about the author

Caralyn Davis lives in Asheville, N.C., with her cat Henry and works as a freelance writer for healthcare and technology transfer trade publications. Her fiction and creative nonfiction appears or will be published in Fiction International, BULL, the Bitter Southerner, Word Riot, Eclectica, Monkeybicycle, Flash Fiction Magazine, Superstition Review, and other journals. She loves striped Armenian cucumbers; is a master knitter of rectangles; and can be found on Twitter @CaralynDavis.

Bookmark and Share


font size

Off the Bone 

Caralyn Davis

Near the coast of Spain, a seagrass meadow has survived for two hundred thousand years, nurtured in the salted cord blood of planet Earth since modern humans put their first mark upon the crust. Geneva Hardy saw those grasses twisting and swaying before her like steroid-pumped aloe as she burned to death. It was her thirty-eighth birthday.

What she saw wasn’t real. The seagrasses were in fact flames, Spain and the ocean a distant memory of college holidays swimming and drinking sherry and lemon soda cocktails because, one friend said, “We need to get our elegance on.” Geneva knew the seagrasses weren’t there, but still favored this more comforting vision.

In preparation for her act of self-immolation, she had scrounged drugs from this doctor for back pain, that doctor for migraines, another for depression and acute anxiety. Cornered the neighborhood artiste for general rave-level mind alteration—“You know what happened, Shane,” she said to the boy with a book of Anne Sexton poetry in hand at the bottom of his parents’ driveway. “Your mom sent tulips. Sell me what I need.” The resulting drug cocktail gave her a just bearable feeling of being scraped raw. Geneva was relieved. She didn’t want to experience the full effect of her flesh melting off the bone.

* * *

Age 8: Geneva’s father abandoned her. Instead of coming home for dinner one Friday night, he drove to Kentucky and decided to stay there. A postcard arrived for Geneva, the front showing a black stallion caught mid-whinny. Scrawled across the back: “Be a good girl, sweet pea. See you soon. Love, Dad.” Geneva and her mother moved in with her mother’s parents. Granddad let Geneva follow him around after school and on weekends. She handed him wrenches and hammers; she fetched nails and buckets; she held the other end of the two-man saw steady when he cut wood even though he had to do both a push and a pull to make it work. In response, he found pennies in her ear or kissed her brown head, saying “Good thing I’ve got you here to help me, huh?”

Age 9: Three or four months after Geneva and her mother came to stay, Granddad went out on a Saturday afternoon in October. He was back close to dark, walking in the kitchen door with a bottle of bourbon and a bag that was leaking from the bottom. Geneva’s mother was out on a date.

“Lord, Roy,” said Gram, towel in hand. “I’m not cooking those.” She eased down to her knees to clean the blood trail from the blue-and-white checkerboard linoleum.

Granddad upended the bag on the counter. Twelve small bodies fell out. Geneva, sitting at the kitchen table, couldn’t identify the animals. No arms or legs. The heads were attached, but aside from smears of blood, the bodies were putty-colored and featureless. Slit through the belly, more killed than dead.

“Don’t see how you got so squeamish, woman, but I’m not asking,” said Granddad. “I can make squirrel stew.”

“Squirrels? What’s wrong with them? Where’s their fur, their tails?” said Geneva.

“There’s nothing wrong with them,” he said. “They’ve been skinned and gutted, for cooking.”

Granddad kept a can of roasted peanuts on the front porch. He liked to sit in a rocker and crack open peanuts and eat them, letting the shells fall to crunch underfoot. Sometimes he gave peanuts to Geneva so she could feed the squirrels that played in the oak tree in the front yard. She’d named the one with the bushiest tail Greg, the one that chattered nonstop, Jan.

“Geneva, let’s go in the living room and watch TV,” said Gram as she got up from the floor.

Geneva shook her head. She had to watch, to figure out if Greg and Jan were among the victims. Gram left alone.

Granddad chopped onions while Gram’s iron frying pan heated on the stove. Oil, onions, squirrel. The smell of frying animal: a tang in the air that didn’t come from store-bought beef or chicken. Once the squirrels were browned, Granddad added flour and water to make gravy. He didn’t talk to Geneva for the next forty-five minutes. He whistled jaunty Christmas tunes, stopping only to take a swig of bourbon or stir the bubbling stew. On “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” Geneva formed an O with her lips and blew, hoping for a whistle. Nothing but a wheeze. Granddad poked a squirrel with a serving fork.

“Ready,” he said with a smile. “I’m a right proper chef.” Granddad got two plates out of the cupboard and held them in one hand. With his other hand, he jabbed the fork into a squirrel neck. A squelch and a pop. He lifted the head out and put it on the top plate. Twelve squelches, twelve pops, twelve heads. Geneva blew more air.

“Best part first. The rest’ll taste even better tomorrow.” Granddad carried his plates to the table and sat down across from Geneva. He slid the clean bottom plate to his front left, where the bread-and-butter plate belonged, and looked around the table. “Damn, stop trying to stir a breeze and get my bottle, girl.”

Geneva closed her mouth and grabbed the bourbon. She set it on the table to his right and sat down again. Granddad put a squirrel head in his mouth and sucked, working his jaw. A loud, wet slurp. Then he spit a doll-sized white skull into his hand and placed it on the spare plate, right on top of a glazed yellow flower. Geneva watched. Her eyes moved back and forth between his mouth and the extra plate as he repeated the process. He stacked the skulls into a pyramid, drinking from his bottle with each new skull added to the pile. Geneva couldn’t decide what was more terrible, the slurps or the rows of empty eye sockets.

“Don’t stare at me that way, girl!” Granddad scooped up the top skull and hurled it at Geneva. The skull bounced off Geneva’s cheekbone and clattered to the floor near her feet. Shock kept her still aside from a hand to her face. Granddad watched the squirrel head like he’d cast bones to divine his future. Geneva’s cheek stung; her fingers traced through spills both sticky and slick. Blinking, she looked down at the skull too, hoped it wasn’t Jan. A drop fell. More blood on Gram’s linoleum.

“Get the hell out!” said Granddad, snapping out of his trance. “Ain’t my fault. Don’t I deserve a little quiet? A spot of relaxation without you trailing along, judging me time and again?”

Gram opened the kitchen door.

“Be a good girl, Geneva. Don’t make Granddad angry when he’s been cooking,” she said. “Come away and we’ll fix up that cheek.”

As the door closed behind Geneva, Gram took her hand and led her down the hall. “It doesn’t happen that often,” she said. “But Granddad needs to relax on occasion—best to ignore it.”

Every twelve to sixteen weeks thereafter, Granddad required a similar level of relaxation. The meal he prepared sometimes varied; the bourbon didn’t. Whatever Geneva did then bothered him. Staring at him, not staring at him, staying by his side, hiding in her room, being silent, telling him about her favorite TV shows, doing whatever he said, ignoring him completely—it all made him mad. She got an extra penny when a cut or bruise showed.

* * *

Geneva had researched the matter and found that burning a human alive was no easy task, whether the fire was self-inflicted or provided through the questionable largesse of other humans. The job was often botched due to an array of factors (e.g., insufficient fuel, wrong type of fuel, or high humidity). The result: an extensive stay in a hospital burn ward and/or an excruciating, lengthy death. Wanting to end her suffering rather than extend it, Geneva used her Internet savvy to develop a plan that combined a mix of pharmaceuticals with Scout-worthy fire-starting technique. She would achieve optimal self-immolation.

* * *

Age 11: Geneva’s father sent a Christmas present through the mail, making contact for the first time in a year. The box contained a white rabbit coat, muff, and hat. “For my good girl!” said the card.

“Bastard showing me up with my own child,” said Geneva’s mother as Geneva stroked the fur with one clean fingertip.

“If that’s the kind of language you use, no wonder he preferred the floozy,” said Gram.

Geneva wore the ensemble for the next three years, from early fall to late spring, until she could no longer button the coat and the fur had mange. Geneva’s mother put everything in the trash.

* * *

Age 14: Geneva’s father called one summer evening. “Hi sweet pea,” he said as if he believed his voice was still embedded in her memory, as if she wasn’t dependent on her mother’s look of disgust to know who was on the phone. “I’ll be up your way next Saturday. I’ll stop by.”

“I won’t forbid you to see him, but that man is not allowed in the front door, not a step,” said Geneva’s mother. “After all this time, he decides to remember you exist? He belongs to that woman now—I won’t have him fouling my air.”

Geneva spent Friday night baking a chocolate cake with boiled icing. In the morning, she set up a table on the front porch and laid out the Sunday porcelain china with the tea rose pattern, green table linens, and the cake on a crystal stand. Then she waited, trying not to pick at the blisters on her arms where the icing had splattered up from the pan. She never heard from her father again. Granddad ate the cake.

That fall for her school picture, Geneva’s mother allowed her to wear lipstick in the same berry pink shade as the roses on the Sunday china that her father never saw. “Getting your beauty struck,” that’s what Granddad said kids called having your photograph taken when he was a boy. Geneva wondered why pretty was so often linked to pain.

* * *

Geneva’s investigation into fire as a means of execution or suicide revealed some troubling truths.

When a man burned, it counted. There was A Cause. Throughout history, a man who burned at the stake might have been called a heretic, but he really was a warrior for religious freedom. A man who self-immolated was protesting repressive governments, arms races, man-made ecological disasters—big issues that necessitated spectacular sacrifice and a five-minute block of airtime on the national evening news.

Buddhist monks were a perfect example. On June 11, 1963, a Vietnamese monk set himself on fire in the streets of Saigon after inviting the media. The attendance of the Associated Press and The New York Times ensured worldwide coverage of the monk’s protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the Vietnamese government. Every decade thereafter, hot spots of burning monks turned reporters’ attention to China’s suppression of Tibet and other Causes.

But when a woman burned, it was her own damn fault no matter who set the fire. With a few prominent exceptions, this too was the case throughout history. A woman who burned at the stake was a witch. Or an annoyance. Same thing in the case of spontaneous combustion—a mysterious affliction that somehow micro-targeted wealthy female tipplers. These hard-drinking older women self-ignited their own livers and lungs throughout 1650-1780 (the period when witchcraft stopped being a crime), much to the apparent surprise of their heirs. Not even goddesses were exempt from blame. Gullveig, a Viking goddess adept at acquiring gold, was burned in Odin’s fireplace because she was a little too sassy about her success and pissed off a bunch of the other gods.

A woman who self-immolated was sad, worth a cringe and a shake of the head. These days when enough women set themselves alight in Afghanistan or India, a major U.S. newspaper or magazine did a story detailing their abuse. Many Americans donated money to organizations that helped survivors of failed self-immolations. Some said things like “Those are some crazy bitches over there.” Whether the response was heartfelt or heartless, nothing changed on the front end: Women burned.

* * *

Age 15: Frequent dating paid off for Geneva’s mother at last. She got a second husband. Geneva got a stepbrother. Geneva and her mother moved in with their new family. The stepbrother, Troy, cornered her under the stairs in the back hallway. He touched her breast and kissed her on the mouth. There was slobber. She told her mother while they were making supper.

“You’re mistaken, I’m sure, Geneva. Troy wants you to be a part of the family. You’re used to being an only child.” Her mother smiled and stirred the vinaigrette. “You have a brother now.”

“Brothers don’t touch their sisters the way he touched me. He’s a dirty creep, a pervert,” Geneva said to the cucumbers, then looked at her mother.

Geneva’s mother sighed, put down the spoon, and slapped her across the face. “Never lie like that again. What if Ollie heard you talk that way about his son? Good girls learn to get along with their new brothers, not make up jealous tales out of romance novels.”

The reference to romance novels confused Geneva. She felt no secret longing in her bosom for Troy. A secret longing in the bosom was de rigueur in those novels. Besides, Geneva never lied. Geneva knew her mother knew that. What Geneva hadn’t realized until that moment was that a wedding ring could be a moat of lies keeping the king and queen snug in the family castle while the princess scrambled to avoid the filth. Geneva spent a lot of time at the library until she got a full college scholarship three years later.

* * *

A male Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire and began the Arab Spring. A thirteen-year-old girl in India set herself on fire after being raped. “Bring back the child brides,” said local leaders, believing there would be fewer rapes if men didn’t get so frustrated waiting for women to reach the official marriageable age of eighteen.

Although American women rarely used suicide by fire as a means of escaping abuse, Geneva didn’t indulge in feelings of superiority about Western civilization. Too many didn’t try to escape at all, or tried too late. They stayed for years and prayed their abuser would change.

“He loves me.”

“He’s a good provider. I know not to bother him.”

“We have children. I can’t give up.”

“That’s not him. It’s stress.”

“I’m so fat. It disgusts me. Of course, it sets him on edge.”

“He wouldn’t worry about the bills if I could stick to the budget. I’m so stupid with money.”

“This is a marriage, a partnership. Everyone has bad times.”

“I love him.”

A case could be made that self-immolation showed more strength than waiting to be beaten to death or gunned down in an office parking lot. A case could be made that if U.S. women self-immolated, abuse might be acknowledged as an epidemic worthy of headlining the nightly news.

* * *

Age 23: Geneva met James at church. She was a physical therapist. He was a corporate attorney. She wore red lipstick and black heels. He had a shy smile and pale green eyes. He sent silly texts and left notes on the bathroom mirror, always ending: “Love, James.” They married.

Like Granddad, James needed to relax on occasion. Squirrels and bourbon weren’t involved. Vodka was. James preferred not to adulterate his alcohol with food unless they were entertaining and he could fire up the grill. The end result (disregarding the addition of sex into the mix) wasn’t that different from what had happened with Granddad.

“Celery? Again? Can we not have dinner without green shit on my plate?”

“My bonus fell through. Keep the goddamn kids out of my study.”

“My shirt’s wrinkled. Wilma Flintstone could iron, for Christ’s sake. Are you dumber than a cartoon character?”

“Blah, blah, blah. Shut up for once!”

Geneva got a diamond eternity band instead of pennies. Twelve years, two children who deserved a beautiful family. She made thousands of excuses for her husband, some unique to her, but most were tired karaoke knockoffs, the originals perfected by centuries of other women. The thing was, James was so charming with everyone else: men, women, toddlers, ninety-year-olds. She was what set him off. Sometimes Eva and Ryan could as well when they displayed too close a genetic link to the object of his ire, but thankfully he blamed—hurt—her for that, not the children. The few times she tried to discuss the situation with girlfriends, she got incredulous looks and a “If you don’t want him, I’ll take him” or a “You’ll lose him if you’re a bitch. No man’s perfect all the time.”

* * *

Doing the fire the right way was important to Geneva. Limiting the pain and ensuring a successful suicide weren’t the only issues. From afar, the flames needed to appear pure, purposeful. She didn’t want them to seem inviting, like a toasty blaze at a ski resort. She wanted to be a Joan of Arc who chose her path, not a victim trapped by her own unwillingness to ditch her five-inch Louboutins and run.

* * *

Age 35: Enough. “Love, James” no longer swayed Geneva. She packed up Eva and Ryan and moved her family to a three-bedroom home in a suburb of middle managers and grandparents. James stayed in the Tuscan-inspired estate in the gated community. He began stalking her. Sole custody, new phone number and e-mail, security system, unenforced restraining orders, pepper spray, 911 again and again and again, gun.

One rainy Saturday afternoon nine months after the divorce, she was called into work, a last-minute substitute for another therapist. Eva and Ryan waved goodbye from their spots on the family room sofa. The wing chair was occupied by Bestine Luther, a retired neighbor lady who enjoyed babysitting so she could buy presents for her seven grandchildren.

“We’ll have a fine time,” said Bestine. “Don’t you worry.”

James shot all three in the head, then himself. Geneva found the bodies when she got home that night. Stains on the sofa, spatters on the walls. Eva and Ryan were almost unrecognizable, less her own children and more horror-movie extras—nameless, bloody bodies (Dead Girl 1, Dead Boy 2) to pad the killer’s grisly totals. James didn’t close Eva and Ryan’s eyes. They were blank, staring, worse than any squirrel.

The police thought James had meant to kill her too, that work saved her. Geneva wasn’t sure. James believed she had left him behind to suffer in the divorce. It would be like him to do the same. Payback, one better.

* * *

Age 37: Geneva waited three hundred and eighty-nine days for her mother to die of natural causes. She wanted no family alive to grieve her death. Once her mother was buried, Geneva loaded her car with fuel, bomb-making paraphernalia, drugs, matches, and her smartphone. Her best friend Karen agreed to post, sight unseen, the videos Geneva would send. Then she drove west for two days, toward Las Vegas. The first night out, when she stopped to sleep at a roadside motel, she combed her hair and put on mascara and coral lipstick. She sat on the edge of one of the two queen-size beds, directly across from the sign on the back of the room door that said, “Please don’t dress game inside,” and recorded an introduction to the video.

“Dear World,” she said, “I am not ashamed or guilty, desperate or crazy. My death is worthy of your notice. I have A Cause. I accepted abuse, judging it a burden worth bearing for love. I gave power to a broken man, and society let him keep it. He killed my children and neighbor. He failed us. I failed us too, thinking he’d do what was right for our kids even if he wouldn’t do it for me or himself. You may not think you’re worth saving. Go anyway. Save yourself so you can save your children, your friends, coworkers, bystanders—all the people his hatred could snare. Hoard money, call hotlines, make a plan to get out safely, and force the life you deserve. Let my flames light your path.”

On the second night, Geneva reached a wide expanse of desert that managed to have decent cell reception, probably due to the U.S. Geological Survey science station she’d passed on the road. Stars swarmed the sky, untroubled by clouds or smog. She took her meds and set up a circle of incendiary devices and gasoline cans in the sand. She sent Karen the intro she’d prerecorded, propped up her smartphone against a rock on the hood of her car, and prepared a feed to upload live. She walked to the center of the circle and thought of Eva and Ryan.

Happy things. Reading to them at bedtime when they were little, Dr. Seuss for Eva and Richard Scarry for Ryan. Teaching them to do kickturns and ollies on their skateboards. Watching the Star Trek movie seven nights straight in a competition to see who could say Spock’s dialogue word for word and win the unisex title of Emperor Nerd.

What she craved, though, was to be annoyed. Eva spitting her chicken onto the table for a solid year because it “felt funny” in her mouth whether Geneva baked, broiled, or fried it. Ryan wearing slick 100 percent polyester football jerseys day in and day out, even to weddings and Christmas parties, because every other type of shirt “itched.” Eva’s “I hate you” because the divorce forced her to switch schools. Ryan’s “That’s a girl’s job!” when she asked him to clean the bathroom. Geneva longed to feel the essence of her children at their worst and to love them anyway.

She doused herself in gasoline.

“I was a good girl,” she said. “That was my mistake.”

Geneva lit a match.

* * *

An airplane flew overhead. A little girl and her mother were among the passengers. The girl looked out the window into the night while her mother sank into a book.

“What’s that, Mama?” The girl pointed toward a column of light on the desert floor.

“I don’t know.” The mother’s eyes flicked up from her book. “It must be a star.”

“If it’s a star, why’s it on the ground?”

“Oh. You’re such a smart girl.” The mother reached out and smoothed the girl’s hair before returning to her reading. “Well, the sky couldn’t hold that one.”

The girl pushed her face against the glass and cupped her hands around her eyes for a better view. Shining waves of fire rolled upward, reaching for the girl but unable to match her height and speed. She would remember the moment the waves gave up for the rest of her life. They dissolved into tendrils, then sparks, and fell back to the Earth.

HTML Comment Box is loading comments...