That the winds are really not infectious,
That this is no cheat, this transparent green-wash of the sea, which is so amorous after me,
That it is safe to allow it to lick my naked body all over with its tongues,
That it will not endanger me with the fevers that have deposited themselves in it,
That all is clean forever and forever.”
—“This Compost,” Walt Whitman
I peek outside for the last time today and the sunshine blinds me from seeing the wirework of weeds. I pull aside three feet of curtains, so I can see what’s out there. The rank growth coats the dirt below, coats the land of the dead. I couldn’t clear it all away, that mess, if I ever cared to.
The dead land is below my feet too, it’s under my home. Under the asphalt, chipping the paint on the road, stuffed thick around our water pipes, lying on the compost pile, forever laughing, forever growing with bits of our own selves. I couldn’t clear it, and if I tried, parts of me would become it. It all makes me want to spit; the bubbles and boils, the cysts and pimples the earth makes. At some point in life you learn that everything is dirty and dangerous. At another, there’s no way to make it clean.
My husband, in his living days, had been a wanderer. Walking about all day, touching the soil with his fingers, sniffing it, telling it stories, probably eating it. We met because of the colonial cliff swallow, popping up and down. Awed, we watched it, so odd. It flew just beyond the parking lot, underneath the bridge. We laughed as we followed it. The birds were there in their mud-nests, hundreds, chirping loudly, stealing from their neighbors. It was a civilization, miniscule and violent. I looked to him, he took my hand, and he kissed the satin glove of it. “I’m Henry,” he said.
My stomach bellows and I close the curtains across the Eastern hemisphere. I start calling for Henry. In the kitchen the trash can is full of paper towels and soda bottles, an empty furniture polish can, a cucumber peel. I tie up the top of it and lift it from the base. In my daydream, Henry takes it from me and brings it to the bottom of our driveway. He squeezes my arm first and winks. He goes into the garage and does the same with the twenty-three other bags in there, he takes it all away. But first, he winks, and sometimes, when he winks, both eyes accidentally shut.
As I crack the garage door and toss out the filth, I think of how he showers. He comes to me, he kisses me on my forehead. Henry would leave his boots outside whenever he’d come in from working or walking. He wouldn’t embrace me until he changed, but when he did—he’d kiss the top of my head and tell me stories. We’d sit in the living room, blinds sometimes open, sometimes shut, depending on which one of us felt in charge that day, and then we’d speak.
“Anna Peterson’s daughter,” he started that morning, “got a kitten for her birthday. Orange and feisty, that one. Much like you, my Raina.” He smiled, but I didn’t. The week before, he called me neurotic. That morning I woke up with a charley horse. I got up and retrieved my analgesic balm; I flexed my toes up and grabbed my calf. Henry came in and rolled his eyes. He walked to the dresser and clunked his wallet down, a receipt on top and some papers underneath. He didn’t look in my direction, he left the room. He was twenty feet away, then thirty, in the kitchen, or maybe in the living room. The receipt was for groceries, a task I refused to do as of about a month or two prior. “I live just to feed your neurosis!” It was an odd attack, far away, without any faces. “You’re a goddamn mental invalid, can’t leave the goddamn house to get a couple of groceries.” He came back in the room and looked me in the eyes. “I’m going for a walk,” he said, as I picked up the papers. There it was. He was buying the groceries and his bones were rotting out.
The doctor said his left and right hip, holes, pain; he would live with much pain. The doctor was wrong. He wouldn’t live, and it had nothing to do with necrosis. I don’t know why it happened, really. He was breathing so quickly and felt so damp. He told me he’d be alright; he’d just rest for a while. It wasn’t until after he coughed up blood that I started asking questions. He could hardly breathe. It wasn’t until after he collapsed outside that knew I should have done something. Now he’s out back with the compost, fertilizing his dinner. He went, draggling himself and his necrotic belly, breath and soul seeping, to be forever with the banana peels and refuse under the dripping black trees. I try to think of his name, while he is lying on top of the dirt, with flies buzzing around his body, but he doesn’t have one; he has no name, and my god, I think, look at you, look at who you are. Through the pallor and scourge, there you are; you are gone, but you are not gone.
I can dream of a land of sunlight where I’ll drift away into the air and the earth is never below my feet, and the fields are only piles of green, and everything, forever and ever, everything is forever clean.
His mouth is a great black rictus, inviting the Darkling Beetles and falling leaves. I want to feed it golden apples and clamp it shut, so I keep away from the back window and hope he’ll be through soon enough.
“Raina, let me take your hand. I’ll take you outside and will keep you safe, and you won’t need to be afraid anymore.” He said it more than once.
I try not to understand death, but I can’t help it sometimes.
As the air-conditioning dries the tears on my face, the heat outside quickens his decay.
My belly growls again, and makes me double over onto the dining room table. At our last dinner, we hardly said three sentences; I can see us sitting there now. I can see us there, sitting like ghosts, and he begins to speak.
“My head is spinning, I’ll only eat a little.”
The phantom Raina nods in acknowledgment.
“I’m sorry about what I said, Rain. How could I ever be so mean to you?” He touches her hand from across the table. “I love you.” He’s smiling so sweetly and although I can only see the side of her face from here, I know it’s distorted, is trying to smile like him.
He looks across the table, and I think we are both hopeful. But she just stammers and stutters. He forgives her with a smile, in this moment so close to his death, and goes to kiss the ephemeral me on the cheek. Only, this time, he kisses her lips. The two ghosts disappear.
I am still on the dining room table, alone. I squint. I blink. They don’t come back. I stare. I want them to come back. My house appears on the table, in aerial, and I realize with a whimper that between my home and the back yard, I’m in the dark side of the penumbra. My skin becomes gooseflesh and I jut my back teeth into my neck in an effort to make a moaning release, but nothing comes. I breathe in deep and stand up.
At the kitchen counter, I have two boxes of crackers that I have been rationing, just like the rest of the food that’s in my freezer and cabinets. Some canned vegetables and soup. Frozen vegetables.
“Shannon—my cousin’s daughter, you know, love?—she’s almost completed her doctorate,” he said to me once. “I know you don’t want to hear anything about it. We should just talk…just a little, we should. We should talk, why don’t you say something?”
“But I have nothing to say.”
For how tired I feel, it may as well be nighttime. I look outside and it is. The Earth must be whispering, telling me to fall asleep. Maybe I will dream in the color green; the cleanest of all colors. The color of his eyes. Or blue, like when the sun hits a florescent diamond.
One day, I will have to choose between dying of starvation and going outside.
My husband fertilizes the earth instead of a wooden box.
I used to blow on his hair to see it move, and he’d joke, ask if I was making sure he was real.
I fold down the flannel sheet and struggle off of the bed. My floor is still covered with the same brown, long-haired carpet it always was. I wear socks. My dresser is right to my left. There’s a picture of our wedding. A mirror. A jewelry box. I wear only green or white nightgowns. I wash my hair and I use a comb.
When he closed the back door, it was death; eating fruit and meat is death; the skin on my hands encircles it; the sun and the clouds are dying; the breath I release; my body is death.
My face is pressed against the sliding glass door because, although I was originally standing, his decay has gone too far for that sort of stability now. His ribcage is in about the same place mine is. Above his hips, but below shoulders, only his is partly exposed. I can feel parts of mine, so I know that they’re in there, and if I were less sane I would try to pluck them out with a knife and spoon. I feel the skeleton inside of my head; I feel the eye sockets and taste the bony grin. I want to strike it. I want it gone.
My breath fogs up the glass. I can convince myself that that is not you, Henry. You’ve fled the earth and you can walk through dirt like ghosts walk through walls. This isn’t happening, and that is not you. You’ve fled the world of ribcages and cartilage, you don’t have a billion capillaries; you’ve taken the one-thousand miles of bodily highway to the sky. I see you and we will see a canary. The bird will fly away, but this time it’ll go up and this time we’ll follow it to the Kingdom.
The first look today. Soon, he’ll be gone. The first is the hardest. He’s so different the next day. The Earth and the wind seem so alive; how can anything ever be dead?
There’s a cat back there. He’s black and so fat and he’s just sitting there, by the body. Under the same tree. Under the same tree. I remember when we met, it was because of a swallow. And now that I’m saying goodbye, there’s a cat.
I close my eyes. I can’t smell him, so I stop breathing. I can’t hear him, so I push my hands against my ears. I can’t feel him…
You have to stop moving. You have to eat. You can’t escape. You can’t go outside. Where he is.
I wave frantically and bang on the glass, but they just glance over at me, yellow cat eyes. There are mushrooms all around him; they must have sprouted last night. It must have rained.