We’re mixing punch when he asks us about scars.
“Everyone has at least one,” our guest says. “They’re always good stories, too.”
I look at my wife, who shrugs. She adds spoonfuls of orange sherbet to the crystal bowl of cranberry-champagne. The party has splintered into different rooms, a handful of people in each, talking of unusual weather and accomplished children. My wife ladles the punch into faceted glasses. I envy her sleeveless gown; I’m sweating in my dress shirt, even in our drafty Victorian home. Neither of us knows this guest. He came with someone else, we’re sure, but we don’t remember who. He’s of medium height and wears a well-tailored suit. He might be a decade younger than I, or older. He looks like someone we ought to know, or have forgotten.
Our guest says, “I’ve got one on my thumb.” He shows me the mark–a pale slashed dot, like a comma punctuating the skin. “I was a kid, fishing in Colorado with my dad. We’d caught three fish that day, but released them all because we didn’t want to kill them. My dad taught me how to bait the line. I jammed a nightcrawler on the hook. But my hands were slimy with lake water. The hook slipped and stabbed my thumb.”
“Sounds painful,” I say.
He nods. “I yanked the barbed metal out and squeezed my hand into a fist. I remember thinking that even released fish have holes in their mouths from being hooked. Later the wound got infected, and it scarred.”
“That’s how scars happen,” says my wife. “You have to clean the wound. So nothing gets inside.”
“I’ve got a scar on my forehead,” I say, pointing to the spot. I tilt my head to show the dime-sized pink mark. “I used to be a distance runner. Ran a desert marathon once–like running in an oven. I fell at mile twenty-three. Smooth road, I was making good time–no reason I should’ve fallen. But I was thinking about God right then. Wondering why there are earthquakes and floods, and illnesses that only strike babies. I looked up. Next thing I knew I was flat on my face, kissing asphalt.”
I pause. Our guest is listening. My wife returns her attention to the punch. I take a deep breath and say, “It was like the ground betrayed me. I skinned my knees, my elbows, my forehead–everything. Just rolled on my back and stared at the wide blue sky. Completely empty. That’s when I understood that things just happen to you. Nothing guides any of it. My arms and legs healed. My head didn’t.”
My wife shoos the cat off the table. Our elderly neighbor and her adopted son walk in, looking for conversation. My wife gets two chairs. Our guest stands to the side.
“We’re talking about scars,” I tell the son as I hand him a glass of punch. “Do you have any?”
He lifts his shirt and shows a white line across his ribs. “Got it when I was a Marine. Drinking in a bar. Some guy called me a faggot.”
“That’s from a knife fight?” I ask.
“Nah,” he says. “That’s the scar from the damn bridge railing. It caught me as I jumped into the Mississippi. But I changed my mind halfway down. What I remember is that the water stank, and the moment where I decided to live. The guy was right about me, see. But I didn’t care anymore. What mattered was that I was falling–but I was still alive, goddammit. And soon I’d be on the shore, pounding my fists on the soil.”
Our neighbor pets the cat, who curls around her ankles. “I was a farmer’s daughter in Poland, many years past,” she says, her consonants softly Slavic. “A street performer said he loved me–loved me more than the first lilacs in spring. I did not love him until my father hated him. But I–I slept with this man in the loft of my father’s barn. The animals stank, and the hay itched–oh, how it itched!–but I was happy. When I bore his child, he denied me. When I told my father, he rejected me. So.”
“What’s the scar?” I ask.
“Some scars can’t be seen,” she says.
My wife sets down the ladle. Rows of crystal glasses line the table, full of red liquid. Their facets catch the light like polished diamonds. “I lost our baby, two years ago. She was five months along and I lost her.”
“It’s all right,” I say, knowing that it’s not. I touch her shoulder.
My wife turns her face against my chest. Her voice shakes. “She was too young to survive outside me. It was my fault. I fell down three stairs in the cellar. That was it–just three. But then I was bleeding on the floor near the strawberry preserves, and she burst out of me like a river. It hurt like hell. Like she drained my body with her birth and death, both at once. The doctors came and there was nothing they could do. She left this world before she really entered it.”
The cat stands on his hind legs and places two white paws on my leg. I look down at him. “I was born in a shoebox,” he says in a small voice. “A little boy loved me and my three sisters. One day the boy wouldn’t eat his soup, and his father beat him with a leather belt until his ears bled. Then the father drowned my sisters and tried to kill me too. I scratched and bit him until I got free. Sometimes I think I drowned that day, and I’m a ghost cat looking for my sisters in a river I can never find.”
“I was built by a large family in the early twentieth century,” says the house. It speaks with the weight of wooden rafters and rasping peels of wallpaper. “They hired a crew of immigrant Irish to build me. One man was digging a trench for the foundation. He didn’t know how to reinforce the walls. The Irishman got in the trench and dug deeper until the walls collapsed. He stood there, buried to his neck in dirt. The pressure of the land crushed his lungs. He tried to scream but couldn’t get the sound out. The Irishman died in minutes, and the others shoveled dirt over his head. They built the foundation on his body, and sometimes his bones press against my base.”
“I will be scarred on my stomach,” says the unborn daughter in my wife’s womb, conceived three days ago. We have not known about her until now. “When I enter the world, this cord connecting us comes with me. You’ll cut and tie it into a lump. With time, it settles into a delicate spiral. When you change my diaper, you’ll coo over my navel. Everyone has one, so we forget what they mean.”
The guests enter the room, each from a different direction. “I was cutting a pineapple,” says the party, its voice fractured like the light on the punch glasses, “when I was struck by the car that was stuck in my bicycle spokes. The knife burned my skin where my older brother pushed me off the swings. My lover slept with my mother, who threw away the first painting I made of being hurt.”
“I have no scars,” says the punch bowl. “I was newly purchased just for this party. There’s still factory dust on my base. Look at me. Am I not beautiful, the way I catch the light?”
We throw the bowl to the ground. Light flashes in the crystal as it shatters on the floor. Red liquid splashes on each of us, tickling us with carbonation. We pick up the shards and cut each other, glass on skin, liquid with liquid, hoping to cut through to the bone and beyond. We laugh like champagne. The wounds pink over and shine with freshly healed skin.
A shadowed figure stands in the door, his lower body crushed to nothingness. “Look,” someone calls, “the Irishman is here!” We welcome him in and give him a glass of punch.
Originally published in anthology Bandersnatch (2007).
Copyright © 2007 by Vylar Kaftan. All rights reserved.