“Breath” by Doug Ramspeck

She remembered, from childhood, a crow lifting unexpectedly from tall grass. She was walking with her father. For a moment there were only frantic, black wings.

Her dream was like that. Something fluttering around her, making a great commotion of air. Sparking the primitive part of the brain. Visceral, raw.

And she awoke. Whatever it was—bird? dream?—it skittered off at once. A few faint whispers of morning clung to the beige curtains. The dresser held itself in abeyance beyond the bed. Cars whooshed past on County Route 17—they made a sound like longing.

Todd was beside her, the great lump of his body. His breaths regular, distant. His work clothes were draped across the end table, a dark belt trailing its elongated body to the floor. She hadn’t heard him coming in. Couldn’t recall the exact time his shift had ended. He was almost snoring.

And here was the part she couldn’t shake. A date. A day. It has risen up in the dream, floating into her mind as though from thick and brackish water. She didn’t know why, how. All she knew was June 9.

June 9.

Four days before she and Todd were scheduled to be married.

So things change. She watched him after that the way you watch a paralyzed moon trapped in the branches of a hickory at the yard’s edge. You know it won’t last, know it can’t stay forever, but still you imagine the limbs holding tight.

Once—what seemed so long ago now—she had told her sister she loved him because of how solid he seemed. It was a strange word, she knew. Solid. But now he seemed a ghost when they went out to dinner at Burger King. He sat across from her in the booth and it was like waking up in a dark room.

His voice, when they spoke about his work or about her sister, was a kind of sign. How else could she imagine it? It wavered the way blood pulses then retreats inside the body.

“You seem quiet,” he said one night. They were lying on the couch. The television was a small blue sea.

“I’m tired,” she said. “Is everything okay?”

She couldn’t respond, of course. How could she?

She never told anyone. Was she supposed to admit believing that clouds cast their shadows on the earth and made their claim, that a hoot owl calling from the woods after midnight was a black omen?

When they made love, she could smell something faintly on his body. Not the under-the-arm stink of normalcy—but something more. Leaf meal rotting in dense woods. The skin of decay on the surface of a pond. Something mummified behind a sink.

One evening they sat on the front porch. He’d lined up his beer bottles on the railing, making a straight line. Birds were calling from the field. Who could say what they were meaning? The first mosquito of summer whispered beside her. By August, she knew, dust would rise from the road. You might imagine the world existing the way a swirl lifted into air then floated over a bar ditch.

June 9, she thought. June 9.

But did she believe it? Belief, she decided, was like a breath you drew down into your lungs, held for a moment, then released to exist again outside you.

The days slipped in and out of one another.

There were wedding plans. Bridal shower. Bachelor party. The sky was gray or black at night, cold blue by day, even as the temperatures rose. She poured herself a cup of coffee and carried it out into the yard. The grass existed beneath her feet.

It rained that night. The sky alive with it. She woke to dripping eaves.

Then it arrived. The 8th. When Todd spoke in the kitchen, she imagined his Adam’s apple trapped in his throat, something living, a small creature wanting out. She watched it quivering as he went on about a movie he liked.

She couldn’t sleep that night. How could she? Or, rather, she dropped in and out of sleep, the broom of it carrying her, sweeping her. And then, come morning, her eyes drifted open. It was like a small wave lapping against a sandy or rocky beach.

June 9.

She sat up suddenly. Her heart thrashing in the grass of her body. She leaned to him, then, the way a syllable might trip of its own volition on a tongue.

He lay there, unmoving, a tree or rock. She leaned close and touched an ear to his chest.



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Doug Ramspeck

About Doug Ramspeck

Doug Ramspeck is the author of six poetry collections and one collection of short stories. His most recent book, Black Flowers (2018), is published by LSU Press. Individual poems and stories have appeared in journals that include The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review, Slate, and The Georgia Review. His short story collection, The Owl That Carries Us Away (2018), is published by BkMk Press (University of Missouri-Kansas City). He teaches at The Ohio State University at Lima.