Husband and wife are just two people who can look away from each other like strangers passing in the street. Summer’s aspirations have strewn
the sidewalks with acorns. No one ever asks if you had a good winter. Bikinis become sweaters at sundown. Crickets scissor the night.
Every time I speak to her she cries. We see the same loaded moon. It reminds me of arriving in a new country knowing I’ll stay just long enough
to miss what I’ve left when I leave. The last morning glories bloom and wither like unnamed stars. Why do I want to capture the word for their color,
not indigo, not cobalt, not blue? In ten thousand years of domesticity we’ve invented nothing but cages to keep creatures we need from leaving.
The doctor tells her to lift her johnny way up over her head, puts a cold stethoscope on her back, and says Breathe deeply. Again.
I stop breathing. I imagine her lungs burbling like a pot of boiling water. The doctor says Let’s take a look. She and I don’t look.
Looks good he says, which means that though one breast is a rift of scars, the other seems fine. But you’re not out of the woodsyet,
which means death lurks like a toothy beast behind every tree but the forest ends just beyond the horizon, means that the doctor
doesn’t want to say that no medicine from a rainforest fern or social-climbing bacterium can rubber-stamp her saved.
He says Here’s what we’ll do because he gets paid to do something despite knowing the body’s mysteries haven’t faded as fast
as the family farm, as the rainforest, as the path outward closing behind her with no moon or stars lighting the way and where—
if she lies down to sleep—nature won’t wake her in the morning.
The body remembers like summer dusk in a northern country, where evening’s broken skin blurs the horizon for what seems another day, as if the separate incarnations of time and matter were collapsing, and my shudder at the bats’ rush from beneath the roof like the sound of rain became my knees buckling as they wheeled her through the surgery doors, and the wings diving from the eaves became the scalpel bent toward her breast that didn’t veer away.
She ate a piece of tuna and a piece of salmon, raw on my fingers passing her blue, faintly-upturned lips. The chef spent half an hour of her final day arraying the fish in tiny bites and festooning them with saw-toothed plastic. I ate what she couldn’t the day after she died,
when her last everythings became decoration: the book Swimming to Antarctica she always wanted on her bed but never finished; her smile in the picture donning her pink wig; the bendable, red straw she sipped coffee through before slipping unconscious. When the rasp and moan of her death rattle
hushed, I was reading about ceviche in a magazine I’d bought too late for her to read. I reached her bed just in time to see her eyes roll and fix a dilated void, to hear her shallow, penultimate breaths more like preparation for stillness than actual gasps of air.
The wood frog chorus went on outside for no other reason than to persist. If someone you love is dying, decide whether you believe in ghosts. Without the map of belief, train whistles in the night that I used to hear beside her became bearers of someone I couldn’t touch. Wind rushing
through a window screen sounded like a whisper. Do you say hello to the dead? Or just start with what you wish you had said, since the liminal space between words and a world without them won’t survive your sleepless night in the room beside her body?
The next morning arrived like houselights after a tragedy’s curtain falls, like the crowd’s transformation that isn’t fulfillment in the face of someone else’s misfortune, but gratitude that the heroine believed stubbornly in redemption. Her last word was water.
Douglas Haynes’s poems and essays have recently appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Crab Orchard Review, Boston Review, and Witness. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin and teaches writing at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. To read and hear more of his work, go to http://www.uwosh.edu/beyond/stories/douglas-haynes/douglas-haynes-2.