I saw you last night. It was after the operation and you wore a pink nightgown. You were cutting your toenails with a pair of silver scissors. You look good, I said. So, the operation went well? You were gathering the nail cuttings into a ceramic bowl with Chinese symbols on the side. Yes, it went real good, you said. I’d never heard you get your words mixed up before or speak with an American accent. You must have been watching US movies during your stay in the ICU.
I thought about that time I was in hospital. The night my monitor was suddenly extinguished. As if someone had doused the electrical units in water. I disconnected myself and struggled out of a high bed to the nursing station to tell them. They told me they switched them off at night when the house lights were turned low, the wards suffused with green reflections. How do you know I haven’t died, I asked? How do we know? They smiled a little condescendingly, as if these matters were for them alone to decide. A nurse led me back to bed, switching on the monitor. Those ripples of light snaking across the screen told me that I was alive in the here and now and not the afterlife.
I watched my heart beat for a while. Watched myself breathing. It was a week after they’d disconnected and reconnected my heart, diverting my blood through a special machine to carry out some repair work. I had a line of black stitches down my chest and the yellow stain of iodine all over my body. The Malaysian nurse who washed me seemed inexpressibly beautiful. She wore silver ear studs, each with an agate boss at the centre. There were flames at the end of the bed, consuming a city.
In my dream, you wore a kind of turban tilted over your ear where they’d entered to take something away. I thought about it, glistening in the kidney dish as they closed the wound, excising memory, expectation, future. You’re looking good, kid, I said, picking up the
American accent, realising that were we no longer in a hospital ward where the wheels of surgical trollies left faint black marks on the floors.
Actually, we were in a wood or a forest. In a glade surrounded by the stillness of afterthoughts. There was birdsong and a fox pushed its nose through the undergrowth, then set off towards us, padding across the swabs and syringes and surgical waste that littered the forest floor. It seemed to be searching for something. Your hand was on my arm, faint as a leaf falling to the ground. An aspen leaf or sycamore seed softly spiralling down to set itself and grow.
Hand in hand, we watched the fox disappear towards midnight. You in your pink nightgown and me in striped boxer shorts and a tee shirt printed with the Rolling Stones logo. A red tongue emerging from my chest to lick at the lozenge of the world which was dissolving around us now. The tongue of a bear or maybe one of those sacred leopards the ancients kept on a silver chain. One thing is good, you said, the American accent vanished now, it never gets cold here. I leaned to touch your face but, despite what you said, it was icy and futile. We rested in that moment, its silence. I felt the creak of my ribs where they’d been joined together like the timbers of a boat. The rhythm of my heart was an oar, pulling us over a torchlit river. When I dipped my hand into the water, it blackened like a pharaoh’s hand.
Graham Mort lives in North Yorkshire, UK. He writes poetry and short fiction. He was winner of the Bridport short story prize in 2007. His short story collection, Touch (Seren, 2010) won the Edge Hill prize in 2011. His collections, Terroir (Seren, 2015) and Like Fado (Salt, 2021) were both longlisted for the Edge Hill Prize. A new poetry collection, ‘Rivers Joining’, and a new short fiction collection, ‘Emigrés’, are in preparation.