When We Dead Awaken

Kathryn Nuernberger


When you look at a long wave of kelp stretched out
as it if were a mess of some drowned girl's hair, you won't
be thinking of the functionality of the ovoid bladders
like tiny buoys holding the flat wide blades toward
the sun for maximally efficient photosynthesis.
You'll be thinking of that time you almost reached
to hold the hand of a man as he told you that story
where two teenagers don't fuck on the beach, but do
find the corpse of a pregnant girl washed up on the sand.

The wind on the bluffs of we didn't made everything
feel really clear, but down below on the gray beach
sand fleas would swarm you as you walked among dumps
of seaweed and shore-battered crab husks. I know
because I walked the lip of it alone at the end of this.

If you feel like you're in love, you have to either remember
or forget that a feeling can only last a little while.
What you should do with your little while, I can't say.
The history of should is the history of honorable men
discovering Caribbean beaches with white sand and water
as blue as a mermaid's eyes, where they dragged human beings
down the gangplank in chains to finance the invention
of coffee shops and decorative buttons on ladies' shoes.

The coast I have in mind was so ashen and the pines were
brown with the fire-drought of the end of our present world.
I should have taken his hand. I've already been a pregnant girl
washed up on shore twice. The bull kelp are so big I thought
I was looking at a dead squid the first time I saw one. I asked
the shoulder of him I wanted to lean my head against if he
thought that was even possible. He said anything is possible.

You don't understand how long it was I had been dead
by that night of the day Maya took me to her lake at the edge
of the peninsula daggering this gray sea. It is a lake so old
a glacier carved it right down to the bottom of the basalt earth.
When you jump in—and you have to jump in—the cold
stops your heart for a second and then it comes back
in a seizure of beating that makes your vision blur.
That is also a feeling that can only last so long.

A boyfriend threw his dead girlfriend in Maya's lake once
and the mineral waters iced over that night. When spring came
nine months later, the fishermen found her floating in the water
as perfect beautiful as when she went in. They call her Lady
of the Lake and she haunts the place as a ghost or a witch
or a very old god who still remembers how to want and how
to grasp what she wants with the ice of her hungry fist.

It was night. I couldn't get the stars to hold still. I couldn't
catch my breath. I was 1000 miles outside of my life. How long
since I felt anything? And now there was nothing
I could not feel. I could see beyond the sails and red lights
of the coast guard buoys, the flashing tentacles of a hundred
squid rising up to taste the silver of that strange moon
before the surf hurled them in lumps at our feet.

I have a dead daughter I carry like a smell of salt spray
in my mind and I have an alive daughter who is home running
with her kite straight into the wind. I have but also
do not have the rest of you. I don't see how we can be
longer than a story to each other. It's not me. It's the waves.
My arms are so tired, I just need to float for a while.

There were no squid. It was a wrack of seaweed bulbs,
their squish stems wrapping in each other, strange creatures,
soft as leaf, firm as fish, forming of themselves a forest
against the physics of diffusion and drift. If I had that night
back, I'd do it wilder this time. Not like the silent mist
of a ghost maiden, but like a red-eyed revenant who has
figured out at last how to reach across the veil of breakers
and grab the girl of some dying woman by the heart
and make her beat until she's gasping once more.