Priestess & Hierophant
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"There is a lot to discover in Darkly Told. It doesn’t offer immediate answers, nor is it meant to do so, but it will repay careful listening. Hopefully, this chapbook will be successful enough to prompt Alicia Cole to make a few more. Fans are better off for its appearance." - Dead Reckonings No. 18
Priestess & Hierophant
By Casey FitzSimons
It would be like flicking a switch,
blindness, when it came.
Sudden darkness. Or so
she’d thought. Instead, a wall
nears, recedes, nears again, a feint, not only
of illumination, but of depth
and distance. A swimming dimness, premonition
of motion, removal, an encroaching veil.
It came wailing, it did—
she could hear the noise coming from somewhere—
the moment she knew that the light
she saw and the light he saw
had no correlation.
There was light. She did see.
And there was the light of the world outside.
But they had nothing to do with each other.
All the phenomena of the universe
were related, obviously or remotely,
except these. There was light,
but it lurked darkly
in the periphery of what had been
vision, an aura of false promise trading
places with itself from time to time, reddening,
extinguishing itself, piercing with white flashes
its own absence.
And it smelled of dog-breath.
Her other senses went haywire
in sympathy, aiding, abetting each other, failing her
in collusion, malfunctioning
along shared circuitry. Static
blackness—placid, unredolent, antiseptic—
would be an improvement.
Everything done with.
Naked side by side on the first
hot night, they take turns
billowing the sheet, releasing it, adding
their bodies’ heat to the oven-hot room, stifling
with wall-stored sun.
Exhaled in short puffs, his chuckle
collapses, huffing him into a brief
illusion of cool air. In the respite
he turns onto his back, his left hand
slack but still acknowledging her, brushing
her slim arm, barely touching her skin
under its soft hairs.
Into his left side she turns and he adjusts
for her, moving, in his
surprise, the crook of his arm
under her neck.
Their energies are stripped, run off
in months of trial—trips, treatments,
shock, dread, futility, devastation.
Their relationship? Drained
of every intimacy—kisses missed,
avoided in public corridors; expressions
averted, worn to unreadable glyphs
in currents of rushing people;
hearing overworked, damped
with urgent summons flatly
chanted in haunting code.
Anxiety and fatigue had eroded
supple layers of caring, exposing
gaunt ribs of civility. If it is familiar,
this together-coming, it is also and only
well remembered: How long since
she’d seized him in fear? How long
since he’d comforted her the best way
he knew how? Ten months?
Had they named it, they might have said
making love. That might have been
some part of it.
Items imprinted, absorbed, assimilated,
fastidiously catalogued—her visual library
had accumulated them in the years
of sighted consumption: Indolent, purposeless gazing.
Blatant, promiscuous watching.
Prurient snooping. Officious vigil. Idle notice.
Its collection would remain in her mind, secure
against damage and diminution, intuitively
arranged for nimble access, for
swift, obliging retrieval.
Or so she’d thought.
She thought that’d be what she’d have
from now on—a vital, eidetic memory
to mobilize and steer, peer into
from any vantage. An animated,
three-dimensional compendium of
and maneuverable according to supplied
description, verbal or tactile.
True enough, when it comes to
coordinates in space—knickknacks
in the living room, latches
in the car’s interior. She can
navigate the house, find things
in the bathroom and kitchen, shower
and dress unaided. Kinetic memory of where
she sets down a spoon, a pill, a ring?
Uncanny. Accurate to a hair’s breadth.
But when it comes to anything truly
worth looking at—color, pattern, shine?
Facial expression? Beauty? No.
A loathing unto death
at the paucity of recall. Anything
worth a thousand words?
There is no picture.
She had fingered the loose weave
of her summer shift, its color
a vague, unascertainable attribute. Perhaps
it’s all still there, guarded
by the ironclad portcullis of traumatic stress, occluded
by the stygian pyrotechnics of false-firing optic nerves.
Will a robust visual memory return?
The argument with herself has the arc
of every attempt she’s made
these last many months
to bargain with fate: The skimming
of hope from the welling-up, brimming-over
of despair; the very clinging to hope
an impediment to acceptance.
This evening, wine on the deck.
Dave was moved (or had he
planned an experiment to see
if it would help to interpret the view?
Did he steel himself? How could she tell?),
moved to the challenge of describing
the sunset. The sunset!
to his painfully articulate, literal
parsing (rehearsed in part?) of fog advancing, rays
of crepuscular light escaping
through rents in clouds, the fading distinction
(loosening seam) between sky and sea,
the sinking dwarf (yellow) and its hovering
orange mirage. Did he watch her, waiting
for her upper lip to steady itself
against her teeth? For her chin to tremble? Of course.
It’s his burden, too. But she was stoic, stony,
could not engage. Couldn’t
bring herself to it. Next,
science: Astronomical sunset versus
atmospheric refraction. Finally, inept similes:
cotton balls, silk scarves, watercolors.
Her visual memory, when present at all,
malfunctions. Clatters, just about.
Careens, even, like a broken appliance.
Hearing a rustle in the hedge today, she tried
to call up bird. Got turkey skin, plucked,
greasy, stretched lavender. And dog, summoned,
got only dark, bared gums.
Might some visual-verbal tangle unravel
if she relaxed? Some fey algorithm decode itself
if she concentrated?
Every day a failed image-search
for something quintessentially visual
hails new loss. Rainy streets.
Babies’ hands. Wire fences
in long grass. Flowers. Every day
a stalking, cloying fear about
the content of her life
from here on out.
As Dave talks on, she gathers
a tattered fan, only that,
of picture postcards, cheesy renditions
of the ever-popular setting sun that people
in airports send to people in houses. Purple streaks
reflected in a still lake, Mai Tai skies
framed by black parentheses
of leaning palms, a flat red plane
creased by the contrail of a single
jet, a chevron of geese over a reedy swamp. Where
in this miserable stack of dog-eared
clichés is this sunset?
It was only his sunset. She needed
to let that be so.
Biding in his shallow umbilical
basin, a savage heat,
and her thumb rises and falls
into it, sometimes catching the thin lip
of skin that rims his navel. Skimming
the soft hairs of his stomach her fingers
move in the slow circuit that had
always, if sometimes unconsciously,
signaled her interest in sex.
He stills her fingers, lets go,
reaches away, his torso tugging
the sheet across and off her hip.
Her abandoned fingers poise static
in the warm air, in abeyance.
But the smooth arc of her desire
shudders into sudden awareness:
to turn out the bedside lamp.
She hadn’t realized
the light was on.
She had never permitted him
to leave a light on during sex.
And why not? What remnants
of pubescent alarm, what plasma
of girlish, fear-nourished shame
had she thought might fluoresce
in the bedside light? What
insecurity not banished
by sincere kisses could conspire
with light to hiss and spit like St. Elmo’s fire?
What would light reveal
that Dave didn’t already, shouldn’t ever,
know about her? Turning it off, does he comply
only from habit with a rule now lapsed?
Must he avoid every infraction?
It was hours after sunset. Why wouldn’t
the light be on? While she rifled
and railed at her sensory memory for order,
had he been reading? Was the air faintly laced
with the benzene of magazine pages? Wrinkled
with the autumn flutter of their turning?
Strobing aquamarine, TV sound
on mute? Had he lain there
imagining her thoughts? She was
struck in that moment with the depth
of her self-absorption, with having missed
every clue, every cue. And how had solitary
obsession morphed to carnal desire?
Who was Dave? What did he look like? Why
did she want him?
So this is it. A new and permanent
condition of their interaction,
hers and Dave’s: Recognizing by sound, feel, smell
what he sees. No, not (or not only)
what he sees, what he might be looking at, but
reconciliation to rules of engagement
influenced by the fact that he sees.
She did know him. Does.
This very night she had felt
his day’s growth of beard, his breath,
his fingers clasping hers, his voice
forming the word mirage.
And now she feels the air-wake
of his muscular rush away from her, a hot eddy
up from where his back had lain,
a sluggish medium uttering the subtle
scent of him. This night, this minute,
she had sensed these things.
What she needed to do was to assemble them
methodically, synthesize them into
the Dave she knew, had known, loved.
Perhaps this prickly gathering
of sensory fact would snag with it
the inattentive, unsuspecting ghost
of retinal image, allow his face to drape
her hollow cloistered darkness,
lessen her panic, attenuate
The itching, crawling self-consciousness
that had been light’s chafe
on her cringing nudity is not there.
She cannot see herself naked—
dimpled or sleek. Or him staring—
in lust, disgust, pity, or fondness. But
not only that. She is more than ever
Available to his sight, open to light,
glowing and hissing, is her desperate
backward grasp, her empty focus,
her self-determination or her lack of it,
her rejection of his acceptance.
Before her mind
registers the click he turns
back to her, scattering her last thoughts
with the brunt of his intention, neutralizing
ions of joint anxiety, stirring
the warm air. And now,
has there been one click or two?
Before or after she spoke?
Leave it on if you like,
is what she said.
Casey FitzSimons has poems in Red Wheelbarrow, Mezzo Cammin, The Massachusetts Review, and numerous other print and online journals and anthologies. She has first place awards from Bay Area Poets Coalition, Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, and Ina Coolbrith Circle, and has been honored by River Styx, Writecorner Press, The Rita Dove Awards, and the Soul-Making Keats competitions. She writes both formal and free verse and has self-published 12 chapbooks, including Waiting in the Car (2017), Pushing Sky Aside (2016), and The Sharp Edges of Knowing (2015). She donates all her book proceeds to Doctors Without Borders.
Casey is an Army brat and her work has been influenced by frequent relocations in childhood and a resulting sense of isolation. She taught mathematics and was VP of editorial and production at a math/science textbook publishing house. She has broad interests in visual arts, writing, and music, and taught art in San Francisco for many years. Her reviews of Bay Area exhibitions appeared often in Artweek and her studio book Serious Drawing was published by Prentice Hall. She has done significant pro bono work in fair housing, coaching English learners, and teaching and editing poetry. She has a BA in math from UC Berkeley, a JD in law from UC Hastings, and a master’s degree in fine arts from San José State University.
You can read more of Casey’s poetry online by following links on her Poets & Writers page at pw.org/content/casey_fitzsimons.