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  • 44. The Gown from Mother’s Stomach

    By Blake Butler

    My first taste of Blake Butler’s hallucinastonishing writing came in the form of his story “The Copy Family,” which we published back in March. Since then he’s become part of the Harper Perennial family, and I’m thrilled to mark
    the occasion with this distressed fantasia drawn from Scorch Atlas, his recent collection of stories. If there’s a writer at work today with more sureness of vision, I’d like to know about it.

    The mother ate thread and lace for four weeks so that her daughter would have a gown. She was tired of not being able to provide her daughter with the things many other girls took for granted. Their family was poor and the mother’s fingers ached with arthritis so she couldn’t bring herself to sew. Instead she chewed the bed sheets until they were soft enough to swallow. She bit the curtains and gnawed the pillow. With one wet finger she swiped the floor for dust. God will knit it in my womb like he did you, she murmured. When you wear it you will blind the world. She refused to listen to reason. She ate toilet tissue and sheets of paper and took medication that made her constipated. She stayed in bed instead of sitting for dinner. Carrots don’t make a dress, she croaked. Her stomach grew distended. She began having trouble standing up. Her hair fell out and she ate that too. She ripped the mattress and munched the down. She ate the clothing off her body. The father was always gone. He worked day and night to keep food the mother wasn’t eating on the table. When he did get home he was too tired to entertain the daughter’s pleas to make the mother stop. Such a tease, that woman, he said in his sleep, already dreaming. Such a card. Because her mother could no longer walk, the daughter spent the evenings by the bedside listening to rambles. The mother told about the time she’d seen a bear. A bear the size of several men, she said. There in the woods behind our house, when I was still a girl like you. The mother had stood in wonder watching while the bear ate a whole deer. It ate the deer’s cheeks, its eyes, its tongue, its pelt. It ate everything but the antlers. The mother had waited for the bear to leave so she could take the antlers home and wear them, but the bear had just gone on laying, stuffed, smothered in blood. The mother swore then—her eyes grew massive in the telling—the bear had spoken. It’d looked right at the mother and said, quite casual, My god, I was hungry. Its voice was gorgeous, deep and groaning. The mother could hardly move. I didn’t know bears could talk, she said finally, and the bear had said, Of course we can. It’s just that no one ever takes the time to hear. We are old and we are lonely and we have dreams you can’t imagine. Over the next six days the mother continued growing larger. Her eyes began to change. Her belly swelled to six times its normal size. Dark patchwork showed through her skin. Strange ridges on her abdomen in maps. Finally the daughter called a doctor. He came and looked and locked the door behind him. Through the wood the daughter could hear her mother moan. A wailing shook the walls. Some kind of grunt or bubble. The doctor emerged with bloody hands. He was sweating, sickly pale. He left without a bill. In the bedroom, the air stunk sweet with rotten melon. The gown lay draped over the footboard. It was soft and glistening, full of color—blue like the afghan that covered her parents’ bed—white like the spider’s webs hung from the ceiling—gray and orange like their two fat tabbies—green like the pine needles past the window—yellow and crimson like how the sun rose—gold like her mother’s blinkless eyes.


    The daughter wore the gown thereafter. It fit her every inch. It sung in certain lighting. She liked to suck the cuff against her tongue. There was a sour taste, a crackle. She could hear her mother murmur when she lay a certain way. The father, fraught by what he’d lost unknowing, began staying home all day. He stood in the kitchen and ate food for hours. He ate while crying, mad or mesmerized. He didn’t answer when the daughter spoke. Sometimes he shook or nodded, but mostly he just chewed. Most days the daughter took to walking as far from the house as she could manage. The gown made her want to breathe new air. She’d go until her feet hurt or until the sun went low. When it rained the gown absorbed the water. It guzzled her secret sweat. She got up earlier, patrolled. She wanted to see something like her mother had, like the bear, so that one day she’d have a story for a daughter. She saw many things that you or I would gape at—two-headed cattle, lakes of insect, larvae falling from the sky—all things to her now everyday. The earth was very tired. The daughter found nothing like a talking bear. She wondered if her mother had been lying or smeared with fever. At school the other children threw sharp rocks. They ripped the daughter’s gown and held their noses. The daughter quit her classes. She walked until her feet bled. Her father didn’t notice. Like the mother, he took on size. His jowls hung fat in ruined balloons. He called for the mother over mouthfuls. Her name was SARAH. The way it came out sounded like HELLO. The daughter couldn’t watch her father do the same thing her mother had. She decided to go on a long walk—longer than any other. She touched her father on the forehead and said goodbye. She walked up the long hill in her backyard where in winter she had sledded. It hadn’t been cold enough for snow in a long time but she could still remember the way her teeth rattled. She remembered losing the feeling in her body. Now every day was so warm. She swore she’d sweat an ocean. She walked through the forest well beyond dark. The gown buzzed in her ears. It buzzed louder the further from home she went. She kept going. She slept in nettles. She dreamt of sitting with her parents drinking tea and listening to her tell about all the things she would soon see. She dreamt of reversing time to watch her parents grow thinner, younger, while the earth grew new and clean. She walked by whim. She tread through water. She saw a thousand birds, saw lightning write the sky, the birds falling out in showers. The world was waning. The sky was chalk. She felt older every hour. She had no idea she’d come full circle to her backyard when she found the bear standing at a tree. It was huge, the way her mother had said, the size of several men. It was reaching after leaves. It sat up when it heard her. It looked into her eyes. Hello, bear, she said, rasping. It’s nice to finally meet you. The bear stood up and moved toward her, its long black claws big as her head. The collar of her dress had pulled so tight she found it hard to speak: What do you dream, bear? I will listen. She didn’t flinch as the bear came near and put its paw upon her head. It battered at her and she giggled. It pulled her to its chest. She didn’t feel her head pop open. She didn’t feel her heart squeeze wide. The bear dissembled her in pieces. The bear ate the entire girl. It ate her hair, her nails, her shoes and bonnet. It ate the gown and ate her eyes. Inside the bear the daughter could still see clearly. The bear’s teeth were mottled yellow. Inside its stomach, abalone pink. The color of the daughter became something soft—then something off, then something fuzzy, then something like the gown, immensely hued; then she became a strange fluorescence and she exited the bear—she spread across the wrecked earth and refracted through the ocean to split the sky: a neon ceiling over all things, a shade of something new, unnamed.


    From Scorch Atlas, © 2009 by Blake Butler, published by the glorious Featherproof Books. Used by permission of the author.

    Watch Blake and his team enhance a copy of Scorch Atlas!

    Scorch Atlas (destroyed) by Blake Butler from featherproof books on Vimeo.

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