Image by Brooke Bourgeois

Fiction Unfathomably Deep

Sophie Madeline Dess

I know indeed what evil I intend to do,
But stronger than all my afterthoughts is my fury,
Fury that brings upon mortals the greatest evils.

— Euripides’s Medea, 431 B.C.E.

Three men were supposed to spread me open, check me out. One of the men was late. The other two began without him. The room was hot and forbidding. As the men locked me in my stirrups, they told me their names, which now I’ve forgotten, but I do remember that one was blonde, the other blonder. They were medical students. I played their patient. Together they shot me small smiles and then proceeded to probe.

When at last the late doctor arrived, his hair looked extremely black beside the blondes. “I’m Daniel,” he said. “Sorry I’m late. It’s unseasonable outside.” He walked over to the exam table on which I was spread, where the blondes had also just begun apologizing — for Daniel’s being late, and also for the sorry quality of Daniel’s apology. Three young men, wearing white coats, looking deep into my body and expressing solemnities. I looked away. Then back at Daniel. My god, I thought.

Everyone asks me, Why him? What was it about him? I can’t quite say. The way he said unseasonable. The efficiency of his beauty, its immediate implication of eternity. His eyes! Their slow pulses of anti-death. How his childhood — when his brows lifted — how his whole childhood erupted before me as something impossibly sweet and distant. How I’d have died to see it. His tiny teeth erupting through swollen gums. His hair after a bath, fresh smells of baby chick, or even butter. He also, I might add, looked very much like my sister’s ex-boyfriend.

“Can I get that?” Daniel pointed to the speculum.

“We probed her already,” blonde said.

“But we all have to do it,” Daniel said. “So.”

“We don’t,” blonder said. “That’s not part of the rules.”

It was my job to intervene. Formally speaking, I was a GTA: a Gynecological Teaching Assistant. Really just a body lender for medical students. Their one task was to perform a partial gynecological exam on a pretend patient — me — who had pretend gynecological problems, which were the result of a pretend sex life, which was the result of a pretend desirability. I had a script and everything.

“It’s okay, he can probe,” I said to blonde and blonder.

Daniel smiled at me. I shivered, died, came alive five times in a row. I noticed his eyes were huge, grape-green, with teeny seed-like pupils — all of which lent him a certain snack-time innocence.

“Great,” Daniel said, beginning his examination.

Since I became a GTA, my view of doctors was typically of their jaw. Daniel’s was sharp and clean-shaven. I had the urge to tell him I knew what it was like; my sister shaved my face once. Even though I was already hairless. My sister said it was like using a sword to cut foam, or like taking a rifle to an ant (and you could trust her on that: she was a gun-loving woman, always armed up). I looked at Daniel and sighed. Then I took my thought a little deeper. I imagined how, if I were lying beside him at night, his hairs might prick my ear, and how I’d attune myself to the offbeats of his aorta, how balletic I would be in mustering his sex. 

“Do you feel any discomfort?” Daniel sat on the stool between my legs.

“None,” I said. Then I remembered my script, cleared my throat. “I’m here today because I’m trying to get pregnant, have not succeeded, and want to make sure everything is okay, basically.”

Daniel nodded. He held the speculum in one hand and spread the labia with the other, then directed the tool away from my urethral meatus, toward my coccyx, and proceeded to spread the blades. I stiffened.

“A baby,” Daniel said, “that’s wonderful.” He looked up into the center of my forehead, as if it was the locus of fertility, expressing prophecies. “I am sure everything is okay.”

Blonde and blonder exchanged a look. Daniel was not supposed to say that. Warm assurances about being “okay” must never be uttered in a medical room. In fact, as my sister’s doula once told me, medical rooms are designed specifically to keep those kinds of assurances at bay. All the steel tools and lacquered plastics are there to encourage a kind of physical-emotional nonstick. Daniel should’ve said, “Okay. Okay. I see. Let me just take a look around….” I’d have corrected him myself if it weren’t for my own improbable and god-given certainty that Daniel was to be the love of my life. (“You’re going to know he loves you,” my sister had told me, “if he breaks you open right away.”) 

When the exam was over I gave blonde and blonder medium marks and Daniel high ones. His grade sheet included his scanned ID, the details of which I copied onto my notepad: DANIEL DEMARCO; 519 EAST 79th STREET; Sex M; Height 5’-11”; Eyes GRN.

He was shorter than he looked. I considered including this point under the NOTABLE section of the grade sheet, but didn’t. In fact, I mentioned nothing special about him at all. Nothing about his grape eyes and their luxe pulsations. Mostly because Ally, my supervisor, had already taken issue with what she called my irrelevant insights. Earlier that day, Ally’d stopped me in the hall and I’d found myself telling her that Utah (Ally’s home state, as well as mine) ranks in the top five states for deaths by car crash, suicide, firearms, you name it. I told her she was lucky to have made it out of there alive. 

“Thanks,” she said. She looked at me like I was being extremely disarming, so I decided to confess to her right then that, yes, back in Utah I was actually an actress. I assured her I was significantly thinner back then. That my sister Danielle and I had starred in all the local shows. Or really my sister had starred. We were minor celebrities. “But I had to get out of there,” I told her. “The winters scrape out your insides. I’m sure you understand.” Ally nodded.

After I met Daniel still hot off my chair I bumped into Ally again in the hall. I suspected she might want to keep talking about Utah, even though I was over it. “Izzie.” She gestured toward my grade sheet. “So, do you have any more points of confusion?” I considered. If I’m going to tell the story right, I should let you know: Ally was a little physically incongruous. I mean that she was very muscular but also chinless and rotund. And while I found this confusing, I did not mention it, because I knew my sister would have said something, and that felt like enough.

“Do you think I might get to play pregnant any time soon?” That’s all I asked. Some of the girls got to play mothers-to-be. They got to gain a little weight. It looked super wholesome.

“We’ll see,” Ally said. She smacked her gum and handed me a wad of papers from her clipboard. “Here are your scripts for next week. And your schedule. For now, you’re still trying.”

I took the papers, and she thanked me. I watched her soften. “All in due time,” she said. (She said it the way my sister used to say it, but when my sister said it she’d put my hand on top of hers as she rubbed her belly, like there was about to be some big movement she wanted us to feel.)


So that day with Daniel, was it love at first sight or something? That’s what they ask me now. Make it make sense, they say. Was it some kind of fairy tale? I suppose it must have been. There was certainly a shift in me. My therapist said that I seemed to be nearing the end of my grief. That maybe I’d soon be healthily transposing the savage depth of my distress into love. That I might stop using the word “because” so much and realize some things don’t have reasons. I might even grow calmer, or attain a certain cerebral delicacy — I might even return to my former state. And it’s true that, thinking of Daniel, overall it was peace that I felt. In fact, it was a new, more violent peace, like the peace of a new religious convert, or the peace of a post-birth, oxytoxic surge. Anyway, it was an improvement.

Soon I saw that Daniel’s rotation in mammary was coming up. It was his last mammary before moving to prenatal. I asked Ally to put me in a mammary every day over the following two weeks. I didn’t tell her why. She agreed because there were always insufficient girls in mammary. The mammaries were endless hands fondling my softest spots, syncopated finger taps on my areolar complex, which gave me a smattering of bruises, some of them even puffy, like extra nipples. I prayed, throughout these sessions, that I’d be assigned to Daniel’s team. Once, I got close. A young man walked in. Henry. Henry was Daniel-height. His jaw had similar dimensions. But Henry’s stubble was riddled with bald patches. The baldness made me laugh.

(Have you ever worn a bald cap? In Utah, my sister wore a bald cap when playing Lear in King Lear. She came out of the dressing room looking raw, glistening. Seeing her, I laughed so hard I began to cry, which made her do the same, and we both got kicked out of rehearsal. “They wouldn’t have kicked us out in New York,” she said as she drove us home. Her bald cap was still on, her pseudo-skull beaming in the flinted Utah light. She said she felt smarter. It was like the bald cap was suction-cupping her intelligence. I put my hand on her head and pressed on the dewy rubber. By the next stop sign we were back in hysterics.)

“Do you need to get up?” Henry asked me. It’s because I was sitting there in a giggle fit on the exam table. I said no to Henry. I straightened my arms, took a deep breath, controlled myself. If I were to get up he’d report me, Ally would dismiss me, and Daniel might never see me again. I thought: if Henry is a good student-doctor, he will notice the bruises across my chest. But Henry didn’t mention the bruises. He pressed them, sending a drum line of pain to my anus. I bit my lip and thought only of Daniel’s face. I thought of his ears. I thought of his open mouth. I would find him, I was sure.

And then, at last, a miracle: there was a disastrous dropout in the pregnancy cohort. Three girls dumped it mid-term. The GTA team was desperate. With warm, askance eyes Ally handed me a packet. In three days, I was to be four months pregnant for my next assigned group, the names of which read: APPLE, DEMARCO, ZEAL. Say it again? I asked Ally. That’s APPLE, DEMARCO, ZEAL.


I held my breath for 72 hours. My sister told me this was a good tactic. She mostly saved it for the stage. She said the trick to sustaining tension in a scene is to hold your breath as the other actors speak. When you finally speak, whatever you say will naturally sound urgent. It was a tactic she used when, two months into her very real pregnancy, she was cast as Medea, a woman who murders her own children in order to spite her unfaithful husband. The director, a Utah native, did not like the way my sister played this woman — he didn’t like the breath-holding, the righteousness. “You give her too much,” he warned her. “Remember: this is infanticide. Medea kills her children. This is gruesome.” My sister fought back. I watched as she stood up and got personal, using words like “silly” and “troglodytic.” The next day, the director gave a long lecture to the entire cast about Euripides, about Greek culture and why we should understand Medea’s actions as reckless, immature, melodramatic — actions with brutal, long-lasting consequences, in a series of equally if not increasingly gruesome tales. “Good, well, I think we’ve covered a lot of ground,” he said at the end of his speech. He said it especially to my sister.

I felt my sister gather her nerve. Her drama was cosmic. Her rebuttal ran for hours, with the brutal consequence that my sister was Medea no more.

My sister and I were sitting in the audience when, two weeks later, her understudy played a more fretful, self-conscious Medea whose rage no one believed in. I remember waiting for my sister to burst out, either in mockery or in helpless enthusiasm, but instead — I can see her now — she sat still, with a quiet dignity, her scarf wrapped tight around her neck, the tip of her nose catching the fringe of stage light. She smiled, enjoying the subdued performance before her. I watched her lips move faintly as she mouthed Medea’s lines: You will have seen the bitter end of my love. When I asked her afterward about her understudy, she said, “You know, the Medea we saw tonight was the damn best that girl could do.” She said it while holding her belly. I could tell she was practicing motherhood. “You know,” she said again. “It was her goddamn best.”

While I awaited my prenatal with Daniel (during which he’d feel for my milk ducts as they prepare for lactation), I imagined telling him this very story, and making sure he knew that, at other points, my sister was less diplomatic. That she stretched the spectrum of human experience. She could take the cruelest blow of fate as if it were mere wind, giving her direction. Or she could let a pinch, a prick, destroy her. Two days after Medea, I found her in the kitchen eating spoonfuls of peanut butter out of the jar, tears streaming down her face. “Hormones,” she said. Daniel would have told her which ones; I’d have corrected him. “You know what?” She pointed a sharp, narrow finger at her developing belly. “We’re gonna make this bitch the next Meryl Streep. Or the next fucking Uma Thurman, if she somehow gets your bones.” She scraped the Skippy jar clean. I told her she looked more like Uma, and I more like Meryl. “Right now we’re too fat to be either,” she laughed. It was true. “In New York, they’ll call us fatties. They’ll tell us all about fatness and just how fat we are.” She scraped and scraped. “They’re not loving in New York. They’re not gonna like us. You and I, Izzie, we would do anything for love. That’s one thing about us. We’d do anything for love.” This was the third boyfriend to dump her. “At least he called me depthless. He meant it nicely. But he doesn’t even know what it means,” she said. “It means literally unfathomable. I’m unfathomably deep.” She put the empty jar down. “I hate that everyone’s so fucking nice to me.” But then she winked at me like, It’s time for us to go.


On the day of my first prenatal, Daniel walked into the room. It was another unseasonably cold day, and I was desperate for Daniel to say so. But he didn’t recognize me. Not because of my bruises, but because he refused to look at my face. He kept his head down. Still, even in this posture I could tell his beauty was undiminished. If anything he looked tan, although in a passive way, like he’d spent a fortnight under the fractured shade of some immaculate eucalyptus. The only thing that had changed was his medical team: he was no longer with the blondes, but rather with two women, one of whom was named Rebecca Apple. Rebecca went first. She was a genius. I knew this right away. Intelligence buzzed bright around her face. She had the gentle authority of a docent, and walked me through my body like I was spread around a room.

Daniel nearly failed in comparison. He was too confident to be useful. He asked me no questions. When it came time for the breast exam, he didn’t press hard enough on my tissue. Had there been any swollen lymphs, he’d have missed them, and I’d have gone on to die. 

I convinced myself he was shy. He couldn’t engage in the tension we’d developed, because that would require action. And he couldn’t act because that would require strength. And he was not strong because he was too eternally dumb for that. Around this time I started thinking (and I still think, even now): My god, it’s gotta be so beautiful to be so dumb. To be born with such a stagnant little forever face. To be born so entitled to a certain eternity. It’s gotta be like nothing just to live and live and live and live!

Anyway, yes, throughout the prenatal, Daniel checked me like I was just another patient. He attended only to my most basic needs. He answered my most fundamental questions. There were no more warm, misguided assurances. He began speaking to me with clinical perfection and yet — you might even say, therefore — I sensed him escaping me. Where did you go? I wanted to ask him. Daniel! I loved your prior idiocy. This new idiocy of complete composure and competence is darker, is not so good. My sister said: Over time, competence comes to replace personality. She said: Do not trust a professional man. Still, I held out hope for Daniel. I convinced myself there must be more of him a depth in him. I dared myself to find it, perhaps even to create it.


Daniel’s block. The length of the journey from my own apartment is not what I’d call prohibitive. I began visiting it weekly. He lived along the East River, but I didn’t mind the smell. Early on in my visitations, a woman emerged from his building. 

“Hi there,” I said to her. She turned to face me. She was elderly. Each cheek a sheet of congealed milk. The dog she was walking took a sour pee. “Do you know if Daniel lives around here?” My sister had promised that eventually New York would come to feel like a small town, where everyone knew everyone.

The woman shoved her hearing aid further up her ear canal. I tried to look innocent. I took a deep breath, cradled my womb, and swayed in a way that was supposed to seem unconscious. The woman didn’t notice. “If there’s?” she asked. “A Danielle’s around here?”

“Danielle!” I felt myself smiling. “Yes, that’s my sister’s name. They’re very similar.” I didn’t explain to her that, of course, Danielle was still back in Utah, in eternity, because of being dead with the baby inside her, because that news could kill someone and this woman was near enough to death.

“Yes!” The woman echoed my enthusiasm. “Danielle’s Consignment. Around the corner, on First. There’s a sale.”

“Oh, thank you,” I said. I squatted down in a fetchingly laborious gesture and let her pup lick my fingers. “I love you!” I yelled at it.

That evening I waited until seven, watched the moon be cute with clouds. Daniel didn’t come. I was not discouraged. Next time, I thought.

On my walk to the train, I was surprised to find Danielle’s Consignment still open. I went in and bought myself a dress. It was pleated and had strawberries scattered all over. The fabric was stiff, almost crisp, but in my sleep it softened onto me.

Soon I had a Monday off. I had never workdayed Daniel’s block before. I decided to try his street in the early morning.

It was chilly. I didn’t mind. I headed for the esplanade, a cobblestoned walking path along the East River. Joggers passed me. I stood, breathing deep into my pelvic region, cradling the air in there. There was no real railing along the esplanade — just a squat ledge — so I bent way down and got all beglittered in sea spray. My hair whipped around my neck and across my mouth. For the first time in a long time I felt myself being beautiful. I licked the salt off my lips and listened to my stomach growl. A surge of warmth ran up my legs as my dress billowed riverward.

An hour passed. Another. I stood silent at the edge of the earth. Then, as you all know, I fell in. Not down into the water, but backwards, into the steep ravine that’s cracked up my brain. And then what happens is what has been happening ever since, where I’m down on the floor of neural matter, and my sister’s there reminding me about hysterical strength, and how two girls on a farm nearby lifted a tractor off their father. And how, before that, over in Kanarraville, a mother lifted a car off her tot. How this mother had arms thin as wheat stalk, yet still she managed. She’s holding forth in oracular fashion. She’s telling me all about how nothing comes of nothing! I tell her okay, alright. I tell her to give me a second. I’m just waiting. I have time.

Eventually, I’m pretty sure I crawled back up my brain. The world rematerialized. The river regained its current, the wind its coercion.

And it’s then, before I have even seen him — in that infinitesimal second between impression and cognition (that no-man’s-land of perception, perhaps our only true reality) — that Daniel is before me. Or, rather, he’s past me. He has run by. A red thermal shirt. Black shorts. Two white stripes down the side. My voice catches when I try to say his name, so I scream it. He glances back. Sees me. Keeps running. “Daniel!” I breathe deep and then gesture toward my womb, like, remember? You need to understand that I’m not sure what I meant, because in my brain there’s this grisly collision of memory and prophecy taking place, and it’s like I can hear it the impact but, I have to tell you, I don’t think about it. I just sprint.

They ask me how a girl like me could do it. They’re skeptical. They say I’m made of myth. But getting him into the river wasn’t hard — I was larger, fuller than him. Plus, he was right where the ledge dips to knee-height. One solid drive into his side and we were submerged together. It was keeping him under that tested me. Push — I was my own counsel. And so I pushed. In the moments when my head breached the water I heard our splashing. But underwater all was velvet and muted. All of my sounds were internal. The way you can laugh deep inside yourself.

Soon, though, there was the elastic snap of Daniel’s shoulders as he pulsed under my palms; his bulby body, his trapezius, where I sat as I wrapped my thighs tight around his neck. I squeezed harder and held steady as he tried to kick up. At one point, I got to press my nose into his hair, which had turned silky. I got to touch his jaw. I slipped my tongue into his ear, and got to touch all over his big, eternal head. It was everything I ever wanted.

At last, my legs still latched, I felt his limbs shut down one by one. His whole body grew slack as a child’s. Finally he became so heavy that I had to spread my legs. My sister kicked through me as I released him.


“It’s twenty-three weeks, so it’s a fat little eggplant,” my sister said over the phone. She was driving back from her appointment, and I heard her grin spreading, the sound of her sucking a sour-apple Altoid, her scarf ruffling around her neck, her wipers clearing the snow. Over the last five months her baby had graduated from seed to blueberry to lemon to peach to pear. Now eggplant. What to make with an eggplant? I told her I could make a parmesan — “but without the cheese,” we agreed. Our lactose intolerance would not be a problem once we are actresses in New York, where we’d buy cheesecakes and cannolis at vegan patisseries. Even though they’d cost bank. On the phone, I suggested we could always pawn the baby if we couldn’t afford the sweets. She agreed. “Right. We can’t afford to lose weight in New York,” she said. “That’d be cliche.” Her appointment ended at eleven. By then it was snowing. It was unseasonably cold. Later, on the news, they announced the pregnant woman was killed at “lunchtime.” The local reporter shook her head and asked the news anchor, “The other driver drunk by lunch?” The anchor didn’t look into the camera; he stacked his script, cleared his throat, and said, “A gruesome event, folks…” Another throat-clearing, a glance toward the weatherman. “Only in Utah, where today it is unseasonably — ”

Sophie Madeline Dess is a writer with work in The Paris Review, Forever Mag, KGB Bar Lit, and elsewhere. Her debut novel will be published with Penguin Press in 2025.

l More from Issue Twelve