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/gabriella graceffo

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Second Syntax

If you sleep on your side, a dream might slip out your ear if you ain’t careful. My great-grandmother, Virginia, tells me this as she cuts the crusts off our sandwiches. I nod, careful to keep my mouth tight around stolen Christmas nougat. The wrapper crinkles in my hand. Spit it out and eat, she commands, though her thin lip tilts up as I do so.


Chewing mustard and leftover mint, I picture the dream that must have slipped out on the vinyl couch cover where I fell asleep. It drips through carpet and floorboards into the crawlspace where it pools in a can of old paint, makes the eggshell a soft pink I decide is dream color. Like strawberry milk. Little rootlets in whey.


Years later, when I barely sleep the night, I wake and find bloodstains on my pillowcase, just below the divot from my ear. A nosebleed pulled along the curve of my chin, its stain runs pink at the edges. I can hear Virginia’s voice: salt it to get the stain out. Salt any blood you find.

*

I am convinced I’ve gone somewhere I’ve never been. I remember the truth of it clearly: the edge of an Indiana lawn, the house doorless years after construction, porch columns cutting shadows on my stepfather’s cheek as he chases his daughter and my brother through a tick lawn. Ethan, his son, tries to convince me to go through the woods. His uncle gave him a knife, and he’s desperate to find something to skin. I refuse, so he steals my book and bolts and suddenly the whole backyard is full to brim with running bodies. I sprint after the blond head for what feels like miles until I find Ethan, his green shirt bushwhacked, my book half-torn.

I remember the rest just as clearly, but it cannot possibly be true: a dried up lake with a bleached tree snarled up at the center, a vertical bulge in the cracked ground. Ethan dares me to go to the tree and bring back a piece of it, says ghosts live inside because it’s heartwood so it collects the dead. It’s driftwood, not heartwood, I say, but looking across the lakebed, something feels different here, older. I don’t realize I’ve started walking until I simply am. It takes ten minutes to get close enough to see more than just the vague bulb of the tree. It looks human in the curves, the small knots of breasts and shoulder rims. Wind forces its way through the holes, shoots across the branches which whistle like mouths. I lift a hand and touch the wood, its smooth fibers too tight for ants to squeeze through. As I chip off a piece, the wind screams into me and sends me sprinting to shore, jumping lakebed cracks as my girl lungs keep up with woman legs, body stuck in every space between.

There are no dried lakes where my stepfather’s family has property. There is no dead tree, and similar dead trees only occur near once-shorelines, flooded then dried. I have no haze with this memory, not even a sheen of doubt. I know I have been there, but it does not exist. Whatever dream I had, it found water and propagated itself, a taproot going deep into my spine. It has no pink, milky film.

How many of my memories are like this? How many that are true have slipped away?

*

The summer I am twenty-three, I wake knowing my partner is dying beside me. I stare up at the ceiling, unable to move except a few millimeters, slowly turning inside a too-small shell. The locusts come then, gather on the revolving blades, a swarm spreading outward. The ceiling becomes a vibrating mass, pushing further to cover the window and then my partner beside me. They shudder into his mouth, flick wingtips out like tongues. I try to twist my arms onto his chest, to save him, but I can’t move. A scream catches just behind my teeth. It will take another ninety seconds before my jaw will open to let the wet sound slide out. Thirty seconds past that, the visions will disperse as my body catches up with my brain, when I finally wake.

After seven years dealing with sleep paralysis, I have learned a new syntax for my body during these nights. The subject-verb connection dissolves on the sheets. I becomes me, becomes object. Prepositions ground me so I surround myself with them: above the mattress, beside my partner, beneath the duvet, beneath knits, beneath locusts, always beneath. The visions start on the ceiling. There is only one piece of natural syntax preserved: I see. I cannot close my eyes, do not feel their dryness, can only look back and forth, desperate to track the shadows as they condense and settle.

But tonight, I do not remember the second syntax. I try to pry myself out like a hot egg fried on asphalt, rolling up the white squeeze of my calves and thighs, but I am stuck on tar. I throw myself into the hollow spaces in my wrists and the arches of my feet, but in the end, I just lie there beneath the fan and its locusts, watching. The worst part is the certainty that my partner is dying, that it is my fault I cannot save him. I run through every lexicon, every language, trying to strike pronoun and verb together, but nothing catches. Struggle makes sleep paralysis last much longer, ten, twenty, thirty minutes before I can turn onto my side, curl my arms around my sleeping partner’s shoulders, and pant like I’ve gone rabid in the night, unable to breathe in more than a narrow ribbon of air. From above, through each locust’s five eyes, my outline is almost like an upturned ovary, lying there in a sack of sweat where moments before I was little more than a cyst inside the larger shape.

I sleep in every position possible to avoid these nights, even upside down with my legs propped on the pillows as if pooling blood in my torso will keep me grounded. But the dreams slip out and run up the walls just the same.

*

My mother is screaming, shaking me, pulling me from my bed. I slam into consciousness, ready to flee, but I settle as I realize it’s a night terror, my mother awake but dreaming. It’s coming, it’s burning, we have to go, she whispers, cottonmouth making her voice waxy. She blinks and sees me but doesn’t stop. She runs to my armoire and throws sweaters on the ground of the casita we’re sharing in New Mexico. Your coat, your coat, you can’t burn, where is it, where is it! I stand, try to pull her to me, to wake her gently so she doesn’t think I’m the man who hurt her for three years after I moved out for college. Mom, it’s me, wake up, please, I beg her. The dead flies beneath the window crunch when she steps on them. I have to save your brother. He’s not here; please, Mom, listen to me. No! You’re okay; we’re okay. No, no, you’re— I force my arms around her, use my taller height to hug her small frame. She tries to push away from me, grinds her heels in the flies. I likely won’t convince her to clean them before she goes back to sleep. The dream releases her; she slumps into my shoulder, sweat seeping through my thermal. It’s 3:13 A.M.

*

Parasomnia clusters in the women of my family. It by nature is not hereditary but has undoubtedly attached itself to every foremother of mine, nurtured in the way she cups her daughter’s cheek at bedtime or slipping a finger below the daughter’s nose to feel her exhale an hour later. This is nightly ritual.

I am sixteen when I wake standing on the porch. The front door is open behind me. Moths dart for tender lamps my mother keeps on at night; they burn their small bodies on the bulbs before crumpling on the credenza. My brother will collect them in the morning before tossing them onto the lawn like wedding rice. I hear their wings, first flying by my ear and then a sizzle.

I have never sleepwalked before. My stepsister listens to me talking in my sleep, usually during a repeating nightmare where I drown and burn at the same time, and my jaw grinds against sleep paralysis every few weeks. But in this one moment, I stand on my porch with no memory of how I got there, stopped only by the scratch of the welcome mat on bare feet.

This particular version of parasomnia steals my body, like my mother’s night terrors, so I am not awake at all, a blind passenger. With sleep paralysis, I am aware, trapped but able to watch as dreams flit across the room, moving my fist millimeter by millimeter to my mouth to stay quiet. It is a shock each time, but it is familiar. This is much worse because there is no syntax at all, not a single verb I can hold onto. I am asleep until I am not, in bed until I am standing on the porch in flannels and a handed-down pub shirt from Old Navy. There is some control in admitting powerlessness with sleep paralysis. Tonight, I don’t have even that.

A car curves around the road, headlights bright enough I can see all the insects hanging in the light like dust. As I close the front door and slip back into bed, I wonder briefly what my body would look like if the doormat hadn’t stopped me from walking into the car’s path. How long it would take for someone to notice: the sound, the splatter, or the smell.

*

The man holds my hand like it’s a gift. He turns it slightly, runs fingers over the lines in my skin. A horned shadow from the church splits his face, moving leftward during the palm reading. Oh, the palm reader whispers, pointing at my pinky, begging theatre. I go along, asking the right questions in a soft, girlish voice. Here, right here, he says, is where I can see how many children you’ll have. But you have dozens of child lines. He runs his thumb over the border of my hand, counts each crack. Thirty-two. It isn’t just birth, he assures me. It can mean you’ll be a maternal figure to them.

But I imagine them all in my belly, little commas pushing me into plurals. Sitting there on a fold out chair in New Orleans, I have never been kissed. I can feel how a fetus might sit inside me. I can’t see anyone putting them there, just a sudden change in the body like sleepwalking, though this version is much longer.

I put down a $20 and start walking to the hotel. The red-light district swallows me. Even at this time of day, sex workers pose in window boxes like dolls, pubic hair shaved to smooth cuts of thighs beneath lace. They sway on their heels, letting the sun catch on their bare stomachs.

They have to own their bodies to rent them out, I think. Pregnancy is a rental, a lease that creates an us before a violent splitting. I do not fully own my body, awake or asleep. I cannot give it to anyone.

*

After my partner and I have sex, I often wake up with sleep paralysis, as if my muscles need extra time to atone. The locusts move from the fan to my stomach, investigating the swell of it. The gentle soreness between my thighs makes me aware of my open spaces, and the locusts know them, too. I try to curl away as the sheets flicker, locusts burrowing beneath, deeper. When they go inside me, I do not feel it, but I know they’re there, humming in the ache.

It’s common to have recurring visions called hypnopompic hallucinations; they find some memory and splice it into the room while the body is still asleep, paralyzed by muscle atonia in my case. Since my consent was violated, I’ve only seen locusts. Two years of them, and every time I’m terrified as they descend toward the bed.

I have never felt them, though my mother feels hers. Our parasomnias are related, but not identical. She still has control of her body, though she’s unwillingly acting out her night terror through the rooms of her house. I can only watch. I am terrified to have a daughter, to make that gamble and see which parasomnia will attach itself to her.

Hypnopompic hallucinations worm their way into the brain for memories and leave holes behind. Memory exists in a network across the brain, but sleep paralysis reroutes the paths for old memories, dismantles new memories as they’re encoded in disrupted REM, and adds false layers and addendums to true memories. There was never a dried lake or dead tree; the dreams sprawl out and create new roots in cerebrospinal fluid.

When the locusts fade and sunlight bleeds into the bedroom, I run a bath. Sitting in the tub, I dig into every raw fold, searching for spined feet and wing pieces I know are somewhere inside me. But there is only me and milky water going cold.

*

The plastic gloves keep sweat in too well. It’s August. My parents, recently divorced, decided to use Ripley’s as a drop-off point to transfer children for the weekend. Inside, the mirrors drip little beads of condensation down to the carpet. It runs burgundy. The hall of mirrors is quiet, only the occasional squeal of a toddler coming through shared vents between attractions. I walk through alone. My brother is too young, my father too tired after the waxworks. I keep my hands out to touch the mirrors, search for dead air. In a single intersection, there are up to six potential openings, outlined with plastic Gothic arches. Touching is encouraged, but only with gloves. Handprints litter the mirrors at about my shoulder, smears that look fleshy from the red strip lights, grease lines to follow to the exit.

In the MRI a decade later, there are no trails, no grease lines, only slamming machine coils.

The headphones the lab tech gave me stop working two minutes in. It’s me and 110 decibels of mechanical rhythm that changes every two minutes. I am not allowed to move. I barely swallow. Looking up at the plastic ring around me, there are seams that look nearly identical to those mirror frames, like wishbones with wider curves.

I imagine pushing myself through the crack, back into the hall of mirrors. Each opening is a route to a memory, the maze branching endlessly in red light. This kind of mental structure for memory is helpful when normal encoding isn’t enough; I learned the method in sixth grade from my last Latin instructor determined to help me memorize declensions. In the clash of sound around me, all I can visualize is the hall of mirrors as I try to make the time pass, to ignore how similar this feels to sleep paralysis, only louder. I follow strip lights from memory to memory, find visual signifiers on little shelves or tables—a hundred lavender sachets, zebra mussels in a pile, bloody sheets I’m careful not to touch. It works for a while. Then mirrors start sliding into places they shouldn’t be, locking me in as I feel panic rise in my throat. I can’t move, can only stare at the plastic seams and the memories beyond.

The MRI ends its last round of drumming. The plastic table moves me out of the ring slowly. When I sit up, I realize I’m clenching the edges of my hospital gown. I let go and the paper falls from my hands in creased pieces. It’s normal, the lab tech says. He holds out his arm to help me stand, brushing away loose paper with his shoe. What? I ask. The scan, it looks normal. Oh. I clasp my hands together at my navel, hyperaware of the silhouette of my underwear through the gown. I clear my throat before quietly adding, You can see that already? He laughs, shrugs with his clipboard. He’s young, mid-twenties, a few years older than me. There isn’t a tumor or a sock rolling around in there that I can see, though the blood vessels are swollen up for sure, he says, waving a hand towards my skull.

Some part of me wanted it to be a tumor. To have a simple answer.

*

Before my great-grandmother passes, my mother gathers us to have a family portrait taken of female descendants. We walk into the photography studio, my great-grandmother and grandmother with their hair styled at a salon, my mother and I with dark hair she curled to flip up at the ends. While the photographer arranges the adults, I weave through tripods and light stands, feeling their heat on my orange dress. The assistant shoos me away as he changes lenses and preps the lighting umbrellas.

Come on over, little lady, the photographer says, motioning me toward my family. He arranges us from youngest to oldest, my great-grandmother’s shrunken body made taller standing on apple crates. He turns my shoulders, tips a knuckle under my chin, shifts me into new positions that make me feel like a mannequin as he tells me to hold still.

This is the only photo of all of us together. Different shades of the same body, different ways of being a mother that led to the same disconnect of self and body, asleep and awake.

*

After I get a concussion slipping on ice, my partner holds me and makes sure I don’t fall asleep. He tracks saccades, quick eye movements following his forefinger, and uses frozen whiskey stones in a cotton bag as an icepack.

The pain feels like a whistle between my ears. I push off the bed and shuffle to the bathroom, nauseous. I strip to my underwear, sweater and jeans rolled up at the door. I press as much of me as I can to the floor, icy without heating in February. A film of moisture slips between the tile and my skin, pools in my cheek and elbow.

I think about lying on my mother’s bathroom floor, in the house she found after the divorce before she remarried. I was skinny, refusing to eat. She knelt beside me, pushed stray hair behind my ear. Just breathe, sweetie, she says softly. I don’t remember what was wrong, only that I needed to be shirtless on the tile to cool down. So many of my memories with my mother are supine, one of us on our back sometime in the early hours after bad sleep or sickness drove us to find mother or daughter. She held my hand, rubbed the ridge below my thumb. In the year living in that house, there was love, but also shame, a fear in her to see me repeat her failures and in me to become her. But at night, something shifted. We could see each other more clearly, or maybe saw nothing at all, but we handled each other with soft hands.

Now, on the floor of my partner’s bathroom with a leak spitting rain on my calves every now and again, I want to hide my nakedness and the pain within. But my partner knocks on the door, asks to come in, and I let him. He sees me and nothing changes in his eyes. He checks my symptoms but is not clinical or distant. There is only warmth, the same kind my mother and I shared all those nights, but here there is no shame, no fear of future becoming. It is my body, his body, and delicate care. The syntax of our bodies combines without making one of us object. I never lose hold of verbs. I let him see me.

I open my hand, and he takes it. We stand and move toward the door, his arm strong as he supports my weight. Just before we walk out of the bathroom, I look in the mirror, my face cut into thirds by paneling. I move a bit to place my reflection fully in the middle panel, unbroken.

*

Body, the syntax has shifted. I can be touched. I can give you to someone without losing hold of you. Memory can grow holes and fill with false roots and fluid, and I can swim there, tethered back to the surface by the reflection I refused to see for so many years. I will still wake paralyzed, the locusts eating themselves on the ceiling, but it will pass. I will still wander in the hollow spaces, but the distinction between us is thinner now. There is an and between you and I, and it makes all the difference.

 

Gabriella Graceffo is a graduate student at the University of Montana pursuing an MFA in Poetry and an MA in Literature. She focuses on queer writing, trauma studies, and intermedial text. Graceffo’s work appears in The Chestnut Review, Juked, The MacGuffin, and elsewhere. Most days you’ll find her curled up with her cat trying to figure out what exactly a lyric essay is and how language can operate in new ways within it.

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