START WITH MY TOES
Sharon asked the slug to eat her. She rested her cheek on the spongy moss and watched the slug’s antennas droop to the sides of his face. He ignored her request and lifted his mouth. His gray lips, veined with purple, closed and opened like a jellyfish on the stem of a single leaf.
“Start with my toes,” she said as she tucked her knees to her chest and offered her feet to the slug.
He pulled his mouth away from the plant. The thin, ridged lip disappeared underneath his slick, brown body as he looked at her from his eye stalks. The stem dropped from his mouth like saliva. Only the skin of the stalk remained, and the leaf drooped forward and hit the ground.
“Just like that,” Sharon said. She reached towards her feet to remove her shoes and socks. The barn odor of hay and dung made her legs start to quiver, so she crumpled her socks into her fists. Turning her head, Sharon saw a tangle of branches dripping in moss. The branches formed nets and caves. They offered to hide her secrets. She aimed her socks for their dark spaces, but they fell apart in the air and landed like bugs in the trees’ web.
She nudged the slug with her toe. He was damp and cool. Sharon held open her hands. Dirt and apple juice dyed her palms. Mashed banana hardened under her fingernails.
“I taste like fruit,” Sharon said. “I bet you’ve never had bananas before. Or apples. The elephants love them.”
The slug bunched himself up and pushed forward.
Once the slug ate her toes, she would no longer drag her weary body through the barn at the zoo or across the waxed gold floor of the chocolate shop in the mall. Her sneakers would no longer grind goat poop into her roommate’s carpet or catch strands of hay in their shoestrings. As the rough tongue ate away her ability to walk, she watched a cloud spit out the sun.
“Eat my legs,” Sharon said. The slug carefully dragged itself up the side of her calf. His trail glistened on her skin. Weeks ago, she’d started to twitch. Her boss at the zoo lost three employees and threatened to walk into the tiger cage. He walked halfway to the enclosure before Sharon offered to work overtime. When Sharon worked twenty-two days without a break, she started to rock. Her legs refused to stop moving. At night, the bed sheets tore away from the mattress and tangled her restless legs in knots.
Now, as the slug gulped away her muscles, she remembered stillness. She inhaled when the robins sang and exhaled with the wind. The pine boughs rattled. The slug rested on her kneecap and twirled his antennas.
“Don’t forget my stomach,” she said as she rolled up her shirt, crusted with dust and donkey drool. Dark green polo shirts filled her laundry basket, and each morning, she rumpled through them to find the one least stained and wrinkled. A breeze tickled her skin as the slug zigzagged up her flesh. His stomach bulged as he continued his feast.
“You’re tickling me,” Sharon said, but the mucus he sketched on her skin and the prick of his teeth eased her aching, crippled intestines. The slug ate a layer of Icy Hot and coconut lotion. She no longer needed food—no more bowls of cereal, no more wilted salads from the zoo café, and no more chocolate-covered strawberries and pineapple slices for dinner.
“You might have a stomach ulcer,” her roommate told her when Sharon curled up on a couch cushion and massaged her abdomen. “You should stop stressing so much.” Sharon wanted to shake Molly, who was perched on the arm of the couch in pink gym shorts. She wanted to pluck out her dark hair like feathers. Instead, she stalked to the bathroom, turned on the shower, sat naked in the cold bathtub, and chewed her nails to stubs.
“Almost done,” she told the slug. “Don’t forget my hands.” Her fingers felt like strangers. They moved like robots. They shoveled poop, scattered hay, injected shots, swirled chocolate, chopped fruit, and tied ribbons. The slug lingered on her hands, the sweetest part of her.
“Do they taste like cocoa and sugar?” she asked, but the slug dragged his heavy body onto her lips. She could no longer speak, so she thought. She thought about her dead brother. Memories crawled through her mind like a trail of ants—flower necklaces, ghost stories, mud soups, spelling bees, piano lessons, and art school. The slug rolled off her face. He was round and swollen. Unable to scrape away her brain, he fell asleep with strawberry seeds in his teeth.
In the flat clearing surrounded by pines, Sharon rested with the slug. The sun turned her cheeks pink, and a spider crawled through curls of her hair.
When she opened her eyes, she smiled and remembered she wanted to be an artist. Peeling her zoo shirt off like an old, dry layer of skin, she left the little brown slug eating a leaf on the hill. She hiked the trail barefoot and saw the setting sun paint colors in the sky.
ERIN RHODES earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University. She was a writer-in-residence at Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project. When she’s not at her writing desk, Erin can be found hiking with her husband and three sighthounds or cooking—not always successfully—in her kitchen in Akron, Ohio.