Fiction: Harmony Neal’s “This Is What It’s Like to Die”

Fiction: Harmony Neal

This Is What It’s Like to Die


My father beat me for giving the dog some bread. The dog had looked so hungry and scared. Its fur was missing in patches and it only had one eye. The other socket was covered in pus and red bumps. I wasn’t scared of the dog. I wanted to help. I could remember a time when there were animals: birds, goats, dogs, chickens, mules. The animals were eaten or left to die or they moved away. They ran from the men with guns, from the tanks and bombs, leaving behind only flies and rats. The dog could have been rabid. The dog could have killed me. We needed that bread. As my father beat me, I knew none of it was true. The dog would never hurt me. An animal could never do what a person could.

They came in the night. They usually do. I heard my mother screaming and praying. I felt sorry for her. I felt sorry for everyone, but it didn’t matter. As I floated away, I could see the white men continuing on, but one, a young one, looked at me in my nightgown that was now red and black. He seemed sorry. I wasn’t sorry. I floated up and up. There was a rainbow coming from the light. I hadn’t seen a rainbow in years. Inside the rainbow were animals. Healthy, happy animals. I saw the dog. Now he had his fur and eye, and he ran to me. I hugged him. He gave me bread with honey. I kept going up the rainbow, meeting the animals and learning their names.


It does not take long to fall. The hardest part was breaking the unbreakable glass, but everything gives eventually. With the right amount of force and time, mountains can be ground down to sand. Twenty-two stories is nothing. I think about the four-leaf clovers Carol used to find. She never had to try. We’d be walking the dog, and she’d stoop down and stand up with a clover in hand. Never a fake like the ones my dad used to offer me, the ones where he had pulled a leaf from another clover and held the two bodies smashed together so that when I went to take it, the lie would fall apart in my fingers. Carol’s were real. I should have kept them. I should have pressed them between sheets of paper, preserved those pieces of our life, of her. The ground reaches up to meet me. I will unroll myself until the liquid of my life evaporates, until I am pressed firmly in the asphalt, until it has no choice but to remember the imprint of my body.


It is play time, but something bad is being echoed from far away. Screams. We huddle together around the young. Not storm, not boats, not man. Our brother-sisters are suffocating, they cannot see, the water has become mud. It is hard to hear through the thick water, thicker there than here, but the mud is coming, putrid, the smell of death. We circle the young, we try to swim away, but no one knows where is away. We cry. The mud comes. We circle the young, cover their bodies with our own.


I was riding my bicycle. My mom had locked it away, for better times, she said. But I sneaked it out and was riding around the streets of Mexico City. I might as well have worn a red cape. I might as well have stapled pesos to my clothes, written, snatch me, on my forehead.

They scooped me up like two hawks descending on one sparrow. The big one smacked me in the chest with a bat, and I went down, too dazed to not keep holding the handlebars, the bike crashing on top of me, the breath leaving my lungs. The old ladies on the street left their rugs and went back inside their houses. People closed their windows. The men shoved me in the trunk of their black car. I couldn’t breathe. It was so hot in that trunk, I thought I’d die before we got anywhere. Sweat poured from my skin until it stung. I told myself not to cry or I’d dry up like a brown cactus and blow away.

I wish I had died then.

The second I saw the other children, I knew exactly what would happen to me. They were missing ears, fingers, eyes. They were bruised and bloody, some with the strength still to cry, others blank, with no life inside them. I tried to turn and run, which made the big guy laugh. He smelled like onions and cigarettes and with one giant fist in my shirt, he lifted me from the ground. I hit the wall like I was no more than an empty water bucket.

My family keeps water in a giant tank under the house. It’s our secret. I am never to tell anyone. I tell no one. No one asks. The men take a Polaroid picture of me in a heap in the dirt. The littlest one tells me to smile while he snaps the shot. You better hope they pay, cabron, he says, tell me your name and address. I stutter the answers he wants, then the big one lifts me by my hair. They throw me into the black room that smells like piss and shit and blood and death.

I don’t know if my family can’t pay or won’t or if they have, but it doesn’t matter, or if in my fear, I stuttered the wrong name. I can see my mother, clutching my picture, wailing to the Virgin that she should have sold the bike, should never have believed better days would come to Mexico.

I’ve stopped trying to smack away the flies that land on my head where my ear used to be. They crawl in and out of the bloody hole. I let them. I think they’re making families in there. When new children come, I no longer try to comfort them.

There are only two ways out, but I cannot wait to see how long it will take for the second.

When they open the door to throw in a little white girl with blue ribbons in her long blonde hair, I bolt between their legs. I run and run as fast as I can, so they cannot snatch me on my way by and slam me back in the hole. I run fast and just out of reach. I wait for the sound of their guns, and it comes, after a long time, after only a minute. I smile big as the bullets rip through my back, knock me into the arms of the Virgin, who was waiting this whole time.

Harmony Neal was the 2011-2013 Fiction Fellow at Emory University. She’s been recently published or is forthcoming in Nashville Review, Grist, Paper Darts, storySouth, and The Frank Martin Review. She spends her spare time avoiding false nonchalance, playing with her dog, Milkshake, and growing poets in her home.

Photo credit: fireradiance,

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