Kami Westhoff


I watched you leave twice in two months, wrung from the lung into tendrils of sigh. That sounds more beautiful than it was, of course, but I refuse to talk about the shreds of drenched inhale, the black tar hacked from unnamed parts of the body. It was the season of inverse, of both wanting something and its opposite with the same ferocity: the lungs to languish on the exhale, and the inhale forced by the heart’s stubborn throb.

You stayed as long as you wanted, didn’t ask about our preferences or limits. Didn’t offer to help with the lesser tasks that husked us. The body has so many ways of telling you it’s had enough: the blistered and bleeding tongue, half-mast lids over unhinged eyes, fish-belly feet cricked toward the sky. Dying isn’t easy work.

I know more about you now than I did then. I know humanity generates 140 trillion of you a day. I know each inhale consists of 16 % oxygen, 4 % carbon dioxide, and 79 % nitrogen. I know that along with these chemical compounds, the exhale can release 40,000 droplets at up to 200 mph. I know that you kill. That viruses clutch onto you, eager for the slick canal of nostril, the warm, dark tunnel of trachea, the wet and waiting sacs of air. I know that when you kill, you don’t fuck around. You demand attention, but don’t want an audience. You want it slow.  Each inhale, fiberglass. Each exhale, fire.

I know that in one day, 380,000 of you are first breaths, triggered not by a slap on the backside, but most simply the shock of entering the chilled world from the balmy amniotic of the womb. The act of air flushing fluid from the lungs is the hardest work you will ever do.

I know that 150,000 of you a day are lasts. That within minutes of the final exhalation the body begins self-digestion. The brain functions for up to ten minutes, creating the possibility for the deceased to hear and consider their own last breath, their exact moment of death, maybe even the frantic last words of loved ones.

Sometimes you tricked us. Paused yourself until we slammed into each other on our scramble toward the hospital bed. Buried yourself so deep we couldn’t see you lift and lower the bleached sheet. Sometimes you pitied us: synced your rhythm with ours so we could close our eyes for ten goddamned minutes and dream you as something that couldn’t be taken: a scar, a white smudge on dark matter, an explosion of sunlight on the back of an eyelid.

We wanted specifics. How much longer would you hush us when we lowered our heads toward you, coursed the waxy skin of the lung meridian, infused the air with lavender? Days? Hours? Minutes? Did we have time to step outside and watch the winter sunset burst into bruise the thin skin of sky? Scald ourselves sick with an overdue shower? Call again the person who promised they’d be there? Replace the gown with a favorite shirt, something someone wouldn’t mind dying in? Of course, we got nothing we wanted. It wasn’t your job to make this easier. You owed nothing to anything but the lungs, and you’d stay as long as they would have you.

I know you’ve been treated unfairly. Used for so many things you weren’t meant for. You’ve been caught. Taken. Bated. Held. Forced. Gasped. Shallowed. Labored. Rattled. Lost. All I can do is promise I’ll do better. If I catch or take you, I’ll release you before the latch sticks. I’ll only hold you in times I’d be better off gilled.  I won’t force you, and if I tuck you into a gasp, it’s only because I’m in awe of your efficiency, how you flow unnoticed from body to body, how, even when you are more liquid than air you continue to labor. How with your rattle you let us know when to gather, when to say things we’d always meant to say, when to plead for forgiveness, when to forgive. How you’ve always known how much we could stand so when we beg you to come back, our voices shredded from our scream-scalloped throats, you become our next inhale.

Kami Westhoff is the author of the story collection The Criteria (Unsolicited Press, 2022), and chapbooks Cloudbound (DancingGirl Press, 2022), Sleepwalker (Minerva Rising, 2017), and Your Body a Bullet (Unsolicited Press, 2018), co-written with Elizabeth Vignali. Her work has appeared in various journals including Carve, Fugue, Hippocampus, Passages North, Redivider, Waxwing, and West Branch. She teaches creative writing at Western Washington University in Bellingham, WA.