i: minimalist living
I build a home inside my mother’s cancer-riddled lungs. This is a product of my belief that if I stay close to the flesh that killed her, what I am most afraid of will fail to find me, because I will have already hidden within its blind spot.
My dead mother’s lungs are the size of a minimalist pod apartment. I hang a hammock in the bed nook, fastened to irregular ridges along the inner lining. A tiny kitchenette with a kettle and a hot plate is tucked into a pink-gray corner. Steam curlicues upward when I make tea, but it fails to clear the blackness of the serous membranes in the way it does the mucus from my nostrils during a cold. The walls of corrupted cells sometimes weep black sludge as I sponge-bathe myself using a bucket of hot water.
If I stand in the middle of my home and wingspan my arms out, I can touch the insides of my mother’s left lung, wall-to-wall. The lungs feel surprisingly springy. Unsurprisingly sick.
I tell myself cancer is not contagious.
You fucking microphobe, I say. It’s hereditary, yes. Just not contagious.
ii: rigor mortis
On Friday nights, I make myself go on dates—the only way I know how to meet new people. Meeting new people means not encountering old pity. My pulmonary apartment has no mirrors or wardrobes, so I do my best to comb my hair by touch and throw on a dress draped across my only chair. Whenever I must leave my mother’s lungs, I am seized by worry. What if, while I’m away, the birds come to peck at the dead flesh? I was told as a child to play dead if I was ever in a bad situation. But the dead are easy prey for birds and beetles.
Tonight, I tell my date that my job is to make paper foldings and anatomical dioramas of the human body. Those I sell to online novelty stores and the giftshops of natural history museums.
My date has a rare disease that makes her think she is dead even though she’s not. It is called Cotard’s syndrome. I know this because I look it up on my phone while she uses the bar lounge’s bathroom. She says she has always dated neurologists and psychologists enamored with her mind, but this is the first time she’s dated a paper folder and isn’t that exciting.
She says, strange how no mortician has ever wanted to date me, me being dead and all.
I take my date to my lungs—what I mean here is, the organs that once breathed through the making of mine. I take our coats and give my date the tour, a twirl that lasts 3.3 seconds. This is cozy, she says and, you are warm, I say, as I ghost over her collarbones. I consider cutting her open with my paper scissors to show her how she bleeds the red of unobstructed oxygen. Her lungs will be pink and unblemished. I think about splitting the ribcage like a peach or wishbone and eating her perfect lungs to make my own lungs stronger too. Instead, I kiss the dip of her sternum. My lips fit there like a skeleton key.
I’m so grateful for your kisses, my date sighs at the end of the long night. You’re nice enough to ignore my rot and decay, she adds.
iii: blue whale
By the time my new girlfriend leaves, she’s helped me fold thirteen hearts, four coils of large intestines, and eight livers out of paper. Everything is dyed in shades of pink and red. The spleens are a bit wonky, but otherwise her handiwork is impressive.
No lungs, though. Those, I never make, out of superstition.
If my employer is bothered that the lungs are always missing from the folded organs I deliver every Monday, he has not complained. Once, I visited the museum where they are sold. The anatomical kits contained two extra pink papers and instructions for the lung construction. The clerk assured me the customers thought this little DIY quirk was to die for. In the gift shop, a little girl was saying look, mommy, look as she pointed at one of my unfolded lungs. I didn’t stay long enough to learn whether the mother replied.
I wandered around the museum exhibition and saw the giant heart of a blue whale. It weighed 200 kilos and hung suspended from the vaulted glass roof. The heart looked like a beige and papery moon as I walked under its shadow. I thought about my home, hollowed out and caught in a perpetual state of illness. The illness I couldn’t preserve in amber before it progressed, persevered.
Whenever I visit the museum to drop off my paper organs now, I avoid all the exhibits.
You’re wondering why I live in only one half of the lungs.
The other part of the pair is flooded, waterlogged. It’s no good, even for storage. I have no landlord to call and assess the water damage, the accumulation of fluid that cannot be drained fast enough. So I breathe spores of mold on top of the secondhand smoke I’ve spent years inhaling—a miasmic palimpsest.
The necrotic flakes that often fall into my hair as I sleep resemble cigarette ash. I always told my mother to stop chain-smoking, and she always laughed. Laughed her chain-smoker’s laugh.
A sweetness permeates the lung tissue. Chemo-sweet over antisepsis-sharp. Though my girlfriend buys me syrupy things, I have not eaten anything sugared since I moved here. The sweltering, slinking, saccharine scent sticks like a stamp to my throat. Strangely, it reminds me of mothers cooking and eating the placenta. It makes me wonder: could I cut and eat a part of her too?
I fall asleep counting paper organs. One, two. One, two. Numbers, numb. A mismatched pair of sounds: one half a wet dithyramb, the other a dry warble. Still, they rock me.
The lungs lullaby me, as best as they know how.
My girlfriend calls and says she is ready for her ghost to move on. She has already given away all her earthly possessions, quiet-quitted at work. I must help her perform her final rites. Together, we walk through the grainy dark the way scissors cut through paper. When she offers me a cigarette, I flinch away, but when she gives me a silver flask, I drink deeply of the liquor sloshing within. I pour the rest as a libation to the ground.
My girlfriend lies down in one of the neighbors’ flowerbeds, all cop-show-corpse-like on her back with vein-webbed eyelids and her dead-dove palms crossed over her chest. I don’t tell her to mind the begonias—the neighbors have been complaining to the mayor about my abomination of an abode for months. Yet they never called to tell me my mother was getting worse.
Stained by soil clumps and crushed flower petals, my girlfriend says, I love you. Will you say some words to send me off?
And I look at the ground and talk about how I miss her. How I could never tell her the things I wanted to in life. I pray that her bones do not carry the phantom pulmonary pain. That she gets to where she needs to be in the afterlife, despite the pair of organs I excised from her: selfishly cradling it, selflessly cradled by it.
Rumpus original art by Ian MacAllen