dear love i have not yet encountered, i doubt not for a moment you live still or i would have given in to the darkness that surrounds me. your face in my dreams is turned away, in shadow, and i reach to see you with my fingers yet i awake to wet sheets in the light of dawn dazzled by the words ringing in my ears from your lips, wait, it will be over soon and i pretend to believe for another day. in that moment i feel the power of expectation flow through me and it lasts fully two minutes before i am shaken from the foolishness of hope by the sound of keys outside my bedroom door. i gaze through tall windows at a sky gray with what some wistful fool may at times name the breath of the gods but to me promise a day of almost rain and an evening of punishment for muddy socks and soil-caked sneakers. freedom, they tell me, the american way lives outside those windows, twin reflections of a world outside and i am not trapped behind the glass. they open and air tickles my face with leaves and pollen from trees and flowers sleeping yet to be awakened in the garden below. they taunt me with their unspoken words, choosing where their roots turn, unconstrained by walls and windows faking openness. but they’re just as trapped, only stretching just beyond their grasp as days become years of growth but movement escapes notice from all but my eyes, carefully plotting them in my memory, primed to be deleted in an impossible future of escape.
my first fall, i was seven. not when reddened leaves take flight and kiss pre-cooled ground but myself, discovering the limits of windows’ openness, found a new identity in an approximation of birds and insects. a moment of freefall, two hours of hospital, six weeks of casts on both arms. an unscheduled departure from my room. the hospital’s waiting room was a relic of the dark ages, complete with a screen showing moving pictures, some child’s drawings dancing in forgotten space recreated in the distance but i was unable to look away. it held my focus and i knew i would always remember that vision. artificial things against a glass of lies, the reason i lose endlessly. why did you climb out the window? i thought i could fly? no. i thought i could fall and run. but i didn’t think that, did i? even at seven, i wasn’t that stupid, not a silly child pretending to merge with winged creatures but seeking safety at any cost. i hadn’t expected the pain. i hadn’t expected it to hurt so little. i thought it would be worse but in my delusion i still knew i couldn’t try again the next night or i may not bounce but be buried next to that tree. they tell me time doesn’t wait but it teaches patience. and that night i tasted freedom from him. i fell. i’m sorry.
but i’m not as sorry as that. a little, if only to myself for sacrificing my body to the safety of the mind or the pain of the mind to the safety of the rest of the body. my arms healed yet minds never do. six weeks of temporary refuge pretended to be my prize for silence in the face of questions. does this hurt? it was years before i realized they asked everyone, even the grown ones, if they hurt. i imagined they could see through my face and read what is written behind tearless eyes. i thought i was saving him. i was. but i had no idea what i was saving him from.
you love me, don’t you? if you don’t help me, i will die and you will be alone, beloved one. i would like to say i didn’t believe it, that i went along in hope of an escape, that i was too smart. i knew my times tables. i could read about hobbits and wizards and broomsticks, with or without their escapist overtones and stakes of burning at the hands of fearful bishops. but until that moment when lies danced across glass reflections in that hospital, i simply lacked the artifice within. and i believed he did, too. certainly it hurt. midnights of pressure and torn self amid blood but it was normal, expected and without the treatment every night from me he would certainly die and i would be alone. mother had no choice but to leave and he would be forced to do the same and i would die here in this room watching birds through twinned windows.
she stole a piece of me and ran. but you can save me. but it must be secret. she is waiting for me to die to steal you away. i understood what alone meant. i could taste the abandonment. but i had no memory of her, of mother, not a single image in my head of what other children described, what i saw in the school playground at the end of the day as i was collected. grown ones with long hair and smiles. i smiled back and they would wave, would hug sometimes. they would talk to me but he would never do more than half a smile. for my protection. he told me they were dangerous, that mothers were a tribe, they could lure me away, steal me from him and give me back to my mother, that if i even spoke such words i would be taken away and locked up, kept from other children and he would die.
the days were regular. mornings of fruit and cereal and running for the bus, laughter and screams and noise that i longed to imitate but couldn’t find within myself for reasons i had not yet uncovered. days of pointless discussions of ones and twos and threes and why mammal babies drink milk and what happens to salt when the water dries and leaves it behind. the secret crystals reflected nights that i wondered how the other children survived and still screamed and jumped and yelled in excitement at the end of the day. i was the broken one. i hated saving him. i couldn’t forgive myself. i didn’t stop, of course. he was worth saving but i knew the others were better at it, didn’t hate their fathers for what they had to do to keep them alive. i hated myself. i begrudged him my body yet he had given me so much and this was all he needed in return.
the next fall was the day before my fourteenth birthday. it wasn’t before, this time. it was after. nearly four in the morning as i sat on my bed listening to music wondering. i was still a child. i was starting to wonder what was wrong with him that could be saved by my actions but i had no real knowledge, no way to figure it out. of course i’ll tell you when you’re ready but i don’t want to hurt you. it’s not a secret, not like the treatment, but knowledge is dangerous and i’ll keep you safe from it. but knowledge is what everyone desires. i read books. i asked questions. miss, what kills you that you need treatment every night to keep you alive? many things. why do you want to know? is someone you love dying? no. what a strange child. but i found answers. i found enough answers to convince me i knew the truth. i read far too many things i didn’t understand for a moment but they hinted at the power of genetics, the importance of family donors to save you from the horrors hiding in the blood, the daily therapies they never described, at least not to children. never to children. to save us from the reality of knowing instead of the reality of doing. my blood for his blood so he wouldn’t die. he thanked me every night. i don’t know when that began. before i knew what the words meant, though, without doubt.
i loved him but i couldn’t stay. i read a story that morning about a kidnapped child tying one end of a blanket to the bed and climbing down from an upstairs window. it sounded like an awful idea but i had a blanket and an upstairs window of my own. i don’t know why i tried. i made it nearly half way to the ground before i heard ripping and reached out to catch the bottom of the window ledge. i missed. but a fourteen-year-old is less padded, less bouncy than a seven-year-old. i tried not to scream but a broken ankle will do that and a repetition of my left arm from seven years before, wrapped in plaster. it was her who found me screaming my head off in the garden, propped up against the bottom of the tree. living next door. shit, what were you thinking? why didn’t you just use the door? but it was locked. locked? oh, right. i forgot your night terrors. but i don’t have night terrors. not the kind in dreams, at least. i’m a liar. i make up stories. he made sure they knew that about me. i pretended i had been hurt when i was little, that it happened every night. i asked her if i was supposed to hurt so much. but he knew. i was six and all little ones make up stories. the shocked laughter was perfect. i imagine she regrets it now.
i can’t tell you when i realized the truth. it was always there to see and i had hidden my face from it. at six, at seven i believed him. i searched for a cure without knowing his disease, knowing i was keeping him alive every night and berating myself for wishing there was another way, owing him more than my body but being asked only for that. but time passed. time, the teacher. i couldn’t say a word. everyone knew i was a liar, that i had made up traumatic stories so i could get away from him and go back to my mother. lies. like that my mother wasn’t an addict, that she hadn’t really run away, that she was the reason the tree in the garden grew so well, not from her pruning and weeding but from the nutrients within her beneath its roots, trapped by him as much as i had ever been and more. i can’t even tell you when he realized i knew. not for a long time. but where once i gave in, now i was resigned but fought back each night. the pain wasn’t worse. it was just different. as i grew, it was easier. as i learned, it was harder. same him, different night.
the last fall, though, dear future love, was his. not in years past but three hours ago. i’m not sure if there will be a dawn or if the combination of his evil and mine will turn the world into permanent night. i am beginning to see a break in the clouds but it may be wishful thinking. i know you won’t come soon enough to save me but perhaps if i survive this you will search for me. the knife wasn’t sharp. cutting bread has always been a chore but it hid within my sleeve. the heat of late summer gave way to his fall as metal parted throat from throat and surprise drove him through the openness onto a ground awaiting another gift from above. that soil that had witnessed three arms and beyond shattered at its embrace now added a spine to its tally without more than a gasp.
i was downstairs and there was a noise and i came up and saw someone running. they pushed me and i fell and there was all this blood and– don’t look. you don’t need to look. come home with me. but i look and the smiles i had pretended for years were no longer there on my face. i will miss him. he loved me. one last lie, just what’s expected from me, the child who makes up stories.