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You hold me so tightly as you sleep, as though I might melt with midnight into cold air on the pillow, a crease in the sheets that smells like the hair of someone you used to love. Your arms around my waist, your hips cupped to mine, your mouth pressed to the slope of my shoulder, all night you whisper into my skin whatever dreams ride you like a breathless ghost, weld you so hungrily to me that at times I wonder, if you could bind our bones together, would you? I stir, tired or thoughtless, and you flinch awake; if I lie very still, sometimes you fall asleep before I do.

The moonlight strips through the blinds; the blue glass bottle from our first date, the night I drank sparkling water and you kept tugging at your sleeves, shines on the dresser like there are souls stoppered inside. You didn't want to talk about the accident. You didn't want to talk about the father. Only much later, upstairs in my apartment with my three ancient goldfish and the pen-and-ink portraits that never hurt me enough to take down, with the cheap wine I cook with and the ceiling fixture in the bedroom that blew out years ago, did you let me see your fire-scarred hands, the weals clawed across your stretchmarked belly, the ridges of a broken rib under the skin. The tiny punctures littered up and down your arms, whitened as old pox. You unfastened your skirt, peeled back your sweater as though each new scar revealed were a wound all over again, and I could not kiss them all better. A car crash, you whispered, like an apology. I went through the windshield. The steering wheel knocked him unconscious. He was still inside when it started to burn. I couldn't save him. That first night, I could not sleep with your hands woven into my hair; but when I eased slowly away under the bedraggled blankets, that we had hauled back up off the floor when even you were spent and almost peaceful, you scrambled upright as dumbly as if I had struck you, cornered between the wall and the autumn-cold window, and I could not coax you back to bed.

I brought snapdragons to the coffeehouse where you had sold me black spiced tea; I showed my only party trick to your daughter, coins and candies palmed from behind her ear, clumsy-fingered, no magic to even a careless eye, but she smiled: and for a moment that ached inside my throat, so did you. In your basement studio, you drew blackout curtains against the afternoon and lit a branch of white candles in the sink, and under their rags of light I watched your face change from all the angles I could find. I could not make it change enough. The fire started at night. They said afterward it was the ventilation. As though I were an accusing ghost in your arms, I tried to keep hold of him, but the stairs gave way, and when my fingers grazed the pale chain-link above your collarbone, where splintered glass or metal had torn like teeth, you pushed me away. He never even saw his daughter. I picked her up from kindergarten, the day you couldn't get out of bed, blank-eyed as an effigy in a mouse's nest of quilts. Her yarrow-gold hair must be his, the sparrow slightness of all small children that she might outgrow: in the last of October's sunlight, her shadow could have slung her up on its shoulders and carried her home in my stead. Her whole class had made construction paper masks. She left hers in my car.

She sleeps in the other room, in another slant of the moon; I will never learn how her father died. She made his heart into stone. His eyes into knotholes in a tree. He didn't recognize me. He didn't even see me. He was made out of fire and I held on to him, I held on to him, but I had to let him go. I couldn't—I should have— So drunk you huddled on the floor like a dropped marionette, all snarled wires and smashed paint, the peatsmoke stink of whiskey like firedamp and you were crying, terribly, noiselessly, like you had never started and would never stop. Your shirt unbuttoned and discarded on a chair, your jeans bundled under the table, stripped in a fury and two candy-striped socks away from nakedness, and as I knelt in the shadows and bare-bulb kitchen glare I thought for a second that all your scars were looking at me. It hurt so much. It hurt. . . . In the bed that was not yet ours, I lay awake until dawn, for once holding you. The names you mumbled in your nightmares, ribboned and archaic as guisers' masks, meant nothing to me.

I won't let you go. Whether you say it aloud or only cling to me in the dark, when you cannot see what shapes I have taken, how I might scald out from underneath you, it's what you are always promising: to hold me even if I burn to scars and take your heart with me. This time, to hang on in spite of blown tires, faulty wiring, the powers of hell; I don't ask anymore. I love you. In the late winter night, we neither of us sleep, neither of us admit we are awake. You would shrug into my skin for safekeeping. I will take your daughter trick-or-treating this year. Lover, hold me less tightly. If I wanted to leave, I would not wait seven years.

Sonya Taaffe's short fiction and poetry can be found in the collections Ghost Signs (Aqueduct Press), A Mayse-Bikhl (Papaveria Press), Postcards from the Province of Hyphens (Prime Books), and Singing Innocence and Experience (Prime Books), and in various anthologies including The Humanity of Monsters, Genius Loci: Tales of the Spirit of Place, and Dreams from the Witch House: Female Voices of Lovecraftian Horror. She holds master's degrees in Classics from Brandeis and Yale and once named a Kuiper belt object. She lives in Somerville with her husband and two cats.
Current Issue
18 May 2020

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