She barely recognized him.
‘Hey you,’ her professor said.
His white skin touched her couch. He smiled, the same smile she had seen a thousand times before in class. His clothes lay arranged in a bundle next to him, neatly folded. The wool sweater, the jacket, the corduroy pants, belt on top, leather boots on the floor. Her eyes registered each item in slow motion, trying to configure the familiar objects that had shaped an unknown world during her absence. She smelled him, that distinctive scent of deterioration that becomes harder and harder to mask each year. She couldn’t help looking there too, between his legs. A worm. Not entirely alive, but not dead either. Its blind head tried to stick itself up. The wind blew hard against the windows. Autumn, the season of worms. You saw them when you stirred some leaves, crawling around, shaken up by the lack of cover, too naked, too glistening. He had no hair at all around it, no place for it to hide, no place to find dignity.
She clasped the corrected prints of her paper, crumpling them up.
‘Leave that,’ he said.
Again that smile. He placed his arms wide.
‘You watched me.’
His nipples hung.
‘Now I want to look at you.’
His words danced around her.
‘You are beautiful, you don’t need to be insecure.’
She avoided his eyes. Worms crawl, worms creep, but they can’t hurt you. They are Mother Nature’s helpers.
‘Acting coy doesn’t suit someone your age.’
A vein of ice crackled through in his tone, sharpening the words. His eyes glid over her body, grading her, whispering the score of each part to their master.
‘You know how it works,’ he said
‘I know how it works,’ she said.
In the Middle Ages, when vermin and pests showed up, they blamed the woman that lived alone. Men would arm themselves with nailed clubs and march out with fire after nightfall, incited by the approving yells of their women behind them. They would beat her with all their might to punish her and vanquish the darkness. That’s how it works.
‘Come here, you,’ he said.
‘What’s that?’ She pointed at it.
A flash of anger crossed his face.
‘Slut,’ he hissed, and he stood up.
‘It’s alive,’ she said.
‘Playing games, huh? You need to be taken hard, huh?’
‘It’s a tick.’ The tick was unusually large, its black legs moved and wiggled. She watched it grow, sucking itself fuller and fuller like a balloon. It was now bigger than his masculinity, which had shrunk to a minimum.
‘It’s huge,’ she said.
His face turned as white as his body, life drained out of him.
‘Shouldn’t you remove it?’
He stared at her with his mouth open, a bit of spittle foam on his lip.
‘It might burst if you don’t.’
His eyes turned to the mirror. She followed his gaze to his reflection and saw an eroded statue from dried-out clay. Something sacred for primitives. Something they used to scare people away, or that they buried on enemy grounds to soil their earth and spread doom and damnation.
‘Go to the bathroom.’
Witches have power over vermin. They have power over pests, ticks, ants, and the shrieks of grasshoppers. So harmless alone, so annihilating swarming together in dark moving clouds. She noticed another tick on his back.
He still stood there, frozen, more and more like a ghost, and it happened. It burst. The head of the tick flung across the room. It didn’t have the pang sound she expected, but blood splattered everywhere. The tick’s feet stayed gripped in the skin, forming an open wound. Blood dripped down his legs, slowly, with some bigger clots. Quite a dark red. Old blood.
‘You did this,’ he whispered.
‘You don’t believe that.’ She shoved his clothes into his hands.
He didn’t dress, and shuffled away, his legs weakened. A third tick showed on his neck when he went down the stairs. Sucking itself full.
‘I know how it works,’ she said as he went through the door.
She cleaned. Soon she heard an ambulance.
She barely recognized him.