Antlers in Space
We leapt onto the breakwater at the close of a moonless night. We’d have walked to the lighthouse wrapped with seaweed if John had done as he liked, with waves from Lake Michigan swelling with lust for sand they’d barely touch. Only I told him my arms were beginning to pickle with bumps looking like the eggs of insects, so he suggested that we both sit down to rest, swinging our legs in the surf. He began rubbing each of my hands between his own and traced the lines of my palms with the sickle of his fingernail, yellowed from peeling the rind of an orange.
I closed my eyes as he followed the seams of my hands' patchwork, when I saw them more clearly for seeing by feel alone. The lighthouse too was lightless. For years it had been derelict, he said, as if he’d been the one to snuff it. The city produced enough light from skyscrapers as it was while no ship came here to port. This breakwater was a useless place if use were your concern. Nothing but a bed of rocks for people like us to fuck, shivering though I was.
I told him no, because he had almost become a priest only last month. I didn’t want to be his first, though I may have been his second or third or fourth, I realized afterward. And I didn’t want him to be no good, to hesitate too much. He had asked me to meet his mom, who spoke with an Irish brogue and tossed peat inside her Chicago stove, before I’d seen his cock. He left messages on my answering machine playing shoegazer riffs on a banjo he had built from a cigar box. He loved to rest his eyes, he said, in the depression between my lips, my Cupid’s bow he called it. He had rarely seen such a pretty one, he told me again and again. Yet I never believed him, because my lips are not exceptional. The dip in the upper one only leads to a treasure trove.
The vertical cleft extending from the middle of the upper lip to the bottom of the nose has no apparent use, only vestigial echoes of when we leveraged our sense of smell to better know our food. My philtrum is larger than most, though perhaps larger is not strictly the word. Maybe more pronounced, more delineated by shadows stuck within its groove. Or maybe absent any other feature of note, it appears untowardly striking on its own, a holding spot for nothing I have ever known. It has become in any case a hiding place, here at the center of my face, hiding all the love dissolved with antlers in space.
Male deer sprout their first set of antlers at roughly one year old. They turn from animals to half-trees poised to battle another arboreal galaxy with antlers of its own. Their antlers grow a quarter inch per day during April, May, and June. Come early summer, their texture remains supple as breast tissue begun to fork into lightning bolts. At summer’s end, however, their testosterone levels surge; their antlers harden into bone. They go to battle and mate beneath an autumn moon. By December, their antlers all fall off onto longer fallen leaves, leaving bloody depressions over which scabs later form.
After John had fingered all the lines of my palms, he helped me to stand up then grabbed my hips, thrusting himself against my tweed-covered buttocks. I let him ride me with his cock sealed safely in his jeans, my knees knocking against the white rock’s chalk, when I laughed louder than perhaps I ought, saying I hoped he enjoyed his time as a rutting buck. And as I laughed I could see—could feel better yet—the anger of his thrust, the bitterness of the buck kept from bucking on. He who might have been rather good, I thought. He whom I only saw again by accident, because we soon broke up.
No one ever bothers to tell you that your philtrum is an alluring one. No one becomes attracted to you because of it. A groove of skin in your nostrils’ shadows is not the same as sparkling eyes or a full and luscious mouth or a body amply proportioned. It is a beauty that you have to appreciate for yourself.
Still, a deep philtrum with ridges straight as hockey sticks is preferable to having one that’s asymmetrical or smoothened into a plate you can eat your dinner off. An unsightly smear on what may otherwise be a face worth lusting on.
A blind man palpating your face, memorizing its contours through his fingertips, still might fall in love you because of it. He with three children almost grown with an ex-wife whose eyes see into the middle distance while wearing no glasses like your own. He who may have paused his finger there, in the smooth and sweeping prelude to your lips, and may have paused in other places had you only guided him. He who knows the world by feel and feel alone.
He whose finger rested deeply in your little groove of uselessness and had been in no hurry to leave to get somewhere more important. Yours, meanwhile, is so much deeper and more useless than the rest, carved eighteen years before you were dry-humped halfway to a lighthouse long unlit. And its groove has only deepened since, worn by love and nothing else. Love that has nowhere to go but back and forth between your nose and mouth.
Because mine is deeper than the average, I can travel lighter on voyages. I can store my oddments there, between the twin peaks of my upper lip, for which others might buy another suitcase perhaps. My philtrum is more cavernous than you could imagine, because I have loved so much more than I have ever had reason. And I make no demands of it. Everything it holds it may hide for its own purposes. First-aid supplies and some snail shell shards—beauty all too easy to dismiss if you have a surplus.
Mostly debris, though, I confess. Which is to say all I have ever bothered with. All that comes from tossing love into the garbage.
For three and a half years, after college and throughout graduate school in Chicago, I read letters and catalogs and occasionally novels aloud for Eddie, long blinded by glaucoma and living with his girlfriend, Carolyn, above a pancake house. When I walked inside his office, I dropped a fistful of change onto the carpet to announce my arrival, when he named the number of coins spilled at his feet, which ones, and the amount they totaled.
Eddie had never seen Carolyn’s face, no more than he had seen my own and this little groove of desuetude above where Cupid strung his bow. Had he done so, he might have changed his mind about us both. Aside from an extra space between two molars visible only when he opened his mouth to yawn or swallow, his appearance was flawless. He took pains to dress in as bright of colors as were sold, to more closely resemble the sun that could no longer harm his corneas. And he always smelled of musk, from the gland of a Himalayan buck, lured close to the hunter’s bullet from the smell of menstrual blood. Carolyn looked a mess, though, as any woman blind from birth has a prerogative. She was fat from eating so many pancakes too, I noticed. My boyfriend joked it only mattered what she felt like, though, no matter her girth, which supported a fulsome bosom by way of consolation. If she fell out of her bed at night, I added, Eddie knew her value.
Most male deer regrow their antlers once a year while females remain relatively bald in comparison. Velvet-clad horns emerge from their skulls soft as cartilage before turning wooden. They scuttle higher and higher among whipped indigo clouds at dusk, until they are bone tired of manufacturing more blood, until their marrow dries out and they’ve punctured the firmament enough then break insensate off. So that you cannot tell the difference between fallen antlers and twigs from trees tonsured of their leaves yet still held aloft by torso trunks.
Only the antlers of any buck must go to battle first, before they can join the debris I store in my nose’s nook. They must grow as long as they can until they’re as close as they’ll come to stone, until they can pierce the heart of another buck or at least a lung. Until he falls among more antlers scattered amok.
And what’s the point of this? None except some sex, for the male with the biggest tree at his head and the lady he wants to fuck. For the fun of growing trees behind his ears that bear no fruit, only decay among the rotting apples no one ever bothered to pluck.
Being bucked from behind is being bucked blind in effect. Sometimes you might as well not know whose phallus is at work. And if you are penetrated hard enough, you couldn’t care less about the bucker’s appearance. This has long been my favorite position, though I have also pretended I’ve gone blind while mounted on occasion. This is only by way of practice should my retinas burst, because for years I felt sure that blindness would be my penance for refusing to see all that I should, the suffering that comes of loving someone else too much or not loving him enough. I felt I should learn to function more by touch, seeing with my fingers alone, groping cupboards for jam or peanut butter with my eyes closed. I suppose I eventually pretended enough, because my sense of sight began to weaken, until I needed glasses to see far into any distance. Over time, my prescription has only worsened.
Sometimes I prefer not to see as clearly as I do, though, to tell you the truth. Because I still can see the face of a man who recanted of a coming vow never to have any sex just to be denied it beside a darkened lighthouse. In retrospect too, I can say this: that without entering me through either his jeans or my skirt, it was my hardest fuck. And I’ve since been fucked fairly hard, though never hard enough. Because a real fuck from a buck gone hard enough should launch you into space, I’ve always thought. It should force you to reach out toward the great dark nothingness with antlers for arms grasping no one.
My philtrum knows its uselessness, I have begun to suspect. It is aware it has no claim to beauty for anyone with eyes that work. Still, it must continue to collect dust from far-flung galaxies and to accept it, that and all the unused love accreting within it. Because I cannot flee this face no more than this face can flee this body it is stuck upon. Which is not to say I do not think of suicide on occasion, that I would not welcome an end to this at once. Only I fear an end is not so easy as swallowing too many aspirin just when I get sad enough. I might be born again, with a philtrum shifted right or left, at a slant for punishment.
Unlike those belonging to us, deer’s philtrums have retained their utility. They act as a riverbed between their mouth and the pad of their noses, conveying moisture via a netting of capillaries, moisture that allows the animal to better smell its food and to detect the doe’s fertility. Animals, though, possess more bodily knowledge than we whose brains have grown too large and heavy. As a result, animals are better at detecting desire by smelling.
The philtrum of a dog or deer has a smaller depression than yours and certainly my own. There is less of a gap between the ridges, so the moisture flows from one sense to another with greater alacrity. For them, there is no such thing as storage of the world’s detritus inside so small a cavern that’s far from useless. Whether humans with smaller gaps than myself, with less of a superfluous depression connecting nose to mouth, smell better than people looking more like me I cannot say for certain. I only know I am not one of them, that my philtrum collects more and more rubble from the world’s wreckage, more by the minute. I only know that inside it I also carry the spores wafting from other planets with my face looking out into space rather than inside at my organs.
Eddie never touched my face, no matter what I imagined. At times, though, I wanted him to, when I felt overlooked by those with eyes that saw as clearly as my own. I wanted him to feel the philtrum replete with rubble I suspected of inordinate pulchritude and tell me what it totaled. In place of this, he listened to me speak. He said I had the voice of a baby, a baby gurgling with sweetness. He said other blind people for whom I recorded books wondered how young I was. Eddie knew my real age and insisted I was an ingénue, that no one with a voice so soft could have much experience.
I didn’t want to argue, so I asked him to trace the lines of my palms. He told me he wasn’t a fortune teller, and I said I wasn’t either. He felt, though, the lines and counted their number, and I told him this was evidence that I was born with too many to mean I didn’t live like a woman my age on occasion, walking a breakwater at dawn to a lighthouse wrapped with seaweed. This wasn’t true, however—I knew as soon as I said it—when he only replied I had the softest fingertips he had ever known. Too soft to have really lived, we both understood was the implication. I hadn’t taken off my skirt at the breakwater a couple years ago, though now I thought I might have done.
However wildly they effloresce, trees are antlers atop bodiless heads spinning in space. They are vascular defenses poised to stab enemies lurking on other orbs as lightless as our own. So I am surprised I have not grown antlers myself, woman as I am, with a philtrum retained only for appearances. Because what is wood except dead, dendritic bone, and haven’t I plenty? I have more than enough living matter deprived of blood and so no longer hardly living. And what is a woman with her arms outstretched but a tree writhing wildly in the wind’s torrents? Life becoming lifeless, the more the longer she stares into the sun, begging for blindness.
And I cannot be the only one. I cannot be the only woman who stores too much of the world’s dust deep beneath her nose’s bridge and above her lips. I cannot be the only one who feels antlers might be useful to her as well as to any buck.
A friend recently gave me a ring holder standing no higher than ten inches. A plastic bonsai tree I need never trim, she said, with assurance. Because trees such as these never do bother growing, sitting stationary upon your dresser, indifferent to the value of the rings they hold without their arms growing heavier. Though to a ring resting on a finger or a plastic branch there is not much difference. Both reach toward a sky that refuses to lower itself and come any closer. Though where does the sky begin if not at your fingers’ end? Antlers are only hands without sensation, trying to wrestle another buck to the dirt and pull some fingers off of him.
Eddie once confided he could smell my menstrual blood. I told him I tried to conceal the odor as best I could, with perfume at my wrists, when he told me to relax. He had two girls of his own, and this was how he knew they were becoming women underneath his nose. He smelled as well as he heard, he let me know, while I dropped some change from my pockets to redirect his senses.
I did not want to become the woman I have become, I as good as confessed to him, by way of apology for the odor between my legs wafting across the room. I had decided it earlier, when I was so very young, with my voice almost the same as it still sounded to him. I saw no need to change, almost unnoticed as I was, when adolescence began. I wanted to protect my innocence, under no near threat except my body’s growing reception to sex. I didn’t want to bleed out my eggs with the moon but keep all of them.
And this was possible, I almost convinced myself back then. It was possible for me with my hands so soft, though they’ve since somewhat hardened. With some flowering of cysts, my fourth-grade biology teacher conceded as weakly as she could manage, a woman could shed no eggs or uterine cushion that had failed to form to begin with. She would be an abnormality, however. She would be infertile always, a child of a grown woman, whatever she appeared to the contrary. Well that was lovely, I responded. That abnormality would be me, perfectly happy.
Eddie only laughed, saying this was natural. Whether he meant the wish to remain a child or the woman I had nevertheless become I could not determine.
The best bait for any rutting buck is a used tampon. Just ask any man with a gun wanting to display a pair of antlers above his mantle. Nothing is more irresistible to a deer whose branches have exchanged all their velvet for wood than the odor of a woman’s menstruation, the sign she is still fertile.
Why did humans let their sense of smell grow dry as antlers ready to collapse onto the forest floor? Why did we let it atrophy, the ability to know our world and those who might love us through scent alone? No one can say for certain, though some have blamed the eyes. Some theorize that when we rely so much on a certain sense, the other senses disintegrate in proportion. And this might and might not be accurate, though I would not become blind to test the truth of it. Now that I’m a woman and there’s no reversing the process, I like to see the face of the person I’ve decided to fuck, even if he only ever mounts me from my buttocks.
Human females are the only mammals to mate when not in heat. Most mammals, including female deer, bleed while remaining attracted to antlers with the farthest reach so long as sex is still in season. Fertility coincides with a purge of blood from their sexual organs, so there is occasionally some messiness while they reach orgasm.
And what of this? Whatever the amount of blood stuck to the buck’s penis, there is also, let’s assume for argument, very little love for such a small cleft between their lips and noses, for such a fine-tuned organism. The matter remains pragmatic. There is little use for uselessness when you live deep within the forest. There is little call to evolve beyond your olfactory sense as your primary sexual one, which tells the bucks when the female deer will have them, usually a month after their own antlers have become a permanent erection. Their philtrums must remain relevant.
Biology, put another way, acts as a determinant, so the species can continue on. Sex is not just for fun, to test the breakwater’s puissance. Only I am having no children. I am not trying to impart any wisdom from what I’ve witnessed, from staring with my glasses out into far-flung stars, an ingénue no more with my voice going deeper, I’ve begun to notice. I am giving you neither knowledge nor wisdom nor offspring, you future humans. I am evolved superfluity, with a philtrum needlessly large.
So what does a woman have if she doesn’t have antlers of her own, only fingertips softer than serve any purpose and a philtrum collecting more cosmic dust with each passing hour? She has these two hands to stretch high into the air, as high and higher as she likes. She has ten fingers to wriggle when she pleases. She has just enough to know she is alive.
The only place for a woman such as this, I know while inhabiting her from her inside, is a lighthouse with its light burnt out, as close to an antler breaching outer space as I can come. A place of pure obsolescence equal to my face’s finest feature. I have still never climbed a spiral staircase inside a lighthouse with an unlit lantern.
And I will likely never light it either, because I am always burning my fingertips, the closest to antler’s ends that I can access. I light my skin instead of the candle wick, skin that grows dry with winter’s encroachment. So instead of approaching breakwater’s end, I walk only to the same makeup counter and back, buying lipstick too bright a pink, buying always two tubes at once, so my lips always look stained, as if I have just eaten raw deer meat. Because in the absence of antlers, children, career, and even very much love, I have these two pink swords at a minimum. With them too, I could scrawl some poetry on the walls of a lighthouse if I wanted. If I ever met with another lightless one.
At my wedding reception, I sat beside Eddie and Carolyn, trying to help them cut and eat their food. Carolyn, sitting closest to me and looking like a bright peach balloon, stabbed with her fork at her tarragon chicken while I turned to talk to another guest and she dropped it down her lap. A woman old enough to be my mother and with a mouth wide enough to swallow the chicken whole if she wanted couldn’t feed herself in public. Runnels of green snot soon soiled her blouse as she started crying. And Eddie, sensing more than the rest of us, could do no more than pat her shoulder pad while she wept into her cleavage. To comfort her, he reached higher for her face than he should, smoothing her hair instead of cupping her chin dripping with sauce.
Look at a pair of transparent lungs, on an anatomically correct doll or an x-ray either one, and what do you see, honestly? Bronchi spread like branches, I’m well aware of, because I’ve seen the same thing. Because everything reaches, even when it cannot pierce the skin and see outside the body. Even armless things spread their fingers as wide as they can, to reach they know not what.
So if you see me standing splay-legged on a sidewalk extending my arms as high up as I can reach them, don’t ask me what I am doing. I have no purpose aside from hardening into antlers soon to fall off. This we know by now. That I am alive until I am not.
Bucks kept artificially subject to twelve consecutive hours of light then darkness, scientists have demonstrated, cannot shed old antlers and grow new ones. Too much regularity—sun deprived of the ability to wax and wane like the moon whose light is only a reflection—and old antlers rot without bothering to fall off and leave their blood spots. Such a world, with too much equality, grows fast short on debris, making a philtrum already pointless of even less service. Too much regularity prevents a philtrum from collecting anything that might serve you on travels outside the country, discarded shards of love you still might find pleasing.
John wanted to take me home to Ireland to visit some extended family. And so of all the places I’ve since traveled, I have avoided the Emerald Isle, with grass so green it’s fit to blinding. And after my honeymoon to Tuscany, I planned to call Eddie and thank him and Carolyn, though they missed the bulk of the reception. Because Carolyn had to go to her room after dropping the chicken.
Eddie accepted the new radio job about which he had told me before I left for Florence. Returned to Chicago, I delayed contacting him. Two weeks later, I learned my mom had terminal cancer and a year left to live. I wanted to cry into Eddie’s arms, guiding his hands to feel my face and my cleft hiding at its median, storing who knows how much unused love, grown yet more gratuitous. I had forfeited all access to the comfort he might offer, however, by failing to call him on the eve of our honeymoon, to ensure he and Carolyn had arrived safely home.
And after my mom died, buried for more than a year with my dad following soon after, I saw Carolyn sitting in the handicap seat behind my bus driver. I didn’t answer a phone call from my husband so my voice wouldn’t register with her, whose hearing was also more acute than average, Eddie had told me. Instead, I sat watchfully a few seats away, following every twitch of her unseeing eyes for any trace of recognition—of the smell of my perfume or the lining of my uterus now dissolving inside my tampon. I got off two stops early, and that ended our acquaintance.
Why did our philtrums waste away again, aborting their sense of smell, so they’re little more than a reminder we once may have had better fucks than we’re having at present? Because our sense of sight became too vivid, because we looked and looked, greedy for more faces. Because not all senses can operate fully at once. Because for every heightened sense you gain, you lose another one.