You were not there in biology class on the day we learned pithing, on the day the teacher demonstrated how to slide an instrument into the base of a frog’s skull, how to sever the brain from the spinal cord, how the animal remains alive but no longer sentient, how you can open it up and see the heart pumping, the numb body still pursuing its work. And you were not there years earlier, when they tried to keep me from this life, those humane friends of my parents who gave me a pet tadpole for my seventh birthday, explaining how I didn’t have to harm it to see inside its transparent skin, explaining how I could grow up with it, helping it become a frog. The company that sells those tadpoles says it wants to render dissection unnecessary, to keep us from opening something up to look inside it. I donated that tadpole to my second-grade classroom. I salted the slugs on the sidewalk outside my house, watching them evaporate before my eyes. I learned to pith a frog, learned to tease the layer of adipose, that yellowed girdle, from the organs tucked beneath it, learned that people who say there’s more than one way to skin a cat are people who have never been asked to skin a cat. You were not there for any of this, not there when I sliced through a sternum, not there when I siphoned blood from a pony named Patience, not there when I read in the shadow of the stallion whose punctured throat wept onto the pages of my novel. You were not there in the years of study, did not know how well I had mastered my craft, how I learned to reach in and grasp the heart of a thing, to feel its warmth dissolving in my palm.
You were not there at the cathedral that houses the patron saint of spinsters, not there as I gazed at her bejeweled body, saw the ruby over her sternum, the pearls cascading from her humerus, the empty cup resting in her grasp, the eyes that are not really her eyes, eyes that stare but don’t focus. And you were not there when I tried to walk away from that place and felt my body buckle beneath me, felt the tendon in my leg tear like the string on my favorite necklace. You have never seen my house, never seen the kitchen where that necklace broke, the tile where those beads bounced, echoing as they scattered. And I have never seen where you harbor that child, do not know if you have housed her inside bricks or within siding, if you have fenced her in or kept her near swing sets, near puppies. I have never seen your house, but I am building a house for us all, a house that is hinged on perhaps, a house to throw open or draw shut around us. If I could, I would ask you to empty your pocket of nails, to help me bind it together. I would ask you to sing, to tumble the notes through the hollow of your mouth, to help me unravel myself, to bring that child and tuck her in here, to lie her down on cloth I have stitched, beneath quilts I have fashioned. But she will never see this house, this house with a ceiling that is not so sturdy as I believed, this house that lets the rains seep through its floorboards. There will be no children here, here in my kitchen paved with jewels, here where my hand reaches for an empty cup.
They used them to cover sins, bind debts, seal prayers. To make the body exceptional. To render. To tame. To make it quotidian, always present. They called it homage. They called it love. You called me love just once, and I did not believe. Once you asked for a lock of my hair, but I refused, remembering how, when my pony died, they sent me a braid from her mane, how it was tied with a tartan bow. I remembered how, when my mother saw Secretariat, she did not take me with her. She told the groom that I would be jealous. I believe she hoped that I would be jealous. The groom pulled out a lock of the stallion’s mane for me, and though I have often wished I had kept those strands, I know that I lost them from spite, know I did not want my mother’s offering. When Secretariat died, they buried him whole, in contrast to custom. When my pony died, they buried her like they bury most racehorses: only head, hooves, heart. Enough to think, to run, to endure whatever awaited. I know that you have not yet died, and I know that when you die, no one will call me. There will be no relics, no final offering, nothing left for me to bind. It will just be me calling you love, calling you talisman, portent, promise. It will just be me, calling.