for Lauren More, Kim Diaz, and Ruth Madievsky
Shortly after her first period, Valentine begins finding traps around her house. At first they are small—snares made of shoelace that snake along the hallway, glue traps in her bedroom closet—and sporadic. In no time, though, she’s finding larger traps: nets that span the length of her driveway, fishing lures cast from panel vans, muscle cars, matte-black Mustangs measled with Bondo.
Her mother blames it on the boys, says they turn into hunters whenever girls are around. “But don’t take my word for it,” she says. “You can see for yourself.”
She sees her friends disappearing. They follow breadcrumbs into dark station wagons. Fall into wolf pits outside their bedroom windows. Bite hooks and vanish. Men move shade-like through the neighborhood, while mothers, wide-eyed and desperate, burn candles. Faces on milk cartons resemble her own. Her street is dense with tree-blinds.
Valentine spends most of her days springing bear traps with sticks. The creek bed behind her house is littered with them. She used to lose whole summers here, count down hours in an algebra lost upon her mother, squat with the boys, trap lizards and crush crawdads with rocks. What happened to those boys? They look so much like their fathers now, with their foxtail caps and teeth, their frothy mouths impossibly large. Where did they go? They have left and become the patron saints of somewhere else. They are brake dust, diesel fumes. They are smoke. She sings their names into the mouth of the creek’s underpass, calls the echo gospel.
She wants to believe they’ll come back, searching for pieces they left behind. The way her mother will eventually lose herself, brain scattered like pennies across the floor, and spend the rest of her nights searching. A flashlight white-knuckled in her hand, the dark edges of herself getting darker.
In history class, a man stares down Valentine’s blouse and tells her the brush fire is the land’s biography. “They put entire forests to flame to attract big game, killed them in droves while they grazed.” At her prom, a boy leans into her ear, whispers, “There is a soft spot between a rock and a hard place, and I know exactly where it is, I can prove it.” And even though she knows exactly where “exactly” is, she lets him prove it anyway. He sinks teeth into her neck, fills her mouth with the saltlick of his fingers. This is how she knows she’ll be recognized: by the smell of her scorched-earth hair, the sulfur on her breath.
She wants to believe that no one can crave what truly harms them. That her body is more than a threshold for smash and grab, break and enter. The tongue more than a tool for soft power, a whip, a bitch-be-cool stick to bludgeon you grateful.
In a hospital room, she sits at the foot of the bed. Starched white sheets, flowers. The small woman in the bed getting smaller, shrinking into something that will fit inside an upturned palm, the hollow belly of a spoon, a collapsing vein. “Someday this war is going to end,” her mother says, in a voice that is both her own and not. The way a tree is both the house you build and the box that buries you. Outside, everything is meat, hide-and-tallow trade, things to be won in a war. Outside, the world is a sawmill that swallows you whole, spits you out. And why not make the best of bad between the binge and purge?
There’s an end to you and it looks like this: You wake up in a stranger’s bed. You wake up, a coil-spring trap on your leg, key in his hand. You wake up, put your paw between your teeth. Bite down.