More voice was in her cough tonight: its first harsh stripping sound would weaken abruptly,
and he'd hear the voice again, not hers, unrecognizable, its notes from somewhere else,
someone saying something they didn't seem to want to say, in a tongue they hadn't mastered,
or a singer, diffident and hesitating, searching for a place to start an
Its pitch was gentle, almost an interrogation, intimate, a plea, a moan,
but he could hear assertion, too, a straining from beneath, a forcing at the withheld consonant,
and he realized that she was holding back, trying with great effort not to
to change the spasm to a tone instead and to avert the pain that lurked out at
Then he heard her lose her almost-word, almost-song: it became a groan,
the groan a gasp,
the gasp a sigh of desperation, then the cough rasped everything away, everything was cough now,
he could hear her shuddering, the voice that for a moment seemed the
gentlest part of her,
choked down, effaced, abraded, taken back, as all of her was being taken
from him now.
In the morning she was standing at the window, he lay where he was and quietly watched her.
A sound echoed in from somewhere, she turned to listen, and he was
shocked at how she moved:
not enough moved, just her head, pivoting methodically, the mechanisms slowed nearly to a halt,
as though she was afraid to jar herself with the contracting tendons and skeletal leverings.
A flat, cool, dawn light washed in on her: how pale her skin was, how dull
her tangled hair.
So much of her had burned away, and what was left seemed draped
listlessly upon her frame.
It was her eye that shocked him most, though; he could only see her profile, and the eye in it,
without fire or luster, was strangely isolated from the rest of her face, and
even from her character.
For the time he looked at her, the eye existed not as her eye, his wife's, his beloved's eye,
but as an eye, an object, so emphatic, so pronounced it was separate both
from what it saw
and from who saw with it: it could have been a creature's eye, a member of that larger class
which simply indicated sight and not that essence which her glance had
always brought him.
It came to him that though she hadn't given any sign, she knew that he was watching her.
He was saddened that she'd tolerate his seeing her as she was now, weak, disheveled, haggard.
He felt that they were both involved, him watching, her letting him, in a depressing indiscretion:
she'd always, after all their time together, only offered him the images she thought he wanted.
She'd known how much he needed beauty, how much presumed it as the elemental of desire.
The loveliness that illuminated her had been an engrossing narrative his
spirit fed on;
he entered it and flowed out again renewed for having touched within and
been a part of it.
In his meditations on her, he'd become more complicated, fuller, more essential to himself.
It was to her beauty he'd made love at first, she was there within its captivating light,
but was almost secondary, as though she was just the instance of some overwhelming generality.
She herself was shy before it; she, too, as unassumingly as possible was testing this abstraction
which had taken both of them into its sphere, rendering both subservient to
its serene enormity.
As their experience grew franker, and as she learned to move more
confidently towards her core,
became more overtly active in elaborating needs and urges, her beauty still
In his memory, it seemed to him that they'd unsheathed her from the hazes
of their awe,
as though her unfamiliar, fiery, famished nakedness had been disclosed as
much to her as to him.
She'd been grateful to him, and that gratitude became in turn another fact of
Her beauty had acknowledged him, allowed him in its secret precincts, let
him be its celebrant,
an implement of its luxurious materiality, and though he remained
astonished by it always,
he fulfilled the tasks it demanded of him, his devotions reinvigorated and
In the deepest sense, though, he'd never understood what her beauty was or
If you only casually beheld her, there were no fanfares, you were taken by
no immolating ecstasies.
It amused him sometimes seeing other men at first not really understanding
what they saw;
no one dared to say it, but he could feel them holding back their disappointment or disbelief.
Was this Helen, mythic Helen, this female, fleshed like any other, imperfect
He could understand: he himself, when he'd first seen her, hadn't really; he'd
before he'd registered her spirit and intelligence, before her laughter's melodies had startled him—
if only one could alter such and such, improve on this or that: he hardly
could believe it now.
But so often he'd watched others hear her speak, or laugh, look at her again,
and fall in love,
as puzzled as he'd been at the time they'd wasted while their raptures of enchantment took.
Those who hadn't ever known her sometimes spoke of her as though she
were his thing, his toy,
but that implied something static in her beauty, and she was surely just the opposite of that.
If there was little he'd been able to explain of what so wonderfully
absorbed him in her,
he knew it was a movement and a process, that he was taken towards and through her beauty,
touched by it but even more participating in its multiplicities, the
revelations of its grace.
He felt himself becoming real in her, tangible, as though before he'd only
Sometimes he would feel it wasn't really him being brought to such unlikely fruition.
Absurd that anyone as coarse and ordinary as he should be in touch with
such essential mystery:
something else, beyond him, something he would never understand, used
him for its affirmations.
What his reflections came to was something like humility, then a gratitude
of his own.
The next night her cough was worse, with a harsher texture, the spasms
came more rapidly,
and they'd end with a deep, complicated emptying, like the whining,
flattening of a bagpipe.
The whole event seemed to need more labor: each cough sounded more
futile than the last,
as though the effort she'd made and the time lost making it had added to the
burden of illness.
Should he go to her? He felt she moved away from him, turning more
intently towards herself.
Her sickness absorbed her like a childbirth; she seemed almost like
someone he didn't know.
There's been so many Helens, the first timid girl, then the sensual Helen of their years together,
then the last, whose grace had been more intricate and difficult to know and
to exult in.
How childishly frightened he's always been by beauty's absence, by its destruction or perversity.
For so long he let himself be tormented by what he knew would have to
happen to her.
He'd seen the old women as their thighs and buttocks bloated, then withered and went slack,
as their dugs dried, skin dried, legs were sausaged with the veins that rose like kelp.
He'd tried to overcome himself, to feel compassion toward them, but,
perhaps because of her,
he'd felt only a shameful irritation, as though they were colluding in their
Whether they accepted what befell them, even he would think, gladly acquiescing to it,
or fought it, with all their sad and valiant unguents, dyes and ointments, was equally degrading.
His own body had long ago become a ruin, but beauty had never been a part
of what he was.
What would happen to his lust, and to his love, when time came to savage
and despoil her?
He already felt his will deserting him; for a long time, though, nothing
touched or dulled her;
perhaps she really was immortal, maybe his devotion kept her from the
steely rakings of duration.
Then, one day, something at her jowls; one day her hips; one day the flesh
at the elbows . . .
One day, one day, one day he looked at her and knew that what he'd feared
so was here.
He couldn't understand how all his worst imaginings had come to pass
without his noticing.
Had he been looking a her all this while, or had he not wanted to
acknowledge what he'd seen?
He'd been gazing at her then; in her wise way she'd looked back at him,
smiled, and touched him.
She knew, she'd long known, what was going on in him, and another admiration for her took him,
then another fire, and that, simply, he felt himself closer to her: there'd been
nothing had been lost, of lust, of love, and something he'd never dreamed would be was gained.
With her in the darkness now, not even touching her, he sensed her fever's suffocating dryness.
He couldn't, however much he wanted to, not let himself believe she was
to be no more.
And there was nothing he could do for her even if she'd let him; he tried to calm himself.
Her cough was hollow, soft, almost forgiving, ebbing slowly through the volumes of her thorax.
He could almost hear that world as though from in her flesh: the current of
then her breastbone, ribs and spine, taking on the cough's vibrations, giving back their own.
Then he knew precisely how she was within herself as well, he was with
her as he'd never been:
he'd unmoored in her, cast himself into the night of her, and perceived her
life with her.
All she'd lived through, all she'd been and done, he could feel accumulated
in this instant.
The impressions and sensations, feelings, dreams, and memories were
tearing loose in her,
had disconnected from each other and randomly begun to float, collide, collapse, entangle;
they were boiling in a matrix of sheer chance, suspended in a purely mental universe of possibility.
He knew that what she was now to herself, what she remembered, might
not in truth have ever been.
Who, then, was she now, who was the person she had been, if all she was,
all he still so adored,
was muddled, addled, mangled: what of her could be repository now, the place where she existed?
When everything was shorn from her, what within this flux of fragments still stayed her?
He knew then what he had to do: he was so much of her now and she of him that she was his,
her consciousness and memory both his, he would will her into him, keep
her from her dissolution.
All the wreckage of her fading life, its shattered hours taken in this fearful flood,
its moments unrecoverable leaves twirling in a gust across a waste of loss,
he drew into himself,
and held her, kept her, all the person she had been was there in his sorrow
and his longing:
it didn't matter what delirium had captured her, what of her was being lacerated, rent,
his pain had taken on a power, his need for her became a force that he could focus on her;
there was something in him like triumph as he shielded her within the
absolute of his affection.
Then he couldn't hold it, couldn't keep it, it was all illusion, a confection of
there wasn't room within the lenses of his mortal being to contain what she
to do justice to a single actual instant of her life and soul, a single moment
of her mind,
and he released her then, let go of this diminished apparition he'd created
from his fear.
But still, he gave himself to her, without moving to her: she was still his
place of peace.
He listened for her breath: was she still here with him, did he have her that way, too?
He heard only the flow of the flow of the silent darkness, but he knew now
that in it they'd become it,
their shells of flesh and form, the old delusion of their separateness and incompletion, gone.
When one last time he tried to bring her image back, she was as vivid as
he's ever seen her.
What they were together, everything they'd lived, all that seemed so fragile, bound in time,
had come together in him, in both of them; she had entered death, he was
with her in it.
Death was theirs now, she was herself again; her final, searing loveliness
had been revealed.
C.K. Williams, Collected Poems, Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2007.