The descent out of unconsciousness marked a time of dreams for me. Not gentle ones. The second time I awoke I realized I was not buried. Worse yet, I was alive, and people and machines around me were prodding, poking, coercing me to be alive. I wished to tell them not to, that I did not wish to be here, but when I tried to breathe I found the instinct was gone and something was blocking me. I panicked, and fell back into dreams.
Pushing myself through with my feet, I paddled my hands in the small wet space around me. I doubted there was an end to this swampy tunnel, and I wanted to turn around but the space was too tight to manage that without getting stuck. My breath caught in my chest, as I felt my eyes popping. And then I felt ground pushing up beneath me, lifting me up, out of the water, one hand pressed against the dry wall beside me, and I was out.
‘Don’t fight it,’ said a voice to my left out of the darkness. ‘The machine is breathing for you. It’s okay.’
I was blind and I didn’t know why. My body felt like it had been flattened by a paver and then re-inflated with air and water. Something had been shoved down my throat. Something had been shoved everywhere. I tried to lift an arm only to find that it was tied down. The voice, noticing my distress, asked if I needed the phlegm removed. I nodded. Suddenly an awful suction was digging deep inside my chest; I tried to struggle in protest but my legs were so heavy they wouldn’t budge. As she finished, I felt rivulets of water down my face and when my eyes blinked, the wetness of my eyelashes made them stick together. Sounds of the nurse and machines faded, as I became aware of the cold, inside and out. I felt chilled, as though someone had placed ice packs within me and closed me up. I wished to say something.
‘Yes, dear?’ I was sitting on his knee, a small hand pressed to his large head, his face smoother back then. We sat on the couch with the seventies’ flowered print in the wood-paneled living room in the house where I was a child.
‘Why do we have this?’ I asked, pointing to his philtrum—the groove between his nose and lips.
‘Well,’ he began in his storytelling voice. ‘God makes each child perfect, bestowing infinite wisdom to them. But it would be too much if they came into the world like that. So, the moment before a baby is born, he presses his finger to their lips like this,’ and he showed me on my own mouth, his finger covering the philtrum and my tiny lips. Then he lowered his voice to a whisper, ‘And he says, ‘shhhh’.’ My father leaned back and stated matter-of-factly, ‘And it leaves a mark.’
I burrowed through the ground like a mole, pushing the dirt to the sides. Everything was black, suffocating, and there was no sign of exit. I carved a dark, airless tunnel through the earth, wondering what kind of creature I now was that was not allowed daylight. Eventually, before I ran out of air, I found a place to burrow upwards, popping out the surface of the ground. My head jutted into a busy street in a city that was other-worldly, futuristic. The sky was brown, the buildings were sharp and metallic. The cars buzzing by were sleek and fast. Loud and chaotic, there were very few people, no trees, no green of any kind. I felt worms wriggle out along my arms that were still underground, and I opened my eyes. This time I saw a dark gray shadow to my left, framed by the rest of the blackness. The shadow was doing something with a tube and my arm and it said, in a muted woman’s voice, ‘I’m just giving you an injection.’
I wanted to ask what her name was but something was still blocking my throat, forcing my mouth to stay open, as it turned to go down my throat, fit through my trachea to my lungs, pressing hard against soft tissue, pretending like it belonged. I heard the machine beside my bed breathing for me. It was loud and human-like; it moved and sounded like my own living vitality, as if I had been disemboweled and now all my insides were on the outside, just as capable of functioning without the encasement of my skin, my face, my fingers, and the pieces and shell I thought of as my self. My mind tried to grasp at a seed of something that turned slippery and I lost it. The shadow felt benevolent, so I closed my eyes again.
‘Don’t play with fire,’ Mother said when we were children. I thought we would grow out of that, like sneakers, throwing rocks, barefoot stepping on bees in clover. I thought she meant we would get hurt, burned, scarred. I did not realize she meant we might be consumed—that our very being would be threatened. That fire is ravenous and will eat its path without malice. It can even be enticing to watch something so single-minded, so self-directed. I might have understood better if she had said: ‘Stay out of the way of a fire; do not become its fodder.’ But I was being encircled and now could only go up. As I climbed the last rung of the ladder; my feet were already scorched, a premonition of subsumption. I am made of feathers, she should have told me, that puff into nothing, not even smoke. Of light that dances on the tips of the flames making them more beautiful. Of air that can be swallowed by another, leaving me gasping in a vacuum. That suffocation is a quick way to go and that self-immolation is devotion.
Tense summer heat, thick air, heavy on the skin, lips, lungs. Good for jumping in lakes, riding waves, paddling anything that splashes. Children squeal at the surprise before running in for more. In the desert, the absence of water for frolicking makes it only useless weight, like a thick blanket hung upon an overheated moment. August—summer is pressed upon, hard enough to relent, yielding to humane nights, sweater early mornings. Light slants, leaves rustle, as evening comes a little sooner, a little cooler. Stray yellow leaves on the sidewalk beside the still deep dark green grass. Shoes peek their toes out of the closet, promising to meet what comes with the breeze sweeping down the mountain, creeping in through the windows. But in daytime summer still holds fast.
The eastern sky over the ridge had turned from black to dark blue, as outside I placed my yoga mat on the cherry-stained weathered planks. As the air and my body warmed together, looming shadows proved their identity as gnarled juniper rooted into summer-baked earth. My breath deepened, slowed. My arms raised skyward, my head tilted back, I gazed past my fingertips, enjoying the feel of spaciousness between the vertebra of my neck. They stacked over one another, arching gently, without crunching, and I smiled softly as I relished the sensation. My eyes softened and the details around me merged into red on red—the light in Colorado in the early morning—as the sun paints the earth.
Moments, hours later, returning from the mountains, I braked, slowed, glanced in my rearview mirror, saw nothing, and came to a stop. To my right was the beach of Baseline Reservoir, packed with families enjoying the hot August weather. The stream of oncoming traffic from the other direction seemed infinite, so I checked my rearview mirror for the second time. A car was behind me, one that hadn’t been there before at all. It was mere feet away and had not slowed down. In the splinter of a second before impact I did not even have enough time for an emotion or thought to register. There was a thud simultaneous with the cracking of metal and shattering of glass, as my car shot forward, careening to the left. My eyes shifted to the road ahead of me, oncoming traffic swerved out of my way onto the narrow shoulder. The forward momentum ran out, my body snapped back with equal force, and my skull slammed against the headrest with the full might of the event.
Some time in the middle of the night the shadow removed the thing down my throat. As though I were vomiting plastic, it moved up and out, passed my lips and, as it vacated, each section of my windpipe, from bottom to top, felt delicate, raw, injured. I gasped, jaggedly, desperately, a breath that burned all the way down. I tried to find my tongue, to speak, but my mouth was a desert. My cheeks turned wet from eyes that still could not see, as I relished each parched breath. My hands were freed from their tethers and I tried to move them, discovering that the tethers had been moot: my arms were inert anyhow. I was walking a line, yet a line, mathematically, has no breadth. So walking a line meant having one foot on either side, cohabitating both, rather than the distinct avoidance of either. I felt the teetering; I had not yet decided where to land.
Gentle hands guided me away from the road, to a bench in the shade by the water, but it all drifted to far away as I sank deeper into a protected place where I wasn’t really a part of what was happening. When they spoke to me it sounded like they were at the end of a tunnel and I wanted them to stay there, as it seemed stressful where they were. Amid children’s voices in the background came lights and more commotion, and then I was lying on a hard piece of plastic, lifted up above it all, alone, a goddess staring at the inappropriately cheerful blue sky. The next time I opened my eyes was in the back of an ambulance.
‘Do you have a heart condition?’ the man in a polo shirt was asking me.
I found the sound of his voice to be irritating to the pressure that was growing from the center of my skull outwards, so I simply closed my eyes again and ignored him.
‘You’re having PVC’s,’ he said. And then, almost as an afterthought to himself, he added, ‘All the time.’
Some time passed, my eyes opening, closing, drifting in and out of the space of the ambulance. And then I was staring at the drop ceiling of the emergency room, a police officer beside me. I heard the officer say that the man was sorry and that the impact was fifty miles-per-hour. I signed some papers upside down, and the officer wished me well and left.
My boyfriend, Jonathan, had appeared amid the confusion and now he stood there, leaning over my perch on the backboard, peering down at me, trying to find things to say to keep me awake, worried about a concussion. I didn’t want to hear any of it. I wanted someone to move the foam block that was digging into the back of my head. I wanted to be untied and to have the opportunity to move my body around, explore the sensations of the residue of what had happened. Instead, shock slowly settled into my tissues, and I felt it inducing a tight stringiness, like premature onset of rigor mortis.
Tests, and a long while later a doctor told me that I had a vertebra at an odd angle in my neck and that he would either be calling a neurosurgeon or it was simply an anatomical anomaly I had always had. More tests, more waiting, the foam block was removed, and as the pressure and pain from that one spot was alleviated, I noticed how intensely everything around it throbbed. Finally, I was informed the relieving news that I was just anatomically unusual, and I was discharged with a warning: ‘You’re going to be in a lot of pain.’
I flitted back and forth from death. In the middle of the night there was noise from the room beside mine: hurry, thumping, clamboring, frantic words. There was tension in their muted voices. I heard the sound of metal, someone gave a command, there was a jolt and a thud—this is how they brought me back, I thought. And then a hushed silence. I felt the man die. My own butterfly wings beat weakly, with each stroke only serving to brush against life on the one side and death on the other, losing the dust that made them vital. And so the essence of me flaked and was sprinkled into ether. Reincarnation into the same body was a sordid ordeal. I wanted to tell the doctors and nurses as much, but amnesia and anesthesia were thick.
Cell memory is imprinted with scars, expressing sadness from wounds in reactions, chemicals, synapses that wire, a sophisticated or incompetent electrician. Like a puppet with a drunken puppeteer, I seem to have bad connections, jerking into awkward, unplanned movements.
Lying in a hospital bed, listening to the sound of death in the room beside me, I remembered the color of a pale green semaphor of an August leaf before it flickered to its darker side in a wind that blew the sky down onto me. Months later, before it had ever lifted, eyes still blind, peering inwards, I saw shadows down at the river and wondered how cold it was there.