Photo of translucent green frogs a pane of glass.

‘Viaticum’ by Bree Galea

Content warning: body horror, vomiting, blood, misgendering, dysphoria, religious trauma.

Viaticum

The house stands alone, its closest neighbours far beyond the tattered wire fence that borders the property, too far to see.
         The house is deteriorating, but it always has been. Corrugated iron sheets sit atop a peeling weatherboard exterior, a half-hearted renovation attempt from the previous owners, decades ago. Rust is eating through the metal, gaping holes spreading across the house, devouring it.
         He hasn’t been back here in years, not since he was a teenager. Nothing more uniting than death; he thought he’d successfully escaped this family. Dry heat fills his lungs with each reluctant step forwards.
         Reaching the door, he scrapes his feet on the metal welcome mat, kicking up clouds of red dirt. He tries the doorknob; it’s unlocked. He wonders if his grandma left it like that, or if someone else has been here since.
         He places a palm on the door and pushes against it, gently at first, then harder when it doesn’t move. He nudges it with his foot and feels a slight shift beneath his hand. Bracing himself, he shoves at the door, and it bursts open with a splintering crack.
         He hisses, a sharp pain shooting through his palm. Cradling his hand against his stomach, he squints at a jagged splinter sticking out of the fleshy part of his thumb before digging it out with well-bitten fingernails. He gazes at the shining smudge of blood marking the door. It’s the most life the house has seen in years.
         The inside isn’t in much better condition than the outside. If he didn’t know better, he would think this place has been abandoned for decades. Cupboards empty, shelves bare, furniture dusty and forgotten.
         In the kitchen, he stops to rinse the dried blood off his hand. He turns on the tap, cringing at the high-pitched whine it lets out, pipes rattling. After a moment, the water spits into the sink, thick and rust-coloured. He recoils, not quick enough to avoid the spray. He wipes the reddish residue on his pants, waiting for the water to run clear.
         He keeps waiting. The water splutters but keeps coming out dirty.
         Impatient, he walks away and continues surveying the house, leaving the tap on. He’s not paying the water bill. This place is self-sufficient, running on water tanks and generators.
         The floorboards creak as he walks over them. His eyes flit across each room, assessing the damage but not landing on one spot for too long. He’d rather stave off the memories while he can. Before they consume him.
         As the only one in his family with any amount of renovation experience, he’d been recruited to fix up the house so his parents could finally sell it. They’d been trying for years, but nobody wanted it.
         A familiar cold dread settles at the base of his stomach. He should’ve refused to come here. He wanted to. Years after escaping them, he still hasn’t learnt how to say no to his parents.
         He can’t bring himself to go inside the bedrooms. Not yet. The door of the master bedroom is open; he stands in the doorframe and scans the room, ignoring the prickling in his gut telling him he’s not allowed here, that he’s intruding.
         The second bedroom, where his parents slept when they stayed here, is also open. He gives it the same once-over before retreating down the hallway to the spare room. His old bedroom.
         The door is shut. He stands before it, one hand on the handle. He inhales, trying to remember any of his breathing exercises. He wonders if the door is locked, but only for a moment. He was never allowed to lock the door. He exhales shakily through his mouth and opens the door.
         It’s barren, like the rest of the house, an empty room with a bedframe pushed against the far wall. He doesn’t know why he expected it to look the same as it did years ago. This was his sanctum in the house, a place he could escape to when the weight of his family’s words sank deep in his stomach and he needed to breathe, alone.
         Movement by the bed catches his eye and he goes to step inside to investigate but stops himself. Instead, he squints at the small dark shape sitting atop the bedframe roughly where his pillow used to sit.
         He thinks it’s just a stain until it blinks at him. It’s a frog, the only other breathing creature in this lifeless house.
         From this distance, he can’t see any of its features other than its bulbous eyes and the grey-brown colour of its flesh. It feels too early in the year to see frogs; the air outside is dry and hot, not the cool damp they usually crave.
         He stands there until the growling of his stomach reminds him he should keep moving. It’s already been a long day and he’s barely started. He leaves his bedroom door open, telling himself it’s so the frog can escape, ignoring his discomfort at the idea of reaching across the threshold to close the door again.
         After looking through each room, he sets his sleeping bag in the living room. He doesn’t want to sleep in any of the bedrooms, where the air is dense with memories.
         Away from the city, the silence is eerie. He aches for the ambience of suburbia. When his eyes pass over the cracking plaster walls, his shoulders sag under the gaze of phantom crucifixes and a familiar tightness envelops his ribcage. He inhales deeply through his mouth, one hand on his chest to feel his ribs expand unobstructed. Through his shirt, he absently traces the line of curved scars starting near his underarms and almost meeting in the centre of his chest. He used to think surgery was an impossibility, a daydream, a sin.
         “Stop it,” he says, voice cracking on the first syllable, the sound too weak to push away shadows of memories.
         Dropping his hand from his chest, he squares his shoulders and stands tall before walking to the still-running kitchen sink. The water is clear, and he cups his hands underneath the spray to drink. The water tastes dirty and settles uncomfortably in his belly.
         Turning off the tap, he checks his watch. It’s still early, but he’s exhausted. He doesn’t lock the front door before retreating to his makeshift bed.

*

In an oversized hoodie and ratty shorts, he shuffles through his grandma’s house to get to the bathroom. It’s the middle of summer, so he’s already sweating despite how freezing it was during the night, and the cool shower spray is calling to him.
         He doesn’t want to be here, but his parents kicked him out. They said it wasn’t permanent, that they needed some time away from him to “process” everything, so they drove him here with the assurance they’d be back in a week or so. They said they’re praying for him, that the time away would help him sort things out.
         “Bullshit,” he murmurs, pushing the bathroom door open, gaze fixed on the tile floor.
         “Language, young lady,” snaps his grandma from the kitchen.
         He cringes and tries to ignore the shockwave of discomfort rattling his bones.

*

He wakes to a dozen overlapping, pulsing cries filling the air. The high-pitched screeching conjures images of seagulls, and he wonders if he’s dreaming.
         He can’t pinpoint where the noises are coming from. They feel all-encompassing, from far beyond the limits of the house to somewhere within its walls, an unsettling closeness that sets him on edge.
         Rubbing sleep from his eyes, he sits up. The noises keep coming, though they’re only coming from outside now. He doesn’t know if he should consider it comforting, confirmation that he imagined the noises being that close, or eerie that creatures inside the house are silent now he’s aware of them.
         Dim moonlight streams through the living room windows and his eyes slowly adjust to the semi-darkness. There, on the floor by the end of his sleeping bag, is a familiar silhouette he recognises from his old bedroom. The frog. Now he can see it clearly, he realises he can’t place its species. He’s not an expert, but he’s dealt with too many of them in labs to not pick up the basics.
         It’s small, about an inch long, with smooth skin that looks greyish in the moonlight. Horizontal pupils inside bulbous eyes are staring at him, and he makes eye contact for a second before his stomach churns and he’s overcome with visceral images of frog anatomy and what their insides look like, feel like, smell like. He clenches and unclenches his hands to shake off the texture that haunted him for weeks after each dissection. He’s not squeamish, but animal dissections always got to him in a way human cadavers never did.
         Getting out of his sleeping bag, he cups his hands together to gently pick up the frog and carry it to the back door. Before letting it go, he stares at it, mesmerised. He can see its skin move with each tiny breath, expanding and contracting. He finds himself subconsciously matching its breathing pattern and his fingers prickle, the shallow breaths making him lightheaded, but it doesn’t occur to him to stop. The world is silent save for their breathing.
         This frog has been inside his sanctum. It sat where his head used to sit, where a younger version of himself cried, and now it’s sought him out again. He wonders if it feels their intimate connection like he does.
         Turning the frog over in his hands, he holds it still, belly-up. Its skin is translucent, and he can see outlines of its tiny organs through its abdomen. Holding it in his right hand, he traces his left index finger over its underside, feeling it breathe and twitch and live. It’s probably scared. He would be. One squeeze and he could—
         A screeching cry sounds from far in the distance, and it startles him enough to drop the frog. It bounds away from him and out of sight. He shakes his head to clear it and hears the familiar overlapping calls throughout the property. More frogs. He wonders how many there are. Dozens, at least, if not more, a surprising amount considering it’s not the wet season. Most frogs stay out of sight until the rains come, then crawl out of their holes to breed.
         Turning his back on them, he goes back inside, closing the door behind him. There are still hours until sunrise, but he struggles to go back to sleep.

*

The next day, he wakes up at noon and skips breakfast to make up for lost time. He spends the day ripping up stained carpet and plastering over holes and cracks in the walls. If he cared more, he’d replace the damaged sections instead of simply hiding them.
         He moves through the house blankly, not completely conscious but not dissociating in the way his teenage self often did. He’s just distracted, his body working mechanically, his mind drifting.
         While he paints the living room walls white, he thinks of the frog and remembers biology class, the sanitised smell of the air, the taste of chemicals, the rush of power and guilt at playing God. He remembers some of the facts he and his friends would share with each other about the animals they were dissecting, trying to one-up the others.
         Apparently, the teeth of a rat never stop growing, one friend would say, and if they didn’t chew anything to grind them down, they’d keep getting longer forever.
         Most frogs can’t throw up, so if they need to get rid of something they’ve eaten, they’ll just throw up their entire stomach, another would say.
         Speaking of frogs, he’d reply, there’s a species that gives itself claws by deliberately breaking its bones. Like a Wolverine frog.
         He doesn’t remember the names of those friends, but he remembers the animals. He’s fascinated by them, the animals that forcibly change their bodies in destructive ways. He used to daydream about breaking his toes to make his feet small enough to fit into shoes from the kids’ section since boys’ shoes were cheaper and cooler. He fantasised about spreading his ribcage open to form bony wings sprouting from his back. He dreamed about flattening his chest so he could fit through smaller gaps, though he scarcely found himself in situations where that’d be useful.
         It never stopped him praying for a flat chest every Sunday when he was meant to be listening to the homily.
         He finds more frogs throughout the house, one by the shower drain and another two by the kitchen sink. Instead of scooping them up and placing them outside like last night, he uses an old Tupperware container to trap them. He puts the container next to a paint can and keeps painting, but he doesn’t feel like he’s making any progress.
         The house is still a wreck, no matter how much paint he uses to cover its flaws. He wishes it could be torn down instead, start over.

*

In the shower, he scrapes paint flecks from his skin and watches them disappear down the drain. The shower water is slightly yellow, and as he scrubs at his stomach, he notices a yellowish tint over his abdomen, like the water is staining him. Yet another mark the house is leaving on him. Fair’s fair, he supposes, reminded of his blood staining the front door.
         He wore an old shirt while painting so he isn’t sure how he got so much paint on his torso, but he keeps trying to wash it off. It’s weird, it isn’t covered in flecks of white paint like his arms and legs; it’s more like a light wash of paint across his whole stomach, and it isn’t coming off. It’s like his already-pale skin is losing its colour.
         Eventually, he gives up and turns off the spray, stepping onto the bathmat in front of the vanity. He rubs a towel over his hair to dry it and catches his reflection in the foggy mirror before instinctively ducking his head. He used to avoid mirrors, but he hasn’t felt the need in years, especially not since hormones and surgery. The only time he would look at his reflection was to dissect it, to categorise everything about himself that was wrong, to agonise that nobody would ever see him how he wanted to be seen. The house is bringing back old habits.
         Before wrapping the towel around his waist, he wipes it across the mirror so he can see himself properly. He looks himself in the eye for long enough that his peripheral vision fades, and his face starts to look distorted.
         He catches some movement behind him and turns around to see yet another frog, standing in the corner of the room.
         “How did you get in here?” He asks, picking it up and watching his reflection in its eyes.
         In the distorted image, his eyes are bulging, his pupils sideways. Looking up at the mirror again, he looks normal, though he feels off-centre, like he doesn’t recognise himself.

*

The isolation is getting to him. He has no phone range out here, no internet, no one to talk to. He absently wonders if he’s losing his mind.
         In the Tupperware container, he holds nine frogs. They don’t do much, but he can’t stop staring at them. He loses hours of potential renovation time to observing them. In a detached way, he starts to relate to them.
         Their groins are yellow, just like his water-stained stomach. He’s been cut open, just like their siblings, sitting on cold trays in high school science classrooms. They’re most active at night, just like he has become. During the day, he performs a version of humanity, a projection of standard, expected behaviour, but he doesn’t feel alive. At night, his vision sharpens, his senses awaken, and he feels real.
         In the darkness, he convinces himself his torso is translucent, just like theirs, and he watches his organs move. He digs bitten fingernails into his skin where his uterus sits. He wants to claw it out. He wants to peel back his flesh and rip it from his body. Women like you are blessed with the ability to give birth, a nun once said to him. He bites back a scream.
         He cracks his knuckles and isn’t satisfied with the small popping noises they make. Intrusive thoughts aren’t new to him, but he lacks the motivation to resist the urge to break his fingers for a more satisfying crack.
         He’s given up on the sleeping bag, now spending the night in the damp corner of the master bathroom. He was never allowed in here as a kid, not in Grandma’s room. Some people say children should be seen and not heard, she would say. But I think little girls should be neither, don’t you?
         I’m not a little girl, he’d replied. I’m not a little girl.
         He bends his left index finger backwards until it snaps.
         “I’m not a little girl,” he rasps, his tongue almost forgetting how to form the shape of words.
         His skin is flushed, and he shivers. He one-handedly removes the lid of the frog-filled Tupperware and presses his face to the smooth bodies within, breathing heavily. He inhales but can’t smell anything, so he darts his tongue out to taste them instead. Saliva fills his mouth and he jerks, flinging the container away from him. It clatters to the floor, frogs spilling onto the floor. Fuck.
         Pushing himself to his knees to reach the sink, he swallows mouthfuls of coppery water pouring from the tap. He turns the tap off and drops his hands to his lap, still kneeling. The position is familiar. It burns.
         Without thinking, he draws his hands together in front of his chest, before raising his right hand to his forehead.
         “Father,” he whispers, swaying, broken finger pulsing.
         He brings his right hand down to tap his chest.
         “Son.”
         Left shoulder.
         “Holy”—right shoulder—“spirit.”
         He brings his hands together.
         Amen.

*

“Don’t go,” she says. “They don’t support you, why should you support them?”
         “It’s more complicated than that,” he says, rubbing his tired eyes. “They’re family. If I do this one thing
         “But it’s not going to be this one thing,” she says, taking his hand and lacing their fingers together. “You can’t let your parents dictate your life anymore. I mean, Christ, they’ve barely spoken to you since you came out. This won’t change how they see you.”
         “I’m sorry,” he says, instinctively bracing himself to hear a stern voice snap at her for taking the Lord’s name in vain. “Grandma just died, so I can’t really say no. It won’t be too long, maybe a month.”
         “You can always say no. Have you asked your therapist about this?” She asks.
         He shakes his head. He doesn’t tell her he stopped going to therapy weeks ago. His panic attacks got worse after he started digging around in his past. He doesn’t want to be broken, and admitting the extent of his problems feels like admitting defeat.
         “Just this one thing, I promise,” he says. “I’ll be okay.”
         “I love you,” she says.
         He doesn’t reply.

*

Semi-conscious, he gags, nausea surging through him. He pushes himself off the bathroom floor and staggers to the vanity, leaning over the sink. He spits, a bloody splatter of bile landing by the drain. His legs are shaking, and a grey haze encompasses most of his vision.
         Something thick and hot lodges itself at the base of his throat, cutting off his airflow. He chokes, gasping. He tries to calm himself down to take a breath, but his throat is sealed, and he panics.
         As his pulse accelerates, the sensation in his fingers and toes recedes, replaced with a growing blank numbness. The lack of feeling crawls up his hands and feet, until all his limbs feel like white noise.
         His legs give out and he drops to his knees, choking. Stuttering, he coughs, willing himself to throw up whatever’s blocking his airways. His breaths aren’t deep enough, and he coughs weakly, falling forwards, his right shoulder slamming against the tiled floor. He hears something crack. He isn’t sure if it was the floor or him. Please, God.
         He digs numb, broken fingers into his mouth, trying to manually trigger his gag reflex. They knock and scrape against his teeth until he tastes blood. He gags, but only bloody saliva comes up.
         He stares at the distorted reflection in the puddle of spit. Absently, he notices something shifting within his abdomen. The surface of his skin distorts and bulges.
         The shifting mass expands, moving upwards, and he lurches to all fours, gagging with renewed vigour. Thin liquid spills from his nostrils and his eyes fill with tears. His ribs creak and push against his skin as the hot mass writhes behind them, travelling up his oesophagus.
         Eyes closed, his swollen tongue presses against the back of his teeth. Stomach acid splashes the roof of his mouth, stinging his already tortured flesh. His neck bruises as the wet-hot-bloody mass forcibly ejects itself, dislocating his jaw as it pushes past his lips and hangs from his mouth like a deflating balloon, dripping.
         Airways free, he takes frantic, gasping breaths around his dislocated jaw and squints at the visceral mess dangling above the floor in front of him. Its surface is glistening with stomach acid and blood, and he instinctively claws at it with injured fingers, scraping it clean. Small clumps separate from it and skitter away. Though the blockage is gone, something thick and stringy still connects to the suspended mess of blood and runs through his mouth and back down his throat. He tries to swallow around it and gags again.
         He blinks stinging eyes and tries to focus on the small, jerky clumps. He sees the folded legs and glistening bodies of nine frogs, intimately familiar creatures. Their skin is translucent and covered in bile, their organs visible beneath their skin. In the corner sits an empty Tupperware container.
         He sways, growing weaker. He hears saliva drip from his mouth to the floor without feeling it. His vision fades, everything around him looking overexposed, too bright.
         Sweat dripping from his forehead and pulse pounding at his temples, he feels a hollow sinking in his belly.
         Where his stomach used to be.

Photo of translucent green frogs a pane of glass.

About the author

Bree Galea is a transmasc non-binary writer and third-year Creative Writing student at Curtin University. They’re interested in character-driven stories exploring diverse experiences of gender and sexuality. Bree’s work can be found in the 2021 print edition of Pulch Magazine and the 2020 and 2021 editions of Coze Journal.

Photo by David Clode on Unsplash.

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