by Steve Johnson

by Susan James

You burned a stick of sandalwood in the kitchen before bed and now I can’t sleep. It’s the smell. It’s everywhere. We thought an early night would do us good but now I can taste that temple perfume even though it has long since snowed to ash. You’re sleeping like a corpse as if we’d lit the damned thing for you. I open my eyes. I close my eyes. I’m in the throat of a black hole, either way. Open. Closed. Open. Closed, and no different. You’d think it would give me an advantage at night. I’d joked that we didn’t need blackout curtains anymore. I was trying to be glib. You didn’t think it was funny. Neither did I, but that’s not the point. I’d give anything now for the buttery glow of streetlight on the window sill. Did I really used to complain? Was I ever really kept awake by something so trivial, so beautiful?

There are other ways of seeing. That’s what the doctor had said. In the early days, I pressed palms into sockets to imagine what this would feel like, look like. Life close-up. Life played out at the end of my nose, no further and then not all all. Listening felt secondhand until I learned how to do it properly. It’s like treading water in trenches I can’t touch the bottom of; trenches I can’t see the sides of.

I slide from the bed. I slide my feet along the floor feeling for obstructions, tracing my fingertips along the wall, snagging them on the hook holding the keys. I feel for the familiar barrel, scratch it into the edge of the lock until it slips inside and the tumblers turn over and I step outside. Birds. It’s not so early, then. Air smells different. A warm wash over my face. Colors, a glimpse and then gone, fleeting like an animal spooked by the crack of twig, gone where I can’t follow, somewhere beyond the horizon of my own body.

Grass: cold and dew-tipped and as gentle as a whisper between my toes. I walk chin up and shoulders down, stomach rounded with fresh air sucked from the morning. I stop when my foot finds the leg of the wooden chair. I put the moon up high on my eyelids; see her nodding to her sister as she rises, bidding both good morning and goodnight and then sinking back from her station, smudged out by another’s light.

A bird skids through the shrubbery. A woodpecker knocking at the bark of a tree. Worms, surely, twisting in soil we used to dig for fun, for color and bees. A puff of breath: a neighbor’s stiff window pushed out, opened with vigor enough to launch a wood pigeon from fence into sky.

Moon’s sister is easiest to remember. Her drape of silks in amber, flax and gold. I remember lemon and marigold, and the bruise of her against my knee in that beginning, in that first stumble against the table. I imagine you stirring, reaching out to touch the cold side of our bed as morning moves over our bones, our bricks and glass, rising like floodwater.


Painting by Steve Johnson. Find him on Instagram at @artbystevej.