Ira came from a small town tucked just under Perth, a town of farmers, herders and abattoirs. Early mornings when she woke for the first bus to the city, she’d hear the cries of a hundred cows being lined up, heads bowed, on their last few days of death row. By nightfall she’d walk home to a sticky, sanguine smell in the air and sounds of a hose chasing blood down drains and into the soil.
In the kitchen most mornings, she’d find her mother crushing Zolpidem into orange juice and swatting away flies with calloused hands. Ira’s brother stumbled doe footed and sleepy eyed into the room to nibble on her toast. Ira watched the back of her mother’s neck as she changed the sunflowers by the window, buds that had only just begun to bloom.
In anatomy, a boy she’d never spoken to slipped a note into her lab coat. Building 24 afterwards. Cody says you’re a good root. Ira felt herself blush and moved towards the table where a cadaver lay open and exposed. She snapped rubber gloves onto her sweaty palms and pressed open the abdominal cavity, reassuring herself that it was only a joke till she felt him move in behind her; calm, snickering, imposing.
Cody was Ira’s best friend with wild, curly hair who lived two streets away. On the weekends, the two would sell peaches by the road to sun-kissed children and lonely truck drivers carrying cargo to and from the city. That afternoon, she found him on the bus, cutting open a peach with a scalpel.
“What the fuck –” Ira pressed the note onto his chest, “ – is this about?”
Cody laughed, scratching his chin and flashing the tiny chip in his front tooth. “It’s just boy talk, Ira. I said you would be a good root. It’s a compliment. Sam’s a creep, it was only a joke.”
Ira watched him press open the peach with one hand, tracing the soft, fleshy cleft of one half and the grooved, protruding seed on the other. His hands were wet from its juices and she watched as he pressed a thumb to his lips, sucking gently. Ira knew she was supposed to be angry, but at that moment she could no longer remember why.
There was a storm that weekend. Rain flooded the roads and lightning seared the skyline, sending farmers into frenzies trying to protect their crops. Ira sat on the floor of the shower and let the water hit her head in cold torrents, echoing the steady patter outside her window. She dressed herself absentmindedly and curled up on the floor beside the bed, listing commitments in her mind.
When Cody arrived, he pulled the doona from the bed and nestled down next to her. Ira could smell the tropical fruits of his shampoo and knew his hair would be softer and more unruly than ever.
“One of those days, huh?” he asked.
Ira nodded. When she opened her eyes later, the sun had crept out over sullen clouds and burst its rays over their town, leaving her squinting for sight till she noticed Cody was not watching her as she had thought, but was staring intently into the bruised sky with his hands tucked under his head. Ira liked the way the hair lining his jaw seemed orange in the sunlight and she liked the way his lips curved outwards when you watched him from the side. In moments like these she could never tell if she loved him or wanted to be him.
The next week in anatomy, Ira chose a table far, far away from Sam. The teaching doctor turned the cadaver without a second thought, one hand supporting the head as if it were a fragile child. Ira watched her teacher’s hands as he peeled the skin away from its attachments; the way his knuckles protruded from underneath his gloves, the way his long fingers traced the shaft of exposed bones. He was young; Ira could see nascent wrinkles lining his forehead and creasing the corners of his eyes. She watched him explain how one bone fit into one socket, how the muscles allowed it to rotate, how easy it was to break. Ira slid her gloved finger into the formaldehyde-soaked palm of the cadaver; its fingernails yellowed, one still streaked with red nail polish. What was the last thing this hand had held; who was this skinless wonder?
Cody was not on the bus that afternoon. Ira walked home with loud silence buzzing in her ears. She took the long route through the cornfields where the smell of manure and blood wasn’t so thick in the air, only to see Cody hacking away at a rusted fence on the other side of the field. Beside him, a fiery haired girl giggled giddily, balancing on one foot with pollen in her hair. Ira hid amongst the stalks and watched them fuck quickly under a sticky, lightning-stricken eucalyptus. Golden bubbles of sap burst through the blackened tree bark, trapping sunlight and bleeding down the trunk in molten trails. Ira stayed amongst the corn long after they had left; not knowing why or what her emotions were, only that she felt them deeply.
On Saturday, Ira took her time reaching their peach stall, planning questions in her mind. She wouldn’t let him know that she was upset about it all – Cody would hate to be interrogated. She’d play it cool.
When she reached, the stall had been set up as usual but was empty; a hurriedly scrawled note placed under a crate of peaches. Can’t make it today. I know you’ll understand. Cody.
Ira slumped into her splintered chair and sighed. She closed her eyes and let the sun paint her lids with warmth, counting backwards from ten, awaiting an anesthetic that she knew would never, ever come.
–Art by Kaia Pieters