The History of Smoke

A woman opened her eyes and closed them and took a deep breath and then gave it back and when she opened her eyes again she saw that she had exhaled a god. It was made of smoke and it lived only for an instant before dissolving into the room. And she tried again, and breathed out another one, and it dissipated, too. She spent the first several days like this, in bed with a houseful of deities each made of a moment. Eventually she got up, and got dressed, and made her way into the bathroom, and then the kitchen. Soon she settled into days and nights populating smoky pantheons moment by moment and room by room and she never ventured out.

As they broke apart, the smoky relics occupied the in-betweens around her. They seeped into the silver backings of mirrors. (Looking at just the right angle, she might glimpse a shining bird’s head with feathers tipped in blood.) They clung to the wallpaper. (She sometimes sat drinking wine and peeling back strips from the wall to find glue in the shape of a jackal’s leg or a dragon’s teeth.) They settled into the curtains. (Once she pushed the velvet aside to let in the sun, and a screaming stone mouth flew into the room and knocked her down before disappearing up the stairs.) They sank into the logs in the fireplace. They soaked her clothes and bedsheets, the oil for her lamps, her bread and milk, the water she bathed in.

But something does not come from nothing, and as her body gave up spirits to fill her household, her household in turn claimed parts of her body, which blurred and lost its edges. Her blood ran thin and smoky and covered her gods like a caul. Her skin grew gaseous and began to lift itself up and away and into the haze of the room. The ends of her hair breezed in and out of focus, repurposed in the hazy mustaches of deities of mercy or medicine. As she slowly turned to vapor, her insides burning hollow, loss carved small holes in what remained of the meat of her. She was the unwhole mother of moments, pregnant with divinity. In each smoky child she gave breath to, she saw the worlds it made and destroyed, the lives that worshipped or neglected it. In a moment she saw the cliffs, windowsills, shrines, and amulets that cradled its form. And she became those shrines and sills, and she turned her gaze on herself, and she found she was empty.

To keep the gods inside, she held her breath until she passed out. When that didn’t work, she began to take them back into her body soon after exhaling them. And so she filled with fragments of deities, broken pieces that did not fit together. And as the gods inside her grew misshapen and monstrous, the worlds inside her crashed against each other the way that smoke crashes, thick and slow and dangerous, and it killed the desire by filling the holes of her body with small worlds shifting in an odd tectonics watched over by powerful deformed things.

One morning she woke to find the pearly hazel of her eyes sublimating out from her face in mudras formed by vaporous fingers. Sightless and grasping, she got out of bed. She ripped off the remnants of the wallpaper, and pulled the curtains shut, and broke the furniture, and arranged the wood in little piles. And she found a torch, and roamed blindly from room to room, the fingers of her eyes touching the floors and the walls and the upholstery until gods danced in them. And then she returned to the living room, and sat among the flames, and exhaled, and the wood around her released its worlds in a sequence of moments that contained forevers and gave up its gods for the last time as the house and its cosmos burned down around her. If you stand in that spot and look up, you’ll just make out a dark cloud in the shape of a temple. And it never moves, and it never rains, and it never will.

 

[You can return to The Elizabeths this way.]