Dim-light slivers between my eyelashes. My fingers trace a familiar path on the wall. Cold smooth concrete flows across my skin. Cell-scent reaches my nose and continues past as I inhale. Cool, damp air envelops me. Shuddering, I roll over, pull up my blanket, and I’m in a cocoon full of dim grey cocoon-light.
Dim grey cocoon-light…
Bright halogen-light irradiates my eyelids: halogen-light hum and shining through everywhere-light. My eyes open and light floods in. An electric vibration spreads to my ears, I force my eyes closed.
My last morning.
My world up-turns and I emerge with chest-stretching arms spread; my cocoon slips and settles. I yawn and breath meets anticipation steady building in my chest, leaving a pain-lump in my throat. It’s the same feeling of anticipation that fumbled my words when I approached you and that grew inside of me after you when I waited to hear my verdict. The lead juror stood and read the sentence: death sentence.
How time has passed.
I always ignored you on football Sundays until one day you put on black-webbed lingerie and blocked my view with your body. Your skin was soft and malleable between my lips and you whispered I love you in my ear. Your lips peppered the goose bumps on my neck with kisses.
Twelve years passed here. Twelve years.
The concrete floor blurs as my wrinkled, dry-cracked hands come into focus.
I peer at the bare wall above the sink and into my memory. I squint from habit. My short-cropped hair stands on edge at the crown of my head. I am small cheek and forehead pores and larger nose and near-nose pinkish pores; thousands of pores, now visible, now vanished, framing thick eyebrows shading brown eyes. Worn-down molars, sculpted gold, and tarnished front teeth hang on to burnt red gums.
I force out the last trace of toothpaste. My morning pastime. I squeeze the bottom of the tube and roll it to its spout. My nautilus forms.
The words begin with a down stroke of my tongue followed by syllables and consonants that percuss on the roof of my mouth and leave through my lips as whispers.
And each whisper attaches to a new down stroke and the words become chamber walls and my shell forms as words and pictures and tangible memories form what is lost to me. All encompassing, sweet refuge, time-past. Prison sounds dull-thump against enchambering time-past like distant storm carrying clouds fast-passing and sounding on the horizon. They dull-thump and reverberate harmlessly creating sound-rings expanding in soft-ripples across time-past.
I let the memory-walls recede. My toothpaste dangles over my brush then falls to the sink and slides down its sheer metal face before stopping, jutted out over the drain. I rescue it and wipe what I don’t use onto my shirt.
You hated that. You laid all my nightshirts on the bed and in black sharpie circled the crusty white blue-speckled spots on them all. And your anger and stubbornness melted away once you had your say and our body-sweat merged with the stains and afterwards we played in the crumpled mess we made. You threw a shirt over my face and wrapped your legs around my waist and we began again.
Memories and time and time to pass. At first it was too much and I looked for a way-away. I searched for nothingness: embryonic void-warmth far from the dim, bright, always some-light, of my cell. The guards rushed me to the prison doc, pulling the pillow stuffing from my mouth while running beside the gurney.
Memories and time and time to pass.
The wall is cool on my back and I rest my head on its surface sitting on my bed. I listen to halogen-light hum and distant guard chatter. I smell cell scent. I remember other scents. Your scent, ocean scent. My body sags in the foldout resting midway on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Pier. I focus on the end of my rod and then follow the faint trace of my line as it disappears into the rippling water. Seagull squawks, salt breeze, eye-squinting ocean-glare. Thousands of glare-flickerings amidst small everywhere-waves that are infinite indentions and protrusions. No rhythmic sounds of shore-wave crashings. Only silent everywhere-waves and ocean winds and seagulls talking. The seagulls side-cock their heads at one another and then take off towards the shore. I follow their flight for a while, watching their rapidly undulating wings. In their distance, a far-shadow begins to threaten the pier. Today’s certainty no longer distant-hovering, now approaching and intruding, shadowing over memory-me.
Time and memories and time to pass. Memories that submerge. Submerge me in her scent, her heat. Deep-submerged her body-sweat cloaks my skin. Moans sound depth charges encompassing rhythmically in our deep.
My heartbeats resound, thundering over the wind hard-blowing faster. Alone, I hear all the world roaring in my ears.
My cell latch opens and a tray slides inside, scraping loud on the floor. My memory walls recede, shuddering as I shudder. I move to my stomach and bury my head into my pillow. Fleeting thoughts enter my head with increasing rapidity and anticipation builds. I hard-shut my eyes and push my face farther into the pillow, looking for a way-away. Breath staggers out of me.
Breakfast with milk and cereal and an apple. It’s Monday and Monday breakfast is milk and cereal and an apple. My eyes follow my finger and double check.
“Left-milk, middle-cereal, right-apple.”
And one day, the prisoner who puts together the trays must have fallen sick and it came: cereal and milk and an apple. Joe wouldn’t stand for it and from down the hall his dull head-thuds sounded as muffled protests against the intrusive asymmetry. The guards knew the noise. Their footsteps sounded frantic drumbeats to the prisoners’ rising voices. Some cheered Joe on. Others simply yelled to be heard. Some, like me, stood silent, craning our eyes to see the farthest we could down the hall. Joe came into my vision as discombobulated human parts between the guards’ dark navy uniforms. His body was awake and from his lips and cracked teeth I heard low body-hums.
“Hummmmm,” he said.
Low body-hums whispering unconscious sound-pleas. Joe’s blood dripped from an indention in his skull. Shuffling feet slip-striped the ward’s floor red.
Blood-scent. My neck hairs stand erect.
I stayed in my cell for a week after that. I wrapped myself in my blanket and shut my eyes and clamped my fists tight to my side. Memory-chambers formed and unformed and dissolved at every little sound. I lived between humid breaths and aborted pregnant thoughts and became instinct and preserved.
My memory-walls are stronger now.
“Left-milk, middle-cereal, right-apple.”
The blanket beneath me keeps me warm while I eat. Snap-crunch into apple flesh. Teeth and apple flesh. Apple skin wedged in my teeth. And once you asked me to get braces, especially for my two front teeth-gap. I said no because that was me and you fell in love with regular-me, not future pretty-smile me. You said you better hope so mister and ruffled my hair and kissed my forehead. When your lips were done pecking you pulled back and stared. Hazel-green give me butterfly eyes fluttered over front teeth tugging on your bottom lip. The side of your lips curled into a smile and your hair shaded your face as it moved towards me.
I smile and silent-laugh.
And Joe noise-laughed for ten minutes once until the guards let him know they found nothing funny. It started as small vocal trembles that turned into triumphant tremolos and became infectious and we all got the joke and laughed. We became kindred spirits and our vision blurred as moist films covered our eyes and dissolved the concrete between us. We watched them drag Joe down the hall. He had a big grin on his face, but tears in his eyes and both his wrists were wrapped and dragging on the floor. But no blood was anywhere to be seen, so I came out the next day and in the square I let the earth know I was still here.
I fish out the cereal from the milk and count the individuals. Today, 146 grain-circles and 62 stray pieces. Some stray pieces are half-moon shaped and others are wispy crescents. I think of the moon and looking at the moon in time-past. Pale-grey light engulfs. The moon hovers; a bright full-orb somewhere-distant, never a half-orb or any other hungry variation. Satiated and hovering somewhere-distant casting its pale grey light on me. Full, I re-cocoon in my bed, close my eyes, and memories enchamber.
Craning my neck, I can see the moon above the roof of my truck. It’s late and I’m doing my best to get home to you after the bar. My truck’s old-trusty engine roar is a deep bass melody beneath the rattle of the bed and squeaking of the springs. The moon’s pale-grey light haunts the road, hinting at upcoming turns, revealing fences, mailboxes, and other signs of our town.
“Where you headed?”
Joe looks at me placidly in the passenger seat. He twitches and stares with docile eyes. Twitching, Joe asks again,
“Are you going back there?”
Joe turns and looks through the front windshield as I respond. Blood slithers from his ear, a slithering red-vein, meandering from his ear.
“Home, Joe. I’m going home before it’s too late. Sarah doesn’t like it if I’m too late, you know. She doesn’t like being out in the country alone too late.”
Joe nods slowly. He continues looking out the windshield, looking past the evaporating far reaches of the headlights.
“Do you still love her?”
“Of course. You should’ve seen her before, Joe. You know, she’s everything anyone could need, plenty of looks and smarts. We’d cook together. She’d caress my hands as I did my part… and I’d feel goosebumps all over. Nothing else like it. She’d wrap me in her body-warmth and, and well, I still can feel it sometimes. Her spirit and warmth just right there, beside me.”
A smile flickers across Joe’s face.
“Yes, I know the feeling well,” he says. “Mercurial blanket-warmth. What a feeling! And that iron scent all about… Yes, nothing quite like it. Of course, I loved them all too. Quite a few of them and they never stop loving back do they?”
“It was just her, Joe, and I was all hers. We’d put dinner in the oven and then she’d unbutton my shirt and pull me down to the floor by its flaps, kissing me along the way. She’d pull me inside of her and stare deep in my eyes and hold me inside, our deep-inside.”
I fall weightless through her retinal constellations.
Joe turns to face me. Blood streams from an indention in his head and drips off his chin.
“You been at it again, Joe? They’ll put that helmet back on you.”
“You’ve forgotten her haven’t you? I bet you have.”
“I haven’t! She just won’t speak. Won’t say a word to me.”
Joe’s lips purse, tremble, and open into a smile.
“I bet you have. Yes, you’ve forgotten all about her. But, you’ll remember soon enough.”
Small wood-splinters erupt from the log at my feet. White breaths emerge and linger, soft-puffed cumulus clouds rising in the crisp air. Tires multi-crackling over gravel announce you’re home. Your car stops, dust envelopes, and you wave at me. I smile back and call old Smokey from under the back porch. Smokey comes running over to my timber piles tail wagging and kissing, circling and tail wagging. You shut the doors of your car and walk into the house big-smiling, carrying, weight shifting. My weight shifts as I push on the axe tail and resume working. I glimpse tree age between chops. Wood splinters erupt from ringed, light brown tree limbs and tree trunks and the timber pile before me grows.
Smokey’s barks draw my eyes up to you walking my way. You stagger-laugh and look up at me and down at the ground and up at me.
“You’re teasing me and Smokey, honey. Hurry on over!” I say.
Your hands grab your waist and you give me a teasing smile. Your eyes shine through the late fall overcast. You bend over, weight shift, and our hands meet and pendulum-swing as we start our daily walk to the creek. We take turns looking up through the patchwork rooftop of trees searching for the fading sun in the grey-winter sky. You shiver and chin-tuck into your favorite wool scarf. I let go of your hand and wrap my arm around your waist.
The last trail bend reveals our sitting-rock by the creek. Overlooking the stream slow-struggling around small rocks and fallen trees, we listen to stream-weavings and windings and old-rustling trees.
“Come closer babe.”
Smiling, I reach for your hand as my words condense and float as breaths between us.
“It’s so lonely when I’m not here with you, Sarah. I think about you all the time. Stay with me tonight, through it all. Will you?”
Between hair-wanderings, your eyes soften the air between us. You nod.
“I wish you’d speak to me. I miss your voice…We had so much here together, you know.”
You remain silent looking into my eyes, clinging onto my shirt.
Your eye-warmth is enough. I start on about my students. Your head nods and your smile remains fixed, content in repose as my day-story unfolds. The plot follows a well-worn route; shifting names personify well-used protagonists and antagonists. You listen all the same and stare into my eyes, mirroring my emotions.
Keys fumble at the exit of my cell door, distant scrapings and fumblings slightly off-tune with stream-weavings and windings and old-rustling trees. Memory-me looks at memories projected in front of chambered-me watching memories recede before Jimmy the guard standing ready and tense-worried about me making my last time in the sun a fight.
Two hours out in the square on all of our last days. Two hours today.
I never exercise. I stand in the middle of the square and sunshine and I am the focal point of my surroundings and I yell at the top of my lungs and show the world my life and then I lie down and feel. Feel sunlight as it heats me. There is no too hot. So, even during the summer, there I lie and sweat and the earth gets part of me and the back of my head and the back of my ankles get part of it. They don’t let me bring back earth. I have to shower it away. And as the murky earth-me goes down the drain I feel now-sadness. Once a day, now-sadness. Routine like Monday breakfast with milk and cereal and an apple.
“Turn ‘round, hands on your back, same as always,” Jimmy says.
My right cheek meets the wall. The shackles let my soul know any fight will be an inward one.
Another guard hangs by the door. He stands more at ease around me than he must around the others because I’m not a big man; just wiry strong and full of mean-looking veins that did me well before, but now, as the needle and IV aren’t far away, seem like ugly, ill-woven, Judas parts of me.
The guards hang on to my right and left arm as I shuffle down the hallway. The chains add a musical measure to my cropped steps. In my corner-vision, pairs of eyes look at me and probably think about this day for them. Some are timid, some jitter and quick-revolve in frantic quarter-circles, and others hard-stare, sure-set above steel-eating jaws. One or two are nothing-eyes, empty, soulless goddamned eyes meant for this place.
My chained feet take baby steps, but, looking back, they seem giant. I’m a giant escaped and climbed down from my beanstalk and walking on time. My giant steps traverse multicolor reality then red-darkness then grey-white. Twelve grey-white years covered in one step. Time isn’t concrete. My boots sink into time and at every step muddle the surface sending measured ripples through time, changing time-past.
Past time is you. You are perfected every time I meet you, time-past. You are sacred in past time, but don’t have a no-touch sign hanging over you. I stroke your neck and softly kiss your forehead and put a smile always on your face and we listen together to stream-weavings and windings.
Sun-warmth. Tingling static cling sun-warmth.
I look into the sun and let it burn into my vision. Searing pain. I close my eyes, smile contently, and look to the borders of the sunspots still blazing in my memories. We are outside its borders. Now wrapped up in a blanket, now at a baseball game, now making love, now making love. As the sunspots recede, these memories continue to replay, fuller and fuller, with vivid colors appearing to form a searing chorus all-enchambering, becoming: greens, blues, reds, pink-blushed skin, and, lastly, bright, all-consuming, sunlight.
The red-sweatered lady-juror looks at me with hate-filled eyes. Monster-me. Monster-raging-nolongerfittolivewithus-me. Others steal furtive glances at me behind my table. Why so much hate? Numb-perceiving, I float on empty details.
The judge imperiously slams his gavel to silent crowd yells. What they say is said loudly, passion-yells. The gavel thuds and emits dull wood thumps and everyone listens by the third or fourth thump. I sit quiet, numb-perceiving and observing. My lawyer touches my arm. Dull arm thump.
The shower creates small lukewarm shock waves across my body; small prickles on my neck and shoulders and now chest, legs, knees and ankles. I see dirt brown water begin to flow towards the drain. I cup some, bite my tongue, and watch as the murky water turns red-brown. I taste metallic warmth. And this molten iron-me drips from my mouth into my cupped hands where it merges with water and diffuses and flows towards the drain. The guards see my blood and restrain me cheek-down on the shower floor. I taste the earth-metal-water-me and laugh. Earth-me with me until the end of me. No now-sadness. A couple of hours and I’ll be on my way-away.
My last meal is pancakes and eggs and bacon and cheese all together mixed on my plate. I send salt over this canvas in short, charitable gestures.
Images of you by the creek gazing into my eyes flicker, near-enchambering, torturing, rising.
No-memories surface. No-memories. Whose memories? No-memories. Time-never. Our sounds and him. THEY WERE OUR SOUNDS and he was there. I saw him but he was a form. Intangible then and now. His face is shadow. He cringes in a corner. Death lies head-caved in the corner. A shadow in the corner gets smaller in the corner of my eyes. Just you. Just you and your crying and apologizing and you’ve got that barely open mouth-horror and no-blood skin. I become nightmare. I am time-never and becoming no-memory. You are red. Time-never, no-memory, red, red, void.
A sound faint-sounding…. A sound faint-sounding now-tainted… Now-tainted noise reaches my blood-speckled ears. The floor-wood echoes my steps, the hallway stretches infinitesimally, my foot-echoes turn to rolling thunder.
My truck’s old-trusty engine roar is a deep bass melody beneath the rattle of the bed and squeaking of the springs. Joe turns and looks at me with docile lips and eyes. He asks,
“Do you love her?”
Memory-tears flood, deluging, quaking with my heartbeats, quaking and pushing tectonically from congealed time. Isabelle. Isabelle!
“Do you miss her?”
Slow-staggering Isabelle comes my way with halted small-steps and balancing large-steps wearing white-strapped shoes. She smiles almost-toothfully, brightening her face framed by wispy new-grown hair. She calls out my name.
Isabelle calls out her father’s name, her face rises and her blue eyes catch hold of his, mine.
I sit alone covered in mercurial body warmth; alone, I hear all the world roaring in my ears.
E. Ames Thorpe is a Virginia native living close by in DC. Nautilus was inspired by his former work on death penalty abolition.
Photo ©M. Gatti, used by permission. Visit the artist’s DeviantArt gallery to see more of his work.