She was trying to write a poem, but to no avail. In her mind, the imagery was lively. It had a quality of its own and yet it was recognizable beyond itself. It radiated outward of its own accord. It was two things at once. It was both a thicket and a clearing. It was light and dark. It was sharply soft. It was pain and pleasure, born of joy and despair. It was vaguely defined. It was a window without the frame, the pane, the sill. And yet the frame was there, how could it not be? Without a frame, it would not be a window but the sky, which it was too. It was a blue rag of sky, washed clean and hung on the line. It was perfect in the sense that it was there, as it was. It had no other possible form.
She was grateful that it had been offered up to her as a thing already crystalized. All that was required was to cultivate a stream on which it might flow out into the world. And yet, as she sat down to put words to the page, the imagery and its manner of presence in her mind altered and then faded. She was agitated and irascible. She was breathless.
For as long as she remembered she had been a shallow breather. And recently, she found herself gasping more often than not, feeling dizzy and disassociated while she buttered her toast or chopped an eggplant or scrawled on her phone or watered the flowers on her balcony or took long, scalding showers. Why was it that the poem had come to her amidst all this unquiet, precisely when she couldn’t possibly capture its essence? And how was it that she carried on living without breathing? And yet she did, she lived and lived and lived.
Years ago the doctors had characterised her symptoms in terms of disorder.
Panic, they said, can be treated by way of cognitive and exposure therapies.
And so she had undergone a number of treatments that simulated the symptoms of an attack. She spun in circles, breathed through a straw, pressed a depressor down the back of her throat and hid in a cupboard. Admittedly, the symptoms had eased, or at least the deep-boned fear that accompanied the attacks had eased. The attacks themselves did not stop. They only became more frequent. She learned to observe the symptoms with resignation. Here we go again, she’d think, as her hands took their familiar, claw-like form and as the muscles in her neck began their dance.
It was a bright and windless evening in mid-summer. Outside, children played on the street. The heat lay still in the walls of the buildings. The doors of her apartment opened out onto the little balcony where clematis prospected along the balustrade. She’d found an old table and chair which she placed in the corner, the corner which enjoyed long shafts of evening sun. She would sit out there and write. But the more she tried to write and to breathe, the more both the poem and her breath seemed to evade her. She pictured the two in cahoots, hovering near the ceiling of her apartment, looking down upon her little life in judgement. They would find the apartment a mess of tea-crusted cups and mouldy peaches and dishes strewn with toast crumbs and sprouting potatoes and papers containing unfinished prose heaving at drawers and candles burnt to the wick. She felt pity for herself as she contemplated the cruelty of her breath and the aloofness of the poem. She understood then, that she did not know how to close the gap between what was laid down in her mind — vividly, beautifully, simply — and what must be set down in the world. She felt at a loss. And so she decided to drive.
The summer prior, a friend had sent her a link to a house in the desert. She had been intrigued. The property pictured in the accompanying images had a quality of ambiguity, with its combination of modesty and prosperity. The house was low to the ground. Large windows had been knocked into its walls, she presumed to replace smaller frames, and a dark shade of cloth covered the openings in lieu of pane glass. There was no garden to speak of and yet the abundance contained in the yard was undeniable. Images pictured clusters of clay figures. She’d noted their brimming eyes, spread wings and leaden hands. It was unclear what kind of beings these were, their faces turned reverently to the sky, only that they appeared at once free and contained, anguished and exalted. She thought of the sculpture garden and house regularly. And so, when she found herself with a few weeks off over the summer — her breath hurried, her poem unyielding — she emailed the listed address enquiring about potential lodging.
The highway and then a long unpaved road brought her to L and Clarice. The house was as promised in the pictures. Simple, furnished with only the bare essentials. The pale orange curtains had seen better days. The kitchen swarmed with flies. The bathroom was very ugly, the tiles a muddied shade of green. Her room consisted of a single bed and a bench, structurally attached to a wooden desk, which stood in front of a window. Out the front of the house was an old deck upon which a rickety looking telescope stood. Surrounding the deck was the sculpture garden.
In the manner of a stargazer, L looked up and contemplated the heavens. She loved to watch the brightest star, the dog star. Clarice, a watchful animal, followed L wherever she went. L spoke to Clarice in urgent whispers and had the dog’s natal chart saved on her phone. She checked their synastry on a regular occasion.
Her Saturn aspects my Venus, L observed with a grimace, not good. No wonder she’s so controlling of me.
The dog star blazed, even when the sky was broad and blue overhead and when the temperatures soared. On the hottest nights, they slept outside. The chimes observed changes in the wind. The air — a sea of a different kind — reminded her that they had once breathed with gills. Lying out beneath the stars and it was clear to her that the time of the poem had irrevocably passed. She felt ashamed that she had thought herself capable of writing such a poem in the first place.
She resolved to grant herself small and gentle mercies while living beneath the sky. She sat out in front of the house eating loquats and drinking ice cold water. On walks with L and Clarice, she picked flowers and grasses and made arrangements, analogues of their path taken through the desert. She took afternoon naps in the sunlight. She took cold showers that pinned her breath to her throat. She washed Clarice’s paws with a gentle shampoo, making sure to remove the burrs from between her toes. They were sore on account of seeds endemic to the region.
All the while, L was sculpting a flock of birds from river clay, collected from a nearby riverbed. She couldn’t believe how beautiful L’s birds were. They seemed to have emerged from the mounds of wet clay as if they had always been contained there, as if they had lived there for many years, had been born there, suffered sadness and disappointment, experienced bliss and joy, had even flown in the sky there, and finally would have died there had L's hands not made them visible to the world.
She looked upon this mercurial process with envy. It all seemed so effortless. Of course, it was far from effortless. The clay was brittle, unwieldy and sharp with twigs. It left cuts on L’s hands. But soon a flock of eight stood out on the deck.
She spent her time observing the different types of air that entered the house through the glassless windows. She tried to note down the qualities of air that came in. There was one particular breeze. It came in every day, around 4 in the afternoon. She wanted to acquaint herself with its aspects and habits. She noticed that it swept up a faint smell of dust. She watched as it lifted and stirred the locks of L’s hair. She felt it moving tentatively and then a little brazenly against her skin. It worried the wolfish hair on Clarice’s back and even reshuffled some papers left out on the table. It had a gentle quality, although on certain days it came in harried and left in its wake, a slight alteration in mood. Perhaps because it broke the heat, perhaps because it came in as if it were searching for something.
On occasion, her eyes welled with tears when she thought of all the beauty that L and the air and Clarice had brought into her life. It was as if her lungs had become wings. She knew then — in that way that is embodied and not theoretical — that her breath was made of both brightness and darkness, so often exalted and venerated but curiously, not abjected. And why not? No matter that the air teems with life, with butterflies and birds and spores and pollutants and bats and viruses and words and drones and bees. It hadn’t occurred to her that her breath lived outside of her, that the world was breathing for her. She was outbreathing herself — with each breath her particularities less particular. With each breath, her distinctions less distinct.