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When I was younger I thought death was an end, but now I think it is a process. I see this in the conversion of mourner's black to a trite fashion statement, in wisdom replaced by progress. It is a searching in the sand for words that might save you, while stones fall and understanding departs. It is knowing that most of my grandchildren's generation will not recognise the reference to which I allude, let alone its significance.

The gas heater flickers; orange light beneath plastic coals provides a comforting illusion. No more cinders, no more black dust coating every surface. I suppose I should be grateful.

On the television a man grins inanely. His wife competently organises around his bumbling ineptness. His children sigh and look embarrassed, or resigned.

"That's what it's like now, see?" I say to the ghost in the chair by the fireplace.

"What's that, Dad?" my daughter Alison asks from the kitchen, where no doubt she is planning my week very efficiently. The effective career mum, at home in her world. Only I miss her youth now.

"Nothing, dear." My Sarah would have smiled at that without taking her eyes off her knitting, or embroidery, or the quick sketch dashed off in the pad she always kept at her side. I am proud of Alison, truly. She hasn't been mine to hold, to comfort, for too many years. A grief only Sarah ever understood.

The ads end their sad social commentary and the film reappears, its hero calmly achieving the impossible in a few seconds of impressive action. Another small death. There is little left for a man to be. I wrote about such things once. The wild and hairy has been caged and the key has been handed from mother to daughter, its use forgotten.

I shift uncomfortably. The pain in my chest is dormant now but I can feel it sleeping, gathering strength.

Oh Sarah, must I lose my dignity as well?

The ghost in the frayed and faded armchair raises her eyes to mine. They are still that deep, vibrant blue, young and confident. Around them the wrinkled skin fades away, the thin grey hair mists and she is solidly Sarah, painfully present. And then she is younger yet, and Alison gazes at me, not yet a teen, not quite a child, sweet, careless, and gone. Just a ghost, but the memories are as close as thought, as real as I am. I do not know how to tell her. Not now. Not yet.

I find the remote and the television once more becomes an expectant weight in the corner of the room. My book is on the table next to me, its spine against the reading lamp, its thickness partially obscuring the photo frame with its melange of memories. I will submerse myself in an older fiction, a slower time when description and contemplation were rich and complex. Alison sees only my age and thinks that I dislike change. She is wrong. It is speed I distrust. Unseemly haste. In the rush of living there is no time to delve below the seething surface, the non-stop information invasion. Teenagers still ask their questions but their eyes are dazzled by technology. They seek without finding, become without knowing, and live without depth. Or so it sometimes seems to me.

Perhaps I will write my thoughts again when I lift my face from the soft grey flakes of my faith. All that remains of the fire within has crumbled to dust. That is the process and must be endured. Deeper is the hope of the phoenix.

"Are you okay Dad?" Alison is concerned. I blink and wipe my eyes. Alison has Sarah's eyes. Her face is weathered now, her eyes and mouth cobwebbed, her cheeks drawn and pale. She has her own grief. I wonder who she sees when her friends ask about me. What memory does she compare me to? Does she know that she is twelve in mine? And how can I tell her, so soon after… after?

"No, I'm not okay." I won't lie to her. "And that's okay, really." And it is. I don't want to be okay and I need Ally to accept that, to trust me. I will tell her when I'm ready.

"Oh Dad. I miss her too." Alison's façade collapses and she kneels and cries into my chest. I hold her, and with her the Alisons crowding my past: the guilty, the penitent, the joyful, the sad, the brave, the loving. She may be Dr Marshall, mid-forties, academic, painter, wife and mother, but she is still my daughter. We weep softly together, each a comfort to the other, lost in the past, negotiating the present.

The phone bleeps. "That'll be Rick." Alison disengages, swallows and takes a breath. She finds the handset and walks out of my view. I hear her footsteps on the kitchen tiles. Her voice is low and I can't catch her words. I look down at the book open on my lap, the unread pages now crumpled at the top corners. I glance at Sarah's empty chair. She is still there, smiling, drawing. Two of her pencil sketches, simply framed, sit on the mantelpiece: one of Alison and one of Rick. They are brief, deft and bold, and lovingly mocking. Alison's head is tilted forward and slightly to one side. Her upward gaze is partly hidden by her long hair, and her eyebrows are raised in sly appeal. One corner of her mouth is lifted in impudent admission of her blatant manipulation, which won from me countless reprieves, concessions and offerings when she was a child.

Rick earned my admiration very early on when, over the head of his girlfriend – then nineteen and successfully wheedling my car out of me for the evening – he asked me what I'd done wrong. Not only did I have to live with the calculated use of 'that expression,' but someone else had seen fit to torment me by having it framed to rub my nose in my male weakness. It was an observation as astute as Sarah's, for that had been exactly the intent of her sketch. The fact that Sarah was in the room at the time, and that Alison hadn't been conscious of either her expression or my long awareness of it, was delicious. For once, and for very different reasons, my two wonderful women were speechless.

The moment was priceless and my casual reply insulted Alison's intellect and Sarah's self-esteem. Rick and I duly suffered the consequences. It came as no surprise to me when, a few months later, Rick asked my permission to marry Alison. Of course, Sarah made the most of that occasion. She was quite merciless, and the sketch sitting at the other end of the mantelpiece shows Rick wearing a pathetically apologetic expression.

Oh Sarah. Do you see the hot sorrow behind my eyes? Can you draw me as I am, solidify the truest representation of my anguish? Can you sketch what love leaves behind?

"Dad?" Alison. Regret and uncertainty. "Dad, I have to go."

"I know, darling. Thank you for your company."

"Will you be alright?" Guilty responsibility.

"Love, you and Rick are a phone call away. Iain is across the street, Dan and Melanie are five minutes walk. Rob and Jane have invited me to dinner tomorrow. I'm fine. Give my love to Sally and Kim."

"They want to see you, you know." Granddaughters. They have their own versions of Ally's expression. Winsome, but not as sophisticated. Rick says that's because they're not mine. He's probably right.

"Are you busy next weekend?" They're old enough to see me as I am. I won't disinfect death. No plastic, protective sterility will cheapen Sarah's life.

"You want to come over?"

"How are the kids?"

"They loved their Gran. They miss those dreadful sketches. It's one way they'll remember Mum." Ah, yes. The caricatures and cartoons the children thought were very naughty. Sarah's wicked streak had occasionally caused trouble with her daughter.

"I'd like to come over, Ally. I… oh damn."

The moment had come. I could see Sarah giving me a look that said "if you don't tell her tonight you'll never forgive yourself. And it'll only get harder." I know, oh Sarah, I know. Alison is staring at me. Something in my expression forewarns her and she sits down in her mother's chair.

"What, Dad? What is it? What's wrong?"

I can't speak through the warm, aching tightness in my throat. I don't want to do this to her. I don't.

"Ally. I… We…" I swallow and try to erect a barrier of composure. Sometimes it's not our children we are protecting. "We found out just before, just before your mum had her heart attack. It was all so sudden, and I haven't been myself, but you need to know."

"Dad!" Alison is stricken, shaking her head in denial before my admission has even left my mouth.

"They diagnosed lung cancer, love. I'm sorry. Medically stage two, extensive small cell lung cancer. I can still manage by myself; performance status zero is good, apparently. Too far gone, maybe only a year with chemo. And I refused it after your mother… I could still go, but the doctors say it might only prolong my life for a few months more, and my quality of life for maybe weeks… I'm sorry."

I'm not sure I'm making sense. It's like I'm standing to one side, watching an old man sag under the weight of his age, of those he must hurt and leave behind.

"How long have you known?" Angry, Alison is all control. Tight lips, tense body.

"Your mum had her heart attack on the way home from the hospital." Alison's eyes widen almost comically and I see her sudden comprehension. She shakes her head, gentle and forlorn.

"You found out the same day. Dad, that must have been terrible!" Empathy, agony.

"I couldn't tell you. Not then." How could I add to the grief of such a sudden loss? Sarah had seemed completely healthy. As much as her age would permit, anyway. I try not to dwell on the circumstances too much. Ashes to ashes.

"Dad…" Alison doesn't know what to say. I put my chin in my hand and stare at the blue flames of the fire. My daughter is in two minds. One of them remembers the solace of my comfort. The other calmly assumes responsibilities. The pendulum must swing, and now it is supposed to be her place to comfort me, to look after my needs as I once watched over hers. Or so that part of her will argue. She has Rick now and I can tell she doesn't want to make this any harder for me.

"Dad?" I look up, to find that my daughter is crouched by my side. Distress twists her face and her speech staggers. "I won't let you be on your own. I know you won't want to leave the house, so we'll come here."

"You don't have to do that, love," I say, because sometimes I'm a polite fool.

"Yes, I do. We do. We didn't get time to say goodbye to Mum, so…"

Unable to go on, Alison lays her head on my lap. I stroke her hair just as I used to do. My mother lived to a good age, but my father died too soon. Alison was only twelve when I received that call, and that week was the only time she ever really saw me weep. She would kneel beside me, just as she was now, and wait for me to pull her onto my lap and hold her. She cried with me, but I knew even then that she was comforting me, not the other way around. She spent so much time with me then. It would be good to spend such time as I have left around my child and her children.

"Thank you, Ally," I manage finally. "You know I'd love you all to stay."

We are silent for a while, simply sharing each other's company. Sometimes words just get in the way.

I feel a certain contentment. Alison knows now, and that is a lightening of a burden I hadn't really realised was there. It is hard to look grief directly in the face, especially when you do so alone. The plastic fire looks friendlier somehow, the familiar surroundings more comforting.

"Have you looked through Mum's sketches yet?" Alison asks then, raising her head abruptly as if she has just remembered something. To my surprise, a mischievous smile startles her wan face, lighting her eyes. I shake my head, confused.

"She always showed me the better ones," I reply with a shrug.

"You know, I always wanted to see your face up there." Alison jerks her head at the mantelpiece. My brows knit. I have a suspicion she is leading me somewhere.

"You know why it isn't though," I say, my voice thick. "We used to have to explain it to everyone. People always asked."

They did too. "I draw the people I want to remember," Sarah used to say. "My girl will grow up and my sketches will take me back to the moments I captured them. People surround me, but they all move on, leaving me to recall the past. Only I am always me, and only Scott will always be with me."

It was Sarah's philosophy, and I loved her for it. We had each other every day. When we looked back it was not at each other but at those who created the context of our lives at the time. Of course we had photographs and memories, of course we did. But we shared them in the present, in the comfort of togetherness.

We understood each other.

"I'll be a moment." Alison is crying again but her expression is that of a child giving a surprise gift. I don't know what it is but I can't breathe properly. Something hurts, and it isn't a physical pain. Sometimes I can tell the difference.

My child reappears and kneels at my side. She holds out a package. I imagine Sarah grinning at my mystified gaze. For once, I don't even try to control the shake in my hands. Beneath the twine and the waxed brown paper there is a bundle of sketches.

Draw me as I am.

Oh, Sarah!

"Mum told me about them just after we found out she had the tumour." Eleven years ago, then. Alison's voice shivers. "Before we knew it was benign. She told me she never once looked at them, but they were for me after you were… gone." I find her shoulder and squeeze. "She… Mum also told me, if she… if she went before you, perhaps you'd appreciate them too."

After a while, Alison realises I haven't moved. I'm lost in a haze of memory, wonder and curiosity. I'm past trying to guess what she's thinking, but for whatever reason, she gives me what I need.

"I'm going to phone Rick and see if he can bring the girls around tonight. Is that too early?" I manage to shake my head. "Okay. I'll be in the kitchen."

And she leaves me with Sarah.

How often did I define who I was through my relationship with my wife? Somehow, I thought I'd move beyond myths in old age, but now I know I'm in one. I still feel the crouching, untamed wild beneath my social serenity, though it is much faded now. Sarah kept the key, but never closed the door. She never tried to capture me for herself. But she had captured me.

That was her skill. Capturing brief moments, powerful expressions. And she had known me better than anyone else who touched her life.

The top drawing must have been her last of me. I'm sitting in this chair, a book forgotten on my lap, staring without seeing. Sarah's scrawled title sums my expression up well: Scott, remembered sorrow. The date is two days before we went to the hospital for my test results.

Slowly, I leaf through the thick pile. Alison is right. Each sketch is in date order and the edges of the paper are still crisp. The years retreat with each sheet I lift. And there, suddenly, is Sarah, a tiny smile on her mirrored face. I know that expression. My pulse quickens. The mirror shows her naked torso and me sitting up in bed. I check the date. Our twentieth wedding anniversary. I think of Alison and surprise myself by blushing. I laugh out loud.

"What?" Alison says from the kitchen in her do-I-really-want-to-know voice.

"Your mother's sense of humour," I reply blandly. I continue this wonderful, unexpected time-travel still chuckling.

"I can imagine," Alison replies dryly. She says something else but abruptly I can't hear. My ears are full of a rushing sound like many waterfalls. The last drawing in the pile; the first one, in fact. I am sitting in another chair, holding Alison tightly. My face is hidden, but Sarah has taken her time with Ally's twelve-year-old features and the expression she has captured feels like a white hot key in my heart. My need is written in my hunched shoulders, my tenderness in the hand that caresses my daughter's long hair. Beneath her work Sarah has written simply: I love you. There is no date.

What I see, what Sarah saw, is not grief but love.

Sarah could not have known, all those years ago, what this drawing would mean to me now. She has answered the faithless "why?" that I scrawled in the ash her departure left behind. I am overwhelmed.

The phoenix rises, wild and free.

"Oh!" Alison's exclamation is hushed, reverent. I take her hand.

"Will you frame it for me tomorrow?" My voice trembles, but there is no more shame in my sorrow. I no longer fear my grief.

"Of course I will. Are you okay Dad?"

"Yes. Yes, dear, I am. Thank you for this." Thank you, Sarah.

There is the sound of a car in the driveway.

"That'll be Rick and the girls. Do you need some time?"

"No, I'm fine." I look at the drawing again as the sound of young, excited chatter reaches us. Sally and Kim. There will be time enough for solitude. I will not ignore Sarah's gift, or the tender prompt within its message.

"I'm fine," I say again, smiling. "Go and let them in."
Usually I don't like the idea of using a picture for the preview. That's because I can't draw and finding something already available that says something about a story just doesn't happen. Unless, of course, an artist comes along and reads the story, then draws something from it. I've always wanted an illustration based on my work, and the above drawing by ~moyen is wonderful. I'm very grateful to her for letting me use it here. You can see the original, full size version here. (25 June 05)

<edit>argh. lots of tense mistakes in this. I think I've found most of them now.</edit>

<edit>thanks to ~Coffeehouse, `darkcrescendo and `PoeticWar. Live crits are very cool. I've got more to think about than the edit I made... If you want to read this, nows the time, because I'll be removing it shortly in order to revise it and submit it to either a competition or a publication of some sort. Wish me luck!</edit>

<major revision>thanks primarily to `Bringa, `darkcrescendo and ~Spinosum, whose specific comments have all been addressed here. New beginning, some sections extended, some garbled, vague bits removed, one too obvious bit removed, symbolism enhanced, hopefully.</major revision>
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.

  I: Insecta

  I snap: a sling-shot
  of sinew, tendons whipped
  to joints that buckle in lines as cleanly creased
  as an origami crane. Poised on a tripod of paper tips,
  I anticipate the wind but there is only steel
  shearing bone and then it all unfolds
  with a scritch-scratch and tickle
  of segmented limbs sprouting,
  barbed as berry-canes.

  II: Hymenoptera

  My skin
  once fed on your skin;
  sipped at honeyed pores
  with a thousand tiny, hollow tongues

  III: Apocrita

  and those words you said, the ones that closed
  like fists to cinch me mute but for this
  thin-bodied whine: please
  don't ever speak
  them again.

  IV: Formicidae

  They're predicting swarms
  this summer: better batten down the hatches,
  plug all holes; those little bodies can creep in
  through the smallest cracks. In the event
  of a breach, do not keep low and roll.
  Reach  for the vinegar: it will stop
  the fire from spreading.

  V: Myrmicinae

  I understand instinct,
  automaton motions dictated
  by chromosomes and pheromones,
  dances stepped to the chemical outlines of feet,
  the endless, mindless back-and-forth; but
  what I don't understand is how any of it
  came to be choreographed
  in the first place.

  VI: Solenopsis

  When this has been pegged out,
  bound wrist and ankle, and I have watched
  its skin shrink and all the meat from it stripped,
  I will gather up the knuckle and toe bones, cast them
  on the sand and study patterns
  in the way they lie.

  VII: Invicta

  My words, rival
  colony to your words: black flood
  and fire-storm in a single, tangled mass
  that consumes and consumes, until there is nothing.



.
An autopsy.

Published: Magma #39, November 2007.
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The silhouette in the back seat seems to say,
what's a few more miles per hour?
Jesus, there ain't any cops around at two AM.
The needle on that glowing green dial shivers, taunting.

After forty days of temptation in the desert,
I turned his breath bitter and blue from nicotine.

The illuminated cone of open road chokes the windshield
And he cranks the gas, feeling his back press against the seat.
A rush of lines and blue-grey pavement.

His fists were scarred, probably thought even Behemoth
was wary of his mirrored sunglasses.

And he thinks: bitch, you're gone,
You're all gone.
Bet you didn't say your prayers right.
He grips the cracked leather steering wheel
Cranks up the radio,
His feet brush crumpled cans
Of beer and Diet Coke
And he feels them holy.

I made him proud of that stain on the wall;
Made his fists bruised from scrubbing and scrubbing.

He stops when it gets light,
Wheels kicking up dust under the dead tree,
Bone-white, like fingers in the sun.
The dust scratches his lungs through the open window.
It glistens in the air, a black cloud

Like an oncoming storm, or the Fifth Plague.

He gets out, straightens his shirt,
Pops the trunk.
And walks away across the deep black earth,
A shovel in hand.
This is the first piece of poetry I've done since Sewanee, and I don't know how it turned out. It's creepier than a lot of the poems that I like to write. It's called Matthew because I wanted to heavily allude to the book of the bible in which Jesus is tempted in the desert. I wanted to re-imagine it in a modern setting, happening instead to some guy named Matthew.
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Another blue ceiling, shadow-choked and unfamiliar,
stares back in sympathy - withered paint crackling
with unshed dust and old-man's tales of long ago,
a silent confidante with blown-bulb twilit wisdom -
It's comfort as cold as this half-empty bed.

Cataleptic - a midnight-waker with four hours lost
and the ceiling is shadow-smothered, blue gone grey
like old-man's ashes spread out over this dark grave
of a room - dust unto dust in the throat, and coughing
with all the enthusiasm of russian roulette.

Pull the trigger on the TV remote to no effect -
3am and the damn thing's still dead, the traitor
with screen black like a post-midnight moodswing,
mourning the absence of love, laughter, light-bulbs
and illumination lost to night's darkened thoughts.

No time for sleep, but dreaming away of such escape -
a 5am fugue with pre-dawn gloom glaring intensely.
Black goes to grey and then back to the familiar view
of weeping cracks in the sarcophagus ceiling above -
tortured eyes read their decaying-paint epitaph.

The tombstone bed restrains this living carcass -
even as the chaplain, Dawn, lays the night to sleep.
'There's rest for the wicked, but none for the weary'
reminds the open-window memorial, too bright,
and as comforting as the broken bulb above.

7am sneaks in, apologetic, and another day begins.
If this looks familiar, it is because it is the reworked version of 'Sunrise'. It is, essentially, a completely different poem.

The execution of this piece is more true to what sparked the poem initially, before conscious thought-processes got in the way.

My thanks to !inziladun and ~jl.
They know why. (Or should do... :sherlock: )

Feedback on how this poem affects you is, as always, greatly appreciated.

Benedictions!

(Update 24/09/08 - one word changed, but the poem feels far better for it, at long bloody last.)
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The inky mass opened its many mouths; they gaped and retreated. The water always looked like a trained dolphin pulling itself through its daily routine, wanting only to be fed.

Camille wanted to sacrifice herself every day, that desire never left her. Beside that wide oceanic arm, she was less than a microbe, a speck. The water owned her. She was its possession. She owed it to the river, to feed it. And often the fall looked more inviting than a chocolate cake or a feather bed.

But she wouldn't jump, because then what would Harold do? He was not self-sufficient. His existence depended on her.

The river just kept shimmying along, through the track it had worn deep. No seagulls circled the water here. It was a no man's land of beaches that stunk like an collection of fish markets. Down below were stretches of salt and pepper sand with rubbish buried beneath like ostrich eggs. Some houses and buildings that replaced trees were fastened on the vast hills on either side of the river, attached only to the dirt by cement foundations.

She herself was a walking forest, in her muddy jacket and a stretched-out lambs' wool sweater the color of pine needles. She brushed her hand roundabout her scalp, smoothing her invisible hair. She had been told she looked like a fish, with her lips which she puckered big and flamboyant when she had not yet tired of listening. She took this as a compliment.

Camille asked herself how she could be sure anything outside of Scottsdale existed. How was she to know that there were forty-nine other states glued together out there? That Minnesota was not the whole world? Her geography teachers had been, arguably, not trustworthy. Minnesota to Wisconsin, Georgia to Florida. Apparently they connected like limbs. America was just a two-thousand-mile disfigured body, its skin indented and raised by bruises and tumors, battle scars and fat. On maps, the state boundaries were drawn like the sections marked on plastic surgery patients.

The sea, too, seemed like a short-lived thing. She had no evidence that, when out of her sight, the water did not dry up or chop off. For all she knew, outside of this town could be an oceanic ledge, where the water ended like a cut off chunk of ice, a perfectly vertical cliff. Camille imagined the half-fish frozen in this spot, their bright yellow fins wriggling perpetually alongside strands of seaweed, comatose starfish and lumps of coral.

It was fascinating, the idea of neverendingness. But unable to investigate any further, she dropped the idea and stepped off the bridge.

It was only about 75 yards down the road, to the Safeway parking lot. She trusted her choice because they could never prove she didn't work at Safeway or didn't spend the day there. She had done so before, transfixed by the fruit and vegetable section, waiting for the programmed showerheads to extend and moisturize the food.

She climbed into her pale green Buick and turned the key in the ignition. The car wheezed for a moment and then rumbled into action. The bunch of plastic grapes she'd purchased at the craft store jiggled from her rearview mirror. Nothing else in the car moved, except maybe whatever dust molecules were escaping from within the pages of the hardbound 1950s poetry books in the backseat. The radio played some Frank Sinatra as she drove down the road into a slightly more urban end of town.

Her house was the only brown one on a street of light blues and greens. That's why she bought it. Just the appearance of it was dismal, and she made sure to keep it that way. Weeds consumed the front yard, and the grass grew in sickly, stained clumps.

She parked her car in the garage and let herself into the house.

"Harold," she called out in a hushed yell. She didn't want to startle him.

She dropped her bag on the off-white countertop and hung her jacket in the closet. She turned the thermostat up to 61.

Harold was awaiting her on the coffee table in the living room, occasionally making a trip up for air. She turned on a couple lamps.

"How's life?" she asked Harold, hand reaching into a compartment of the table to retrieve his dinner. Shaped like semi-curled brown ringworms, she took a pinch of them and sprinkled them on the surface. They moved almost on their own across the water, like ice skaters. Harold noticed quickly and raced up, opening his mouth like a vacuum cleaner extension tube, sucking the food bits into it.

Camille closed the food container and replaced it in its spot. Then she moved from squatting to sitting and said to Harold, "I got to wash dishes today. Isn't that exciting?"

Harold stuffed himself full of worms and then returned to a life of circling his only scenery, a plastic wrecked ship.

Camille sighed dramatically for no reason at all and patted her head to make sure the hair was still gone. She got up to turn the TV on and then made herself cozy on the couch again.

Nothing really outrageous was on the news. A girl found raped and shot in a hotel bathroom. A convenience store robbed. An uproar in regards to the President's latest speech. Camille stayed rooted to the spot anyway, safe behind the house's burgundy drapes.

Two hours of various news channels later, Camille gave in to her stomach. She went to the kitchen and popped two pieces of wheat bread down into the toaster. She poured a massive glass of buttermilk and sliced up a kiwi. She arranged the dry toast and slippery fruit on a medium-sized ceramic plate and sat herself down at the kitchen table.

She ate everything with her fingers, even the kiwi pieces which challenged her grasp. The toast crunched loudly. A couple crumbs stuck to her upper lip until she took a long chug of milk and wiped her mouth with a cotton napkin.

Eventually her dinner was finished, at which point she took her dish and glass to the sink and rubbed them down with a scrub-brush, exorcising any residue. She flushed them with several dollops of bright blue soap and dried them with a checkered washcloth. Even if they weren't thoroughly sterilized, it wouldn't matter because her own germs were the only ones she had to worry about.

After that process, she sat herself down at the piano and flipped up the cover.

"Listen closely, Harold," she said to the air. "Let me know if there's any genius in this."

She laid her fingers on the keys. Her fingers were strangled by rings which had rusted over time from water damage. Her hands felt heavy against the delicate ivory, but she left them to their own devices. They tinkered along freely, eventually forming a tune.

Camille realized the song her fingers created was familiar and mediocre. It sounded like a combination of all the progressions she'd ever written. Aggravated, she had to resist the urge to slam her hands down onto the keys and create the most gruesome din she could. Instead she kept playing, rougher, in hopes that her hands would realize their mistake and revise it.

They didn't, not even after an hour. So she tied off her pitiful "song" and called it quits.

She turned off the lamps and retreated to her twin bed. She stared at the cracked ceiling. Her eyeballs shone like hard-boiled eggs under an abundance of eyelashes which were arranged like centipede legs. She fell asleep beneath an ocean of wrinkled dark green sheets. They held her affectionately, unaware of any other option.

------

The mirror glared at her again as she plowed over her head with the electric razor. It sung a reassuring vuhhh, vuhhh. She pretended her head was an overgrown lawn and swiped in straight lines, engulfed in the process. When she finished, she admired the job she'd done. Thorough. Just enough fuzz.

The river looked more vicious than usual that day as she made her way across the bridge. The waves were enormous and more frequent. It was begging for her to succumb. But the faint scent of potato soup blew against her nose almost seductively, attempting to draw her to her real destination before she chose to satisfy the ocean's hunger.

She stepped onto the gravel of the land and made her way to the back door of Rusty's.

"Camille," a red-faced Gerry greeted her, drying his hands on a towel. "Can you wait today?"

"Yeah," Camille replied, realizing it was Saturday.

She selected a half-apron from the rack and tied it snugly around her waist. It was like the tool belt of waiters, and it made her feel substantial. There were three pockets on the front: one with an order-taking notepad and pen, one with a black plastic receipt book, and one with an "emergency" towel. She located her nametag in a box of plastic and pinned it on the breast of her lavender sweater.

She served countless tables of customers and collected fifty-four dollars in tips before she was assigned to her most interesting customer of the day. He was sporting a seemingly historical hat that read "Elk's Club 1983."

"How're you doing today?" was the first thing she asked him.

He pushed his back into his wooden chair and made a bit of a face. "I'm okay," he huffed finally. "I'm very tired."

Camille nodded. "I know how that is," she replied respectfully, scratching her thigh with the top of her pen.

"I feel very alone," he continued, with far-off eyes, as if she had never contributed to the conversation at all. "There's no need to do anything anymore. Not without her."

"What did you used to do?" she found herself asking.

"Um. Go out in my boat," he stated coldly.

Camille was speechless. The man was staring out a window, at the bridge or the water. The hair sticking out from his hat was a speckled gray, and she guessed he was in his fifties. Eventually she sputtered, "that's wonderful. I mean, the boat."

"Yeah," he said.

He didn't want a specific drink, just water. She brought it to him, and he mumbled a thank you.

"Have you decided what you'd like?" she asked him finally. The menu was lying on the table in front of him, and so she assumed.

He nodded and ordered their famous potato soup. She told him it was an excellent choice.

"If you need anything else, just let me know," she said to him when she arrived with his bowl of soup and five packets of saltine crackers.

"There's a lot I need," he said after a beat.

"Is there anything I can do?" she asked.

"Probably not."

So Camille went on to serve others, always glancing at the man wistfully, plotting how she could gain entry to his life. She couldn't follow him home, and she wouldn't be able to find his address without asking him. She needed to propose something when she took him his bill.

"Sir, do you need any help around the house?" was what she decided on. She placed the receipt book in front of him.

"What?" he asked, looking at her for once with solid blue eyes.

She reached up to push hair behind her ear and forgot it wasn't there. Foolishly she returned her hand to her side. "I mean, if you need anything. Dusting, organizing, cleaning, anything."

"Why? You need more money?"

"No," she assured him. "I just think you deserve a little help."

He wrote "Richard" and his address on a slip of paper, and she slipped it into the towel pocket of her tool belt.

------

Camille had to drive across the bridge to get to Richard's house. It was the first time she'd driven across it since her job interview at Rusty's. Before the interview, she'd never even been across the bridge at all.

Her eyes kept reverting to the river as she drove. She felt obscene and sinful not taking her time, but 15 mph was a crawl to the hurried drivers behind her. She was honked at, once.

Richard's cottage, as it turned out, was only about eight miles down the road from Rusty's, and just as close to the river. It was nestled in a fairly wooded area, painted a disappointing Robin's egg blue, with curtainless windows.

"Oh," Richard said when he opened the door to the nearly-bald girl dressed in green. His face was sullen; his eyeballs sunk into their sockets. He was wearing a plaid, flannel shirt.

"Is it okay?" Camille asked. "I'm... here."

"You're here," he repeated, looking over his shoulder at the mess of a house. "Yeah."

He opened the door, and so she stepped in. The entryway reeked of feminism. It was decorated with an elegant oval mirror and dusty blue tiles, and a side table boasted framed photos of Richard and his wife. The only sign that a man inhabited the house were the grungy boots and tennis shoes tossed up against the wall.

Camille slipped off her leather clogs and listened to Richard fiddle with all the locks on the door. He heaved a sigh and brushed past her, into the living room. The living room, yes. That was the disorderly part. There were dishes all around and everything was dusty or misplaced.

"I don't know what you want to do here," Richard said, lowering himself into a recliner that was not reclined. "There's... the cleaning supplies. They're in the hall closet." He flittered his hand in the direction of a claustrophobic hall.

Camille followed his orders with only a nod, finding the closet to be a treasure chest of disinfectants, window cleaners, feather dusters, and scrub brushes. She hauled these things into the living room and worked silently, massaging stains out of the carpet, polishing the coffee tables, carrying dirty dishes to the sink. Wearing some yellow rubber gloves, she felt like a warrior fit to combat anything. Her thoughts drifted away from the labor, and Richard read the newspaper from his chair. The only sounds in the room were the turning of pages, the squeaks of liquid against glass, and the steady eshh, eshh of scrubbing.

After a long bout of silence she finally asked,  "when did you build your boat?"

Richard laid the newspaper in his lap noisily. "19... 76."

Camille nodded. "That's amazing," she said.

His mouth shrunk in, as if a secret had been revealed. He watched her sweep over a vase with the duster.

------

House-cleaning made the weeks pass quicker.  Camille would show up impulsively, but rarely. The river did not like her disrespecting it all the time. She was slowly burrowing inside, though, climbing up even. The view out of the kitchen window reminded her of her goal: the cool, swift water, the shade of overripe blueberries. It was a garden of its own an ongoing leak, or so it seemed, from some core of the earth. It had escaped the ocean. It had rebelled and succeeded.

She made a habit out of washing every dish in Richard's sink. She even ate there sometimes, standing her back up against the island, nibbling on a flaky pastry he had offered her, unaware of the taste.

The TV was a square-shaped reject sitting in the corner. Richard was more into reading the words that would shape his life than seeing them. He learned about the politicians; he was onto their scheming, he said. And those poor drowned rescue dogs in Alaska? That was a shame, but it did not affect him. He gave a half-shrug and tongued the rim of his coffee mug. He liked his coffee with two pinches of cinnamon and a peppermint drop, like the ones they sell in bulk.

Camille tried not to look at him when he had not shaved. The bristles on his chin looked like a war zone where bombs had once gone off but now there were aftermath weeds. He was a sloth. He moped across the carpet, slippers dragging, forgetting his brain.

He did not demand a thing, but only occasionally did he acknowledge money. Camille refused any payment and kept up the cleaning. In his bedroom she replaced a dead bulb and tidied his bed. Triumphantly she folded his size 37 jeans into thirds and arranged them inside his dresser drawers. All of the white socks had stains. She amused herself by matching mud to mud, sweat to sweat, grass to grass.

She advanced to the bathroom, wiping the countertop and reorganizing his pills in their orange tube containers.

He didn't stop her or grow uneasy, but he never did unless she steered into his wife's territory. She was not to touch the perfume bottles, though they winked at her from the vanity. The jewelry did not need any cleaning. Camille nodded to this, hoping only to piece together the puzzle that was presenting itself through its vagueness. She was mostly honest, though she did put her nose to a pink nozzle once: Rosemary.

She had seen enough photos of the woman that had loved him, and it seemed an unfit match. His wife obviously went to many Tupperware parties and owned just as many party dresses. She had not married for money, it seemed, unless Richard was required to die before she would reap the benefits. Looks were debatable. In the wedding pictures, Richard resembled a trim businessman, perhaps with a lazy eye, but otherwise suitable.

The years had grown on his face and belly, though. Now he sagged like a bag of potatoes being held up by a fist. Even the skin under his eyes seemed to be making its way south.

Camille knew the secrets of his house, after a while. The shriveled orchid gripping its stem in a slim vase on top of the TV. The mink fur in the coat closet. The magazines under his bed. These were the things of significance to him. He did not want the flower replaced. He did not want to hold an estate sale and profit from the mink. Camille knew better than to ask about the magazines.

------

On a late afternoon, Richard stared out the living room window.

"Looks beautiful outside," Camille told him and herself. She had a Greek goddess statue in her hand, caressing it with a dish towel.

He agreed with a vague nod.

"It'd be a good day for boating."

Richard seemed evoked for a moment. His eyebrows raised, his ears honed in, and he almost made a sound.

But it was as if a spirit had passed through him. "Yes," he stated. "It would." Back he went to a slouch, melting into the armchair.

Camille set the statue back on a shelf and laid her free hand on her hip to keep it from shaking. She said, "I wouldn't mind going out on the river with you."

Richard, being more focused on the color of his jeans than Camille's mannerisms, replied with a simple "no, thank you."

Camille pressed her fish lips together. She folded up the towel in her hands. "Maybe," she said. "I could go, and I could come back and tell you all about it."

He could shoo her away, and she knew it. She almost expected it. The nights when she focused on the patterns in her ceiling, during those nights, she constructed his reactions. She had imagined everything, was prepared for nothing.

"You want to?" he asked in a bit of a raised, questioning voice.

"I'd love to," she said.

"It's out back," he said. "Down the hill there. Don't rush. Don't get caught in the current."

Richard, who had mastered expressionlessness, smiled.

She didn't rush until she was out the door. She kicked her clogs joyously into the slanted grass and walked onto the dock. The pieces of wood seemed to be attached to each other not by nails, but by the clusters of grass and dandelions which grew between them. The dock was short, only a couple yards long, and built in a sort of private inlet established by tall plants extending to the sides. The skimming of water-bugs across the water's blackish surface reminded her of how near the river truly was.

It still didn't seem touchable.

She rolled the socks off her feet and discarded them on the dock. The boat, a petite but sturdy-looking thing, was tied up to one of the dock's poles with hairy rope. She dug her fingers into the knot and worked it until it was untied.

She lowered herself into the boat and found two oars stuck inside. She had no idea how to use them, so she sloshed them about in the water, listening to the noise. The water lapped at the sides of the boat.

She didn't go far, fearing the water would whisk her downstream. For hours she sat still in the small boat, entertained by the rise and fall of waves and the passing of other boaters. Some boats made guttural roars and combed the surface of the water with their speed. Others simply drifted, synchronized with the moderate waves.

Camille drifted too, but only a little, and she pulled herself back when she did. She knew better than to challenge a force so unknown to her. Just looking at the water, she decided, and dreaming up conjectures regarding it, did not grant her the knowledge of how to harness its power.

The oars now lay, discarded at her sides. They were cracking in numerous places, and so was the boat. Richard had let slip the fact that he and his wife had gone out on the river too many times to count. It was an event that was romantic to him, Camille could tell just by his glazed eyes. He had never opened up to her more than to say his wife had been beautiful, but Camille knew. The boat had sustained many years.

Now it was a relic of times past. Richard loved it but could not truthfully handle the joy it was supposed to bring, not anymore. The scenery was his only release, because it was, for some reason, not as attached to what he knew as his former life.

The bridge could be seen from where she was, laying across the river like a huge board held up by the land on each side. Cars sped across it, on average, at an alarming speed. Camille figured they could be late to a job interview or to pick up their kids from school, but those were all petty things. Perhaps some were scared of the water (though Camille thought the idea appalling). This was the only excuse she would accept for the speeding.

The water was demanding their attention, could they not see that? They had built their lives around it, almost as if it were an obstacle. And yet they depended on it for their existence. Not just the obvious things, like the fish, but for the mental issues. Camille took more from the river than she had ever absorbed in school. A couple times she swished her fingers about in it.

Of course the ocean didn't end. It had far too much to be alive for. It had so much to prove.

Civilization was so apparent on both sides of the river that it made her push together her lips. She thought of Safeway and cursed it for being so unnatural. She thought of Rusty's and hated that she gathered her money from such an industry no matter how small designed only for profit. She thought of Harold, and how caged he must feel. She had never before realized his isolation so regretfully.

The sun was just about to set. It hung over the horizon like a string teasing a kitten. It looked like an exploding bomb or a puddle of spilled yellow paint. It was shapeless and scattered, with bits of red-orange in spots. It was getting a little cold out, but Camille released a pleased sigh anyway. The water kept closing up, almost as if winking at her, granting her permission to go inside.

She returned with stories. She sat herself in a chair across from Richard. He sat himself up straighter to hear her words and coughed into his palm with a strange kind of forced masculinity. She told him of the color of the water, the humming of the water-bugs, the beauty of the sunset.

The skin around and under his eyes radiated weakness; it was as if he had grown two years older in the hours she had been gone. Tissues, pinched up, stood on the coffee table beside him, on top of the day's newspaper.

------

She arrived home later than usual, that night. It was about seven. She turned the thermostat up to 61. She removed her jacket. She called out to Harold, "Harold!" He did not reply.

She went to the living room and found that Harold was just a body now, floating at the top of the bowl. His eyes were not eyes, they were beads of white. His orange scales no longer glistened. He looked as if he had flung himself into death.

Camille was wracked with weeping. She made herself into a ball, a shaky bundle on the couch. Her lips met in painful passion, keeping out her rolling tears. She poked her fingers against her closed eyelids, milking them of their sadness. She had the frustrating urge to feel hair between her fingers, to comb it restlessly and brutally. Instead she was forced to scratch, with ferocious fingertips, her sphere of a head.

"Oh, God, Harold," she cried.

Harold would have been a year old in a month. She did not know the life-span of a goldfish, but when she had asked the underage pet store employee for a fish from the swarming tank, he gave her a look of disbelief.

"A goldfish?" he had asked. "These are feeder fish. They won't live more than two weeks."

Harold must have loved her, then, to live for her. It was certainly not a suicide, though she was convinced he would have been capable of willing himself into death. Old age did not seem like a possibility, simply because he had survived so long already. He had passed death by! And so the cause of his death was a mystery.

Camille scooped his limp body out of the water and laid him on a cloth napkin. She folded it up. It looked like a napkin full of nothing an acorn or toothpick maybe, but not much.

She changed into a black sweater and nearly choked herself with a woven scarf. She put on a black coat with buttons and slipped Harold and his casket into one of the pockets. Then she drove to the bridge.

Being night, the water was like liquid obsidian. Camille hung her hands over the edge of the rail. Headlights and taillights passed over her, but other than that she was transparent, black against black.

She took Harold out of her pocket and unfolded the napkin. Half-expecting him to wriggle, she was half-disappointed.

"You've been so good to me," she whispered, her words immediately stolen by the rush of cars and wind.

He laid there.

Tears came to her eyes. She took Harold's cold body in her palm, trembling. The ocean below her played all by itself. He was finally allowed to be sacrificed, like she had always dreamed for herself. It was for this reason that she smiled as she cried, her tears making rivers of their own, springing from the oceans of her eyes.

She let Harold go. He blurred as he went, carried by the wind. He swam in the air, a quick little falling kite, a creature returning to his proper home.

Camille began to feel. Her eyes grew in size. She felt overcome by death; she felt vicarious. She understood, then, the devastation of loss. She understood the journey from sparkling joy to balled-up tissues. Richard's eyes made sense.

She couldn't see Harold reach the water, so she stood there for another ten minutes to make sure.
possibly, assumably, the best short story i've written. i remember sitting in the basement of a coffee place, telling ~missedpoints my idea for my next story: "it's going to be about a girl who loves water!" she looked at me, weirded out, and asked how that was even a plotline at all.

it wasn't, and that's what made it so delightful to write this. i wrote it within a very short timespan, as in two or three days. two days in a row were spent mainly at cafe delirium, telling myself to write 5 pages before i could get coffee. that coffee tasted damn good, even though i kept getting distracted by some hispanic women talking about vases.

my ideas about camille actually came from a chick i saw once, driving. she was bald and had big fish-like lips. i don't even think she was driving a green buick, but i said to myself, "she needs to be driving a green buick." later, in the school parking lot, i saw the exact car i imagined. it wasn't a buick, but i gasped nonetheless. then i realized i made camille up.

also the longest story i've written, so what does that tell you?

i need to get my act together.

alyssa perkins
january 2004
word count: 4,714
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I fall victim to those things
That don't quite make sense:
The sky is assigned blue –
And your irises the colour of tea,
Wholesome and warm,
With a glint of danger
That correspondes with your
rising pulse.

They manage to
Slice me open
While simultaneously
Stuffing some metaphysical aspect of me
With the weight of
A  continent
Of wild flowers.
I am a weaker strain of myself. Telling the truth is bigger than sensationalising. Lesson learnt.
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I'm surrounded
By blooms,
Had I forgotten it was spring?
Have I encountered my own glistening
Funeral –
Sweeping hypnopompic mirrors,
I'm confused as confetti.

I echo through kaleidoscopes,
Enter diptychs, triptychs, photo frames,
Snow globes,
I cannot escape.

I curl a fist that rape-kisses the glass,
It doesn't make a sound,
No-one breaks the emergency glass for me,
No-one hears a falling tree from their city apartments.

God tells me I'm close,
I taste him on my bitten tongue,
The surgeon tells me they cannot operate,
"Just fall like the petals do,
Just fall" – they tell me.
I fall,
Fall asleep.
Themes weave in and out of me...sometimes they orbit like moons. I made a promise to never ignore the magical blue sparks...even though there are the few rare ones. A little low on serotonin, perhaps. However, the world spins, the birds sing and I remember who I am...the good and the bad :heart: This poem is all about me....was hard to categorise it - I tossed up between spiritual and human nature.
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It's all so easy on your own isn't it?
Just to be lost and wandering,
For a reason to breathe,
Or a place to be,


You don't know that you'll never find it,
It'll never be in front of your eyes,
He'll never be there,
That's why you don't care,


It's so easy to be lost in your self,
In your pain,
You've given up hope of finding a way out,


Still can't find that reason to breathe can you?
Never will.
Because it's not that easy on your own.
Haven't wrote anything in awhile so i wrote this:p i got a lot of inspiration for it from the song 2.20 Girl by Suicide Sports Club. Which Ashley showed me :p So i hope you guys like it. Comments and any other feedback is always welcome:)
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Dreams come back in fractions,
They flitter on the backs
Of messenger doves,
Like pieces of sun
Hitting portions of wave.

A parallel sting
That travels close to the thanatology,
That runs through my breast,
Come dream or life -
It sends psychic impulses
Throughout me

Like kisses on an envelope
Sent off to a dead lover,
Like electrical devices
Plunged into a full
Bathtub:

What mad fish
Dare to swim there –
Alongside the impression
Of long expired stars
That blink on
The flat cauldronesque
Surface,

My twin's face
In the temporary grave of ocean,
Like a disintegrating mermaid,
A terrible narcissist
Eating zeros,
Clean
As baby flowers
That never really
Happened.

Reaching but never
Grasping the surface.
Is the tub
Really just a
Tub?
paramnesia is getting worse...it comes in micromoments and leaves...sometimes even without a visualisation...just a feeling...been feeling so outside of reality lately....can you relate????
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Some kind of
Jupiter sand
Has powdered the room
In an old-time,
Amber-noon
Glow.

The sun filters through
A blushing keyhole
As
I shift through
The shadows
Where the light
Does not reach.

I watch a Golden
Shrine play out
It's sepia theatre,
Behind a closed door
With a jewelled heart
For a handle.

You wont' find
The chamber
But I can tell you:

It yawns a mandarin-black,
Toothless gap,
Closing in on a dusty alter,
Littered with dried up
Vases.
it will follow you and not even tell you it is there.
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