Naima by Zachary Hatfield
In the beginning, you filmed the ghosts on your phone. In the bright catacombs of the supermarket, they would idle past with armfuls of cereal or produce. Across from a metro aisle choked with strollers and grocery bags, you found them pilfering glimpses from the local obituaries. At night, the screen would often hurt your eyes underneath the comforter, but it was there that you scrutinized each pixel, trying to decipher a face. You rewound the footage, intuiting movements, pausing and zooming in, but you had not been able to name them.
You could not tell if everyone had disappeared or if only you had. You were spending your days alone, watering the succulents and the aloe plant, wondering why they too were dying. You woke at two or three in the afternoon, crawling out of an old sleeping bag as though it were your chrysalis. You had been dreamless for months. Your diet consisted of burnt coffee and sweet potatoes. The discs of your shoulders were beginning to scrape against each other, and you thought for a while you might grow wings and turn into a Rilkean angel.
Each day, Midwestern sunlight caught your room on fire as you put Coltrane on the record player. It would always be “Naima,”its opening tenor saxophone note like a warm needle sliding into an artery, the brush on the snare like a strengthening current, pulling you into an absence. The song itself oceanic, granting you the weightlessness of water, casting you adrift, both buoyant and lacrimal.
When the record ended, it would spin noiselessly for hours before you realized it was over. You would lift the needle into another quietude, a horizon of silence. Of course, you had been surrounded by different silences then: the rediscovered silence that is introduced by an air conditioner or space heater that suddenly clicks off; the silence of an empty phone against one’s ear like a nautilus; the pregnant silence between acts of a Beethoven concert. There were so many to be indexed, but in reality, were they not identical? You found yourself wanting to turn the volume of silence up, to drown in its velveteen noumena.
The ghosts moved in with you that January. The ghosts of your mother. The ghosts of your twin. The ghosts of Naima moved into your body, their somnolent rhythms an ache in your throat, a twinge in your scrotum. You ignored them all. In the cinema of your bedroom, they stayed awake with you. In your hand, your phone was warm, like a small, day-old meteorite or a newborn dove.
Your drought of dreams ended. You dreamt now in black and white, of equinoxes and Paris and snoring beehives. More Januaries passed and you eventually broke your phone. You bought a mirror and studied the dark crescent moons that hemmed your eyes, drunk with sleep.
And you continued to listen to Naima, its music swelling, changing shape and hue like a bruise upon your soul. You wanted to snap apart the syllables of her name like a wishbone, the same way you had broken your cellphone.
Your twin visited your apartment. Clambering up the stairs, he could hear the wail of the saxophone, its beckoning noir, and he thought he recognized the sound. He sat with you on the edge of your bed, trying to understand. As he smoked, he gave birth to his own ghosts in white parabolas that swirled into arabesques and dissipated into the ceiling. Your brother tried to smile, but he could not. With his pity, he devastated. He took the record from you and you never saw it again.
That night, you dreamed in color for the first time in your life. In your dream, you find a shoaled whale, its body bright black against the sun-bleached sand. Above everything, the sun dilates. The horizon swelters. You look into the eyes of the whale and mistake them for your own; lunar and stray. Parting the baleen proves harder than you think, but the mammal admits you into its vessel, and you crawl inside a pungent abyss the size of your own studio. Inside, it is surprisingly cold, and the darkness invites you to read the braille of its ribcage. You could be inside your twin’s lung. You think you can hear it then, the sound of Naima, each minor note like a step further into the unknown. It is there, shored, inside the whale, that you wait, either to wake or for the tides to arrive and reclaim the both of you.
Zack Hatfield is a freelance writer living in Cincinnati. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Electric Literature, and Entropy.