a short story sarah mackenzie
photo by brad golding
Daniel Werthers began in a soft coating of amniotic fluid that smelt, contentiously, of deadwood and raw chicken. To be brewed in such duplexity takes its toll on form, and perhaps, in the end, all one can hope to glean from such a presence is a profile. The stars didn’t align for Daniel so much as they hid from one another, and Daniel’s ensuing evolution was one that constantly sought its own stunting.
Daniel’s brain was mid-sprout when it somehow conceived a person of certain fame was taking shape. However, given that he was not much more than a thing at the time, he felt fit to remain where he was for nothing short of an eternity. As fate would have it, he was born six weeks early by caesarian section, so one might say that he was not born at all but rather, excavated. When Daniel knew he was to be removed, his callow fingers slipped through wrinkles of placenta and he tried to ferret further into Mona Werthers’ body. He was, and would remain, faithfully sored about being handled this way. He eked out of there looking like a gyrating sac of fluid and not much more. Later, when Mona was re-sewn, she meant to coo at Daniel, but instead—due to a mix of exhaustion and yes, (justified) repulsion—she said, “Eeeew,” and Daniel wailed.
As an infant, Daniel developed a precocious habit of tapping his fist against Mona’s belly, as if to feel the consistency of who or what was roosting in his home. Hearing and feeling nothing in return, he would look at Mona with deep suspicion. It was at this early age of motherhood when Mona began to feel the burden of Daniel’s unconscious accusation, that his days were better spent in absence.
When Daniel’s time as a miserable garbanzo bean had past, there arrived a new, Episcopalian heartthrob with a predilection for slippery things. Despite his small size, Daniel was the deadweight of his mother’s life, lugging her closer to the ground with every shout. They attended church together on Sundays, where, sitting in the pews, each would lend the other a full service of side eye. Buckling in the heartache of failed maternal love, Mona’s skin grew tense, her skeleton increasingly confrontational. The trees in their backyard died and she stunk of deadwood (a fetal prophecy fulfilled) all the time. Jack Werthers watched pensively from the sidelines; he belonged to a phenomenon of over-hours dads who rarely saw their children to sleep or wake. He and Daniel shared pithy moments of boyish commonality and their subsequent lives were spent procrastinating on knowing the other better. The strain Daniel clothed Mona in was heavy enough that Jack too folded beneath it, and it was not a warm cloth to share. Indeed, Jack and Mona shivered next to each other in bed.
It was around age nine when Daniel took to licking the underbellies of frogs by the creek. This phase correlated acutely with puberty. Daniel wasn’t charged, sexually, for a long time. He preferred the swift lick of a frog’s belly and the consistent aftertaste of half-baked chicken to get off. When Daniel was done licking the unlucky frogs, he’d let them go. Half the thrill derived from the catch and the other half from watching them scamp off with his saliva further moistening their mucus glands.
Aged fifteen, Daniel joined his father for the Cajun Country Swamp Tour. Jack Werthers was right on the money with this excursion and Daniel licked his adolescent lips in anticipation. It was in Lafayette, amidst the Tupelo trees where Daniel contracted a new, anonymous frog disease. Ill fame struck Daniel as quickly as a pestilence of skin stains: Daniel turned all kinds of colours and the cameras captured every single one. Doctors studied buckets of Daniel’s bile everyday; would pile a thick layer of poultice onto his skin smudges; would Sharpie diagrams onto his small but perfect portions of anatomy; would colonic the literal shit out of him and study the frequent spectacle of mucus with bemusement.
And then one day, Daniel stood up, and, with his bum crack beaming through the hospital gown billowing out around him, he walked outside to a swarm of paparazzi buzzing about with questions of his heart, his skin, his brain, his size, and the louche compulsion that drove him to lick so many frogs. Daniel replied, “Actually, I feel fine, and people will like what they like.” Wow. This was a good, simple, albeit strange, Christian swamp boy with polished cheekbones and a charming surname that evoked a familiar caramel candy. Daniel Werthers was a qualified candidate for easy fame. The doctors discharged him, and he seemed to be fine despite his skin’s constantly shifting colour scheme and the mucus multiplex that was now his body.
A documentary crew had been filming Daniel for the four weeks that he was in the hospital and had distilled his whole person into ninety minutes of wholesome and heartstrung footage. One year later, Daniel had contractually obligated himself to a feature film of which he was the star, playing himself.
Mona petitioned Daniel, “Are you sure this is what you want? Fame is a lonely path to take.” To which Daniel responded, “Momma, how could it be the wrong way? I’m just looking for somewhere to go. As I’m sure we both know, Momma, this has never been home.”
By the time the movie (titled, The Curious Case of Slippery Werthers) was released and the box office earnings came rolling in, Daniel was eighteen years old and ripe for flight.
Problematically, there was the real Daniel Werthers and there was the role of Daniel Werthers, and though it was never clear which, one was concomitant to the other. This was the one trap that Daniel had slipped himself into without being be able to slip back out (because how can you depart from the party you had no idea you were attending?).
He took to licking his reflection in one of the thirty-six mirrors occupying his multi-million dollar home; he took to slurping yolks swiftly from their shells; he began hosting psychokinetic séances in his twenty by twenty foot bedroom and losing himself to the spurious sight of paranormal ectoplasms (it should be noted that there is not a thing more silky than the soul, and Daniel had a kink for all that eluded him). He quickly became addicted to the embodied fiction of early onset escape, and it was around age twenty-five when Daniel devised subconscious plans to—as he once slurred in a drunk stupor—“ride the rot out of the heckin’ hullabaloo.”
In Daniel’s absence, Mona and Jack would silently mime divorce scenes in their kitchen, in the hopes that the neighbours were watching (tragically, they were better actors than Daniel).
Meanwhile, on set for a tragi-rom-comedy Daniel met an extra who would whisper denigrating comments into his ear before filming. The slandering of his own name aroused something deep and base inside of him. Daniel felt it: the slow ooze, the dream girl. At the precise moment when Daniel decided he was in love, she gave him one nauseated look and whirled away in a barren, grey tumbleweed. He would spend the rest of his life in aimless pursuit of that tumbleweed, committed his love wholly to the sight of it wafting away.
He hosted wretched parties and acted accordingly, but Daniel was no normal celebrity. He would often traipse through the amphibitorium drunk at high noon, wearing his rain boots and getting mad at the slates of plexi-glass that parted him from the frogs. But his worst display of a vaguely-felt but all-pervasive spite for life was the cardboard Daniel Werthers replica he had commissioned, and which he would bandy about as “the real host of the party” and sometimes lube up with Vaseline. (It is interesting to note that Daniel’s worst childhood memory was getting lost in a very small and very simple house of mirrors.)
He grew increasingly testy with his famous and fame-craving peers, who, sprawled across his silk and patent leather furnishings, would drawl out to him, “Daniel, baby,” “Daniel, dear,” “Where’s the Vaseline?” “A touch of ketamine?”
One night, napping in fetal position at the foot of his closet, Daniel was intruded upon by a high, nude human looking pointedly for love. Daniel, half-conscious, told them flatly, “These bodies disgust me.” And yet, he allowed these strangers to skin his abode of all its superficial niceties.
When Daniel returned home for occasional weekends, reeking of patchouli oil and millionaires, his mother and father would argue endlessly and Daniel would stand between his backbiting parents, pondering child stardom in stem-to-stern Burberry. A group of local Louisiana girls about his age would stockade his front porch, woozy with the nearness of celebrity. But Daniel only had eyes for an elusive, out-of-sight, notably dry tumbleweed (and also, many millions of frogs).
There was an unneighbourly teen named Heckles who would shank the cemetery soil with his shiv in an act of mortal rebellion, and it was he who, on one of Daniel’s scarce visits home, smelt the patchouli oil from eight meters away. He shouted at Daniel, “You’re bait, buddy!” which proceeded with a swift shanking. A bit of Daniel’s blood leaked into the cemetery soil and he assumed rightly that it wasn’t death but wrongly that it was a metaphor of some kind. In any event, his ego quailed. He was stitched up in a flash but it seems the gash triggered an onslaught of internal mucus to surface.
Mona was understandably shook and well over her prime, so the time for tying up loose ends was now. She kneeled by Daniel’s hospital bed and pleaded, “Could you just say that you love me?” To which Daniel replied, with a strange blend of sincerity and chicanery, “Momma, I would love to say that I love you, it’s just that I have so much to do and so many other people to say that to, and also, there’s a big wad of frog mucus skewing my view to the point that I barely know who I’m speaking to, and while the media may judge me harshly for the poor rapport I have with my momma, they have accepted me, unwombed as I am, nonetheless, so yes, while I would love to say that I love you, I don’t want to confuse our history. Consistency is very important to me, and things have never been this good for me.”
Daniel was forty years old when Mona was digging up dead seedlings in the backyard on a monthly basis. One day, while autopsying their crumbling cores, she fell into an anomalous aperture in the soil, which had caverned behind the sapless trunks. Jack heard her croak through the kitchen window as she spilt over; he shuffled outside just in time to glimpse her feet’s final parlay with sunlight. Her body was not recovered for the funeral, nor could the hole be filled, ever, and that plat of circumferential dirt remained barren. When Daniel was asked how his mother died, he would reply always with, “A pratfall” (this was also her obit).
Aged fifty, Daniel laminated his whole body for a dull TV special. He expected it to feel like a full-body orgasm but instead he started hyperventilating on live television.
“It’s your lungs,” the doctors said. “They are in a rut.” “What do you mean they are in a rut?” Daniel said. “They are clogged up, Daniel,” the doctors said. “There are pus-like hillocks lining your throat.” “Hillocks? Should we mow them down?” Daniel wondered. “We’ve never seen anything like it,” the doctors said. “It is as if they are trying to squeeze you out.” “They are trying to squeeze me out?” Daniel said. “Yes, you are being squeezed out, Daniel,” the doctors said.
Daniel’s wet core would disintegrate and digest the cotton balls a nurse tossed down his throat to soak up the mucus blistering about. In his dreariest unrests, he would dream of himself sticking to the ceiling and walls like Velcro. One time Daniel started folding in on himself, his forehead stuck to his shinbone by some strange sap, and doctors had to shake him out and hang him up by fifty-six clothespins from the fourteenth floor window.
There was not nearly as much press as when he was a newly frog-ailed adolescent, so Daniel would live-stream himself tonguing toads (which he really loathed, but he thought their leathery backs would be a fun twist for spectators; he was wrong). He would appear in the lowliest tabloids and in the end it seemed the time for frog licking was long gone (and yet, Daniel was not).
Was it a strange decision to get a tumbleweed tattooed onto his left temple? Yes. But Daniel began to sanctify a lot of things (besides, the only person he could ever worship so faithfully was one that never really existed). During his brief requested reprieve from the hospital, he had his supernatural ectoplasm painted and hung up in his dining room like a Victorian portrait. He would exchange dialogue with his mirror and his mirror only. “Daniel,” he would say and, “Daniel,” he would say back, and the conversation didn’t need to develop much more because it was enough to hear the distinct inflection of voice in his reflection’s response, confirmation of the other side, whatever that means (Daniel seemed to know what this meant). This whole time he was walking around with slippery joints popping in and out of place, while his skin would get so dry that his legs looked like ash—and they would occasionally catch fire leading his home to smoke up with the familiar scent of deadwood. Daniel shrugged away what might have been his mother’s ghost in the smoke.
Jack Werthers settled into the chair next to Daniel’s hospital bed, and his vacant gums slurped up the free pudding placidly. The ninety-year old man looked like a wealthy reptile, his skin prolapsing and his chest covered in gold and silver chains that made his torso lurch forward from the weight. Father and son would speak in what sounded like tongues to each other, completely unbeknownst to either of them (a surplus of saliva and lack of bodily control will do that to you), until one day a nurse whisper-screamed, “Sinners!” at them, through the doorway.
In a way, they both came to a sticky end. Jack Werthers fell asleep in the chair next to Daniel’s bed and his hip bones melted like wax over the cushion, till he couldn’t hope to leave, so he didn’t, ever. And Daniel was choking on his marshy tongue on a daily basis (there was always a nurse on standby with tongs, ready to readjust the tongue).
Daniel voiced his final wish: “I would like to die in the murky pools of the Tupelo tree hollows.” To which hospital staff replied, “Mr. Werthers, you are far too weak.” “You’re wrong. I feel alive,” Daniel said. “Mr. Werthers, there’s been yolk streaming from your jowls for weeks,” they said. “Please, you must bring the Tupelo trees to me then,” Daniel said. “Mr. Werthers,” a nurse whispered into his ear, “it is too late for that. There is something inside you already leaking toward reprieve.”
So Daniel fled to his death. The path to the swamplands was primrose and Daniel was a small sac of jumbled and wet bones. He kind of rolled along it, his tongue licking up everything he could along the way. He felt like he was kissing the whole day—oodles and oodles of intimacy.
He rolled until his body lodged into a tree crater and conflated into fetal form, bald head to bald knees. He looked like a cracked egg shell, so, it was there in the Tupelo trees where Daniel dropped the quasi and laid his yolk bare.
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