Elizabeth Rively

Chapter One – The Decomposer

Elizabeth Rively was a historian of buried things.

Elizabeth was very beautiful, and very disturbed, and she was not forthcoming and she was not often invited to come forth. She collected wigs made of doghair or horsehair or wool or paper and she wore them whenever she left the house. She had a daughter once, and she kept the old baptismal gown and Easter dresses and cut them into long, thin strips and sewed them to a bonnet, and when she went out wearing that one people knew enough to leave Elizabeth alone to her memories and her madness.

She spent many nights sneaking into the rooms of men who lived in town – mostly older men who might have been particularly unkind to their wives in her presence – and she whispered to them about silver and gold. She left scraps of notes on the dusty floors of places she knew they frequented – places to drink or to pray – just legible enough to hint at possible treasure secreted away in hollow places in the homes of their peers. And she hid and watched and fiddled with her wig and smiled when she saw her whisper-men pick up the notes and try to decipher them. She kept a sketchpad and charcoal with her, and as she watched she drew the shapes of their mouths as they read. (She kept careful track of these, and referred to them as her “oral histories.”)

She was more comfortable with worms than people. She filled her bathtub up with soil – the bathroom sink, the pillowcases, the duvets – and she kept the creatures there, visiting them often to run her hands through great piles of their bodies. (Once she tried to fashion a wig out of them. It got messy.) These were Elizabeth’s collaborators. When she came home from her outings sprinkling the town with rumors of buried treasure and marking the results, she took her sheaves of scribbled mouths and she dug holes in her yard and she pressed the mouths into the holes and left them to decompose. (This was her archive, and she was fastidious about keeping it organized. Elizabeth had mapped the soil behind her home and knew its surfaces and depths as intimately as she knew those of her own body.) When they were ready – and she paid attention to the planets to discern this, and she listened to the whispers of her wormy assistants – she dug up her documents and fed them to the little bodies in her bath and bed. And then she crawled inside with them. And sometimes they crawled inside of her. And as she read these decaying voices through their decaying mouths through the membranes of her slowly decaying body, she came to understand what moved the men who made them, what they desired, why they were tempted by her whispers, and what that might mean for them, and for their families, and for Elizabeth. Sometimes she fell asleep, reading in this way. And when she woke up, she toweled off, and she chose a wig, and she went out and did it all over again.

She never wrote down her histories. Instead, her worms read her stories on her body as they writhed across it, and since she felt her work belonged to them she never had them translated.