Read time: 2 mins

Night Shift

by Emma Neale
26 April 2023

I wake on the ward, afloat on ketamine, fentanyl,

see sky-blue morphine swifts roost nearby

in pleated paper thimbles,


and some uneasy instinct tugs my gaze

to a scuff mark on the lino floor.

Coal-dark, it smolders. I stall.


A voice reassures me it’s just a graze

left by the wheel of some routine machine:

IV, PCA line, heart monitor screen.


Yet as I ease deep-cut core and leaden legs

over the distant side of the tall bed

I can’t shake this need to stare,


not quite in fear; not quite.


For last night, creatures came.

They arrived en masse, nodded, swayed,

pressed into each dimmed cubicle,


their copper eyes bright-candled,

lips pouched over strong, proud teeth,

their heads bowed in silent inspection;


marmalade lions with oxen feet,

crested birds with antlers, candy-pink teats,

hordes crowded, bunched round each bed


as the window in time was fast contracting,

and they wanted us to see before our minds

sealed tough with the fibers of logic, denial.


Their fur packed tight as green florets on catkins.

Their horns, colossal black spikes, gleamed like grand pianos.

Such mass and strength in their embedded weaponry,


yet still, they withheld their crush and maim.


The breath and bunt of their herded skulls

said, we are the unbroken in you; be unafraid,

and I saw through the seep of dawn


that soon like guardians they will gather

each one of us, our failing forms absorbed

into their warm, strong-walled veins


until we too watch

each figure on the bed

as something invisible shifts

in the intricate balance of matter and spirit.


So it is awe, not dread, that asks me

to leave the ground undisturbed

where they gathered,

to skirt carefully the sign one left

like a scorched hoof print

as if they had stood in fire

to show they bear time’s pyre for us,


our wild sentries, our wild sentries.

About the Author

Emma Neale

Emma Neale is the author of six novels, six collections of poetry and a collection of short stories. Her sixth novel, Billy Bird (2016), was shortlisted for the Acorn Prize at the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards and longlisted for the Dublin International Literary Award. Among Emma’s literary fellowships, residencies and awards is the Lauris […]