K. Nigel Watson
I dreamt you had AIDS last night.
I dreamt you punched me in the face, and blood came out of my nose.
We were sitting at the dining room table, and you were saying you loved me. The way a horse loves an apple.
I had long hair, and you ran your fingers through it. You said let’s make love.
There were horses outside in the pasture, and you kept asking if I wanted to go riding. I said no, no, not today, but then a horse came inside through the front door. Its mane was braided into ropes, and you grabbed one and swung yourself onto its back.
We went into the bedroom, but the blood was leaking down my chin onto the floor, and you said I’d mess up the sheets. Your angelfish were there in the room, first in a tank and then they got out and were flopping around on the carpet. You scooped them up and ran to the bathroom, but when you flushed, it overflowed onto the floor.
A tepid moat stood between us and the castle, and the drawbridge was down, but it was just a bunch of red buoys that had floated together. You were on your horse, which had gone from grey to white, and you said let’s go, we can make it. Then your horse stepped backward like he was afraid, and suddenly took off at a gallop and hopped across the buoys. I didn’t want to fall in, so I swam across.
The water was up to our necks, and I was still bleeding. The fish began circling me, and then we were underwater and they were eating my blood like chum. You walked in from the bathroom as though the room was full of air, not water, and said we have to go. I can’t remember if I could breathe, but your hands were sweaty.
A hand came out of the sky and picked up the whole castle with us. I felt like my guts were falling out, but you said the ride will be over soon, don’t worry. Your eyes were as brown as the horse’s and I poked one as I reached out to touch your braided hair. The eyelid twitched but you didn’t flinch or say anything because you were the horse. I jumped on your back and you ran, at the same speed as the hand was moving the courtyard under your hooves.
Outside, I realized the house was plastic, as a big gust of water came and blew it off its foundation. You had the angelfish on leashes like balloons, and you grabbed my waist as they started to pull us off the ground by the strings. I couldn’t tell if you were crying or just wet when we sat beside the river and you let go of them, so I took my carabiner keychain and hooked you in. I carried you most of the way up the canyon wall. At the top there was thunder, and my blood had dried.
The voice whose hand it was said check but you were too fast, and you jumped over the castle wall and suddenly it was nighttime. I slid off of you and took your bridle in my hand to lead you toward the dawn, but then the back of my hand was against your cheek and you were a person again. The mustache that ran down your cheeks was coarse, and I didn’t like it. Why won’t you shave that off, I asked you, but you said we have to hurry and took my arm. Ahead was the white, and we were almost there when you started to scream in pain. I picked you up and carried you, but you writhed out of my arms before we made it out of the black.
You said quick look up at the stars, it’s Venus and Jupiter together for the first time in hundreds of years. The cotton clouds parted on their lightning sticks, and you ran to the edge of the cliff to look before the sun came up. I stood in silence as my voice echoed up from the canyon. Jump, it said, but by then I had already tackled you from behind. We fell for a long time, onto a gold leaf pictureframe and into a big dab of yellow oil paint. You took my hand but it was slimy from the paint and I wished you’d let go.
Under the mustache the edges of your lips were stiffening, two rolls of stale dough pinched together. Your eyes were grey, and quivered slowly in their sockets, and followed me like Mona Lisa. The black was falling out of the air in splashes, and you were getting closer. Your eyes were so still, I wanted to ask you why you weren’t looking around, but I didn’t, and the grey of your eyes, I got lost in it. Sucked into the stillness, into your contentment, I was inside the grey. You knew I was coming, but you were already braced against it. I didn’t know where you were, but I knew where I was.
The picture underneath was of our dream house. The one we saw on the drive back from the Opry with your parents. Except that there was a man with a wrinkly face and a white beard playing a banjo on the porch, and he was really playing and you started to dance across the grass green paint. You had on a cowboy hat that covered your eyes, but your hand was outstretched toward me like you could see just fine. My feet got caught in the porch paint, which was still wet, and besides I didn’t really feel like dancing. There was a painted rocking chair behind me, and I fell backwards into it with my feet still cemented to the porch. You were at the far corner of the yard, and as I struggled to rock in the chair, you danced backward off the edge.
Four strings were suspended in the space in front of me. I walked, or floated toward them–I can’t remember which–and grabbed one. As soon as I felt it, I knew it was your hair, but it wasn’t until I climbed up and there was light that I saw it was the same color silver as it was before you dyed it. I climbed higher and higher, until I reached the roots, which dug down into the white like mangroves. Your head was covered in snow, and there were wolves in the distance. They yipped and howled, and I tried to get closer but they were elusive and hid in the deep snow by your ears. You must have heard them, because you tilted your whole head forward and I nearly fell off into the powdery dirt hundreds of stories below. Icicles sheared off your temples and fell to the ground, where they melted into muddy brown pools.
The man with the banjo stopped playing and I started to panic. My feet wouldn’t budge, and my whole body felt like it was fighting itself, as the paint crept up my ankles and into my calves. I screamed help me, but the man must have been deaf, because he pulled his straw hat over his face and fell asleep in his chair. I cried so loud and so long I felt like my head was going to split open, but the whole place was still, and took in my sound like a dry sponge takes in a drop of rain. The paint had crept up my legs to my hips, and as my moveable parts decreased, I started to calm down and imagine myself a statue. When you returned, it was in a hot air balloon which floated up over the lawn’s edge and landed on the roof. The house shook, and the man with the banjo stirred but didn’t wake up. You climbed down the drainpipe at the edge of the porch and said let’s go.
I trudged through the snow toward your ears, and there you were among the wolves. They were jumping up and nipping, and I called out off-sit, like you used to say to Charlie. The wolves didn’t seem to hear, but your head shot up with your eyes, and you looked like you were about to run. I crouched down like a dog on the hunt, daring you to try it, and you flinched again but stood your ground. I hopped along like a ballet dancer, making leg size holes in the deep wet snow. When I was ten feet away, you still hadn’t moved but the wolves had stopped playing and were watching me. Your eyes were closed tight and you were shivering, and I leapt toward you but the wolves had surrounded you and they snarled, baring their teeth. I half knew you wouldn’t let them hurt me, and half knew I had to save you. I reached out my hand, and your arm felt warm from the blood.
You were carrying me then, into the hot air balloon, and you placed me in the basket gently, as though you were afraid you’d break me. My back was on the floor and my legs were draped over the side, limp, when you opened up the burner. When I saw the first cloud, you knelt down and propped me up on a wooden crate near the edge. I looked over, and my feet were dried-out paint chips which took up the colors of the landscape like a photograph. Each time I blinked, my feet became mountaintops or a river, or a stray cloud; when we passed over the desert, I pulled my legs in with my arms and rolled over on the floor to look at the cacti where my toes should be. You looked down at the left foot, at my Morton’s toe you so loved to kiss when I broke my leg skiing, and your lip curled. My neck was getting stiff and my lips were already tingling when I puckered them, but you were working on the burner and didn’t notice. When my mouth was painted frozen, I blew the air out of my nose to make a noise. My lungs were empty when the painting was finished.
You fainted like you’d decided to take a nap standing up, and I caught you. Blood was pouring out of the wolf bite holes, and you were getting limp in my arms as we slid down the ridges of your ear. Inside it was so quiet I could hear your heart beating, even as you grew so flaccid and lifeless I could barely hold on to you. I started to sob hot tears, I was so mad at you, I wanted to just kick the ground and fall on my throbbing face. But your heart beat so loud I couldn’t do it. I was a soldier, led on by the pervasive drumming, and even as you turned to liquid and dripped down my legs, I marched still into the darkness. Deep inside the cave there were lights, and I went toward them. They were coming up out of the ground on all sides, and it was getting brighter, and I could feel the breeze from an exit. I was about to run, when I felt a hand gently touch my arm. I shivered, and my eyes followed the beam from the spotlights up to the boxwork ceiling.
You hung me on a wall from an iron nail. I was flat, and Molly-shaped, but it wasn’t my body in the daubs. You were a little boy, in the suit you were wearing in the picture from your 5th birthday. But instead of the sourpuss face, you had on a determined one, and you were making a little frown as you leveled me. The room was enormous, and I didn’t have my glasses, but I could see black silhouettes on the opposite wall. They were lined up like they were holding hands, and stretched all the way to the corners of the room. As you fussed with me, I felt construction paper rubbing up against my back. I wanted to ask you what are you doing, but I was still stiff as a board and I wasn’t even sure I still had lips. You stepped back and raised your little hand to your chin as you looked at me. I couldn’t read the title card you were pasting on the wall, so I pushed at my arms and pretended you were flat against me.
Spelunkers and geologists come to Wind Cave from all over the world to see the boxwork, said a voice. I thought it came from whoever had touched my arm, but the echoes made it hard to tell. I wanted to look and see who it was but I couldn’t. When I started to turn my head, and my eyes were about to follow, the voice resumed, after years and years of limestone erosion, all that remains is the calcite honeycomb you see above. I stared at a tiny section, and the drips of rock began to slide down the thin sides of the boxes. Hey, quit staring! the voice said, and the hand pulled my arm so hard that I spun around to face Ranger Laura, whose cheeks were beet red. I still say she was cute despite the purple hair, which was even brighter now, and kept falling in her eyes. A drop of liquid rock fell on her nose, solidified, and fell to the floor. I watched it the whole way, before I noticed it was raining everywhere. The floor was rising with tiny stone drops, and Laura waded through them and into the cave. I followed her for a moment, but I fell behind and she was gone.
I had that feeling in my stomach like I was falling, but really the gallery was on fire. My little curator was gone, and I watched, motionless, as the fire crept up off the floor and onto the paper dolls’ feet. I expect I was already on fire when I finally realized I had lost feeling in my limbs. Because I couldn’t move, I wouldn’t even have noticed the numbness if not for the deafness. It was beyond silence; I was convinced I had actually turned to stone. When finally even the gut wrenching was gone, the flames were on my face and in my eyes and it was too bright to see anymore. The last real thing was the smell of burning paper, whose pungency kept me awake in my blindness. All that was left of the room was an impression now, but it was more than memory. I thought maybe I was a bat; I had this feeling that the ceiling was falling in even though I could not see or hear or feel it happening. The smell eventually went away, and I was kept awake then by worry alone. You were still with me in the burning gallery.
The stone rain was coming down faster now. With each step, I could feel the drops pulling my free foot down into the cave. I was headed uphill, I knew that much, but the spotlights were covered in limestone pellets, and it was pitch black everywhere. Were it not for the sound of the stone drops rattling down through the boxwork above, I wouldn’t have known which direction was up. I pressed onward, trusting in an instinct that up is always the way out. The falling stone had settled the air, the way rain always does, and the guiding wind had died down. I slogged on, parting the mounds of tiny stones that constricted my legs, all the while gradually forgetting something. I didn’t think of it then, thank God, but the reason I wanted to get out was only to find out why I was so determined about it. I started talking out loud, yelling why again and again, like a child being punished. I banged my head on the ceiling and chipped off a huge sheet of rock, but it was raining so hard now that I didn’t hear it fall. The ceiling was getting low and I had to crawl, swimming up a mound of pebbles in the dark. I reached the top of something, but it wasn’t the exit.
I was completely senseless, so I wasn’t exactly watching you. I felt you, I guess, in the way you can feel what someone is saying without agreeing with it. You were on the threshold of a room somewhere, wondering whether to go in. Your body was shapeless, and I couldn’t remember what you looked like before the fire. I didn’t know where the room was, or even where I was, but I knew you had to go inside. And I wanted so badly to tell you. I know it sounds silly but it felt like I could answer any question you could ask me, without even knowing the answer. I wanted to hear the question you asked when I still had him inside me. I wanted the conviction in your voice again, even if you were wrong. You were standing in the doorway now, speaking to yourself, but you wouldn’t come in. You knew I would collapse around you. (He was a boy.)
Through a tiny archway almost completely blocked by the mound of pebbles was the main cavern. It looked familiar, but I couldn’t remember if that was the way out or a dead end. I was exhausted, and I paused there for a moment to consider something. The pellets were pouring from the ceiling so fast and so loud that the tiny space before me closed up, and without thinking I took a deep breath and dove into the rain stones to swim underneath. The pellets were too heavy to move and my arms and legs were weak. A wave of warmth and self-pity ran through my gut and I stopped moving, overcome by the temptation of numbing muscles. I laid there facedown, reveling in the stillness, as the weight grew heavier on my back. My neck relaxed and my forehead sunk down into the layer of droplets beneath me. They were smooth and brushed up against my cheeks like your nose when you wanted to kiss. Suddenly I remembered: the room ahead was called the Fairgrounds, and it led to an exit. I tried to dig my way through the pile as the cavern got clearer in my head: the jagged walls, the kid with the blue headlamp, the first explorers’ writing on the cave walls, the spot in the corner where we hung back from the group to make out. I could see the room perfectly now, and I was swimming instead of digging. The stone was turning to water, and I moved freely through it, into the room. I knew I had to find somewhere to breathe, but the cave was opening up, and I couldn’t help but press on.
When you came in, it was too late; I had already left. I knew you’d try to find me, that from now on it would possess every moment of solitude when you just needed a rest. But I felt you in the room, how freely you swam through it, and I was surprised. I’d never seen you swim before, not even at the beach. I felt you moving your arms, and your arms moving you, and the boundlessness was gone. If you could have asked me who I was, even just my name, I couldn’t have answered. Your body moved with such confidence, so fluidly, I wondered sometimes if it was really you, or just some water painted to look like you. I never heard you speak again, though I could feel your lips moving every now and then. Your eyes would open wide, but I couldn’t see if they lit up like they did every September 12th, or if they were just examining something in the cave. When you sped up and swam fast, I got excited and wondered what you were headed toward, or coming from. I couldn’t feel the water, or the cave, but only the space in which you moved. You had no substance, but you moved always in me. Even when I finally slept.
Your breathing gets short and soft when you’re falling asleep, as though you’re turning into a little animal with smaller lungs. I know how much you loved Charlie, but when I watched you I always thought of a wolf pup. You have this way of sleeping on your side, with your palms down, that makes it look like you might jump up at any moment and go find somewhere else to spend the night. For a reason that only makes sense to things in the wild. Your brows would just barely furrow, and you’d tilt your head up and wince a little, but you never stirred. You were still, and yet ready always to run from wherever your dog dreams were taking you. I wondered sometimes if you were really sleeping, or just pretending so I wouldn’t worry. But you were convincing. Or I was tired: always one or the other. Only now do I realize how perfectly dogs sleep: deeply enough to dream, but never so deep that the real thing can’t wake them. The night we fell asleep on the beach, I almost woke you up to go for a swim. The water was dark, darker even than the horizon, but there were silver splotches from the moon out past the breakers. I got up very quietly and left you there in the sand. I paused at the water’s edge for a moment and looked back at you, but your silhouette was sleeping so soundly that I turned and ran out through the waves, and swam to the moon.
© 2012 Kevin Nigel Watson