A certain shade of vulnerability
Dark smudged beneath a weary, teary eye
Faint fingerprinted hip where passion turned angry
A shadowed brow, but not like this
The place where things slid from binary
Into uncertain gradations
When did day surrender, when did light flee?
Night now, but let your eye adapt
And catalogue dim fractions
Pupils stretched wide until all the darks are one
Swallowed ghostly whole entire by dusk
Obscuring every boundary and line
You think you’ll know when
You think you’ll see it
But the shift is imperceptible.
first published in Poets Unlimited on Medium, 10 January 2018
I never said goodbye to my mother. By the time we realised she was leaving, we found that her body remained but her soul was already on the train. Her eyes were fixed on an unknowable, distant destination. We waved when the whistle blew, but she never looked back. Worrying away at that loose thread, I believed that goodbyes are important. So when I heard that he was going into the hospice that day, I went.
It was one of many such days. Endless activity, calls to action, demands to be met. But this call was my own, and not to be deferred. He smiled when I told him that I had to come before he left. In between pauses to catch his breath, he told me how much he valued our friendship.
In turn, I thanked him for his advice, freely given and always useful. We reminisced about past times, while afternoon sun bathed the room in a warm glow and a ticking clock provided a constant rhythm in the background.
He said he didn’t want to burden his wife any more, and shushed her murmured protests. This was the right thing for both of them, he said.
She was a strong woman, and she did not cry. She watched him with love and she smiled, because he needed to see it and she had to give him whatever he needed, now that all prayers were useless. Pain would be borne later, in private. She offered tea, but I could not delay my commitments further.
He coughed and wheezed. Joked that he sounded as if he had been on twenty a day, and I responded that life just wasn’t fair sometimes. It’s never been fair, and we shook hands.
We had spoken the truth, but we ended with a lie.
“See you again,” I said.
And he replied with a smile, “I hope so.”
We parted with a final, double-handed handshake, after which I held back my sudden impulse to hug him. It would have felt like surrendering to the inevitable. When all seems lost, the tiniest shred of hope is the only thing left to us, and we cling to it lest we drown.
He was tired of fighting, and he faced his future calmly. Intangible and yet absolutely present, the word we would not say hung in the air like smoke.
It seemed so real. Rivers sparkled in the sunlight, meandering between soft green hills. Ali dipped low over a dark blue lake and caught glimpses of fish below the rippled surface. Warm air buoyed her up, towards a solitary eagle wheeling far above, but the wind failed and she fell back to earth.
She woke in bed and realised with a heavy heart that it was morning, already, again. Reluctantly she pulled back her covers and put her feet to the cold boards. Another day in paradise.
Boring days crawled by, nothing to mark one from another. She stared at her face in the mirror, wondering if this was it, all life had to offer. One grey evening Ali cuddled under a blanket on the sofa, watching nature documentaries. The kitchen was dark and cold, and after a long day of work a handful of dry cereal and a cup of tea was just easier. What was the point of cooking for one anyway? She could probably stand to lose a few pounds. She half-listened to David Attenborough talking about birds and habitat and such. His voice was soothing and familiar. She closed her eyes for a moment.
When she opened them again, a vast forest stretched below. From a distance it looked solid, but on closer inspection she could see separate trees in which flocks of scarlet macaws chattered noisily. Once again Ali fell, but as she wished that she could fly further, her descent slowed. She landed gently and put her feet to cool earth.
Around her, jewelled hummingbirds dashed from bloom to bloom and birds called overhead. Luxuriant foliage enclosed her in countless shades of green, and she breathed in faintly spiced air.
Her next thought was that she’d probably be eaten alive by mosquitos, but her arms and legs remained free of bites. She wandered around for a time until she heard buzzing. She looked up at a large beehive, with a few bees circling outside. Ali reached toward it but her arms were so heavy. She felt herself sink to the ground and woke in bed, limbs pleasantly warm and remembered birdsong in her ears.
That lunchtime she chatted to Debs, her desk neighbour for the last nine months. They usually dissected last night’s TV programmes. That was one thing Ali knew something about.
“Sorry, what?” She realised Debs was looking at her expectantly.
“I said, did you see those hummingbirds on TV last night?” Debs shook her head. “You’re a real space cadet today, didn’t you get your beauty sleep or something? Or, perhaps it’s someone who kept you awake…” She trailed off, raising her eyebrows suggestively.
“Maybe Jake the IT guy. He’s been checking you out for ages.”
“Ew, no. He’s creepy.” Ali shuddered for effect. “Actually, I had the most realistic dream, and when it was going to end I wished it wouldn’t, and I kept dreaming. It was amazing.”
“Oh really? You should look up lucid dreaming,” Debs bit into her apple. “It’s when you know it’s a dream and you can control it.”
“Is that really a thing? I thought dreaming was all pictures from your subconscious.” Ali pulled a yogurt out of her lunchbox, and peeled the lid off.
“Ali, you’re not at home now,” Debs hissed. “No wonder Jake has a thing for you when you’re licking the lid in public.”
She hastily dropped the foil, feeling warmth in her cheeks. She was getting sloppy and distracted and it wouldn’t do. “Sorry. So anyway, lucid dreaming is real then.”
“Yeah, I had this boyfriend who was into yoga and all that mystical stuff, but I stopped listening after a while. Too airy-fairy for me. Better get back to work.” Debs gathered her things and left Ali thinking. She ate her yogurt with a spoon and avoided eye contact with anyone.
Ali turned to the internet. She devoured articles on lucid dreaming, yoga nidra, astral projection and yogic flying. With practice, she discovered a knack for slipping from calm wakefulness into a dreamscape of her own choosing. Her nights filled with brilliant images.
The auroras blazed green and red above the poles. She followed a barn owl on its silent nocturnal hunt, and skimmed the seas with dolphins. She walked exotic beaches alongside turquoise seas, and wandered cool pine forests leaving no prints in the snow. It was exhilarating. Real life could not compare with the wondrous worlds of her dreams.
Ali burrowed her feet into warm pale sand and looked out at the distant horizon. In her night world she felt alive. Nothing could hurt her. Daytime was drab by contrast, with Debs nudging her and asking if Jake was the cause of her faraway look. She agreed just to shut Debs up. All she really wanted to spend more time asleep, alone.
Controlling dreams seemed impossible. Until you did it.
A flash of light caught her attention, perhaps a reflection from the sea. It shimmered like heat haze. She walked along the beach to find it. The air in front of her rippled, yet she could see the beach beyond. She circled the ripple and looked back at normal beach. Hesitantly she put out her hand, only to find it vanished into the shimmer. She screamed and woke up in her bed gasping for breath, her mouth dry with fear. Her hand shook, but it was intact. It seemed so real.
That was not meant to happen. She was meant to be in control.
“Just a dream,” she muttered. But she couldn’t explain it.
Ali stopped lucid dreaming after that. The monotonous days dragged on, but it was impossible to resist the pull of her dream world for long. She found herself back on the same beach, standing in front of the hazy air pocket. There was only one way to know. She took a breath, and stepped into the shimmer.
Beyond lay a magical world. Brilliant stars twinkled in a purple sky lit by two moons. The air hummed with strange energy, plants and flowers glowed with unnamed colours. She could feel everything, and it finally made sense.
Then she looked up at the brightest stars and wondered what they looked like up close. She soared into the sky. As the ground receded she heard her name. She was back on the beach, quick as thought. A paramedic was clearly visible through the portal, standing in her bedroom.
“Ali, Ali wake up!” Debs was holding her hand and crying.
She hovered by the ceiling for a while, looking down at her sleeping form. Her body was not dead. But mere existence held no appeal.
In this vibrant universe, she was truly alive. She slipped away unnoticed. The stars were calling her.
Deeds will not be less valiant because they are unpraised.
Listen to this story:
She has a long way to go, she knows that. She must go alone, difficult and dangerous though the journey is, inadequate as her weapons may be. They are all she has, those and the fire she carries within. There will be dragons of one kind or another. Some might be slain with care, and luck, but others are best avoided. And she must tell them apart before it is too late.
She seems ordinary, mousy perhaps, meek. The meek do not inherit the earth; it is a lie to keep them from questioning, from overturning the old order. Know your place girl, under the yoke, under the lash, under the patriarchal boot. This girl goes about her business, eyes lowered. She plots rebellion silently in her heart.
She gathers things that might be useful. She is invisible, mouth zipped, both ears open. People spill scraps of information upon the ground and she carries them away for safekeeping. Things that she is not meant to know, yet she does know. A weakness, a shortcut, a place to hide or rest, all may be useful on her quest.
She lies awake, wondering if it would be better to stay. And she goes to sleep knowing that she cannot.
The day comes. She laces her boots and checks her equipment and looks around one last time. This quest is hers and no-one else decreed it. To win or lose is her responsibility and though no person waves a tearful goodbye or cheers her on, yet she will go. There is a new world out there, and someone must be first to blaze the trail with new footsteps.
They may not sing songs of her exploits nor raise a statue to her. But when she conquers the peak, then her light will burn in the world to give hope to the next adventurer. They will add their footsteps to the faint path she has left. See, they will say. Change is not impossible. One walked this way before. I see the distant beacon.
She shakes off expectation of what she should be. She faces her fear of what will happen if she does not comply. Here, she says. I will show you what I can be, whether any watch me or not.
She closes the door behind her, and she does not look back.
Blood running hot, and never cold
it presses forward, always bold
calling us on to run and fight
propelling legs as they take flight
and for one moment stop and think.
Then the next instant to the brink
The red eyes are blind
to all that’s gentle, good or kind.
A teasing swish, matador’s cape
will goad the bull. There’s no escape
from spears embedded in his back
that prod him to futile attack.
And down his skin run rivers red,
his life poured out and painted dead.
We feel the ruby pulsing heat
within our chests with every beat
of every crazed deluded heart,
so sure that this is just the start
of something lasting, fine and true,
of you and me.
I always knew
that red would overwhelm this love.
Though lovers gaze at stars above
and whisper declarations soft,
these ideals that they hold aloft
soon fall to earth.
Nothing to say.
Unbridled passions win the day
over mere intellectual words
when feelings fly like scattered birds
and reason flees.
All that remains
is quivering flesh and dripping veins
left hollow by an anguished flood
of passion, anger, rage, and blood.
Follow the heart, obey the head.
Go fast, full stop; now quick, now dead.
We take our son down to the beach, enduring sighs and cries and stops for water and wee-wee shortly after and kicking the back of my seat and then we arrive, unload the car, careful with that and don’t forget the sunscreen, before trudging down the path down the steps round to the left, find a place among the rocks and did you remember his hat,
let’s set up here and wait, you need sunscreen and okay off you go but stay where I can see you, the sun nicely warm but it still can burn even through clouds, there’s a doggy but don’t touch he may not be friendly, glad you brought the chairs even though they’re heavy and a pain because I don’t fancy sitting on this sand, it gets everywhere,
there are a few clouds scudding along and that means it’s time, get out the kite and assemble it while he helps, no don’t put that pole in there, okay you can hold it but we have to finish it first, the doggy can’t help, we can have a snack after, sandwiches and juice in the cool box, okay have a little drink first while I fix the tails, and then off we go to the hard flat sand, not a bad day at all for a kite, come with me, hold it tight, run out the line, Daddy will let you have a turn in a minute, wait,
hold it up and when the wind is right just toss it into the air and there it goes, bright fluttering rainbow and long tails, he laughs and points and claps his hands, forgets to beg for a go just yet, and we are three in a big wide world, checking the weather, holding the line, one grounding him, one holding him and then giving him the right push at the right moment so he can catch the breeze and fly high above the mundane earth, looking back at where he came from, looking towards the sky’s blue horizon