An illness is spreading through my body while I slither through the past. I am in my bed, my eyes are closed. In my memory, I am a child. I come down with an ailment that the doctors say no one has ever survived. My brain is nearly silent on the MRI and the doctors know exactly what that means. Prepare yourselves, they say to my parents. I sit in the background, unprepared. No one is surprised when I make a full and swift recovery. There is no improvement on my brain scan but this is not taken to be cause for concern. A great healer my mother calls me while my father simply stands with a hand on her shoulder, nodding his approval. Yes, yes, of course you are right; he seems to agree but does not. I am instructed to continue taking my prescribed pills until their yellow bottle is empty so that I will not infect others. This is despite their insistence that what I had is not catching. That night my parents paint my room gold while I sleep so that when I wake the sun vibrates within the lustrous enclosure. The color stirs. I wonder if my parents realize that my recovery has not been so full and swift.
I cannot move from my bed. Another memory follows, the only connection being that it, too, is mine. The expanse of the ocean makes me cough from the shore during my earliest trip to the beach, oil rigs pumping into the salt and water. Beneath the crush of infinite waves sits the earth. Beneath the salt of earth, incomprehensible creatures decay until they are the ground itself. I feel those depths with my own. My lungs tell me this is what it means to be heavy and dark. I cough to make it easier. Seaweed, shells, and foam roll in with the tide around my ankles. An uninhabited shell touches my toe. I pick it up because it has a tiny, perfect spiral that I need to feel beneath my thumb. The minute piece of ocean it carries sloshes around its insides. If I were to look up at our Milky Way and see it’s massive, perfect spiral, it and the shell would be indistinguishable. The difference lies in the shell’s liquid center, I know. I do not look up. It holds the ocean but not what makes it heavy and dark. I cough when I put the shell in my pocket. The bit of water it bore drains away. My depths feel lighter.
Curling beneath my covers, I delve further into myself. It is shortly after the trip to the beach, not long after my survival of the life-threatening disease. The ailment recently forgotten and wholly embedded, I lay on the floor of my golden room with my head on a pillow. Stars shine through the window so bright I cannot sleep. The walls are illuminated. When I close my eyes I see spots that I take to be constellations. After several minutes, they fade but do not disappear. Frustrated, I open my eyes to the glare surrounding me. Enraged, I close them again. This lasts for hours. When my mother comes to wake me in the morning, her eyes widen at the sight of me on the floor in a pile of feathers. It was necessary, I explain. Her awe becomes anger so that I must justify further. The pillow held a desire to penetrate the hive that is our home. She does not understand. To demonstrate, I grasp handfuls of down and thrust them into the air, watch them descend. I hear nothing. I see crumpled eyes, wide open mouth, ruddy cheeks. Her bared teeth. My lips curl back in imitation, feathers sticking to my wet gums.
There is a time that creeps forth, before the down pillow incident but after the visit to the ocean. I sit in the front seat during a cross-country road trip to the mountains so that I will not get carsick. The fresh breeze of the AC in my hair, I cannot help but lament the lush, swaying fields through the bug-splattered windshield while a storm impends. Lightning strikes in a field as we speed past. My mother solves a crossword in the back seat. The sky blackens over green soybeans. Rain commences. How much longer, I ask without expecting an answer. The radio chirps occasional lyrics through quiet static. I turn it off. My father turns it back on, turns it up. Wind roars and threatens to topple our car but fails. Take the wheel, my father tells me, I need to check the map. I question why it cannot be the reverse. Fine, he says. Hulking raindrops splatter around us. The windshield wipers sweep wildly, streaking the bodies of dead bugs. The lines of the page on my lap twine across the state but Interstate 80 is without deviation. I dictate the route and rip a chunk of Earth from the atlas, crumpling it into a globe.
I feel myself sinking deeper into the mattress. The blinds shut and the sun fading, there is nothing to distract me. There were other people around the first time I felt this way. This realization spurs a memory. I am on the playground and some other kids have gathered round to watch what the other boy and I are doing. It is an old, old game. There are marbles between the two of us, a small pile of them within a chalked circle. I hold one in my hand — the red one. I cannot afford to lose the red one. In my cupped fist, it rolls down the life line, back up, and across the heart line. It nearly drops to the concrete but I am able to save it. I glance at it. The contrast of the red against my hand is not as stark as I anticipate. Dying leaves on the tree above us drift to the ground. I flick my shooter against two marbles in one hit. They are sent spinning out of the circle so that I can collect them, call them mine. In my new accumulation, I lose track of the red marble. It is there but I do not mind its obscurity enough to find it. The other boy defeated, I beam. Not a single peer smiles or praises or taunts. They just leave.
I am trying to remember the precise moment because it feels important. After the childhood ailment, I am having a family dinner with both of my parents and the ghost of a bereavement I cannot make myself have a memory of. My father has prepared steak, rare and bleeding all over my mashed potatoes. Throughout dinner, my mother is drinking deep red wine that stains her lips through ruby lipstick that stains her teeth. You look beautiful, my father tells her. She grins as she slices and spears herself a bite of food. Yes, you do, Mom, I agree. She reaches for the empty Merlot and her hand is trembling. The salt shaker spills on impact. She presses the table with splayed fingers to stand and sways back to her seat. Open another bottle, my mother says without looking at me. I do so without looking at her while my father says and does nothing. She pours herself another overfull glass. My father watches her, then the wine, then takes a pitiful sip of water. I pick up the cork, bite it in half, grind it in my teeth. I maintain eye contact with the eviscerated red meat in front of me and masticate.
I unearth yet another memory. It is not the first time I feel the way I feel now but it is the first time I feel a similar way. This resembles success. I stand on the edge of a cliff on a family vacation to the Grand Canyon, staring over the precipice. Tempting a breeze, I lean forward, and then back. Not quite rocking— forward, pause, back, pause, forward. The further I lean over the side, the more I can see. At the floor of the canyon’s maw winds a muddy river studded with trees along its bank. Specks of people break across its rapids. A gust of wind accepts my leaning challenge. I lose control of my limbs, of my core, and I am going to topple. My arms stretch out wide, rotating in tight, staccato circles, as though they would steady me back to safety. My mind erases with panic until my body’s trajectory changes. Please god, please God, I think. A stranger releases her hand from my jacket after pulling me back to the safety of solid ground. Her eyes dilate in fear. What are you afraid of? I ask. You would have died, she says. My heart pounds. I take a picture of the vista before leaving.
The time I go to the ocean and pocket the shell, I smell the sea before I ever see its weight or luminary absence. My nose imitates the briny scent in my mouth. The taste is faint but reminiscent of chicken soup. I walk alongside my mother who holds hands with my father and not me. Arriving on the beach, I become uncontainable. I run my little legs until they smack into the waves and the movement can no longer be called running. No voices sound caution to me from the shore. I propel myself further and further into the tide without intention. It pulls me under. My mind races, trying to comprehend. Head over feet, every way might be up. The ocean grasps my ankles, refusing to let go. I kick and kick to force liberation. I emerge, breathing salt water. The shore invites my return while I bob in place, wanting to steady myself. This achievement evades me in my desperation. Still gagging fluid from my lungs, I swim. The sun warms as I crawl from the surf. I lay in the sand. There is a hearty cough of liquid that I am powerless to dislodge from my chest. As a result, I never can become fully dry.
An image bubbles to burst when I apply pressure to my temples. I am playing at the park long before the other memories I have relived. From the swing, the wood chips on the ground look as though they would cushion my tennis shoes. I psychically mark the furthest point I think I can launch my toddler’s body to. At the backward crest I take a deep breath. On the upswing, I hurl myself from the seat and a gust lifts me into the air. The weightlessness of the moment wraps around me until the realization that I have been flung in an unanticipated arch occurs to me. At the peak of my trajectory I see pain rush to embrace my too-thin, too-exposed skin. Terror. Then predictably, collision. Blood seeps from my shaking knees when I stand. Other children watch as the red licks down my shins, stains my white socks. A wood chip has embedded itself in the scrape and refuses exorcism even during cleaning. The scab and then skin grow over it, integrate it. When I press on the wound, I can feel it rubbing in new splinters until it dissolves completely. Then, there is a scar where the wood chip resides.
I curl into myself on the bed as though my adult arms wrapped around my knees will heal me without my adult mind having to go through the rest. As a child, I have taken an interest in the geography of the heavens after biting, chewing the cork. My father, seeing the sense in this new interest, buys a telescope. At first, I train it aimlessly on the darkness of the galaxy, hoping to discover new frontiers. Then, one night, a shooting star burns through the abyss and my attention shifts to the stars not yet fallen. These orbs of flame hold no relation to each other. The distance between them, once a region ripe for exploration, now eats away at my corneas. I try to understand how people found a centaur or virgin among them. I learn all of the constellations before beginning to make up my own. I draw the starry figures, both the classic and those recently imagined, with navy permanent marker all over my golden walls. The overlapping lines once delineating particular figures begin creating unintended images. A rib transforming a snake. A hand on a book. I disremember which illustrations are deliberate.
Shifting under the covers and nighttime, I know this memory is what I need to heal myself. My childhood house is undergoing an extensive remodel. It’s wooden bones expose all of the pieces making it a home. Even one of my golden walls has been torn down in the interest of expansion. The one with Orion’s Belt and a sheep being sheared traced across it. There are wires crawling down the spaces between support beams. They serve as the only privacy from my parents when I dress in the morning. My mother makes a show of averting her eyes from my shirtless frame each day. She does not want to see as much as I cannot endure being seen. There is one damaged wire with copper fraying out of the bottom. It attracts my attention because the color is reminiscent of what used to conceal it. I am putting on a shirt and pause. My mother continues to look away. My hand reaches toward the copper fray. Danger alarms inside my veins, electrifying but not deterring. The current that the wire sends through me shocks and burns. My mother discovers me, shirtless, with my heart smoking.
I admit that an alternative to the copper wire explanation for my illness is one of the other memories. Any of the other memories. They all choke me in the same way. Except for this one. I haven’t recovered just yet from the sickness I was not meant to survive but persuade my mother to leave the bedroom window open. She exits and I soak in the fresh air. My walls are white and sterile. A Monarch butterfly drifts in. Its orange wings carry it above me and I watch its black body drift. I am motionless so that I do not startle it although the vibrancy and silence of the creature disturb me. It lands on my blanket and I do not twitch in my horror. Eventually, I am swift enough to clutch my hands around it. Its feet, tasting the salt of my skin, beat against my flesh. Within the enclosure of my fists, I can feel the induced panic of my control over the bug. My stomach tightens. I slowly and firmly press my palms together to alleviate my guilt. Opening them, the butterfly’s insides have become outsides and cover my fingers. The crumpled wings smooth perfectly. Their beauty ensures that I will never fully heal.