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I Am a Knife

Photo of Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay

i am knife

My husband is a hunter.

I am a knife.

Last deer season, he took me on a hunt with him. At four in the morning, he shook me awake. He made love to me. He always makes love to me before the hunt. There is a quality to his efforts that is different, more intense. There is a rawness to how he touches me, as if he is preparing himself for what he is about to do. He takes me. He uses me. He marks me. I allow him. I revel in it. When my husband took me hunting with him, he told me not to shower after he lay on top of me heavy, sweaty, his lips pressed against the dark curve of my neck. As we dressed, I still felt him inside me, sticking to my thighs. It was cold outside. In the cab of his truck, I leaned against his arm, my eyes closed. He drank coffee from a thermos that used to belong to his father, who is dead from black lung. My husband’s beard smelled like coffee for the rest of the day.

We spent hours in the deer blind, doused in deer piss, waiting. I grew bored but stayed silent. Several does passed before us but my husband held one finger to his lips. We were waiting for a buck. “I want to kill something majestic today,” my husband said earlier that morning. He believes killing brings him closer to God. He is always looking for God even though he has little faith left. More time passed. Our bodies grew stiff.  My stomach felt hollow. I hungered. His shoulders slumped as his hope faded but then a massive buck galloped into our sights. The creature was indeed majestic—its musculature pronounced, body thick, standing tall. My husband raised his rifle, inhaled deeply, held his finger against the trigger. He waited. The buck turned his head and looked at us with black, glassy eyes. I held my breath too. We waited. My husband pulled the trigger and exhaled slowly. We waited. The bullet hit the deer in his neck, making a neat black hole from which a thin stream of blood began to flow. My husband nodded his head once, set his rifle down. He is a gun.

The buck was still alive when we got to him, breathing shallow. I pressed my hand to the matted fur, felt the animal’s warmth, the strength of the muscles beneath his coat and the bones beneath the muscle and the blood holding the muscle and bone together. My husband reached for his knife, preparing to slit the buck’s throat. I grabbed his arm, shook my head. I placed my hand over the buck’s heart, waited for it to stop beating. We waited. We waited for quite some time. My husband prayed, offering acts of contrition into the still air around us. When the buck was finally dead, I used one fingernail, cutting the creature open from his neck to his rear. His flesh fell open slowly, warm innards steaming out into the cold air. The air became sharp and humid with the stench of death.

My husband reached into the dead animal then stared at his hand covered in dark red, almost black blood. He ran his thumb across my lower lip, then slid his thumb into my mouth. I sucked slowly, tasting the deer’s blood, salty and thick. I moaned. My husband rubbed his bloody hand over my face and as the blood dried, my skin felt thin and taut. I lay back on the ground, now soaked with the deer’s blood. My husband undressed me slowly, then stood and stared at me naked, shivering next to the animal he killed.  I wondered if he could tell us apart. The woods around us were so silent I felt a certain terror rumbling beneath my rib cage. When he lay on top of me, I spread my thighs, sank my teeth into his shoulder. My husband smelled like an animal and took me like an animal. Together, we were animals. I left my mark on the broad expanse of his back.

Later, my husband field dressed the animal, removing all the internal organs. We bound the deer’s forelegs and hind legs, and my husband carried the open, bloody animal across his shoulders. I carried our guns and followed in his footsteps. When we got home, he took his kill to the work shed behind our home and began to butcher. It is a long, bloody affair, butchering an animal. There are things that need to be done in order for the kill to provide—the carcass needs to be broken down, the meat stored properly. For the next several months, we would bring our friends all manner of venison wrapped carefully in brown butcher paper, tied with strong twine. My husband would make jerky and sausage to share with the men he plays poker with, his brother, strangers at the bar. I would eat none of it. I do not care for the taste of venison. It tastes too much like the flesh of an animal.

We live in a large home that is beautiful and empty. We never talk about the emptiness or the failed attempts to fill the void. It is a sorrow we share but do not share. Sometimes, I sit in one of our empty rooms, perfectly decorated, frozen in time. I sit on the floor and stare at the pink wallpaper and the wooden letters on the wall spelling a name and the linens my mother made for a perfect, tiny bed. I rock back and forth until I cannot breathe and then I crawl into the hallway and gasp for air.

My husband’s family is religious. They believe in God. Their God is angry and unkind. Their God has made them in his image. Every Sunday, my husband and I go to church with his family—brother, mother, stepfather. This is the only time I spend with them. My husband’s faith is weak. I have none left. We sit in church on the hard pews pretending we believe, pretending we belong. Sometimes, I feel his mother staring at me with her pursed lips and narrow eyes. When I feel her staring, I dig my fingernails into a hymnal or the pew or my husband’s thigh. After church, we go to my in-laws for a meal. They do not trust me because I don’t eat venison. His mother resents having to accommodate my culinary peculiarities, but each week she prepares me a dry breast of chicken, carelessly broiled, unseasoned, and I eat the rubbery meat and smile while doing so. This makes her even angrier. I help wash the dishes while my husband and his stepfather work in the barn and then, mercifully, we can leave. His mother always stands on the porch and watches as we drive away. I make sure to sit so close to my husband in the cab of his truck, it looks like I’m sitting on his lap. I make him kiss me, and I kiss him back so hard it’s like I’m devouring his face. I want her to know what her son and I hold between us.

My family lives far away in the heavy heat of South Florida. They rarely visit, don’t know how to deal with the cold. They can’t understand why my husband and I stay in the North Country. When we visit my family, my husband is overwhelmed by the humidity and constantly being surrounded by people who look so different from him, few who speak English. He always grips my hand tightly when we’re in Florida. He looks so scared, so young. It is only when we leave our home I realize it’s not that he won’t live anywhere else but that he cannot. My sister, my twin, comes to visit often because she understands why I stay with my man in a place I do not love. She understands he loves me so good I would live anywhere with him. They get along well because he loves me right.

My sister never stays with one man too long, says she lives vicariously through me as I do through her. She doesn’t need to get married. I don’t miss being single. She’s always calling me to tell me about a man she met in a bar or at a bookstore or in line at a coffee shop and how that man ended up in her bed but rarely in her heart. When she visits, she fools around with my husband’s best friend, a guy named Grant, a powder monkey on my husband’s logging crew who thinks he and my sister share something so special it keeps her coming back. The four of us like to go bowling. We drink and bowl and drink and bowl and then we go down by the lake with a case of beer and make out on wooden park benches like teenagers with nowhere else to go. When I shiver after my husband slides his big hands beneath my shirt, she moans and when she spreads her legs and pulls Grant’s hand into her pants, I clench my thighs. People ask us if we have some kind of special connection. We lie when we answer their questions.

The wives of loggers tell stories about men broken by falling limbs or treetops or wild chainsaws—they call these things widow makers. I listen to these stories and think, if something happened to my man, I would cut down every tree I ever saw for the rest of my life. When my husband is late coming home from work, I feel uneasy. I imagine our empty home even emptier than it already is. I make sure the phone is working, that I haven’t missed any calls and when he does get home, I beat his chest with my fists. I damn him for making me worry. Most nights, he comes home smelling of sweat and sap, sometimes sawdust if he’s been in the mill. He takes his dirty work boots off and undresses in the mudroom. I watch, leaning in the doorway, holding a cold beer. He always smiles at me, no matter how his day has been. He takes a long sip of his drink, kisses me, his breath warm and yeasty. I tell him how lonely my body has been without him all day. He presses his lips against my neck, pulls at my skin with his teeth.

My sister calls and I hear in her breathing something is wrong before she says a word. I sit at the kitchen table and hold my chest, try to ignore the slow, spreading ache. My husband is in the family room watching a documentary on helicopter loggers, complaining loudly about how they’re doing everything wrong. “What is it?” I ask. I try to sound calm. My skin hurts. My sister says, “I’m pregnant,” and I exhale slowly. I say, “It’s going to be okay.” That is the only thing there is to say. I swallow something hard and mournful. I dig my fingernails into the palms of my hand. I am a knife. She says, “I understand,” and I smile and hold my stomach, running my fingers along the slightly raised scar that refuses to disappear even though it has been some time since I was cut open. “Can I come stay with you while I figure out what I’m going to do?” she asks, even though she doesn’t need to ask. We talk a while longer, then I join my husband. I sit on his lap and bury my head against his chest. I tell him my sister is coming and why and he holds me so tight that even hours later, when we’re in bed and he’s asleep, I feel him holding me together.

My sister and I were once in a car accident. We were sideswiped by a drunk driver on a backcountry road, the only kind of roads up here. There were high stalks of corn lining either side of the road and bugs were everywhere, their high pitched humming making the night thick. My sister was unconscious, her pulse weak. The drunk driver was passed out, an angry cut pulsing along his hairline. He reeked of cheap wine. The stench of him made me throw up. My sister was dying so I was dying. I pulled him toward our car. He was so heavy it felt like my shoulders might separate from my body as I pulled and pulled and pulled. Sweat pooled between my breasts and trickled down my spine. When I reached my sister, I fell to the ground, sweaty and out of breath. I pressed two fingers to my sister’s neck. She was born seven minutes after me. She could not die before me. Her pulse was even weaker. Her heart was dying. My heart was dying. I cut the drunk driver’s chest open, gutted him from the base of his throat to his navel, then ripped his ribcage open, the bones separating neatly. I reached into that careless man’s body, wet and warm, and I pulled out the heart he did not deserve. I felt no sadness or mercy for him as the slick organ throbbed in the palm of my hand. I cut my sister’s chest open, carefully this time, with a neat incision.  I put that man’s heart into her chest next to her heart. The two hearts nestled together and began beating as one. My sister stopped dying so I stopped dying. I pulled the flaps of skin back over her open chest and said a silent prayer as her skin fell back in place. I held my sister in my arms until help came.  I kissed her forehead and whispered acts of contrition into the night air so she would know she was not alone. I kept her warm and safe.

My sister fits easily into our lives. The house is less empty. She makes a small home for herself in one of our empty rooms. Her stomach swells and her skin glows. I often catch her walking around our property, along the tree line, humming to herself, holding her belly. She is changing and growing a new life. I am not. Sometimes, I catch my husband staring at her. When he notices me watching him watching her, he blushes, looks away guiltily. One night, we are lying in bed. We have just made love and he is still lying on top of me. He is still inside me. He brushes my hair out of my face and kisses me hard and I kiss him back and we bruise each other with our mouths. He says, “I wish we could take the child growing in her and put it inside you where it belongs.” I hate him for saying this. I love him for saying this. He rests his head against my breasts and I run my fingers through his hair. I whisper, “If only that could be.” He doesn’t respond and soon he is snoring lightly, his breath tickling my chest, leaving me cold.

Grant stops by almost every evening to check on my sister. He is convinced the child is his. He brings her clothes for the baby, soft blankets, the food she craves, an expensive stroller. When she is in a good mood, she lets him stay the night. She says he is a comfort. She loves his hands and his voice and the thick matte of hair on his chest. She says she doesn’t know if that is enough. I tell her it could be. When I hear them laugh, when I see how he looks at her, there is a loud, painful ringing in my ears that does not go away until I punch myself in the stomach. When her baby kicks, I feel a flutter just below my navel. I imagine reaching into my own belly, cutting away all the damage there.

My sister’s belly grows and grows and grows. Her whole body becomes full. Her ankles swell. She walks slower and slower, holding her lower back. Her skin still glows. Her lips are constantly spread in a genuine smile. Toward the end of March, we sit on the porch. It won’t be long before she gives birth. She says, “I love this thing inside of me but I want it out.” She stretches her legs and groans, then leans against my shoulder. She takes my hand and holds it over her stomach, covering my hand with hers. We are silent but she is asking me something. Her belly is firm and warm and I feel the baby moving around in its amniotic sac. The child is a boy or a girl. The child is strong. Its mother has two hearts. She asks, “What is it like, giving birth?” My own heart throbs dully and all the air from my chest escapes. I close my eyes. I say, “It feels like something wild is tearing your body from the inside out.” She closes her eyes, squeezes my hand harder. The scar across my belly splits open and blood dampens my shirt but I sit still, I sit with my sister. She needs this from me.

A piercing scream in the loneliest part of the night wakes me up. My husband leaps out of bed, his hair standing on end, his boxers hanging loosely around his waist. He looks around the room, his fingers balled tightly into fists. His eyes are bright white.  We hear another scream. I get out of bed. The floor is cold. I go to my sister’s room. She is sitting up in bed, sweating heavily, her long hair clinging to her face. She looks at me, her eyes clouded with fear. Grant is holding his phone. He says, “I called for the ambulance but it will be hours before they can come to.” This is how life is in the North Country. There is never the kind of help you need when you need it. My husband and I know all too well what happens when the only ambulance in four counties is hours away. You end up bleeding in the cab of a pickup while your child dies inside of you, while your husband speeds to the hospital, an hour away, over icy, winding backcountry roads, crying because he knows he cannot get you there in time. I place my hand on Grant’s arm. I say, “Leave us,” and my husband pulls Grant out of the room.

I kneel on the bed next to my sister. I think about how I am holding her life in my very hands. I say, “Close your eyes,” and she does. She trusts she is safe. I press the palm of my hand to her forehead and whisper sweet words so she will feel no pain. I drag my fingernail across her lower abdomen and her skin parts easily. There is so much blood. I cut through the layers of dermis, the fat, yellow, soft globes that fall away loosely. I am careful. I am sharp. When I reach the uterus, I am gentle and neat, making another horizontal cut. There is still so much blood. I see the dark head of a child covered in thick fluids. I pull the child free, it is a boy, and he is followed by a long cord of slick membrane. I cut the boy free from the cord, hold the dirty little creature against me as my sister lies quietly, cut open, there is so much blood. My sister waits, she trusts me. Her boy is hot in my arms. When he opens the slits of his eyes, I bite my tongue until I taste blood. I look at this boy, his tiny fingers curled, his limbs narrow and long, and it hurts to think of all the moments he will have. I am angry. I want to carve the anger out of my body the way I cut everything else. My sister holds her arms open. She trusts me. Our eyes lock.

That night, in the cab of his truck, the heat wouldn’t work so every breath made my chest ache. I bled all over the seat and held my husband’s thigh and shivered and forgot what warmth felt like. He refused to look at me but over and over he said, “I will get you there.” The wild thing inside me was trying to get out. The pain was clear and constant and exceptional. I leaned forward, moaning softly. I spoke the last prayer I would ever pray. I told my husband I loved him. I told him, “Do not let this happen to me.” I begged the silence around us for mercy. At the hospital, my husband carried me inside, grunting with every step. He explained to the doctor I was due any day. He said, “Everything’s going to be okay, right?” The doctor nodded. The doctor cut me open and hollowed me out and left an ugly scar, country medicine. He pulled a frail, bloody girl from my womb who could not breathe on her own, could not cry. Her head was strangely large, her skin almost translucent, as if we could see right through her. She was a wild thing but did not live long. We gave her a name. We held her and held her and held her until we could no longer hold her and then I did not speak for a very long time.

The night after my nephew is born, after I cut my sister open and hold her life in my hands and close the wounds I made to save her child, my husband fucks me in our bed while my sister and a man and a baby boy sleep in her bed.  They are at peace. My husband and I are loud and violent with each other. When I bite him, I draw blood. He touches me like he’s trying to fix everything broken inside me, like he’s trying to break me even more, like he is trying, through will alone, to create another life inside of what is left of my womb. I believe through him all things are possible. I wrap my arms around his back. I press my knees against his ribs. We do not look away from each other. His every thrust hurts more, hurts everywhere, but I spread my legs wider, open myself more to him. He is a gun. I am a knife.

About the Author

Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay’s is the author of three works of fiction, including the short story collections Ayiti (Grove Press) and Difficult Women, and the novel An Untamed Statewriting appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, Mid-American Review, Cream City Review, McSweeney’s Online, The Rumpus, and others. She is the co-editor of PANK, a regular contributor to HTMLGIANT, an assistant professor of English at Eastern Illinois University, and can be found here. Her first collection, Ayiti, was released in 2011. She is the editor of the 2018 edition of Best American Short Stories.