We start with the liver. A slit in the side, a slim hand thrusting inward. Dalilah goes first. I expect to see victory in her eyes, joy at this triumph over the body, but Dalilah looks exhausted and frightened. Awed.
When she wraps her liver in linen and drops it into a clay jar with the head of a man, I am doubly aware that my own jar is still empty. Meaningless. Trembling, I clutch the handle of my dagger.
Dalilah is ahead of me. She will always be ahead of me.
We all want to be the Queen.
The Queen has lasted the longest. Photographs of the young Queen, in an animal print bikini, hang on the walls of the club. She was a prizewinner, famous up and down the coast.
Now she owns this town.
We always hold our breath as her desiccated body floats past, platinum hair streaming in the ocean air, a miracle of preservation. How does she do it?, we whisper like jealous girls in an old shampoo commercial, though we know the secret. We follow her to her art deco palace, where the Pharaoh Hound is generous enough to let us enter the courtyard, but nowhere else. One svelte gardener after another bows to the Queen.
Next comes the stomach. We have always hated the stomach. Dalilah used to swallow cups of plain gelatin to quiet hers while I simply denied my hunger. This organ should be easy because we despise it.
You go first, Dalilah says.
The jackal-headed jar waits, its face unmoving.
I open the slit again and reach for what I know to be the center of my existence. Everyone prioritizes the heart, but all my fear and ambition is lodged in my stomach. My whole past lives there. It grows larger with each year.
When my stomach comes out, there is no sound. I am surprised by the weight of it and grateful to wrap it up once and for all. I slide it into the clay jar.
I notice Dalilah staring. She wants to see whose stomach is bigger. She is nervous. That’s why she let me go first.
Maidens assist the Queen before she retires to her chamber. Long ago I watched her remove her organs. It made me think of all the other neighborhood women, silently taking off their makeup at the end of the day, and I understood who would be the victor over age.
How well the Queen knows herself! How well she treats herself. Perhaps this is true intimacy.
Dalilah and I can’t stay away from her courtyard. We are devotees, Dalilah says. I think of us as addicts.
The Queen stuffs her wiry form with cinnamon sticks and applies oil to her bronze skin. Clouds of cedar and myrrh pass over us. I wonder about the heart, the organ that stays. And the brain. Dalilah raises her head and stares up at the magnificent Queen, framed by the circular window of her chamber.
There he is!, Dalilah squeals as the Husband appears.
We remember what the Queen told us, that night at the fundraiser, in the ladies’ restroom, when she bent at the waist to retrieve her scarab-shaped compact. A devoted spouse won’t consider you dead, she said. The Queen, who had outlived irony, did not need to wink.
Still distrustful, I sniff the night air for a sign of decay.
The Queen understands my fear, though. She always has. She leaves her Husband behind and comes out to the balcony, where she shakes one bony index finger at me. Do not be so afraid of true love, she warns me. Demand devotion from your husband. It is your right. An Abyssinian cat winds itself around my ankles so tightly I lose my balance.
At home I resolve to improve. I will let devotion into my house. I will make it into my lover. I study my face in the mirror and try to trust it. My husband’s shadow falls across the bedroom floor.
We decide to do the intestines together. This will be like getting facials or pedicures, except that we are silent.
Our daggers move in unison. Slits burst open like zippers easing tight ball gowns. I see a smile playing at the corners of Dalilah’s pink mouth.
The intestines are endless. As long as a person is tall. Longer. It takes two hands to extract this organ. Our falcon-headed jars await. Are they grinning?
We start laughing at the same time and when our eyes meet, there is no stopping it. We have not giggled like this in years. This laugh recalls all the other times we dissolved into tears or let a few drops of urine leak onto our skinny jeans. Our girlhood was a river of female laughter, a first language.
And still we keep pulling. The intestines will not stop. We are getting tired.
This ritual is work.
I worry we will run out of linen.
The Queen sleeps. She is her own masterpiece. Her body is motionless, a living photograph.
This is when Dalilah loves her the most.
We sneak into her chamber so often I worry the Pharoah Hound will chase us out. I close my eyes and focus on the smell. I am a detective, a wine connoisseur, a perfume maker. There are so many ingredients––rose, vanilla, clove, cardamom––but underneath it all is the sacred unnamable: the place where life has been. The element that makes this all worthwhile.
When we were younger it was the trace of bodily shame that made a perfume popular. A hint of sex. The stylized waste. Decadence. But the Queen’s chamber smells, surprisingly, like the promise of life.
I am so drunk on this mystery I hardly notice when Dalilah tugs on my hand. It is time to leave and seek our own precious sleep.
The baboon-headed jars wait for our lungs.
I wish we had sung one last song. Repeated our beloved secrets. Said a few words to our baffled husbands.
The Queen still has her voice, Dalilah reminds me. Don’t worry. It will all work out.
Before we begin, I stare at Dalilah’s face. Is she still beautiful? Do we look like we did on the day we first met?
Is all this precision worth it?
We have decided to perform this ritual on each other. I will attend to Dalilah’s body and she will attend to mine. I do not know whether to expect an act of friendship or rivalry.
We touch dagger to skin.
Excitement takes over as we cut into each other. I possess Dalilah in a way that even her husband hasn’t. I have total access. I am hungry for the feel of my best friend’s lungs. I want to get to the end of this ritual and shut the baboon lid on the last jar. I am so zealous in my work that I do not understand why Dalilah is holding a pair of fleshy bags in her hands, and only then do I feel the air leaving my body for the last time.
Jan Stinchcomb is the author of The Blood Trail (Red Bird Chapbooks, forthcoming in 2018). Her stories have recently appeared in Gravel, Gone Lawn, matchbook, Atticus Review and Monkeybicycle, among other places. She is featured in The Best Small Fictions 2018 and is a reader for Paper Darts. Currently living in Southern California with her husband and children, she can be found at janstinchcomb.com or on Twitter @janstinchcomb.