The Blood Mouth by Zachary Doss
Associate fiction editor Jason Teal on today's bonus story: It’s an all-too familiar plot: Moving to a new place changes someone dear to you. The switch turns out not to be in anyone’s best interest, and you have irrevocably become different for the experience—not stronger, but more unsettled in the long run, your guard forever raised. In Zachary Doss’s “The Blood Mouth,” however, the shock is accelerated, your boyfriend starts dying almost immediately, manifest in his coughing up “bloodsludge.” In the desert, the Old West Doctor seems incapable of solving the blood mouth, of restoring any semblance of happiness in your life, and stranger and stranger things take root. Doss weaves an enthralling document of survival, one set against an ocean of danger, and we are forever changed by its unraveling.
The Blood Mouth
You move with your boyfriend to the desert. Initially this seems like a bad idea, but as you’re driving across the cracked earth, the cracked road, the cracks in the road and the earth and your hands filling with dust, you realize this is the worst fucking idea anyone has ever had. This idea is so bad you choke on it, or you think that you choke on it, you stop the car, you spit and your spit is mud. You expect the ground to drink up the moisture, you expect the ground to be thirsty, but really the glob of dust and spit sits on the surface of the desert like a bubble until it evaporates.
Your boyfriend gets the blood mouth almost immediately. The desert town has an Old West Doctor. He carries a battered leather bag like in the movies. He has a black stethoscope around his neck. He wears a tweed vest and a striped long-sleeved shirt with stains in the pits. “I’m trying to live as much like an Old West Doctor as I can,” the Old West Doctor tells you, conversationally. “I feel like it’s a more authentic medicine.”
While the Old West Doctor tells you this, your boyfriend is bleeding from the mouth, or is spitting up a blood-like substance, a thick crimson sludge he catches in a metal bowl. Your landlady smelled the coppery stench when she came by asking about the rent. She told you it’s the blood mouth and you should call the Old West Doctor. “He’s an asshole,” she said, and while this should have felt like she was inviting you into a confidence, something about the way she said it made it seem the opposite. You gave her the rent and called the doctor.
Old west medicine isn’t much, you think, after the doctor takes a look at your boyfriend and takes a look at the bloodsludge, almost black where it’s congealed in the bowl. He takes a little bit of the blood and rubs it between his fingers. It looks like he’s asking for a tip. Your boyfriend’s bottom lip is a high-gloss red. He became pale and thin almost immediately after he started leaking blood from his mouth. It was his idea to move here, you remind yourself, but now you look at him all sexy and bearded and dying, and it’s hard to hold anything against him. You take his blood mouth bowl out to rinse while he talks to the Old West Doctor.
When your boyfriend asked you to consider moving to the desert you assumed water would be dear, but the people who live in the desert town throw it away casually. People take showers three, sometimes four times a day. The streets are lined with troughs of water for thirsty animals to drink from. Every square has a fountain, and all of the fountains run all night. The town has a greenhouse where a sophisticated irrigation system rains a month’s worth of water down on a flourishing rainforest ecosystem several times a day. You went to the greenhouse once and found it an almost hallucinatory experience, so hot that it felt like you’d caught a fever. You sat on a bench as water rained down from the sky and pretended you were dying of dysentery. You contemplated stripping down to your underwear and standing greasy and wet under the trees, feeling the heat and water directly on your skin. Instead you slicked your hair back and felt the water drip down your neck and between your shoulder blades. Hot as blood.
You rinse out your boyfriend’s metal bowl with a few pumps from the old cast iron water pump outside. It’s tremendous overkill, the rush of water thinning the almost-black blood to a winsome pinkish color before washing it away. You’re standing in a mudhole before you know it. The bowl never comes quite clean; on the inside is a wide black mark that doesn’t wash out, the discolored stainless steel gritty to the touch. You scratch at it with your fingernails but can’t get the stain to lift. Once, you used the bowl for mixing cake batter, blending eggs for omelets or swirling vegetables around in olive oil. Now, to think of it having once contained food makes you ill.
Since coming to the desert you feel exhausted and sexual. You feel like you have been drunk since noon. You feel like you are at the end of the party, like it is two in the morning and a boy is following you around and you know that he’s in love with you and it would be easy. Since you left the greenhouse that stripped-down-and-slick feeling hasn’t gone away. You pass the Old West Doctor, who is just leaving your home, and you try to wedge him into a sexual fantasy, you try to make yourself want him. It doesn’t work. You don’t want him. You are angry that he left your boyfriend alone. You are angry he didn’t wait to give you an update. You are angry with yourself for not staying, for going out to wash the bowl. You could have washed the bowl anytime.
When you get the bowl back to your boyfriend, he looks relieved, you think to see you, but immediately he leans forward and releases the mouthful of blood he had been holding into the bowl. It isn’t thick and sludgy this time, it gushes and splashes, maybe because he’s been holding on to it for too long. It runs down the sides of the bowl like water.
Your boyfriend’s condition keeps you near the house. You tell yourself that it is your boyfriend’s condition. Really you are walking around in a state of constant arousal. You don’t want to be too far away from your boyfriend in case he wakes up and suddenly feels capable. While he is asleep, you take showers, the water as hot as you can stand. Once, you turn on the shower while you are still fully clothed and remove your drenched clothing one article at a time. Afterwards, you can’t bring yourself to put new clothing on. You walk around the house naked. This does something for you, but not enough, so you open the doors and windows, let the air and heat in. Your wet clothes remain at the bottom of the shower and dry into strange, stiff shapes.
Your body has changed since you came to the desert town. You remember feeling dissatisfied with your disappointing body before, the sagging inner tube of fat around your midsection, the marshmallows of your upper arms. Mostly your body felt too heavy, like you always dangling something, bouncing something, dragging something along. In the desert your body is like someone else’s. It is lean and controlled. Nothing bounces. You are all clean lines and tight, geometrical shapes. You no longer lament that you are not fit or attractive. You feel incredibly fit and attractive. Your body is a powerhouse, but you don’t feel strong. Instead, you are full of energy, brimming over, barely contained, but fragile. Like a glass jar that could easily break and spill its contents.
You spend much of the day pacing the house, walking to the living room, the bathroom, the small, dark room you use as an office, the bedroom where your boyfriend sleeps. You repeat a circle around the inside of the house. You pass every open door and window, where you would be visible to any passers-by, although frustratingly, there are none. You stop in the bedroom, sit on the bed next to your boyfriend. You are not gentle. You rock the bed hoping to wake him up. You touch him, his face, his shoulders, his chest. You pretend that your hands are careful, clinical and precise, taking measurements, assessing health, but really you are groping at him sloppily. Your hands are paws. They are damp and fat. You hope he will wake up, but instead you hear the landlady walk up the path and knock.
“Rent’s due,” the landlady says, and if she registers that you are naked, she says nothing. It is sweltering in your house, you are sweating so profusely that your feet slip on the floor. The landlady doesn’t come inside.
“I just paid the rent,” you say.
“Been a month,” the landlady says, “rent’s due.”
You write out and hand her a damp check, the ink smeared from the edge of your palm. She takes it, with no comment, just folds it neatly down the center and slides it under the strap of her bra.
All this should seem sexy, but it isn’t. This is exactly a scene from a pornographic video, you think. You have watched many of them in your life. You tell yourself this scenario is hot, despite your body’s objections, but you can’t convince yourself, because it isn’t. For her part, the landlady seems similarly unimpressed with you, with standing in the doorway waiting for you to say something.
Outside, clouds are gathering and you didn’t realize how big the sky looked in the desert town until the clouds started to make it seem low, claustrophobic. There is a yellow quality to the light that is disconcerting to you. A wind has picked up and you can see little flurries of dust stirred up in the distance, gathering quickly, spinning, and falling again.
“I should go back inside,” you say, not to the landlady or anyone in particular. “I should check on him.”
“The blood mouth,” she says.
“That’s not his name,” you say, but she has already started to walk away from the house.
For the rest of the afternoon, you sit in a chair by your boyfriend’s bedside. He wakes up occasionally, reaches for you, but by the time you reach back he has passed out again. You begin to worry about the amount of time he spends passed out. Then you envy him. You wonder what kinds of dreams he has.
It starts to rain, but it is still oppressive in the house. You put towels on the floor beneath the open windows to keep the rain from damaging the floors, although you don’t really know if it will do any good. The water collecting on the towels contributes a musty smell and an incredible amount of humidity. You wonder if this kind of heat is good for your boyfriend, but you don’t know what else to do, you have not seen a single fan or air conditioner since you came to the desert town.
You watch your boyfriend lay still in the bed, occasionally leaning over to spit into the metal bowl. He is sweating and has kicked all the blankets off. You crawl into the bed with him, nestle his body in yours. He has gotten so small you can easily wrap your arm around his chest, pull his body into yours. You are holding this small, sweaty thing that you love, and soon you are uncomfortable because it’s too hot to be this close to anyone. You let yourself sweat, you let him sweat, you both soak the sheet and the mattress protector and the mattress. Even though it is not raining inside it suddenly feels like you and your boyfriend have been standing together in the greenhouse, both of you getting soaked and slick.
You are thinking about how much you want to be inside him. You are not sure if you mean this in a sexual way, although, sure, you can imagine entering him in the traditional way. You can imagine penetrating him. The way you imagine it, he is awake, and not just awake but eagerly awake, awake and kind and encouraging. Maybe he says yes to you a lot, maybe even asks politely, says please and thank you.
But more than that you want to be inside him in whatever other way you can. You want to open up his back and crawl inside, where it is hotter, unbearably hot and wet and bloody. You want his body to be your body and his thoughts to be your thoughts. You want to have everything be together, all jumbled up, both of you part of the same unruly mess, inseparable. You want uncomfortable closeness. You want to hold him so hard that you mush together, but no matter how you try the membrane separating you remains disappointingly impermeable.
Eventually you untangle from your boyfriend and go outside, where it is pouring so hard that your clothes immediately soak through and cling uncomfortably to your body. You are shocked to discover you are wearing clothes. You wonder if you’ve been wearing them this whole time. Looking at the clothes, they aren’t familiar. You don’t look like you. You don’t recognize your fingernails or your knuckles or your palms or the chubby pads of your fingers. You don’t recognize your wrists or your forearms, your chest or the gentle slope of your stomach.
Whose body is this, anyway, you wonder. Who am I?
Standing in the rain, you are reminded again of the greenhouse. You try to picture yourself there, but it seems so possible that you imagined it. Did you really leave your sick boyfriend alone to wander into town and look at plants? Is the desert town really fully of water?
But the streets are filling like rivers and, at least for the moment, the desert town really is full of water, though you don’t know where it all goes.
You check your body again. The feel of standing in it, walking in it. Nothing feels right. Maybe it’s the rain, and you go back inside, drip water behind you on the floor.
Your boyfriend, still sleeping, looks more like you than you do, and you wonder if you’ve had it wrong the whole time, if you are actually your boyfriend and you are the one who has the blood mouth, the one lying in bed and, for all old west medicine can do for you, dying. You try to imagine mourning yourself, preparing to live the rest of your life without yourself.
This seems preposterous to you. Yet, whoever you are, you are no one recognizable.
Here’s what you do know:
You and your boyfriend met for the first time at a bar. You waited until the bar was closing, around two in the morning, and kissed him on the sidewalk outside. You wanted to make him wait around for you. It was so easy. You had both been waiting for you to get around to it. He was so eager it felt like he was already in love with you. It was raining but it was not cold. When you picture it, the person who was kissing your boyfriend was recognizably you. He had the body you were used to, the non-desert body. Your boyfriend was recognizably your boyfriend. You remember the smell of smoke, the sound of music from inside the bar, the girl screaming “I love this song!” and you remember thinking, yes, me too, I also love this song. This is a real-body memory, the first time you tried to collapse him into you. You kissed him so hard you cut his lip with your teeth. It bled enough you could taste it.
Zachary Doss is a fiction editor for Banango Street, a volunteer screener for Ploughshares, and the most recent former editor of Black Warrior Review. His work has appeared in, or is forthcoming from, Sonora Review, Fairy Tale Review, Caketrain, DIAGRAM, Paper Darts, and others. He was the winner of Puerto del Sol's 2016 contest in fiction. He can be found online at zacharydoss.com.