Audio: Read by the author.
To say it was like air would be boring,
and it was. There was nothing new about it
except that it was new. It accumulated
in our homes like souvenir shot glasses
or promotional magnets—nothing we noticed
until we couldn’t close our cabinets, couldn’t find
a clean surface to put our anxiety down on.
It pooled in our urine and our sewers. It ballooned
beneath the skin of rats.
——————————New holes gaped
in the ozone layer. Above schools, churches,
movie theaters, new mouths widened and widened
until they disappeared. But unless they expanded
faster than all our other hole-shaped failures—
the holes in the redwoods, the holes in the ice,
the holes in the elephants’ flanks—who cared?
If our pupils were dilated it was because
it was always dark; if our hearts were beating faster
it was because we were always running.
Our blood sugar was so high that our wounds
had stopped healing. We were either a tapestry
of Band-Aids or very careful.
————————————The fear was structural
as muscle. Like apples grown inside plastic molds
to resemble hearts or stars, babies were cut out
of us wearing fantastic shapes—grenades,
mandrakes, a stretch of cactuses. They were born
stork-bitten in every soft place, scarlet and hurt-
looking. We kept them in their rooms, blinds down,
in the half light, all their lives. They grew to the size
of their cribs, no more.
——————————And in that light that wasn’t
really light, with our children who weren’t really
children, we saw that fear was the organ and the tissue
and the cell, the membrane and the organelle. We saw
no separation between the body and the bullet,
no line between the lung and the water that fills it.
The white letters of dread were invisible against
their surface of snow. There were no words
for what could scare us now.
Claire Wahmanholm is the author of Redmouth (Tinderbox), Wilder, and the forthcoming Meltwater (both from Milkweed). A 2020–21 McKnight Fellow, she lives and teaches in the Twin Cities.