Do you remember the day we met? Fire at the border? The riot in the square? The mountains in the distance blossoming with artillery, the smoke rising into the storm clouds like some ancient spirit finally let loose? There was nothing left alive in this city. The grass had died of thirst. Not even the foghorns could breathe. It felt like winter but it was the first day of summer, freezing cold except for our insides, red and inflamed from the thickness of the smoke. The sun lit up every stone—they glowed like televisions in the dark.
Running through what was left of the river, the water slick with algae, thick with mud, I stopped to catch my breath. The sun moved like a fingertip across the capacitive touchscreen of the sky. And I looked right at you in the haze of the nuclear summer and said your name. You couldn’t hear me, but you could see my lips moving, and later as we slept up in the branches of a tree you asked what I’d been saying, but I was so tired and so terrified that I couldn’t make the words come. I didn’t want to be seen. Not even by you.
Last night I dreamt of you, so real that when I wake up I don’t know what year it is, how to speak your name, what room I am lying in, what that sound is, what that thing is beating inside of my chest, whether I have anything left to lose. No one who has touched you can say they haven’t climbed a mountain.
I don’t know how to tell you what color it was this morning as the sun lit up the haze, the dust, the mountain nothing but an outline rising against the earth, some jagged rough draft of a horizon. I can’t say, really, what I thought I was seeing—this ring of light spreading out from the sun. I thought it might be a glare from the bus window, a smudge on the lenses of my glasses. And then the next moment I’m sure that I’m having a vision, that something new is being born in the sky. But then I remember myself.
Have you left me, or was it I who left? If I look hard enough—if my eyes could melt clouds, if my legs could carry me across the crest of these hills, would I see you, just ahead, a second sky beyond the trees? If I look up, suddenly, will I find my eyes full of your flesh? I could have sworn I felt you lying beside me, the gravity of your body tipping me toward the center of the bed. I could smell the rosehip mists rolling down your shoulders. I can hear you, a train whistle lowing in the distance. I lie awake, asking myself where it’s coming from, trying to draw a map in my head to the nearest train track. But there is no map left that can find you. And when I reach out my hand, I touch only the space between sheets.
We are in the dark, you and I, and it will be hours before I can see anything besides my own breath, before the spent earth starts to shake off the weight of the dew. Soon, this valley will thaw. But not you. It doesn’t matter where I go. It doesn’t matter how much I can see. It doesn’t matter whether there is a sun left to glow softly over the crook of your back. You will be there, solar winds kicking up the snow like the pollen you tracked inside with the bare feet you wore that summer, that day I sat wondering how it would feel to finally touch you.
I don’t need to have my eyes open to know which shapes are you and which are the dark. I don’t need to be breathing to remember every inch of you that rises and falls. There is no such thing as strength, no such thing as living. There is only your smell, how deep beneath the ground they would have to put me before I would forget it.
Matt Sailor’s work has been included in Best Small Fictions, the Wigleaf Top 50, and the Norton anthology New Micro. He has won an NEA fellowship in fiction, among other honors. He lives in Portland, Oregon, in the shadow of several mountains.