LAND OF MILK AND HONEY
The last day of my life, I tried walking into someone else’s. I tried but couldn’t gain access a couple hours after having sex with my husband, when my thighs gripped his hips as he slowed his rhythm. After clearing his throat, he told me to spread my knees wider across the mattress. Only earlier in the week I pulled a hamstring that resisted healing and preferred staying shredded, likely because it realized my life had nearly ended.
Since dying and surviving the experience, I have stopped waiting for life to become a man whose cock is always hardened. Since discovering the afterlife harbors no more hell than heaven, I have stopped envisioning an eternity spent beside someone on a bed with no box spring beneath it, a bed cloaked by gauzy curtains. Yet I can still see traces of its edges as a fly buzzes through a hole in a nearby window’s screen. The time there is always late morning, and I haven’t had my coffee. Even in paradise, I was always waiting for someone to fill my cup with something missing.
Yesterday morning, I drank my first cup with milk inside my kitchen as I waved goodbye to my husband. I bought my second at a shop I used to frequent until its manager left my life entirely, when he decided to take another position. I walked inside the shop one last time regardless, hoping for if hardly expecting salvation.
The last time I saw him, several months before this, he mentioned he was born with a broken collarbone. In response, I suggested his bones were like sea star arms to comfort him. All good things grow back in the end, I said without believing it. Before his first birthday, his clavicle had fused itself into oneness. As an adult, he looked a ripe, whole specimen.
I can no longer clearly see his face in what has become a receding memory of my life before this. I only know that months ago, as I stood in front of him with my coffee cooling, I pretended to trip over a fallen napkin by way of demonstrating the further bones that could be broken were he to trip across some swath of cotton. Life lived too far away from a bed without a box spring risked more injury, I was trying to warn him.
Seeing him a couple times a week for a couple years on end almost made the gauzy curtains seem an option. Looking at him alone, I often felt as if I was staining the bed sheets with honey already. I often caught myself swatting the fly that wasn’t buzzing around me. Life is nothing, however, if not leaving those you love yet hardly know on a fairly constant basis. That was true before I died and remains true after. There is no heaven where anyone wraps his legs around yours forever. Leaving the coffee shop after confronting his continued absence, skies began to darken into as black a blue as the bottom of the ocean.
I walked across the street and inside a florist’s, where daffodils nodded from their stems, nodding as if in agreement with something I hadn’t said but they heard regardless. For a couple minutes, I lazed among a world perennially verdant rather than return to my apartment, where I had left a manuscript that I was being paid to edit. Work, though, makes less difference as life’s end approaches, while plants feel necessary.
I bent over at my waist to smell hardly any scent from several purple succulents. The florist had arranged them inside a suitcase whose leather skin reticulated into a web of veins and arteries. She had made a vase of a suitcase dating from the 1960s, because the beauty of things so old they might be dying always enhances the lesser beauty of the living. As I stayed there bending and staring, I remembered how in this life I was so soon leaving there was once a suitcase that contained an organ, the smell of whose leather casing once suffused our kitchen.
For years, its aroma lingered near our oven after my dad carried it up a hill every Easter morning. When opened, the suitcase revealed an inflorescence of organ keys that always reminded me of teeth blotched with coffee stains. With my dad’s fingers pressing them, the teeth sounded church hymns referencing a reality beyond the senses.
Perhaps the ghost of his old suitcase inside the florist’s was my dead dad coming to express his sympathy for my own death approaching. Only I never went with him to Easter sunrise service when he asked me. I always thought there would be more time until there wasn’t. With each passing spring, I saw the suitcase folded near the oven, yet I never saw him play what lay inside it.
The organ was too heavy for me to ever lift, much less carry, even inside our kitchen. When I asked him how he managed it, he only smiled, saying he did some huffin’ and puffin’. I hated, though, to think of him as a steam engine. Even now, I want to say this explains why I never climbed the hill with him—to avoid witnessing what must have been some pain in his exertion—but I know it doesn’t.
Given his heft, given all the extra weight he carried in his abdomen, I’m still half convinced my dad sprouted wings at these moments when I was never with him. I’ve pictured the same of everyone I have loved, however, when some source of hurt approaches from which I can hardly shield them. I have done this in place of offering any real assistance. From the florist, I bought a small bouquet of pale and pink carnations.
As I walked back to my apartment, rain began falling in fat, hard droplets. Brown birds perched on browner branches, not seeming to care or notice my crumbling carnations. Back inside my unit as I untied my shoelaces, I confronted a portrait I painted years ago of my husband. It’s one of a series depicting him winged and naked, which once seemed to me the obvious course of human evolution. I have since revised this theory after dying and remaining the same person.
I was less in love with my husband while painting it than in search of a good subject. I was attempting to depict a timeless beloved, while he remains timely and complicated. In each of the portraits, he flies over a sepia ocean with a full erection. Perhaps a kinder person then, I may have painted him with wings as compensation for some part of me knowing he would someday also realize there is no hell or heaven. In this way, I may have been trying to help him survive his own life’s end. His chiseled, handsome face I made yet more chiseled and more handsome.
For weeks, birds have gathered half a block from my apartment. They flutter wings smaller than those I rendered in the portrait of my husband. They crowd inside a bathtub then shake their feathers free of any dampness before flying higher to rest amid plastic branches. For months, I’ve assumed this is a pet shop about to open, but no sign ever announces its opening to the public. No other animals ever make an appearance. The birds are apparently not for purchase.
The woman whose manuscript I’m being paid to edit writes about color theory with remarkable acumen, something she herself has often told me. I edit her findings for grammar and spelling, though I quickly lose interest. Each time I reread what she has written, she states again at the beginning that all color is the mind’s invention. In her eyes as well as those of science, color has no objective existence.
The human retina house three cones, she mentions early in her thesis. Once light strikes them, neurotransmitters convince the brain to interpret the sensation as hues along the visible spectrum. Without any cones in the eye generating this illusion, the world would likely have no florists. A colorless world would have little reason for flower arrangements. No suitcases disemboweled of their organs would hold any purple succulents whose odor they diminish.
Of color blindness much has already been written, for which reason this manuscript explores its opposite, reporting on women born with four rather than three cones inside their retinas, women who as a result see millions more colors than the average. Science to date reveals less about their wider color spectrum and more about language’s inability to accommodate a vaster array of perception. These 12 percent of the world’s women have no way of knowing how much more colorful their world is than that belonging to the rest. They are also invariably mothers or daughters of colorblind men, many of whom live out their lives believing they see the world the same as everyone around them.
As I trimmed some of my client’s sentences while formatting her references, I realized love and color were no different. You could love someone who had vanished, yet no one would know how vividly the love still shown behind your eyelids. Someone could tell you all color is a phantasm, but that doesn’t make scarlet flowers turn pallid. You can look all you like at a suitcase holding an organ, but this doesn’t mean you hear its music.
My pregnant sister called to say she’d gone to the gynecologist to hear her baby’s heartbeat. Only the gynecologist told her she heard nothing, which meant my sister was having her second miscarriage while caring for two young children. The boy whom she and I had both sensed the baby becoming would soon filter from her uterus the same as any ordinary menstruation. She said she felt too sad for a long discussion, but she wanted to let me know so I didn’t buy any clothes or toys for the baby.
Her version of heaven had been growing inside her then suddenly stopped breathing. For the past month, her heaven had made her vomit each morning and gain some weight in her belly. In six months’ time, hers may have existed outside her body, wearing little hats and jackets, which neurotransmitters would have overlaid with color defying reality. I told her how sorry I was while wondering if tomorrow she too might feel dead while living, knowing nothing better was coming.
My husband called to ask what we were eating this evening. He called knowing I cook only pasta or scrambled eggs if I bother cooking anything other than layering meat and cheese for sandwiches. I suggested we meet at an Italian restaurant down the street from our building, and we agreed to 6:45, which would allow us both to work a little longer. I decided I would wait a day or so before telling him about my sister. Sensing my own life ending by then, I didn’t bother trying to picture a fetus dissolving out my sister’s body winged and naked.
Walking to the restaurant while the sun dropped behind the skyscrapers as its color deepened from tangerine to red and bloody, I stooped to pull some strands of grass growing between the sidewalk cracks. I bent over, probably looking as four-legged as a family living in rural Turkey who were featured in a documentary I watched the previous evening. The family crouched the same as I was doing in place of walking upright. Neither the parents nor their children were capable of standing for more than a few moments without losing their balance. To the camera, the father expressed his fears of them being compared to monkeys.
As I watched the documentary, a bee had flown in through a hole in our window’s screen. My husband started swatting, but I insisted that staying frozen as corpses was our best option. He ran into the next room as I sat there motionless and shallowly breathing. While the Turkish family stood clinging onto chain-linked fences, the bee rested on my nose a moment. It traveled down to my lips as if tempting me to eat it. Its fuzzy body and fluttering wings made me ticklish. I closed my eyes, trying to convince myself I was only dreaming. When I couldn’t do this, I remembered that even when I opened my eyelids, the bee had no real color to its sting or body. Of everything that happened that last day of life still lived with a belief in a better one to come after, this felt most important, letting a bee trace the outline of my lips. Coming close to real pain rather than feeling the ache of something missing.
While we ate our platefuls of spaghetti and our waiter refilled our water glasses, I asked my husband if he remembered the bee last evening. He looked toward the restaurant’s windows and nodded. When I told him it had kissed my lips, he only shook his head, saying he didn’t believe me.
Half a block from our apartment, my husband pointed at the birds inside what I was still unsure was a pet shop or wasn’t. Some lights were on, and a woman wearing a sweater with a cowl neck was sweeping the floor of fallen feathers. My husband tapped on the glass, when she waved us in. After we opened the door, the birds’ silence on the other side of the glass changed to screaming.
Most looked to be blue and yellow finches. Many were masturbating, using hard notches of plastic branches as phalluses that never went flaccid. Several had plucked some of their feathers from between their legs. They were all females, the woman practically shouted to be heard above their shrieking. She said they had grown aggressive because they wanted to be mating, something that her limited space prohibited because she had no room for their offspring.
She had rescued them all from an adoption agency and was planning to open this space as a form of community therapy, she explained while putting her broom away. She was also adopting several bunnies and wanted to provide pastries and coffee. People living in apartments without any pets, she added, could come and play with birds and bunnies gentler than humans.
Yet the finches’ needs seemed to me more basic than bridging the divide across species. As I looked at the birds pleasuring themselves with plastic, I wondered how she made her money to fund this project. After we left, my husband said he found her attractive. I too had noticed her beauty as well as a certain calm she radiated amid the finches’ screaming. Were my husband inclined to play with birds or bunnies, he might find his own land here of milk and honey.
Inside our apartment, our bathroom ceiling was leaking. We would have to wait and call our handyman in the morning, I said, when my husband grew silent before mentioning that in the past few days I’d been smelling badly. I knew he said this now because the water falling from the ceiling angered him. For some time, though, I had been decaying. I had been dying for so long by then that I’d become inured to my own odor more than likely.
As the leak in the ceiling strengthened over the next hour, my husband began turning more against me. I had been the one to want to rent this cheap apartment, he shouted. I should be earning more money instead of staying home editing on a freelance basis. Our whole life would be drier now if only I lived a more normal existence. In response, I screamed instead of saying anything. I screamed while wondering if when he came close to me he smelled a suitcase organ, which was always a little musty. Perhaps inside me there also lay some latent music.
After he came to bed with his hair wet and matted from the shower he takes each evening, he asked what I’m really doing while he goes to his office and I stay home and edit. I’m wrestling with color theory, I didn’t bother explaining. Only because I am not the daughter of a man with color blindness, I can see no more colors than the average.
In the darkness of our bedroom, all the world’s colors then dissolved into grayness. Shapes alone arrest the retinas after dusk descends. I closed my eyes and imagined a broken collarbone fusing itself into wholeness. The vision resembled the act of mating though was quickly finished, never to be repeated.
Unable to fall asleep, I left our bed and walked inside our kitchen. I poured milk into a saucepan, turned on a burner and watched its blue flames surging. Never before have I drunk warm milk to put myself to bed, but this once I opened a jar of honey and began stirring an amber string into liquid begun bubbling. I yawned, my feet cold from the floorboards. After draining the cup to its bottom, I lay myself against a warm, familiar body. I lay awake for most of the evening while watching spring snowflakes begin to twitch before landing on the sidewalk and melting.
Melissa Wiley is the author of Antlers in Space and Other Common Phenomena (Split Lip Press, 2017). Her creative nonfiction has also appeared in places like The Rumpus, DIAGRAM, Phoebe, Entropy, Waxwing, The Offing, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Juked, Noble / Gas Qtrly, and PANK. She lives in Chicago.