London Grammar // Strong
Yeah, I might seem so strong,
Yeah, I might speak so long,
I’ve never been so wrong.
Editing Process: “Fuck”
*please let me know if I need to find another one*
What are the most useful things you’ve learned from reading your peers’ papers?
This is the colour of the the glance where your blood feels as if it is on fire; the colour of her cheeks the first time she hears your name, heart pounding against her ribs. It is the colour of lips pursed in thought as she tries not to speak the words swelling on the tip of her tongue. When you speak, it is the colour of the words you swallow, catching in your throat. It is the tint of the little ridges made by your teeth as you bite back the truth. The blood rushing to your face is the same shade as the love blooming in your heart.
It’s the gently glowing embers of the fading fire as her pulse thrums against your chest, keeping time with your breath. It’s the blaze of light that her laugh ignites in the depths of your soul, soft and gentle, but burning with such intensity it’s hard to believe she’s really yours. Warm and familiar, this is the colour of something that seems natural, as if your bodies were designed with the other in mind. It is the burns her fingers leave as they trace patterns on your skin. This is the comfort of knowing there’s a kindred spirit in the world.
This is a glow, the colour of sunshine in her hair and on your lips; it’s the sweet taste of summer rain in your kisses. This is so much more than light, it is a tangible glow of happiness and truth and every time she opens her mouth, it’s the colour of her laugh. Somehow it seems like you can see it radiating off her skin, shimmering faintly, even in the midnight air. This is the colour of happiness, pure bliss, an endless beam of sunlight spreading from her smile to your heart.
This is the acidic taste in your mouth when you see the way he can make her laugh and blush, even when her fingers are clasped around yours. It is the ache in the pit of your stomach that’s bundled in fury and confusion and unresolved anger. It is the bubbling envy that threatens to spill out your mouth. But it is also the fading smell of springtime when she kisses away your worry and leaves a sweet taste of mint and madness in your mouth. When you look deep into her eyes, it is the colour that lets you know you’re the luckiest person in the world.
It’s the colour of the bouquet of forget-me-nots you bring to cheer her up and the colour of the cool air her absence brings. It’s the shade on the ocean waves as she says goodbye for “just a little while” so she can visit her mother. It’s the colour of her lips when you kiss away the cold and worry, but when you can no longer hold her hand in yours, it is the colour your fingertips feel; it is the sinking feeling in your stomach when you realise there’s no real promise of her return.
This is the colour of the lonely night, when her side of the bed is made and a phone with no new messages lies on your bedside table. This is the bruising under your eyes when your all too empty arms make the nights impossible and the dreams unbearable. This is the cold whimper you utter when you realise that you needed her far more than she needed you. When the colour knots in in your stomach and the memories of her whispers slowly fade from your ear, it is the “I love you” still cold on your tongue.
The blanket of night drapes over the trees as stars peek through the moth-eaten sky. Air, chilled and heavy will pull you down as it did me, into the damp grass and creeping creatures of the dark. There you will stay, clutching at some sense of reality while the stale air crawls across your skin and settles for the night. As you realise that he will soon be here, your throat will become tight and shivers will crisscross down your spine. You hope this time he will be kinder, that he will take you with him as he took me. It is an empty hope. For there will be no more choosing, no more partiality, there will be no one else but him and I. And we are not kind.
It was not always this way; I was once kind and gentle. I feared him, as you fear me. Our first encounter was on my sixth birthday, in the garden of the churchyard. A snake in the tall grass had bitten me, and the numbness had already made its way through my body. He slipped through the back gate and patched me up with a tender care. The snake lay cold and still in the grass and feeling began to creep back through my veins. Though I did not know his identity or intentions, the chill that arrived with him slowly began to fade.
As he pulled the poison from my arm, I began to talk to him. My six-year-old mind could not filter out the good from the bad and so he learned of my deaf brother and my cake flavour. I prattled on about nursery rhymes and songs, and all the while he stayed silent, listening with a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“Thank you for coming, mister. I really ‘preciate it,” I said, with a grin.
“Happy Birthday Isabel. Take care of yourself,” he whispered with a soft brush against my arm and a hasty retreat.
I looked up from the grass to see my parents calling my name, unaware of the man or the snake. Brushing off my dress, I ran up the stairs to the arms of my brother Lucas. Placing me on his shoulders, we continued the celebrations.
We did not meet again for ten years.
“Emma?” I called out, my hands cupped around my mouth. “Emma!”
“Have you found her yet?” Daniel asked, coming up next to me.
“No luck so far. I never should have let her out of my sight.”
“Come on, that’s not fair. You couldn’t have known-“
“I did.” Frustration rippled through my body, tensing up my fingers. “I swear, if she’s dead I’m going to kill her.”
Daniel snickered and it wasn’t long before he had me laughing along too.
“She can’t be that far, let’s keep looking,” Daniel said, pushing me forward.
We continued crunching through the leaves, the occasional car from the nearby road providing a sweeping beam of light. As the moon crept higher and higher into the night, my uneasiness increased.
“Isabel!” shouted Daniel, the panic in his voice speeding my movement.
I picked my way over the fallen logs to where Daniel stood, gazing at smears across the tree. My heartbeat picked up, eager to keep me more alive than the body that laid in the leaves naught but fifty feet away.
“Emma!” I screamed, rushing towards her. She was almost gone, the last glimmers of life sparkling in her eyes. Daniel had run back for help and I held the hands of my best friend, trembling in cold and fear.
“Hello again Isabel.”
His voice cannot be forgotten, subtle and resolute. I flashed back to our encounter in the garden as he stood beside me.
“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Scowling, I looked up at his lightly lined face.
“Today it is of no concern who I am, but my purpose is to see you. Fate has not been kind to me, and so I made my own arrangements.”
“You did this?” I shouted, dropping Emma’s hand.
He remained silent.
“What did you do to her? Tell me!”
“I’m afraid I can’t do that Isabel, darling. I must be on my way.”
As I turned to grab the tails of his coat as he stalked away, Emma let forth one final shuddering breath. And he had disappeared. Daniel came back with our parents in tow and saw me staring blankly at the body of the girl who had been my best friend.
“She’s gone.” The whispers said as they led me from the trees.
As the years passed, so did the people close to me. Slowly but surely, my friends and family all crossed into death and with each end, I saw the strange man in the crisp suit and velvet voice. My parents Fredrick and Eleanor were of the first to depart, in a bus accident near my school, but my brother held on the longest, and it was his death that hit me the hardest. As our lives fell apart, the bond that held us together grew stronger. I was his ear and he was everything wonderful about me. I was a better person around him, everyone was.
It was late in November, as the last few leaves clung to the tips of the branches. There were no stars or moon, as if the sky knew that the light of my life had already left. There was a still and steady silence to the air as I pushed open the door. Sitting in one of the armchairs was the man, legs crossed, and holding Lucas’s hand and helping him make the final journey into the unknown. His mouth opened to talk and I shook my head, tears welling in my eyes and spilling down my cheeks. Too stunned to speak, I ran from the house. I did not know where I was going, nor did I care. My only thought was to run and keep running until I could go no further. Somehow I made it into a thicket of trees and brambles, so dense that little light could filter through the branches that tore at my skin and clothes. Rain began to trickle through the leaves and mixed with the blood that smeared across my skin. No longer able to move my legs through the branches, I curled into a ball at the base of one of the trees and let the impact of all that had happened turn me into a shaking mass of tears and screams.
I stayed there for what seemed like days, it was hard to judge without the light of the sun. Hunger gnawed at my stomach and the need for water turned my mouth to ash. I ignored these desires, eager to die and move on to see once more those who were close to me. One night, I felt the now familiar chill, and looked up to see the man who had followed me through my life. I had never taken the time to formally meet him, nor did I want to. I shied away from his touch, but he picked me up and took me to a stream to wash away the blood and tears. He revived me, more or less against my will, unwilling to let me die.
“I told you to take care of yourself, my darling Isabel, not become the very picture of death. No, this will not do.”
Before I could protest, he carried me back to town, and put me up in a hotel, and left without another word.
He cut down my rope, and neutralised the poisons. The harder I tried to kill myself, the easier he protected me. How he knew or why he cared so much, I did not know. All I knew was that this time, it would not work. He would not be able to save me.
I am in the forest again, fog slipping its tendrils through the trees and curling around the branches. A wet chill creeps up my toes and fingers, my hands clutching at a knife. I know it’s time. As the figure slips out from behind the tree, a grim smile crosses my face.
“I’ve been waiting. You’ve certainly taken your time in coming,” I whisper, trying to hold in me the little courage I have left.
“Isabel, please don’t do this. It will not work.”
I plunge the knife between my ribs and twist, performing the action I would not have fathomed 20 years ago. As the air leaves my lungs, I gasp and my body fights for the breath it will never have again. Calmly, quietly, he comes over to me and pulls the hilt from my chest, placing his hand over the wound. Suddenly my lungs find traction and the gaping hole in my chest seals up.
Anger bubbles up and over the cold air in my lungs and I scream at him, “Why won’t you let me die?”
“This isn’t your decision! You can’t just choose who lives and dies because you love them. That’s not how life works! Death isn’t kind!”
“You are correct. I am not, nor have I ever been ‘kind’.”
“Who are you?”
He takes a deep breath and whispers close to my ear, “I am Death.”
I stagger back and my life flashes before my eyes, thinking of every other moment I had seen the man before me. The first time, when he saved me from the asp in the garden, the next with Emma’s death, then Daniel’s. He appeared at the death of my parents and my brother. My own attempts to take my life… the only common denominator in these events were the acts of dying.
“Why won’t you let me die?” I repeated.
“Because there is within you something, the likes of which I have never seen, and I wish not to destroy it, but to let it live on. I wish to take you with me and keep you from ever being hurt by my hand. You no longer need to be kind, but instead can develop your full potential. Do not be bound by the limits of humanity but rise above them. Come with me.”
The blanket of night drapes over the trees as stars peek through the moth-eaten sky. Air, chilled and heavy pulls us across the world, above the damp grass and creeping creatures of the dark. We come to those, clutching at some sense of reality as stale air crawls across their skin and settles for the night. We will draw your throat tight and send and shivers down your spine. From now on, there will be no more choosing, no more partiality; there will be no one else but him and I. And I have not chosen kindness.
It was so quiet in the hall of the church you could hear a pin drop, but the small sounds like plucking strings were tears instead of needles and fingertips pressing into the tile.
When Mary was a little girl, her sister Sarah taught her how to make the sobs come silent so no one could hear her pain. Sometimes it was better when mama couldn’t hear. Even in memory, Mary could hear Sarah’s voice, clear as crystal.
“You gotta keep a hankie on you, ‘cause the sniffles are the loudest. Just let your nose run and wipe it a way. It’s quieter to breathe through your mouth. Easier too anyway.”
Mary smoothed out the embroidered initials on the small square cloth, stiff from a life’s worth of sorrow and bleach. Sarah gave it to her before she left, and whenever her little sister was nervous, the initials so carefully sewn into the fabric, provided comfort.
“Your tears aren’t gonna make any noise at all, ‘cause that’s their natural state. But you’re gonna want to heave and sob and make a bunch of whimpery noises. So just take it slow. Sit down, press your hands into the ground and push all your heart through your fingertips. The earth has held more sadness in a day than you will in a lifetime.”
The rough porcelain tile grazed the fingers that ran across it. Blood bloomed like roses on the raw skin, staining the dingy white floor. Mary tucked her knees to her chest and pulled her hands into the sleeves of her sweater, muttering prayers under her breath between choked sobs.
“And the most important thing to remember, Mary, is that sometimes nothing works; the sound’s gonna come out whether you want it to or not and there’s nothing you can do about it. That’s the worst sort of crying there is and it’s a sacred sort of crying reserved for only the most broken of hearts and the saddest of sorrows. It’s between you and God and if it comes, you let it come, you hear me baby? You let it come. Otherwise it’s gonna sit in your heart and fester and rot and drive you mad. You let it out ‘cause it’s ten times worse if you keep it in.” Sarah hugged the sniffling child and kissed her forehead. “See you in the morning baby doll.”
Mary buried her head in her skirt and let the sobs come. The sound echoed in the halls of the empty church and their force caused her to rock back and forth. It was hard to believe it was all real. She was gone. Sarah, the one constant in her poor excuse for a life, was staring at the prettiest red velvet six feet underground. The grieving relatives and mourning friends had made their peace hours ago, walking back to their cars saying “what a sad story” it was, how “her life ended far too early”, “only the good die young”, a myriad of other sentiments that held truth no one quite understood. They were right; it was a sad story, her sister’s life ended far sooner than it ought have, and Sarah was the most wonderful person that graced the earth. She was so good for a life filled with so much bad.
But the sadness wasn’t in Ricky Thompson’s totaled 1996 Chevy Impala or the blood on its windshield; the sadness made itself at home in Sarah’s eyes the first time her father came home drunk enough to bruise more than her mother’s feelings and hadn’t left since he walked out the door, leaving behind a broken mother and two little girls who had no idea what life without pain was like. The sadness was in the story of Sarah’s first kiss that was taken rather than given and started a spiral of broken hearts and twisted limbs.
In fact, the sadness was as far away from that boy and his car as physically possible, because Ricky was the first man to close the door gently instead of slamming it, the first man either girl had met that hadn’t let a drop of alcohol past his lips except communion wine. Sadness couldn’t be anywhere near his car, Mary figured, because it was the first place either girl could sleep soundly without fear or pain. The way Mary saw it, Sarah’s life ended with the first time her father’s knuckles connected with her cheekbone; it decayed with every split lip and darkened bruise she took to spare Mary from a shared fate. It festered with every silent tear and muffled sob. Sarah died a long time ago, and it was only now she’d started to come back to life.
Mary’s tears were silent again, slowing to a stop. Her handkerchief was soaked through and stained from her fingers. With everything that was going on, sleep was even more evasive than usual and all the crying was finally wearing her down. Slumping to her side, she curled into herself, letting her eyes flutter closed. The sleep wasn’t refreshing, and it wasn’t all that deep, but it was better than all the nights this week combined.
Startled by the sound of echoing footsteps and her name being whispered down the maze of corridors, she peeked out from barely opened lids.
“Richard?” She asked, her voice nothing more than a hoarse whisper.
He chuckled, “How many times have I told you to call me Ricky?”
“A dozen or so. You might as well give up,” she said, a smile appearing for the first time since Sarah’d passed.
Richard bent down and helped her sit upright, looking at her hands. He gently checked her fingertips with his thumb, and furrowed his brow when he saw her wince. “What happened?”
“Rough tile,” Mary choked out, nodding at the floor.
He shook his head and wiped the few remaining tears from her face with a hanky of his own. “Your sister meant a lot to me, and I don’t know if I’ll ever forgive-“
“Stop,” she interrupted, “it’s not your fault. You were the best,” she coughed, “the best thing that happened to us. Not your fault.”
“You look tired.”
Mary raised her eyebrows.
“Let me help. You can’t go back home, not now. Even without Sarah, I can still take you West. It will be just the two of us, but we can make it work.”
Mary nodded, “Okay.”
Carefully, Richard picked up Sarah’s sister and let her rest against his shoulder. He tucked her fallen handkerchief into his pocket, and smiled at her already sleeping face.
“I’ll take care of her Sarah,” he said, looking up, “I promise.”
I stopped struggling with poetry the second I realised it was just life breathing on paper in the shallow gasps of someone who is trying to find purchase amongst the air. And that what seemed like futility was really just persistence, and that the gasps led to inhalations of a much more valuable truth.
She sat in the cab of the train, thoughts speeding through her head faster than the trees that passed her by. Since she was young, the girl had loved the familiar rumble of the train against the tracks and low of the whistle. Every Saturday she would sit with her notebook cradled in her knees, jotting down notes about the people, the strangers that surrounded her.
He was once such a stranger.
A stranger that sat down next to her one morning and kept quiet, a soft smile on his face and fingers that tapped along softly to the music playing through his headphones. A stranger with dark curls that tumbled over his ears and swept across his forehead, but kept clear of his bright eyes. Breathing out ever so softly, the girl drew her knees in and tilted her notebook away from what she figured would be prying eyes. Her pages were as guarded as her movements. The stranger, in contrast, possessed a sort of comfortable ease. His long legs folded up neatly in the seat and one arm lie on the rest and the other on his knee, fingers flicking through the expansive music library. And then with a slight bump, his elbow nudged against the girl’s arm and he apologised with a low voice and a glitter in his eye. She assured him it was all right and introduced herself. With only a few questions, he coaxed out her from her pages and into the warmth of his voice. But his stop was two before hers and she wished they had a chance for something more than the passenger car of a train. As she stood to leave, a paper fell from within the folds of her skirt. Bending down to pick it up, she felt an inexplicable leap within her chest. Slowly unfolding the paper, she read the words written in beautiful script and a smile lit up her face. With a glance over her shoulder at the idea of the man that broke her silence, she sent a message to the number written on the little scrap of paper.
“Tomorrow sounds lovely.”
The sky is dark and littered with the broken glass stars we tell stories about and I’m curled into a blanketed mass clutching the tea you made to keep me from the nightmares. In the silence I’m struck with the overwhelming urge to just fall. Fall into this sense of curiosity, into knowing the curves of your laugh and the contours of the words that keep me sane. Even in a whisper, it is curious that, somehow, my name has always felt safe in your mouth. As if, among the thousands of words that spilled from it, mine holds significance. I had never known how I wished for safety until you were holding me in your arms, whispering it would all be okay.
When I tried to find a metaphor to describe you, I couldn’t recover the words. Every attempt at such failed in capturing all the pieces of you.
At first you were a warm cup of coffee, familiar and comforting. Perhaps it was in the way we met, in a rain-filled evening made bearable by the warmth of a cup and your smile; in the conversations spilled out over the laminated wood and coffee-covered napkins that were never quite real, even in the moment. I could spend hours with you, and did. The perfume of your skin was everything I ever needed, hinting of vanilla and starlight and the lingering coffee. But coffee is bitter alone, and you never were. Everything about you rang true and sweet.
You could not be daylight; it is too familiar, too common. If anything, you were the night, holding unimaginable, unattainable wonder and teeming with the unknown. You could be the night for the nature of is habit: in the same way that night reveals the humanity and honesty of all men, you revealed such in me. But the night does not hold the blinding light of your smile, or the tangible touch of your hand in mine.
I am forced to the conclusion that there is no perfect metaphor for you. There is nothing I could find to match the scratch of your cheek when you kiss me. There are no representations for the way you set my soul on fire or the pattern of my heartbeat pounding out a rhythm as crooked as your smile in the moments your eyes meet mine.
I cannot bring words to your eyes, the light and life and love they hold. I cannot bring words to you, because you are so much more than words can hold. The irony of description is the misconstruing of perception. That these words I attempt to apply to you are not able to capture you. You are all that you are and nothing more; the most you there ever was or ever will be. And yet I try. I try to find these words that pale in comparison, words that can only shadow your person.
It’s said that one could see right through me and read me like an open book. My thoughts clear as day for all to see. But words and thoughts can lie like poker; putting on a pretty face to hide your hand. I’ve spent my life playing everything close to my vest, revealing only when the cards must be played. Yet for you I’m ready to throw out my preconceived notions of what I always thought I wanted. Books and people are the same in that their covers can be deceiving. For my sake (and your own) I hope you can’t see the words that litter my pages.
There is a curious sticking property to words, once applied they cannot be removed. Covered, manipulated, twisted, turned, and scarred, yes. But they stick and stain and burrow in deep. Choosing words is a perilous task, as using the wrong word can change the very depths of a person. And the words that tumble from your mouth, tripping over your tongue in the same way I’m tripping over my feet… those words wrap me in your arms and soothe the pain of a life of card-clutching and painted faces. The right words, in the right places, at the right times, can move men or mountains. I’m choosing my words very carefully now and have decided that the only word I ever wanted to apply to you was a simple four letters, equally proportioned:
eddie called me a bitch
for beating him by half a lap
in the breaststroke
I didn’t know what it meant
but the chlorine burned
as the water splashed my eyes
calvin called me a bitch
for “leading him on”
for two whole months
I didn’t know that friendship meant kissing
and holding hands in public
john called me a bitch
for ignoring him when he spoke
saying that it was rude
to turn down a compliment
I didn’t think “nice tits”
was all that complimentary
drew called me a bitch
for punching him in the face
when he tried to grab my ass
I didn’t think that “just kidding around”
was a good enough excuse
mike called me a bitch
with a stone cold heart
for telling him I didn’t love him
even after “all he’d done for me”
I didn’t think that the bruises he left
were the marks of a gentleman
I called myself a bitch
for speaking my mind
when others disagreed
I thought that owning the word meant
no one could use it against me
but I was wrong
you called me perfect
for all the things that made
me think I was a bitch
and told me that it was a word
that described only those
who thought it did