Stroke by Jennifer Maloney

If you wake up next to me and cannot move, I will not eat you. I have taken every tender piece of you into my mouth to taste, and yea, Lord, it is good, but I have promised myself not to bite. I will only place my tongue in your ear and listen. 

A ghost might creep into your body as you lay in our bed, immobile. I will know it’s a ghost when my tongue hears it speaking in your head—it animates you: suddenly you talk and walk again, and I wonder—should I call a priest? A shaman, a wise woman, someone to exorcise you, evict the thing living underneath your skin—until I decide I like him, your ghost. His jokes, his smile, the sweet way he holds my hand in the street. I like him better than I ever liked you. 

Maybe he’s not a ghost. Maybe he’s an angel. Maybe he will sprout three more faces: a lion, an ox, and an eagle. When that happens, I will pull a feather from his wings and make a wish, and every candle in the house will blow out like a birthday party. 

He could be a pirate, a privateer, who has boarded your body like a boat, those candles attached to his hat like Blackbeard, sporting an earring and one untameable eye. Like a knife, he clenches me between his teeth, and I attach my mouth to his like the tentacle of some creature of the deep, but I don’t eat him. I keep my promises. 

Pirate and sea monster, ghost and cannibal, we suck and sway upon the sand. When, finally, he slips from your skin, shows me his face—divine and terrible!—we shall dance into the ocean, my beautiful friend and I. What’s left behind? A tongue, shriveling in a shell? Puppet strings of gristle, bones foundering in shallows—not you. Not you, my silent love. Just leavings on a plate—the things I swore I’d never swallow. 

A writer of fiction and poetry, Jennifer Maloney is a disabled woman living with chronic illness. Find her work in Litro Magazine, Literally Stories, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Neologism Poetry Journal and many other places. Jennifer is the co-editor of the poetry anthology Moving Images: Poetry Inspired by Film (Before Your Quiet Eyes Publishing, 2021) and the author of Evidence of Fire, Poems & Stories (Clare Songbirds Publishing, 2023) and Don’t Let God Know You are Singings (Before Your Quiet Eyes Publishing, 2024). Jennifer is also a parent, a partner, and a very lucky friend, and she is grateful, every day, for all of it.