Death Opus, by Romie Stott

It comes in waves, in subsurface currents.

Some believe a soul can leave the body days before death

and hover nearby as a ball of lightning

dutifully attending the roll call of the dead:

a crowd of afterimages, the ghosts of ghosts.

We are swollen with death we have not caught up to yet.

Infection inflames the brain, an inside-out fish

risen too quickly against the skull.

We are in the doorway, through and not through.

How can I measure a tide still running out?

A body lost at sea is floating, sinking, entangled.

I woke to a Geiger counter that was icicles dripping on the gutter,

false witness talking through sheet water.

Our knees knocked so loudly. We could not stay still.

We were too afraid to hide.

We breathed so hard it was a circular scream.

Our souls were escaping through our mouths.

Every cell is permeable (locked in cages to die).

Threats: singing, eating, embraces, shelter from wind, visible smiles.

The horror of witnessing.

The horror of being forced to turn away.

A cardiopulmonary gas line leak.

The odorless absence of oxygen.

The hibernation ran through summer and I woke in snow again

to a bright window with no warmth, unpeopled street,

a departed neighbor’s yard dug over like a grave,

the moor from which a visitor never arrived.

Diagnosis: Your lungs are full of phantoms of lungs.

We must push a torpedo into you using a bellows.

The most likely outcome: You will float away

still waiting for Amelia Earhart.

A body is not tunneled into like jello,

not pliable like dough or mud to bake or crumble.

Dissection is opening a suitcase,

lifting each shoe or balled up suit

to guess at the trip that was taken.

What’s only spoken spreads its legs across the subway car

as “home” gives soul to drywall

and a relentlessly twitching pump

becomes everything that can be classified.

An undercount is less to grieve, as many to bury.

Taboo inanimate flesh as a person is not a revenue stream.

Expletive nipple already broadcast

and what if the dog was to follow you home?

Cockatrice death comb, a killing breath

violating the child’s compact with a dark bedroom:

I will only be killed by what I can see.

Guardian of the pleas of the state, custodian,

coroner, like Coronavirus, from crown:

custos placitorum coronae.

A name on a manifest does not explain a dead spot.

The event is ongoing but has ended for some.

Their funerals feel longer ago than their lives.

If my grandma hadn’t died, she would have died.

Every natural death is also accidental, a neglectful butchery,

legislatures writing their broken bodies onto ours.

If salvation comes from suffering, vaccines are too kind to work,

worried cutting the callus will take off the foot.

Brought to heal, brought to heel,

a nation of boiled frogs churning the water,

larvae in rotten apples, a blown glass record of decay

washed off or on to hands.

Rubbed until charged, ready to bolt at a switch,

hairs raised by all we will pour into each other

at the first chance to get even,

we stop a story at a victory, a hairband to hold the braid.

Beyond it, we go to different lengths.

What began in holy trinity ends as fringe,

a moment of silence so long it cannot be covered with a quilt,

breath held so long it starves the candles.

I have not made peace with death.

Romie Stott is a poetry editor at Strange Horizons and the vocal half of the electronica duo Stopwalk. Her writing has most recently been anthologized in We Robots: Artificial Intelligence in 100 Stories and in New Rules: Play During the Pandemic. She is currently writing the libretto of a Broadway musical called The Lady Takes the Mic, about Death, Cupid, and an evening at a piano bar. She is also in post-production on an Italian movie about a witch who steals time. You can find links to Romie’s stories, films, and poems at romiesays.tumblr.com.

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