I arrive at my acupuncture appointment and say to my acupuncturist: Have you heard of fern spores? My fern spored, I say, and upon noticing it, my skin started crawling, I felt nauseous, and I became so anxious I began to weep. I have also been noticing that when you touch my thoracic spine, it does not feel at peace. It contains a nervous sensitivity, an emotional holding pattern, a deep and primordial grief located just beneath my flesh. Further, as I rest facedown on the table where you press your hand against my back, I notice how your palm grazes the image of what it means to be left.
Did you grow up in a good family, my acupuncturist asks.
Do you mean, was I loved as a child?
Sentences embody an awareness of breath—so much so that they may, in fact, be forms of inspiration. If the breath is nervous, the sentence shivers. Or, if there is a luminescence in the center of the chest, so too does language glow. To my acupuncturist, I say: I wish I had a jar of bone broth; that would bring me comfort in this moment. To which she responds: you own a cookbook replete with instructions for that. And what is that beyond a part of speech signifying something previously mentioned? And how is dismissive avoidant attachment—the condition of a person moving through her life alone—anything but a speculative fact? To be alone is not to be alone-alone, the acupuncturist says. Even the trapezius muscles are accompanied by data, and this data functions in collaboration with the muscles, fusing with them, dictating how they behave. In this way, I fused with the fern long before it spored. I unconsciously identified with its asexuality, its chlorophyll, its green, and I began to refer to my flesh as a collection of leaves. So too did I trace my arm’s veins, recollecting the vascular. In doing so, I formulated research questions: What tissues in the body conduct water? What tissues flower? If I reduce my crying practice to every other day, will my body reach a maximum threshold of unprocessed liquid, wherein its emotional content transmutes into spores? In other words, if I remain inattentive to my desire—if I avoid it in lieu of watching it, let it grow legs, let it learn to walk on its own, and notice how it walks, where it goes, why it wobbles there, and follow it without judgment or the pretense of an anxious helicopter—will it transmute into breath that knows more than I, and will I in turn come to understand its spores as valentines written to me, granted I am terrified of them, granted they know more than I know?
Your hair is very long; I love it, my acupuncturist says. I love touching it, my acupuncturist says, running two hands through my very long hair. But can’t I get myself off using a vegetable, I ask. Can’t I come alone and feel this chasm in the company of plants? Whereupon my fern spored, I auto-erotically induced an emptiness that resulted in my crying in the shower for quite some time. This embodiment lasted for at least seven minutes. Subsequently, I changed the cat’s litter, emptied its tray into a bag, then tied the bag into a knot. Surely I can get myself off, I think—I with my long hair, I with my very long hair. The climax may not be impressive, but it will provide an ontological window into the everyday experience of being left alone.
The spores are the fern’s secret, my acupuncturist says. When it spores, the fern is reinventing the world.
Like language I deliver to the air, the fern’s spores orchestrate a novel, a form of making things new. Imagine that everything is a technology of writing—from the treadmill’s buttons to the fern’s spore’s lines of asexual propagation, from a metric space sans geodesics to the sound a church organ makes when you sit in a church after a long run, remembering ‘altar’ is a noun, and ‘to alter’ is a verb.
I experience a phobic reaction to my fern’s spores, and move from the side of the room with plants lightly covered in fruit fly-sized bugs to the side of the room containing a purple hanging plant, a succulent that looks like an onion, a small tree, and a spider. I live with aliens, I think to myself. The spider has holes in it. Holes make me shiver, my acupuncturist says. And the tree is a tree my cat always swats in the night, though lately she prefers swatting the pink tropical plant. She knows she is able to wake me by swatting it. Stop swatting it, I say, half-asleep, snapping my fingers. Come here. I pat my chest, indicating I want her to be my sandbag. Sometimes she comes and sleeps. This morning, she wanted to come under the blanket, so I let her. And now I am thinking about how my acupuncturist said an acupuncture blanket induced a cluster of bumps on a patient’s skin. The patient was in bed at his parents’ house, the acupuncturist said, when his skin began to spore.
Was there a cat in the house, I ask. Maybe the patient was allergic?
As for parents, my acupuncturist and I have four. Mine are divorced, and my acupuncturist’s are the only couple I can call to mind when I try to call to mind a secure couple. Being in a relationship is hard, the acupuncturist says, and being alone is hard too. You have to take what you get without settling for scraps.
Here is a photograph of my parents’ house, and here is my father’s strawberry shed. My parents’ house is covered in plants, and you can see the cottage where I slept if you gaze across the water. I wish I lived closer to them.
Yes, but what is your desire?
My spore-covered fern sits in the window overlooking the tree and the church. At Christmas, the church’s digital bells play carols, and these carols carry into spring. Across the street, an identical tree always appears on the verge of collapse. These days, there are hurricanes in the city. I worry. Doom is inevitable. And when I water the fern, I cannot help but recoil at the presence of such perfectly symmetrical furry brown bumps on the backs of its leaves. What are these specimens, I wonder. They look like unprotected sex.
The more I gaze at the fern’s spores, the more my skin feels like it’s turning inside-out, like the main character in a children’s cartoon I ingested as a girl. In it, a second body swings into herself on the playground and becomes an inversion. You can see her vascular parts, as if she is a fern or flowering plant stuffed into a clear plastic backpack containing water and other residual nutrients. Historically, my own skin is temperamental, prone to viral rashes. It reacts to foods that include sugar, dairy, soy, and gluten. Once I was allergic to tree nuts, but I am no longer allergic to tree nuts. Now I am afraid of spores.
Thinking the fern’s spores are evil, I wipe them away using a napkin and water. They subsequently spread all over the plant, and across the bedroom floor. And to think: I annihilated the spores before understanding they were spores, before understanding I too could asexually propagate evil into evil. Now there is a repetitive form in my stomach, and I am doing the deep work by saying this to you. I refuse to tell the truth, but I am evading nothing.
A spore is an asexual form of reproduction whereby non-flowering plants may be adapted for survival, often in unfavorable conditions. On the open forum, a stranger writes: I feel romantic attraction, but sex feels alien to me. In bed, I lie on my back and look at a lamp in the shape of a breast. On the windowsill, a fern accumulates dust, mealybugs, spores. Not all life forms reproduce sexually; Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Jesus. So states the good book, and so my mind turns toward her as I genuflect upon entering the cathedral. It is a dreary summer afternoon, and the only other stranger in church is genuflecting in front of Mary. I am seated in a pew, listening to her cry. As I listen, I consider stained glass and think of parochial school. I resent school, I say to the acupuncturist. It puts students in debt and, like romance, is transactional. A student is graded; a student must arrive to class on time, lest she be punished; a student must attend, or be marked dead. I even had to wear a uniform to school! And it was a site of sexual abuse. Per Mike Kelley’s Educational Complex, I think about how school buildings strip bodies of desire, as if they exist sans genitals.
I was researching asexuality, I say, and I think I may be graysexual.
What do you mean?
I don’t desire sex often. Or, at least, I don’t desire sex from strangers. I may be generally asexual, but capable of deep sexual desire under certain conditions—for example, unconditional love, or romantic friendship.
Did anyone touch you when you were a child?
Why do you think you cannot remember?
When you lived with an alien, what did it feel like?
I did not know closeness.
In the cathedral, my reverie renders the stained glass symbolic. I walk from one side of the church to the other. Aware of my ritualistic performance, I stand in front of five rows of candles and light a burnt match with one candle’s flame. The acupuncturist touches my spine, says “Your body is protecting itself.” I light another candle. I acknowledge the presence of pain, feel substantiated. Is god moving through me? The choir stops singing.
CLAIRE DONATO is the author of two books: Burial (Tarpaulin Sky Press, 2013), a not-novel, and The Second Body (Poor Claudia, 2016; Tarpaulin Sky, forthcoming 2019), a collection of poems. Recent writing has appeared or is forthcoming in The Believer, Territory, DIAGRAM, Bennington Review, BOMB, Fanzine, and The Elephants. She teaches poetics and advises theses in the MFA/BFA Writing Program at Pratt Institute.