Jessica Berger

Nautilus

First, there is the water, blue as the prettiest cornflower. Clear as crystal when you look out from the edge of the white cliffs and see where it darkens, where the floor disappears. It is deep, you told me, very deep. I listened to you say this, I did not tell you yes, that it is deeper than skyscrapers stacked top to bottom, one after another. Deeper than you could ever know.

 

First, there is the water. That substance inhospitable, that place where the depths continue beyond what you can imagine, beyond where the bright little fish jet between branches, where porpoises hunt, beyond the lampreys.

 

You cannot know what is down there. You can’t understand that the further down you go the more you return to something that looks like up.

 

You cannot understand the difference between those directions, between south and down, the place where the darkness is so pitch black as to become blinding white again.  The place where palaces are built from coral walls and windows made from clearest amber. The place where light does not come from the sun.

 

You will never see the way barnacles and anemones attach themselves to the walls of these structures, you will never understand the colors, the fractal nature of that creeping flora, the way all is illuminated even in white darkness, the way there is a luminescence to every twisted spire.

 

First, there is the water, then there is that place. You think it sounds wonderful. You imagine something you could take, a shrouded Atlantis. You have heard rumors of such lands, myths and legends told by drunk sailors, weary mothers, storybook maps.  Before, you say, you never had cause to believe them. And I wonder why it is that you listen to me now. Is it because you recognize something you cannot quite place in the shape of my eyes, in the nautilus spiraling of my ears, in the way I walk on uncertain feet, like a fawn, you say, like a crab robbed of one of its legs. Perhaps you see in me the pain of living, the ache of this dry air, the way these bones, this skin, this consciousness makes every move the flick of a blade.

 

What I am – what you think I am – has awakened something in you, you must admit this. You followed me though you didn’t know why, like I called to you, beckoned you to follow me on long walks, on sleepless nights where I stood, too long, at the water’s edge.

 

You have asked me so very many times to tell you about the place I am from, and maybe I have, perhaps not. Still, you believe you can travel there, that I can grant you this ability, that I can breathe for you a net that will allow you to withstand the crushing pressure, a protection to prevent your body from bursting. You believe it so much that you keep me here, you hold me in these chambers though I know you do not love me. You have me sleep beside you, though each night I know you will ask me only more questions, though I know your touch is inquiry and not intimacy.

 

I want you to know I do not like it when you call me your foundling. I do not like it when you don’t answer my own questions; when you don’t tell me the weight of the human soul or explain what it will feel like when I have one. And I will have one. You fail to understand there is a way in which I need you, and it is not the way that would keep me in your bed, that would leave me bound in your chambers. And it is not the way that sees me returning, that would find me stepping beyond the water’s edge or inviting you to join me. You think you are able to follow me, maybe I can guide you to whatever land it is I’m from, maybe you would like to be there, you would find what you yourself are missing, you would happy where I was not.  You think you would like to see that place, you believe in me for reasons unknown.  Is it because you have kept me at your side and I have not hurt you? Is it because when we sleep I sometimes run my fingers through your hair? Because I like the way it feels to intertwine my legs with yours?  What do you learn from the stories I have told?  Why do you feel that I will be able to carry you, that I would want to?

 

Trust I cannot bring you back, trust that that place is not for you. You know we are not the same, yet you assume in many ways we must be; that our bones are in the same places and we breathe through our mouths, through our noses. You think you are strong, that the matter encased in your skull is at least of a similar mass to mine or the makeup of my eyes is as jelly soft as that of yours. You think I need you in a way your kind calls love, that I will stay here and let you call me pet names.  You know that my sisters will come to look for me, to look for you. You insist your bedroom is a sanctuary, your house, your city, my place by your side makes me safe.

 

Yet you do not answer my questions.  Yet you have considered that it is not me who needs to be protected. You have always assumed my reason for being here is you, is this thing you call our love, is the intertwining of our legs, is your insistence, your refusal, is the way that you look at me.

 

You have already made so many mistakes.

 


Jessica Berger is a Chicago-based writer and fiction editor of Grimoire Magazine. Her work has been featured (or is upcoming) in Pank, Trnsfr, Midwestern Gothic, &Now, Moonsick, The Spectacle, Maudlin House, and elsewhere.


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