Shards of the Nautilus Shell

by Stefan Karlsson

A mollusk checks into the Astro Lamp Motel
under a false name. It crawls
into bed, rests its wet tentacles
on the white sheets.

A family of four books the room next door.
Tonight’s lobster plops into the father’s
stomach, makes itself at home. He sprawls
out his lifelong swimmer’s long body on the damp sheets,
limbs frozen by sunburn into the orant posture,
as the alien buzz of local TV news
inspires in him
a deep prayer called sleep.

No textbook explains this fruitless journey
into nothing. Yet explorers, swept up by the flood,
who plumbed the depths for treasures
but found the plump sums of gold
unpluckable as the dread ripe in sons’ thorny
nightmares, found the nautilus, that mollusk which measures
its life in chambers, mixes its blood
with waters not for the shallow-souled.

The man’s son senses a presence next door,
some being too plump to be ghost.
He itches to know
what’s making him itch. He sweats
as he sweats when he spies
a hem falling short of its breast.
He feels a wet hand, an eye that glows,
a prayer stuck in his throat.

What’s in a gut feeling
but sixteen years of mom’s cooking?
Notions so lovingly baked they seem nothing.
His guts are feeling their way in the dark.

The nautilus keeps its secrets
            locked in its chambers,
both treasure chest and key.
It carries in its knot of tentacles
two truths, that all is for naught,
or possibly not. This living fossil
sleeps millions of years with its silence
wrapped in its shell, a cloister
            livable, fragile.

The Good Book tells us
some being must be, because––
because––belief leaves us

The boy curls up on the fold-out bed
beside his little sister. He wraps his wet arms
around his belly. The not
claws within him, wants out,
            wants the heart
to pump the blood so hard it breaks its shell apart,
makes each motel room one of its chambers.
It wants to make the lovers making love next door
            its thumping heart.

The nautilus sinks into a deep sleep
called prayer, loses touch with thought’s
brittle, nacreous surface, enacts its being
by believing in its own hunger. Its gut’s
            feeling is spreading.

No textbook tells us,
when lovers knot their limbs in motel rooms,
            tentacles curling,
we call this love a living fossil,
our knowledge of love still
            lovingly facile.


The boy got drained of God
early on, like a hardened
scholar settled down
to read in bed, intent on study,
who found the text too heavy
for eyelids limp with slog
already, and so he sat
the book aside and flicked
the lamp resoundingly off.

Nautilus, may the death
buried in your chambers
enlarge the self
beyond the shell
of the skull,
for some being must be
for belief to leave us,
this leaving that leaves us so
hopelessly splintered.

The boy leaves a sweat stain
on wet, white sheets.
He wakes with a start
and reaches for the lamp
which he somehow knows
how to find in the dark.

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