Whenever I wake from a bad dream, my murderer gives me homework. He’s there waiting. Not at the edge of the bed, as one might assume, with a hand resting calmly on my back, but sitting alone in the dim light of the kitchen. And my homework is ready for me. The process of giving is always the same. Like a sort of scripted exchange. He slides a single sheet of folded paper which he’s torn from a legal pad across the kitchen table. He sips the coffee I’ve poured for him. “This is your story,” he says. “This is its beginning. Get to know your story as if you were holding the story in your palm, running your fingers through its feathers. Commit its color to memory. Tell your story to yourself until you are telling it to someone else. Until this is the only story you have ever told.” He says nothing else. The silence filled with a last sip or two of coffee. It’s all very solemn. I don’t have to ask if it’s best that I wait until he returns to whatever fog he’d stumbled from to unfold the paper. It’s understood. When he’s finished his coffee and gone I sit as if on pause. Again, he has taken the morning and its moon and all its breathy promises with him. I always imagine a cat licking itself. I let it lick itself to death. Then I begin to read my homework: There is a thought you can think. When you possess this knowledge you will die. I am no mystic or conspiracy theorist or signpost preacher. I know this because I am dead. And this thought killed me. I will not reveal the thought to you. At the end of my story the thought may come to you. You can stop reading this story whenever you like. You may find this the right choice if you feel a foreign feeling creep up and you are not ready to die. I refold the paper and slip it inside the drawer with the pile. Replaying the familiar words in my head while I walk to the bathroom to begin preparing for my day, I realize that only the nature of dream ever makes one morning different than the rest.
Episode XXV: Space Burger: a Departure
My murderer takes a walk to settle his stomach. The rare burger he devoured for dinner is stuck in his gut like a pound of blood tucked under a butcher's block— an amalgam of body and soul ready for whatever ghosts may come ghosting. My murderer plans to eat more soup. Asks the spangled sky about its plans. Checks the gutters for fallen stars. In New Orleans, it's easy to settle for plastic beads drooping open mouths from oak branches to answer all the tough questions. My murderer pieces out the monster shapes of clouds scratching their backs between stiff limbs and reminds himself that what fits in everyone's front yard is, so undeniably, him. The longest gaze of the "to-be-murdered" is an eye peeking through blinds. The gaze of the murderer another question in another house of other questions. What will come to pass for my murderer and me when I impart this "to-be-art" and decide to depart with nothing? "Nihilo ex Nihilo," my murderer lets slip from his mouth full of unuttered answers. I watch the words go wriggling through the fat greasy blinds and imagine a pound of my murderer’s blood, dripping like a rare burger suspended in space.
Episode XXIX: Nothing But
“Often the world has been taken over by snakes.” That's the shape of words when I wake from that kind of dream. My murderer seems to see these shapes in his palm. He holds out his hand, slightly shaking, as if counting seeds he will plant in a garden. This always happens. I'm always still waking up. The dog barks. My murderer is standing in my bedroom in a red bathrobe with two golden ropes twisted around its waist. He waits patiently. Placed on the chest of drawers behind him is a tape recorder, already clicked on. Beside it, blue flower petals float in a bowl of water. In the hand that isn’t turned palm-up, flat in front of him, he holds a ceramic coffee cup with a chip in its lip, but he doesn’t stop staring down with discerning eyes at the seeds that are or aren’t there. When the dog is done barking my murderer places the coffee on the night table beside me, asks me to begin describing the dream, his gaze returned again to his opened hand. Most of the time, the dream leaves me quickly. Besides, there isn't much to describe. Snakes are everywhere. People have learned to live with them. Or, more accurately, they are learning. It's always as if the global infestation of snakes had somewhat recently occurred. Just walking down the street is tricky business. Walking through the front door of a home—any home—is particularly hard for some reason. I have these dreams once or twice every few years. It’s always the same story. When I’ve told all there is to tell, my murderer smugly brushes the dreams off as nothing. "Well, it is a dangerous world," he says, but if he is so certain of relative innocence, why all this performative gesturing of hands? Why the show? Why even show up at all? What is most unsettling is that he didn't know what to say this morning when I told him I’d dreamed of a single snake. “A great snake, sliding in the night, nothing but darkness and snake, nothing but color and coil, and me licking the scales and groping that slick twisting body, me nothing but hands and tongue, and the world, what I was able to see of it, nothing but snake and blackness.” My murderer, dazed, dropped his hand. Nothing fell to the floor. “It is a dangerous world.”
Christopher Shipman is the author of Keats is Not the Problem (Lavender Ink), co-authored with Brett Evans, and The Movie My Murderer Makes Season II (The Cupboard). Shipman’s work appears in journals such as Cimarron Review, PANK, Pedestal, Plume, Salt Hill, So and So, Spork Press, and TENDERLOIN, among many others. His poem, "The Three-Year Crossing," was a winner of the 2015 Motionpoems Big Bridges prize, judged by Alice Quinn. A Ship on the Line (2015), co-authored with Vincent Cellucci, was a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award. Shipman lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, where he teaches literature at New Garden Friends School and dances to the Boss with his four-year-old daughter on his shoulders. He recommends Sandy Hook Promise.