Chirality by Ash Howell

When you picked up the dagger, you didn’t understand what it was for.

The waved blade, edges flashing in the firelight, could have been another lie. You couldn’t tell anymore. The flicker from the hearth twisted around and out, glinting across the shattered glass that littered the floorboards, the light reflecting itself a billion times in the remnants of your mirror.

If you weren’t careful, the knife, the mirror, the light would slice you apart.

“You ask me for honesty, but you have come to me a liar.” The magician stood across from you, both barefoot amongst the broken shards of glass. “You are stuffed full of falsehoods. You see them, eat them, you breathe them, speak them. You’ve absorbed them into yourself.”

If you weren’t a liar, you wouldn’t have asked for the truth. If you weren’t broken, you wouldn’t have begged the magician to fix you.

You still didn’t know what the knife was for.

“Truth will cleave to truth. Lies, you can carve away. Cut yourself clean.”

The warmth of the fire flushed your skin, and the dagger was cold in your hand.

You would do anything to be what you ought to be.

You dropped the knife the first time you kissed it to your flesh. It left a cut like a love-mark. Your nerves tingled with heat and pain and fear before the endorphins kicked in.

The magician gave clear instructions. You had a lifetime of lies in you. To stop ingesting them, you must stop digesting.

You picked the blade back up. You steadied your hands.

You resumed.

When the blade bit through, you should have stopped. But with the pain came clarity, and purpose. You tightened your grip and tugged, you opened up your core and gore poured out, you sliced circles through your center, you dug out the umbilical, you gouged guts, and you bled out the bile lies.

On the floor before you intestines glistened with fictions and your stomach sat distended with dishonesty.

“That is a good start,” said the magician.

You bled all over the sheets, and you didn’t care. You felt better. Not right, not yet, but not as wrong.

You were awake, and alive, and in tremendous pain, and curious.

Your fingers explored the edges of the wound, feeling your way forward, each touch making your ruined flesh howl and shrivel. The cavity itself was all anger and emptiness.

You did not know what had kept you alive through the surgery, or what was still keeping you alive, or how you would continue being alive without so many of your essential organs.

“Rest today. Tonight you will carve more.” It was a statement, a fact. What more was there to cut out? It hardly mattered; you would do it. The pain and guts and mess were the price to fix yourself. The sun glittered through your small window, scattered over the still-shattered mirror. “Lay still, and I’ll tell you a story.”

“The Princess of Whitland had been engaged to a neighboring lord. Arranged, political. The day came, the dutiful lady said yes—what else was she supposed to do? It was expected of her. At the feast, her new husband offered her the apple from the boar’s mouth. Red, heart-shaped, a symbol of his affection. She ate it.”

You had no stomach to growl.

“The apple was drugged. She passed out an hour later, he made excuses, too much champagne, and he hauled her off. Necrophiliac. Kept her like that most of the time. She had to eat, after all. He drugged it all and she lived in a haze state, felt only half-alive.”

You interjected. Why didn’t she try to escape?

“He told her that she’d fallen ill. She felt sick, she slept so much. She believed him.”

You didn’t have an answer for that.

“She mostly believed him. Maybe just wanted to believe him. She tried to deny it for a time, told herself the true illness was in her mind, that she was imagining her own suffering. She ate his poisoned words with every poisoned meal for a long time. But in the end, the words soured before the food did, and she found herself clear-headed as she stood over the washroom sink. She spoke to the mirror and begged for her freedom. It was hers to take, of course; I just showed her where he kept the drugs. She ate so slowly that night, watching her husband drink his own medicine.”

The magician fell silent. You moved your fingers again against the edges of your empty abdomen and let the pain shudder through you. Your mind was still sick, but you were done eating poisoned words.

“Made off into the mountains. Lives in a polycule mining commune now and swore off fruits and vegetables. Only eats red meat.”

When you woke again, the knife was ready on the table.

The fire had been lit in the hearth again, and again the magician explained.

You held the edge a breath away. You asked what about an artery. The magician only pointed a finger toward the hole in your torso. You couldn’t argue with that.

Still, you hesitated. The magician’s instructions were clear. You’d spoken lies and you would cut them out, clean your chords in order to be cured. But you’d never spoken your misbeliefs aloud. You had thought you understood what the knife was for.

What untruths had you eaten, if not your own unspoken ones? What beliefs had bloated your guts, if not your own?

Did it matter?

Your throat brushed the edge of the dagger as you swallowed and said, thank you. You wanted something truthful on your tongue before you started, and at the end.

This time you were ready for the flood of hormones and tidal waves of pain, and for the deep cold of the blade as it pushed past your skin. But you didn’t expect to taste the bitter steel, sharp and bright, high in your mouth even though you’d pierced low in your suprasternal notch. The blade’s flavor echoed up your trachea and threatened to continue out the nape of your neck.

Your grip faltered as your fingers slicked with blood, but still you twisted and shoved until you hit the pharynx, then pulled forward to the larynx, and there you finally unfurled the vocal folds.

Every tale you ever told exploded, erupting up your esophagus out of your mouth and dribbling down your front, smelling vulgar and rancid and, you thought, exactly like they should.

“Messy,” said the magician, “but effective.”

You could not reply.

The magician took the knife from your hands and led you back to your low bed. The sheets hadn’t been changed—why bother?

“Rest. Tomorrow, we work again.” Without preamble, the magician began to speak.

“In Gevona there lived a widowed noblewoman and her son. She remarried a wealthy merchant, but tragically died a few years later. The young child was left with only his stepfather and stepbrothers.”

The magician stopped long enough to stoke the fire. Cinders spat into the air and settled in your open throat. You coughed, or as close as you could come to it.

“The merchant treated the boy terribly. Abused, neglected, beaten, belittled. Didn’t even give the boy a bed! He had to sleep on the dirty floor in front of the kitchen fireplace.”

You wheezed. It was awful. But somehow, despite the ash and gasping, you felt better. Not clean, not yet, but lighter. The magician handed you a cool, damp cloth and continued.

“The family gave the boy a cruel nickname, and his true name sat stale in his throat. When he asked for the smallest of graces, for basic decency, he was given only malice. After many long years, he unearthed an old mirror from the cellar storage and pleaded for his independence. All I had to do was unlock the doors and the safe. He emptied it out, emptied the whole house; fine clothes, family heirlooms, even the silverware. Loaded it all into a carriage and was gone before midnight.”

The magician poured water from your chipped pitcher into your favorite mug, a small brown thing that was badly shaped. You sipped, the cold water refreshing on your tongue and messy as you swallowed, spilling through ruined tubes. You tried to focus on your movements, tried to let the pain distract you. You didn’t like the taste of jealousy that stuck to your tongue. Soon you’d be better, soon you’d be true to the name you were given.

You tried not to think about the other name, the one you’d never even whispered. Reflexively, soundlessly, your mouth made the shape of it.

“He made it two kingdoms over to a tax haven, sold everything, and set himself up. He’s living like a prince now.”

On the third day, the magician handed you the knife without ceremony. You wouldn’t have had any questions even if you could ask them; the gaping maw of your stomach and the rent of your ruined throat snuffed out concerns of lethality. The wreckage of yourself was not a great loss; you couldn’t bring yourself to mourn something you had always hated the sight of.

You held the blade in front of you, but the edge didn’t catch your eye like it had before. Instead, you looked at your hands.

The fiction you couldn’t shake had been your secret for so long. You knew your unspoken self-deception, the name you couldn’t claim.

You wondered where the lies lay in your eyes.

What had you seen that was untrue? And what had you swallowed, what poison had you eaten if not your own illness? Obviously you were sick, the whole world would tell you so.

You felt better. You had watched the lies pour out and you felt better. Not honest, not yet, but better. And that was a lot.

It was hard not to blink. You focused your vision past the edge of the blade, stared at the creases of your knuckles around the grip. You tried to keep your hands from shaking too badly.

You had been scared but sure the first time you cut, but that hadn’t helped speed the painful process. You had swallowed your doubts the second time, but it hadn’t been fast. Now you were a mess of questions, but you weren’t going to stop. Even as your mind quaked your hands moved. Two swift jerks, two wet spurts as the knife burst the optic nerves, piercing past to the undefended matter behind.

You only felt a flash of pain before it died, taking the light from the fire with it and leaving only a deep, dark dullness. You hovered in the numbing blackness. You had a vague sense, or wild imagination maybe, that the remnants of your lying eyes were bleeding out your belief: each story your mind had composed to convince itself, all the handed-down desire to distort yourself, every attempt to approve of what you saw in the mirror before you’d finally broken and begged before it.

You had to guess at all of it. Now you saw, knew nothing, only air and emptiness. You lifted your head. You felt like an upturned bowl, open to the sky.

“Well done,” you heard the magician say.

“There is a small hamlet that sits too close to the edge of the forest. At one point—probably some dark and stormy night, if you want to be dramatic about it—the Lord of Claw and Law emerged from the woods and demanded a tribute. The villagers feared the fey and his terrible, toothy companions, so they conferred, drew lots, and sent the unfortunate young person who had lost the draw into the woods with nothing but the clothes on their back.”

You listened. There was nothing else: no firelight or smell of smoke or feeling of pain or any feeling of a body at all. You were numb, and dark, and you listened.

“The wild creatures of that Court are as savage as the beasts they resemble and as cruel and cold as the worst of our kind. They feast on suffering, they grow by harm. The human’s pain was the feast. Some nights they howled and chased their prey, naked and terrified, through the cold woods for hours until they grew tired of the sport. Other nights the human’s flesh was carved and caressed, tiny slivers of delectable pain.”

You hadn’t eaten in days, and you weren’t hungry.

“The story could have ended there, but no. The human had only time and misery; when the latter was bearable, they spent the former learning to pick the locks. It took a long time. The night they finally opened their cage, they stole through the corridors as the whole palace slept. They spoke to the mirror in the Great Hall, and asked for autonomy. I only pointed out which pillars were structural.”

You wanted to ask what happened, but no sound came.

The magician answered anyway. “They were quite clever about it. They boarded all the exits before setting the first fire. By the time they slipped away into the night, the sky was bright with flame and the air rich with roast beast.”

You tried to imagine the firelight, but saw only darkness.

You feel empty.

You have lost all sense of time.

You feel better.

You have hollowed yourself out and all that is left is the bones and meat.

You feel honest.

The magician asks, “Are you ready?”

You don’t know what is left to cut out.


What then?

“Only living, which is much harder.”

You lift up the remnants of your intestines and restore them back into the hollow of yourself; you push and prod your torso into a new solid shape.

You rearrange your throat; you know it will never sound the same as you seal it back up.

You replace your eyes and reshape your face around them; you reconnect your neurons and reignite your synapses to fuse brain and body better than they were before.

You cross the room and crouch down. The magician is gone, and only the mirror is left.

With the greatest care—you do not want to cut yourself—you push the shards of glass toward each other. It is not the same shape as it once was, but it is still a mirror. Your reflection in the broken pieces is not the same shape as it once was, but you are still yourself. More yourself, now, without the lies; with only the certainty and truth that you have always known and long denied.

Your body is your own, and you are grateful for it. You whisper your name, the one your old throat never did. You look at your reflection, and you like it.

And you are honest, and true, and you.

Ash Howell (they/them) is a human. They live with another human, a very small human, and two very lazy dogs near Lake Michigan.