‘This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof. I did love you once.’
– William Shakespeare, Hamlet
Content warning: violence, self-harm, mental illness
The end began as the beginning did, midwinter, and we can almost imagine that there is a little bit more elusive light in the sky every day. It’s still fucking cold though. I feel like I’m narrating a documentary as inside my head my voice echoes, “… And still this will persist for another two, three months, at least.” As we endure the long wait for the daylight to return, we surround ourselves with secrets. When we speak into the darkness without really expecting it to answer, it steals our voices, and does. In deciding to be friends we are cautious, both of us loathe to trust too quickly. With unusual foresight, we weigh our options on the cosmic scale, balancing pros and cons with the essence of each other, our qualities like pearls and moonstones passed back and forth – your eyes for my self-control, my hands for your rationality.
Five days before the end of the month, you call me early in the morning. You can’t sleep, so you ask me to read to you over the phone. With my brain on tired autopilot and my heart locked in its box in my chest, my fingers find my copy of Hamlet and slide it from the shelf.
Some hours later I come back to myself only to notice you deeply breathing, a slow soft rumbling from the phone, a river flowing over ice as it melts in little pockets of warmth. You’ve been long asleep, far away, perhaps dreaming of tragedy.
It is never any color but gray. I can feel it seeping into the cracks that widen the distance between us. We haven’t really talked since the morning I woke up to my phone stuck to my face, your breathing echoing in my head, a vague wisp of memory that slipped through my awareness and disappeared before I could catch it. I think I read you Hamlet but I can’t believe that any version of me, no matter how late the night, would be so brazen and transparent. I would almost deny it completely and dismiss it as a fever dream if not for the five hours of long-distance minutes that appear in my life several weeks later, my weakness immortalized in ink, your presence undeniable on my phone bill.
We don’t talk about it, but somehow, we can both feel it – a weight of apprehension at the bottom of our spines. There is a place we can’t go back to and I have left it with you.
Despite the fact that I seem to have misplaced my common sense and life feels like swimming through molasses, time, unbelievably, continues. The days creep past long and slow and exhausting and I am reminded that some months are just months, there’s nothing real to grasp onto except for the occasional passing idea that spring may have been abolished forever and this will never fucking end and I just missed the headline in the newspaper because I’ve forgotten to go outside. That is what this winter feels like.
In my window, I watch a tiny pointless theater as pine trees sway in the wind and snow falls wetly and clings to the grasping branches. After days of similar scenery, you suddenly reappear on my radar.
“I met a girl,” you say. Casually.
Unbidden I wonder if she reads to you as you fall asleep. If she wakes to the sound of your breathing over the phone. If it’s become the soundtrack to the transitions in her life yet.
Suddenly, I am singing unintelligible songs in my dreams, and in my waking hours I absently scrawl their mysterious lyrics on all the things that I own. I realize they are breadcrumbs leading me to an almost-salvation. Perfect harmonies clash with the tritones of my reality, and anyone paying any sort of attention would see it: a mirror shattering in my eyes whenever I raise them in mention of you, as I fall in love like I am inventing it.
She’s beautiful like the way I imagine you’d look at each other after sex: flushed and open and honest. She’s happy, and she makes you happy too.
And normally, I’d love spring. Things are growing again and the darkness begins to recede and hope is tangible in the air and it sounds like the birds chirping to each other from the birch outside my window.
This spring is different. I find salt in my pockets when I do my laundry. The sparrows sing to me while I wallow. My perennials bloom, and then one night the temperature drops and they’re strangled by frost. I realize the universe truly does not care about my internal crisis and the seasons are going to change whether you and I are talking or not, so I decide to stop writing you letters. Beneath our feet the ice is melting, and we are getting farther and farther away from each other, frozen distance turning to impassable water, a river with neither source nor direction.
There is green all around me, and I cannot remember how to see it.
In May I am a year older.
I sleep through it.
But when I dream, I can breathe again. I can see the smeared palette of pale colors in the sunrise when I drive home in the early morning, pulling over to jump out of my car onto earth that I smell in rich tones of pine and cedar, fireweed and yarrow. I walk for a bit, feeling the marsh give way beneath my feet and reform itself behind me, erasing my footsteps as I leave them. Eventually I come to a small lake and there are two swans swimming around in slow circles, and lazy ripples are breaking the surface in an illustration of serenity. The sky is in the water and I am in the sky; I am staring at myself like I’ve never seen me before, and for the first time since January I can’t see you in my reflection. This is how I know I’m dreaming. If this were real you’d be in the water, the ripples, the swans, the sky. In the moss under my nails and the dirt on my jeans and the key to your front door in my pocket.
The world dissolves around me into darkness and a deeper dream: the sound of your breathing over the phone, a soliloquy in a language I once knew how to speak.
I make it halfway through this sweet-smelling month before I accidentally indulge in a daydream of us. It is vivid, achingly real: brilliant orange sunsets and coffee on the porch and a miraculous summer baby. I am choked by the overwhelming desire for it, and I cry so hard that my nose bleeds. I take to sleeping in patches of sunshine, following them around to different rooms like a cat, desperate for dreams of you. Instead I get visions of my mother writing a journal during the year she was pregnant with me. Eventually I pull myself out of this pit of prescience and write a series of vignettes titled after months. I get all the way into June before I realize that months are just phases of the moon, seasons are resonating images, it is all different names for the exact same thing.
It is July and the green is finally beginning to seep back into my bones and I am slowly starting to come back to myself, and then I see your ghost.
I am walking on a path through the woods near my house and my black dog is running through the trees ahead of me, stopping every once in a while to look back and check I’m still following her. Suddenly, she stops running, promptly sits down, turns her head, and her eyes track the movements of something I can’t see until I cautiously round the bend she’s stopped at and my heart slams without warning into my ribs when I am confronted by the shape of you. You’re standing there, facing away from me in my fucking backyard, leaning against a birch tree, distractedly running your fingers over the peeling bark, unaffected and casual and for an insane moment I am furious at you for not telling me that you were going to be in town.
Your name dies on my lips as my heart starts beating again. I take a logical inventory of the situation and realize that the light you are bathed in is unnatural. The shades of silver and gold falling around you are more like a scene implying memory in a movie, rather than the bright dapples of sunlight painting this picture of reality, slanting through the gaps in the leaves. You are not here, and I am trapped in fiction.
You haven’t died as far as I am aware, so this apparition is absolutely a hallucination and I should definitely be more concerned, but all I can do is swallow through my shock and take a tentative step toward you, before you turn around and stare right through me, your mouth moving in words I can’t hear, your body language subtly adjusting, reacting to events I am not privy to. In slow motion you fall to your knees, your hands reach to catch something heavy and lifeless, your face turns frantic as you make desperate sweeping motions over whomever you have in your arms, before you fall even further to the forest floor, the ageless broken hero, dramatic in every shift of your muscles as you lay your imaginary burden on a patch of quiet moss. My jaw goes slack as I watch you go through the motions of CPR, even while the look on your face screams the loss you’ve already accepted, and at this point I am sure I am dreaming. I can almost forget about the presence of my dog, disproving this explanation, as she looks back and forth between the tragedy playing out in front of us and me with tears I can’t explain in my eyes.
I am unsurprised when your resuscitation attempt is unsuccessful. An obscure part of me is profoundly moved as your hands go to your face in defeat, and your shoulders cave in like shattered shields. A strange sound escapes from my throat and your head snaps up. A physical shock goes through me as you defy whatever rules we’ve found ourselves playing by and you meet my eyes in a second of wild disbelief. I see your face as you recognize me in wonder, before the ghostly light surrounding you flickers and your shades of gold go out. I plunge back into cold reality.
I am alone, standing in the woods behind my house with my dog. Somebody’s tears are falling down my face – rivers cutting canyons into my flesh. A stranger sees out of my eyes. I don’t know what else to do but find my way home, get out of the woods, escape the shadows that all seem to have your desolate face. I think of the possibility that I ate something weird, or have a fever and hallucinated my dog as well. Eventually I run out of potential excuses for whatever just happened and why there is a sense of déjà vu that followed me home as each crazy notion becomes more unlikely than the last. When my head finally hits my pillow and everything fades away to a dull ringing in my ears, I immediately fall asleep. I give in to darkness, hopeful for the promise of forgetting.
When I wake, there is a worrying you-shaped hole in my memory and a small conspiracy of ravens in the birch tree outside my window.
I am heartbreak personified. The fireweed blooms like bruises up my spine, and the summer violently dies. I use my bitterness to build myself a very tall tower, complete with a dragon and a moat.
I go to school, but not really. I am more focused on how the birds all seem to stop singing whenever I go outside to feed them.
My dreams are bloody, soaked in death.
We are often on a quest with a number of our friends, a never-ending montage of us in tones of dark brown and black, trekking for miles and miles through a mountain pass, running out of food, finding that the water in the creeks we come across had been poisoned by the earth’s neglect long ago. Sometimes we see a house and go in, our naivety getting the better of us in our desperation for food, but it always turns dangerous: traps laid out by unseen enemies, ancient elements conspiring against us. We lose a few of our number to evil machinations – sprays of blood all over the windowless rooms. Then those of us who escape move on, but it all just happens again and again until it’s just you and me on a horse with a broken leg limping through a marshy wasteland that goes on forever. You are drawing great rattling breaths that I can hear like the ocean crashing against the walls of my skull. The sound is the worst thing I have ever heard. You are dying from a wound on your chest and my fingers fumble and fail me when I can’t figure out how to stop the bleeding, and finally one night you die in my arms. The light behind your eyelids just flickers off, and we are bathed in a moonlight that mocks me in its beauty. I can feel a deep rumbling as my entire being breaks apart. Your blood is bright red on my hands and my foundations crumble to dust. In the morning I bury you, shoot the horse in the head, do what I’ve done countless times before, and move on.
Shell-shocked, I wander through the empty fields of whatever is left of me, before I come across a final house. I am certain it is a death trap and my acceptance is palpable – how fitting that I’d die like those I failed to protect – so I climb the rotting stairs and stride across the porch and turn the doorknob and confidently raise my eyes to meet whatever fate has chosen for me, only to be transported to some other point in time. It appears I have walked in on you and your family eating dinner and they glance up in casual greeting, thoroughly unsurprised to see me standing in your doorway, unrecognizable in my despair. You gesture to the seat beside you, that half-smile you have playing around your lips and I exhale as I can feel it, a sharp hurt in my ribs as I give up. My body relaxes in exhaustion and relief as I curl in on myself, sinking to my knees in your doorframe. I allow myself to believe in this impossible reality as you gather me up in your arms and press kisses to my temple and smooth back whatever I’m lucky to have of my hair, matted with ash and blood. Slowly you soothe me, rocking me into a state of submission.
Eventually I pull myself together and head to the bathroom to wipe the blood off my face and pry the dirt from underneath my fingernails, but when I look in the mirror I see that I am reflected twice; there’s a different, younger, healthier version of me standing behind me. Her skin is glowing in shades of cream and roses. I stare at this stranger in the mirror. When she grins shyly at me my brain breaks and reconciles her with a sudden aching emptiness in my abdomen, and I realize two things at once: that I’m finally, hilariously pregnant, and that my daughter won’t make it out of my fucked-up womb. I know I’m insane, I’ve come all the way undone, I’m totally unhinged, I’ve really, truly, lost it and as soon as this reality melts into my current one I blink and the house is gone, the girl in the mirror is gone, you and your family and your doorstep and your kitchen table are all gone, and I am standing alone on a familiar mountainside looking down at matching hand-dug graves – one for you and one for me – and then I notice the long, thin knife in my hand. A wild laugh is startled out of my throat, an appreciation of the irony lost irrevocably to the wind, before abruptly I drive the blade up through my chin and into my brain, severing my spinal cord as if I knew how to kill myself efficiently, as if I’d done it a thousand times before.
“I think I’m gonna marry her,” you say. Casually.
Shoving toothpicks under my fingernails, through my teeth I tell you I’m happy for you.
By the end of the year my world has faded back into the colors it should be, soft tones of blue in the ice fog that hangs in the air. You are home for the holidays, and we are wearing layers of sweaters we bought at the same thrift store, the metaphor obvious to us both.
Eventually we find ourselves avoiding our friends at a party in a little cabin surrounded by woods. Quietly we sneak out to the porch, wrapped up in jackets. The trees are on fire as the last few minutes of daylight expire, and for an entire endless moment the darkness has gone and there is only us. Just you and me on a porch surrounded by woods. The sun a fucking miracle as it lights the landscape around us, turns us pale and paper-thin and transparent, and my sense of déjà vu gets stronger as we look around at the world and at each other, and I am gifted with sudden conviction that there is a lifetime in which we did this, every day, every winter, watched the daylight, held each other together.
Armed with this vial of truth like your phantom key in my pocket, I stand beside you more grounded than before. As the last light of the north bows before us, crashing in waves flowing timelessly around us, I take a breath that freezes in my lungs, and I begin to let you go.
The next time I see you it has been five years, and there are new lines on your face from the winters.
You’re standing on my doorstep and I don’t believe it. I roll my eyes and think to myself I finally did it, I finally got too high, before you extend your hands in surrender and I look down to see my battered copy of Hamlet. In explanation, you mumble something about taking it from my shelf one night because you needed it for class, but I am not listening because my head is once again full of a sound I thought I’d finally forgotten: your steady breathing in the soft darkness of my room as the years fade to gray. The unrelenting months that never really mattered in the end because now I am back to an early morning in January – I am Ophelia and I am drowning, you are in my door frame holding a piece of my soul in your hands like a peace offering, an olive branch, a promise that the green will come back in the summer, and I see the rest of my life in the light in your eyes when I pull you into my kitchen and kick the door shut behind you. Your hands rest naturally in the graying hair on my old dog’s neck when she trots up to greet you as if no time at all has passed, and when we share a heavy look I understand a lot of things all at once and in the morning the ravens in my birch tree have all gone, leaving the branches pale and naked, bright and new in the sunlight.