“The Light Like A Stain”

It’s not that she’d expected them to form a cohesive whole for the rest of time, but she’d anticipated they’d distract each other from the darkness within a little while longer. What were you before you were human? he’d asked her one dawn after a party. Stone, she’d said, You? Birdcall. That had been their origin. They’d kept going on the subway platform in the searing cold. She’d been a forced apology, bone, a dutiful wife, mute. He’d been an army of men, hazmat suits, eyes, a dock at morning. Then they were all mouths heaving small screens of fog, like a Song dynasty painting, until the train came, and they disappeared like a mountain. Two years later, they were two barbed, serrated shapes moving alongside in the cool church of the quotidian with its cutting rituals, oftentimes catching each other like a claw to yarn, dents rarely aligning to fit. Yesterday, May, the sky had been a slab, and the absence of wisteria had singed her raw. Her problem was that she still had her wintertime heart on, he’d told her following the wren incident, which she just couldn’t get over. What had happened was that the bird had died, having flown into the window by all appearances (she found it on the patio), and then she’d uncovered the nest with the three helpless feathered orbs. She’d heard it as a message about social justice, about predetermination, about the odds, who beats them, who doesn’t. But something beautiful could never come from such a failed thing, he’d answered coolly during a post-dinner cab ride. He was making a point about evolution, but what she heard was that he was merciless. So the long words had been unleashed, had rushed back and forth like race dogs. Her arguments fell like yarn, tangled and entangling, where one thing led to another without ever truly ending or starting, and he always had to snap his way out of it with a cutting remark, leaving her heaving and heavy with want, an endless pit of need he couldn’t even begin to fill. She spent her time waiting, as though fallen to the bottom of a very deep well, an empty one, screaming words upwards, hoping that he, passing by, might hear and help. Any attempts at helping, however, had only ever entangled things more and opened a new room of want and requirements that he could never live up to. Do not reach down. Do not reach down. It took resolve to ignore the pleas, but he did. Fine, she’d finally said, dropping her cardigan like a shadow, since you feel like arguing, we can just let the wrens starve. She was so angry, she actually meant it, and did not feed the birds until the evening when he was out of sight. She sat uncomfortably and alone at the kitchen table afterward, and for an instant the world was nothing but lovers seeking division. He’d made her an ass, she thought, treating those innocent birds like that, and so she went back to check on them, leaden heart on and mildly nauseous. How easily one broken thing could break another, she thought. How we are a menace when loaded with sorrow. For weeks afterwards, she watched the silk of nighttime run off the roofs, darkness after darkness, while he did what he did, and past eleven, she’d mechanically find her way into bed next to him, where they lay tense and apart for the eight hours, their bodies intuitively respecting, even in sleep, the squabble with which their minds had busied themselves. Morning after morning, for the same weeks, the dew blinked twice with its million pretty eyes, and even though they talked, it was silent, words like little centerless husks, empty vessels floating from him to her then her to him. Finally, the battered feelings reached their bodies, and they walked around with what felt like a flu. Those periods of post-affront mourning and healing lasted for longer and longer until finally one day it seemed the emptiness would not vanish and the numbness would not subside and the logical thing was, their friends told them, for them to move on. They had no ties, had signed no papers, had engendered no offspring. Why stay? If they did, they’d be their very own battle of Epipolae, the same army fighting against itself in the night, missing the real enemy. His friend had even quoted Matthew Arnold in a bar—the only poet he really remembered from college, when poetry was still Poetry with a big “P,” a round of applause rising after he slurred, “And we are here as on a darkling plain, Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.” So Broken and Broken went their own way. Months passed in a puff, and she heard, through an artist friend, that he was seeing someone nice, that she’d approve, but that he was still an ass with no eyes for empathy. She wouldn’t miss him, and by the way what was she up to these days. You know, she said. The tall guy from the corner bakery sounded nice, didn’t he, striking up a conversation with her like that. He was so good to her, she answered, some mornings she woke up believing she’d been healed, the sadness a ruin in the rearview. That was wonderful because we all deserve happiness, the artist said, all Sunday joy wrapped in some insightfulness. Earlier in the week, she had spotted Broken from her car. He was alone, looked the way he always did. Did men ever change? She’d only ever known them immovable and unapologetic. But the wondering got you nowhere, just stole more years. Now weekends started on the terrace of a bakery. Brunch was something happy people did; they ate tomatoes before noon. What, he’d said after she’d asked him, taller still and facing the sun so she’d be in the shade, I don’t know, what a strange question. What were you before you were human? Sunrise, her mouth said, then someone on the street cried Go! and she heard Stone, the word curling up like a fox, its memory a tail tightening the coil, flawlessly poised for its long, cold repose.

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About E.C. Belli

E.C. Belli’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in VERSE, AGNI, Colorado Review, Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Antioch Review, and FIELD, among others. Her translation of I, Little Asylum, a short novel by Emmanuelle Guattari, was published by Semiotext(e) as part of an exhibit for the 2014 Whitney Biennial, and a selected volume of her translations of French poet Pierre Peuchmaurd, The Nothing Bird, was released by Oberlin College Press (2013).