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Shannon Benson


What Stays Under


There is a feeling of weightlessness in lying here, of floating

in the ether.

I often only feel the texture of the wood when I first lie

down. After the lid is shut and locked and I’m pushed back

under, I lose all feeling in my skin, as if the darkness has

dissolved it away. I seep into that darkness, mingle with it

and spread into the space. I ooze into the grain of the wood,

the impenetrably shadowed corners, around the curled head

of the nails, tightening them, keeping it all together. There is

no space to lie on my side, to curl up, or stretch out. There is

no blanket or pillow, no softness or attempt at comfort.

All that exists is this rectangle of darkness and me.

I had been living here for about a year when things started to

change.

It happened in the evening, or what he told me was the

evening. I can never tell because the windows are always

covered in sheets of mould-speckled cardboard. I had been

dozing, eyelashes raking through the darkness when sudden

movement jostled my stomach loose. It was a familiar sensation,

the feeling of being pulled out like a drawer. Then came the

scratching sound of the key in the lock, and then, light.

Always artificial, the dusty gold illumination from the

bare lightbulb hanging overhead. The light gives me my body

back after all those hours of darkness. It reminds me that I

have arms and legs, a torso buckled with ribs, hands paler

than anything I’ve ever seen. His face is always the first thing

visible. I am to remain lying down until he gives the order.

As soon as he utters ‘Up!’, the word resolute and tinged with

a deep red, I stand. Other times I lie in wait for the word, but

it never comes; instead he grabs my arm and drags me up

himself. These times are the worst.

I got the order that day and stood, shaky on forgotten legs.

In stepping out of my box I faltered, keeling forward like I

was falling off a pitching boat. But he caught me, warm hands

holding my arms with no intention to hurt. He righted me in

a business-like fashion, staring down at his feet afterwards as

if he was shy.

The rest of it went as it always did. He had everything

ready as usual, she sat and stared from the corner as usual,

and I obeyed, as usual. But something had changed between

the two of us; a softness had intruded like a bruise in an

apple.

After he finishes, I clean myself in the bucket they bring in,

use another bucket for a toilet, and then he brings me food.

Always scraps of what they must have had for dinner. Halfeaten bowls of congealed pasta, nibbled slices of soggy bread,

the fatty chewy bits of meat. I eat without tasting, shoving it

into my mouth with brittle fingers. She always stays and

watches me eat. She’s always watching me, except when I’m

in my box. I hunch over the bowl and try to ignore her eyes

cursing me and my body.

Whenever he hands me my food, I see the same softness

in him I saw when he caught me. I dream about us having

dinner together, without her eyes sticking damp and cloying

to our every move.

When it is time for me to go back, she stands. It is always

her who makes me go back, never with words but with the

force radiating from her sparse, ropey body. She is almost

as skinny as me. I wonder if he limits her to one meal a day

too.

After being out, I have a heightened awareness of the

reality of my box. A mist hangs over it; fleshy and strangely

sweet. The wood is marked with a collection of stains like a

patch test for paint. It is rancid but it is all me. When I look

down at it before stepping in, I can already feel it pulling me

away from the room, the room in which I can move and sit

and eat, the room in which I scream and bleed and beg.

When they climb into bed at night, I hear them above me,

the sagging creak of the bed as their bodies settle into rest.

Sometimes I hear them whispering, and sometimes they

preserve the silence; leave it thick and untouched like icing

on a freshly decorated birthday cake. Sometimes I hear him

use her. It’s gentler than what I know from him, but she still

cries. Her pathetic little whimpers curl into the mattress and

travel down to fall by my face and shrivel into nothingness.

I stopped crying long ago.

Nausea quivers in my gut and wakes me.

The air in my box feels fuzzy, like I’m breathing in warm

pellets of dust. There are a few drill holes carved into the box,

little mouths pulling in the air, force-feeding it to me.

When my stomach contracts and my mouth heaves open,

I bang my fist against the wood. Between retches I shout for

help. He was not happy when I vomited in here before, I do

not want to repeat that. After a few minutes of shouting and

banging I begin to plan where to direct it, where it will be

least likely to get into my hair. There is not enough room for

me to lie on my side, so I begin to slowly inch my body to the

right. As I angle my head to the left movement sends me

reeling, the scratch sounds, and light intrudes.

It is not the warm artificial light I am used to, it is pale and

all-consuming, striking itself into my retinas and leaving me

blind and blinking. I feel a large plastic bowl pressed into my

hands and I angle myself over it; holding my remaining hair

back with one hand I vomit into it, acid burning my throat.

My stomach convulses until I am empty; I wipe my mouth

with the back of my hand and open my eyes.

It’s her. She stands over me, mouth drawn tight and

stretched across her angular face. Her face reminds me of

Halloween witches masks, all pointy chins and small pinprick

eyes.

Hatred surges within me but then I notice it, why the light

is so different.

The cardboard sheets are off the windows. The light,

bright and dazzling, is sunlight.

From here I can see the tops of trees, the spire of a church,

the tracks of telephone wires. From here I can see the sky.

Incandescent blue, the sun a white hole burnt into it, glaring

down and into the room. I can feel myself expanding. Sitting

up itself an act of unfurling, of moving upwards, towards the

window. Fresh air heaves into me, replacing the pollution.

She clears her throat and I tear my eyes away from the day

to look at her.

‘Are you done?’ she asks, voice quiet, stiff.

I nod, my head flicking back to the window. I didn’t know

it was summer.

She pulls the bowl from my hands as I watch a flock of birds

climb through the sky. The sun’s warmth falls on my face and

my body and I have an urge to hide myself from it. I am the

colour of a raw potato’s flesh, watery pale, limbs like the

twisted sprouts they grow when you leave them in the

cupboard too long. I realise she is watching me, of course she’s

watching me, she is always watching, but this time is different;

her face is less tight, it’s slack and unwound like a broken clock.

Our eyes meet and her mouth quivers open but then closes.

I lie back down. As she shuts the lid I try and get one last

glimpse of the sky, but her face blocks it.

That night I wait for the movement, but it never comes.

All I get is the thrum of darkness. My pulse courses

through it, vibrates in time with the enforced night until my

body feels buoyed up by it all, floating on waves of shadows

and blood. Eventually I hear them get into bed. They do not

talk. They have never gone to bed without letting me out

before; even if he doesn’t want me, I still get food. I think back

to last night, did I offend him somehow? Was I not good

enough? Did I do something wrong?

I am so hungry I cannot sleep. My teeth latch around a

nail, clip its edge in a ferocious repetition until it breaks; I pull

and tear until the crescent sits patiently on my tongue. I

swallow, wonder for a brief second what stomach acid does

to nails, do they break down or just lie there and collect inside

the pocket of my stomach? Will they continue to grow and

one day stab me from the inside out? In the dark I think less

about the external body and more about the internal. It’s like

not being able to see my body strips me of any palpable

presence. It helps with ignoring the pain. I am no longer made

of skin or fat or hair; I only exist as a vast collection of cells

and synapses and organs all quivering and murmuring

together in the darkness. The box is more my body now,

something to contain the throbbing threads of me. I feel that

if it were to open, I would just spread and spread, curling my

veins and my muscles and my entrails out across the world,

a vast forest of the disembodied.

At some point the bed creaks and I hear her leave the

room. I can tell it’s her because of the light footsteps. I assume

she’s going to the toilet, but she never comes back. I lie awake

until the alarm clock clatters alive and his feet thud to the

ground. As he walks by, he kicks my box. He does this every

morning to wake me up, to include me in his day.

The next night, as he leads me over to the straps, my gaze

slips and lands on her.

She is broken. Eyeballs floating in a tub of pulverised

meat. Our gazes meet and she blinks slowly. There are lines

of dried blood crusting across her face. I wonder what she did

to deserve that from him. I must hesitate because he shoves

me harder and then straps me in tighter than usual. From the

moment that leather bites into skin, I know that this will be

one of the worst times.

Afterwards, I will blame her.

The cardboard is off the windows again. There are clouds in

the sky today, crinkled little things. She stands above me

dangling a pair of jogging bottoms and a large white T-shirt.

Her face is less swollen, but it has decayed into a darker stage

of purple; the same shade that covers my body.

‘Put these on’, she says, dropping the clothes in my lap.

Soft cotton loose over a concave stomach. It feels strange

to wear clothes again, like some sort of step backwards; the

past threatening to swallow me.

‘I want you to clean the bathroom,’ she says, voice slow

and even like she is talking to a child. ‘Can you do that?’

I nod my acceptance at her feet, follow her out of the room,

through a small carpeted hall and into the bathroom. I have

never been in here before; all my toilet needs are answered

by a number of buckets. The room is small and grimy, the

mirror speckled with toothpaste. Mould creeps up the walls

and spreads itself out on the ceiling.

‘Do it quickly,’ she mutters. Drops a bucket filled with

bleach, window spray, and sponges at my feet, and then she’s

gone, sloped off down the dark narrow stairs.

My breath stutters, she’s leaving me alone. I stagger

further into the bathroom, look wildly around it, then duck

out and stare down both ends of the hall. I don’t know what

this is, some sort of trap, or the beginning of one of their

games. Fear prickles its way down my body.

I start cleaning, splashing bleach indiscriminately,

scrubbing until my wasted arms ache.

When I reach the mirror, I realise I haven’t seen my face in

over two years. It’s fractured and warped, a faint echo of what

I remember. Scars criss-cross flesh, bones protrude with an

aggressive assertion, nose crooked from when he broke it. I

am a jagged thing. I look mean, feral, wild, but I feel far from

any of those words.

‘Are you done?’

The words cut through the encroaching memories. I look

at her with the afterimage of my reflection lingering behind

my eyes, it hangs above her face and I notice the similarities.

That same watered-down milk complexion, two sets of

hollowed-out eyes staring at each other. She will lie and tell

him she cleaned the bathroom and it fills me with anger. I

think about what would happen if I could tell him that it was

my work. Would he punish her for lying? Would I suddenly

be the one sleeping in bed with him at night? And her, in the

box, only taken out to hurt. I would watch her every move as

she watches mine, punish every mistake.

‘You stink,’ she says.

She stares at me for a long time, the smell of bleach

radiates off the walls and mingles with her gaze, burning into

me. I assume she will hit me soon; she hasn’t hurt me in a

while.

‘You should have a shower,’ is all she says.

I don’t move. I don’t know if he wants this, if this would

anger him, if this is her plan to drive us apart, to make him

distrust me.

She makes a noise in the back of her throat, rough and

brittle. ‘Just get the fuck into the shower.’

I strip, clothes clumping off like dead flesh. As I climb into

the shower, she leaves the room, closing the door behind her.

I had forgotten about warm water, the way it works its way

into your muscles. How the warmth feels almost viscous,

enrobing you in the moment, resin-like. A few weeks’ worth

of grime and blood loosens and whirls down the plughole.

When I wash my hair, I am gentle with it so not too many

clumps fall out. Afterwards my skin is bright pink, itchy clean

and singing with light.

When I climb back into my box, I feel guilt settle over me

like a shroud.

He is alone.

The stool she usually sits on is empty, the air radiates

quaveringly around the absence.

As soon as I am standing, he grabs me, fingernails biting

into the loose skin of my arm. He says something about me

being clean. The exact words get washed away by the sound

of my blood thumping in my head. He says something about

making me dirty again.

These are the moments that an absence is required. I usually

think about my box. Its darkness and the pulsing of the

unbodied me within it, swimming in the nothingness like some

prehistoric creature in the depths of the ocean. The ever-present

threat of my spilling out and curling myself around the world.

Afterwards he brings me a plate of sausages and mash,

still warm. I stare at the food and a drop of blood falls from

my nose and into the mash, mixing pink and powdery. When

I look up at him, he smiles a shiny quivering smile.

She pulls me out in the early morning, not long after he

kicked my box.

‘Up’, she says, echoing him. It makes me angry that she is

so entitled to think she can use his words. The jogging

bottoms and top land in my lap. As I dress, she grabs a small

handbag off the bed with a panicked fluidity and opens it;

inside lie a few £20 notes and a crumpled piece of paper.

‘I want you to go to the shop for me,’ she states. ‘There is

£80 in there and the list of what I want.’

It’s a set-up, I know it is. She’s trying to frame me, to turn

him against me, to break the trust we’ve built between us. But

there is no way for me to say no to her. I feel the bag getting

shoved onto my shoulder, trainers forced onto my feet. Her

fingers dig into the exact spot of my arm his did last night, as

if she knows, as if she wants to damage the softness blooming

between us. She drags my body into the hall and down the

stairs. At the front door she crumples a hand-drawn map into

my hand.

‘The shop is a ten-minute walk away, straight down there,’

she points to the right with a bony finger. ‘And then you turn

left. It is opposite the train station.’

She pushes me out. The day is scalding bright, a million

different colours rush towards me and catch in my eyes. Panic

tingles across my skin and I feel goosebumps form despite

the warmth of the sun. I am standing on a doorstep, a little

path cuts through an immaculate garden leading onto the

pavement. In the exact centre of the garden is a glittering

stone birdbath. The road is filled with identical detached

houses. I struggle to focus on any one thing and fight the urge

to close my eyes and run back.

My body turns and moves me in the direction she pointed.

The streets are quiet but every time a car passes, I think it’s

him. I cower into the shadows of buildings, follow a

meandering choreography of hesitation. The pavement is

busy with cracks and weeds. I pass a house leaking out a

jumble of discordant music, like a bad smell. An old woman

walks by me, the force of her body pushes a wave of air out

and it grates against my skin like an assault.

I turn a corner and see the train station across the road. A

single-story red-bricked building stretching itself in front of

the tracks. A woman wheels a pram out of the door, and I

catch a glimpse of grubby waiting rooms. I do not recognise

the name of the station, have no idea where I am, where in

relation I am to what was once home. There are things within

me that I have learned to turn away from. If I could, I would

cut these things out like a cancer, then I would be complete.

I stare at the station, memories flickering before my eyes.

A car drives by, cuts my view off, and I see him looking out at

me, his face pressed against the window. My stomach clenches

and I shove myself into the shadows. Only when I hit the stone

of the building behind me do I realise it wasn’t him.

I stay like that, palms flat against the stone. It rasps against

my flesh forcing grit in between layers of skin. I long for the

feel of wood. The grocery store looms to my right, the aisles

sterile and too bright, there is too much space and too little

shadow in there. I know if I were to go in, I would get lost;

that my feet would slip on the shine of the floor, that I would

grow smaller and smaller under the glaring blaze.

I suddenly notice how ragged my breathing is, how sweatsoaked my T-shirt is. I am shaking, insides grinding together.

Another car goes by and I flinch. He must not see me. I know

I cannot go into that shop. I know what my body wants. I fix

my eyes on the pavement and follow it, all the cracks leading

back to the neat garden and up to the front door.

Before I can knock, she opens it; stands like a curved beast

in the doorway, blocking my entrance. I can see the anger

sharpening her eyes, I know she wanted him to catch me. She

doesn’t move to let me in, so I push by, my body brushing

against hers. I drop the handbag at her feet and move slowly

up the staircase.

I lay myself down into the box. Closing the lid, I sink into

the darkness. Open my mouth so it curls into me, and within

it lose myself.


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