In Cloud Country

Within our borders, / your hair frays cirrus into sky, while that bride, / so serious in every photo, never had to be you.

Illustration by Jason Logan
Illustration by Jason Logan

In cloud country, water has but two states:
we focus on the crease between a wave and its cold,
between us and the sun. In cloud country, your mind
settles its mist across the TV’s broken screen,
the IV’s taped labels, the metal rungs strung
along the bed frame, like ladders into a hidden room.
Here, Kyushu is a doorway left ajar, a nightlight’s
shadow shift. Here, we admit ourselves
the paper’s ninth and impossible fold—the way
we say Hello, meaning, Hold on a little longer.
Or, I don’t know, meaning, It’s true. Errant cells spill
like sea salt over the corridor’s mirrored linoleum,
as we shuffle from floor to floor, and you live
long enough to see your glasses return to style,
your plaid shirts, your knit cardigans. Within our borders,
your hair frays cirrus into sky, while that bride,
so serious in every photo, never had to be you. Drowsy,
draining through a plastic tube, in cloud country,
you say, That was all so long ago: each closet,
a mossy gate, each wormwood cabinet, a cabin
dissolving in your nowhere backwoods,
where the plural is story—the singular, skin, and the notice
stapled to the door does not make of one face
many. Was there ever a quiet street, a pink bungalow,
a trio of hunched maples, a cup of cooling sencha
waiting in this nation for you? In cloud country,
you say, It feels like I’m being eaten, and choke down
spoonfuls of ice cream, lemon Jell-O. We thicken
your water with powdered bone. In cloud country,
the horizon doesn’t sever the sky, but spills upward,
a helix of white smoke, burnt leaves. While the fledglings
in our chests bear no desire to leave the nest,
or rot to barbed wire, snagged cloth. At this latitude,
the textbooks declare the heart an uncracked
robin’s egg—the mind, a clever mockingbird’s—
and every morning is the morning
you showed us the bitterns, curtained by bulrushes,
towering in their sleep. You closed our eyes
as we passed the one broken on the boulevard.
It is here, in cloud country, that you promise
to reveal how to uncrimp each beak from its paper bud,
how to unfurl each wing with the perfect pressure
of fingers not yet talons, veins not yet tunnels
of wind and sleet. It is here that you mutter, I had a name
so that we understand: every animal has wings.
No dignity in indignity, you kept it all to yourself
in cloud country, where the sheets folded you
and the crinkled gown exposed you; where the swallows
never stood still—and never stood
for want. We kept them to ourselves. We kept this
for you. You plead, Leave a window open,
a skylight unlocked
. We flatten our faces
against the glass’s double pane. We couldn’t
finish those final folds alone. You left us
for an image of astounding order. There was
no order. We listen to the radio for your whereabouts
until we, too, bear throats wracked by static,
blistered with Coriolis. The fields that stretch
behind the boulevard rise and evaporate easy
from their bedrock—now, no different than bed.
In cloud country, it rains newspaper cranes, it cries
Fujita scale, it hears your tectonic mumble merge
with ours: there is no scale for now and then.
You are the paper’s one hundred and third fold,
the nebula’s gauzed edge. In cloud country,
you say, Thank you. We say, Thank you.

Michael Prior
Michael Prior is a writer and poet. His first collection of verse, Model Disciple, was published by Véhicule Press in 2016.