“The Earth, in relation to the distance of the fixed stars, has no appreciable size and must be treated as a mathematical point.”
― Ptolemy, The Almagest, 2nd century AD.
“I hope you love birds too, it is economical. It saves going to heaven.”
― Emily Dickinson, Letter to Eugenia Hall, 1885.
My father and I watch a flock of finches flying around the fallout shelter. Their orbits are slow and worn in, they make it seem like the hours outside are smaller than ours.
My father tells me if we wait long enough one of them will be Mercury, one will Venus, one will be Earth, one will be Mars.
Even then, I could tell his astronomy was clumsy and domestic, a way of keeping track of dinner manners and developed etiquette. A way to make sure an elastic band is all he’d ever be.
Waist high though, I believed him when he said, “there are breadwinners and there are bird feeders. Jillison, you are a bird feeder.“
And if the Earth is flatter than we ever gave it credit for, and if the Earth is already a dead bird drowned in mid-air.
When we first met I was living in a blue house (as it grew out a red house).
When I was tired I slept in spare shelves or scatter points. When I was awake I tried to keep track of the birds.
It was all a cradle to collapse, and then the candle came down.
The curtains were as thin as shedded snake skin. I tore them off to get a better look at him. He was walking with his mother. Her legs were made of grey and brick, her head was twice as tall as his.
It looked like there was a tunnel dug underground between the two of them, every time she moved a foot one way, he would follow a foot behind.
They had been walking that way for a while and then she stopped. She shouted something at him that I couldn’t hear. He shouted something back at her.
It felt like there was a family of field mice sneaking through me. I was already nervous.
She reached into the sack she carried and pulled out a piece of wood with a nail at its head. I hadn’t met her yet so I couldn’t have known what was coming.
She swung the wood with both her arms and he crumpled. Like a mannequin who’d been up all night.
Our first date:
A bird storm blocks out the black of the sun. South of the skylights we clothe our torsos in sizes too small. Everything feels closed too tight. Like corsets on candlesticks.
He builds me blind spots to breath through. My lungs are blunt and hushed. We undress.
Into the lake, from the front seat. Tinfoil salmon sweating around our thighs. Yawns in their gills, their fins, their reflexes.
He takes me to his home, the bulk of which is similar to mine. We watch two strangers swinging across trapeze bars. They throw trash and gunpowder through the gaps. Neither side seems to understands the delicacy of when to stop short.
Below them, there’s a kitchen full of children marching. The littlest one pukes up a balloon. Skull-sized and blue. Others cough out plastic bags.
In the stands, I can see his neighbors staring back at us. They keep an ice age in each eye. Behind them on the walls, their still-lifes look healthy.
After the sinkhole, every skeleton had a view. They told us we looked like puddles and undertows. They said, “if it weren’t for all the skin in the way.“
His mother told me that back in Middle Ages, even scarecrows were skinned alive. She told me it’s the same sort of pulse behind poltergeist argument we’ve all lost since.
She said. “Jillison, not all attention is good attention.” I could see every single one of her teeth as she sneered it at me.
“Il lupo perde il pelo ma non il vizio.”
“The wolf may lose its hair but not its vice.”
― Italian Proverb
“I am looking for a candle. I have it. I am putting it in a Venetian box. Please leave it alone. Don’t tease me. I have it. I can place it.”
― Gertrude Stein, “Do Let Us Go Away”, Geography and Plays, 1910-1920.
He was gone for a while. It was another autumn, another off shore after exhaustion. We kept each other propped up in parked positions while we waited for the postcards to come.
I asked him if there was such a thing as patience in the first person, if every sigh needs legs to stand and so on.
He said maybe the calendar is clumsiest at sunset. He told me there was drowning and there was dissolving. The only difference was the distance to tell. He told me to wait another week, another month.
Certainly small stakes were better than either of us ever being right.
The weather was waitlisted against the basement windows again. We were carving cadaver letters into our sleep when he told me, “maybe this anatomy is a promise no body ever intends to keep.”
We were alone when they found us there. First his mother, then his father from behind. They found us like we were two birds born inside a rifle barrel. The bullet hadn’t even got out of bed and it was over already. He pulled his forearms into right angles and I tried to run.
They kept the door blocked from me. His face was swollen as a coal stove by the time I got out of there.
Our last date:
Clouds crawl into plaster casts. Crowds cough from crosswalk to crosswalk. Chickadees split themselves into fishhooks and hangnails as they ricochet between roofs.
I put my ear to his shirt and listen a wick flickering. He tells me his ribcage is lined with cave paintings. There are buffalos composed of crude circles and streaks. There are mammoths colored with iron oxide. There is a boy with flint in his fist.
Even at the end, he still wouldn’t give me a name to leave him with. His hand still shivered when mine hit his.
I never saw him again, I don’t think anybody did. It didn’t matter, his posture had done things to me I couldn’t undo.
Years later, I can still see him picking at his skin like he expects something good to come of it. Years later, his skeleton is still the softest sinkhole I ever slept beside.
I was brought up believing that heaven is an empty threat, that the true meaning of “ghost” is “honest mistake.”
I was brought up believing that when they tell you the ghost will thaw, that means the ghost will thaw.
He told me once the weather is never more than enzymes on wires, he said our cells were nothing but forecasts filled with heat and sealing wax. I could hear a fault line flaring across his vocal cords, I have tried to trace transparencies over his words.
Were repercussions cutting into his mouth? Was he overwhelmed by the weight of oxygen on skin? I didn’t know then. I don’t know now.
Maybe that’s not the issue, maybe the new definition of “ending” is too different to explain. Maybe he meant it when he said he didn’t want nobody.
Either way, it doesn’t matter, certain anatomies never change.
You’re still seventeen and waiting at Main Street and Stinson’s, you still have this same map and you can tell it’s a match that’s already burnt you in bed.
Shoulder high, I read that at the end of the world there will be a wolf that swallows the zodiac whole. I told my Mom I wasn’t going to get up for that.
I had to tell her twice, I told her, “Mom, I am as brave as unmade bed.” “Mom, I ain’t getting up for that.“
She said to me something I still remember, she said, “None of that is ever, ever going to happen, Jillison. There is no wolf, no zodiac. No planets but this one. Everything else is horseshit.”
“Nothing exists except atoms and empty space; everything else is opinion.”
― Democritus of Abdera, 4th century BC.
“I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.”
― Stevie Smith, Not Waving But Drowning, 1957.
There was a time when I said there were things I sometimes miss. I said there was a candle that could correct everything.
But by now I know it’s true when they say sometimes solid memories are nothing more than old roles in relief. Making any sense of them is all in the arrangement of axis and anatomy, it’s all in the course of those orbits I couldn’t stop ignoring.
Now that I’m older I can see that the continent is one place and then overnight it can become someplace else.
This can happen without changes in cloud lining, closed migrations, or the consonants people use when asking to be cut in two.
Here is the secret: You can hollow out your bone and hold your breath in there. You can teach yourself how to do it so that no one even notices.
You can learn to drown yourself in midair. You can drown yourself before they ever get to the door.