I first saw her where the two rivers meet, brown and black, pressing their long, watery bodies together over mud and sand. The others were snoring in their slatted seats or gazing with glazed eyes at the earth-colored heads of the capybara poking through the great, green-bladed shore.
Her body seemed like a log bleached by the hot Brazilian sun, an inlet of the light water of the white Amazon River that had slipped into the Rio Negro. But as she passed close to the boat, I saw her irises: black-blue rimming bright green, the jungle canopy contained by the night sky. These colors undulated—the belly of that forest floor sliding along the arms, the legs of the trees, shaking them until bouquets of leaves were flung away.
And the seam where the black and white rivers held one another was again clean, a blank, snaking line. Soon we were crossing over it, the wooden bottom of the boat sliding through the black river to the shore on its bank.
Justine’s eyes were like cornflowers, dull and flat and hard blue, with nothing behind them but present everywhere: in the sky, in street signs, in the weave of the patchy scarves on winter city sidewalks or the hair of students who wandered across the river from MassArt. And of course, in almost every variety of local wildflower that pushed through the cracks of city streets. After she left, I was so desperately alone, surrounded by a sea of blue that both rejected yet wouldn’t leave me be, wouldn’t let me heal.
So it was safer to spend my hours at the Herbarium, caring for our collection of rare and dangerous blooms. Orchids are my specialty—their bodies so fragile, yet so resilient. Their blooms, both sharp and soft, their nectars, and even their perfumes and petals, sweet and deadly poisonous. They can protect themselves while remaining entirely serene. And of course, their colors are vibrant, bright. Warm against the dead memories of cornflower blue.
The thrush of small furred legs cutting through the blade grass preceded our small group into the jungle. We set camp on opposite edges of a clearing, saying little before we dispersed to collect what we came for. I knew none of them well; even on an orchid hunt, evolutionary botanists tend to stick to plants and our talk skims only the skin of exterior, personal life. Anything else is too dangerous. Justine, wherever she is now, helped me understand that: the flesh of the flower is much safer than the flesh of the friend, the lover. Even if the flower is full of poison, you can appreciate its beauty without being caught in it, without being snared by it. Flowers don’t have eyes.
My orchids were nothing to Justine, and whenever I had tried to explain their perfectly balanced sensuality to her, she’d simply bite my lips closed with her even white teeth. She was too hard, too unforgiving, too cornflower blue. When we made love (but was it love? Justine would have said we were just fucking) she was so hard. Her body was a stone, one that I felt on my stomach, my neck, my heart. Even so, when she smashed my rare orchids and corpse flowers (with the absurdly phallic stamen that we had giggled over when she could coax a few drinks into me) over the sink in lieu of a goodbye note, I felt as though she sliced me open and dug out my core. I was empty now, alone. Even the heavy weight of being bound is sometimes a comfort.
I found nothing but Cattleya intermedia orchids that first day, pale violet and small, not much different than you’d find in a well-kept garden back home. I was looking for something rarer, something sharp and new that I could take back to the lab, dissect, grow, and care for, whose poison I could bottle up and somehow inject into my soul, inoculating myself against the temptations and impatience of lesser flowers. Of course, everyone else was looking for it, too. The Carrion Bride, rather absurdly and affectionately called, their white hoods gaudy with fringed bloom and their throats red with the blood of their prey, were beyond rare, a true flesh-eating orchid. And thought by indigenous tribes to cure blood ailments, even cancer, before it was hunted to near-extinction by Victorian orchid hunters. Which was, of course, why this trip was so important. My body was already dripping with sweat, my face and hands smeared with mud, but I hardly cared. It was an escape. It was what I needed. It’s what we all need. To be surrounded by the green and black and absurdly painted flowers.
At night, there is no escape. No matter how tired I am, or how sore and bloody my fingers are from cutting specimens from trees, I dream about Justine. Her irises haunt me, spill from the corners of her deep eyes onto her skin, seeping into her hair, running down her neck, her breasts, until she is painted the darkest shade of blue I’d ever seen, her entire body transforming into a freezing sea, until her cold blue calculating eyes are all that she is and I know I will drown in her. I could drown in her right now and never escape these dreams.
“I can’t fucking believe you.”
She stalked around the apartment, bottle in hand.
I stood in the doorway, palms pressed against the jamb on either side of me, as if bracing for an earthquake. I laughed. A nervous tic I’d developed along the way, from my father, or another lover, I think. I’m certain it didn’t start with Justine. I’d already been so afraid when I met her. It couldn’t have started with Justine.
“You’re goddamn leaving? To go pick some fucking flowers? Well, fine. Fine. Just fuck you then.”
Was it then that she started throwing my orchids against the walls? The sink? Was that another fight? I can’t remember. I know I must have spoken, told her that the expedition was important to me, that it wouldn’t leave for months yet, and that I wouldn’t be gone that long. I was reasonable and calm. I just don’t remember it. I don’t remember anything but standing in that doorway, between Justine and the rest of the world. She was so angry. It was a cold night. I remember that but I’m not sure what happened after.
Before it becomes too dark and mosquitoes drive us into our tents, under our protective nets, our expedition leader tells stories around the fire.
“She’s an angry woman,” he starts. “And she’s fiercely protective of her jungle, especially her flowers. The patasola: she’s beautiful at first, she will look exactly like someone you love, someone you want. She’ll lead you deep into the trees, and when you’re alone, she’ll devour you, sucking your blood until you are a shell, until your empty veins collapse into dust to fertilize her bloody flowers.”
But I wonder what it would be like to be sought after that much, even if it was to enact revenge, rather than to love.
“Remember, you agreed to this.”
She’d wound the silky rope around my arms, my legs. She did this when she was especially angry. I thought I’d keep her there by letting myself be bound.
Though I wondered why she felt the need to tie me down, I wouldn’t have moved. I would have been like the queen in that old fairy tale, who, when the prince comes to bed her, lies perfectly still while he presses her into the cold stones before the hearth.
I always thought that the author must have left something out, that the prince must have had a warm glance for his lover, or maybe even licked her lips before fastening the gag. But perhaps I’m getting that confused with my own story now.
But when she was inside me, I tried to imagine some warmth, even just the heat of being wanted. I tried and would have kept on, though Justine’s fingers were so cold. I almost couldn’t feel them. Yes, that’s what I remember. Not feeling anything.
After many long days of searching with no fruit for our efforts, I collapse in my tent, knowing that Justine will be there once I close my eyes. It’s something I’ve resigned myself to, something that I’ve come to welcome, even. The Justine of my dreams is different now than the Justine that I knew, and this makes me want her more than I ever did. She’s shifted, become darker: a night-thing of the jungle, a cloud of perfume from the flowers I so desperately want to find, that hovers, then settles on top of me as soon as I close my eyes. I feel the weight of her breasts, wet from the river, fall heavy on my ribs. Her palms press into my thighs, she slides against me, and bit by bit I can trace the lines of our bodies, one against the other, light flesh against dark flesh, like the rivers. Her mouth latches around my skin, and her teeth bite uneven red garlands into my pale flesh, down my stomach, between my thighs. And when she looks up at me, her eyes catch me, hold me, jungle and night-sky eyes that never lived in the face of my former lover, and it doesn’t stop me from wanting what I can’t have, what isn’t really here. She is Justine and she isn’t. She’s a dream between two rivers, white and black.
She holds me open, the bowl of my hips an offering, wide to the night air that lies so heavy around me. And when she slides her warm fingers inside of me, it’s like she is pressing the stars that had lain so long, so quiet in the field of my body, the stars that Justine just couldn’t see, until each one explodes.
In the light of day, her body is anything but a dream-wisp, anything but Justine. I see her (or perhaps she allows me to see her) standing at the edge of our clearing in the late morning light, long after my colleagues, who seem to sleep much less fitfully than I, have left camp for the day. Her solidity is staggering. Her body plump, breasts fuller than even the most lavish flowers, deep brown nipples peeking out of her flesh, both hard and soft, like figs that are overripe, splitting along their heavy bottoms. The curve of her waist, the slope of her hips, so exaggerated and smooth with flesh and I imagine myself melting, becoming water, beads of hot sweat surfing along her voluptuous body.
Her belly is an oval slung between her hips. My eyes slide down her fleshy thighs, see something that is unclear in the night, in my dreams: her left leg ends just below the knee, a bloody stump that drips crimson into the earth.
The heat, the sun, it must be too much for me. I stagger to my knees, palms pressing myself up from the dirt only to find her gone. Perhaps I have a fever or am simply hallucinating. Perhaps I am going insane. My mind knows that the woman isn’t real, couldn’t be: she’s a myth. Probably created by locals long ago to keep intruders out or by orchid hunters themselves to protect their harvest. I feel the earth tremble beneath me, that black earth reaching towards the blue sky, as I collapse in the clearing. I feel the moist kiss of the soil, the sharp bite of the jungle air, all over my body.
My days are spent in a haze of half sleep, under the darkest canopy of the jungle, where neither birds nor frogs sing their throaty songs. The others began to whisper about me, and my boss even asked me once if it wasn’t a bad idea for me to go out by myself. This verdant place has more than its share of poisons, he said, most of them we can’t even begin to guess at.
It’s true that I am pale. That beneath my long sleeves and pants my skin is covered with small pinpricks, the red of blood staying bright instead of crusting into black and then flaking away, like normal scars should do. And it’s true that I am tired. That I forget why I am here, what I was trying to escape back home. Was there a lover?
I follow her scent. Each day she leads me deeper, eluding me in this sea of leaf and earth. At night she still comes to me, sometimes she even remains. In my dreams, we are always packing to leave this place, our Carrion Bride orchids in their containers, ready to be shipped back to the lab, when I notice her at the entrance to the clearing—a necklace of huge bleeding flowers draped around her shoulders, dripping down her hips. I turn back to the contained blooms and she disappears, leaving footprints and bloody flowers in her wake.
I follow the trail, eating each fleshy bloom. Soon my body is dark with blood and I find a field of orchids with red, dripping mouths. And she is there. Her brown body envelopes me as we lay down in the sun and she feeds me flower after flower, until I finally sleep.
From A Dream Between Two Rivers. Used with permission of Cutlass Press. Copyright © 2017 by KL Pereira.