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Sagittarius by Braden Matthew

Image courtesy of Atley Durette

Outside, the moon has taken to blue. So, too, have the windows, the doors, the oaks, the eiderdown, and the vaporous air. Even the black room, where no light is granted passage, even there it is blue. How can I paint the world over again? Where has all the colour gone? Only the stars have integrity, only they are distinct.

You, on the other hand, are where the darkness is visible, and more importantly, breathable. Unlike then, just before they found you alone in that tub of still black water.

When you were so small.

Sprawled on wet stone I imagine you lingering on a passing thought, that through your camera you spot not celestial matter, dead stars reverberating through the lightyears, but cracks in a world-sized cave, chips of light from a sun blazed universe there without. Maybe you have the sense that the night firmament we live within is underground, a world beneath a world, and perhaps it is claustrophobic down here, and so I stop to remind you of where I am: on a mountain opposite the world from New Zealand, in your home, under your sheets, in your shirt and shorts, watching the blue wash of night on the wall like fresh unhappy primer.

I snapped a picture of the moon for you, just like the one you sent me from the western corner of where you are. As I run myself a bath, I stare at the photo for a few minutes, comparing it to yours. I toss the soap bomb and light the candles. I plant The Bell Jar onto a towel folded onto a chair. For me, baths are not the torturous tanks they have been for you. You always say, there are better to ways to cure anxiety than scalding your skin in hot frothy liquid. And yet I wish you could feel what I feel about baths; how they rescue me from the cold chill ennui that fog my life from the moment I wake, especially when my body unfolds onto an empty bed and you are an abstract memory, an image of a man in the forest-mountains tracking stars in the night.

Do you know what Plath wrote of baths? “Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: ‘I’ll go take a hot bath.” When I bathe now, I think of you, and I think of our makeshift pool at Makara Beach.

Where are you now? Lumbering up the Southern Alps, a red light brightening the impenetrable trees sodden with webs?

I checked the weather for you. Don’t worry, it won’t be raining tonight where you are. Sometimes I dream of Sagittarius, our centaur of the sky, and your black nettled mosquito net, your red headlamp, and your thermalled body, warm-blooded in the nippiness. I can almost hear the deceitful sound of the turbines that panted like a pack of dogs as they turned in the dark and the effluvium of skunk and moss.

I know it hurts to remember. And yet I ask again: can I hold the memory for you? So that you can forget. When you think of it, let me remind you of Sagittarius and the night we climbed into that bunker filled with graffiti, when we saw the constellation through the open roof that felt like our own personal observatory.

Remember what you said? I don’t believe in star signs.

I laughed in your face and said, that’s just what a Sagittarius would say.

We were lucky. It had just rained for weeks without end. It was the first clear night, and we wore rubber boots that sucked into the grassy dirt. With the sundown I could see very little. The Makara Beach tides boomed like a fever-sick god struggling for breath and I could see large slugs shaped and coloured like dead autumn leaves splayed along the trail. I got frightened easily, and so you told me not to worry, that the island was pacificist by nature, that there were no natural predators in New Zealand, not unless you count the British Possums. You said this while unwrapping a meat pie, and I listened to the crackle of the foil like fire in a hearth.

You said the Great Carina Nebula is like a lotus flower whose seeds are tapioca pods of fire. The Blue Horsehead Nebula, hiding in Scorpio’s head, is like swathes of vein in the rind of an orange. The East Veil Nebula are dead embers in a soot-spattered cosmos, the underlings of the universe, pink corona notches scratched against the weltering umbrage of the hidden sun. You joked with alliteration that the Milky Way flushed celestial compost like an extraterrestrial toilet, pumping it back into the planetary pipelines.

No one saw what you saw. You waited to see it. You still wait. How many hours do you wait in the dark so that you might see? Why does the universe refuse to take shape in the span of a minute? Why must it resist our impatience?

Most people never look. Most can’t look, the light pollution saturates their vision.

Even so, they never look.

When we reached the top and I could make out the black abandoned temple of war, our eyes took time to attune to the night. Soon enough, neon green aliens and red phalluses surfaced on the walls, numeric symbols and bubbly sprayed letters cartooned over flooded floors. In the distance, while I watched you unpack your camera, silently unfold your tripod, and station it on a stone plinth above the water, the chant of the Morepork owl resounded over the hills—ruru ruru ruru.

You told me with eyes we only see an atmosphere ossified, that we see stars like we see hanging lampposts, that we take for granted their stations, their immovable orbs. But camera’s see, if only slightly, closer to the swirling curlicues that speckle the sliver of space tangible only to Earth, that speckle it with a spectrum of gaseous colours, of nebular colours like swamp blue and electric magenta, like burgundy and lavender and white galactic puss that jellyfish into hanging explosions.

Gone are the days of the pyramids and the Stonehenge, you explained, everything is GPS, everything new rises above the past that previously clung to the earth. But what stays is knowing exactly where you are. When you see them, the stars, you know your place is below them. Even if you don’t know what that means, it helps to know at least where you are.

I wonder, does that feel like nostalgia? Or trauma? The ability to recognize time’s course but the difficulty in discerning its path.

Time does not stop.

But you did, years ago now.

You say no one could corroborate the time you spent in that tub, and that even though it could have been twenty minutes it felt to you like hours. Above, you saw something shimmering and you saw the light moving beyond the door, your father’s heavy footsteps back and forth, not turning the handle, not answering your calls, then your crying, and you remember how above everything shimmered.

At first, you said, your heart pumped so you could feel the water ripple, and you thought you might die there. You compared it to what it must feel like to be light trapped in a dark nebula—suffocated by dust molecules so dense that light cannot escape. You were afraid that if you left the tub, if you made any sound at all, that you would rouse the whirling black hole of his anger. And so, you stared at the dim porcelain and the flashes of light that somehow ricocheted from the metal curtain pole and the water, the mirror and the footsteps that rushed past the door in drunken furies.

You tracked the lights.

You tracked them, and you saw something like hope in them.

Submerging your mouth, you screamed and let muted bubbles volcanize the black tub. With little tears dripping on your cheeks, you said you saw it, our Sagittarius, the healer that bridges the way out of this insufferable planet. It was there, you swore on it, or at least something like it—an image of lights, shining dots connected in a semblance of a centaur, or something like an archer on a horse. The image itself mattered little. It was that, in the dark, your eyes noticed little glimmers, just bright enough to know at least where you were.

You were so scared. How could he leave you like that, a child alone abandoned in the dark? Your heart slowed, your body stilled, and you began to float on your back, your ears listening to the water lap against your eardrums. In the liquid distance, you heard shouting and pounding, a shuffle of feet back and forth in the hall behind the door, and the lights began to bend the ceiling in wonderous ways like a magic lamp.

Lying prone and lifeless, the lights that shimmered took becalming shapes and forms that placed a spell on you, a slumber that took no stock of time. You saw the glint of a sword, a merchant’s gleaming coin, twinkling scales, a flash of traffic, sparkles from the blow of a blacksmith’s hammer, winks of passing candle flames, and after all these tableaus passed through your rapt and terrified eyes, you saw the spangle of stars blinking in beautiful constellations. At intervals you heard the heavy stomps and sudden shouts like a creature roaring for admission to your black and fragile tub, and yet the night was passing. Though for you the planetarium pool was still in the throes of nightfall, dawn was approaching, invisible, out of reach, but there nonetheless, waiting for a crack to give way, for a door to swing open to find you.

That night in the bunker I watched you, stationed on a rock with a camera, in a rendezvous between memory and experience, between the stars and glimmering bathroom metals. I wonder, what did you see through that lens? What shapes and forms and wonders held you while you waited to be found?

The floor of the bunker had flooded to a shallow pond. I removed my raincoat and then my shirt, folding them onto the barbwire.

Take a bath with me, I said.

That’s not funny, you replied, not turning to see me slip out of my boots and unzip my


That’s because a Sagittarius has no sense of humour, I returned.

You stepped off your tiny pedestal when I tossed off my bra and dipped my toes into the water. The forest had grown through the cracks of the bunker, and I could feel grass between my toes like seaweed on a shallow beach. I floated on my back; a pale starfish grinning like a fool.

You looked down at the dark water, black from the cylindrical iron walls, and I asked you again if you wanted to come join me, to look up at Sagittarius from inside the womb of this broken mountain. You hesitated, and I could see you were frightened. I could only imagine the recollections that swam threateningly in your mind.

My legs kicked, and I splashed you with the freezing water. I proposed: watch the stars in here then, and I’ll watch you watch them.

Returning to your camera, you set it to long exposure, not to track the movement of the stars, but to see the earth’s rotary journey around them. Sloughing your clothes and descending to meet me, you waxed about how dying stars leaked helium into space so that new stars could be born. How dying stars suffered in labor to birth new stars. That even stars know something of resurrection, of hope.

That’s beautiful, I said, my body going numb.

How warm your body was! I snuggled my head against your chest and felt your tameless, thumping heart pump with animal alarm. My heart was racing for yours, trying to keep pace, trying to slow it down.

And so, I took your hand in mine and placed it on my chest.

There’s that spot, I whispered, the one beneath the skin of my chest, right between it and the cracked ground below us, that pumps with viscous beats and tells me that I love you.

You said that when they swung open the bathroom door and found you there on your back, staring up at the lights, that the sun that entered the bath was so blinding you screamed, terrified at the explosive eclipse that caved in upon you.

How does it feel here, now, where there is no door, where no one has turned out the lights, and where your feet slide on the watery stone while inky liquid flows between your legs? You track the stars, and they stay lit for you, and their flickering reminds you where you are, here with me, caressing your warm skin, clinging like the past to our cracked cradle called Earth.

And that’s just it you know, its stuff like that that’ll break your heart, because deep down you are still the boy floating alone in a black tub without a daddy, waiting for someone to open the door.

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