to the right, pressing her ear against her fever’s neck. She listens for the sound of the fever’s closing windpipe—the fever, no longer her fever.

“Because my breath is my own now,” she asserts to no one, confident the fever is permanently dead, as if the fever could ever really be dead for good. This means the woman believes she is alone again.

 

3

The woman has a fever again. This fever is the same fever as before. The woman’s fever announces its lack of return without speaking and then sustains another intimate vigil from within the confines of her body when she finally sleeps. The woman only sleeps when she believes her fever is dead.

The fever is the same size and shape as the woman’s body in this life, just like it was in the diverse bodies of her past lives. These past and present embodiments of size and shape exactitude have made it impossible for anyone other than the woman to discern her fever’s existence. The woman’s fever is an empty vessel, and the woman’s body fits inside of this fever-vessel perfectly. The woman continues to be convenient for her fever because this particular fever has known this particular woman for many lifetimes now, and in the same way that human faces grow accustomed to the security of familiar faces, so do fever-faces.

Maybe in the beginning there were a hundred thousand fevers, and the woman chose this fever for no other reason except she was being born for the first time. Maybe in the beginning the same was true for her fever. Maybe the woman was born screaming, and the fever was born sleeping. Maybe the fever was the only blanket capable of quieting the feverless, screaming baby woman.

Once there were a hundred thousand women to choose from, but this particular fever found this particular woman the loveliest of them all.

The woman said, “You fever, yes you, be mine,” and that was how the woman became The Fevered Woman.

 

4

It’s at least true that the woman was born for a first time. On her first birthday, a hot voice gave the woman a sing-along-spell to use when trapped in what she would later come to understand as fevered dreams. The hot voice, separate from but also siding with the woman’s fever, contained enough foresight to give the woman the spell when she was a newborn.

“You have to sing it like this,” the hot voice boomed, but the woman wearing her first baby face lacked motor skills and didn’t have a way to write down the spell.

           Just gotta leave my body for a sec
           Just gotta leave my body real quick
           Crawl out, leave my body, get back in
           Oh yeah, now or never
           Gotta leave this body for the last time

 

5

The woman isn’t sleeping anymore, but she’s still on fire. According to her bedside clock, it’s four in the morning. The woman’s sheets are damp with sweat. She imagines removing her fever and then putting her fever back on. The woman puts her fever back on in her imagination like it’s no big deal because she thinks mental practice might make taking her fever off again more manageable when it’s actually time.

“Temporary overcoat,” the woman says out loud, adding “and you’re no big deal.”

She puts her fever back on. She takes her fever off.

“There, off,” she says.

This time the woman tells herself she’s taking her fever off for real. She thinks the for real part might also help. Except the woman is still wearing her fever. Her fever’s body is always so close to her that she can never get a good look at it. The woman can only feel her fever.

“That’s because I’m wearing you,” the fever says.

 

6

The woman knows her fever wears her. The fever bangs, and the woman is a house without a door. She sits upright. A streetlight illuminates the space between her bed and bedroom wall through the window blinds, and the woman clutches gathered sheets at the edge of her mattress like she’s holding an unripe banana in each hand. She braces herself as blood escapes her brain, floods her neck and swollen lymph nodes, then chest and belly, ushers baby stars into her already blurred vision. Blood also rushes from her fever’s brain into the landscape of its body.

The woman is hungry, but her mouth and jaw are still too sleepy to fully commit to the act of chewing, and she is not holding real bananas anyway. The woman has been reduced to thinking about bananas as a coping mechanism until she is sleepy again. She lies back down. She imagines that she is the fruit of a single banana and that her fever is the skin of this banana. She imagines the ease of unpeeling her fever from her body as a banana woman and then throwing her banana peel fever in the trash, except after the woman does this and returns to bed, as just banana flesh and so ready for a good night’s sleep, a stranger with two swords sent by the hot voice comes in from the street and eats her exposed banana body alive, using the swords like chopsticks.

 

7

With the stranger gone, the woman’s empty bedroom offers more emptiness in response to the woman who declares her fever is a monster. The bedroom knows; even the world—separate from what remains of the woman’s volition—knows that the woman’s fever is a monster. The world lost the woman to her fever lifetimes ago.

“You’re a monster,” the woman chokes anyway, over and over again, weeping, “You’re a monster.”

This is an especially pathetic announcement because the actual world stopped listening from the outside hundreds of years ago, and the world who listens from the inside is a product of the fever’s effects on the woman’s body. This world that listens from the inside continues to represent the actual world for The Fevered Woman.
         

 

8

This is the story of an imprisoned woman. The emptiness surrounding the woman and her fever swells in size as the woman’s elbow encounters a puddle of nighttime drool on a pillow already saturated with her fever’s sweat. Feverless people, creatures, and objects surround the apartment that shelters the woman. The woman’s fever exists like a fortress for the woman in what is left of her perception of the real world. In this fortress, there is only one mirror and the woman hates the only mirror her fever provides her. She looks at herself and her hair is more wilted cilantro than hair. It’s when she combs the dehydrated strands of wilted cilantro with her fingers that she knows she has never been completely awake.

What this means is that this morning the woman’s hair is actually long, black, and folded into a single damp braid, and this dampness belongs to both the woman and her fever as the braid swings back and forth with each of their murderous movements. What this means in the first light of another day is that the woman has successfully located her fever’s neck with her hands, but that is all.

 

9

“Keep your eyes open and look at my hands,” the woman says to her fever.

“I have you,” the woman pants, holding her fever’s legs between her own, her comforter and sheets now on the floor, the woman on all fours on top of her fever.

The woman’s fever laughs. The fever looks into the woman’s eyes, now visible with the sunrise, and then relaxes. The woman’s fever is hot and limp beneath her like steamed tilapia.

“Don’t laugh at me!” the woman shouts, and when the woman’s fever responds it doesn’t sound like it’s choking even a little bit. The woman, too, no longer sounds like she’s choking.

“Go ahead,” the fever taunts the woman, “kill me, I double dare you.”

It isn’t impressive that the woman’s fever can speak. Her fever’s voice is liquid fire, and it sounds like it will never become bored with the woman’s body, not in this life or the next.

“Because this is not your last,” her fever says, “not if I have anything to do with the lastness of your life.”

Her fever’s voice is both light and dark at the same time, and it is confident in the way that it will never need to feign life by hiding behind the shadow of a fever how the woman does every day in this life.

“So kill me,” the fever says again.

The woman falls back against her headboard, and her fever is immediately realigned with the size and shape of her body. Their necks snap together soundlessly, and the simultaneous settling of their combined cerebrospinal fluid feels like throwing a pebble at the sun if the sun was made out of water and not fire—the way human skin wrinkles when submerged in water for too long—only this sun is orange and black, and its water burns like hell.

The sound of her fever’s continued laugh reminds the woman that maybe her fever is the one writing this story, too.

How, then, is the woman meant to speak?