by M.O. Walsh

Our man took a blow to the skull during rough sex play with his wife and this put him in a small coma. That was not the trouble. When he awoke from his slumber (it had been a week in our time, a confusing series of dream years in his), his wife’s head had been replaced by a tree stump.

They had been married three childless years, she Melissa and he John, and everyone considered her pretty on the outside. Yet John was a chubby man who lived life scared. And like so many men, he carried with him the anxiety that his wife, at any given moment, might suddenly realize he was a chubby fellow and leave him. So, on the day he finally got out of bed, when he recovered enough from his injury to be mobile, he was anxious to see her. He walked through the house in his piss soaked pajamas and there she was, sitting on the couch, sending text messages on her phone. All was normal for a weeknight except that the top of her body, from the shoulders up, looked like it had been pulled from the yard. Her head was now the knotty base of an oak tree, perhaps, a sycamore, turned upside down and sat on her shoulders. Her neck was a silvery bark, her hair a mass of roots that looked like mad dirty snakes.

So John made that confused face, the one that annoyed his wife, where his eyebrows crinkled up like a child. This is when he felt the dried bandage, puckered like a scab at his hairline. And since John himself remembered little about the injury at this time (garter belts, some indecipherable yelling, a shovel?), he was initially as confused as you or I would be in this situation. Why all this clotted blood on me? he wondered. Why a bandage turned brown from neglect? More pressing to him, though, was his tree-wife, and so John walked up to examine the scene. Standing behind her unnoticed, he tested the strange world before him, and stuck his hand in the loamy cradle of her hair.

Melissa dropped the phone between her thighs, which were not wood, and turned her big gnarled face toward him.

“Christ, John,” she said. “You scared me.”

There were no eyes in the latticed bark of her face, no nose and no mouth, yet John watched it shift around as if displeased, moving like shingles unmoored in sludge. Her voice came from some un-seeable place.

“Shouldn’t you still be in bed?” she asked him.

“You know,” he said, not wanting to alarm her. “I think you may be right.”

With that, Melissa turned back toward the television where she pretended to resume interest in a show about monkeys who had traveled in space. The phone vibrated between her bare knees, which she ignored. John then carefully removed his hand from her roots, watched some rotten debris crumble from his fingers, and saw that a worm had curled up in his palm where its scum had made mud out of dirt. Away from her, in the light, the worm dried up and died right before him.

“Hm,” he thought.

John now saw where other worms had made homes in her head, evidenced by myriad paths and small openings. He caught the tail or head end of one and tried to pull it out of its den. Melissa was quick to shrug him off, though, like she was in one of her moods, so John got the drift and backed away, brushing small flecks of wood and maybe moss off the couch.

“Like you’re so perfect,” she told him.

“I’m not that,” John said. “We both know I’m not that,” and started back to their room.

On his way to this place he double checked to be sure and, yes, still a trunk head, so he asked if she remembered that movie they saw a long time ago called Little Otik where this lady adopted a tree that came to life and grew evil. He was just looking for some kind of connection to her in this moment, a segue to approach the strange subject.

“Something reminds you of a movie?” she said. “Surprise surprise.”

John rued over his own predictability and said, “I love you, babe,” because he felt it important that she didn’t forget this.

The rest of the house appeared to be in humanly order and yet when John entered the bathroom and tried brushing his teeth in the sink he found his face to look like a big steel safe in the mirror. Confusing, sure, but luckily unlocked and when he opened it he saw that his jaws were set apart at weird angles. Where was his tongue in this diorama, he wondered. Where was his brain? Mysteries for another day, he reckoned, and threw a cap full of Scope in there for good measure.

Hours later John was pacing the house yet again, his inner clock all screwed up and it dark outside. He wondered about Melissa and peeked through the office door to see her sitting in front of their computer. Her head, now, was a big white egg. John grew frustrated.

He thought maybe tomorrow would be better.

Melissa heard him shuffling around behind her and said she thought she may have found a good donor. He was a rich guy from Tupelo, she told him, a doctor. “He’s got an education,” she said. “That’s important.”

“I just want you to be happy,” John told her. “I support you in whatever you do.”

He then waited around for an expression of gratitude from Melissa but realized that with her head in that blank and oval condition, she might not even be looking at him.


After a week of this mess, and John free of obvious bandage, other curiosities piled up. When John returned to work, for example, his boss was a hamster. He told John excitedly about some copies he needed made before noon and used his little pink hands to hang from the door frame as he ranted. John told him, “Yes, sir, you can count on me,” and watched his boss chew clumsily at the wood. John’s friends, as well, what few he’d held on to these past years, now appeared to him like radios and front loading washing machines. He didn’t tell them about this, of course, as he was afraid of venturing into intimate man conversation and killing what meager buzz they’d achieved. But, finally, after seeing his wife transform into a For Sale sign, a Mercedes Benz hood ornament, and lastly a bare and fleshless skull, he got to thinking that he needed some help.

Melissa was all for it and scheduled John some long sessions with a guy named Dr. Orno. This doctor came highly recommended by some friends of Melissa’s that John didn’t know. “He might be able to help with your over-eating, too,” she told him. And John went to bed alone.

A delightful surprise was that Dr. Orno was a person. He was young and enthusiastic and asserted his credibility by making sure his publications were scattered at random on the coffee table of his clean office. John liked him immensely and so he made no mention of why he was there. They instead spent the first two sessions discussing things like the revamped batting order for the Philadelphia Phillies and how difficult it had become to find a good pair of socks. Yet whenever John left this man, he always felt marvelous. He’d even lost a few pounds.

“I feel better about things already,” Dr. Orno told him. “It’s good of you to come here.”

This appeared to be true.

Melissa’s face remained to John a fleshless skull and so John felt relief that at least the symptoms weren’t getting any worse. He could live with a hamster for a boss. He could drink beer with any type of appliance. All told, this made it easier for John to avoid reconnecting with the human world that he’d long suspected of pitying him. No need to explain yourself to a fridge, a lawn mower, a sink. Maybe it was better this way. And because of this new attitude, life improved to such a degree that sexual activity resumed between husband and wife. Melissa had scheduled her fertilization appointment with the doctor from Tupelo and pranced about their bedroom with renewed vigor. Now, whenever she bent John over and placed the light bulb in his mouth he could feel her cold teeth against his shoulder and he thought about people in third world countries who don’t even get a chance to experience things like hot showers and soft bed-sheets and his life appeared tremendous in comparison.

“I love you, Mel,” he would mumble.

“It’s time for you to shut the fuck up,” she would say.


To be clear, there were previous times in John’s life when he had doubts about Melissa. When his friends, all of us still men then, told him that they had seen Melissa out to dinner with a strange man during their courtship, he would grow jealous and enraged and would rush to her apartment in blind fits to confront her. She never allowed him inside at these moments and John felt this was probably a good thing. He was passionate then, and angry, and probably not in his right mind.

“I need someone stable,” she told him. “Look at you. You’re like a lunatic.”

“But is it true?” he asked her, blubbering, because there was a time in his life when he cried.

“You come here accusing me of things your dumbass friends say and I’m supposed to be happy about it? You know they don’t like me,” she told him. “They’re jealous of us. What do you expect them to say?”

“You’re right, babe,” he would say, while what he meant was do you promise you still love me with my fat stomach and small dick and shit job? And this question, because it went unspoken, took up a permanent spot in the imagining queue of his mind so that all possibility filtered through it.

Then, as John stood outside of her apartment after these confrontations ended, he would curse himself for being a jealous man while he watched through the upstairs window her shadow play along that of her old fiancé whom she still lived with until John could afford a bigger apartment. He had his suspicions about this arrangement, as well. But later, when John got the apartment, a small two bedroom place near the city, Melissa married him in a bang bang ceremony and so he had no doubts about her now.

John also remembered fondly their courtship, which helped him gloss over her flaws. It was a scene at the local airport where his life changed forever. After hours watching the crowded lines, feeling lost amid the melee of heated arguments over flight cancellations and security procedures, John sat on a pleather sofa. The woman, who was always pretty on the outside, sat beside him. John had trained himself not to look at women like this in real life as opposed to on his computer due to the total depression that would follow their initial appraisal of his body. So, he was surprised when this stunner turned toward him and said, “Do you believe these assholes?”

Melissa then relayed to him the tale that she had been in line since mid morning and had gotten fiercely verbal with three different managers. The depressing facts of 9/11, which had occurred that same morning, seemed to her an even better reason to get to Tucson where there was a man who bought her things when his wife was out of town. And after unleashing the remainder of her acidic mood upon John, totally uninterrupted, she looked him in the eyes. They were as hopeful as a fawn just dropped from its doe, and as blind. Because, in truth, John had heard little of her situation. Instead, he’d spent those last minutes envisioning the remainder of their love lives together; from kisses to foreplay to marriage to sex to a painless car crash that would end it all while they were, as per habit, holding hands.

“So,” Melissa asked him. “Where are you off to?”

“Nowhere,” he said. “I’m waiting to pick up my boss. He was supposed to be on the eleven o’clock from Newark.”

“Nobody’s getting out of there today,” she laughed. “Why are you still here?”

“Just in case, I guess.”

So, Melissa turned to him with her tits that were pretty.

She looked interested in what he had to offer.

She spoke slowly.

“Do you know that the world is on fire?” she asked him. “That we’re under attack?”

“Yeah,” he said. “But I told my boss I would be here.”

Melissa smiled at this and gathered her purse. She took his double chin in her hand.

“Are you a stupid person?” she asked him.

John smiled back at her, crushed and confused, yet unwilling to say anything that might push away this woman with blonde hair, a face, and a vagina; the one who was talking to him of her own free will. So, some time went by in that flickering airport, that desperate and terrified place, until John decided to say, “What?”

Melissa stood up.

“Would you like to take me to dinner?” she asked him, though she knew the answer already. And then, in the early months of their dating, when John was introducing her around, he called the whole episode “love at first flight” although he admitted he’d never left the ground.


In more recent news, the fertilization of Melissa went well, and John was informed of this by Dr. Orno.

“We decided au naturale was the best method,” he told him. “I’m sure you’d agree.”

“What are you saying?” John asked him, or only thought he asked him, as the lock of his safe face had twisted shut.

“You are a lucky man,” Dr. Orno told him, “despite your infertility. Where I’m from, in Mississippi, we call women like that sewer snakes. That tongue can flat clean you out. When I think about that being someone’s daughter, though. God it makes me hope for a boy.”


So, her belly grew and the infant child was female. And on the rare occasions that Melissa re-allowed John inside her body she said, “I can’t even feel you where he has been,” and so John concentrated harder. He felt his stomach cramp up from trying to hold it in as he thrust and sweat upon her like some dying walrus. And if he had only looked up once or twice, instead of trying to find where her face was now, that fleshless skull recently disappeared and replaced by the blade of a shovel, he might have seen us all around him, his old pals, the ceiling fan, the TV, the night stand, staring like people at the incomprehensible circuitry of his private life. Our eyes flung wide, mouths agape and aghast, like witnessing the disgrace of some fellow soldier for whom the war of human love has made mad, already digging a grave for a man who, like John himself, is still unaware of his passing.

So, as you can imagine, we worry about John.

And in the times he is not around, we ask ourselves questions like this:

When John raises this child of Melissa’s, which he will, and gets a moment alone with her; what will he say? While his wife cruises the den with a face like a Hammer Head Shark, a butcher knife, a rubber mallet; what will he tell the toddler? Say, for instance, he is sitting alone with her and sees an eyelash fall from her lid to rest upon her soft cheek. Will he pick it up and tell her what so many of us would; that the thing to do with eyelashes is to catch them before they hit the ground, to close your eyes and blow upon them, to wish for something attainable and good? Will he go so far as to take this tender moment and show the child, himself, how to do it?

If he does, then, we’ve just got to know.

What does John hope for? What does he want?

We come up with nothing to please us.

So, as time goes by, we turn ourselves off. The lights go out. The fan stops spinning.

The clock just blinks.


M.O. WALSH is a fiction writer born and raised in Baton Rouge, LA. His stories have appeared in magazines such as Oxford American, American Short Fiction, Epoch, and The Greensboro Review. They have also been anthologized in Best New American Voices, Bar Stories, and Louisiana in Words. His first book, the short story collection The Prospect of Magic is now available.