VESSELS by Jennifer Love

VESSELS by Jennifer Love

I care for the leeches near the shore. They find my vessels and veins in the water and I carry them in my flesh until they are satiated, and peel away heavy into my hands.

Immersed in the sea, my ears seek mermaid songs and receive instead shipwreck stories from velvet-throated wandering ghosts. I call them to my shores — bring them to bed with the leeches and me, before discovering that their language does not translate above water, so we writhe through the night with the cruel knowledge that if there is anything more to be learned from each other, it will not be understood. 

Mountains are not visible here. I draw them on the bedroom walls for the ghosts in a moment of desperation. Mountain, I declare mostly to myself. Far away from here. Like you, I tell the ghosts, pointing to the congregation of them in the corner. Like you once were, on vessels not yet sunk.

In the morning I find that they are wispy, translucent, and wilting in the violent beam of sunlight through the window. I rush them to the sea, hand in hand in hand, paper-doll thin as I cradle each one down into the shallows. They dissolve readily as sugar, would-be flesh disintegrating from my fingertips. When I submerge, the water tastes salty and sweet on my tongue, a solution so intoxicating that I scoop up a jarful­ — intend to keep this forever on a shelf. When this task is complete I submerge once more, and two leeches affix themselves immediately to my wet eyes so that tears cannot escape and disturb the perfect balance of this new solution encasing us in its swell.

The customers are always horrified by the keloid-like presence of the leeches at my place of work, a seaside bar not steps from the beach with sand strewn across the entrance and dispersing into our dark belly. When anger threatens to disturb my indifference towards the customers, I breathe deep, I take smoke breaks to cool my nerves in the gnashing waves. Seaweed pulls at my ankles and shoulders, these bones accept the cloak easily and drag it with me across the beach, heavy, unyielding, unearthing the rotted remains of unlucky creatures barely buried beneath its sands.

My hands are clumsy with my vision compromised as I mix tropical drinks with complicated garnishes, grateful for each customer who orders a beer. One traveler catches my hand on the cold-sweating bottle. Take me home, he says, promising careful, tender touch to remove the leeches from my flesh. He says, I can tell you’re beautiful beneath all those beasts. His hand crushes mine into the brown glass and does not release until I agree.

In my bedroom, the traveler understands that the mountains are mountains and knows what it means to be far away. I offer him the jar of salty-sweet solution to sip and he spits it against the wall — a peak melts. When he asks what it is, the traveler does not understand that the taste of the ghosts is a sacred ghost in itself, and does not know what it means to find kinship outside of language. I tip the remainder of the jar down my throat and take him to bed anyway.

The leeches are resistant to his pull, not full of me yet, but he is more forceful with their soft bodies than I would dare or dream. When the leeches are a wriggling mountain rising beside the bed, he presses the hard rind of his lips to each wound and sucks as if there is venom to dispense of. I know that leeches are not poisonous, but I let him gorge on my blood because I also know that the absence of one beast calls for the presence of another to take its place.

When he is satiated, I peel him off of my body, heavy in my hands. He asks me if I would like to be far away and I pretend not to understand what he means. He says he can take me to beautiful places and I reach for the leeches, affixing them to the wounds that he has licked clean. I am vacant, sterile. I rabidly crave the salty-sick scent of fresh blood on my face again. He strikes me for my transgression, tells me that he has been everywhere, he has seen everything, and this is the most disgusting thing he’s ever had to do, then dissolves into the night while the leeches swell to fullness and I the same. I will not go with him because I am safe here. I am never in danger because I know how to satiate a beast.

In the morning I am wispy, translucent, and wilting from the loss of blood. The sight of the empty jar where my ghostly solution had been fills me with rage: cleaned out, I think, sterile, I’ve been cleaned out and I need to calm my nerves in the sea. When I rise, a dizzy vision rises with me: the melted peak no longer dried drips on the wall but rather a river — no, the sea — flowing towards my feet. When I submerge, the leeches detach to return to their native waters and I accept the gratitude that’s clear as day in the rising tide,

I’m in the deep now, I’m in the belly, I can see the shipwrecks from here,

but I have no blood left to give to the rest of the leeches, the hungry ones that swarm close, teeming with need, 

and with this realization, my body erupts into algal bloom

so that I know it’s really over:

a jar, emptied of its solution, is just a vessel. A body that can no longer be devoured is the same.

Jennifer Love is an Oakland-based writer, artist, zine-maker, and clown at work on her first novel. Her work has appeared in Autre, Crab Fat Magazine, Caesura, Storm Cellar, Minola Review, and elsewhere.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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