Chamomile, charcoal, and candles, half-eaten by their own wicks, is the only way I know to put me back to sleep after a nightmare. In this one I was skimming through a forest of hollowed-out logs, draped with moss and moth-eaten pelt-cloth. I was very drunk, or very tired, or both: my head lolled onto my chest and my vision departed when my head wasn’t tilted up.
I sigh, the air rattling the steam of my tea. It is not easy for me to leave my nightmares. It is like trying to take off a dress that zips down the spine all by yourself.
In my lap is a book of sketches. I only draw people; these pages are full of figures I’ve done. The book is open to the last figure drawing class I attended. The model was a woman my age – and my wife’s – with interstellar eyes and hair as long and black as mine. In the borders I scribbled words that burgeoned in my brain as I traced the lines and ledges of her: ankh, awl, à deux. I wanted her to get a drink with me. I wanted her to drink me, and to be my wine, but when the class finished she put on her silk robe and left.
I am wearing a silk robe now, though it is January and the windows aren’t double glazed. We won’t be able to afford the bill if we pump on a heater. When I lived in the mountains I had a fireplace with a chimney – stoked all night it would keep the hut broiling; the cups of knee-skin and whorl of my neck would slick with stove-sweat – but in the city there’s not such a thing as a flue, only ashy half-candles that smell like false spring and overripe strawberries, sick-sweet. In the city, we have oversized blankets stuffed with feathers.
I am moving fast through these woods. I am on a chariot of some kind, but I cannot see who is driving. The woods smell like rain and rot. I am high off the ground but low to the Earth.
Even as I breathe the chamomile I drift loosely off again. This happens occasionally: I boil the water, steep the tea, and there’s no need to drink it before I am asleep again. My wife has awoken to a hot stove, a wasted tea bag, candles moistened only to wax. “I understand,” she chides, “but I am not sympathetic.” She is the practical one; I, the cosmic mishap.
Scooping up a fingerling of charcoal I turn to a fresh page. From memory I can draw the model’s face, but not by knowing it:
Her jaw: a soft scythe.
Lips: tight, as though they had never revealed a secret.
Her eyes: obsidian bands, like igneous rocks between crushing sediment.
I smell the black smudge on my fingertips – so different from the sweet staleness of chalk. Charcoal, graphite, lead are all earthsome, all burn and smoke and precipitated ruin. I press too hard. The charcoal snaps. Half caroms to the floor, lost beyond the glow of my deadened candles. If the cat finds it she will gnaw it. If my wife finds it she will gnaw me.
I get on my knees. In the cushioned light I can see a shadow in my flat. It is by the door, body braiding as if waiting to be invited in.
The forest comes back and I am on the ground now, sifting through dirt for fossils. Someone looms over me, and I do not hate it. My fingers are blacked by soil up to the wrists. Part of me knows: this is not how you forage for relics like these, but another part of me says that it is, in this world.
My knees are cold. My living room is dim and brown – mushroomy, like the forest. I sweep my hands across the floor, one at a time, trying to find the charcoal. They look dirty. The shadow by the door has moved to the kitchen. It waits by the table.
I find something, dark and weighty.
(My charcoal is light, as petrified wood.)
In my hands is a sharp fossil: a corkscrew? a pick, an awl?
The forest belches me up.
I am in my flat. My wife is not home but I am not there alone. The model is there, by the table, still, with her calcified eyes and her gossamer robe. I do not taste chamomile on my tongue; snuffed-out wick does not fill my nostrils. It is daytime, though I do not feel that I have slept.
“Nice place,” the model says, as though she doesn’t think so.
“I don’t think so, either,” I say, because I don’t.
It is not a nightmare.
It is an Again.
My vases are petrified logs. The plants within: sewn and snarling with rot. My floor is still cold, but a different kind: the cold of mud, the cold of pine needles and wet leaves dropped dead in autumn. I am still kneeling.
When I lived in the mountains my floor was stone, and plants lived outside.
Somewhere, my wife is upset.
Here, the model is not.
I get to my feet. Filth is my armor: it shells my breasts, my stomach, my thighs. Chin, neck, forearms smeared with it.
Unclean as I am, the model reaches for me.
Without fear – fear of smoldering her in the grime of my being, fear of being chastised, fear of being forgotten or left behind – I reach back.
The memory is better and worse than the nightmare. We are clean and together in the bed I share with my wife. Our mouths and other things touch; we spill wine and I do not cry out my penance by instead laugh, giddy, loathsomely free. The model brought sticks of incense and we burn it and I remember my mountain, my forest, and all of its scents and sounds, the profundity of it all. My wife seems repugnant in these moments, with her bleach-brined towels and her cucumber candles, her schedule and her tutting and her flatness.
Yet I feel monstrous in these moments, powerful and proud but loathsome of myself and my swindles, my wiles, my mutated way of seeing my world. My mossy takeaways, my knotted laundry. Reeking of bad dreams.
I am on the sitting room floor, looking for my charcoal. A yawn crawls up my throat: a bubble and two huffs to make a cross of it. My candles are four gleaming pools of golden wax. My chamomile is cold. My drawing is nothing but an ossified scrawl: tangly lines that barely form a face.
I clean the mud and charcoal off my arms. I put the damp teabag, like a cold little frog, into the rubbish bin. Swirl the tea down the drain so the cat doesn’t get to it. One candle still struggles to burn. I blow it out. My silk robe goes into the laundry bin. Our bedroom is warm. I smile.
My wife is in bed.
She turned the heater on.
I go to her.