The first time it’s with a butter knife, and it’s almost a joke.
Jace is cooking dinner and August, bored with TV, is watching them cut the beef, each motion of the knife cleaving slabs of red flesh from the hunk on the chopping board. Today has been a good day, the first properly good day they’ve had in a while. Things are getting better, she thinks.
Jace turns the knife, slicing slabs into cubes, their hands and board wet with diluted blood.
August says, grinning, ‘It’s kind of hot, watching you do that.’
Jace is gorgeous, almost extra-terrestrially so, and watching them manage the array of pots is like watching an artist at work. August can’t cook to save her life, so their meals are Jace’s domain: beef stew for them, and a lentil curry to satisfy her distaste for meat, meal prep that will last them both until the end of the week.
Across the room, Jace grins down at the beef. ‘You think everything’s hot.’
‘That’s because it is! I reckon you should cut me open like that, Jace. You can put all that fancy surgery training to good use.’
Jace looks up suddenly, knife still lodged in the meat, juices pooling towards the handle. ‘Would you like that?’
August sits up at the tone in their voice and Jace fixes her with a sharp, calm gaze.
Slightly taken aback, August laughs. ‘I mean, I don’t want to be wounded or anything.’
‘You don’t have to be wounded.’
They step away from the food, hesitate for only a moment, and then take a butter knife from the cutlery drawer. It sits loosely, comfortably, in their hand. ‘Come here.’
They’ve got that tone in their voice, that controlled, almost didactic tone that makes requests become instructions. August acquiesces, she always does, she can’t help herself.
Behind the kitchen counter, Jace looks down at her, knife held gently in a red-splotched hand. August is pretty sure they’re evaluating her, and she imagines herself like those diagrams of beef cuts, all divided into pieces. After a moment of silence, Jace decides on the chuck, placing the tip of the knife below her throat, between her collarbones. Under the gentle pressure, that soft hollow of skin yields, dimpling.
Jace gives her a moment to breathe and August wrenches down the desire to flinch away, sucking in a breath. As her exhale breaks the silence, Jace drags the steel down, each groove in the serration of the butter knife catching, rasping on her skin, until it hits the low collar of her shirt. Their gaze is fixated on the result: a faint, white line. It’s hardly even a scratch but August feels her blood pounding through her. They lower the knife but raise their other hand, tracing a finger—still damp from the butchering—over the scratch and leaving a thin pink trail, like watercolour paint, creating a facsimile of a wound. A faint feeling of nausea rises in August’s throat at the smell of the blood on her skin, but she doesn’t want to break the silence to voice her displeasure.
Jace’s hand falls, and the pair exhale sharply, almost in unison. Clearly, the moment is over, dismissed. Jace steps back, returning to the cutting board.
‘Did you…’ August hopes they’ll finish the sentence, but it’s a misguided hope. Jace is unforthcoming. ‘Did you enjoy that?’
That single word, enjoy, is entirely insufficient, encumbered by uncomfortable implications, but it’s a start. August retreats to the couch as Jace slices, the sound stark in the otherwise silent kitchen, until they say, ‘Yes, I did.’ And then, ‘Did you?’
Power is a common guest in their bedroom. The roles were never discussed, but intuitively understood, perhaps a product of the age difference, or, as August has always suspected, one of Jace’s non-negotiables, a product of a fraught childhood brought up only when absolutely necessary. They enjoy taking control, and August has never minded giving it up. If it ain’t broke…
‘I mean, yeah. It’s… interesting.’
Jace doesn’t ask her to elaborate.
Five days pass without the subject being broached. They’ve been getting along better, though things still feel delicate. Sometimes Jace will press their lips against her forehead and it will feel like it used to.
On the fifth day, as they’re both winding down for the night, August walks into the bedroom to find Jace on the bed, and a pair of knives on the bedside table. One is a serrated steak knife with a sharp end, and the other is small and delicate, probably for deboning fish.
Jace speaks first.
‘We’ve got some time before bed.’ They stand and cross the room, taking August’s hand. ‘You look beautiful.’
She’s certain that’s not true, but Jace can always convince her when they want to.
‘Thank you,’ she says, and is rewarded with a smile.
‘I’d like to use one of those.’ They glance over at the neat pair of blades. ‘If you’d like to.’
Relationships, August reminds herself, are about concession.
‘Can we try the serrated one?’
‘Of course.’ Is that a brief flash of disappointment on their face? ‘Take off your shirt, and then lay down and close your eyes.’
August obeys, conscious of Jace watching her as they take the knife in their hands, running a finger gently down the blade. They look slightly terrifying, campy in an 80s slasher kind of way, but because it’s Jace, it edges into the unnerving.
From the bed, eyes still open, she whispers, ‘I love you.’ The way it comes out makes it feel a little like a plea.
For a wonderful moment, Jace’s sternness breaks. Voice soft enough that it won’t disrupt the scene, they say, ‘I love you too.’
Those words are almost a sedative. August closes her eyes and there is a moment of total silence. Jace doesn’t move—or maybe they do, circling her, undetectable—and August shifts on the bed. The sounds of the sheets beneath her are shamefully loud in the quiet they have constructed.
The first thing she feels is the tip of the knife, the coldness of the metal as startling as the sudden stimulation. Jace has pressed against the soft skin above her armpit, but not hard enough to puncture. Bereft of everything else though, the sting is all she can feel, as though the knife is moments away from opening her up and letting everything spill out. She imagines she feels Jace’s body leant over hers, their exhale on her skin. She imagines they’re just about to kiss her.
Another moment of pause and then they slant the knife, dragging the length of it down the side of her breast, over her ribs and across her stomach. It’s far sharper than the butter knife was, a row of metal teeth threatening to tear her open. The shock of the sudden pain makes her jerk away, panicked, but Jace’s hand is there, flat on her stomach, the warmth and softness of their skin a welcome relief. The knife pauses.
‘Still,’ they caution.
August draws in a slow breath, feeling the knife press, unyielding, as her chest expands. As she lets the breath out, Jace moves their hand away, and she suffocates the urge to protest.
She is still, uncomplaining, and when Jace whispers, ‘That’s it, just a little more,’ it all becomes worth it.
The knife resumes its course, curving low on her stomach, skirting the waistline of her pants. It becomes a challenge not to breathe, not to flinch, as the arching line of pain maps a course across her skin. August tries not to think about the flesh of her body parting under Jace’s skilled hands, them sawing at her until she splits open, blood staining the sheets. Would they sew the wound closed if they made one? Suddenly, it is over. She can hear the knife being placed on the bedside table, and Jace’s warm, alive hands are palming over her.
‘Open your eyes,’ they whisper, and she finds them smiling, their warmth offsetting the throb of residual pain.
‘Hey,’ she mumbles, as Jace pulls off their pants and dumps them on the floor.
‘Hey you. Scooch over.’ They crawl into bed and seek out her hand under the covers. August wonders if they can feel the slight tremor that persists even as adrenaline floods out of her.
Jace presses a kiss to her temple, and she whispers, guilty as soon as she lets words out. ‘Will you hold me?’
Wordlessly, Jace pulls her close, and August finds herself curled against their chest, her breathing slowly calming. Their heartbeat is perfectly uniform, muffled by the fabric of their shirt.
When Jace is deep asleep, August untangles herself and stands in the bathroom. In the mirror, she sees the evidence of that night: a thin, lancing red line, from the top of her breast to the opposite hip. In some places, surface layers of skin have been scratched away, and red dots of blood just under the surface make the wound look like a constellation.
It’s faded by the morning. Jace tries to hide it, but they don’t try hard enough. August watches their eyes trace the path the knife had carved last night, and she withers under their disappointment.
Days pass, and Jace’s warmth wanes. They fight one night, about something stupid, and August sleeps on the couch under the spare blankets, crying quietly enough that Jace won’t have to hear it. She can’t stand the idea of an apology, of the disdain that certainly lurks behind the words.
But the next morning brings a tentative peace. August apologises in the same breath as her ‘good morning,’ and Jace apologises too, between sips of a cup of coffee that August had remade twice.
That night, before they both go to bed, she stares at the knives in the cutlery drawer. This seemed like an inevitability. They have a paring knife, with a short, flat blade; it looks almost like a scalpel.
She takes it into the bedroom and before Jace can speak, she holds it out to them, handle first, like a gift. ‘I thought we should try this one.’
Jace is silent for a moment and August is suddenly terrified that she has mis-stepped somehow, until they say, ‘Will you wear a blindfold for me?’
She has always wondered if she’d do anything they asked of her; surely, they can sense it now. ‘Do we have one?’
‘Yeah, actually.’ Jace has private spaces that she knows not to intrude on, another understanding of their relationship. August would have them too if she wanted them. The blindfold is sitting neatly at the back of the drawer in their bedside table, and August wonders how long it’s been there for.
‘Take off your shirt, please.’ She can feel their mounting excitement, a surge of interest that provides the necessary reassurance. As she takes off her shirt, and then—at a nod from Jace—her bra, August can feel their eyes on her, observing almost clinically.
The satin of the blindfold is cool on her skin when Jace fastens it, and the effect is total. Straining for awareness, she hears them handling the knife, the slight stick of their palms on the metal, the shifting of their body as they make a slow loop around her.
She doesn’t know how long she stands there, but just as she is about to speak, cold metal is placed against her skin, feather light. August flinches—despite promising herself that she wouldn’t —but no admonishment comes. This time, it’s against her cheek. They’re being gentle today, and when the blade ghosts down the side of her face, it almost feels like a caress. There is no pain, but anxious anticipation makes her tremble as Jace curves the knife over her jaw, and down. At the top of her throat though, they slant the blade to the side, tracing down over her racing pulse with the flat edge, as though smearing butter on bread. Down the length of her throat, and then sharper over her collarbone —every muscle in August’s body is taut—until they come to her breast.
‘Do you trust me?’ Jace’s voice breaks the ritualistic silence. August hesitates for a moment, but really, there is only one answer that can be given. When Jace hears it, they don’t move for a moment, and then drag the knife over her skin.
For a moment, she thinks the pain is in her head. But then a warm droplet traces down her breast and August flinches and feels the wound flex, parting. Pain, real pain, shoots through her and without thinking, she’s pulling the blindfold down, every motion stretching and contorting the wound. When the world is visible again, the first thing she sees is a surprised Jace, stepping back from her, knife in hand.
‘No, no, Jace. I’m sorry.’ She’s too panicked to do the delicate work of extracting meaning from their raised eyebrows, so against her own better judgement, August looks down. Blood has spilled out and over, but it is a small cut really, about two inches long and shallow. It’s curved, too. It smiles up at her.
Instinctively, she presses a hand over it, and feels the warm blood and the split seam of the skin and tries not to vomit. Jace has put the knife down and says, as though trying to calm a nervous animal, ‘Okay, no more. I’m sorry. I’m going to… go get you a Band-Aid.’
In a burst of movement, they’re gone. She’s standing there alone, half naked and bleeding, stranded.
After too long of an absence, Jace brings back three Band-Aids, and patchworks them over August’s breast. Neither of them knows how to say what needs to be said, so they are silent. When the lights are off and they’re both pretending to sleep, August whispers into the darkness. ‘I’m sorry.’
Jace shifts beside her. ‘You don’t need to be.’
August waits for more but it doesn’t come. Later, still awake, certain that the smell of blood is lingering in the room, she takes her pillow out to the couch. It feels a little like a protest, but if Jace notices that she left the bed, they don’t mention it.
They last three more days, and then Jace says they don’t want to keep going.
They ‘give her some space’ and August cries for hours, until her head is pounding, and her nose is so blocked that she can’t breathe out of it. Instead, she lays in bed, curled around her pillow, panting like an animal.
She runs out of tears eventually, and she runs out of meal-prepped curry too, but Jace doesn’t offer to make more. She thinks about slicing herself open to prove her devotion, to win them back to loving her again, but she can’t even bring herself to open the cutlery drawer.
When they divide up their possessions, Jace takes all the knives.
Author: Isabella Hope Ferris-Green is a Meanjin/Brisbane-based poet and writer. She has performed for Queensland Poetry, was a youth ambassador for the Brisbane Writers Festival, and has organised youth poetry slams with Ruckus. She loves weird clothes and weird art, and in her spare time, searches for the perfect iced chai.
Artist: Lilian Martin is a writer, poet, and now artist based in Meanjin/Brisbane, who wants to publish their own zines one day! They used to be keen on the art thing in high-school and have slowly been trying to ignite their visual spark once again. They have begun incorporating visual elements into their writing career by designing magazines, doing illustrations, and making graphics for the QUT Literary Salon. You can find both their writing and visual work at https://linktr.ee/lilianjmartin.
Editors: Tracy Channell