Read 'My Life in the Bellies of Beasts' by Surrealist Author Lincoln Michel
This short story about a young man growing up in the stomach of a fox, a bear, a shark, and a whale is from the author's debut collection, 'Upright Beasts.'
Illustration by Lauren Monger
You may have read Lincoln Michel's writing on this site before, but those engaging and incisive essays are just the tip of the literary iceberg for this guy, who is the online editor at Electric Literature and whose outstanding debut collection Upright Beasts comes out October 13 from Coffee House Books. Lincoln's writing is consistently hilarious, dark, sad, and absurd, with unexpected bursts of poignancy. I like how Lincoln's work seems to draw from a great and rich tradition—including Donald Barthelme, Franz Kafka, Flannery O'Connor, Diane Williams, and Kobo Abe—while also carrying on the anarchic spirit of things like Mr. Show, golden-era SNL, and the shaggy-dog joke. I've had the pleasure of knowing Lincoln since 2006, when we were both students at the Columbia MFA Program, jostling for workshops with coveted professors and incurring massive amounts of student debt. Along with two of our classmates, Ann DeWitt and Rozalia Jovanovic, Lincoln and I started the literary and arts magazine Gigantic, which just released its first-ever book Gigantic Worlds, an anthology of science flash fiction that you should purchase here, because it's a beautiful thing you will want to hold and show off to people. VICE is proud to present Lincoln's story "My Life in the Bellies of Beasts" below.
My Life in the Bellies of Beasts
I was born prematurely and, as such, was a very small child. So small, in fact, that shortly after emerging into the world, I was gobbled up by a clever fox that terrorized my parents' farm. It had sneaked in the back door while everyone was distracted. My mother's tears of joy turned acid, and my father cursed the lazy farmhand he'd tasked with mending the fence. These were the first and last words I ever heard my parents utter.
It was cozy and warm inside the fox's belly. I barely noticed what had happened. To me, it seemed I had merely gone from one womb to another. When I was hungry, I ate the scraps of raw meat that fell around me. When I was sad and wailed, the fox howled lullabies to guide me back to sleep. All in all, my early days were bearable.
In time, I began to grow skittish. I was no longer a baby, and I needed to stretch my limbs. One day, as if to answer my prayers, the fox was cornered by a local hunter and his giant mastiffs. The fox tried to run away, but I had grown so large that I weighed her down, and she was torn apart by the hounds. I felt the cool air and saw the harsh sunlight for the first time before being swallowed by the largest dog.
I can't deny I felt a great sadness as I settled among the bits of organ and clumps of fox fur. Yes, the fox had kidnapped me, but she had also been my home, and that is never an easy thing to lose.
Still, the mastiff was roomier and more appropriate for a growing boy. I could feel my muscles developing as I did push-ups on the soft stomach floor and pull-ups on the outline of the mastiff's large spine. When the dog bounded through the grassy fields, I would crawl up his throat and rest my chin on the back of his massive tongue, gazing out at the dry, open world.
I even fell in love this way, believe it or not. There was a kind girl who lived next to the hunter's house who would feed the mastiff I lived in tasty leftovers through the gaps in the fence. She wore pastel sundresses and had dandelions in her hair. I couldn't believe how light and beautiful she looked in the sun.
"What are you doing in there?" the girl said when she saw me peeking from the back of the mouth.
"I live down here," I said, ashamed.
"Well, come on out!" She laughed, but I was afraid and slid back down into the guts. I didn't think a boy who had lived his life in the bellies of beasts was worthy of her.
I howled with self-pity, and the girl rubbed the mastiff's belly, saying, "There, there."
Eventually my constant loneliness made me resolve to leave the dog's belly. And I did. Using all my strength, I pulled my way out of the mastiff's maw. It was dark outside the dog. My limbs ached, and I decided to rest. As I sat on squishy ground, I realized I was merely in another belly. The dog had been gobbled up by a grizzly bear when I hadn't been paying attention. I couldn't believe my bad luck!
When I tried to escape the bear, she grew angry and climbed up a tall tree. I was almost a teenager now, and life felt like a rotten trap. Everything that seemed sweet contained hidden thorns. If I had fresh honey in my grasp, it was followed by the painful sting of swallowed bees.
'I live down here,' I said, ashamed.
But life moves on, and one grows accustomed to anything. Years passed. The grizzly was drugged and placed on a boat that set off for a foreign zoo. The boat was caught in a terrible storm, and the bear and I were tossed overboard, only to be consumed by a shark that was later swallowed, accidentally, by a giant sperm whale.
I was now in the largest belly I had ever been in. There was nothing to restrain me anymore. I was a man, and I had to make a life for myself. I set to work, building a shelter out of driftwood scraps and skewering fish from the stomach's pond for food. Sometimes I thought about the little girl in the sundress and felt a sadness in my stomach. I lived in the whale for a long time. My skin grew spots, and my hair fell softly to the ground. My years were swallowed one by one by the beast of time.
Then one day, I noticed the whale was no longer moving. I hadn't felt stillness in many years. I was afraid and sat waist deep in the cold saltwater. I pressed my ear to the whale's rib cage and heard shouts and noises beyond the barrier of flesh. Then metal claws tore the walls of my world open, and I tumbled onto a wooden deck.
It took my eyes quite some time to adjust to the light. My old skin was covered in flecks of blood and slick blubber.
Between the unshaven sailors, I saw a woman looking at me and smiling. Her skin was crumpled with age, and her hair was long and white. She was wearing a green sundress and holding out her hand.
"How did you find me?" I managed to say.
"I've been searching for you all my life," she said. She bent down to kiss me softly on the brow.
She helped me off the ship's floor and gave me a bowl of hot soup. The sailors waved goodbye to us at the next port. We married and bought a little apartment in the city, far away from the woods and wild beasts. Inside, we enveloped each other in our arms and whispered the words we'd saved up over all that time. There weren't many years left for us, so we were determined to live them happily. We drank dark wine and filled our bellies with rich meals of liver and ripe fruit.
Time passed, and my days were calm.
Yet despite all my happiness, life was uneasy for me on the outside. Often at night I would wake up in a sweat, my body encased in the tight sheets of our little bed in a cold apartment in a city surrounded by the warm sea. I felt small and alone in that dark room. I could feel the breath of my wife on my neck, but it felt like the breath of some unstoppable and infinitely large beast, the one waiting for the day that it would swallow me inside the blackness of its belly forever.
"My Life in the Bellies of Beasts" is reprinted by permission from 'Upright Beasts' (Coffee House Press, 2015). Copyright © 2015 by Lincoln Michel.