Muse: An Excerpt from ‘The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish

Fiction by Katya Apekina


Dennis Lomack’s Journal

[1970]

Last night I began … something. Something big, alive. I don’t want to speak too soon, but maybe finally a book (!). I typed and Marianne lay on the mattress on the floor, watching me. With her I am an open glove welcoming a hand. It is her energy working through me, I’m certain of it. I wrote all night. Outside, it rained. Marianne lay on her back, raised her arm, squinted at her ring, fell asleep. Yesterday, my sister came into the city for a visit and as we were passing City Hall, I felt compelled to get married. We bought carnations dyed bright blue from the deli across the street. “Look,” Marianne had said, running her thumb along the stems, veined like arms. We stopped a tourist on the street, asked him to take a picture of us with his camera. He promised to mail it. And since our marriage, the urge to write has consumed me. Beneath all my words, like subway clatter — my wife, my life, my wife. It was already light out when I stopped and crawled in beside her. I needed more of her to keep going.

Image: Two Dollar Radio. (Purchase)

“They bit me all night long,” she told me, sleepily showing me her arm. A row of small red welts. The bedbugs live between the floorboards and inside the electrical sockets.

“I’ll bite you too,” I said. And I did.

Then after, in the bathroom mirror, as I washed my face, I caught sight of my earlobe — two uneven lines, marks from her crooked front teeth. And again, that zap of desire.

I ran back to bed, unbuttoned the blouse from the bottom that she had begun buttoning from the top. She’s shy but about all the wrong things. I moved her hands off her breasts and kissed her wrists. Pinned her down.

And then, her whispered refrain: You can save me?

For which there is only one answer: Yes, of course, yes.


Marianne McLean’s Journal

[1985]

They make me fill out idiotic worksheets here. i wonder about my head. the feeling of cotton in my head. (I think of daddy, a cotton ball sticking out of his nose, out of his ear. oh! how he was prone to infections).

they say, not to worry! the cotton feeling is because of the coma. to give it a few days & it will dissipate. i think, no, as usual, i have not made myself clear: i want more cotton. i want to be taxidermied. but they don’t do that at this hospital.

the therapist is an idiot. i told him about the tree stump —

about how i took the girls to the woods near where my house used to be (daddy’s art studio flattened under a parking lot for a piggly-fucking-wiggly — there is no dignity, there is no justice …). we were walking even though I had not meant to get out of the car. we were walking & then i was hitting a rotten tree stump with a stick. it would make this thump when i hit it, a dull sound & i don’t know why, but that sound excited me very much. i could feel it in my heart. the girls were like little monkeys. they found their own sticks & they were digging in the ground with them. mae had a wet cough. it gave me the feeling that her insides were the rotten stump & it was her i had been hitting. it’s terrible. it’s terrible to always have to keep track of the edges of things as they slide away from you.

of course, the therapist didn’t know what to make of the story. it’s okay to express anger, he said. hit something! that’s an idea! holding out his palms for me to punch.

the worst part is that dennis is the only one left who has any idea what i’m talking about. how infuriating to have him as a screen always between me & the world. my translator! my apollo!

“what’s it like to be married to a man who understands women so keenly?” people have asked me.

it’s unbearable. unbearable. he is a thief. he steals from me constantly, though what exactly i can’t say. & he’s a liar. & what it is exactly he lies about i can’t say either. but you see, this doesn’t make it any less true.

& that i, at 16, could have foreseen it — i was the one, after all, who chose the name cassandra. apollo spits in my mouth & now nobody believes me. those thick alligator teardrops sliding down his cheeks as he suffocates me. for my own good! as he squeezes me from the bottom up.

literally? that’s what doreen wants to know.

literally, not literally, what’s the difference? his breath is on my face even when he isn’t here.


Mae

Anybody who’s read Dad’s novels could feel the intensity of his obsession with my mother. Obsession like that never really goes away, not when it’s connected to one’s fundamental sense of self. He never said anything about Mom’s letters, but I’m sure he heard her whistle as loudly as Edie and I did, that piercing sound that made Edie come running and made me dig in my heels. How did her letters have this power over us? I don’t know. The desperation was in the negative space of everything she wrote.

Before that spring, I’d never read any of Dad’s books. It had never even occurred to me to track them down at a library or bookstore because until we came to live with him, he hadn’t existed for me. But in New York, I started reading his books ravenously. I devoured Cassandra’s Calling. I read his novels before bed. I wanted to have the rhythms of the sentences inside of me, so that I could dream about them. In my sleep though, all the characters were Mom. Sometimes Mom would turn into a strong wind and pull me somewhere, or sometimes she would jump on my back and try to wrestle me down to the ground. I barely ever saw her face. Sometimes — and these dreams were always the scariest — I myself would turn into Mom, and then I would be on someone else’s back, or turning into a wind.


Edith (1997)

Mae’s lamp casts large shadows on the wall as she reads in bed. Her fingers rustle the pages of her book. Cronus is purring on my feet, keeping them warm.

“Do you think she’s gonna stay here long?” I ask Mae. The woman from the basement restaurant is sleeping on the couch. She appeared in our lobby this afternoon, looking like a mess. A hospital bracelet on her wrist. That bracelet is the only thing she and Mom have in common but that seems to be enough for Dennis.

Mae doesn’t respond.

“It’s like what Mom said about him. He likes his birds with their wings broken,” I say.

Mae isn’t listening. She’s absorbed in whatever it is she’s reading. “Kind of like you,” I say to Cronus and he squints back. “You also like your birds with their wings broken. Don’t you?”

Mae’s breathing has gotten too quiet. She must have gotten to a juicy part.

“Read it to me,” I say. She’s holding her breath.

Mae turns the page and doesn’t say anything. I reach my hand up to the coiled spring above and nudge her.

“Stop,” she says. I watch her shadow on the wall as she sets down the book. “I don’t think you’ll like it. It’s kind of …”

“I just want to hear your voice.”

Nothing. I hit the bed again.

“Fine,” she clears her throat, clears it again: “At first she was like a blind kitten in bed. Just hopeless and rooting, always rooting for my,” her voice flutters, “penis, trying to put it in her mouth. She would practically sleep with it there. Or in her hand. It was like it formed a circuit, a closed circuit, our bodies …” She trails off.

Something squirms through me and a weird giggle escapes. I’m thinking about Markus, and the way my throat would go numb when he came in my mouth, and then the footsteps in the stone chapel, or the footsteps on the carpeted stairs to the attic. Afterwards was always full of other people’s footsteps.

“Can I see it?” I ask her.

She lies there, silent, too still. Why? Suddenly, I realize what she’s been reading to me. My face goes hot. Disgusting. And that she hadn’t warned me first. Let me lie there thinking about it, thinking about Markus and not saying that it was some disgusting thing Dennis had written about Mom.

Mae hangs over the edge of the bed and looks at me. Her eyes are in shadow, her hair a curtain. Upside down, in the dark, her face could be someone else’s.

“Do you think that was about Mom?” she asks. That little pervert. “There were details that made it seem …”

Mae’s big white forehead is inches from my face. I feel the snap of my knuckle, the thwack of my nail against her skull. She shrieks and nearly falls off the bed.

Mom like a fucking kitten, rooting around for the turkey neck in Dennis’s disgusting pants. I feel nauseous. Mom in a white nightgown like a fucking kitten. Mom, Mae’s age, writhing around like a fish on a hook, a big white fish, a ghost, her mouth and throat numb.

“It could be about anyone,” I finally say.

Mae doesn’t respond. She’s not talking to me anymore. When I try to join her on the top bunk, she sticks her leg out to block me. There is a bump on her forehead, a red welt, it must be where I flicked her. I reach for it, but she bats me away.

“I’m sorry.” I really am. Below us, the sound of a saw. Our downstairs neighbor Charlie must be building something.

“Mae, I’m sorry.” I say it again, even though she won’t look up from the book.

KATYA APEKINA’s first novel is The Deeper the Water, the Uglier the Fish. Her short stories have appeared in various literary magazines and she translated poetry and prose for Night Wraps the Sky: Writings by and about Mayakovsky (FSG, 2008). Apekina was shortlisted for the Best Translated Book Award. Born in Moscow, she currently lives in Los Angeles. You can find links to more of her work on her website.