Underlimbs by Barbara Barrow

photo of female statue

“Untitled” (image via Flickr user gnuckx)

We had grown bored with our bodies: those tedious slouching abdomens, those same rubbery slopes of flesh. But then we discovered that there were additional, submerged bodies underneath, or, more precisely, body parts that lived under our other body parts and sometimes floated up, shyly, just beneath the surface. Like the rippling movement of a fish just beneath the water, or like the sinking stone that disappears amidst the flutter of the circles it has made.

These underbodies were sensitive. It took a delicate, coaxing touch to awaken them. A fingertip as light as a matchstick. A stroke like a whispered breath. Then, slowly, we saw the constellation of the second body loom in the fading twilight of the first body: the sly shoulder blade sliding out from beyond the other shoulder blade, the knee lurking behind the knee, the twin-eyed hip bones staring out like hunted animals. We lay transfixed, prostrate, before the mysteries of our own forms.

Soon we grew impatient with the sensations of the first, exterior body. Always we longed to uncover the shy sacred limbs beneath our profane outer shells, to beckon the underbody out of its disguise. Everything changed. Once-firm handshakes became light, inquiring grazes of the palms. High-fives ebbed into gentle taps. The changing of money at a cash register turned into a slow choreography of fingertips. Our second bodies shrank under the gaze, retreated like frightened house pets beneath the limbs of their owners. The more we tried to summon them forth the more they resisted. One by one they slunk away, back into the recesses of our organs, reabsorbed into our bloodstreams.

We grew frantic with loss. Desperately, we yanked at each other, bludgeoned the underbodies out of their hiding places, scared them from beneath their sheltering organs. The underbodies retaliated by retreating deeper, dragging the exterior bodies further inward with them. Everywhere we went we saw people caving in. A man, stepping off of a bus, suddenly began to curdle and disappear. A woman, standing innocently at her mailbox, started to collapse inward, her underbody pulling parts of her into itself, like a crocodile tugging its prey below the calm surface of the swamp. When we saw each other imploding we ran to help. It was no good. The underbodies, sensing our panic, hastened away faster with our flesh, growing stronger and more forceful in their desperation. They drained the houses and buildings of their inhabitants. Everywhere people stood crying next to patches of collapsed organs where the bodies had been.

We stopped classifying our underbodies as endangered animals and instead we called them fugitive kidnappers. Blunt-handed militias formed and began accosting the underbodies in alleyways, behind buildings, yanking the shy navels and shinbones out of their hiding places, subjecting them to a long and brutal process of extraction. We watched in righteous pity as our friends and loved ones succumbed to the desecration. Their bolder, first bodies deflated and the underbodies got tossed in a sack. Soon everybody who still had an underbody went willingly to the slaughter. We went in droves to the headquarters, weeping in terror, weeping at the loss of what we had hardly ever seen, at forms so distant and precious, like planets that only reveal themselves once in thousands of years.

It was the right thing to do, wasn’t it? we said. To scare the body out like hunted prey? To purge our bodies of their secret intruders? Now a grateful donor has endowed our museum with a brand-new wing of extinct underbodies. We go to see them behind a glass display flooded with light: the delicate shadow hands, the coltish, slender thighs. They are perfectly still and pinned in place. Some of us swear that if you watch long enough you can see them twitch and curl, that the parade of lights and spectators are making them smaller, more constricted. Like a starfish washed ashore, its pointy arms draining and shrinking, or like a vine-clad grape shriveling itself to nothing in the sun.

Barbara Barrow‘s fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in CEASE, COWS, FOLIO, THE GSU REVIEW, ZAHIR, BARTLEBY SNOPES, NANO FICTION, and elsewhere. Her first novel is under contract with Lanternfish Press, and will be published in 2018. She is Assistant Professor of English at Point Park University in Pittsburgh, where she teaches writing and literature.