A stomach sings better than a sparrow and cries worse than a child. It sings like small feet swinging on a swingset — shoe soles pointed to the sky — or tea brewing in the sun on a hot summer day. It sings in the butterfly-haze of a child’s dream. Like growing up and moving on. Or like a child's first steps, when they haven’t yet considered that they might fall.
A low rumble or movement, a stomach’s song can stop a sentence and turn heads from its voice alone.
Once, I pressed my hands to my belly to feel the song, the heartbeat, bucking at my ribs. The heartbeat of my stomach, my baby. I rubbed small circles and murmured it to sleep. And at night, I bent down to kiss it goodnight.
I once had a nightmare where I raised my voice, pointed my finger and told my stomach to be quiet. It was throwing a tantrum on the floor: eyes, red and throat, wailing. A scene at the party; everyone turned to stare. I pinched my stomach by the wrist, pulled it towards the bedroom where we could talk in peace. I sat it on the bed, leaned forward, and murmured, Why are you crying? We’re in public. But my stomach wouldn’t tell me. It cried harder because I had yelled.
I sat on the bed, arms crossed, waiting for the tantrum to end. And my stomach crept up on my knee for comfort, soft and scared.
In my anger, I pushed it away.
Immediately, the tears stopped. My stomach’s eyes widened. Everything was silent in the bedroom as we stared at each other. Every rib in my chest expanded with every breath. And then I was down on the floor beside my baby. I didn't mean it, Honey, I tried to say. Really. I didn’t. But my stomach wouldn’t hear me. I bought it gifts and words. Talk to me, I said, kissing it gently, I still love you. My stomach said nothing.
My stomach had silenced itself to death.
In the backyard of my childhood home, there was an apple tree that dropped fruit for the wasps to feed on. My grandad gathered the rotting apples in old frosting buckets from Cub Foods, left them under swaying, leafless boughs, and forgot about them. When spring came, the apples had fermented to black perfume, sweet like vinegar with chunks of maggots.
That’s my stomach, I tried to tell my doctors — a liquor barrel gone bad, a corpse fermenting in the body bag. They didn’t listen. So I showed them my pain: pie charts made from vomit and bar graphs of belly-aches. It’s everyday, I said. The pain happens everyday. I’m telling you: I’m ill. My doctors offered a golf-clap for the presentation. They thought it was very nice.
In my sorrow, I tried to have a funeral. My spouse had said it might put something to rest. I wasn’t sure if he meant my stomach or me, but I dug a grave between my ribs, the place my stomach had crawled to die. Florists came dancing with boughs of bay leafs and bell flowers; pots of poppy and pear; fern, daisy, harebells, and lilies. The air had never smelled so fresh. My spouse wrapped a crown of almond flowers around my head. Someone brought cookies, cheese, and finger sandwiches. They pressed cake between my lips and told me I could cry. A poet even came to read.
But in the end I was too sad, and I sent everyone home. The flowers wilted along the grave.
I never even learned what poem the poet was to sing.
In the bathtub, I rocked myself in cold water tainted grey from the sludge and discomfort that pumped through my veins. I thought of my stomach. I tried to tell it that it hadn't died, that it was just pretending. But my stomach, my baby, didn’t listen. I moved in the bath water and rot moved with me. When I brushed my teeth, maggots crawled up from my throat.
The rot was spreading. Beneath my skin, the rot was aching.
I ran cold water over my body and tried to wash it all away.
Yesterday, I told my corpse, I cut my finger and a worm crawled out. The day before, I scooped mud from my mind.
I practiced necromancy from an old cookbook, a diet plan, and the instructions on the antibiotic packet I had begged the doctors for — doctors who told me my stomach was fine. I sipped herbs and vinegar that made me gag. I bought books, candles, and spells.
In the kitchen, I made an altar. And I sacrificed everything I could think to give: foods and comfort, and eating after nine o’clock. I sacrificed a piece of my mind for a sliver of my stomach. I became a master necromancer. But it didn’t help: with every spell and every sacrifice, my stomach only rotted faster in the grave.
So I asked the doctors to carve my stomach out. I’m tired of the corpse, I said. The body is driving me insane. They laid their hands on mine. Don’t worry, they said. And the stomach stayed in.
I wished I could speak to ghosts.
That year, I had a dream that I was buried beneath the trunk of a tree. The ground was soft above my chest and roots extended from my belly and my forehead; they wrapped around my arms and legs, and they pierced my eyelids shut. When I felt inside myself, there was fruit rotting on the tree.
I had a dream I was happy like that, rolling in the filth. I had a dream that filth was all I ever wanted to be. When I opened my eyes, a brown puddle of ooze climbed out from my belly. It was thoroughly dead, but the puddle still managed to crawl away, down into the roots of the tree I was dozing under.
I had a dream that I never woke up.
Under the tree, I had a revelation.
I’m giving up, I told the doctor, after three years of pain. I was sitting on the chair by the monitor looking down at the floor. You’re right, I must’ve made it up. I made it all up. The doctor didn’t bother to look at me, but she smiled. So I told her how it must’ve happened: my vision had gotten flipped; yes — yes, though I couldn't remember exactly when, my eyes had fallen out and I had put them in backwards.
I got confused, I told her, but you don’t have to worry anymore. I’ll put my eyes in right. To prove it, I took them out like contact lenses and flipped the right with the left. See, I said. I was just confused, that’s all. And I told her that food goes up, not down. I told her food was not meant to be eaten at all. And there was no corpse in the body bag, or baby either. No maggots or worms. Illness was only a superstition, and Health had never existed. And though there was a crater in my belly — a brown liquid swirling in my chest — I didn’t have to worry. Everything was as it should be. The crater was where I had thought my stomach had rested. But there had never even been a stomach at all, had there? Just the crater...
Just the crater.
I looked around the doctor’s office, too tired to speak anymore. You’re right, I told her again. You must be right because I’ve gone mad. And she led me to the door, she told me not to come back again; You’re cured, she said.
For a job well done, she let me take a sucker from the bowl.
On the walk home, I felt like I had left something behind at the office. My purse or my keys? I dug through my pockets, but I couldn’t think of anything I might’ve left. I called the doctor anyway to see if they had found anything lying in reception or on the examination table. We don’t know, they said.
We don’t know.
That night I was all slush and pain. Just as I should be.
What’s wrong with you? My husband asked.
Don’t you know? It’s nothing.
What’s wrong with you? My husband asked.
Well, I don’t know. But I think I’ve gone crazy.
What’s wrong with you? My husband asked.
Can you tell me? I think my body’s died.
What’s wrong with you? My husband asked. And I ran out of things to say.
I picked dog fur from my black jeans instead.
Yesterday, I murmured to no one, I fell asleep on the couch, and my spouse shook me awake. He thought I had died. When I looked in the mirror I saw why.
What’s wrong with you?
I am one with the tree.
The psychics cut around my body like they were sawing through a shell. They unwrapped my arms and legs from my torso like twine from a spool. And they lifted out my eyes so I could no longer see.
We’re unwinding you, the psychics said.
I was confused.
They’re looking for a ghost, my husband said, as he stood above my head. They know about what you left behind. They’re here to help.
In my belly, the psychics reached for a kidney and came out with a bean; they pulled for an ovary and found a pebble. Their gloved hands burned into my intestines like worms. It’s all gone, they said, shaking their heads. And I told them it was all as it should be. The mush is in the tree. The mush is in the tree. They scooped sludge from my veins in ladles and compost from my brain. They felt around my grave. There’s nothing there, I tried to tell them. There’s nothing anywhere. Just pain and death. Really, just go away. It’s all as it’s meant to be.
The psychics lit the tips of my hair on fire to form candles, and an ouija board was drawn on my belly. Chanting blackened the room; the blinds over the window trembled. My husband took my hand. And the psychics, they reached into the depths of hell and pulled out a ghost. Small and delicate. Like a baby, my shriveled and slimy stomach was held before me, swaddled in cloth.
They waited for me to take it but I didn’t move. My eyes were still on the table, where the psychics had set them. But I heard the wail, and I knew the voice of my baby.
I don’t like parlour tricks, I said, at last. Put it back.
They didn’t understand. The psychics told me it was what I had been looking for.
I started to cry. It’s not even real. Not even real. And I told them everything I had said to the doctor.
Quiet settled over the operating room. We know it's a ghost, the psychics said. But it’s all we could grab. It’s all that’s left. Don’t you want it? We found it behind your sacrifices; we found your stomach in the sludge. It was never really gone. We can empty you of goo, now.
But when they tried, the slush flooded back in like sap coursing through a tree. Someone picked at my veins and vinegar fell out into tubs below.
I reached over towards the table where they had set my eyes and pushed them into my sockets so I could see what the psychics had found. But the world was blurry. I saw worse than when my eyes were on the table, worse than when I was blind. I saw my skull and the sky. I saw a child.
A waterfall of sludge cascaded down my eye.
It was never really gone, they said again. You just didn’t know that you’d finally given up enough.
The tears fell hard. Yes, I said. Yes, my stomach was gone. And it never existed. And it’s been with me all this time.
I asked them to put the child back with the goo — back inside the grave. The psychics refused, certain I would change my mind.
And when they finally sewed me up, the psychics still had not found what they were looking for.
That evening, my husband was very sad.
Curious, I called the doctor again. I asked about the object I had lost. I was on hold for a very long time, but when they finally answered the phone, the receptionist said that millions of objects are lost everyday.
I asked them about resurrection too and they hung up the phone.
Are you alive? I asked my stomach, one day. Are you mine?
I looked over its sleeping form, and waited for it to move or sing or cry. But the ghost was still.
Are you better? my husband asked.
I don’t know.
Have you found what you lost? My husband asked.
Where would I look?
Is your stomach breathing? My husband asked.
What would it sound like?
Do you know your name?
That year, I had a dream I bled blood.
I had a dream where my stomach sang. And it sounded like bare feet galloping on wood.
When my stomach sang, I knew it was vinegar aging back to wine, blossoming into water. And turning, once again, into nothing.
Lūnetta Ōstara is a new and emerging author, interested in breaking into the literary world. She has an AFA in creative writing from Normandale Community College, and she was a former Cambridge Center for International Research mentee.