i will wade out
till my thighs are steeped in burning flowers
She's sleeping when he loses his mind and walks into the pond.
It's stupid. It's beyond stupid. It's dangerous and every shred of sense he retains should be screaming at him to cut it the fuck out, get back to her. But they're alone. He's certain of that. Except for the birds saying good morning and the ones saying good night, except for the last of the sleepy crickets, and the remote call of an owl, it's only them. So he can, so he does; he leaves her where she's curled in the grass and goes to the pond’s edge and then he simply doesn't stop: he walks into water up to his ankles and then his shins and then deeper, and the reeds part around him, and he trails his fingers in the water.
When the sun grazes the heads of the reeds, it sets them on fire. He watches this happen and he smiles.
They didn't outrun that fire, the first one, the greatest. They carried the flames with them.
I will take the sun in my mouth
and leap into the ripe air
Dawn. Barely. There is a point at which dawn resembles not so much itself, he thinks, as twilight in reverse; not a time self-contained but instead a mirror copy of another. The color. The quality of the light, the amount of it. Bringing the trees into existence by providing a background against which they can stand, the black tracery of branch and leaf. Leaves opaque, no sufficient number of photons to pierce their thin skin.
He's never liked this time, and he's never disliked it. If he was made to articulate his feelings, he would probably say only that unsettles him in a value-neutral kind of way. Standing under the trees, looking out across the glassy water of the pond and the floating field of lillypads at one end, he feels everything in himself quicken and flex, as if his cells have been woken too suddenly and are still caught in the liminal space between dream and real.
He's spent all night in this space. Walking with her. Running with her. The line between the two blurred and vanished. As they left the fire behind, he understood that the fire wasn't all they were leaving; that was obvious, and he's aware enough of the way life patterns into a coherent narrative to identify the themes at work here. The symbolism, the metaphor. He just about failed every English class he ever took, but what he knows, he's learned in far more difficult classrooms from far harsher teachers.
Stories teach themselves.
Something broke when he fell apart in front of her, and it wasn't just him. A transition, from one thing to another. Only they haven't quite reached the other. This is still the space between.
He ran with her. He dimly remembers her laughing. They should have been quiet, but just as he detected the symbolism and understood what part of the story they were occupying, he knew that nothing would touch them. They aren't quite here in the traditional sense.
If a walker came at them, it's entirely possible that it would stumble right through them.
An hour ago, they stopped, gasping, and he remembered the times before when it was bad and they ran and had to stop and gasp for air, and as he bent over his knees he marveled at the difference lying in the core of the similarities.
She collapsed onto her back and stared up at the sky, her hair fallen all around her head, pale as milk against the dark carpet of the grass. Her eyes were shining.
She was crying again.
He crouched and laid down the bow, and he couldn't think of a goddamn word to say.
Daryl, she whispered, and when she reached out and covered the back of his hand with her cool little fingers, he simply watched her in silence, fascinated by it. The touch, and that it was happening.
She was more real than he was. She was bringing him into it with her.
with closed eyes
to dash against darkness
in the sleeping curves of my body
Shall enter fingers of smooth mastery
An hour ago she collapsed. Forty-five minutes ago she fell asleep. He doesn't need a watch to count the minutes; there's a clock in his head and it's always kept perfect time. He doesn't even need to consciously consult it; it delivers its numbers to him and he merely incorporates them into whatever else he's perceiving.
Counting, always: Breaths. Heartbeats. Footsteps. Gunshots.
You lose count, you little shit, and I'll start again.
And then the moments, speaking of liminality and blurred lines, when he has difficulty distinguishing between the five.
Perhaps they're all one thing. Five points of a relentless pentagram, joined in the center into a brutal and yet elegant singularity of sound.
She didn't speak to him again as she slipped away. She turned onto her side and curled up slowly like one of those flowers that only unfurls its petals at the touch of light and heat, and he listened to her breathing ease, the beats between the count spreading like a hand until he knew she was sleeping. He settled on the grass beside her, bow in his lap, and watched her, and he wasn't tired. Knew he should have been. The last of the stars were fading. A few yards away, the surface of the pond was catching and holding the first hints of pre-dawn.
He closed his eyes. Opened them. Closed them again. It was quiet enough for him to hear the insectoid click of the moisture between his lids. After so much sound and so much fury in an endless stretch of terrible days, sitting in these nearly silent moments with her feels like indescribable luxury. It couldn't possibly matter any less that she isn't conscious.
After the storm: Calm. He doesn't feel any more in control of things than he did—if anything he feels more out of control than ever before. But he's not fighting it anymore. He understands and accepts the pointlessness of that fight. It's not giving up, not exactly. It's more like giving in.
Eyes open once more and locked on her, the one real thing here, the thing on which he depends to bring him in from the dream, transition him into the real. Make him solid and bright—at any rate, solid, because he doubts he can match her brightness. Doubts he ever could. Even now in the near-dark, she's glowing. The organized half-disorder of her braid, the curve of her cheekbone, the slope of her shoulder and arm, the fine blond hairs that cover her skin. She seems to shimmer. The starlight falls into her and rests there.
It would be smarter to stay where he is for another few hours, keep watch, gently shake her awake and give sleep a shot himself. But instead, after forty-five minutes, he gets up and he walks into the pond.
with chasteness of sea-girls
Will i complete the mystery
of my flesh
He was never baptized. Will Dixon would never allow it—something that stupid, letting his boys take a dunking in scummy river water as if it could ever cleanse anything, as if there was anything there to be cleansed.
That was what he said.
Regardless, his son was always a curious kid, even to a fault, and once on his own he attended one merely to see what it was like. The local Baptist congregation held mass baptisms, orgies of splashing and faith, and on a muggy Sunday morning at six years old he snuck out and made his way to the riverside, drawn by chanted prayers and wailing hymns. Perhaps on some level fearful of being thrown into a white smock and tossed in, he hung back and crouched behind the green curtain of a willow to watch the communion of saints.
They weren't thrown in like he thought they might be. On their own they sloshed out to the minister—tall and fat, a wild-haired mountain of a man—who waited there for them in water up to his waist, and when they reached him he slid an arm under their backs, placed a palm on their heads, and laid them down in the river with almost shocking gentleness. Yet there was a force in the movement that transcended his muscles, as if he was trying to press his palm through their skulls to rest against their frontal lobes. They went down and rose up again, gasping like fish—like runners—and the crowd on the bank thrust their voices into the treetops in a warbling chorus of praise.
No one looked any cleaner to him. Just a fuck of a lot wetter. As for any kind of spirit, he always took the notion that it was bullshit on pure faith.
Had no reason to question.
If there was a Spirit, Holy or otherwise, it never wanted anything to do with him. What practical distinction is there, ultimately, between absence and nonexistence?
Now he wades in, the water wrapping its cool arms around his knees. He disturbs the pristine mirror of the surface, sending ripples breaking across it and water striders gliding away in alarm, and though he doesn't regret it, he does regard it as something of a shame. The shadows in the reflection are even blacker and sharper than the silhouettes against the sky, and the backsides of the ripples are lined in pitch, his own uneven shape a lumbering plume of smoke. Still edged with translucency. Bemused, he observes his own progress, and the pressure of the water rises toward his thighs, tugging at his pants as he moves.
The mud under his boots is soft. Not quite sucking. He spends a few seconds wondering about the likelihood of losing one or both of his boots, then decides not to worry about it.
He should. But he won't. He has, after all, lost his fucking mind.
He left it behind, he thinks. In the fire. She took it from him and placed the lighter under it, hurled it into the flames, and he abandoned it there and doesn't miss it. When he broke under her he surrendered it to her; he considers the possibility that if he turned now and looked back at her, he would see the residue of it on her hands, tucked in against her chest, stained with his sanity like blood.
The transition is nearing its end. The world is emerging from its halfway state, the light more particle than wave. As his fingers lay themselves against the water, pressing just enough to avoid piercing through the surface tension, the fiery reeds brush his knuckles. In the periphery of his vision they leap and dance. The flames are surrounding him.
He drops his head back between his shoulders and breathes.
The world is realizing itself second by second, but he isn't. He lags behind, a mind that can't fully awaken itself. He isn't looking at her but in that half-conscious mind he senses her approaching from behind him, striding across the grass with barely a rustle. The breeze picks up and the water stirs; a few feet away a fish twitches itself for a fraction of a second into the air. She's just as quick, though she never runs.
He's still, no longer walking, standing in water nearly up to his hips. She reaches him and wades in after him, disturbing the water no more than the grass, and he stiffens when she lays her hands against his shoulders. His bare arms, her fingertips skimming down to his elbows. Then, because he knows what comes next, he loosens and begins to tremble as she curls a stunningly powerful arm around his lower back and leans, pushes, tips him down, palm against his forehead, forcing him under.
It's as easy as anything ever has been. It's as easy as falling. He's heard that infants can swim if you throw them in; perhaps recognizing that they're returning to something, they know to hold their breaths. So he's filling his lungs as she lays him down, and when he sinks beneath the surface, he's not panicking at all. Eyes open, staring up at the sky through the curtain of the water. Not all the light makes it through that membrane, but enough does, and it's the tougher part, the part that had the strength to pierce it and which now pierces him.
The light, the sky, and her standing over him, her hand still resting over his brow, then shifting and joined by her other, her fingers combing into his hair. The reeds rise around her, burning and burning.
He can't see her face, but he doesn't need to. She can see him.
She can see everything.
He doesn't claw his way back into the air. He isn't gasping, fish-like or otherwise. He blinks and he's merely there again, upright, immersed to his hips with his hands open at his sides. Half wet and half dry, and the sun is climbing past the treeline, striking him square in the eyes. He winces and closes them.
She's behind him, exactly where she was.
This time he confirms. He turns and gazes at her, pale little mound in the grass, and he can't look away.
I will rise
After a thousand years
As he makes his way back to the bank, he catches two of the water lillies in his hands and breaks them from their stems. He does this almost as an afterthought, and he returns to her carrying them, knowing that she won't see them now but trusting that later she will.
With exquisite care he lays them inside the crescent moon her body makes. Then he lays himself down a foot away from her, half wet and half dry, hooks an arm beneath his head and watches her until he can no longer keep his eyes open. The sun is creeping across her skin, soaking color back into her. She's as delicate as the lillies he placed next to her but he doesn't believe he could ever break her from her stem.
He shouldn't. But he's lost his mind, and therefore his interest in behaving rationally, and he reaches out and touches her like she touched him: casually, unafraid, as if in that moment there was never any other option. He lays the pad of a single finger against her slightly parted lips and feels them yield. Counts the puffs of her breath, and each one is a bullet crashing into his breastbone, punching through and resetting the rhythm of his heart.
Minute flash of her teeth. He imagines them tearing into white petals.
He slowly withdraws his hand.
Fire may or may not fully destroy a thing. A lost mind may or may not be something you can regain. In any case it doesn't matter. He was wrong about so many things and it cost him almost more than he could pay, but now he has everything he needs.
No God of any kind is here, but he understands why they were singing that day by the riverside. He understands why they felt the urge and were overwhelmed by it. He also understands what his father was so afraid of.
It took him decades to get to the water, but he might finally be real.
And set my teeth in the silver of the moon