Terminal Burrowing by Nathan Batchelor


Jim called out to the figure across the lake. He could tell there was something wrong with the girl by the way her skin looked. Burns, he thought. Bad ones. Third-degree across every bit of visible skin. Fresh burns were rarely fatal. He’d learned that on his rounds in the ER. It was the stay in the hospital and the following infection that took most burn victims. Slow, painful deaths that took weeks or months.

The girl didn’t move, didn’t respond to his calls. Was she dead? He wondered.

Jim had come to the forest to die, not to find the dying. He used to cut up faces, make circular incisions around areolas and stuffed bags of saline into chests. He had led a team of surgeons on a full-face transplant for a man who was the victim of a shotgun blast—self-inflicted—and had been remarkably successful in the operation. The man wouldn’t be taking home college girls from dance clubs, but his daughter could finally stop crying while he fed her formula. The whole thing about the girl looking her father in the eye, knowing what he’d done when she was just an infant—that would have to come later.

Birds cut ellipses in the crystalline sky.

He went back to laying out his fishing poles. It probably wasn’t a girl at all. Probably the husk of some water toy abandoned by a child, half melted during the summer and washed upon the shore in the wake of a pontoon boat. The brain had ways of making things into humans, especially out here. The sound of dogs howling at night turning into screams. A shape moving behind trees while he sleepily pissed on an oak at midnight. The thing across the lake was no different.

Fishing was his favorite pastime since the oncologist had slid into the booth beside him, a few weeks after those lasts round of tests, while he prodded at the hospital cafeteria’s Thanksgiving cranberry sauce abomination. The doctor told him what everyone fears, what no one believes can happen to them.

“I couldn’t tell you, not since Megan walked out on you like that. It would have killed you, James,” Paul said, saying the word killed so nonchalantly, he could no longer fork the stiff, festive mass on his plate.

The fourth fishing pole rattled. A bite already. The pole bent in the middle. This was a big one.

He loathed the cutting and dressing of the fish. Using a scalpel as a fillet knife didn’t make it any easier. Nor did the care and ritual he showed the blade afterward. There was something missing. This was a different type of cutting. This was destructive. He wanted to use his blade as an instrument of rebirth. To heal the cleft lip of a child. To cut away a tumor that hung pendulously over a mouth or an eye.

He saw the fish below the water. It was enough to feed him for a month—perhaps until the end of his life—but the not-girl across the lake caught his eye again. This time it moved. Extending a limb. Unfolding like a knife.

He called out again.

When she responded in a cow-like mew, he realized with piercing certainty that this non-girl was a girl after all. Perhaps those weren’t burns. Perhaps a man had beaten her bloody, drunkenly thrown her from the porch of his single-wide trailer, and she had wandered aimlessly out here to the water before succumbing to her wounds.

He fired the flare he’d kept for emergencies. He prayed Cara would see it. He cut the fishing line, dropped the pole, and waded into the lake.

The water took his breath, a cold that cut to the marrow. If his brain were capable of thought beyond, The girl is hurt and The girl could die, he would have regretted getting in. The way around would have taken an hour or more. He had to get to her before dark. No one wanted to be out here in these woods at night.

He knew what those dancing on the blade of death looked like, the undercurrents of movement traveling through a body fighting to stay alive. The way the chest rose and fell. The instinctive curl of limbs. As if they were going out the way they came in. The girl moved like that.

Halfway across, his leg seized as if it were a plank of wood. A cramp. Below him the water stretched a quarter mile down. If he were to drown here, he wouldn’t be found for days or weeks, or perhaps not at all. At the bottom of the lake, skyscraper oaks stretched limbs over bottom-feeding catfish the size of Volkswagens. Their whiskered mouths were waiting down there in the dark.

He didn’t know how he made it to the opposite shore. He shivered so violently that he believed it would never cease. His mind went to hypothermia. The madness that came with long-term hypothermia, people stripping off their clothes and running away. They called it Paradoxical Undressing. He’d stayed up late at night at the university library reading about those cases when he should have been practicing his stitches on an orange.

He wasn’t that far gone. He still felt the cold digging into him. The outside temperature was still above freezing but soon it would be night, and clouds had snuck into the sky. Rain was coming as well. He peeled away the shirt and pants. The air stinging like insects, his flesh raised like the surface of an orange.

She was beneath a piece of driftwood. Beer cans scattered about her. She was folded like she’d crept there to die.

“It’s too cold for you to be out here,” he said, reaching to touch her.

It was then he noticed the flaps of skin on her back. Two pairs of frail, transparent things folded like petals of a dormant flower. Thin flesh stretched over a scaffold of bone. Those petals bloomed when he touched her arm. What he saw beneath made him cringe. The top layer of her skin was almost entirely absent.

He had cut the flesh around the ear of more than one B-list actress, peeled it back, carved away fat, and pulled muscles tight over the bone. He’d done neck lifts on aging Wall Street wives, also called lower rhytidectomies—incisions beneath the chin, working a knife in like a spoon getting the last bit of cottage cheese out of the tub. His students had found that procedure hard to watch. “Like a worm beneath the skin,” they said. “Like something’s trying to get out.”

“Something is trying to get out,” he’d said. “The fat.”

But cadavers and patients were under anesthesia. She was not, as far as he knew. It was hard to look at. Muscles still contracting. The slow rise of her chest. It would have been harder were he not a doctor, were he not used to looking at a body like a map. Then the thought came to him. He didn’t know why it had taken so long. Those flaps of skin were wings. She wasn’t a girl. She was a fairy.

He recalled an Easter dinner at his aunt’s house, the smell of barbeque smoke soaked into his Atlanta Braves t-shirt, a swelling sense of pride passing his uncle the tongs. He was the assistant to the chef. There was a shouting that cut across the Styx guitars screaming through the boombox perched on the picnic table. His father appeared at the edge of the woods, gun slung over his back, white-eyed, sweat steaming off him in the early April chill. There was a small body in his arms. Limp bat-like wings swinging with his steps. The wings looked like bacon, he remembered. Giant pieces of uncooked bacon. Before his uncle got close, his mother grabbed him, wrapped her hands over his eyes. Her grip so tight splotches appeared before his eyes.

“It’s bad luck,” she kept saying to no one in particular. “I won’t have my boy damned by no fairy.”

Every place has its name for them. In most parts of the world, they were known as demons. “Meth Angels” was the most popular name in the States, after the plague of addiction that infected the hills of the bible belt. The Irish called them the Tuath Dé and claimed they were descended from their own mythology, stowing away on boats filled with the sheep herders that swept over the Appalachians two centuries ago. You could only find fairies here in Sipsey, a little patch of woods wedged between the plains of Auburn and the Tennessee River valley.

His mother and grandmother, and a whole host of aunts, uncles, and schoolteachers said they granted wishes. Academics—the brave few who risked their careers studying such a fringe subject—said wishes were impossible for two reasons. Firstly, the concept of a wish broke laws of the universe, an effect without a logical cause. The second reason was more practical. Every time a fairy had been found, its death followed shortly after. Sometimes by minutes, sometimes by hours. No one had ever seen a fairy in a state of good h