RED KNIFE, PAST LIFE
by Kelly Washington
I’ve never told you this but there’s a specific knife in our kitchen that I avoid. Each time I open the drawer to collect some benign utensil my eyes flicker to the knife’s red handle with its matching sleeve meant to protect unsuspecting fingers from the blade’s sharp bite, but unlike you my mind goes back to significant events in my life that I would rather forget.
You’re busy making dinner and I’m supposed to be setting the table but in my mind’s eye I pick up this red knife: I feel the weight of it in my left hand; I watch as my fingers close around it. You won’t know that my palm remembers its weight—a burden not in size but in what it unlocks. I peel off the sleeve. The blade glimmers; a knowing wink, and with this knife I open up myself to judgment, to inspection. The room is now hazy; the scene before me one of static, as if I’ve transported myself into an alternate dimension, and the world contains but two souls: the knife and me. Like an anchor, I know you’re still there, I can feel the heat coming off you, so I allow myself to step into the static. My eyelids flutter with anticipation and apprehension as I wonder, What part of me will the blade discover this time?
As I slice through the rough fabric of my shirt, the tearing sound hits my ears in a muffled tone and I know it’s too late to stop. My chest thrusts forward in invitation. Looking down I find that my hands are steady as the blade hovers over my left breast and within the span of one heartbeat I pierce my flesh, exposing the lobules and milk ducts that fed our child for fourteen months.
I know that nausea has invaded your belly but you can’t look away now: the red knife hasn’t reached its destination. It would be true to say that my hands are applying the required pressure but not the direction; the knife is tethered to my mind and it remembers the journey to all the locked boxes within my heart. Deeper it goes as the blade separates tissue and muscle from bone and with a great crashing sound my ribs spring open.
There’s a tiny gasp in my mouth and I can hear it escape your lips, too. You’re on the cusp of asking, Where’s all the blood? I can’t answer that question right now, you’re not ready for it, but I can say that if I allowed my mind’s eyes to produce the blood we’d be trapped in here forever.
Together we watch my lungs expand in and out, but even that we must cut away to lay bare the boxes tucked deep within my heart’s chambers. I take a large breath before severing the left lung; it doesn’t hurt, not physically, at least, but it disappears into the static void and from this point forward I must remember to take shallower breaths. Sometimes I forget.
I can feel your gaze on me and at once I comprehend your uneasiness. Surely my expression echoes yours. Did you expect perfection? In a way, as a woman and as a mother, you always meant for me to stand before you, unearthing the pieces and parts of me for your casual inspection. Except you don’t like my method, my presentation. This is the part that truly scares you: If I can take parts out, what have I put in?
The size of one’s heart has no limitations. It can be as small or as large as you need it to be, and my heart grows not with love, though that is certainly present; it increases by stowing away the parts of my existence I am unable to reconcile.
The static before us has turned to silver liquid, into rivulets of raindrops; I can see your reflection in the falling orbs. As I carve a hole in my chest to reveal all the boxes within my viscous heart cavity, I envy your perceived wholeness. At this point in the journey, it’s a game of hazard: which box—which secret—will the blade nick? Which part of me have I offered up for your consumption? Your redemption? Your condemnation? The red knife bypasses the fresh glittery boxes: those superficial little desires I keep hidden but would never act upon. It slides past the camouflage box. No, that one is a ticking timepiece that hasn’t hit midnight: my true experience while wearing a military uniform will probably never pass through my lips.
The blade’s tip sinks deeper and the static around us pulses with my echoing heartbeat. The red knife pauses at the box bearing my father’s likeness, which is strung together next to that of my former stepfather’s and, with a skipped beat and a hitch in my throat, I wonder if today is that day. Am I ready to explore those deformed boxes? But the blade continues on as my mind floods with twins of the same coin, relief and sorrow.
I know you want to leave. I’ve spent my life wanting to leave. Sometimes my only solace is escapism and I’m sure that’s how the first box was created. Pack it up, lock it, store it away. I’m not sure if I’m saying this for your comfort, or for my own, but please rest assured that there are good boxes here. I don’t need the red knife for those memories. I don’t have to cut away my flesh to access that part of myself.
The red knife’s handle is barely visible now as it burrows into my chest. I fear it might cut right through me, but then it calmly stops and nicks the edge of a tiny box tucked in the very back, a box whose existence I pretended I was unaware of, a box with a complicated set of latches and locks. My eyes snap shut and my mind travels back to thirteen years ago. In this box there are three souls: the old me, the new me, and the infant who acted as the bridge between these two versions. He owned ten perfect toes, ten perfect fingers, a hearty set of lungs. Everything about him wrecked me, from my body to my emotional state. Alone with him in that hospital room, I’d never been so scared of something so small. I’d also never hated someone as much as I hated him in the early days of his life.
As I saw it, in creating him I killed off the old me, and with him at my breast I resented what he took from me, that his little form could instantly wave away the first thirty years of my life as if they didn’t matter anymore. I fed him but I didn’t look at him. I soothed him but I didn’t love him. He was mine but as God as my witness I didn’t want him. It took me days, perhaps weeks, even months, to accept him, to love him.
I can tell you want to argue with me, to explain to me how it should have been the happiest day of my life, that I should have loved him at first sight. The red knife keeps me as honest as I’ll let it. Would you consider it an act of betrayal if I admit that I’ve never wanted motherhood to define or consume me? It can be part of me but not all of me. Inside the recesses of my heart, this particular box and the ones strung along with it will demonstrate that while this event was significant, it was not the happiest. I don’t know if I own one of those boxes.
Your silence is deafening. I can see you putting the pieces together in your head, trying to remember how you factor in all of this. But the static will only hold for so long. It’s time to leave, I tell you. The tiny box recloses, the latch locks, and it feels a lot like heartache, a little pinch as the red blade begins its retreat. The muscles of my heart quiver as my secrets return to their steady state; the blade glides by small and large boxes, some young, some very old, older than my son. Bronze boxes where I hadn’t yet formed words, where fear and neglect festered for years. These intersperse with pearl-like boxes filled with laughter and smiles and kindness, with memories of my son’s first words, his first steps, his first day of school.
There’s a renewed quickening beat within my heart once the red knife is out. The static around us coughs up my severed lung and we both breathe a sigh of relief when my chest inflates. I’m already beginning to feel like myself again. I can almost smell the aroma of tonight’s dinner. You cringe as my ribs snap into place, as if my heart’s imaginary guard has closed a gate with a “No Trespassers” sign. My hands, still steady on the red knife, continue to slowly pull away as my pectoral muscles stitch together. The broken lobules within my left breast encapsulate and the milk ducts rewire themselves, fully functional but happily never to be used again.
Just as easily as it went in, the red knife slips from my body and I gently slide the blade back into its protective sleeve while the fibers of my shirt sew back together. The static dissipates and the kitchen comes back into view. Pasta is boiling on the stove, our teenage son is goofing off in the living room, the television is blaring, and I’m standing there at the open utensil drawer, my fingers clutching two forks to place them on the dining room table.
My eyes land on the red knife and a glimmer of a smile forms on my face. It’s never easy being honest with oneself. One day you’ll ask me why I keep that old knife and I’m not sure how I’ll respond. I can’t say for certain if I’ll reveal the real reason, the blood and guilt and the shame and the pain that filled the old me before I had our son, before I met you, before the new me was born thirteen years ago as I held a wailing child with ten perfect toes, ten perfect fingers, and a hearty set of lungs; but until then I keep the red knife there in its protective sleeve to remind me that all the good boxes within my heart came after all the bad ones.
A third-generation soldier, Kelly Washington isn’t afraid to push boundaries in real life and in her fiction. Regardless of the genre — fantasy, science fiction, or romance — her writing style packs a powerful punch by featuring strong and independent, yet flawed, characters. She’s the author of the Falling for Him trilogy as well as the four-volume series, Reclaimed Souls. Her short fiction has appeared in spillover mag, Fahmidan Journal, Pulp House Fiction Magazine, Kaleidotrope, Heart’s Kiss, Fiction River, and in more than a dozen anthologies throughout her writing career. Her short story, “The American Flag of Sergeant Hale Schofield” was a 2016 Year’s Best Crime and Mystery Story. She was also an Assistant Editor for the inaugural issue of “Tales from the Year Between, Vol 1: Achten Tan Land of Dust and Bone.” When Kelly isn’t writing, she’s spending time with her family in Virginia. You can find her on the web at, www.kellywashington.com and on Twitter @kellywashwrites.