These Bodies Will Undo Us (Emerging Writer's Contest Winner: NONFICTION)
In nonfiction, our winner is Laura Price Steele for her essay “These Bodies Will Undo Us.”
Nonfiction judge Roxane Gay said the following about the winning piece: “‘These Bodies Will Undo Us’...is one of the finest essays I have ever read. It’s an essay about a marriage, about love when your partner transitions and so much about your relationship changes, about mercy. The structure and shape of the essay, the writing, everything works to tell a story that is poignant without being overly sentimental. ‘These Bodies Will Undo Us’ is an example of what an essay can be when it is brilliantly executed.”
Steele is a writer and editor. Though originally from Colorado, she now lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, where she earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her work has been named a finalist in Moment Magazine’s 2010 Karma Foundation Short Fiction Contest and a runner-up in Flyway’s 2014 Sweet Corn Short Fiction Contest. Currently she is working on a novel. You can find her at laurapricesteele.com.
“The events in this essay took place nearly a decade ago—before transgender awareness had really entered the broader social consciousness. Looking back at this period I understand now how little context we had for our experience. As my partner transitioned, we found ourselves trying to orient—both as individuals and as a couple—in a world that did not quite know what to make of us. In some ways we benefited from the ignorance of others; it let us hide in plain sight. But hiding also reshaped us, obscured us not only from others, but from each other and from ourselves.”
K and I had been married less than a year when we decided to hunt. Neither of us had ever hunted before. My parents were mostly vegetarian. And K’s dad, even though he’d grown up in Montana, lacked the survivalist grit of previous generations. Hunting felt like the answer to some problem we hadn’t been able to put words to. We were homesick of course. But there was something more. Something that could maybe be solved, we thought, by chasing down a wild thing and killing it.
Two weeks before the trip, K bought a knife with a gut hook and a book on how to field dress an animal. We flipped through the pages together, watching the soft belly of a cartoon elk split neatly open to reveal the intestines, stomach, bladder, heart, and lungs. I paid close attention to the cuts because K might pull the trigger, but I’d be the one with my hands in the blood. He wouldn’t have the stomach for it.
“If you nick the intestines, you spoil the meat,” K said. “The bladder too.”
I unsheathed the knife, let the weight settle in my palm. It did not feel heavy enough to do the sort of damage it was meant to do.
“How are we going to carry an elk?” I asked. We had both deer tags and elk tags—K planned to kill whatever we came across first. A deer was maybe a hundred and fifty pounds before being bled and gutted, but an elk was closer to five hundred.
“We’ll have to drag it,” K said. Already it felt like we were kids in over our heads, like we’d forgotten to take into account the grisliness and heft of the real world. It hit me then that a fresh carcass would be wet with blood and mucus and bile, tough with gristle and bone. I worried that I would not be able to tell the difference between one slick organ and another. But I didn’t say anything. I just studied the book for a while and then assured K that if he got a clean shot, I could split the body apart without spoiling the meat.
We were going back to Montana to hunt. We’d only been living in Salt Lake for a few months. K had come down in May. I’d followed with our things and the dog in September. Although the city seemed like a fine place to craft a life, moving away from Missoula had cut us off from our own history, and it ached like a phantom limb.
K was happy to be relieved of the weight of the past. I couldn’t blame him. He’d had to live his whole life as someone he wasn’t and now he could finally wrench himself free. The thing is: when K and I met we were both women.
We met in the leafy atrium of the student union on campus. The relationship bloomed quickly. Within a few months we’d moved into a house in Rattlesnake Canyon and adopted a husky. Occasionally, K brought up a vague body dissatisfaction, but I didn’t think it much more urgent than the average human experience. He told me that as a teenager he’d looked into buying hormones from Mexico, but I figured he was simply revealing some version of the misguided soul-searching we all did in adolescence. An identity he’d tried on for a while and ultimately given up.
Cooper we picked up at the Humane Society. He was a stray, found on Highway 93 near Lolo with his tail tucked and hollows between his ribs. Cooper maybe looked like a wolf, but he spooked like a sheep. Not only had he been abused as a puppy, but he also had a bad case of canine epilepsy, which haunted him like a cruel ghost. We gave him meds to keep the seizures at bay, pills I wrapped in cheese and threw down his throat twice a day. But still he dropped into cycles that lasted so long we worried his heart might burst.
K and I knew that eventually we’d have to put Cooper down—the vet told us as much. Every time he kicked into a seizure, we wondered if this would be the unending bout that would force our hand. We agonized for days at a time, setting deadlines only to push them back once they arrived. “If he’s not better by tonight,” we said, “by tomorrow, within forty-eight hours.” Neither one of us wanted to wield the power we had. But somehow Cooper always climbed out of it on his own. Without warning, the seizures would stop and we’d be out of the woods for a while.
The night before we left for Montana, Cooper fell into it again. He had one seizure after dinner and another at 2:30 in the morning. In the dark, I waited for his tags to stop jingling. Eventually, I could hear the thick rhythmic breathing of him trying to return to himself. It was a slow process, and it always felt as if he had to break back into his own body, reclaim it bit by bit from some other beast.
For the first few minutes after a seizure, Cooper was blind. I knew to keep my distance. At first I’d made it a habit to rush to his side and sink my hands into his fur, leaning close to the cave of his ear to whisper sweetly, “It’s OK. I’m here.” I should have figured out on my own just from the way his muscles roiled under my palms that it was not what he needed. Instead I had to have the vet tell me—the only way to help a seizing patient is to reduce stimuli. No sound, no light, no touch. It was hard giving up the ritual of soothing myself by pretending to soothe him.
I could hear K’s breath next to me. The intimacy still unsettled me slightly, a body I didn’t quite know so warm and vulnerable next to me.
“Is he OK?” K whispered. He smelled so different now. His old smell was gone completely.
“He will be, I think,” I said.
We both listened to Cooper, waiting for him to get up. After almost every seizure, he would wander through the house drunkenly, wedging himself into corners, spaces much too small for the whole of him as if he’d forgotten that his head was attached to anything at all.
“Should we still go?” K asked. The truck was packed, bins of gear stacked neatly in the back. Two rifles tucked into their soft cases on the floor.
I listened to Cooper’s tags rub against each other. “I don’t think he knows the difference—whether we’re here or there,” I said.
“All right,” K said, and I could hear in the gravel of his voice that maybe he thought me callous for saying it that way.
The drive took seven hours. We’d rented a Forest Service cabin outside Bozeman—the kind of cabin with a wood stove and a couple of cots. No electricity. No running water. We could walk right out the front door with guns loaded. Cooper would sleep in through the mornings while we hunted, then hike with us in the afternoons.
Halfway through Idaho, Cooper nearly fell into a seizure. I saw his eyes unfocus and his neck go stiff, but I called to him loudly. “Cooper,” I said. “Stay with us.” And he did. That was the strange part. There seemed to be a little stitch of time when you could still bring him back, as if he paused for a moment at a fork in the trail and only had to be reminded which way led back home.
By the time we arrived at the cabin, Cooper was a glazed version of himself. K unloaded the car while I started a fire. Already, thin flecks of snow were swirling down from the sky. I crumpled pages from the phonebook and arranged them in the cold metal belly of the stove, broke twigs to lay on top as kindling. Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved starting campfires, the flames offering proof that anything can turn into magic, even if just for an instant. I lit the match, touching it to the paper in two places, watching the lists of names curl into themselves, darken. Soon I had a healthy flame and the front side of a split log was starting to catch.
“It’ll warm up faster with that door closed,” K said. He was right, but I hated closing up the stove. It felt like locking up a living thing.
“I don’t want to snuff it out,” I said.
He let out a little grunt sigh. It was a noise he had only recently started making. It was the sound of a man exasperated with his wife.
Cooper was deep into a bad streak. He had three seizures overnight. By morning he had retreated into himself so much he didn’t recognize us. That happened sometimes. He looked at K and me as if we were strangers, as if his brain had wiped clean the whole twenty-thousand-year history between people and dogs.
“You think he’s OK?” K asked. We were loading our packs, tying boots. Dawn hadn’t yet broken. Cooper lay sprawled on the bottom bunk. Had a bear broken into the cabin right then, I don’t think he would have gotten up.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Should we leave him?” he asked.
“If you want to hunt.”
We finished prepping in silence, buckling straps, pulling on hats and gloves. K unzipped a rifle from its case. I didn’t grow up with guns; they still held an air of celebrity for me—something I’d seen almost exclusively on TV.
“Do you want to carry one?” K asked. “We can leave it unloaded for now.”
“Sure,” I said. I liked the idea of looking the part.
Outside, gray had begun to seep into the morning. The cottony layer of cloud cover meant there would not be much of a sunrise. We crossed the wide, flat opening of the valley and angled up toward the ridge. Almost immediately I regretted the second gun. I’d only considered it as a prop; I hadn’t thought about how heavy it would be to carry or that the cold metal might sap the warmth right through my gloves.
We walked in silence, trying to take the weight out of our steps. The snow was not deep, but it had formed a cold crust overnight. I tried to listen to the landscape, but all I heard was the rush of my own breath and the wum-wum-wum of my own heartbeat. I could smell the cold pine—different from the summer when the cones bloom and the sap bleeds. In the winter there is just the sharp smell of the needles. And though the cold quieted things down, there was nothing peaceful about it. In the calm, I could feel the pent-up hunger of every curled-up plant, every burrowed insect, every hibernating beast ready to burst forth at the first sign of spring melt.
K led us through the trees, finding a path over rotten logs and lichened rocks. With no trail to follow, we had to test our footing with each step, being careful not to commit our weight too soon and risk falling—our hands were not free to catch us. When I didn’t agree with K’s line, I didn’t say anything; I just took my own way around. A couple times he eyed me for it, as if he thought maybe I was making some kind of point by doing so.
When K first told me he was going to start hormones, he was careful not to ask for permission from me. We both knew that permission for this was not mine to give. We talked for a long time about the doctors, the injections, about other people who’d gone through the process. In the end, we both made promises we would not be able to keep.
The transition itself was somehow both swift and endless. K’s voice dropped. Hair sprouted on his chest, his chin, his back. Overnight his skin became leathery. His shoulders broadened and his jaw widened. In fact, the dimensions of his whole head changed, as if the skull itself was expanding. It felt every day as if some piece of K had shape-shifted so severely I couldn’t remember its previous form. It was disorienting to witness. Maybe not unlike watching a child age—having a loved one sacrificed every day to some new version of themselves. As soon as I thought the transition was somehow complete, another thing would change—the way K picked up a fork, the weight of his steps, the speed of his eyelids. All these tiny things changed so that I did not know what exactly to hold onto.
Two years into the transition, after K changed the gender on his passport, we got married. We did it because we could. For so long it had been an impossibility for us, but suddenly we had the key to the door we thought we’d never get open. It seemed criminal not to use it. Being married gave us a taste of what it might be like to slip into some other story, but moving to Salt Lake let us start over. In Montana, the transition spread into both our lives like ink into cloth, spidering into everything. We had to find breaks in conversation to insert a confession so intimate and unwieldy—with our friends, but also with acquaintances and coworkers. People tripped over themselves to say how fine they were with it, how happy really; they thanked me for telling them as if I had a choice. But almost always I saw a little shield drop behind their eyes, and I knew that they were stumbling upon the reserve of reptilian hate that sits in everyone’s gut like a puddle of tar. That was the worst part—being the one to remind them of their own darkness.
We felt flayed in Montana, the constant sour-skinned sensation of being overexposed. When K found the job in Utah, it was like discovering in midair a parachute on our backs. Both of us were intoxicated by the possibility of living simply as man and wife, having the option to reveal our history only if and when we saw fit. K wanted me to agree not to tell anyone at all, and I did, without a second thought. It was an easy promise to make.
At the top of the ridge, the ground flattened out some before dropping down into a shallow valley. Already the tips of my fingers stung. I tucked the gun into the crook of my arm, but it kept slipping. The clouds hadn’t yet broken a stitch. High above us a hawk looped without flapping its wings. I watched its body quiver in the current. I’ve always admired birds of prey—only ever touching earth with the sharpest parts of themselves.
On the way down the slope, we found tucked between the broad face of a boulder and a cliffy ledge the bed-down spot for a herd of something big. We could see the outlines their bodies had melted into snow.
“They were just here,” K whispered, smiling broadly.
I couldn’t tap into the same giddiness. Seeing the evidence of their warmth—imagining the wet glisten of their noses, the knobs of their folded legs, the accidental rub of hides as they settled in for the night—it soured the joy of the hunt. A few paces away we saw piles of dark pellets. Elk scat.
We stopped for a while, settled into a little nook where K could rest the gun on stump and hope that something might wander by for him to shoot at. At first my eyes were trained on the landscape, ticking left and right for any hint of movement. But soon enough, the feeling drained from my face, I lost focus. My mind abandoned me altogether. I didn’t feel crazy, just utterly empty of thought, as if the forest had leaked right into my body.
As agreed, neither of us told the new people we met in Salt Lake about K’s transition. It surprised me just how much of myself I had to cut away to avoid the subject, how my new tentative friendships seemed drained of the lifeblood they required to survive. The more I spoke about myself, the more misshapen my life became. Just saying that I had moved to the city where my husband found a job felt deeply dishonest, as if I was tapping into to a long line of history that was not mine to claim.
Within weeks I could feel the presence of Man & Wife, a shadow couple that appeared suddenly in our new home. They lived beside us breath for breath, a constant reminder that there was a script for us now. In Montana the only ghosts we knocked into were the husks of our former selves, but Man & Wife were different. They were strangers looking for bodies to inhabit, trying to wind themselves into flesh. Sometimes these shadow people could speak right through our mouths it seemed.
I don’t know how long we sat there waiting. It wasn’t until K gave up and we got moving again that I understood that the peaceful hollowness I’d drifted into was nothing more than a mild case of hypothermia. The ground had been stealing my heat.
Even though we abandoned hope of making a kill, we stayed quiet on the walk back to the cabin. Out of habit I suppose. The magic of the early morning had burned off and the middle of the day clamped down onto the landscape. My steps felt heavier than they had on the way out.
From the top of the ridge, we could see all the way across the valley. When we looked, both K and I got our gazes caught on the same thing. A pair of bright orange dots. Two people way off in the distance. We kept our eyes on them as we hiked, and it became clear that they were moving toward us as we moved toward them.
We gained an ounce of detail with every step. Their matchstick bodies came into view and we understood that the orange dots were their hats. Before we saw their weapons, we knew they were out here to kill something same as us. Two men with camouflage pants and jackets. One of the men had a rifle; the other carried a compound bow. They watched us just as we watched them. It took a long while to close the distance between us, and the whole time, I was wishing there was some other way around.
Finally, we were up on them. We all stopped, nodded hello, kept guns pointed at the sky.
“What are you after?” the taller one said. They both had goatees.
“We’ve got tags for elk and deer,” K said.
Neither of the men looked at me. Not at all. “We got elk. He’s got a moose and a bear too,” the shorter one said. They were talking only to K. “We ain’t seen nothing today. A deer track, but that’s it,” he said.
“We found some scat, but we haven’t seen anything either,” K said. I could see he was enjoying the exchange.
“I think they’ve all gotten chased out of here,” the tall one said. “At this point in the season.” They all looked out different directions as if verifying that everything had indeed been run off.
“I couldn’t get my wife out here for nothing,” the short one said. Still they did not look at me. I understood that ignoring me was their way of showing respect to K.
“Me neither,” said the other one. “She’d divorce me if I ever tried.”
“She was a little cold,” K said as if I weren’t standing right there holding a gun, same as him.
“I bet,” the tall one said. “Mine’s cold next to the fireplace.” He laughed.
Overhead a blackbird squawked.
“We’re headed up over that way, got a camp about eight miles up,” the short one said, pointing off to the right.
“We’re heading back too,” K said. “Just a couple miles.”
The men nodded. We would not be in each other’s crossfire.
“Good luck,” the short man said. The tall one let out a chuckle. I saw him look at my boots. We all turned away from each other and began walking again.
I couldn’t blame K for how men talked to each other or for the ways they turned women into symbols, but it didn’t seem quite fair either that his maleness had to be propped up by my silence. I’d noticed the shift almost as soon as his voice dropped. Anywhere we went—restaurants, stores, doctors’ offices—people spoke to him first. Even women. It was as if the world now had to come through him to get to me, and it felt like a death of a thousand cuts.
I never brought it up with K; I didn’t know how. It was almost too subtle to put words to—the way a person’s gaze settled upon us, the angle of their bodies. Plus, the doubt that flooded through me always seemed to dilute the anger. People I did not care to talk to were not talking to me. What was so terrible about that? Trying to grab onto the problem was like trying to hold a snake’s tail—it was always slithering away.
Back at the cabin, Cooper had barely moved. I petted him on the haunch and he sniffed my hand without a glint of recognition. We dropped our packs, slid the guns back into their cases. For a while we napped, but we were restless before the sun went down. The cabin felt too small to contain us. K offered to take me out for some practice shots. I’d fired a .22 once, as a kid. I could remember the breathless satisfaction of knocking a tin can off a fence, the full-chested sensation of harnessing that power.
We pulled out the rifles and relaced our boots. Outside, the light had paled with the afternoon. K explained how to wedge the stock into the shoulder, how to pop the bolt into place and look down the sights. “Don’t put your finger on the trigger until you’re sure, until you’re completely ready” he said. “Pull on the exhale.” He lined up and shot a round. It caught the edge of a tree and splintered the bark. The boom echoed through my ribcage.
K took another shot. It missed the tree altogether. The sound elongated this time, tunneling into the distance—I don’t know what finally stopped that bullet. K grimaced, his cheeks reddened, he did not turn to look at me. Instead he was already loading another round, taking aim. This one he landed just inside his first, deep into the tree.
K pivoted toward me as if he could bear my gaze again. “Ready?” he said.
I liked the slide of the bolt, the flick of the safety. I even liked the kickback. My first shot went wide. I could feel the power of the gun reverberate through my limbs. K smiled at the miss, good-naturedly, but also pleased. I steadied myself again, took three deep breaths and buried a shot near the middle of the tree. The next one was almost dead center. I felt a bloom of adrenaline, the worming under the ribs at having bested K in this unspoken competition.
“You probably killed that tree,” K said as if it was a particularly careless thing to do.
I pointed the barrel at the ground, assessed the damage. The tree was splintered on one side, with deep scars pocked into its meat. I hadn’t even been thinking of it as a live thing, only a target to shoot at, a patch of bark at the end of the sight. I didn’t know what a tree could survive, but suddenly I felt ashamed for making it endure anything more than it had to.
We hunted for two more days, but the closest we came to a wild animal that whole time was the bed-down spot we’d run across on day one. I could tell K was frustrated at leaving empty-handed, but I was relieved to go home with the knife in its sheath and the gut hook unused.
By the last day, Cooper still hadn’t come out of the stupor. He was having seizures every few hours, and I thought this was probably the bad streak that would end it all. On that final morning, I watched him run square into the cabin wall and then collapse onto the floor. His eyes rolled around. I knew what we needed to do. There was poetry to it, being in Montana with him again, coming to the end of the road back where we’d started.
“We can’t let him keep going like this,” I said to K as we packed up the cabin.
“I know,” he said.
“I think this is the end,” I said. I knew I couldn’t ask K to kill Cooper. But I thought he might get what I was hinting at. It seemed like maybe the best option—to walk Cooper into the woods and put him out of his misery—but there are limits on what one person can ask of another.
“I don’t know,” was all K would say.
I pushed a little more before we loaded the truck, but K didn’t give any. When finally we hoisted Cooper onto the seat and buckled ourselves in, I felt a hot burst of anger in my chest. K should have to kill Cooper, I thought. It was what a man would do, and it was not fair for K to cherry pick the parts of being a man that suit him and leave the rest for me.
We pulled out onto the road, the cabin locked up and cold behind us. Cooper laid his head down at a strange angle. We drove for a while in silence, the hum of the tires filling our ears. I watched the trees with their arms out, the silver green of their needles blurring as we picked up speed.
“I know what you wanted me to do,” K said. “But I can’t.”
I watched fence posts tick by, barbed wire unspooling in the gaps. I thought about the cruel, cutting things I could say. But before I could speak, the absurdity of my plan hit me. I watched it scene by scene—the silent plodding walk into the woods. Cooper’s head down, his nose nearly grazing the snow. I could see the trees, the flesh of their bark nicked and torn from decades of wind and rain. I saw K and me walking, he with both hands on the gun. We would walk until we found some tucked-in corner behind a boulder or a stand of trees. Cooper would be panting. He might even lie down without us having to coax him. I saw K lifting the rifle, pointing the barrel behind Cooper’s ear, Cooper turning to sniff the gun. K would cry. I probably wouldn’t, not until after. But in the scene, I reached out, put my palm on K’s forearm, let my hand guide the barrel down. I didn’t want K to kill Cooper. I wanted K to set his finger on the trigger so that I could pull him back. As if I understood that my power as a woman lay only in my ability to save my husband from the brutality of being a man.