‘Walking on Knives’, Jeana Jorgensen

Illustration © 2019 Eric Asaris

 [ Knives, © 2019 Eric Asaris ] Being part of their world
will feel like walking on knives,
the sea witch said.

I agreed to it, to every condition,
so she cast the spell,
signed my degree,
and made the sea spit me up
like a bedraggled tea leaf.

The magic flowed around me:
nobody had heard of the university
where I did my PhD
but job offers bubbled up,
famous professors swam alongside me
like a school of fish at conferences.

I worked for it all—
each publication I hunted
as intently as a shark
and each course I designed
wily as an octopus solving a puzzle.
Better a professor than an ornamental princess,
even with the petty departmental politics.

Every day I wear heels to class
(because it all hurts the same)
and every night I email the sea witch
to meet our conditions:
she has Wifi in that cavern of hers,
but she wants to devour this world’s knowledge
before this world devours ours.
So it’s PDF after PDF,
every institutional repository and database
that I can plunder, to feed her curiosity.

My sexy research agenda slows after a while,
growing mossy with age, a little too dated.
The university gives me first years.
I actually talk to my students
instead of singing spellbinding lectures
that leave them too awed to ask questions.

That’s when I learn how cruel this world is,
how many of my students bear scars
on their insides, where I imagine
nascent pearls forming
as if they were oysters,
burnishing trauma with beauty.
Again and again, this world stabs and stabs at me:
not just my feet, but now my heart,
as I hear story after story from the lips of girls
ready to tip into adulthood.
The ocean does not lack for suffering,
but the humans choose to inflict it.

The research articles I send the sea witch these days
focus more on trauma, sexual assault, recovery.
The students who find me and stay with me
learn the secret names of sea urchins who unfurl
at a gentle touch, baring their soft bellies to stroke
and who will, if asked, release a spine tipped with poison.
The girls learn how to slip soundlessly in and out of the water,
which reefs are safe for humans and which are not.
When I am in the water with them my feet do not hurt,
but their wounds lap at my skin along with the waves.

Slowly I arm them with knowledge, with weapons.
Nobody cares what you do after tenure, anyway.
We take selfies while out hunting frat boys who hunt girls,
send them to the sea witch.

I eventually have to buy the sea witch a cell phone;
one of my girls wants to make her own deal
and this is the easiest way to arrange for them to talk
(I figure if the sea witch can shift my tail to legs,
remolding human genitals and nudging glands
to release the right hormones would be a lark).

The sea witch texts me constantly, always in caps.

After she threatens to show up
during one of my final exams
when I’d stopped responding to her texts,
I renegotiate our deal:
Knowledge for knowledge still, yes,
but prearranged blackout times.
I don’t ask her to take away the pain,
and she doesn’t offer.

The knife-points prickle at my toes,
and the sea shines through when I smile.
It’s enough.

© 2019 Jeana Jorgensen

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