This page contains:
- Animal cruelty/death
- Self-harming behaviors
Today I will tell you that Sleep was a boy. It’s easier that way.
He was a boy. And he would collect broken glass and wear shoes with Velcro and a few of his teeth were fake, but he always forgot which ones. He lived on a small farm. It had once grown chickens for food and Christmas trees for money, but now it grew nothing.
Sleep came to the tractor shed because something had died inside the walls of the farmhouse. The smell had been building in the house for a while. He had pretended not to notice it for the first few days, and the week after that he had stopped using the kitchen. Now the whole house smelled like the dead thing. It was too much for him to ignore.
The shed was full of tools of all kinds, hammers hung from hooks on the ceiling, awls with wooden handles rolled carefully in leather. The tractor sat cold under its patchwork quilt of tarps and old tablecloths. An ancient sewing machine, spun with a foot pump, rested against a wall, its needle bar empty, covered in dust.
Sleep slipped a hammer off a hook and stepped behind a tower of cardboard suitcases to look for a crowbar. A couple of turns later, he realized he was lost. Junk piled high above his head, messy corridors branching like an ant farm. The walls swirled with shoes, with spinning wheels and lockets and boxes of nails. Hanging off a wheelbarrow was a dress made of red feathers. Sleep wasn’t sure who it could have belonged to. It was too tall to have been his mother’s—its shoulders were too broad. Sleep stared. The feathers’ black quills ran down the dress, dark veins of gold in smoky red quartz. The dress flowed from the neckline like molten rock. He couldn’t help but step closer. It scared him a little. He wanted to touch it. There was a feeling in his throat like a trash compactor.
Sleep left the shed the way he had come in, a hammer in his hand. He locked the door and stepped into the woods to make his way home.
There were thorns in the woods, walls of brambles that grew between the pines. They circled the farm, thorns thick and strong as talons, vines tall and tangled, binding the farm too tightly to wiggle or shake. Maybe they had sprung up all at once, as fast as the prick of a finger. Maybe they had been very small at first, tiny razor hairs sprung from the dirt like shards of glass, short enough to run through barefoot. It’s hard to say. It will surprise you how long it can take to notice a curse.
There were three buildings on the farm. Sleep lived in the farmhouse, and the tractor lived about a quarter mile away, in the tractor shed. Directly between the two was the chicken house.
Sleep was afraid of the chicken house. It was something about the heat lamps, how they made the windows glow orange and the paint curl into witch fingers. The walls were built with splintered wooden slats. There was only one way in, a small door with a rusted latch. The whole thing was raised off the ground on six short posts, and the steps leading up to the door were covered in white guano. It was hard to close the latch properly, but once you did, it was impossible to get out. That’s how it was. Latches slip and fingers are curious. If he got too close his hands would shake and his skin would itch. So he stayed away. It didn’t take much longer to go through the woods. He hardly noticed the brambles anymore. His arms were crisscrossed with irregular white stripes. What were a few more?
The dead smell was strong when Sleep returned to the farmhouse. He smeared his arms with antiseptic cream and pulled a few thorns out of his pants. Then he got to work.
The smell was the strongest near the west wall of the kitchen, between the microwave and the refrigerator. Sleep drew a large square on the wall in pencil, and then began to chip away at the plaster with the hammer and a screwdriver.
That dress, shoulders spread like wings. It could never have fit his mother, and his grandmother’s clothes had burned with her after she died. There had to be someone else.
He opened a small hole in the wall, no bigger than a thumbnail. The smell worsened as soon as the seal was broken. It leaked out of the wall, heavy with dirt and rot, sweet and sour and sticky.
Sleep wondered what the dress smelled like. He had almost taken it back with him, but the chicken house had stopped him. He could avoid it from a distance, if he was careful, but he didn’t want to attract its attention. The dress was too beautiful, too bright. Sleep wondered how broad his shoulders were. He began to work faster at the wall. Plaster fell in chunks. At first, Sleep chipped along the edges of the pencil square, but his back grew hot. The heat lamps of the chicken house peered at him, piercing through the farmhouse windows. He dropped the screwdriver, swung the hammer with both hands. His thumbnail hole widened, and the smell grew stronger. Sleep hit somewhere he shouldn’t, and the microwave began to beep, high and shrill, and then he hit in time with the beeping until something small and red fell out of the hole. It was a cardinal. Sleep knew it was a boy because it was dressed in red feathers. He took it outside, and kicked it into the woods.
When Sleep returned, another cardinal lay on the floor. He heard something shifting in the wall, and he hit it again with his hammer.
Birds poured out of the wall, building a sloped pile against it like coal around a furnace. Their red feathers were covered in dust.
Sleep started counting them and then stopped. Legs stuck up from the pile, bent at odd angles. Flecks of black eyes and beaks dotted the red mass like a ladybug. It smelled horrible.
Sleep wanted to push them back in, to close up the wall and give up the kitchen and hide in his bedroom. He knelt to grab one, and then pulled back his hand. He would need a shovel.
Sleep stood outside the tractor shed. The farmhouse still smelled like rot and feathers and the microwave had not stopped beeping. He had needed to get out. It was snowing, and the padlock bit his gloveless fingers as he fumbled with the key. He slid open the door. The tractor sat just behind the doorway, framed by pitchforks and cans of oil. Sleep frowned when he pulled off its blanket. He was sure its green paint was duller than he remembered.
It used to be that Sleep would sit on the tractor with his father. He would sit between his father’s legs, and there was a short stick with a black rubber ball at the top that his father would hold in one hand. Sometimes Sleep’s father would tell him to try, and then Sleep would hold the rubber between his two hands. The tractor would shudder and jerk, and his father would hold the wheel and turn them around in wide easy circles, and sometimes he would tell Sleep to hold on, and the tractor would sputter and smoke and speed up as they circled and lurched and laughed.
Sleep’s father had loved the tractor, and so had Sleep. Sometimes, when it was cold enough, they would cover it in blankets inside the farmhouse. Sleep would sneak downstairs in the middle of the night and put his ear to the tractor’s side, straining his hearing for a heartbeat. Sometimes he fell asleep there. His father would chuckle when he came downstairs in the morning. “That’s my little man,” he would say.
Sleep couldn’t get the tractor to start. He kicked the sides and poured all the things he could think of into the right holes and he begged and he cursed, but the tractor stayed frozen. He climbed up onto the seat. “I’m here,” he said, “I’m your little man.” It felt horrible. The wind blew into the shed and caught the tractor’s coverings. Tablecloths and tarps flared up like a cobra’s hood. Sleep looked out the door.
There was the chicken house, heat spilling from its innards. It was spider-webbed with toothy cracks. Its roof was shingled with dirty fingernails. Sleep could see the peeling cuticles. He could smell it, sweet and stale, mildew and filth and guano. And perfume. Perfume smooth and sweet, raspberries and soap and Christmas trees. His throat tightened and his breath came in stabs and his thoughts melted and stuck out at the edges. The chicken house grew tall in the doorway. It shook off its posts and stretched toward the trees on a shadowy chicken leg. Its fingernail roof rattled. Boards began to warp, curling toward Sleep from all sides, ready to swallow. “I can’t,” he said. “I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t I can’t” and he fell backwards into the junk. He lay under the pile, his head against his knees.
When Sleep stood up, the chicken house sat in its place, far off as always. It was a squat, ugly building with peeling white paint and orange heat lights. The red dress was on the ground in front of him.
Sleep looked at the dress for a long time. He bit his tongue. Finally, he reached for the shoulders with both hands.
The dress was smooth and warm to the touch. Sleep’s fingers could not tell where one feather ended and another began. It was a beautiful thing, bright as fire. Its sleeves hung close to its body, and it spread gently from the hips.
Sleep began to pull, one hand in either direction. The dress contorted and flopped and stretched, but it would not rip. Sleep strained against it, his fingers whitening as the fabric pushed against them. The feathers held. He clawed at the fabric, tore at it with his teeth, quills scratching at his gums. Eventually he had to give up. He threw the dress into the cold, sat in the doorway for a while, out of breath, watching the snow fall. He watched the dress disappear slowly in a pile of snow. It felt a little like tucking himself into bed. The shed grew cold behind him, a stove without fire.
Sleep stood outside the tractor shed. The snow was coming down hard now, teetering in the wind like a parade of drunken soldiers. Sleep bent down and unlaced his boots. He kicked them off, and then pulled off his pants, his jacket, his shirt, until he was naked. He walked to the edge of the woods, closed his eyes, lifted his arms like wings, and started running.
Thorns dug into his face, into his arms and legs and belly and neck. He ran forward and they ripped out, and he felt them through the cold, through his numb skin and the wind and the nothing. Talons caught in his hair, vines snaked around his arms, and a laugh escaped from his chest. He was surprised because nothing was funny. He thought for a moment about what it would be like to wrap the vines tight around his body, to be suspended by their hooks and float above the ground, cradled by thorns. His toe smashed into a root and he fell, rolling for a moment before his back slapped into a tree trunk. He opened his eyes. Everything stung. He was very close to home. He got onto his hands and knees and crawled out of the woods the rest of the way to the farmhouse. The sun was beginning to set, and the doorknob glowed a dull gold.
Sleep closed the curtains so that the chicken house could not see him. He sat on his bed with his stuffed rabbit. The rabbit was very lifelike, with hard teeth in its mouth and dull claws for digging and a small flap of a tail. It had glass marbles for eyes and oily brown fur. Sleep loved his rabbit very much.
Sleep had scratched himself up particularly badly on this pass through the woods. His nose and forehead were badly torn, and one cheek was splotched with purple. A rash of tiny punctures ran down his legs. The scratches on his arms fell in neat rows, plowed and planted carefully.
A single red fruit rolled down Sleep’s finger, onto the rabbit’s tongue. Its marble eyes grew cloudy, and its tail began to twitch. “Oh,” it said. “Oh, oh.”
Sleep dropped the rabbit on the bed. It began to convulse, ears twitching and paws digging at the air. Its ears shot straight up, and it began to speak.
“Her curse is as follows:
In her seventh year she will prick her finger
And she will fall into a deep sleep.
Only a brave knight
Can brave the walls that circle her
In the briar
The rabbit coughed, and a sliver of yellow paper popped out of its throat. The rabbit’s head began to turn, slowly at first, and then there was a crunching sound and the head was turned all the way around, so that both the rabbit’s eyes and tail were facing Sleep. The rabbit froze, eyes wide, ears up, tongue down, the paper sticking out of its teeth.
Sleep reached forward and took the yellow tab in his fingertips. It was smooth and dry, with a gentle grain. He gripped it and pulled. The rabbit coughed, and Sleep fell back onto his bed, a small strip of parchment in his hand. “Fair maid and true,” said the rabbit. It coughed again, and then shrieked. Its skin withered, and it collapsed into a pile of fur and bones, two marbles rolling between the ribs. Sleep tried to pick it up, but his hands were shaking and all he managed was to push half the pile onto the floor. Hair floated through the room, falling slowly like thin brown snowflakes, and Sleep began to cough.
The parchment had a simple message on it: you have to go back.
He’d opened the window to watch the chicken house and now he was sure it was looking back at him. The sun had set, and a family of foxes sat on the chicken house steps, taking in the warmth and the smells that spilled from inside. The microwave was still broken downstairs. It beeped regularly, piercing through the walls.
Go back. It could have meant anything.
Sleep stroked his arms, feeling his fingers rise and fall as they traced the cuts below. Had the briar walls always been there? How many times had he forced himself through them? He didn’t know. Outside, one of the foxes yipped. Sleep missed his rabbit.
It was cold. A small snow pile was building along the windowsill. He hid beneath the window, watched the long shadow of the chicken house flicker against his bedroom wall. It stood on one shadowy leg, scaly and naked like a rat’s tail. Its fingernail roof rattled in the wind, clicking and cackling along with the microwave. Paint peeled off its sides in long strips, princess curls drooping into the dirt. He imagined the curls snaking toward him through the grass, how they would tangle his legs and hold him to the dirt, how the chicken house would stretch lazily and hop over to him on its one long leg, lean back and shake its hair from its eyes, and dive into him, tearing out his guts and grinding his bones into the earth.
Go back. You have to go back. The red dress lay sleeping in the white snow.
How many times had he walked through the briar? Sleep felt the gash on his forehead. It was deep. He wondered how long it would take to heal. He wondered what would happen the next time he walked through the woods. He imagined himself suspended from thorns like a cut of meat in a walk-in freezer. He thought of the tractor, still and cold; the dress, its arms raised in phoenix wings.
You have to go back, fair maid and true.
What was inside the chicken house? He remembered the rusted latch. Dark water and orange stone. He had hidden something inside. Only a brave knight. He couldn’t remember.
The chicken house would swallow him, crush him slowly in its flaking claw. If he got too close he would smell perfume. His guts would spill out and his mouth would bleed and his throat would tighten.
Only a brave knight.
Fair maid and true.
Go back. Go back.
In the briar
Sleep did something brave. He dressed, tied a blanket around his neck, and walked downstairs. He wrapped bandages around his arm and forehead. He filled his pockets with salt, slipped a kitchen knife into one of his belt loops, put on his father’s boots, and walked to the bathroom. Under the sink was a bottle of nail polish.
He opened the door and stepped outside. The wind screamed and the snow stung his skin. He wrapped the blanket around himself a little tighter, and set one boot down in the snow. He looked at his nails, nodded, and began the walk to the chicken house, his courage painted on.
The foxes parted as Sleep approached the chicken house steps, dancing in the corners of Sleep’s eyes, smiles glinting and tails swirling. The steps were slippery with melted snow. Peeling paint crunched beneath his boots.
The latch on the door was red with rust. Sleep reached out to lift it and it crumbled into a foxtail, red dust on white snow. It yipped.
Sleep opened the door. One of the hinges was broken, and it scraped against the plywood floor, kicking up a quarter circle of splinters. Sleep stepped inside.
It was hot inside the chicken house. The ceiling was low, and Sleep had to keep his head ducked to fit. The floor was covered in guano. Toward the back, a woman stood over a steaming pot, one foot webbed and scaly like a goose. Brown birds hopped and flapped around her, yellow beaks blinking through the steam. Her hair was white and patchy, her skin loose around the joints.
“Come,” she said. “Come in, my dear.”
Sleep stepped forward. Warped boards creaked below his feet. As his eyes adjusted to the dim orange light, a kitchen came into view—a black pot on a dirty hot plate, a minifridge with twigs and leaves held up by plastic magnets, a basin full of dishes catching drips of melting snow.
“I’ve done my best to keep the house up for you,” said the goose-footed woman. “But I’m afraid things have gotten away from me. I’m getting old, you know.” She scratched one of the birds behind the head. “I’ll be leaving now, just give me a minute to gather my things.”
“Wait,” said Sleep. He stretched a hand forward and the birds went silent. They stared at him, still, their flat eyes focused on his arm.
“Oh,” said the woman with a sigh. “I see you don’t remember me.” She knelt down and switched off the hot plate. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I thought you would know by the time you came back.” She walked over to the fridge and removed a red magnet. “I cannot help you, except to say that this place was always yours, and to give you this.” She placed the magnet in his hand. “Put this where it hurts.” She began to shrink, brown feathers sprouting from her skin. She leapt into the air, disappeared into the crowd of birds. The chicken house was quiet.
Place it where it hurts. But of course nothing hurt, not so bad, at least, to need attention. He had grown used to the bite of thorns across his body, the sting where his cuts met soapy water. There was comfort in them even, in the fact that they were new, the warmth of fresh red rising to the skin. So different from an ache, a bruising held beneath the skin. He pushed down a throb below his shoulder, watched the silent mass of cardinals, empty of red. An ache. He felt it again. He ran the magnet over his newest scrapes, felt nothing change below. An ache crept across the left side of his body. It hurt, of course he knew that, in a way, shaped his life around it, just never thought that hurt could quite describe it. It was always there, had always been, how could it be a wound? It hurt, the slender space below his shoulder, an ache at the top of his arm, deep, it hurt. He placed the magnet above it, felt a tightness in the skin. He took a breath and pulled.
The pain was sudden, sharp and focused, a slender tunnel growing in his flesh. It moved slowly down his arm, following the magnet, tore against the muscle as it bulged below the skin. He felt it, teeth clenched tight together, the cold of it surprising, the spots before the eyes the unraveling center. In between the pain a set of bright and broken flashes—yellow deer on green three painted fingers on a tire, hop up, the screeching of the birds the heat the fading glimpse of sawdust, the mother, her hand stretched down to lift her child. This one, she says, is how it starts, this one to shift the gears. She is beautiful—how much the child wants to be like her, to soak in the green of the tractor’s bright paint, to follow the motions of her painted hands. How much, she knows, she is like her, her hand placed on the clutch. The magnet perched soft at the tip of the finger, the pull and then the prick, the tearing flesh and the point pushed through, the glinting silver tip. And then she remembers a knock at the door, legs pulled into her chest inside among the birds, in the dark together in the guano and the dust, on the other side her father’s voice: “Please wear the suit, please let me tie your tie. I can’t do this without my little man.”
Standing before the spinning wheel, a curse before her hand.
The needle fell, still clutching the magnet, and the birds swarmed around it. They shrieked and pecked, tore at it with their claws, and then it was gone, a silver dust along their dirty feathers. They streamed out the windows, a snaking feathered river, and then she was alone.
Briar licked her open finger, trickled blood onto the floor. She placed it in her mouth to keep the red stains off her clothes. She pushed open the door of the shed, watched it rise up beneath her, the shiver in its single naked leg. It was cold outside, but the air felt good. She stretched her arms up to the sky, yawned, and the house shook the snow off its roof. She laughed. They set off toward the tractor shed, ready for her dress.