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 woods yet,
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
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.