The Elements of Living • Isis – Kahpre Hodges

The air was chips of fire in my lungs. I felt the warmth of living seated comfortably in bronchioles, coursing through winding capillaries and the thick transit of arteries. I’d never been so aware of my life than when I was dying.

Dying itself wasn’t exactly as I imagined it would be.

The stars were dazzling. There they were, jewels unable to be plucked, yet ripe for the picking. I began to wonder if that’s what light pollution was really all about, not being able to hold dominion over celestial bodies. Mankind was good at doing that, punishing the natural order of things.

At first, the world was a jungle. A cacophony of sounds reached my ears, muttled with my brain, made me hypersensitive to the world around and below. I could smell the deep dish pizza down the street, I could hear my attacker’s heavy breathing as he darted away, I could taste the blood on my lips, in my veins, down my shirt, seeping from my body. The cold leeched away my warmth so quickly I wondered if this was dying.

Then it became a thought of when did we start counting the moments of death? I leaned against a wall with thoughts tripping through my brain like diamonds. They all seemed precious, and so clear they were infallible. I understood. Yes, dying since your first breath sounded refined and conscious of the surety of life… but wasn’t it just an excuse? These are the philosophies we use to frame our children in ideas and tape them down with expectations and send them to some undefined place in hopes they’ll make it. These are the excuses we used to rush living and feel adequate.

My blood stained my hands scarlet, yet, my mind told me I didn’t know what love was. Words tore from my throat as if they were the last I’d ever scream, because they probably were. Pink, red, red, red. My heart thumped at an inconsistent speed, but it was furious. Heart. Love, at a time like this? But why not? Why not love now? My entire life, I’d been dancing around love with expectations. Love had to be this way. Love was this way. Only this was love. Love was chips of fire in your lungs, a speedball with none of the health issues, a whirlwind of romance, wasn’t it supposed to be? Maybe. Yeah. But sometimes loving was more than romance. Sometimes it passed those bounds with a leap and an unpleasant faceplant in the dirt. Sometimes love was ugly, and terrible, and no one ever told you that. So what if I loved you after that one night? The script said to expect love after developing a deep relationship, getting to know love first, make sure love has a steady job, and then maybe accept love into your life. But, when did love develop rules? We tamed love like a wild thing and put it in a cage, and marked it with a tag labeled February the fourteenth.

Someone was screaming now, there were other footsteps, rushed, running. But they were muffled, drowning in a sea of… quiet. The ground beneath me was small stones, garbage, waste of all kinds. This is where I lay, somewhere non­descript, dying. Where am I again? A park? A sidewalk. That’s right, walking to join… him. My body’s cold, but God, what is cold anymore? My pain thrums, but this is my pain. I’ve begun to feel my pain like I feel my bills every month. It’s not pleasant, but it’s the tax of living. I’m still living.

Dying is a halfway point. For all my fanciful thoughts, the natural process of death isn’t anymore pleasant. My lungs… did I have a collapsed lung? I couldn’t breath. I was wheezing like a wizened old man. I was twenty­four. Do you know how much blood a twenty­four year old has within their body?

I asked you with my eyes.

Your eyes. I can’t see their color under burning orange streetlamps, but I bet they’re red, pink, red, red. I love you for being here, with me, in these last moments. Are these my last moments? In death, even me, a human, has no track of time. I feel no rush to die, to continue on in these last few moments. Maybe this is why I am so calm as I close my eyes.

There are sirens, and you are telling me to open my eyes. Hold on. Hold on. What do you think is so good about life, that you’d ask me to keep living despite the gaping hole in my abdomen? I am painted in scarlet.

Actually, we are painted in scarlet. I can see the liquid dripping from your hands. I had never thought of my blood as a liquid before, because usually I constitute liquid as being pourable, and I’ve just never seen so much of my blood to think of it as pourable. I think you would be in agreement that my blood is liquid.

It’s strange, the intimacy strangers are able to uphold. I feel the urgency in your breath as you whisper in arched tones that you will “I don’t even want to think about what I’ll do” if I die. You’re taking responsibility for this stranger, for me. You are here.

The hospital is blinding. Lights, lights, lights. And blaring, blanketing white. The doctors are wearing mint green. The light might burn my retinas out, and I want to thank the nurse who calls for anesthesia.

And then, there is darkness.

I’m not sure if this is dying. If I live, aren’t I dying anyway? So, is this death? I wonder where my diamond thoughts have gone. I want burning fires and chips of ice if this is it. I want terrible, painful love. I want to know who you were, I want to hold your hands. But this velvet darkness… it is vast and I feel so vast and when will I find my way back?

I have never felt so alive, than when I was dying.

Waiting. I’ve done a lot of that tonight. Waiting for the ambulance to arrive, waiting to get to the hospital, waiting for the police to take my statement, waiting for the patient’s family to show up. Learning the patient had no family that lived in the area was a brief pause between the waiting. But now here I was again, waiting, because I couldn’t leave her to sit in the hospital all by herself.

It had been hours since she’d gotten out of surgery, early morning now. I had weaved between consciousness and sleep for so long I couldn’t entirely tell what I knew and what I didn’t. When I fell into sleep, my dreams were exactly like my reality except the doctors came and told me things like: “She’s going to be fine” “It was a quick surgery, but it missed any vital organs and she should be awake later today if you want to stay” and “You saved that girl’s life”.

A nurse told me I had responded rightly by immediately pressing on the wound to staunch bleeding. To me, it had looked like one stab wound with a lot of blood. In reality it had been three stab wounds. I had only seen him stab her the last time. Unfortunately one had nicked the abdominal aorta. I didn’t know any medical jargon, but I’d Googled it with all of my sudden free time. If the attacker had punctured it, she would’ve died. Instantaneously, almost. A flame puttered out just like that.

Speaking of the attacker, I had done a lot of that as well. They said they’d caught him fleeing not far from the crime scene. I’d given my statement. I’d gone over all the details.

Yes, meeting my family for pizza down the street.

Yes, I saw the attacker lift his arm and stab her once.

Yes, I approached the scene after that.

Yes, I pressed my hands against the wound.

Giving my statement was calling to resurrection the grief, the regret, the fear, sorrow, guilt.

Guilt. Because I’ve been waiting for hours for anyone to come, and now I can finally see someone here for her. And they are wearing the hunched back, the downtrodden walk, when they are close enough I see his eyes are grey with regret. Self-hatred in the lines of his face, tear tracks forever tattooed on his cheekbones because he will never forget this day.

Guilt, because how do I explain I wasn’t fast enough? Guilt, because I’ve been here and he wasn’t and how will I face her family, who are flying in from out-of-state? They’ll want to talk to me, won’t they?

I stand up. I readily admit my legs were shaking. Weak. I felt weak, tired. So human, so alive because death… only life in the face of death could suck the vitality from our very marrows. I’d seen them around campus, before. Our university wasn’t terribly large. They were almost graduated, I’d never spoke to them. But I’d seen them around. These strangers. They lived together, they were going to be married. I knew them, but I’d never met them.

I looked into his eyes, and I didn’t have the words. I didn’t have any words past, “I’m sorry”. But I couldn’t say that because it wasn’t enough.

He just looked back, blankly. And then I watched the Earth shudder as his shoulders shook, and his hands came up to catch the precipitation we call the liquid form of sorrow, and he cried.

“I love her,” He said it like a mantra.

I love her too, I almost echoed back. But mine was a different kind of love, born in the reality of the moment where I was trying to save her that she was me, was him, was you, was us. And she asked, “How am I so terribly alive?”

I would’ve liked to meet her.