Ways to be Immortal

Amanda Dennis

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When we begin to disappear – fingers, legs, taste, smell, relationships – what remains to render us . . . us? As an extension of yolk’s partnership with ILS, we have the privilege of publishing “Ways to be Immortal” by Amanda Dennis, shortlisted for the ILS 2022 Fiction Contest. Set in Paris and Normandy, this story explores the sensorial amalgamations of memory, and is marked by the author’s sharp, attentive, and witty prose.

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Yolk began as an electric conversation around a picnic table in Saint Henri Square.

Our scruffy pioneer and present prose editor had previously approached each of us with an idea, a vision: We would establish our own literary magazine in Montreal. And so it was, or so it would be. After that original encounter, eight individuals devoted to the word resolved that they would gather bi-weekly, on Sundays, and bring something new into this busy, manic world—something that might slow its spin down somewhat and cause its patronage to say: “You know what, it ain’t so bad, is it, Susan?”

We are undergraduate, graduate, and graduated students of writing. Some of us learn our craft formally from accomplished authors in seminar courses, and some of us learn by looking out the window of the world and onto the streets that sing below. Some of us learn from screaming squirrels, old curtains, departed grandfathers, and bowel movements. We learn from old lovers, long winters, imperfect mothers, and from the deep internet where a musical genius remains entombed.

Yolk is cold floors on Sabbath mornings, home-brewed ginger beer in the endless afternoon, and downpours of French-pressed coffee in assorted artisanal mugs. Our first official gathering was scheduled for a duration of two hours; most of us remained for six, departing only to attend to the summons of our own beckoning realities. Together, with time suspended, we talked endlessly of contributing something to disrupt Montreal’s literary ecosystem. Something unparalleled, something true.

But what? There was nothing to discuss. There was everything to discuss.

We volunteer our time, hounding some elusive beast composed of combustible words and works. We are hopeful, truly hopeful, that we can give something new, a new way, a new light, and that if we cannot, we might at least uphold the traditions of our predecessors, cast star-wide nets to capture their echoes. We are a thousand decisions. We are a sanctuary for the orphaned word, the solitary writer, the cereal-eating artist who yearns for company, for the comfort of a like mind; we sit together with them at foggy dawn, it rains a baptism, with our arms and hands intertwined, we form an umbrella—underneath, they scribble madly, the perfect picture.

Yolk in no way presumes to be superior to its contemporaries, but its contemporaries should not presume yolk to be anything other than loud—quite, quite loud. We are yippidy jazzed to address the oh-so-technicolorful magnificence of the human experience, but we are prepared also to address the ugliness, to stare at its wet, hairy snout and into its square depth and to roar in return at the things that yearn to devour our skin, beset our ethos, and dig graves in our own backyards.

There’s so much to say, there’s so much we don’t know, but together, with you, we can placate that ignorance, render it peaceful, tolerable, and perhaps even, fucking beautiful.

And Susan says, “Amen.”

One afternoon, the fingers of my left hand, beginning with the white of my pinky nail, began to disappear. The whole little finger turned white at first, knuckle to tip, like a taper candle. The blood must have stopped flowing there. After the nail, the flesh itself began to dissolve—progressively, not all at once.
          I was scared and sick at the sight of my skin, smooth and unscarred at the edge of my palm, as if there had never been a finger there. There was no pain, no feeling at all, not even a tingling or a numbness, so that my ring finger had already lost its top half before I noticed it going, too. My worst fear, imagined in an instant, was that the disappearing would spread until it reached my eyes.
          At least I wasn’t alone when it happened. Pierre was home, in the apartment we share on Rue Saint-Dominique. It’s the apartment in which he grew up. Other people think this is a strange arrangement. I tell them we’re working it out.
          Pierre found thimbles to press against the base joint of my left pinky and the middle knuckle of my ring finger. He said he didn’t know where to find sewing thimbles and had taken these from board games in the family closet. They must have two sets of Monopoly. The thimbles were small, but they stuck very well to my skin. The metal, Pierre told me, was full of robust chemical compounds. He used the word “robust,” and said earth metals would stop the disappearing. I asked whether he thought I’d still be able to see if the disappearing reached my eyes.
          He was busy putting coffee in the percolator. It was an afternoon in summer and the windows were open to the warm, damp air. The light felt abundant, like it would last and last.
          At my question, Pierre stopped spreading the grounds and tapped gently on the metal with his knife. 
          “No,” he said, screwing up his forehead. “At that stage you would go blind. Think about it. Can you touch with your missing fingers?”
          He stopped speaking abruptly and finished screwing the percolator together. He felt sorry. He’d let himself get excited by the logic of the problem and had forgotten me. I drummed my metal thimbles on the table as if they were real fingers. It didn’t give me as much pleasure as I thought it might. I said I would like to see the ocean again before I’m no longer able.
          “Don’t assume it’s degenerative,” Pierre said. “Don’t give your body any ideas. Try thinking it will grow back.”
          I looked numbly at my thumb, white like candle wax, fading from the tip.
          “Sit,” Pierre said.
          I sat at the kitchen table. He knelt down and capped off my thumb knuckle with a screw cap from the recycling bin. The cap had been attached to a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.
          “This could replace your calf,” he said, holding up the glass bottle. 
          “And my torso?” I asked, imagining myself stretched by the column of a wind turbine, higher than the trees on the boulevards, the buildings.
          The coffee snorted from the stove. I took lemon tarts from their boxes and cut them, using my right hand, into tiny squares. Miranda was coming over.
          She works night shifts twice a week at the emergency room, though not for the money. “You should see what they pay those poor people,” she’d told us once, dangling her paystub like a dirty tissue.
          Pierre took the tray to the living room. We had our coffee, a third mug standing empty because we like to do things on time and Miranda is often late. Through the long, open windows, white petals like linen underclothes danced in and dropped, exhausted, to the floor, their edges wilted.
          “I think we should go to the sea,” Pierre said.
          “Now?” I was enjoying the stickiness of lemony sable on my remaining finger pads.
          After running a hand through his curly hair, Pierre seized my left hand with its metal parts and pressed it to his lips, hot and dry. He so rarely shows signs of fervour. I was moved.
          Gazing out, we saw Miranda lock her white bicycle to a red “No Entry” sign on the street. She climbed in through the window, bringing more petals after her.
          She hugged us in rushes of perfume and began telling us about a piano concerto she’d heard played on the sidewalk by a woman with elegant fingers—a Rachmaninoff.
          “A piano on the square,” she said. “Can you believe it? An upright, but still . . .” 
          She was probably lying. Miranda always tells stories to get attention. A piano outside in Paris was illogical.
          “It’ll stay out there through the summer,” she said, reading my face, “and whoever wants to play can play. But when it rains,” she added, now concerned, “damp will get inside—”
          She stopped suddenly, seeing my hand, and raised her pretty head, sending ripples through her long, red hair. She looked at us with questions.
          “Lily is disappearing,” Pierre said, serving her the last of the coffee and going into the kitchen. Miranda approached me carefully, narrowing her eyes.
          “We’re going to Normandy,” I told her, “to see the sea.” After all, I wasn’t dying. No more than any of us.
          “The salt may help,” Miranda said.
          “Pierre thinks metal.”
          She nodded, took my bad hand between two fingers, delicately, and held it. Then her face squished up in disgust.
          “It’s not contagious,” I told her.
          “How do you know?”
          I didn’t, but I felt sure that the disappearing was entirely my own. Not transferable. Still, I could tell Miranda was afraid. She worked in the emergency room to face her fear of the body’s fragility, all of its automatic processes, the liquids and spasms we don’t control but which keep us alive. But it wasn’t working—or it hasn’t worked yet. She has only been there three months. I don’t know. Miranda has a lot of money, more than she will ever need. But no one would trade what she lost for it: both her parents, at age twelve. Since then she has lived with her grandmother on Place des Petits Pères—unless she sleeps in her painting studio. She has so much that her life has become all fear. And she feels cursed, because she associates riches with loss.
          To escape her stare, I took the empty coffee cups to the kitchen, balancing the saucers in the crook of my elbow. My middle finger whitened and began to fade from the tip, the way the others had. Out of delicacy I did not show Miranda.
          Pierre went to get the car, and Miranda went to bring her bike into the foyer in case it rained while we were away.
          Leaving the dishes in the sink, I sat at the kitchen table and copied parts of a poem into my notebook: I was the world in which I walked, and what I saw / Or heard or felt came not but from myself . . .1 Pierre says I am cultured for an American, which makes me wonder about the Americans he has known.
          My childhood was an enchanted world, the border between reality and other people’s imaginings always unsolid. The floors of the house became stone when my father would read aloud by the fire, the carpet dissolving not in flames but into the worlds of King Arthur, or the story of the Lady of Shalott, who would look at the world, mirrored in her tower, and weave what she saw. It never occurred to me to pity her, unable to move from that tower, sick of a life of shadows.
          Pierre came with the car, wearing sunglasses and a floppy straw hat. I climbed into the passenger’s seat. We were just like the stars of Pierrot le Fou, except the car was not a convertible and we were not criminals—and Miranda was not Godard.
          She climbed into the backseat and began fiddling with her camera. She let me have the front seat because I was disappearing.
          There was terrible traffic along the Seine. I sat on my hands to slow the fading of my flesh while we inched through the smog, the green river shining beyond the quais.
          “The air will be clearer once we’re away,” Pierre said, rolling up the windows. Miranda sighed and clicked a photo of us as we turned back to stare at her.
          Pierre was right. On the highway, the pollution dispersed. It was summer, and we would have hours yet of daylight. The drive was long, but we still might swim before dusk.
          I moved my left palm to my lap. Pierre had put a euro coin on the knuckle of my middle finger. My index was the only full finger on that hand. It looked lonely.
          Because she had worked all night, Miranda fell asleep almost instantly with the car’s steady movement.
          “What does it feel like?” Pierre asked me, showing me my reflection in his sunglasses.
          I looked again at my thumb that was now a bottle cap. “You know already. It’s like when anything ceases to be. You go back to the field of memories from which you were plucked the day you were born.”
          “If that’s true, then who decides what we return as?” Pierre asked. “Who says, for example, that this soul will be a snake and this a bee?”
          Pierre is a poet and a composer, but because he couldn’t decide between the two, he remained mediocre at both. He has a little bit of family money. Nothing like Miranda, but just enough to afford to do things out of love. He tries not to do anything he doesn’t love, and that, for him, is ethics, because he tries to love everything.
          Back when Pierre and I wore wedding rings—or I did—he told me that he loved having sex with Miranda, that sex with her and love for me made him a better poet and composer because he had sight and sound. Miranda is a visual artist who paints her photographs. I tutor wealthy children who do not like to read, and I write stories, which is why, perhaps, I’ve been spared my right hand.
          Pierre was my fall. With him, I couldn’t stay unrequited. I let myself be known, grew predictable. And because that simply didn’t work, we made a relationship out of habit. Even now we entertain together like the old, happy couple we aren’t.
          “Who says we come back?” I said.
          “It’s implied,” he answered. “It’s aleatory, and grace is a soul who says ‘yes’ to itself. ‘Yes, yes, in this life, this is what I am.’”
          Pierre turned on the radio but there was no music we wanted to sing to, so I cued up some American folksongs and we sang as loudly as we could. 
          Miranda slept through it all, until we came to a field of sunflowers. 
          “Look!” Miranda said. “Stop.”
          We got out of the car. The sun was bronze, tired of holding itself up in the sky. The stalks were as tall as Pierre and came to my chin. Miranda crouched, photographing us, and instructed Pierre to take off his silly hat. A sunflower is such a singular creature that seeing a field full of them feels obscene.
          Then there was a moment, an opening, with Pierre and Miranda laughing, their bodies hidden by the strong green stalks, light playing, flickering across my body, a horrifying and somehow beautiful patchwork of skin, metal and glass. A bolt of fear, a sudden hollowness in my gut told me to flee, to hitchhike, to board a plane that would soar over oceans and mountain ranges to where it didn’t matter. Hundreds of yellow discs with a thousand brown eyes urged me on. Here it is possible, they seemed to say. I looked at my body, at these spaces where my body should have been, roughly, obscenely capped, and the fear of further disappearing seized me. I remembered how fragile I was, and how deep the roots of sunflowers can grow, up to five feet. This is why they are so strong. Gently, I lay down among the bases of the stalks and watched the sun press against the petals. I felt my body covered up with those thick, strong roots, as if the ground had accepted to take me in and keep me there.
          Pierre and Miranda came with steak knives from the picnic basket and cut me free.
          “No, Lily,” they said, “not yet. You’re coming with us.”
          They peeled me away from the earth and it felt uncomfortable, as if invisible cords extending from my body had already found a home there. We didn’t stop again until we reached the water, bluer than any I’d seen, like the lazurite painted in medieval books. 
          We pitched our tent a little back from the beach. I watched Pierre and Miranda work because my left calf and foot had disappeared. It must have happened after the sunflower field, but I hadn’t noticed because I’d been asleep. When I woke, so much flesh was gone. I hadn’t been conscious enough to stop it.
          After pitching the tent, Pierre poured three very full glasses of rosé so that he could attach the empty bottle to my kneecap. The bottle wasn’t as long as my remaining calf. It came only to my ankle. I couldn’t walk, only hop.
          “Why is she disappearing?” Miranda asked again, taking a gulp of her wine, upset. I felt the urge to soothe her, and I smiled.
          Pierre was feeding me Brie de Meaux with fresh baguette, drizzled with honey and topped with a walnut. He is thoughtful this way.
          “The point,” he said, pausing to prepare himself a slice of Iraty with black cherry jam, “is to stop it.”
          “Will she grow back?”
          I sipped my wine and tried to enjoy the colours of the sea and sky, the smell of the damp fields where briny seaweed grows instead of grass, so that the flesh of the lambs that feed on it is salty.
          The wine’s tawny colour matched the twilight sky, and I felt almost happy. The toes of my right foot, in its sandal, began to disappear. I watched them—the toes—and the disappearing stopped.
          “Good!” Pierre said when I told him of my discovery. “You just have to look at the spot to stop the progress—or not progress, but . . .”
          He didn’t know what other word to use.
          “What if it happens to a part of my body I can’t see, like my ears?”
          Pierre was quiet. Then, “I’ll do it,” he said, committing himself. “I’ll stare at the part that is disappearing.”
          He kissed both of my ears, the fleshy part, the lobe, and then he went off toward the water.
          When it got fully dark, Miranda pulled a red scarf around her red hair and lit our candles. She looked like a pietà.
          Pierre brought back seashells that he fixed to my right footpad, for all five toes had disappeared. He promised to hold onto me during the night, his skin doing the work of all the found objects. He wrapped his long arms around me, and his legs too, smelling of argan oil and body odour—Pierre who was so clean—and his curls got in my nose as I slept, listening to Miranda, first photographing us with slow shutter speeds in the dark, and then snoring beside us, rhythmic and rattling. Through a tear in the wall of the tent, I saw a sky of dim, scattered stars.
          I woke up with only a torso. There were also my arms and parts of my hands.
          “Better to concentrate on what’s left,” Pierre said, kissing my right hand, still intact, and my left, which had obediently stopped disappearing where the metal was. The bottle that had been attached at my now-disappeared knee lolled forlornly at the rim of the tent.
          Miranda took one look at me and went off to be sick. She was probably still worried it was contagious. Pierre followed her, and I heard them whispering by a grove of trees, where Pierre was also urinating. Still lying on my back, I inspected the air beneath my belly. My torso ended at the pubis.
          I couldn’t see anything but sky through the flap in the tent. My vision felt—because it was—limited. I could hear their voices but could not see them. I needed, suddenly, very badly, to see, to move myself, to be vertical, not like this, supine. I rocked, using my elbows for leverage, gaining momentum, making the tent shake with my efforts. Would they notice? 
          Rocking harder, I lurched up. My head and shoulders had never felt so unwieldy. I heaved against gravity, tried to steady myself with my arms but fell back again. And again. Panic set in. I began to sweat, and the odours of the tent where we had slept were nauseating. My breath catching, tears threatening, I tried again to rock up. This time I tipped on my pubis-base, a short taste of victory before gravity pulled too hard and I lurched forward, too fast for my arms to break my fall. My head pitched forward through the flap of the tent, raw sand in my mouth.
          Sand clung to my body, caking on my sweat. I must have looked like some terrible lizard as I manoeuvered back to my original position, supine, the sun in my eyes now, hurting. Still sick with fear, I made myself touch the lower edge of my torso, baby smooth skin bending up from my genitals as if there had never been legs there. I covered my face in my hands and would not cry. There was strong morning sun, rare in Normandy. What luck that on my last day there should be such beauty.
          And I would no longer need to urinate, or defecate, or menstruate, I thought, hearing Pierre’s stream stop. Miranda was crying. I no longer cared what they thought—no more water or wine or cognac, which I used to drink with my father, who could recite Lear from memory and who would have named me Cordelia had my mother not intervened. Lily, my mother always said, was a name entirely my own. They wanted me to have everything. And I did. I would. I read everything, and I knew everything, so I would have everything except a body that others could see. And what did I care about others? I tried to sit up but could not. I saw Pierre and Miranda dart toward the sea and squat down out of sight.
          They came back, running up from the beach where they had been swimming, their bodies cold with salt, wet, and Pierre’s almost clammy as he raised me up, pulled me to him and carried me like a small sculpture from the tent across the sand.
          “We’ve found the solution,” Miranda said. “We know what will stop you from disappearing. You’ll grow into yourself again,” she said, still keeping her distance from me, her long red hair knotted in the red scarf.
          They had dug a hole in the sand, a safe distance from the water. They planted me and adorned the sand, cool on the edges of my torso, with shells and sea glass and bits of driftwood.
          “You will grow,” Miranda shouted from where she stood, metres back, clutching her camera, her white dress and red scarf cutting an elegant contrast to the blue.
          I felt snug in my mound of cool, damp sand, and when I slept, Pierre pointed out, I could stick my hands in the sand around me to stop the erosion of my body. I would be immortal like that, he told me, forever part of the sand and sea.
          “But who will I talk to?” I asked, sensing they were about to leave, that there was pressing business—symphonies, theatre, painting exhibitions, hospitals—in the city to attend to.
          Pierre kissed me on the mouth before he left. It must have made an odd picture. He tasted cold, like a fish, and over-salted. It must have been from the sea. Or perhaps I was losing my taste for him, though he lovingly gave me a pencil that I could use to scratch the sand, and he planted a bouquet of wildflowers near my left hand.
          “I will come change them,” he said. “I will check on you,” he called as they ran to the car.
          And then I was alone with the shattering of waves over pebbles, a talkative sound, a little like clapping. The sea and the sky were magnificent, and though I was alone and, I was sure, still disappearing, I had never felt more at home in the world.

1 Wallace Stevens, “Tea at the Palaz of Hoon,” Harmonium, 1923.

Amanda Dennis is the author of the novel, Her Here, and a work of literary criticism, Beckett and Embodiment: Body, Space, Agency. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, and Guernica, and she is Assistant Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris.

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