While You Were Dreaming

I peeled a layer of you, physically. The yellowed, translucent film of an eye. Slipped it into a Ziploc made for a button. It was a start. And as this most intimate part of you—the part through which you experienced your tiny, fragile life—crusted and dried, I wondered how I would ever explain my need. To understand how a crow remembers. When you laugh at them. When you shake the branch where they’ve perched. Claws into wood, soft from spring rain.

Back in the city you moved to a place with an impossible echo. We couldn’t know how its shallow rooms multiplied our whimpering sleep. The floors heaved under our steps and the light filtered in as if through snow clouds. And when, one morning, a crow came peering, I begged you to put away your shooing broom. I poured the last bit of goat’s milk into your contact case and set it on the windowsill—leaving enough of a crack for her to wriggle in. If that’s what she wanted. Because we’re always trying to make logic out of the illogical or because I still see my mother’s ghost, I refuse your thoughts made of stone.


As a child, I changed the slant of rain with feeling. To my father I said: our eyes would float from our heads. I said: we accept that we are bound. He sighed, shook his newspaper straight. It took great restraint not to trace him, remove his third dimension, crumple him until he was nothing but a glowing heart. And you don’t believe that this is possible. There are many things behind, between, beneath us. I hold a magnifying glass to this reality, to show you the pixels in high definition. But how can you see when you’re always blinking?


I fell asleep, somehow, on the lumpy couch in your living room. When I awoke the window was shut tight. The broom tilted on its axis, fell, and the crow had long since been spooked into flight, rising and sweeping across the muddy river. You melted butter in the kitchen, which I could reach out and touch from where I lay. This small, inexplicably cavernous home. I could still hear the fading echo of the broom so I pressed an ear to the couch and closed my eyes against its reverberation. Flames licked the pot with alacrity. You stirred and stirred but it wouldn’t stop the burning. It was the first time I saw the crack in us: the way a corpse’s chest opens. It begins and ends with the swelling heart.

I plucked the calcified sleep from my eyes, spun myself like silk from the couch, careful not to disturb you. Watching you when you think you’re alone is how I love you most; the secret of it. Daylight slanted, as it always did, through the kitchen window, but even still I could sense its shift. It was the color at first. Milky green, a cataract over us. I asked, startling you, did the bird bring its gift? Though I knew the answer. It held between its beak: a rare coin, a pouch of lapis. I folded the thought neatly and tucked it deeper into my mind. You folded the butter into flour and eggs, and kneaded, forcing air through its wet skin. With each shallow pop I felt myself rise, involuntary movements that were hardly perceptible. This continued into the night. As you slept next to me on the straw-thin mattress, I was preparing for something. The crack in my chest widening, first at the cellular level, and eventually in microscopic tears. Then, as if pulled by a magnet, my body lurched from your bed. A miracle it didn’t wake you. I shot through the front door, on my feet, looking as though I’d gone for a late-night run. This was how the neighbors would have seen it. If they were awake, peering through their windows. Their TVs making their faces glow, electric.

On this strange, unprompted voyage, I could hear your snores ricocheting around the tiny cave of house. The echo of you pierced at me. As it faded, your meaning grew, large as a redwood. I wanted to return, capture the radiant parts of you photographically. Catalog you by color. The blue rim of your eye, the string of veins, taut and violet.

With a blink, I found myself in a field, somewhere outside the city. We were closed in by trees. Crows filled the branches like oily leaves. I recognized immediately that the other people—pulled there as I had been—had a similar existence. The way their hands twisted. The nervous slope of their backs. A particular safety blew over me then, like the lock of a car door. Keeping things out as much as in. We were bound by a secret. The moon and sun were too close but only we could see it, and we knew what it meant: for earth and air and orbit. Life, for all of us, would change in minutes, milliseconds, and we didn’t know if it was better to have the warning or if we should envy the ones like you, fast asleep, dreaming the toothless dreams. The dreams where you’re running and running and suddenly lift into flight. This is the closest we will ever come to understanding one another: you in REM and me in this strange hurtle towards what is indescribable.

Isabelle Hughes grew up in the rolling hills of North Carolina. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine and Cherry Tree. She lives and writes between car horns and subway stops in Brooklyn, New York.

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