Lorilee ate herself, a habit that her father considered to be a consequence of pure desire and gluttony. As a baby Lorilee would put her hands in her mouth and suck and chew on them until the skin blistered and peeled. Her tiny fingers looked like smashed raspberries, but Lorilee never cried or grimaced and her parents rightly concluded that the chewing and gnawing was painless. They took her to a pediatrician in the city, an hour drive from Phillips County, who prescribed gloves, “tiny white ones with frills so she can soothe her sensory needs and still look like a little lady”, but that only encouraged her to bite her lower lip until it was shredded and bleeding.
“That baby will eat herself to death,” the father said, blaming his wife for Lorilee’s oddness. “Your family is consumed with nervous tics, stuttering, bad manners and foul words. Your sister, case in point, is a woman known to take meat out of her mouth and squeeze it soft so she can chew it better.” He had seen other signs of ill-conception in his wife’s family and was convinced that moral weakness came down the line through her genes. Lorilee’s mother agreed that certain members of her family were tainted, but they were minor flaws that did not muddy the true intent of a person’s heart and soul. “I’d rather sit down to dinner with an ill-mannered saint that politely sip tea with the Devil,” she liked to say when he got wind behind his judgements.
When Lorilee was two she surprised her parents with words that tumbled out of her. At first the words were one syllable, but then she expanded them to two, then three, and she could name almost everything in the farmhouse. At the age of two-and-a-half she composed her first rhyme “mommy and daddy and Lorilee, a lovely family that makes three.” She liked to find words that were tenuously linked and then expose their dissimilarity. “’Hiccup’ is not an animal like ‘hippopotamus’.” Her father worried that Lorilee would learn all the vulgar words and embarrass him at the hardware store on their twice-monthly visits.
Lorilee did not have many friends. The physical isolation of a Kansas farm and her father’s reluctance to allow intrusions into his aloofness kept Lorilee out of social circles, containing her within the square of a small family. Their nearest neighbours were the Turners who lived a mile away from the twin posts that marked the end of her laneway. The Turners had one son, Nate, whom the entire county thought of as a boy whose mind was seriously askew, off kilter and mentally deficient. “That boy doesn’t have the intelligence to tell a cat from a dog.” “If he plowed his daddy’s farm, the corn fields would grow in the shape of the letter S.” Nate would wait by his twin posts for the school bus and trip his way up the vehicle’s stairs, catching his bag on the safety rail, and sit beside Lorilee in the front seats.
Lorilee and Nate were two sides of the same coin as far as the people of Phillips County were concerned. Many wondered if something was wrong on the farms. Maybe herbicides were getting in to the wells? The Von Issers, who had a new red roof on their stately Victorian farm house and a blue-green swimming pool in their lushly landscaped backyard, stated that “those two families must have swapped partners and God is simply showing the rest of us what might happen if these unnatural games are played.” Dr. Ames, who hadn’t yet left his family practise for richer patients in the city, overheard the comment in Fitz’s Grill and suggested that if anything, this would increase genetic diversity and improve the stock of the county, which was sorely needed. He’d examined Lorilee a few times, mostly for the minor maladies of childhood and adolescence. Her folks had politely asked him if it was normal for their daughter to enjoy the parts of her body that naturally sloughed off and Dr. Ames suggested that self-ingestion was not unknown in many cultures.
“That boy has the smarts of a brick, and that girl, smart as she is, just isn’t normal.” The comments flew like newspaper in a Prairie storm. “Did you hear that Nate drove his daddy’s truck right through the barn door? Couldn’t read the letters on the stick shift.” “I hear Miss Smarty Pants is entering the state spelling bee. I guess her daddy won’t be able to talk to her anymore now that she knows all those big words.” Nate and Lorilee were the endpoints on a line along which the county measured their own children. Their children were normal, in the middle of that spectrum, and anyone who got too close to either end of that line was doomed to destructive and incorrigible behaviour. Nothing good could come from being different. Bad luck was earned and rumours said that the Turners were bankrupt and Lorilees’s farm had diseased livestock.
As Lorilee grew up, her fleshy menu broadened and the flavours deepened. She believed that the simple act of devouring the sleep from her eyes connected body and earth. The relationship she had with her brain was an easy and utilitarian one—all IQ and answers—but the one she had with her body was pure sensuality. She loved the taste of herself. The granular crust from her eyes was like grains of sea salt and each crumb dissolved on her tongue like morsels of sponge toffee. At night when she slipped her hands between her legs and raked her fingers between her labia, she would smell each fingertip and imagine the ocean. In the summer her skin would burn and peel and Lorilee would suck on each piece that she’d carefully ripped from her shoulders, melting them under her tongue. In the school cafeteria heaps of food were slopped onto students’ trays but Lorilee chose to sit alone with her packed lunch and pick at scabs that she slipped into her mouth like tiny chocolates.
Compared to the other girls Lorilee was womanly, with a figure that cast an hourglass shadow in the afternoon sun. On her tenth birthday her mother gave her a bra and by thirteen Lorilee had breasts whose nipples pushed against the fabric of her blouses, revealing their circumference. The boys called her Miss Mountaintops. She was pretty in a conventional way; she could have won third place in a county-wide beauty contest. Her only visible imperfection was the generous splattering of pimples across the upper half of her breasts. She liked to wear tops that showed her cleavage and when she bent forward the boys, both enticed and repelled, could see the faint line of her areola. Lorilee would constantly ask her teachers for permission to use the washroom and then alone in a stall she would squeeze the pimples along her chest, wipe the white pus along her lips and sweep it into her mouth with a flick of her tongue. If the pimple was large and angry, the pus would ooze from it like a drop of breast milk.
In their senior year of high school, when Nate was allowed to drive an old pickup truck his daddy could forgive losing, he’d give Lorilee a ride. He’d found his skill in driving after plowing his daddy’s truck through their fence. Nate vowed to learn so he put the truck right up to the barn windows and rocked the truck back and forth, first and reverse gears, a hundred times, clutching and braking, until he was sure he’d never again go through any fence or wall. He’d take the truck at night and cruise down the dirt roads that cut the prairie into farm-sized pieces. On moon-lit nights he’d pull onto the shoulder, cut the engine and listen to crickets in the fields and dream of Lorilee’s body.
He knew about her habits, looked forward to warmer weather when she’d reveal her body. Sometimes when she got into the truck he’d sniff like a dog. He didn’t want to have sex with her; Nate fantasized about kissing and licking her blistering shoulder or running his tongue along the bumps on her chest. The boys at school teased each other about whether or not Lorilee would have anything left to eat by her wedding night. To him she was like the dead soccer players whose plane crashed in the Andes, who gave their bodies to save the living.
“Have you ever let anyone taste you?” Nate asked her when they sat together in the school cafeteria.
“That’s vile. I’m still a virgin and every part of me is unavailable until the right guy shows up.”
“That’s not what I meant. Not that. I meant, have you ever wanted to put a piece of your skin in someone else’s mouth?”
Lorilee had wondered about sharing her body this way. Would their tongues taste the cells in the same way her tongue did? It was like questioning if everyone saw the identical scene through different eyes.
“Maybe. I’d do it for you, but only because you’re brave enough to ask and not insensitive.”
Nate felt that his desire to consume a small part of her beautiful body was noble and mature.
Every Sunday, spring to fall, Lorilee’s daddy would do a crop tour of the neighbouring farms. Most often she’d come along in the truck just to hear his cantankerous rants about the farmers who were more or less successful than himself. If her mother came they’d squeeze onto the bench seat in the truck and set drinks along the dashboard; rye and coke for her parents and plain coke for her. Lorilee drank it so frequently that canker sores inside her mouth were a perpetual distraction. She’d chew inside her cheeks and pool the trickle of blood on her tongue before swallowing it. Then she’d swish the coke in her mouth to etch her wounds, the acidity burning the torn skin and rinsing more blood onto her tongue.
Tornados were a hazard that everyone planned for and her daddy assured her that in two decades of tours the odds of it happening were worse than his chances of winning the lottery. He was wrong. Lorilee had done research and found that they had a one-in-seven thousand chance of dying from a tornado. The county was famous for its wedges and stovepipes and in eighty years a dozen serpentine funnels had swept the fields clear of crops, livestock and humans. Lorilee had seen the sickly green clouds that bred tornados and heard them roaring like beasts hidden in the corn, bellowing with hunger and anger. Once she’d heard nothing at all, a silence so profound that it seemed as if everyone and everything had died and gone to heaven, even the singing birds. In school and at home the children had been taught to fear this silence, to look for leaves and broken branches floating up into the sky, and to measure the sting of hail on their skin as an omen for what might come. They read stories about deadly tornados and practised running to shelters. They made classroom posters that showed stick people lying in bathtubs or under mattresses, as if they were already dead and not just trying to hide from the storm.
On this Sunday, just before they started the tour, Lorilee’s father dragged the bodies of two dead goats onto the soft earth outside the barn doors. Anyone passing by the farm could mistake the bodies for children in thick spring jackets. The goat’s stomachs had ballooned and black-green flies trampolined on the stretched skins. Some undiagnosed disease was killing his animals but he was sure that quarantining the goats would stop it and the vet would not be needed. Vets were salespeople, not healers; they were always trying to get you to lay on drugs and remedies that drained your wallet even when the animals were sure to die. He called Bio Disposal, a company that advertised they’d be on your farm within sixty minutes of your call and winch the body into their bin within twenty minutes of arrival. Nate had gotten a weekend job with the company driving the truck and loading carcasses.
The crop tour was half done and they’d seen most of what demanded commentary. “Look at the corn on the Jacob’s farm. It’s smaller than my leg. From ankle to knee is all it is.” He drove the truck slowly, both to avoid upending the dashboard drinks and to heighten the drama in his opinions and extend her boredom. Classic country played on the truck radio. Freddy Fender and Waylon Jennings was music that meant something and spoke to hardened men like her daddy and other near-bankrupt farmers. Most of what now passed for country music was just “city boys whining and preening” and he would not allow any radio stations other than what he’d set on the dial. “I hope that boy got to the farm before those goats explode.” He always called Nate “that boy” and in person he didn’t call him anything.
Nate had arrived at the barn and called out three times before knocking on the farmhouse door. The goats were rising like loaves of bread in the heat and he couldn’t wait for anyone to return. He’d wear heavy rubber gloves and hip waders, with a mask over his face, then cut the goats’ stomachs and let the coconut-milk liquid spill onto the porous ground. He stuck the knife deep into them and sliced down their middle with box-cutter deftness. Each animal deflated to living size and he secured the winch strap around their hind legs. You had to drag them slowly or a leg could rip off as easily as the drumstick from the Christmas turkey.
The NPR weather forecast said thunderstorms might happen around this time of day. Winching dead weight that was soaked would hamper the company commitment of speedy removal. Nate kept his eyes on the sky and wet his finger. He stuck it into the air to judge the wind, but felt only air resisting his wave. The stillness was broken by birds flying past the farm, as if in migration, and Nate saw a bowl descend from the clouds, an enormous inverted gray lake. It spun slowly, and clusters of birds swirled around its axis and then, as if God flicked a switch, the bowl spat out a whirling funnel. It whipped the ground with lashes that flicked trees into the air and ripped both stories from the Von Isser’s home. The funnel moved neither right nor left, staying perpendicular to Nate, but coming towards him. He figured it might be five miles away, but like judging distance over water, he could not be sure if the measure was right.
Lorilee’s father had also seen the tornado and measured the gap between the storm and the farmhouse, where they could get underground. His wipers could not clear the hail on the windshield fast enough and the pinging against the truck drowned out the lament of Willy Nelson. He was driving seventy miles an hour, almost too fast for the truck to stay attached to the earth. Gravel catapulted from the wheels, the rocks colliding in midair and then ricocheting off the truck bed; her daddy would be mad about the paint damage. Lorilee put her hands under her shirt and felt bumps along her breasts. She wanted to squeeze them and rub her fingers in the sticky pus.
They passed Nate near the twin posts of the lane. He was running towards the ditch that ran along the farm, against the road. The ditch was no more than four feet deep in places and two feet in most. Nate would be lucky to end up in a spot that gave him any protection but if he landed midway between the right post and the second fence stile he could dive into the depression made where a large boulder had been cleared out the previous summer. “I’m not stopping for that idiot boy. He better run back to the farm if he wants to live.”
Lorilee’s daddy stopped the truck at the front porch and yelled at her and her mother. “Goddamn it, get into the shelter. Now.” Lorilee stood fixed to the ground, judging the danger. She wanted to run to her bedroom and get a locket in which she kept the first tooth she’d lost in case the house was peeled away from its foundations. In the field she saw a cow impaled by what looked like a kitchen-table leg. The animal was rigid, its tail hanging flaccidly, then the cow fell onto its side that contained the spear, not fully, now propped upright at an angle to the ground.
Her father was pulling the cellar door open, struggling to get the weight off its frame. Her mother ran down into the dark and her father went next, but only two steps on the steep stairs and turned around to raise an arm to help her. Lorilee reached as if to meet his hand, then grabbed the door and lifted it in an arc to close it on the shelter. A punch of wind smashed the door down on its clasp and she pushed the bolt into the cylinder locking her parents in the ground.
She ran towards the ditch, towards Nate’s voice. He was yelling at her, though she could only hear the bits of speech that slipped through the rushing flow of air. Nate stooped at the bank of the ditch, waving his arms to bring her to the shallow valley. Spring rains drained from the farm and found their way along this path; a bit of water still trickled along the rocks. He pushed her into the ditch. They lay face up, side-by-side, on either side of the stream. The air around them was frothy and the rain came at them in bee stings. Lorilee slid over the water onto Nate. Her breasts touched his face. She felt lazy, languorous, like being in the bathtub on a rainy afternoon. She stroked Nate’s head and opened her shirt, then put a nipple to his mouth. She took his hand and put his finger into her mouth. As the tornado descended on them, she bit his cuticle and stripped it away. In her heart a maelstrom of emotions subsumed the terror and Lorilee closed her eyes, tasted his body and listened to the voices of Phillips County.
Kevin Bray writes and teaches in Toronto. He studied at the Humber School for Writers and the Vermont College of Fine Art. His essays often appear in the Globe and Mail and other writing is found in Airplane Reading, The Barnstormer, The Healing Muse and Biostories. His essay, “The Fragmentary Blue of a Butterfly”, is contained in the anthology How to Expect What You’re Not Expecting (Touchwood Editions). He blogs at www.insidethereadingbox.com