A ROCK NAMED PAVLOV
for Anna and her Bear
This is the dream-freeze, when the dinosaurs emerge from their sand castles, when the peripheral collapses, when haunches stalk, when arms bend and ready the teeth, when everything but the throat and the brain says, Run, when only the brain says, Stay. What can I see?
This is what happens when the sky opens, when black smoke and frayed ozone follows the orange bulb. The brain says, This has never been seen. The brain says, Observe. The brain says, The ground burns. The brain says, Okay. The brain says, Okay. The brain says, Okay, I have seen. The brain says, Recoil the tongue and drink. The brain says, Now. And instinct says, Run.
This is the instinct that allows no dog to drown by accident. This is the instinct that allows rhinoceroses to charge swaying weeds, the instinct that tells lionesses to stalk the long grass, giraffes to drink in turns, salmon to swim against the current, grasshoppers to swarm at open mouths. This is the instinct that supplies survival with the ultimatum—eat or starve, drink or wither, kill or watch. This is the instinct that says, Run in the other direction, away from the shockwave, the light, the resurrection, the heat. This instinct says, What’s not seen is slowest. Says, What’s slowest is beaten. Says, Beat.
This is the instinct that releases endorphins from the adrenal glands—the kidney huggers. The left, the overturned wedge of a frown. The right, the opposite, the ghostly hallow of an open cave. Together, they wake even the most extinguished legs, turn the acid into a tingle instead of a blaze. Those in wheelchairs, weathered and stringy, tremor and contract, and even they find themselves turning from fire, knowing it’s nothing more than backdrop to the weeds, to the grass, to the grasshoppers who refuse to acknowledge the difference.
This is the last trick the mind plays, when the pang for oxygen goes unnoticed, when dream becomes the rumor of the life once lived, when death comes soundlessly as glacier emissions. Do not blame instinct. Do not blame chemistry. Do not blame fate or karma or perpetual chance or genetic engineering or artificial flavoring, the seashells in lipstick and dandruff shampoo. Reasoning is what the brain creates to distract from the moment, the reality. Do not blame the brain. It only escapes because that, too, is instinct.
This is the manipulation of the mind that remembers the grocery store, the avocados, when the soft squeeze into flesh is the only movement that matters, when the recoil leaves only a thumbprint, when the baby girl sits in the shopping cart. Her hair, her curls, fire-red eddies. Her voice, wondrous and new, naming the cabbage doggy. Naming the cantaloupe doggy. Naming the zucchini doggy.
This is the instinct that says, This is wrong. Says, That is cabbage. That is cantaloupe. That is zucchini, but the mind says, No. That is doggy, and in the cart are fourteen doggies and a baby girl who pets flannel as though it can feel her fingers, as though it can come alive and respond to her touch, that it can lick her face with the fabric tongue that reminds her of the crib blanket. This is what makes her push her face against the shirt, because this is what she’s seen. This is what she knows. This is what tells her, Sleep.
This is only the escape. Ignore the manipulation, of dreams once lived. Ignore the urge to turn. Ignore the liar who says it can be outrun, that time earned comes to those whose pace is quickest, that high ground saves those who ascend the hills. Instead, face it and run toward the fire. Be the one whose toes burn before the heels. Be the one with the open mouth, the one who salivates, the one who devours the world-eater.
TIMSTON JOHNSTON has been the managing editor of Passages North since 2009. He’s a firm believer in breakfast for dinner and thinks pancakes should be simple.