She said, “Draw what startles you awake.” I held my good pen in my non-dominant hand and drew a jagged circle, almost like barbed wire. Still, I tried for symmetry as I do in all things. All things? Yes, or at least compositional balance and complimentary colors. If I could dress myself with the night, the fabric would be purple and green, not the purple and green of bruises but of mountains and twilight or midnight irises framed by their sword-shaped leaves. I fear midnight because it passes without a sparkle or a warning and then I’m loosed upon the wee hours, my boat without an anchor.

“What’s the boat a metaphor for?”

Well, it’s not a boat, it’s a car. It’s not a car but car accidents, my daughter in the back seat when the truck hit. I place my hand just below my collar bone and see my therapist’s concern on the screen. “It’s tightening here.”

She said, “It’s okay to tell this material help is on the way.”

Let me go back to “boat,” a boat painted sky blue and yellow and white reflects with the island, a wavering, slow, electric beauty on waters lulling me to sleep. Even in this place, on the island I love, I’m not here. I don’t sleep. It’s not a boat. It’s the bed. It’s the wrong pillows. I like to sleep naked on clean sheets. Even the smallest crumb, a little sand, and flecks of dry skin are rough against my skin and I itch and need to wash.

It’s something wrong with these words that startles me awake. No, it’s not words.

She said, “Do you feel safe?”

“I don’t trust feelings,” I say.

Let me go back to “feelings.” Maybe my feelings are on the boat. Maybe they missed the boat over and over. Maybe they didn’t read their tickets correctly. Maybe they were afraid to board, remembering they had to sit on the deck, repelled by the smell and the crowd in the interior. Maybe feelings can’t be helped.

Let me go back. I said, “non-dominant hand.” His was not non-dominant when he snatched my baby from me and threw me against the wall.  I said, “not the purple and green of bruises.” His hands pressed bruises into my body. Around my throat. I didn’t tell. Didn’t ask for help. I forgot. I thought it was the car accidents that startle me awake.

She said, “Can you have compassion for the one who startles you awake?”

I reply, “I want to correct the drawing or crumple it up and throw it in the trash.”


“It’s not a jagged circle, it’s my arms cradling my sleeping daughter, limbs limp, her face a peaceful, perfect symmetry.” For her, I draw a balanced composition: green mountains and twilight. For her, I planted purple irises framed by protective leaves around our yard’s perimeter.

If only I could have stopped him.

I’m fidgeting with my pen.

“Why are you fidgeting? Can you check in? What’s going on in your body?”

“Why do you ask?”

“Fidgeting is a response to stress.” Oh, so my jiggling leg, the clicking of my pen are signs I’m on edge. I must be alert, not idle. Otherwise, the narrative will serve away from the senses imprinted in my memory, away from all he wanted to erase.

When he grew a beard and tied a bandana around his forehead, it was a sign. When his lip twitched, it was a sign. When his blue eyes bulged, he said the stop sign I stopped for wasn’t there. When I began to turn around to show him the four-way stop at the intersection, he turned off the ignition. I looked back at my daughter in her car seat. I started the car and drove on.

“Is that one of the car accidents?”

No, it wasn’t a car accident. We were driving to a dinner party. He yelled, you stopped in the middle of the intersection! No, I insisted, I stopped at the stop sign. When I tried to prove the physical fact, he was enraged.

“Anything else?”

Yes. He grabbed my arm too hard. Left a bruise. I was wearing long sleeves, no one could see. We went to our friends’ and had a good time. When I set the table, I hoped. I laid the spoon beside the knife. The spoon was not a knife. But if he said the knife was the spoon, was it a spoon or was it a knife?

“You can trust yourself,” she said. “You know it was a knife.”

Yes, and a sign. The signs are gone now. He’s gone now. Still, I’m knotted to wakefulness, vigilant for my little girl.

Aliki Barnstone is a poet, essayist, translator, critic, editor, and visual artist. She is the author of nine books of poetry, the most recent of which are Dwelling (Sheep Meadow, 2016) and Liana Sakelliou’s translation of Barnstone’s Eva’s Voice into Greek (forthcoming, Vakhikon Publications, Athens, 2022). She has translated two book-length collections from Modern Greek: The Collected Poems of C.P. Cavafy (W.W. Norton, 2006) and Liana Sakelliou’s Portrait Before Dark (St. Julian Press, 2022). Other flash nonfiction work has appeared in Flash Boulevard. Among her awards are two Fulbright Fellowships in Greece, the Silver Pen Award from the Nevada Writers Hall of Fame, and a Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowship in Poetry. She is Professor of English and Creative Writing at the University of Missouri and served as poet laureate of Missouri from 2016-2019.

Photo by Laura Oliverio