In Articulo Mortis
The enemy descends through the trees and rises through water.
The spring winds ripple the lake—opening salvos in the war
against winter. The pulse slows. The hours open.
Soon you will be presented with the enemy’s demands.
Soon there will be a journey through a dark forest—every story
you have been told of such journeys represents this one.
Strength needs weakness. That is the story of salvation,
as well as the story of every depravity. Kids, hold hands.
We’re going to outdo ourselves this time.
You are as delicate as a dried leaf in the hand, and as ready for fire.
The orchard is overgrown, the fence rails splitting at the yard edge,
moss taking hold of the shingles. Painted gnomes portend in the garden,
axes on shoulders, eyes weird among the early blossoms.
Love is the serpent’s breath. The bottom of the window box has collapsed,
roots desiccated and dangling. The lab reports don’t mention it,
but you disappear behind rows of numbers
and take nothing from this great labor that you can carry in your hand.
The enemy makes you lie down beside still waters. The enemy makes
his face to shine upon you. Love is the whispering in adjoining rooms.
Love is the whispering in adjoining rooms, but the enemy won’t play
children’s games: You say, My nose. My eyes.
My mouth, and touch them in turn. The enemy says Your corpse
and touches it once. Your wit won’t save you now. Nor has faith
healed you. Nor will this matter again except to these few.
There could have been less suffering, said the doctor. I’ve rarely seen worse
because of the situation with the spine. But it could be worse.
I inexplicably pity him as he tells me how.
The enemy is not uninterested in your moral understanding—but many things
beside it pass through his vision. And this although he knows your body
like a lover. And this although he has kept you in the light.
By toil and grief, you will secure your bread. The bologna
you’ll have to pick up at Pathmark. You see that the patient is not without humor.
After losing seventy-five pounds he orders a t-shirt
that says Ask me about my diet plan. The enemy has sharpened
his knives. He is intentionally vague. Or perhaps
it is not intentional and he is preternaturally calm. He’s willing to wait
for you to grow less panicked. You could mistake such patience for indifference.
Frantic efforts have been made. And careful preparations.
But finally it’s all just crashing through branches at midnight.
The enemy may not come until you call him friend.
You should notice fewer things and dwell on larger themes—
were you to think on them, you would be undone by questions of scale.
The massive meaning of one ragged fingernail,
a spoon leaning in an empty bowl beside a full glass of water.
The patient is in-extremis. We move through his death, inhale
it on waking. The enemy will not pass on information.
You know too much already. There does not seem at first to be continuity.
But the indignities accumulate according to a discernable logic.
Some of this is understood by medical science,
some muttered about in the conclaves, some intuited when the breeze shifts
or when light falls a certain way through the closed blinds of a dark room.
One morning, something we’ve never seen before: five elk at the pond, two of them
wading among the cattails. Their breath steams as they raise their heads.
It is impossible to die at home, or within any concept.
The nerves are stripped, and then the bones. There aren’t stages to grief.
To be cruel, one must be capable of mercy. So the enemy is not cruel.
But finally the enemy shows mercy, and is therein cruel.
The currant bushes have spread by the porch. Such bitter berries.
Black landscaping plastic is exposed in places washed out by two winters
of neglect and of dying. The cat chases a tuft of cottonwood spores
across the lawn. Breath held within a world of wind. Show me how to die.
Coyotes howl over the hilltop. The cat licks his paws. Smell of honeysuckle.
Early on, what the patient hates more than the pain is your pity.
Finally he hates only the pain.
Half asleep, he snatches at his gown. They do that, the nurse says.
My mother: Who are they? Your thoughts travel widely
but you are not a moving target. Wrench to the instant all of your attention:
there may a chance to culminate in some tiny, some heroically futile gesture.
The enemy gives. You can take it with philosophic calm or blubber
over your bucket, but you take and the enemy gives.
Simultaneity and growing, unbridgeable, distance.
There are no meaningless events as the meanings become less apparent.
You’ve spent too much time at college. Not all problems
are problems of form. Nevertheless, the enemy will grin
at you only in your instances of inexplicable glee.
Sign the forms. The devil is in the details, but what else will you have to accept
if you believe it? A joke, obviously, and even the dying are wise to simile.
Wise as trees. Wise as buckets of whale fat in a bordello.
You are finally you, having been every version of yourself but one.
Any moment before the last is not yours, and then the last is not yours.
Spring at the window. Geese on the lake, tufts of pollen swirling upwards.
The patient is concerned by the spiritual lessons you might discern in his suffering.
The patient is no longer lifting his arms.
“In Articulo Mortis” first appeared in New England Review, Volume 32, Number 2.