I only smoke cigarettes when it rains. The storm winds hit my patio at a peculiar angle, spiraling smoke through the mesh screen. This is beautiful to me. Sometimes, I just let the cigarette burn in the ashtray.
As it ghosts through the patio enclosure, I see lightning touch the ground for the third time in my life. The neon-purple aftershock pulls me back into the fetal self. The body isn’t mine. Time feels stale, bright, frozen in a heliotropic eternity. The silence of the womb revisited reminds me that love is primordial. And in this, I feel I have never known true darkness. Even before midwife fingers pried me out of utero, there were the crimson-mauve lights from the universe dancing on the backs of my eyelids.
There is clarity in the schism. A lightning strike connects storm cloud to the volleyball court in my backyard, the atmosphere to the lithosphere, mind to body. In this brief and infinite pocket, electrons unzip the tangible, the human is no longer jacketed; I am freed for an instantaneous forever. What is the taste of timelessness? Will it leave a copper stink? This is where I’ve hidden my memory. In the mouths of storms.
But time and sound will catch up. Replace the pause – or is this the collapse? – with recombinations of that moment and the ones to follow. Time crackles and sound shakes. Birth out of an electric womb. Tendrils of light leave black burn-trails in the vitrifying sand, swollen purple fingers reach toward me through the screen. From underneath, fulgurite tubes sing the chords of some profound energy, a protocrystalline choir. These fingers pull me inward to every moment in the ether, unbound and spun about the other in a twisting kaleidoscope. As if through the electric currents threaded about the lightning’s arm, I am tethered to the inside of a dream life, free to roam. Lucid; unfettered.
Take a step toward the center.
Zee says: ‘Well, I like punk music from the early 2000’s. And when grocery store clerks know the difference between enharmonics and inharmonics. When people accidentally say the word nigger too loud, then check to see if I heard. Knife fights and sad anecdotes about dying politicians. Glimpses of strangers with horrible facial disfigurations holding their child’s hand. And heroin. Heroin is my first real love. There are all kinds of heroin people don’t even think about. Of course you can shoot it into your veins and all that, but I’m talking about the reality TV binge junkies and true crime documentaries and interracial pornos and pepperoni pizza by the slice and subreddit data mainlines and new Christian Louboutin spiked heels and BDSM and Tesla coils and so on. Stop me if I’m rambling.’
‘Then, of course, when people walk into rooms with some premeditated sound byte, cocked and loaded for whatever conversation they’ve been contriving in the abstract for the last twenty-four hours, and then jumping in to interrupt them by derailing the conversation with some obscure non-sequitur. My god. The looks on their faces. You think those people have ever made love with their bodies? A deep guttural fuck from within? I like to think what that kind of disruption can do to a person.’
I say: ‘I’ve never tried heroin.’
‘The drug kind. In the veins and all that.’
‘What are you about, then?’
‘I was raised on slow conversations and cliches and overstated proverbs. A bird in the hand. Stick to your guns. Follow your heart. Let ‘em down easy. Good boys walk straight on white lines. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Real men keep quiet. Kill your darlings. Be part of the solution. When it rains it pours. There’s God and there’s me and there’s everything in between.’
‘I get it.’
‘Sorry. I mean, my father used to take me to school late on purpose, said it would help me with the girls. Looking back I’m not sure. I used to hold doors for people, before I was so tired. Of course, I miss home cooked meals. Sunday brunch with the family, one hour of television a night, thirty proof sunblock – is that how you say it?’
‘We had Golden Labs with Bond villain names – Mr. Big. Drax. Colonel Moon was my favorite. He had a tumor on his eye and sometimes he’d get caught running in circles to the right, stuck in an endless loop, numbed by insanity. The ranch home had dirt paths cut through the woods, which is where I worked it out about death. Mom showed me afterward in a book with cartoon animals how everything is a circle. She always said, “People love their circles.” Now that’s all she calls me about. Do you think there could be another Buddha? Mom can’t shut up about it.’
‘Who is that screaming woman? She seems to be trying for your attention.’
‘My ex-fiance. She’s been following me around the island. Works with sharks. You know the type.’
‘What was it about her, then?’
‘I couldn’t say. She was a world traveller. I was more of a mind traveller.’
‘Yours sounds cheaper.’
My father lies on his back for twenty minutes the first time he is struck by lightning; the rain clouds spark blue and purple while they shower him on the roof. He never fully loses consciousness, instead holding my mother in his mind with her wedding cake smile. She warned him about the weather. But the gutters had dams of leaves and this would flood their basement in the country home. With my mother, there is always hell to pay. He is thrown from the roof. The exit wounds wrap white scars around his leg. The air hums and speaks to him about the empty parts of space, where they keep the souls of children, what the black viscera inside our bodies has been shuffling around and mixing into dangerous chemicals, how there will be sons to hold his place until he is ready again.
The truth is written in the veins, spoken between pulses.
Is there a direction? Outward to a great-grandfather’s gut-rot liver; inward to an unborn grandson’s taste for gin?
The blood is not the vessel, not in Tornado Alley. We huddle in the basement around candles and try to hum in key with the sirens outside. My sisters tap the edges of ceramic bowls with butter knives and keep tempo with the thunder. We pretend we have quilt wings. My father lays still on the roof, catching his breath and drinking the storm.
This both happened, and is happening.
We are safe in the family room, funnel cloud overhead buttressing another apocalypse. I am on the patio still, pinned to a moment by a piece of lightning. And on the island, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon from the can with Zee, watching her finger her bowie knife with an eye on my ex-fiance.
In April I go west into the Missouri grey. The rain hasn’t stopped this year. Kelsey wears cut-off jean shorts and a YMCA Midwest Regional Youth Camp T-shirt. The abandoned campground is ours to debauch. We make love on the jungle-gym, my back sponging rain as I press her into the yellow slide.
Afterward, she drives into town to buy ground beef and whiskey while I stay back to assemble the tent. Funnel clouds have a way of sneaking up on a person. My hands are mudded brown, mopped hair in my eyes. I hammer stakes through plastic-tarp anchor points. As the cloud whispers a flash, I see lightning touch the ground for the second time in my life. I feel the hollow sound beforehand, and hear a whisper from my father. The forest holds its breath and the rain waits to fall. Emptiness, calm, reverie.
Then – her lips on my lips. Or raindrops. And when she asks how I burned a hole in the polyester canvas, I reach for the whiskey. Later, while she sleeps in the backseat of her car, I try to explain the sound of nothing – of nothingness. But there is nothing to explain, and worse, nobody to listen.
Rain carries in the morning.
She asks: ‘When did you learn to crawl?’ This is the way Kelsey’s mind works.
I say: ‘Before my parents even met.’ This is the way my mind works – or is it the other way around?
‘Why do you want to get married?’
‘I don’t think I want to get married.’
‘Then why are we engaged?’
‘To prove a point.’
She says: ‘I don’t think I want to get married either.’
I say: ‘But will we keep the engagement?’
‘Of course. There are points to prove.’
She says: ‘There were wolves last night.’
‘In the car?’
‘In the woods. Silver eyes between the trees and terrible howls.’
‘I didn’t think you were awake.’
‘I was up all night.’
‘You were listening to me, then.’
‘No, you were asleep the whole night through.’
‘I talked about slicing open the silence. Holding on to the soundless, to keep it locked up somewhere safe. What’s the word? Immutable, maybe.’
I say: ‘Are you hungry?’
She says: ‘I could eat.’
‘What about God?’
‘I’m still working on it. I can never get past the ocean.’
‘You know, sharks have something called the lateral line. On each side of their body, there’s a line of small pores – all fish have this. But sharks are hyper-sensitive, which is what makes them beautiful.
‘They sense the low pressure from weather systems in tiny hair cells from the lateral line. Those hair cells detect drops in barometric pressure and shifts in water columns. Sharks use them to hunt too, they feel vibrations from wounded fish miles away. And they can tell when big storms are coming.’
‘The bigger sharks, the great whites, they dive deep into the ocean before the storm catches them. That’s how the researchers figured it out. This lady – something Smith, I can’t remember her name – she studied them with acoustic sensors. Science at its best, if you ask me.’
In her car watching black clouds roll themselves upward across the interstate, the campground is a glimmer in the rearview. My grandfather’s farm, watch the tractor jolt while he bails hay in the back field. A moment of lightning holds me still by electric fingers on the patio, cigarette smoke still-framed, mid-siphon.
From my grandfather: Seventeen days of rain. Struck by lightning – third time this year. Playing tricks with my eyes. Flash blue, purple brain. No sleep. Visions. Angels. No doctor, no money. Mother sends her love.
Take another step toward the center.
‘Hold your right hand tight around your bicep. Underneath, where the vein meets the elbow.’
This is the way Zee made love. ‘Hold it. After I put my lips on your veins, let go.’
‘Are you going to bite down?’
‘No. The pulse. I want to taste the pulse through your skin.’
She presses her tongue to my left forearm, then eyes me. The levee breaks behind my thumb, blood surging into my sleeping hands. I grip her neck and she slides her fingers between her thighs. There is the howling of wolves, the quake of thunder. The slow burn of cigarettes.
Afterward, she says: ‘I could taste the spark from your center – the copper current. You know, there are energies in us? Flashes, like contact with something deep inside ourselves. Heartbeats into fingertips, lightning in an ancient storm.’
‘That’s what gets me off. It’s something base and pure. Like carbon or white roses. I get exhausted defending the things I love. I wish you could know the urge to taste the core, that torment I’ve hidden from the world. If I am anything but unreadable, they see that I am wild and untamed. They fear this because freedom is theirs to worship. This is exactly why I have to leave.’
‘And the trial?’
‘I don’t stand a chance. Assault with a deadly weapon. On a white woman, nonetheless. With island law, they’d ship me straight to New Mexico or Colorado and lock me in a box. Re-enslavement. There’s just so much left to do.’
‘If you make yourself a target, you’re bound to get shot.’
‘Will you come with me?’
‘You don’t know where I’m going.’
‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘It will when you hear it.’
‘Honduras. Back to the heart. There is a Mayan temple where I want to have a baby. I want her to be as close to the beginning of the world as she can.’
‘We won’t be able to come back.’
‘I don’t care. There isn’t much left for me here.’
‘And the money?’
‘We’ll sell my stash. There will be more than enough. And I have savings.’
‘I can sell my guitars. And the bike.’
‘A question first.’
‘Do you love her still?’
‘Kelsey? There are pieces of me that love her still. But they’ve been scrambled in her womb. I saw the ultrasound speck and a future I wanted. Deep inside of her, I saw her and me colliding and growing into a new us. Is that selfish? To love her because she carried a part of me? And am I wrong to loathe her for the choice she made? It was her choice to make, but she didn’t consider the fallout. There was love, but the life was ousted. Without life, there is no love.’
She says: ‘I know the choice. And I wouldn’t blame you for the anger. I slept with foreign men and never learned their names. After my first surgery, I felt that I was complicit in a mass genocide. The extermination of the mulatto. This was before things really changed in the west. A mixed child with a single black mother, this was a death sentence. I wish I could say it was the last time I sold my body.’
This both happened, and is happening.
I write to my father from a post office in the rainforest: You know how they talk about the calm before the storm? I never believed in that. I never really believed in anything. The night before I left, I was feeling the way I normally feel. And there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. I wanted to ask you, have you ever held the lightning in your hand? Or do you think you gave it to me, like your father did for you? I only ask because I think I am getting the hang of it. I dreamt I was at the quarry and I could bring the clouds in from our distant abyss. I could hold the lightning rod up and make the world glow. I was in control. But now, as I write this, I think that it wasn’t a dream at all. I think our ghosts might be down in the void. Electric, sublime. Alone.
As my father walks up the driveway to his new home, he tears open a letter that he will never finish. There are black clouds but no rain, no rumble, no howl. The second time he is struck by the offshoot – the bolt clutches a small lamppost in the front yard, snakes outward on the ground like fingers from a fist, then throws him forward twenty feet.
As he regains consciousness, he sees his sandals in the same place he had been standing before. He grips the burnt remnants of a letter from his son. Weeks later, my mother scoffs, the doctor warns them about memory loss from lightning due to damage in the frontal lobe. There are white scars on my father’s ankle where he was grabbed and thrown by the electric lasso. He asks if the lightning is looking for him, or if it’s the other way around.
The doctor’s hands on my father’s skull. The pattering of rain against a tin roof in the Guatemalan jungle. My grandfather falling from a tractor that swivels his spine around the axle. My patio and the frozen cigarette smoke.
I say: ‘Most days, I am thinking about the clouds. I’ve always felt cloudy. My head is in the clouds, as they say. I am a distant, hovering mass of empty air. I hold myself over the earth and, more often than not, dissipate to nothing. No rain, no flash. There is talk, here and there, of feeling present, of being fully in the moment. I never figured that one out.’
Kelsey says: ‘What are you always on about? There is a storm on Jupiter three times the size of Earth. These clouds, here, are nothing. Whispers. On the edge of The Great Red Spot, the wind is almost 700 kilometers per hour. Sorry, about 400 miles per hour. You think these clouds are prolific or titanic, that they hold some wisdom. What about space? What about the black ocean we’ve been drifting through, all the storms from exploding stars and supernovas, all the energy expelled from the Big Bang and collapsing from the Big Crunch, every asteroid and comet free falling aimlessly through the void, the volcanoes erupting on Io and Enceladus, billions upon billions of possible disasters – disasters only to people like you. The universe is indifferent to destiny or fate or preordination. I wish you would get your head out of the clouds for once, and think about what’s on the other side of them.’
This is the last conversation I will have with her as my fiancée. The next morning, she will find a doctor and I will disappear.
My grandfather – or is it my father now? – speaks to me from the rumbling grey: You won’t grow old until your loved ones die. Hold the coils, tie them to the earth. You are purple and black, white and yellow. I have hoped, with tears in my eyes, for a thread from heaven. To sew me into my grave. Night terrors bedevil and weigh. Pastor says pray. I pray for rain. Can’t sleep without rain. The weather is in my head.
I stand on a crossbeam to the bridge upstream when I see lightning touch the ground for the first time in my life. Its neon branches spiral across the metal as I leap out of its path. The impact with the water, 40 feet below, knocks me unconscious. My father will dive and lift me out of the black river, but not before I sink to the bottom.
When this happens, I see nothing. But as I trace the memory of my drowning through the strand of lightning that holds me to the dreamscape, the white glow of my soul takes its own shape in the water. It shakes off the casing that was my body and wriggles its tail from my mouth. The fish begin to school around the spectacle, irradiating green-white light across the riverbed. The soul sees these fish and copies them, moving upward and losing its grip on the current. Until finally, with newborn precariousness, swims downstream, out to an estuary, outward to the ocean, ad infinitum.
It only rains when I smoke cigarettes – or is it the other way around?
Zee and I drink coffee at a local shop in Morales, Guatemala, on our way north from Honduras. Rain falls in sheets, the wind cupping gallons at a time and throwing it down at angles.
Zee says: ‘Listen to this: “Alas, now as the intermediate state of dreams arises before me, renouncing the corpse-like, insensitive sleep of delusion, I must enter, free from distracting memories, the state of the abiding nature of reality. Cultivating the experience of inner radiance, through recognition, emanation, and transformation of dreams, I must not sleep like a beast, but cherish the experiential cultivation which mingles sleep with actual realisation.”’
I say: ‘Is that a new book?’
‘Ancient, actually. The Tibetan Book of the Dead. In Thailand, I could make twenty grand in a week because I was American. Businessmen, mostly, going from Japan or China to Africa, or to Europe. Believe it or not, most of them just wanted me to shoot them up and keep them company. I used to read to them from this book while they faded out.’
‘What will we do?’
‘Tikal. It’s only a day’s drive from here.’
‘And when we get there?’
I say: ‘Maybe it’s me. Maybe there is a curse. A jinx. Karma, possibly. Kelsey must have felt the poison, or sensed it somewhere along the way. I’m sorry I did this to you.’
‘I think you have it wrong about Karma. For me, it isn’t that we feel the waves of right and wrong from each other. It isn’t stealing from the rich to give to the poor. They are speaking about lifetimes, centuries, eons of the karmatic. These bodies are utilitarian, for transportation and storage. And this body – this life – is a segment of a grander experience. Karma is an idea. One that lets us taste and smell and savor the particulars – honeysuckles, tangerines, blueberry jam, pumpkin pie. Through the sensory, we are given a chance to understand. And we will die and return until there is real understanding.’
‘And what understanding is there in stillbirth? How many unborn sons and daughters is enough to open my eyes?’
‘Understanding is only part of it. Do you ever really think about the weather? Where it comes from, where it ends up? In my family, they pass the lightning down from father to son. We tell stories over campfires of great-grandparents on beaches with lightning rods. But they are just stories. Dead ends. My father told me once – and he sounded unsure – that he wanted rain every day. That he wanted to be able to walk outside and pick a piece of lightning from the clouds, like fresh fruit. And he thought this just weeks before my mother got pregnant with my older sister.’
‘And you think he went out and somehow grabbed a piece of lightning?’
‘I think it’s curious.’
‘To hold the weather in your hand?’
‘To hold the weather in my head. To hold that much energy. Isn’t that what karma is all about, really? The energies in all of us?’
‘There is the metaphor, and there is the reality. The reality of a lifeless body in my womb. At this very moment, you talk about energy while our daughter floats in the dark. She will never love. She will never feel. How could we know if she ever had a soul in the first place?’
I say: ‘I have to try. At Tikal, I want to go to the top and grab the electricity and give her this spark. Before they cut her out of you, I have to try.’
This both happened, and is happening.
The Colombian coffee warming the two of us in a rainforest dystopia. My white-green soul wading into the ocean and evaporating into the clouds. The mother and daughter resting in the same pile of ash. My hands finally released from the lightning grip on my patio.
The scars on my fingers are shaped like question marks.
I hold my fingers to my eyes, pull them out of their sockets. Reach out, touch the jelly of my dream.
Are the mother and daughter holding hands, balancing themselves like trapeze artists on the ancient walls of Tikal? Will they reach inward to touch the father’s spark?
The truth is written in the veins, spoken between pulses.
Rain carries in the morning.