Autolysis, or ways of disappearing — Sylvia Warren

I spend more time in graveyards now so many of my friends have died. I don’t like them much, but the quiet is satisfactory. I like to sit under an old yew tree and remember. I have a different sort of quiet now, after the death of my husband. It is a noisy quiet. Under the earth will be my last act of disappearance. I will let the soil sit on me. My flesh will decay—inaudibly—earthworms will coil around my ribs, ants crawl up and down the column of my spine, flies nuzzle their impatient forelegs against my bones in prayer. I am old now, and I am tired. It is almost time.

I don’t like to remember the first disappearance, and besides it is hazy, indistinct. I forget things now. Other people were performing the actions for me; my father buried my milk-teeth in a secret corner of the garden, my mother would keep scraps of hair and cradle-cap in boxes, wrapped in tissue paper.  I wonder if there is a need, a base requirement to mark the before, the first time. Everyone knows about the disappearances, but we keep quiet out of deference. Even when they become interruptions in our lives they are not spoken of, not between friends or families, or even lovers. It is simply the way things are. I do not even remember asking questions as a child, or hearing others talk. There were not playground rhymes or whispered stories about what happened to us, would happen to us.

The second disappearance is the first one where I was conscious of what I was doing, but I did not understand why I needed to do it. A little before my thirteenth birthday I poured the jug of water my mother gave me over my mattress and laid down in my pyjamas. This was wrong, I took them off. I wish I had been told to do that, not knowing I should have done made me feel clumsy, wrong somehow. Stupid. I did not shut my eyes, instead stared at a patch of damp on the ceiling. It didn’t grow, pulse, do anything. It was just a patch of discoloured plaster above my head, the only thing I could focus on. The dampness of the mattress was clammy. As the hours passed, I felt hyphae start to inch their ways through my body. Things were budding inside, forming fleshy growths that burst outwards under my skin. I lay there in the dark of my bedroom, a wet itchiness as the insides of me became too large for my child-self to contain. By the third day the fungi had settled in rings on my skin, around my stomach and chest, across my thighs. I waited to disappear into the bed, tied down by the maze of mycelia until I melted and decomposed, but seven days later I woke up and the growths were still there under my skin and my mother woke me up and sent me back off to school. I looked at the other girls, tried to work out who had spent their week growing, who had the rot as part of them now, but no-one spoke about it. I thought I smelled subtly different, there was a musty tang that had not been there before, but if this was true it was imperceptible on others.

I waited to disappear into the bed, tied down by the maze of mycelia until I melted and decomposed

The third disappearance was for the marriage. The day was beautiful; I promised myself to my husband and he promised himself to me and the women were crying with joy and the men were smiling and the drinks flowed and the dancing was exuberant and went on long into the night. After the guests went home my husband kissed me, helped undo the long row of silk buttons that went from the nape of my neck to the small of my back, and left me naked in the hall. I wanted to be with him tonight, and every night, but instead I gathered the flowers from the tables and laid them down in the centre of the room. I piled up the gardenias, waxy-leaved and heady, delicate anemones, blue thistles and their silvery spikes, the roses and the woody stems of the eucalyptus and stretched out on my back, the bouquet held between my breasts. My skin was pricked raw and the petals began to curl around my body, silky-thick edges bleeding milk-sap into my skin. The weight of myself bruised and crushed the flowers, brown lines began to appear as they fitted themselves to me, fault lines appearing as I settled into the bower. Rosemary leaves dug themselves into my fingers, pollen clung to my lips and nostrils so all I could breathe was the wedding. This disappearance is only three days, one of the shorter ones, and on the last night my husband took me by the hand, stood me up, ran his hands proudly over my newly wreathed fingers, and carried me out of the room.

As we spent our first days together we went through the gifts, delighting in each other’s company. Everything was amusing and loving and gentle, as we built the shared and private language that allowed us to talk to each other in ways that others could not understand. There were the appropriate items to build a home, cushions and forks that no-one would reasonably use, bedlinen and trinkets in silver. There was one gift that was un-marked. A small iron knife, the blade slightly tarnished, a wooden handle that fit perfectly into the palm of my hand. I knew that this would be a part of it, the series of disappearances. It was ugly in its simplicity. I turned it over and over in my hands, trying to work out its purpose. I hid it in a drawer, the only part of myself that would be secret from my marriage.

The time between each disappearance is normal. That is not to say that the acts are abnormal, they give a certain rhythm to my life. We had two children, a son and a daughter, raised them, watched them grow up, celebrated birthdays and achievements, tried to fashion them into good people who were kind and happy.

When the time was right I gave my daughter a jug of water, let her close her bedroom door. I heard her soaking her bed, the quiet rustle of her child body lying down. I did not tell her she should not put on her pyjamas. Was this spite? I didn’t know whether I would be a failure of a mother if I warned her, rather than let her work things out on her own. I remember the deep sadness, the knowledge that the girl who walked out of that bedroom a week later would be changed internally. I don’t remember my time in bed hurting, but it is easy to forget now, sitting here, with all of the aches that fill my body, how I felt then, only so many disappearances in. Forgetting is an act of such kindness to the self.

I carved out the inner flesh of my thigh, holding the fat and flesh and blood in my palm. The day after, my daughter began to grow inside me.

I taught her how to tend to her newly fungal body with care, not let it get dry or unruly, and waited for my next turn. I admit that I let my husband take care of the first time for her. I couldn’t bring myself to do it, and it was one of our only arguments. I seem to remember my father did the same for me – or perhaps it was for my mother – but it is still incomplete in my memory. I cannot be sure. I don’t know why I cannot remember. My time won’t be long now. Women of around my age are regularly off for a month or so from work, slotting back into their daily life as seamlessly as if they had never been away.

The knife had made itself known when we had wanted to start our family together. I was too whole to have another person grow inside of me. I needed to be less. I carved out a sliver, not enough to feed a cat, and we tried. The knife called. My husband noticed, of course, the parts of me that I was excising, and he was gentle, tended to the edges. I wonder whether the pharmacists know, look happily at young men with wedding rings who buy rolls of sterile dressing, swaddling clothes. You announce when the baby is the size of a plum, and that is what it wanted. I carved out the inner flesh of my thigh, holding the fat and flesh and blood in my palm. The day after, my daughter began to grow inside me.

I woke up in the small hours vomiting boletes. They lodged thickly in my throat, coming up slick-wet and coated in stomach acid, my entire body convulsing to get them out of me. My husband knew he could not touch me, just as I knew I could not be touched until this was over. Still they came, swollen and rotting, fat stems discoloured from their years inside me, roots and tangles of earth falling from my open mouth. For two days and two nights I was drool-covered, red-eyed with hot tears, hunched over as I expelled the fungi my body had housed since I was twelve. After this was over I put on a robe and began the walk to find my place. There is a stony pit in the centre of a wooded roundabout, ringed with trees and the roar of traffic. It is the perfect size for my body if I curl up, foetus-like. No-one tells you where these places are, just as no-one tells you to gather your wedding flowers or soak yourself as a child, they do not appear on maps and there is no guidebook. You just know, as surely as you know your own name.

I undressed before lying down on the stones. They cool the heat that is burning inside me, hard and violent. I imagine the people driving to and from work, not knowing that I am here. I wait. I can feel my chest rising and falling, a weight settling in the pit of my stomach. Moss begins to cover me, arms and legs first. It is a gentle coating, dense and furred, trickling water down into my skin and mouth. I begin to feel clean again, whole. It is as though I could lie here forever, let my body calcify and become covered, part of this place that is mine and mine alone. I converse with the moss silently. It whispers slowly, we are soft and hard, bright and old, but we cannot keep you. You are not ours to possess. The earth has you, just as it has always had you.

No-one tells you where these places are, just as no-one tells you to gather your wedding flowers or soak yourself as a child, they do not appear on maps and there is no guidebook. You just know, as surely as you know your own name.

I was melancholy after that disappearance. I had finally felt calm in my body, had made it my home rather than merely a house. I would go back to lie down in the hollow, but it was only there for me for the disappearance. The moss was silent, the stones just uncomfortable objects that dug into my back. Something had been taken from me, but it was also the part that allowed me to feel anger or righteous indignation. My husband did not like the vestiges of plant life that clung to me, would only touch my hands with the memories of rosemary. I missed him, his warmth and companionship, a form of pre-mourning. When he passed away I made all of the funeral arrangements, read his eulogy, watched as his body was allowed to be burnt into light, but I had already done my grieving. It is why I sit here now, thinking about my disappearances, waiting for the time to be right. It is a good day for it. The autumn light is low and bright, I will not have to wind the clocks again, or turn on the radio or wait for a delivery. I am tired.

I have my plot. The holes choose you, but you are allowed to claim them in waiting. Mine is shaded and woody, under the yew tree that I like. I feel ungainly climbing down into the hollow, the earth is cold and smells of leaf-mould. I close my eyes for the final time and wait for the silence to wash over me. Somewhere a pigeon is cooing, mice rustle in the undergrowth. I look forward to my body being their new home. As the earth begins to fill my mouth I remember the first time, the first disappearance, and I remember the feeling of trying to scream, and that feeling has returned.

You forget because it is an act of forgiveness, and of cowardice. I see my tiny squirming daughter, her mouth being filled with soil, clamped over with the strong hand of my husband. I remember the taste, the wet-rot sods of earth that were pushed into my lungs ready to house the fungi and grow the rosemary rings and I remember now.

They do not send priests to oversee our burials, but if they did they would look like each and every one of our fathers, a large hand over the mouth to keep the first and last mouthful of dirt firmly in place. I cannot open my eyes, I know that is forbidden. I cannot stop the disappearance from happening. I can only let the soil fill my lungs and the weight of the ground swallow me one last time.


Sylvia Warren is a writer and academic editor. Her fiction has been published in the Brick Lane Bookshop Short Story Anthology, Open Pen, Berfrois, Rituals & Declarations, and The Arsonista amongst others. She is a contributing editor at 3:AM Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @sylvswarren

Image: Moss, Victor M. Gamero, Flickr, Creative Commons