Scathed by Holly Woodward
For a long time, I ignored a man who pursued me, until one blistering afternoon I passed him on Fifth Avenue, and as he stared, I shot him a searing glance and saw reflected back in the dark center of his pale eye the thread of hate that runs through desire, the way a wick cores a candle, blackening as it devours the wax, and he bowed his head so close to my chest I smelled his sweat as he said that if it pleased me he would submit to my scorn, but I could never snuff out his devotion—that stung so I stopped and accepted his invitation to coffee, which he spilled on his fine suit when asked about his past, and he said he’d had a goldsmith studio under the Shah of Iran, beside his mansion, though he’d been forbidden from childhood to touch anything at the grocer as he would render it unclean with his Jewish skin, which is all Mark carried with him when he fled the revolution, and I showed him the Persian dagger with jeweled hilt tattooed on the inside of my shin, that made him blanch and say that he could have given me a real one, and I remembered that Jewish law forbids the marking of flesh, so the dagger stood between us, a first stab at his belief in my body as a holy object, and while I covered my leg he pleaded for me to request something real, then every day after that he picked me up at Columbia, and brought, unbidden, a Victorian locket engraved with my monogram, alabaster urns, caviar of the finest brand, Georgian tobacco coffers, a gold Murano vase at which I balked, and he smashed it in the gutter, so I kept my mouth shut at the Masai warrior spears, two ceremonial maces, Russian salt cellars, brass swan candelabras, objects that stood testament to long-dead owners who had lost them, as I’d lose him, since he was thirty-three years older, an age difference that inspired my roommate to call him Jurassic Mark whenever he phoned, several times a day, to ask if I wanted a crate of pomegranates or a chandelier to jettison on the dragon’s hoard piled in my dorm room as I grew addicted to the loneliness of obsession, so, despite the way my classmates mocked me for seeing him, I loved to torment him for his worship, as all gods punish their devoted, and the more I fed, the more ravenous I was for cruel sex, which loved fools and gorged on innocence, and I scratched the scars I’d marked on his back, crosshatching Xs, a Braille message to his wife, while he whispered, “Harder,” and I entered the empty, closed O where one flailed, almost drowned, except for my mouth that sucked the breath from his throat, and afterward he took me out for lavish dinners, despite which I grew thinner, and on the evening of my twentieth birthday he drove me to a new restaurant with a back yard where we walked to a pond on whose black surface a white hole opened and swallowed, the hollow mouth of a fish whose dark body hung invisibly in the water, and, as I cinched the shawl around my shoulders, Mark reached into his suit pocket for a strand of pearls, which he clasped around my neck, each cool bead like a pool against my breast, and I moved toward the fire pit of gas jets to reflect their luster, as Mark trailed me, saying, “Though I’m too old for you and not rich enough, and you should find someone who can give you more, would you ever consider marrying me,” the syntax of his proposal, a string of qualifiers against a surprise twist of a question mark, made me laugh, and he looked as if each breath stabbed him, and I laughed harder, a dry laugh like snapped kindling, then he plunged his hand into the fire pit and the flames ate the sleeve of his suit until I beat them down, burning my hands, while my shawl caught fire, singeing the hair on my arms, and after we were laid together in the back of the ambulance and then left in the ER hallway, the air thick with the stench of burnt flesh, the first time we’d spent a whole night together, though the space between our gurneys was impassable as an abyss, while a heart rate clip pinched my middle right fingertip which was seared so that, even now, a year later, if I type the letter ‘i’ it is painful, including right this instant, and touching my clit, it feels correct that I pay for the pleasure in pain, a reminder of the price he was willing to bear to press his lips where my hand strokes numbly, as I picture him lying alone in his apartment, forced to wear a glove to cover the skin, and I think love is a dagger with no grip, so it hurts the one who wields it as well as the one hit, and this evening, I rubbed that fingertip on that Victorian locket he had given me filled with ash on my breast, where it lay tonight on a strand of blue pearls, when a stranger asked me about myself, and in answer I passed my hand through the candle flame to remind my skin that it is afire—aren’t we all burning, blood, tears, and spit, even the pinprick of black at the center of your eyes, though some things smolder so slowly you can’t see?
© Holly Woodward, 2016
Holly Woodward is writing a novel, like everyone else. Her flash fiction won first prizes from New Letters and Story Magazine. Her book of poems was finalist for the National Poetry Series Prize. Woodward spent a year as a doctoral fellow at Moscow University and served as writer in residence at St. Albans, Washington National Cathedral. A recent book of modern aphorists, Short Flights, included a chapter of her Twitter lines. Holly’s cat, Max Perkins, just sits on her work.
Scathed was read by Kristin Calgaro for the Short & Sweet Flash Fiction edition on 3rd August 2016