Death knell

By Emily Shevenock

Swimming in the sea, I was timid by silver schools of fish, each the size of my forearm. If I yet display vibrancy on this occasion, flash and metallic sheen, I can say the interjection of timidity at a school of fish is an aspect of life, that however brief, does no justice to the nature of authentic experience. A moment of my timidity doesn’t allude to an entire demeanor. Boldness is neither discredited nor wholly lost forever, as I connate a resonance with the schools of fish— they seem caught in a natural oblivion. Another’s fabricated filter might be lost on this opportunity for connection, such that the fish are wily and as playful as the dolphin, when in fact they are rather not, and seem oblivious, darting around limbs as if a natural function of their instinctive travels. The sea felt marvelous anyway. That afternoon on a boating expedition, I was delighted by the choppy Caribbean waters flounced at my arm and face. There was a small baby along with us, enveloped in an infant’s yellow life-vest up to its ears, the padded collar swallowing its diminutive head—a strange chick. A rotund woman sat across from me, dressed in a tie-dyed pinafore, and had three servings of rum. She was the only guest refusing a bit of strawberry champagne in a plastic cup. As we drew away from the sea into a green river, we fell still on the boat. A house sat above us on a cliff, the edges squared, the geometry of its corners dangling off the rock-face. The two men driving the boat insisted now that this cliff held J. Lo’s party house. Abruptly, a man stood up at the back of the boat, belted in his red life jacket, a grey beard and sunglasses, and said, “Isn’t this where Jurassic Park was filmed? Isn’t it?!” The two boatmen did not quite have an answer and began to laugh. They told us there were anacondas in the water. I would suggest that there was nothing lethal or foreboding about this trip, though perhaps the perception of J. Llo’s party house tumbling into a river of anacondas was alter-eminent. Such houses are built for views. 

Without getting into the full and unchosen traumatic life-style of the past years, I render this document a refreshing reprise taken from a bit of hotel scratch paper, and my first moments of indulging in the written prospects of the moments around me. It feels somewhat nourishing to write on, about the cliff, the taste of rum, and the ridiculous hat I wore, and that many women bought in the gift shop and also wore in the whirlpool—the hat now hangs on a nail in my apartment that I cannot afford.

--Dominican Republic, May 2018

Yesterday in the pool, there was a bee on a man’s bare shoulder. As he urged his shoulders under the water, the bee clung, then flailed alone in the vast and purple chlorinated water. I felt, then, an overt sadness at this drowning bee, succumbing to its present death while I stood idle by the man, a cup of ice in my hand. Although I’ve not found sadness so alarming at all insects’ deaths, this particular one seemed preventable and unjust. I lost track of the bee in the water. Thirty minutes later, as I exited the pool, I saw the bee’s motionless body floating. I pursed it in my palm and took it over to the chaise, drying my bikini and myself. Beside me, I set the bee in direct sunlight on the pink leather of my bag. I took some photographs of it, feeling no remorse, but still sadness. To document its paper corpse seemed rather proper since I had direct relation in its penitentiary, fallen into from a shoulder. Then, incredibly, it began to twitch. I believed, at first, it was the breeze with which its leg stirred, but then its wings motioned and clearly its body. It turned itself over on its back, its appendages all-flailing, and it seemed to struggle. I tilted the bag, and the bee righted itself, then flashed away. I am not a scientist but I could not devise how this bee would simply float, then dry off its death. My sadness did not feel as a trick then, as one might suspect, as if the bee played death or didn’t need my hand. It seemed rather an alleviated situation, or a scientific anomaly, or an un-causality that my hand had undone. Otherwise, the bee would have floated, perhaps reaching a cement edge or eventually dying, its wings sickened down with water. It never occurred to me at any moment in my life span to be inclined to save a bee from a chlorinated pool of water. It might be due to all the tiny birds here, appearing as large insects as they flit in the palms.

--The Adults Only Swimming Pool, The Dominican Republic, May 2018

My cat stoked and sleepy in the dreamy, heated grass.  He was plagued by the jungle, Moorish and ambling—I’ve lost so much time in such other improper relationships—a cursed hunter with stealth in the hearth of his yard.  He rose daily to the occasion of killing minute creatures—birds, squirrels. He frequented us with vomited guts, delicate bones, and feather fuzz on the balcony.  He cruised his claws across my wrist after purring righteously along my body, resting in his slaybed.  He was something of a warlord, captured by his own mechanics of domesticity, unrestrained by its wholesome, gruesome fauna.  

I closed the door.  There were ants on my apartment porch, and I felt subjected to pain and sadness.  A bird in shadow was docked in its cave of a bay-window and later eaten by a stray pit-bull so that I would find it headless, decapitated by dog teeth, its tough, reptilian bird claws that denounced its existence curled on the hardwood floor.  The absence of love coated the air, and my bedroom was a heated nightmare, and the contours of love were injustice, and this would blossom over the years and bid me pain, as if it were a developing taste I was meant to adjust to. The primitive biological dispersers tangled in the unique weave of any man’s make-up, and it assaulted his brain and thus assaulted me.  My spirit was on another balcony from my cat, and I lay two stories above, my guts intact and breathing in the waited, loathsome spikes. 

My cat grew elderly, creeping next to the piano, and itching its side on the bench and dust.  His teeth became pitiful and ancient.  He neared death for years without me. He coursed the rooms of the house, his paws marveled at the one with carpet. He clawed in smoke in front of the wood-stove.  My absence denied his death pallor, his fur coat, his kittenish brink. When he was taken from me, my eyes were shut, far across town, and pain ran its mutation covert, bleeding its circulation upwards into my brain’s circuitry.  I heard of my cat’s increasing despondency via the telephone.  I attempted erasing his literal muteness through distance. I pined in my sleep for his vigor and sleek fortress where he killed his companions. He died in the veterinary office. The needle thick with death liquid, above him, a final assault.

--Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, 1989-2005

If we could come to think of this heavenly forest as several layers of bedding and pillows. A final resting place. This was death ripening, autumn branch scratching its high glory.  Once I walked with my roommate on a warm Sunday afternoon.  She told me she heard a voice in her head that tells her to bash my head on the sidewalk.  This, as if it were common repartee of two women in their mid-twenties. As if the trees were sparse instead of glorious. The phrase remained unanswered, and the walk was cast in oddest silence.  Later, when she was alone, humming, something unnamable occurred in a large, multi-leveled grocery store. Emergency services were called, and she was locked behind two doors in a psychiatric ward. I don’t remember who called me the first time or the second time. Someone, once before the finality, from her professional work, telephoned me at my job. He was near frantic, and he was frightened she might kill herself. She had begun drawing violent pictures at work and taping them around her desk, as would a small child privy to art materials. Before the telephone calls, she bought a piano and had it delivered to our apartment before noon in a transaction that occurred in less than 4 hours.  She left her underwear on the bathroom floor for three German men to find, and she spoke of the practicality and purposefulness of this in a towel with wet hair, lining a hairbrush in two hands. I took her flowers in an unfamiliar haze, the psychiatric descent both gradual and sudden—rather something dense drew down its dark teeth and bit her.  Attuned as a rabid dog might quench its brainiac wound and pulsate its foam into her vigorous ankle. I could not employ the word psychiatric—the term was yet a slight taste, edging yet into my formal experience. She had seen the Virgin Mary at the foot of her bed and thought it best to write music for the “End of the world.”

The flowers I brought her were embedded in crisp, clear plastic.  A nurse unlocked the ward door, and then I was in her small darkened room where she sat on a single bed.  The blanket she sat on was an innocuous coloration, and she tore the plastic from the bouquet.  Her hand, unnaturally tiny, fanned out, a fragment alongside the plastic caught by the blanket’s fuzz tucked firmly on the side of the mattress. She told me she had “tried to kill me,” and the doctors told her this was known as “homicidal.”  The nurse, leaning on the dark wall, stood up, sudden, her nurse pants and shirt seemed bemused.  Her abruptness shadowing, and I felt mocked to some degree and non-comprehensive.  I was made to leave quickly. 

There was confusion that lingered, and I had a skin infection and a facial swelling that no dermatologist or doctor could articulate.  The facial swelling left after a month, but two rounds of antibiotics seemed not to address the infection concern.  The infection on my forehead itched for years until one day a random dermatologist inspected it seriously and gave me medicine for yeast and the condition abated entirely, permanently.  Other dermatologists were insistent that this was not possible for an adult to have yeast on the forehead that itched. I thought of my head bashed.  A person’s homicidal tendencies were never so slow in their subconscious meanderings.

--Brooklyn, New York, 2005

It was always as if my little sister were lost in a jungle.  The stairs were made of mahogany wooden slats that could break an ankle, and keep it hidden.  The endless yard was subjected to a decaying fence—she would find years later, at just this lonely age, her own twelve-year-old daughter breathing over her dead father.  His first moments in rigor mortis with his young daughter. The scent of death coursed and contained in a body is perhaps absent, not antiseptic. The scent of death is perhaps rigid and unnatural, a heat sconce warmed above it. For a moment, my sister may have merged and unmerged from death, utterly.  A non-asking grim reaper that she shook apart with the grief formula undulating its dirtied hands within. 

Years before this, my little sister unmerged from a best friend, who had a fraction of a life that was ended when her entire body was forced from a speeding car’s windshield, a moment in a unkind fairyland of dusted, spun glass candy, implications of the insane crumpledness of her softer body slain on a busy highway— her electric chair coursed in the mirage glass, that one might lacerate and select for their own mouth in such a moment. Once her best friend had revised her seatbelt, and then the lumpen hand at the wheel of the other car, non-fastidious, fateful and ever remorseful as the injured car cried, crossing the flagrant body—abject.  

A twisted design drew down on life, and the reefs of the jungle were warm, a childhood morphed, and naturally plaited into. 

--Pennsylvania, 1984-present

A first conversation with man I just met.  The dialogue was decent enough and he seemed to come from an affluent family, along with making much more income than myself at a vague job involving graphic design, which he expressed with fondness about its several liberties, such as working in undisclosed locations. He told me he had stopped smoking cigarettes in the mountains, and this addiction was more difficult to quit than heroin. I had a certain, concerning thought on this analogy, combined with a slight indifference at a man I was not wholly certain of in any degree or social capacity.  He used the restroom twice, and he wore sweatpants and sneakers. On the second return from the restroom, his eyes began to cross, and I asked him several times if he was okay, and he insisted that he was fine.  It seemed there was something in his head. He lost his speech, as if he were listening to earphones that didn’t exist. The restaurant manager realized that I was alone at a table with this man who was unresponsive to our voices.  

I fell still as his head fell. I thought to ruffle his well-oiled hair that circled slight, as a pattern of wood-grain, as a black bath drawn down a drain. The manager, a woman, and I were discussing calling an ambulance when one of her gentle taps aroused him as if he were shot with an adrenaline pen.  He bolted upright in his chair and immediately insisted on paying the $191 tab.  He looked directly at me and asked me what I was doing tomorrow before leaving, unsteady, weaving in the most un-straight manner imaginable, for the bright lit space of the hotel bar.  The manager felt obligated to offer some mild solace, and said he must be mixing medications. I sat in the lobby due to a fiendish cold rainstorm and watched foreign people come and go. I had no other plans. I examined the holiday arrangement of lit-up paper sculptures of dogs, the illumination surrounding several pumpkins, set in front of a large black and white photograph of a nightmarish torso of a woman. The photograph over-lain with a rust colored fern-like sea creature meant to invoke the internal structure of her ribcage, or the capillaries and vein systems that would pulsate the color of blood, as she was half-alive.  The photograph was extreme glossy, and the rain was ice crystal without gloves, a cold tea from the mountainous sky.

--Soho, New York, November 2018.

Immediately following the taking of the near full moon above a smudge of cloud formation—the scene intermingled with all this ambient light, negating the aspect of the moon in its consequential appearance as the photo—I saw a man named Nikhilesh get hit by a car.  When he was hit, the sound was a loud popping noise, a mini-explosion. I recalled a large black dog I saw get hit once. It arched unnaturally through the air and I can still feel its pain, the blood in his nose, its heavy landing in the dirt of the side road. 

The car stopped mid-road, blocking traffic.  The driver with white hair, glasses, and a closely shaven white beard, got out of the car and helped Nikhilesh stand up. They shook hands, then the driver got in his car and drove away.  Nikhilesh walked over to me on the sidewalk in a blue windbreaker and tan pants, glasses, and a red snow cap.  He held his ribs, and a paperback book that was white with a black graphic on the cover. I didn’t see the title. His pants were torn.  He said his ribs hurt but that he was fine and did not want an ambulance.  I insisted he go into a coffee shop about 100 yards away and sit down.  He asked me if I was a doctor, and I said no, but that he could be in shock and have internal bleeding.  He kept lifting his blue windbreaker and touching his ribs.  I asked him to go to urgent care and called an Uber.  I took his number, and the next day he said he was fine, and that he was taking medication. At no time did I feel inclined to experience anything except the literality of the occasion. On New Year’s Eve, I texted him a Happy New Year, deciding that getting hit by a car is steeped in some nightmare, recalling the blue night of the scene, the specific hue of Nikhilesh’s windbreaker.  However his ribs hurt, when I saw a thin brown torso with sparse black hairs, and they resembled his architecture, as tightly knit as the city.

--Bushwick, Brooklyn, November 2018

On the stretch of industrial seeded road towards my apartment, my teacup Yorkshire Terrier, Leafy, decided that she’d had enough walking.  I lifted her up in her pink plaid jacket and carried her with my groceries.  Just behind me was a couple in their late twenties or early thirties, the woman with long dark hair, black pants and sunglasses.  Leafy was gazing at the couple over my shoulder, and her tail wagged, furious, as the woman noticed her with charming delight. 

What a beautiful day, the woman announced. 

The man began a conversation with her:

Do you know those psychics that can read objects?  Have you heard of them?  He asked.

No, no, she said, I don’t know what you mean.

Well, he said, they find an object and can read everything about it.   

How strange! That’s really weird, she said. 

I walked with them, as Leafy gazed. 

He began again to engage her. For example, you might find a spoon from the civil war, and the psychic will read the spoon and know where it was from and who it belonged to.

Really weird! she said. 

Reading pain—that was part of the discussion, and without my interjection, there would be nothing further to discuss.  Perhaps he was reading a book earlier in the day on such facts—more likely than her skill at managing an obsession he might have with bringing up occult subjects to the extent that it was a social constriction of his demeanor.  Though, perhaps—she deployed even a feigned amusement. She might have had a Ph.D. in the civil war era. She might have said something different. They are silent for some minutes. I crossed the street and watched them holding hands, and he seemed just a standard man in blue jeans and a shirt, his voice behind me, no longer disembodied.  

--Bushwick, Brooklyn, April 2019

I didn’t know I was on the pathway to hell.  I was already in hell, and I thought: this will end, around the corner, a flutter of blossoms. It was a cessation in the burn and feint that would never happen.  

On the left side of this room was an entire wall of mirrors, from floor to ceiling. I made love on a velvet couch in front of the mirror, wearing a black and white striped sheer nightgown.  I watched TV and ate dinner with the world harsh about me. There were stacks of plates in yellowed paper that crumbled with the ants in the cupboards.  They were heavy and divined in tiny floral patterns, and many of them were cracked.  There were too many of them. They overflowed, the porcelain, and leaned closer and closer to falling in smashed heaps on the floor of the kitchen—as if they would heave in mortar stacks and fall upon the head, snapping or tangling the intricate cords of the neck. We took step ladders and removed them.  The TV never shut-off.  It was left on for a wild cat with fur that flowed long and black, and after many months she came near my hands so that I might pet her. There was a dinner one night with figs and truffle oil, ceviche, and wine.  My mouth was tangled in the unfamiliar.  The white square tiles of the shower were falling, and the wallpaper had a gold pattern that gleamed iridescent when the daylight came in.  I went to the beach at night, often alone.  I stood in front of the water, and there was only pain. Eons of water in black sky, treacherous and empty.  There was a beautiful color of velveteen spit on the shoreline, and it reached back into the silken blue-grey mutation under a lack of sunlight. The pain bred from reality, and to exist as this was discipline. It would branch and dismantle me until I understood its circuitry, and could survive beyond it.  The water, the sky, the salted fresh aroma, and sand was gracious in infecting my veins. There was absolutely nothing else in the civilized world.

--Brighton Beach, Brooklyn 2005-06

About the author

Emily Shevenock received an MFA in poetry from Columbia University in 2014, and an MFA in photography from Parsons School of Design in 2016. She was selected as a resident at the Roxbury Writers Residency in October 2018. She was awarded an Academy of American Poets Bennett Poetry Prize in 2014. Her writing and art has appeared in Photoville New York, The Commonline Journal, Tiny Vices, Burn Magazine, The 2River View, Invisible City, and Primavera. She has lived in New York City and Brooklyn since New Year's Eve, 2004.

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