Tripwire

There is a tapping against the window. This time of year, spirits are abroad; floating like solitary shells or thundering through the teeming clouds on horseback. And because I see things they tell me are not there, I turn my head. The glass, of course, is blankly black. Raindrops shiver where they have fallen; tiny, delicate globes. No ghostly hands. No wavering faces.

In the morning, the bed is quicksand. I dress slowly, slipping on dirty shirts. I haven’t slept again; spinning in the 3 a.m. eye of a constant storm.

They tell me breakfast kickstarts your metabolism into solidarity, but too often I forget, and brew bitter coffee instead to wipe my eyes and rearrange insomnia’s regret. The fear hums through my body at night like a soundwave, reels of imagined and inevitable catastrophe; shadow play on the walls. I take my seat and buckle up, answer emails on automatic pilot, crash.

Because I am an adult, but I do not know how to live adulthood with its loss and focus and exit wounds. Its filthy fingernails, its silent, stoic, grown-up crying, its poisoned wells. I am sick, and yet my sickness manifests invisibly; in walking on clouds until my wings scorch like Icarus. In tidal waves of frenzied creativity. In terror of coffin-lining.

I call the crisis team, they say: Make a cup of tea. Have a hot bath, have two.

Imagine if I changed my name and ran away. To Amsterdam, Rome, Prague. Imagine a pretty, functional girl trailing through picture postcards. Imagine if I could starve myself back into perfection; ethereal slenderness, escape my life with a skeleton key. It’s never worked, it won’t now. Defeated, I sit back down, press send. Answer the phone and rattle out affirmations; yes I will do the things you ask, even though my head is a helium balloon held to my collar with safety pins.

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Daere (Fiend). Self portrait.

I hate this loneliness, hate skittering around the inside of my skull like a spider in a matchbox. The sheer, pinned-butterfly exhaustion, the long squeezebox crush of the clock, the deathly irritant of the same frustrated faces all wishing they were somewhere else. The sudden surges of my too-bright rage and happiness, swirling together in terrible colours. Might as well plunge your hands into a bucket of nails, spend your cigarette break standing in a barrel of gunpowder.

I go and wait on the street corner speckled with drizzle, just to look at the people. Headlamps glide past me, a continuous river of will o’the wisps. A half-bottle, 6o mg, and the vague beat of music through the wall ceases to fall across the tripwire of anxiety, and the fire in my head dulls to a chapel’s glow. A soft prison formed of old walls, protecting the marshmallow and butter of me.

These things are a shield against the long silence, against the fear. It is a wall between me and the things I half-glimpse; behind my reflection, in doorways, stairwells. It is protection against the evenings too scared to leave the room, fervently imagining the flaming sword of the Archangel Michael sweeping down in a blaze of ferocious light. Watching shadowy heads fall. It is in these long nights that I realise the depths of my own insanity, covering the mirrors with cloths and saltwater.

Werewolf

Where is the blood? Check the sheets, there should be fist-sized pools of red in the hollows of the bed, as if from a dozen animal bites. Check your body, where are the marks left by claws and teeth? Where are the pinking indentations in your shoulders; in the soft, helpless skin of the stomach?

‘You don’t deserve such a mauling.’ He says, so kind. Perhaps instead there should be a wolf’s pelt at the foot of the bed; unhappily vanquished. I start to laugh, hang up. The laugh feels dangerous, edged with pieces of glass. Light another cigarette, feel your ribs creak. Hear the rattle beginning in lungs saturated with winter damp.

My train rockets through the evening. Above me, the sky cracks its shell and spills soft roses. The faces of my fellow passengers are idling in neutral, they have not seen that the sky is on fire, or they don’t care. The platforms are cold, the engine of the waiting train ticks over; clucking of an impatient tongue against the roof of the mouth.

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‘How did she take it?’ They are soft and solicitous, but detail-hungry. Gentle vultures. Beaks slim as scalpels.

She lost all of the water in her body. That pretty ocean rose to her eyes in waves and broke on the shore of my decision. The sky mirrored her in sympathy. How naturally the rain drips from the roof, how unconscious and without thought! The rain comes again now, the sound makes me blank again.

Kneel on the bed. Her smell must be in there, caught in the pale sheet. Her shoulders and hips have left their impression. Put that long wolf’s nose to the cotton, I can’t smell her. Relief. Imagine again the dip of her bones in the mattress, her sweat creating the huddled outline of her sleeping body. Get up. Strip the bed. Put the shroud in the washing machine.

We are a landmass split by a cataclysm. You know comfort is an impossibility for me. Like sleeping in a too-soft bed; after a while I begin to wake in inexplicable pain.

Dark Amber

I’ve been away for a while. I try to explain why, but it’s like opening a bag full of amber beads, polished into whiskey darkness, that scatter everywhere. How do I say, ‘my brain is a bear trap and it’s caught my sleeve again.’ Sometimes, they try to blame it on the time of year. My doctor and I look sourly at each other, we both know I am more likely to be hospitalised in the spring.

One of us has to die, I realise. One of my selves, because the tug-of-war is getting stale, like trying to chew old bread. It makes my gums bleed.

But which self lives, and which is taken away? Can you even remove a part of yourself like that? They say ‘fake it ’til you make it’ but what’s there to fake? I am twins, but only one of us can be born again. Do I save the soft and anxious ingenue or their darker, cleverer sibling? A fairytale in each hand, but I have to cast off one of the witches. Which one burns?

 

 

Lola In The Snow

Image by Marta Bevacqua
Image by Marta Bevacqua

That girl is full of swans
– though her hair is dark as spilling ink –
tall, chalky feathers stuff her heart and lungs.
Graceful as those proud and ponderous kings,although
she is skin-thin and scissor-tongued,
and holds her bones as careful as a dancer,
trying not spill the rib cage.

Look close –

– the pores of her skin are a billion open eyes.
A poppy flower rolls between her thighs, and
she seems all dazzling fragility;
like running watercolours,
or starling murmurations whirling in the freezing air.
An ugly sister who shrinks in the rain,
laughing at how perfectly the slippers fit her smaller feet.

She’ll tell you that it’s all about control,
and looking as sick on the outside
as she feels within.
You cannot force a lonely princess into heavy adult flesh,
she will rebel, until wolf’s fur tickles the inside of her skin.
Until her body is a glassy coffin,
for the wild creature that she could have been.

Tucked away in her heart’s hollow cavity,
she has folded herself into the pages of a love story,
following a white skeleton
that rises from a living grave in silence fierce as fire.
And it isn’t all the mirror’s fault;
her entry into womanhood was cracked,
and like the tales she watched witches
sail away in the shell.

The Savage Garden

The phone fizzes again. More platitudes, another long ream of letters that say nothing at all. I skip across the square, hazelnut ice cream in my hand. I wish he were here to see the city as the sky rolls towards dusk, but he won’t be by my side ever again. Tears prick at the corners of my eyes, I’m surrounded by so much beauty, but I cannot be light inside. Anchored to the heart of a blind man. This city has so many couples wandering through it, sitting on benches, staring at the falling water of illuminated fountains, laughing. I try not to resent them.

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Later, walking through the leaves just starting to fall, through unfamiliar streets. I feel a slow stab, where the dying star in my chest is busy collapsing. A flare of light that casts a long shadow. We stop at a church, all gothic towers and slim stained windows. I stare at it until the tears are dry. His face is disappearing, as surely as the faces of angels in the glass are worn thin by a hundred years of another star.

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Brave Nonetheless

There are some things only talked about in the mirror; when I run my hands through newly-shorn hair at the nape of my neck. When that still water of glass reflects my fingers deftly sewing up a shirt. When the brush scrapes enamel worn to ghostliness by addiction’s sucker punch. As the scales tick back and forth like a clock, when the smell of honey rises from a pot of cool cream.

There are some things I say to myself when the black silk trim of my curtain is whipped about like a violent phantom by a night full of foxes opening their razor throats, shrieking love poetry. When I wait for my bones to reclaim sleep like white roots sipping opiates from the earth, when the rain sings its acapella lullaby.

There are secret words I use to comfort myself when I see a hearse roll down the road, a train pull away, my mother’s hand wave goodbye through the window, a crushed car dumped on the verge with coke cans and badger corpses and feathers fluttering from smashed bird bodies. Loss upon loss, piled up on the highway. Monuments to unhappy transience.

Prayers and mantras for washing hair with pure olive soap, for shaking out bedlinen that smells of lavender and the pine trees that pour their scent from the hilltop. For gauging the colour of storm clouds, dabbing bloodied knees with cotton, watering the tender green jasmine plant, shaking delicate mustard yellow chamomile flowers into a glass jar.

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Psalms to command stillness, acceptance, love. A long litany of nurture in spite of med times and eyes strained from mangling saltwater and kids on the bus who spit.

Words to remind me who I am. To soothe simplicity into my hands as my mind turns over and over, devouring itself. As my minds argue and cajole and placate one another, Russian dolls with peeling paint and hidden jewels for eyes, willful and strange and ecstatic and sorrowful. Oh, and brave; brave like the last cigarette against a pockmarked wall. Brave like the execution blindfold stained with blood spatter and powder burns.

Brave nonetheless.

Scarlet

‘What happened to you?’

I remember the old Spanish woman in the corner of the ward. I woke to see her bending over my bed, rosary beads slipping rhythmically between her brown spindle fingers. When she saw my eyes crack open, she stopped her prayers to ask, ‘Was it an acid attack? Were you in a fire?’

The fire is in my body. I have had an allergic reaction to some new medication that is burning my skin off from within. Wisps of thinnest tissue are weeping clear fluid, I am shedding myself; a serpent thrown into boiling mercury. I am 23. They tell me I might be about to die.

My face is so deformed by the swelling that I am unrecognisable. I wake in the night, the heat from my dying skin has dried my tears in my sleep. I was always terrified of fire as a child, of burning alive, trapped in a building. Now it is finally happening, inside my own windowless, bony house.

In the chapel, there is a prayer board.

For Sandy, For Colin. For Mum. For my little boy. Please, God. Thank you, God. Please.

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I scrape through the days. They pump pints of water into my drying husk at night along with pink steroids. A vase of white roses appears by my bed, ghosts going brown around the edges.

Later, they take pictures of me for their textbooks; my feet planted a hips-width apart, my arms outstretched; so that young doctors can examine in detail my raw Vitruvian form; the skinned snake with a fearful heart exposed.

When it is certain I am going to live, I go home. I cannot lie on the bedsheets. I speak in shocked monosyllables. I eat slowly through the scarlet mess of my lips. The fire dies to a mere smouldering ash in my lucky bones. I remember the clicking of those white beads in the dark, again and again.

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Please, God. Thank you, God. Thank you, God.