Swimming to Heaven

On even the first day of death
The dead cannot rise up
But their last thought hovers somewhere
For whoever finds it.

            — James Dickey, “Drinking from a Helmet”

The afternoon your heart grips itself
so tightly that it lets go,
somewhere between the incoming tide
and the Atlantic’s expansiveness,
your mind holds a whit of
swerving terns, sea grass yielding to
the pull of wind, your soles descending
wooden dune steps, the brunt
of sunlight on your shoulders,
the fluidity of your body in water,
the slap of ocean wrapping you
in a second skin, cold but thrilling.

With your lungs full of ocean, gulls
circle to perch on your flesh
and a school of blue fish nip
your legs. They peel back your skin
in one long reel of epidermis
releasing streamlined limbs
broad and cupped, new fins.
Now thirty feet below the surface
you open your eyes and can see.
Paths that wind nowhere
and everywhere, kelp curtains that lead
to mountains and valleys undersea.

Maybe heaven is an island down here,
and if you keep swimming
you can get there. You spiral,
turn and sway in your new body.
Haddock and flounder ribbon past.
You wonder about large
white teeth scattered across the floor –
keys from your piano – lost
when the dune gave way taking
the garage and the Steinway with it.
You gather them in your mouth
admiring green-tinged algae

and let them flit to silty ground.
The only music left inside
these keys that once played
mazurkas, sonatinas, Russian
lullabies is the click click
as they jumble end over end
into each other. Rhythm
undulates as day siphons down.
Striped bass slip past. They
may know the way so you follow
through caves diminishing
to holes you squirm through.

They lead into a blinding pool
that shimmers their skin – yours too –
but then they are gone, their trail
stubbed short by darkness.
You are awash, scales glistening,
in tonight’s full moon. Turning
double flips and figure eights
beside a swirling school of cod
and a misguided ray. Shimmying
in silver rain. Maybe heaven
is an island down here, and if
you keep swimming you can get there.

Now alone in the dark,
tail and fins spent and heavy
with hunger. You slink after
murmuring krill and take in
water, but this time it fills you
with good. The ocean is night alive.
Flickering in three-dimensional
movement around you,
resting unhinged from gravity.
You fall asleep waiting
for the next eddy, swaying
in the hammock of the waves.

In morning, with the first day
of death spent, you wake
to a school of blues nuzzling
your belly. You try to speak.
Your voice is an echo
so you join with a joyous
tail flap, knowing you will break
from their trust to follow
your own path to heaven.
It is an island down here,
and if you keep swimming
you can get there.

Heidi Schulman Greenwald

About Heidi Schulman Greenwald

Heidi Schulman Greenwald has been practicing the art and craft of poetry since 2002. Her poems have been published in the Aurorean, Literary Mama, ouroboros review, The Oregonian, VoiceCatcher, and Windfall, and have won awards from the Oregon Poetry Association. In June 2012, she was poet-in-residence at the Olde Orchard Inn in Moultonboro, NH. She is currently working on her first manuscript. She lives with her husband and two children in Portland, OR.
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