Zhuangzi Dreams

I wake early, the sky outside still cool with twilight. I sleep too much these days, but poorly, sliding down the slope of oblivion only to claw my way up again. The soft tapping of wings against glass is enough to pull me from my slumber. A moth, trapped, drumming against the window. I turn, stretching across the bed. Finding only emptiness, I jolt upright.

“Don’t worry, I’m here.” My husband speaks without turning, addressing the barely discernible world outside. His familiar form blurs with fatigue, but he’s undeniably here. Not gone. Not yet. Only if I turn away do wings beat at the edge of my vision, the Rorschach of a broken mind. So I fix him with my gaze, unchanged and unchanging.

Reaching out, I clasp the cedar box on my bedside table. Inside, I keep the braid I made from our hair. My red twines round his black, the locks cut on the day we first found out, before all the pain and all the treatments, the day he promised me to stay. I hold the braid to my face, inhaling the familiar scent of us. Slowly, my racing heart calms.

“You should try to sleep some more, my love. You need the rest.” His fingertips lightly tap the glass as he looks out into the dawn.

I nod, too tired to protest, grief conspiring with gravity to pull me back down. Yet despite my exhaustion, I cannot go back to sleep. I need to reassure myself.

“You won’t go, will you? You’ll still be here, later?” I know the answer, have asked many times before, yet I must ask again.

His smile, when he turns, is the same. His eyes, though, drawn with strain, are those of a stranger. How long, I wonder, can I keep him here?

“Don’t worry. I’ll be right here.” With the practice of litany, he soothes my fears. “I’ll stay for as long as you need me.” On my cheek, the brush of a weightless kiss.

I leave a banana out in the kitchen, peeled and cut lengthwise. After a day or so, when the house fills with the too-sweet smell of decay, the butterflies come out. Brilliant blue, unfading amaranthine, dazzling red, vibrant orange, and brightest yellow – with all the colors of a prism, they light up the unrefractive gray that is my home and heart. Graceful aerial acrobats, they alight with the tip of a wing, proboscises unfurling to lap at the rotting fruit. Afterwards, I’ll find a dusting of crystalline scales strewn across the sticky plate.

My colorful comrades stay in the kitchen. Only one ever comes into the bedroom with me. Black as the void, it sits on the windowsill, wings straining wide to catch the rays of the morning sun.

As the butterflies retire with the day, their nocturnal cousins flutter from hidden roosts. Soft wings and feathery antennae brush my hands as they gather round my light. In some cultures, lepidopterans are the souls of the departed. In others, a symbol of rebirth. Now I wonder: are they here for him or for me? Either way, I’m grateful for their company.

At night, he drinks the tears from beneath my eyelids. I wake dry-eyed, sight bleary and dim until I wet the world back into focus. In the daytime, I feed him with my dreams.

“Here,” I’ll say, showing him a brochure, “this is where we’ll go for our tenth anniversary.”

“Paris? I never figured you for such a closet romantic. Besides, it’s hardly original, is it?”

“And proposing at Niagara Falls is?”

The banter flows back and forth, and for a few stolen moments, everything is as it always was. I can be whole again, with a past, present, and future. Patient, my husband plays along, never breaking the spell.

I never knew that moths could sing, but now I hear them in the distance of empty rooms, whistling stridulations trilling through the night.

“Hush, my dear,” he whispers. “Don’t cry.” He hums an old lullaby. In the weeks after my sister died and I didn’t know how I’d find my way through the dark, he’d hold me and hum to me through all the long nights. Why is it only in sorrow he sings? Too late to ask now.

The black butterfly walks back and forth across the pot of my once-lovely succulent. Even that hardy plant is now pining from neglect while many of its tenderer brethren have already succumbed. Listlessly, I fill my watering can and move around the house, saving what might be saved. I surprise myself with a sense of satisfaction in my ministrations. A butterfly with enormous eyespots watches my work. The wings wave gently open and closed, blinking indigo flecks.

Summer is drawing to a close. It’s only August, but autumn waits in the wings. Outside, the monarchs are migrating, enveloping the house in a silky tide as they follow the compass of the sun. My husband stands by the window again, watching them go with longing in his eyes. I know, though I wish I did not, that the time has come to let him go.

I fetch the box with our braided locks. Carefully, I unbind them, laying my own hair aside. I think for a moment, then pull a single strand from the ginger to weave among the sable. I expect him to object, but he doesn’t. He’ll allow me this small harm for the good he knows it’ll do me.

Cedar burns fast and hot. With the tiniest tug, a part of me breaks away. The smoke rises fragrant before finding its way out. For a moment, I feel his hands on my face, his kiss on my lips. When I close the window, something falls from the sill. I bend down to find a small gray cylinder, the husk of a chrysalis.