We sat up in bed, suddenly awake—Ann first, then Brian a moment after—and we looked at the green clockface. 2:46 am again. We waited, floating in a warm fog, and listened to our breaths like a whispered call-and-response beneath the creak of the ceiling fan, then shoved our covers between us and swung our legs out of bed, our four feet thumping softly onto the cold wooden floor.

For a moment we were alone, each slumped in our silence, and then we sighed and stood in the wooly dark, our heads swiveling, pausing, swiveling like calibrating satellites, toward one another, away from one another, now cocked toward the window Ann refused to sleep beside, now toward the closed but thin bedroom door we kept ourselves locked behind. We listened. We held our breath and we listened, until the slant of the clock’s green-lit numbers changed and slashed us then across our chest.

Ann was naked and her pale skin was a moon’s nimbus in the graying black, and we edged closer to each other and she reached up and touched Brian’s collar bones with fingers like frozen feathers. Brian shrugged, glanced at the door. Ann followed his eyes, and we measured the light beneath its crack against the amount we believed should be there and listened for its absence or its excess.

No more, we hoped, no less. Brian shrugged again. We never knew. We suspected, but never knew. Always awakened together, always at the same time, always wondering if what we heard in our sleep was only in our dream or if it was real, and how, if it was not, it would resound in our dreams at once.

We didn’t say this to one another. We no longer said much at all to each other or to ourselves, because we had to listen, not just in the night when it woke us, but even during the day when the echoes of the sound we thought we heard flowed around us like fluttering eddies of frigid water, so that Brian, who listened for a low thrumming like drums buried deep beneath the winter frost, would stand slack on our porch and stare intently through his feet, and our neighbor would wave at us and pause and then walk faster away; and so that Ann would stop as she passed down the hall, her right foot lifted slightly in the air, listening again for the keening, like a cold nail dragged across bright metal she heard in the night. We were listening, never hearing. We never hear. We want to hear, so we listen.

And when the clock’s green light cut across us again, Brian moved Ann’s hands from him and walked to the door and felt it with the smooth flat of his palm and it was as cold as everything in our house, as cold as we were, and Ann rushed toward the door, breathing against Brian’s back.

“Don’t,” she whispered and Brian craned his neck and then let his hand drop. “Won’t.”

We backed away from the door and sat down on the foot of our bed and stared at our feet so luminous white in the gray above the dark wood. We listened and waited and listened. We knew we would crawl backwards into bed and sleep again before the sun rose and sliced our room into sections through the blinds, but not until we listened, even though—but we couldn’t say this to each other—we would never hear.

Zetetic separator

— Michael Blackburn lives in Iowa City with his wife Shannon and their cat Lizzie.  He’s currently pursuing an MFA at National University.

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