Shortlisted entry in the Fiction section of the Honi Soit Writing Competition 2022.
In the distortion of a bathtub I am in stasis.
A snapshot of stillness. While the excess – the threads and mantras, slides in a projector – melts into distorted input. A film of bubbles over the edges of the porcelain. Fuzzing at the seams and humming in the walls. This is when it begins to hurt, into cycles. A finger – superstitious, akin to God – presses play and breaks the tape. The projector spins infinite. A thousand slide negatives melting into pools of light. Sharp, ringing in the retina. I lie back, ears under the aquamarine.
Finger taps twenty-four times. Thumb to index, thumb to middle, back to index, to ring, to index, to pinky, index, ring, middle, index. There is nowhere to go from the index. The pattern is impossible. The arbitration of dread subsides only at twenty-four, to compensate. I usually can’t reach ten without starting over. The thing about all this is its unspeakability. Something to do with a definitional irrationality, an impossibility, outside the comfortable logic of language. Compulsions are a tacit, cruel substitute for control. There is a dearth of it, during the day, see. I think of it like praying, to a jaded God. A punisher. I don’t believe in him, but it doesn’t matter. I still dread.
Upon the pew, the oak digs against the curve of bare back,
Silence implores me to adopt its arch.
Smell the ancient fresco,
breathe in its provenance
Which curls, like the pew, the faith,
Off the wall in cobalt flakes.
Above, the glass moves slowly,
no light to raise the holy arms,
A colour lays there still,
Each curious reflection an eye in the sun
Reminding me not to divert my own.
Watch the light, it stares, it pierces, itYou would have felt it too, the brutal stillness.
Bound to the pew, watering gaze transfixed
by the tessellating circle of Saint Corentin’s glass,
praying virgins lie against each other,
Twenty-four, perfectly fallen into the faintly radiating eye
Glaring at my fingers,
clutching and interlaced,
And at the folds of a white dress.
And then, neither quickly nor gradually,
Oaken boughs and the great limestone dissolve.
The pew is become a bedframe.
Saint Correntin’s eye blinks.
Keep yours shut.
Smell the fresco, the plaster wall
Feel the light, still throbbing in the red threads
That weave through the white around the iris,
Eyelids heavy, clenched,
Feel the light relent,
From white cotton folds.
It’s an aching torment in the push-and-pull with symmetry. The need for a constant and excruciating extreme of equilibrium in two directions gnaws at the cotton in my head. Both sides of my body must feel balanced.
And above all, it must all be clean. Every thought neutralised, clear, untouched, untainted, pure.
I repent for what you did.
My mother has a book of poetry
A small collection
That i asked to borrow and which, since,
quietly beckons dust between company
On my shelf.
She told me to be very careful with it,
Strange, i thought, because her clothes
Are clumsily stained
With instant black coffee sludge
Storm water smelling of metal on the tongue
And ash from her B&H smooth 24’s
(a shorthand i learned
when i was too small
to see over the counters where she asked for them).
This one is unbecoming,
Hard back but not leatherbound,
Vintage but only by coincidence,
Grey and unassuming in it’s cold cambria.
A whitman anthology – you know,
I contain multitudes.
But I know why she’s obligated
To be protective – well, only when she’s reminded –
Because there are a few words on the inside cover
Far more precious
Than the mass-printed mute black ink
______for all the lives
______we have lived
She loved him for 10 years,
She gave him her being,
I learned this between long car trips south
And a desperate adolescence,
When she tried to teach me
What she could about love (not much).
In return he gave her this book,
And a trite epigraph,
With no “for” before beth
Or “from” before mike to frame
Their names in any bare relation,
Just an empty reception of the later lives
She would never live with him.
He offered a minute surrender
To forced intimacy,
Teetering just over the threshold,
His hand in writing reaching to caress
Through ground graphite and gritted acceptance,
From where the rest of his beautiful flesh lay
In the sanctified realm of the unrequited,
What she taught me
Was to be wary of love,
Its forced brevity,
Its tendency to carve you open
To leave you
In its eclipse.
That is why the prospect of an intimacy bound to end, or otherwise dangerous, somehow fated to severing from beyond the sharpness of my own compulsive hands, affixes me like limpet to a sinking wreck. Dissolving into liquid that ends in puddles on the tiled floor. An archive of breath sweating on glass, lukewarm bathwater, stains on my skin and the shallow walls. From hours upon hours of scrubbing at the hands, chest, stomach, thighs, and, especially, neck.
I live my days in rituals.
Sometimes he plays God.
Only, we don’t call it playing,
-He doesn’t say he’s playing
He scrawls, pages of precarious phrases;
My name a thousand times suspended in stasis
Like a mantra, a prayer, or a curse
Honeyed with ink, or, blotted with ash
Crushed between cigarette and clouded crystal of the glass cut tray
Desires of contradiction
Hunger, starvation, adoration, disdain,
Weave a broader dimension of reason
A vision, a vision, a vision
Sometimes, he plays God.
And writes me into various prisms, throwing up
Reflections of gossamer night dresses, and of exquisite visions,
Into various positions, of hysteria, no- of love, he says;
But I suspect they’re not –
I suspect he is in love with Godliness
……………Of occultation and deification and suspension in the limbo
……………………Of bacchic gems that lacerate the delicate pomegranate pith
……………Of breaking the jawbone and rib
Not that he’s violent by nature
But excused to release
Those primaeval impulses
I must become fragile, of gauze and cellophane,
Maddened if not by nature then by resistance
An existence of silver drifting in the mildew
Glinting on my distorted tongue
And cataracts of misled hunger,
Melting over my internal retina.
Is that not what makes the muse?
Desire and fear,
Sometimes he plays worship.
His words are as velveteen as
Shadows of glazed glass in the early evening light –
…………………………………Syrupy and yellow as cordial,
……………………………………………Through water – virulently sweet
……………………………………………To be drunk with residue on
Those which utter orisons that melt,
Into other sounds, other forms,
But always I play God
In pretend or when morning is brewing,
steeping in pots and reflections on the pavement
And the sky is bloated and alive with suggestion,
When day and night have burnt into one like ash and ember,
at the end of an incense stick, when curtains that should be closed are left flailing,
And elsewhere fabric woven to cover is unfurled,
and I write, bathe, go about my rituals,
without risk nor ridicule,
I play God.
In the blank white space of tiles, quietly sparse, the spinning slows. I watch the droplets dissolve, pearls on the lens. Playing with light. The liquid dissolves as earthen granules in a mug in my hands, coffee around the edges, a bath of its own. Warmth bleeds into hands, all my own, another ritual. But it softens over time. Becoming vague, discomfort lapses into the smell of sunned linen and naked wooden floors. My own domain. The shutter clicks. And the water drains.
The water always drains.