She cuts up apples and asks
when will we see the branches
to which the stars are attached?
There are planets that exist only in the mind, and only when the mind’s managing not to think. They are as rare as a dream stepping forth from a body to become a body itself. Inside the oak tree outside our window: the songs of all the birds that have ever landed in its branches, as inside our minds those small planets orbit, circling each other to make our gravity.
Someone else told me breathing makes the world, but since everything breathes we’ll never know for certain. I love to watch the ocean inhaling and exhaling just after daybreak when the beach is empty, the crabs are scuttling and the water is clear. I love to swim out then to feel myself gleam, as my body drifts off with the tide. Stones, which are common and practical, keep themselves heavy at the bottom, in the sand, while the planets in the mind dream water and air, figures like lizards and migrating birds. Somehow that universe happens inside us, and somehow it happens without us, after all.
If I were to wake up one morning and listen so carefully to my sleeping wife’s breathing I might sense her dreams, which would then become my dreams—or the dreams I would have if I were sleeping as her. Water so clear we could see bright-striped fish swimming below as we watched from shore. Or imagine the lives we’d still love to live, if we had time—whole days spent walking, lost in conversation. And again we remember wading across that snowmelt river, so cold we yelped in other creatures’ voices and nearly lost our footing, which would have swept us down the mountain. We held our clothes and shoes above our heads as we waded. When we stepped out our bodies gleamed with happiness as we sat drying off in the sun.
Other days were caves, funky with the odors of hibernating animals. We couldn’t move far into their mammal darkness, but we stepped in a safe distance, to disappear a while.
The first time I saw a tree, he tells her now, I was walking beside a lake in Maine talking to a friend. It was a summer-camp morning and I was twelve years old, full of energy and sarcasm and an opaque inward silence that confused me.
I felt the energy rushing through the trunk of an old pine by the path; I felt the tree pushing itself out of the ground, like a sound clothed in branches and bark, a reverse waterfall pushing up toward the sky. I stood looking at the tree, feeling my own body looking at the tree. My friend walked on, still talking. I knew then that the trees, like my own self, were present in their lives. The lake was actively filling the bowl it inhabited. Some force kept pushing rocks through the surface of the ground; the deep earth was veined with wild rivers, ancient waterfalls.
That night, as I lay in the pitch-black cabin, I listened to the trees swaying and groaning against each other. The other boys slept in rows in their narrow cots, breathing like the world breathes, as though they were singing. I lay down and entered their choir then, dreaming of the fish that slept deep in the lake we would swim in, naked, in the morning.
Without really knowing it, we spend our days trying to remember our ancestors, those animals and people who are otherwise forgotten except as we carry their gestures and fears, their accents and silences and even how they loved. We wake sometimes in the middle of the night, to listen to our own lives tumble through us into oblivion. And so we turn over and try to fall back to sleep, beside our sometime-stranger, sometime intimate best friend, our true love, who breathes and chortles beside us, dreaming of other days that might not have happened and will certainly be forgotten when she wakes, as all is forgotten by waking. As though a thousand ancestors were making love right now, to create the energy that moves us through the world: Those minnows flash against the shore of our vanishing, and birds behind birds behind birds fold themselves up in their versions of time as they move back and forth across the great sheaths of sky, carrying light and warmth in their wings, singing as they fly now, too high and wild to hear.
In another life we lived in a house at the edge of a salt marsh filled with small birds that flew between the grasses, singing as they flew then dipping down into the grasses for a few moments, to rise into sight again and twirl in the sky. When the tide swelled high, water lapped against the stone wall that ran along the back garden. I loved the way the grasses looked as they moved with the high tide and the breeze and the ripples in the water. The narrow road through the marshes flooded when the moon grew full, so we rode our bikes if we had to go to town. We’d hoist them on our shoulders through the knee-deep currents that flowed across the road. Then we’d enter the tunnel of ancient oaks where we’d stop sometimes and lay our bikes down, to walk through those woods in silence. And later, when we’d returned from town, we’d row our dinghy out to the deep water, take off our clothes, slip over the side, pretend we were seals, and hold our breaths down to the bottom. Sometimes we’d drift further out as the dark fell, the real dark of a place at the edge of the world. And then we had to talk about the losses that made us cry out in grief beyond ordinary language; we had to sing as animals that have moved beyond time and human understanding, to light our way back home through that darkness.
She spoke of the wind that can’t remember how to move, the stationary wind inside the stones we gathered to place in a circle for our fire. And when we lit that fire and sat there in the darkness, the unnamed animals moved closer, knowing we’d be blinded by the flames; they moved close enough to taste our human scent, as we spoke of the towns we’d grown up in, the schools we’d attended, the people we’d loved.
I talked about the girl who’d disappeared when she’d dipped her feet in the polluted harbor water, and I talked about swimming underwater through that tide. I talked about a mother who walked slowly up and down thickly-carpeted stairs, telling the photos on the walls about her childhood. I tried to speak of spider webs in the corners of our closets, lace-patterns we gathered to staunch our ancient wounds. And she talked of esoteric things: trying to inhale the green wind inside the sleeping trees, the body of the forest we could carry with us now. She talked of the ocean that moves beneath the ground, full of blind fish that have no bones. How many people like you have lived in a world exactly like this one, a world we call our own? Not more, she surmised, than a thousand thousand, a slightly larger number if you translated us into the ancient languages of grass-seed and fiber, clap-clap and twirl, an even greater number if you counted the polliwogs and dew. And so we just sat in those woods, talking so softly the trees could hardly hear us, burning our words in the fire we stoked and poked as the night grew feathers and stubbles of fur as though it were some animal we’d never met before, a creature that would call us by our ancient names. And we’d call back, somehow, from that darkness.
Michael Hettich was born in Brooklyn, NY, and has lived in many parts of the US. He currently lives in Black Mountain, NC. He has published a dozen books of poetry and an equal number of chapbooks. His work has appeared widely in journals and anthologies, and he has collaborated extensively with visual artists and other writers. His most recent book, To Start an Orchard, was published in September, 2019, by Press 53. His website is michaelhettich.com.
My grandson, Owen Sharpe, was born September 20, 2019. Luckily for me and my wife, Colleen, Owen also lives in Black Mountain. During this terrifying pandemic, Colleen and I have been working on our land, making trails and places to sit quietly and listen to the world. We’ve also spent as much time as possible with Owen and his parents, keeping safely distant but close enough to see the light in their eyes. Owen’s father, Casey Sharpe, is a palliative-care physician at a major hospital, so we understand deeply how careful we must be, and how profoundly others are suffering. We miss our son, Matt, way out in Santa Fe, but otherwise we’re luckier, far luckier, than most. And we know it.