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Pressing by Nathan Ihara

One weight really isn’t so bad. Mostly it’s just the chaffing on the wrists and ankles from the rope, and being naked face down on a stone floor, which would bother about anybody. The hurt’s mostly in my shoulder blades, my spine, my pelvis—all the bone parts. If I had a little more fat on me, the first day wouldn’t have troubled me much. I’m scared of course, who wouldn’t be, and I’m a bit cold—it’s drafty in here. They’ve settled on a weight-a-day approach, though they might have to ease up later, maybe put a weight on for half a day, then take it back off so I can get better, then put it back on again, and suchlike, continuing.

They don’t want to finish you completely; they want to make sure you can just barely take it. Peine forte et dure, they call it, and sure enough: pain hard and long. One of them comes by after awhile and asks if I’d like to confess my crimes, so they can cut my head off. I certainly will not. They give me bread and water through the side of my mouth—it’s nearly not possible to swallow it; swallowing requires a small upward movement of the chest, and there is not much upward movement anymore.

The thing about being mistook is it confuses you too. They sound so sure of themselves and their story makes a lot of sense, the way they say it, and how many times they say it. I’m trying not to remember what they said, because I feel like it might undo the things I believe are really true. I try to keep remembering my way of saying it, but then my way starts to seem kind of false, and then what they say starts happening in my head, as if I were saying it, as if I was remembering it. What they say is so specific and certain seeming.

They say I violated my own cousin, bashed her in the head, and then threw her down the well. It’s not all that believable really—I’m a mild type, and she’s bigger than me too. She has a fine plumpness to her, sanguine, she’s always been the loud one, the strong one, and it’s hard to see me winning, and I love her on top of that. I say I never could have, but they say I might have been possessed, or I might be too ashamed to confess it to my ownself. I might have had The Devil up inside me, badgering me, giving bad advice. They say my own mother and father have pointed the finger at me, and the farmer, whose property we live on, says it had to be me. It’s a pretty dreadful crime, one way or another, and they can’t wait to cut off my head once I say the words. I can’t blame them. I would want to cut my head off just as much if I thought that I was the one.

The second weight makes the breathing hard, which is how they say you go, eventually, from not being able to breath rightly. The weights are these excellent dark discs with holes in their center, milled and smoothed, proper stonework. Once upon a time they used any old boulders, but Henry the Eighth has created standards. When they step into the room is when I catch my only proper glimpse of the weights—once they’re on the plank I can’t see them anymore, because I’m under the plank.

I can feel the whole of my bones in my chest, can feel the exact shape of my entire skeleton, know precisely how much it’s all bent down. Normally, just going about, you aren’t aware of your own bones. After a long day of work in the fields, you know all about your muscles, as they ache and throb, but I’ve never known my own bones this way before. I’m impressed with my bones, they’re sturdy despite the bend, they squeak but don’t crack, they’re still giving me some room to live in.

My cousin was always less afraid of whipping than I was. I would cower and cry, even just at the thought of it. Oh, don’t be so afraid, she would say. What’s a little whipping? That was the part about Hell that I could relate to the most, and so feared the worst, the forever of whippings you got, and so I tried to keep her from saying sinful things—but she was always saying sinful things, and sinning, and getting a whipping. She took it better than me. After a whipping I was sick and stayed on the ground and had no appetite. She could take a good whipping and still be hungry for supper.

She loved to eat and she would steal food to eat despite the risks—it was, in that moment, worth it for her. She would eat whole handfuls of butter if she could get her hands on it. That’s why she stayed so fresh looking and healthy. She was surely the healthiest person on the whole farm which is what makes it so awful that she got bashed and thrown in the well. I guess they’ll have to keep using that well anyways since it’s the only one they’ve got. Part of me is glad I’m not going to be around there anymore because how could I draw up that water and drink it, how could I drink it?

Everyone had their way with her, which was their right, by law, as she was an unmarried woman and of age, though I always heard that she resisted more than most of the girls, when the farmer, or a soldier, or one of the others tried to put himself upon her. You’d see them with black eyes or walking gingerly and you would know she had resisted. Everyone wanted her, wanted to get some of her healthiness and largeness. They wanted big handfuls of her body.

It’s harder to think as day three goes by. I’m trying to think about my cousin because I have decided that would be the respectful thing to do since I can’t mourn her properly along with the rest seeing as I am being pressed. Also I want to think about her to prove that I wasn’t denying myself anything about her—because if I had really done those things, I would be too scared to think about her, I would just hum, or go la la la la la la la la la so I wouldn’t have to remember her face and what I did. I don’t know who I am trying to prove all this to because obviously they can’t see what’s inside my head so I suppose I am just trying to prove it to myself—which I shouldn’t have to do seeing as I already know what I know which is that it is untrue.

For I don’t know how long I have not succeeded in thinking a single thing. Thinking is pressed out of you along with air and humor. My bones are making a squeaking noise, and maybe some have cracked. Only the stones are keeping me together. If I stood up, I’m quite sure I would die. I can’t sleep neither of course. I hear them come into the room, but when I turn my neck, no one has come into the room. I keep hearing them and hearing them, and I guess I’m hoping they would come into the room which is funny since when they do come in, it’s just to tell me I threw my cousin down the well, or to put more weights on top of the plank on top of me. My throat is awfully dry though, and I would like a little more water, just to fill the dry spots. And despite all this, all this discomfort, I have to say that I am kind of bored. I surely wish something would happen. Pain hard and long, and nothing happens neither, nothing else.

After the fourth weight goes on they start really telling me how things were. They give the details of it all, they shout it into my head, and they whisper it. They say my cousin came into the kitchen at the main house that night, just for some milk, and since I sleep in the kitchen closet, I heard her, and I had a wicked urge upon me, and I came out and tried to lay my hands upon her, and I said, “You’ve given it up to everyone, you whore, and you haven’t even given it to me, your own cousin.” And she said, “Get away!” and pushed me down, and that’s where I got a good hand on her legs and tripped her down, and I was trying to get her bottom clothes off, trying to get inside her, and everyone in the house could hear all this. But when she kept pushing me off, I got the wooden board that’s used for cutting the vegetables, and I bludgeoned her with it just to keep her quiet while I finished releasing my soul into her, but when it was done, I learned that she was dead, and so, weeping, I took her by the ankles and dragged her out and down the little hill to the well and threw her in. And I was weeping by the end of it, by the end of them telling it, though each weep barely happened before I felt that I would choke on it, so much weight was upon me, and they said, “Then you are weeping now because you know what it is you’ve done.” But I shook my head.

Do you know how many hours I have worked in the fields? Do you know what long hours I have worked in the fields? Do you know what weights I have carried? On the days when we clear the stones from the new fields, I have carried hundreds of stones in my sack, hauled them clear of the new field and thrown them down exactly where I was told to throw them. When the ox was sick, I have shouldered the plow alongside. I am thin, not because I am weak, but because I have given the rest of my body to the farm. I have done my best for the farm. But all that has come before does not figure in. All that matters is if my story holds.

They bring in another flat stone disc, and I do not remember if it is the fifth or sixth disc, and I cannot see the top of the board, because I am under the board. I want to ask them, ‘What number stone is this?’ but there are not the necessary shapes inside of my body to fabricate the sound that would be the question. I can only shake my head or not shake my head now, though they promise to lift the plank if what I am going to say is not a question, but rather a confession. Still, I want to ask them what disc this is to insist that it is still important how many of something there might be, as if I am still concerned with the ways and numbers of things, how many rows are needed, or how many freckles were on my cousins neck, or how many spoonfuls of sugar she ate that one day, or how many years old she was. Now she is down the well, and if someone were to walk into this room and was asked what was in the room, they would very well say, “Why, there is a wooden plank with five or six great stones upon it.” They might very well not know that I was there at all.

My parents, my parents. I cannot blame them for blaming me, because if they believe they are telling the truth then they are merely trying to tell the truth, and if they are lying, they must have some weight pushing them to say what they say, perhaps as much weight as I have on myself, though of a different kind. I have twelve siblings, which means they have twelve other children. But they only have one farmer, and one house, and so much bread, and so much water.

They bring in another of Henry’s discs. At this moment I decide that he is not my king anymore at all, and if they would only lift the board for a moment I would scream, “Death to Henry the Eighth!” I should have thought of that earlier, because perhaps they would have killed me straight-away, since insulting The King is much worse than killing a fat farm girl, beloved though she might be. Which I did not do.

And yes, yes, I loved my cousin. She was like a lowing cow in a barren field. She was like the great big moon against all the starving stars. And she was a great criminal too. She showed me the stone beneath which she put her baby, because of course when she had a baby she had to kill it. All the women killed their babies, which of course was a great sin and crime. The first woman I saw hanged was hanged for putting her child in a sack and putting the sack in the stream. My cousin was much too sly and brave to ever get caught for killing her child, but she did show me the rock she had put it under, and this itself was a terrible risk for her to do. How did she know I would not have her hanged? My word would be enough to have her hanged, and so it was a foolhardy thing to show me the stone. Anyone’s word is enough to have nearly anyone hanged, to have anyone pressed. At the time I thought, “What good is this? Showing me the stone. That does nothing for either of us, but could lead to you being hanged!” But I think she wanted to say, “There are dead babies under stones, and everyone knows that is how things are, and everyone is scared of it, except for me.” I looked away from the rock, and could not meet her eyes, but I did not have her hanged. And later I passed by the stone with a kind of terror. And now I am under a stone myself. So maybe she was warning me of how things were? I wonder if she was here, beneath the plank, pressed under Henry’s discs, and they asked, “Did he kill you and throw you down the well?” what would she tell them? And if I was her baby, would she hold me for a moment, before she put me beneath the stone?

Yes, maybe I held her sometimes, we were cousins, I think maybe this is true, maybe this is part of the story. And yes, maybe I had an urge for her, and if I did then I didn’t care if I did or not, and if I didn’t then I wouldn’t mind it if I did. I feel like my cousin is in the room with me, and she is guiding me in how to confess, and what crimes were real crimes and what crimes were not. And she is laughing at me a little, because I am so determined not to confess, when death is so easy to have, as easy as stealing butter. By now, all the skin on shoulders, and spine, and pelvis are quite gone. Six days or more and the skin has rubbed away, and I am a human snake, except I do not have new skin.

I am become confused. They have begun to convince me, which is confusing. I had another story, once, but now it seems like what happened was that I attacked the farmer, I mean my cousin, the farmer attacked, I mean I attacked, in the kitchen, my cousin, and forced myself upon her, and took the wooden board—which one? the one used for the vegetables? yes, that one, I suppose—and I bashed her with it, and she fell, glorious and healthy, the healthiest woman on the farm, and I tore away her bottom clothes, threw myself upon her, and actually I am remembering this clearly now, holding her and weeping, this unnatural embrace, with all her body beneath me, and my slight weight upon her, trying to wake her corpse with my yearning, and this is criminal, but I am willing to tell this story, because we are together again, which is what matters to me, and I am unafraid of confessing this story. This story might well be the case, it might well be the case. And I threw her down the well.

I try to tell myself that this is a great embrace, that my cousin has come back into the room and is embracing me, is forgiving me, is embracing the truth inside me, but this embrace is the great embrace, which is not a human being, but is pain. Which is not a story. Which is not words.

So: I shake my head. “Do you have something to confess?!” I shake my head. “Do you wish to confess?!” I shake my head. They confer as to the meaning of my head shake. Since it’s the only movement I can make, it could mean many things or nothing. They come to a decision. One by one the discs come off.

I wait to see if my story comes back. If it comes back, if my story would only come back, I would not confess, and I would make them put all the stones back on me, and give me back all my promised pain, and they would have to wait anew. I hope to goodness that my story will come back to me. But it does not come back, and so I will not waste their time any longer.

“You will have to help me,” I say. They nod. “And correct me if I am mistaken in any of the details.” Yes, they nod.

I have something to confess.


Nathan Ihara is a regular contributor to the LA WEEKLY. His fiction and essays have appeared in Opium, Eyeshot, Post Road, Pindeldyboz, and Sweet Fancy Moses. He is a MacDowell Fellow and a winner of Glimmer Train’s New Writer award. He is working on a novel.