Courtney Justus is a fiction candidate in the MFA in Creative Writing program
at the University of North Carolina Wilmington (USA). She was a finalist for the
2019 James Hurst Prize for Fiction. Her work appears in Press Pause Press,
Tipton Poetry Journal, Arsenic Lobster Poetry Journal and elsewhere.

Flowers never grew near that parking lot

They could have been pansies. Violet with centers
like black gossamer. They would reach just
beyond the brick garden borders, to the line
between dirt and concrete, before
the pebbled path. If I had asked you
to look, what would you have said? Would you
have seen the space where they could carve
out the earth? Would you have called
them purple, too?

I do not ask you for flowers, do not speak
of how I cannot unwilt these tulips, shed
bitter folds from my skin, so you might make
of them something smooth. Seventy degrees,
November, my hazards on, I try
to leave twice but I won't. You cross your
bronze arms across your pink plaid shirt and I am folding
into you in my blue lace dress, smelling coffee and musk
and wood. It got colder after that day, my army green
jacket unfolding like a leaf. I wipe chipped mugs
in this empty kitchen and drink black tea, running
one finger along workbook spines and hard oak, longing
for cotton and grapes and the warmth of your neck,
for the ways your body will not fold.

A Fever in Mid-October

The lanterns breathe smokedust and pretty ashes,
glow the orange of a ripe fruit.
My brightness is feverish:
Pansies blooming across my chest,
the cherry-red of a new tattoo
on each forearm,
A crown of roses on my head,
this daisy chain worrying the pale skin
of my long neck.
I worry a strand might
get caught in the wings.

Your eyes graze the autumn-summer blooms,
your lips form a question:
but why the wings?
You thrust yourself
into the dark chasm above you
when so much beauty grows below.

I stare at the fire,
let it dance across me in a shroud,
a choreographed willfulness.

What am I most nights
but an orange rose?
What am I most nights
but a question in your mouth?

I am not all blooms or thorns.
Tonight I am something dark and full rising
to swoop below your horizon line.

Rock Face and Friend, Untethered

In the dream, we stand in a backyard
strewn with cigarettes and broken pencils,
spritzer cans and glass bottles
opening their carcasses to the sun.
The sky is plum and rose,
your eyes the muddy garnets I'd once searched
for on a childhood expedition,
as I filled my pail with clay and sky.
Then we face down cliffs
curving their terracotta spines
before us, armored.

Friend, I almost lost you to
the jagged rock face, your calloused
fingers slipping from each tiny crevice
in small stutters, the openings
in the volcanic cliffs like sore mouths.

After the dream, I jumped from
bed, head throbbing, your face
as it was in the photograph from
last autumn, shards of morning sun
dappling your blue jacket.
I found you at the bar
where they played blues and alt rock
and wrapped my arms around you.
I didn't know if you smelled it on me,
that relief mingled with fear
that any stone could slip from your palm
if you made your fist loose enough.

You let me read you haikus
at a driftwood table, notebook leaves
fluttering in the November wind.
When I lay under the stars,
open-mouthed with arms splayed,
you waited and gazed alongside me.

In December, when I felt
the pull of anxiety's hot fingers on my throat,
the cold linoleum tug at my girl-limbs,
you reached for my wrists, looked
at me as though I'd glimpsed a cliff
and thought only of the river below,
waves moving toward red shores
like clock hands reaching for the next minute.
You asked if there was anything
you could do, my body taut,
mind reeling. I didn't want
to weigh you down with rocks
and clay and the vision I've had
since childhood of living in
a green-grey house full of plants
with no visitors to stroke their leaves.
I wish I'd let you hold me
that December night, and I'm sorry.
The linoleum was still crawling, clawing
through my body, climbing up my throat,
vocal cords unstrung.

Now state lines lie between us
and I miss the way your cheeks and lips
reddened like bleeding gardenias when you laughed.
I know it was only a dream.
I know you're still growing
cacti and basil on your balcony,
lining up bottles to catch
the light on your windowsill.
One day I'll give you the
lucky stones you deserve, etched
with kanji meaning love or rain.
I'll use garnets or clay as paperweights
for the leaves resting on
my bedroom desk, near the window.
I just wanted to tell you this
before those rocks evaporate
from memory like a mist,
while I still have strength
in these tethered girl-limbs
to push down the state lines
and gather new seeds
for the empty pots in your kitchen.

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