I pray you went first. That you were so deep in the ocean
of sleep the shredding of your throat was just to let you breathe
underwater. A gilling, nothing more than evolution,
mother to mist, earth to ether. That you never woke
to your husband, his face and hands constellated with the blood
of your son, that you didn’t get a chance to ask him why.
At your funeral, I watch your mother clasp the hands of strangers
for hours before they envelop mine in a dry, cool husk.
I think of your poem about waking face-down in the gut
of a pillow, an unknown man’s grip on your scalp, his breath
so sour on your neck you tasted it for months. I wonder if she knew
how your words shut us up then split us open, finally let us poison
the page with the rot of our own stories.
When the line of mourners dissipates, your mother turns her back
to us, her hands splayed like deep-sea starfish on the casket. I realize
then you were both inside, perhaps your son’s palm unfurled on your chest
where, after a nightmare, you once held it to prove you were still alive.
Where, after your surgery, you peeled back the bandages every morning
so he could watch you heal.
Islands of us shiver in the room’s aquatic air, bodies caught
in customary currents. Words for what there are no words
for soar then sink. We drift. We anchor. We want it both ways:
to heal-quick and out-scar. To blot it out and sear it ceaseless.
To thrust ourselves into last-chance life boats, to gill our lungs
and settle in the slumber.
Kami Westhoff’s work has appeared in various journals including Carve, Meridian, Third Coast, Passages North, The Pinch, West Branch, and Waxwing.