To telescope, we begin with 300 words, then slice the word count in half for each successive section. We stop when the numbers stop dividing evenly. This week, eight Nass writers telescope the word “echo” (echo, echo).
At some point, the wrought iron fence that trapped the house disappeared, leaving behind a crumbling foundation of a short brick wall, some columns, and a few out-of-season irises. The stout structure was a base for squirrels between patio cushion raids, a nuisance to mow around, and an unwelcome surprise for the mailman when he veered off-course last Saturday.
The mailman crashed into the brick three weeks after her grandfather tore down the NEIGHBORHOOD WATCH sign, a white diamond with huge, painted eyes that stared down the potholed street. She didn’t realize it was gone until she was taking out the compost and tripped over it, dirt-caked and face-down under the shed. Back by the mailbox, her grandfather had filled in the hole.
Two layers of houses back, a four-lane road stretched west from the interstate across town, the constant sirens fading into the background like kitchen jazz. The house’s residents didn’t notice the fire engine approach after the crash, hear it scrape against the curb as it dodged the potholes, hear the mailman shout from the brick column. Her grandfather was the first one to find out, the blocked driveway stopping him from leaving for the lumber yard. He grumbled through the screen door that he’d be driving over the neighbor’s flowerbed to get out.
No one in the neighborhood knew the mailman; assuming the workers rotated, they never made an attempt. But that Saturday, she filled a plastic cup with tap water and offered it to him. The mail truck sat, half scraped and crumpled, in the middle of the road. Plastic boxes of mail lined the front lawn and, as the firefighters finished checking the truck, the two delivered letters by foot, kicking dirt over the tire tracks through the neighbor’s yard and unfolding the monkey grass.
God, that dog was so stupid. We’d throw the ball and she’d step over it, trot to the fence, scratch around a little, sniff the grass. We visited our grandma once or twice a week, and each time her dog would yip at us like strangers. Remember the time she stayed over with us, bark bouncing around whoever entered the kitchen?
We loved joking to our grandma that with how stupid the dog was, she was lucky to be cute. But we were proud to have a dog in our lives, even if we couldn’t teach her to sit, roll over, or high-five us.
When the diagnosis hit and the IV pole became a constant presence, our grandma reasoned the dog would get lonely with her in the hospital—soon after, without telling us, she offered the dog to her dog sitter. And I guess we just let her go.
Stop me if I’ve told you this story before: heads under the picnic table, sausages over the fire, narrow wooden bridge spanning the creek. When night pressed down on the house, the windows cooled, grain outside wispy in the breeze.
That summer, it was impossible to tell gnats from mosquitos, ghosts from strangers. Our shoes were damp by the front door and, legs knotted under loose-knit blankets, we didn’t notice when the creek changed course.
Lowcountry maritime oaks, scale the whitened boneyard, call it a start;
Sandhills young pines, tack cicadas on my sweater, call it a childhood;
Upcountry American elms, so when we get snowed in, we call it an answer.
We collapse to the floor in sacred unison. It’s a moment we should be grateful for. We’d done it right: every dancer was on time. I could hear the echo of the floor groaning under the collective weight of our spines rolling against its surface. I could imagine the bruise we’d all share the next morning. There was no individual he could single out; no grudge he could hold. There was no reason—none—that the choreographer could possibly yell. We were all OK.
But everyone being OK just meant that no one dancer was safe. At any moment, the choreographer could glance the wrong way, see one dancer a silent beat behind. For the next five hours, they would receive the full, unrelenting force of what it meant to be the dancer who ruined this choreographer’s vision. It was an absolute sin to wish the choreographer’s anger upon any of your peers, but I couldn’t help it. If someone else is culpable, I am innocent.
The music speakers are turned up so loud that I can’t hear my own labored breathing. The room is so loud it’s silent, but that is OK. No one could hear me if I screamed but, for once, I am free from the choreographer’s own shrieks of pent-up artistic passion. He chose a song with impossible eight counts—impossible to count. I wish we’d had a metronome, something to track the pace at which one’s ankle should brush the floor, the rate at which one’s back should arch forward, contort backward. We try our best to estimate what he wants, but my guesses are never quite right.
But I am OK. Except for the music, this room is silent. It is one of those rare moments where every last of us is in sync.
The music repeats itself two, three times over as the dancer rises from the floor. She can’t tell if the echo is real or it’s just that her eardrums have finally given out. Or maybe she’s just too tired.
Her eyes are discomfitingly apathetic as she faces the choreographer’s nook. His water bottle leaves a wet-stain atop the speakers; it quivers as the music pulses. He hasn’t touched it since the rehearsal began, five hours ago. I wonder if he’s also dehydrated, and that is why he’s so mean. She must be too dehydrated to recognize that she’s a full two counts behind everyone else—and her head’s turned the wrong way. The music stops. There’s just enough time to meet the choreographer’s eyes, to see the collected stare proceeding his resounding tantrum which makes her the dancer of disgust. It’s five seconds of odd tranquility—mutual recognition met with absolute loathing.
If I had more faith in him, I would think that he hates the way he treats us. I would think he’s just repeating precisely what his choreographer did to him. It’s just the same pedagogical severity echoing across generations, invading more nooks of his life than he’d ever be willing to admit. But I hate that fear of him makes us silent. And silence—that terrible, life-sucking habit—repeats itself beyond the dance studio.
I promised myself that I would never let that happen again. But it’s amazing how his voice still echoes where it’s not permitted, and how you, still, were silent when the others needed you more than any—.
Briny, sagging muscles strain against too tight ropes. An old ship, a team of hardy men, unchanged by war, cuts through angry seas. A man calls, unheard, and then begins to weep, letting the song move him as nothing else has yet. How they sing on Iron Age rocks, to heroes and cowards, the almost divine and the almost animal. They sing of dreams and homelands, lost battles and loves, hidden cities and Chinese gardens, West and East, what is past and what is to come. The fate of all this striving, all these cities and ideas and books and tears, we know, they seem to say. And they promise to tell all, in haunting, green-eyed melodies.
White foam roars through green waves, and the singing fades away. The rock and the wisps of smoke disappear. The men take their captain down from the mast, exhausted and tearful. He mutters words in tongues they have never heard, wild-eyed and delirious. They peel dripping wax from their ears, hardly exchanging glances, and tend to him.
In the coming days, they will restore Odysseus to good health. He resumes his role as the mournful captain of a doomed crew. The men have never noticed much, but there is something changed in his face, in the way his feet lightly tap across the deck. As if he saw just a little beyond them. When they speak their simple Greek words to him, he now pauses for a moment, as if trying to understand, before answering. Many months later, he will sit on Calypso’s beach and try to write what he heard when passing the Sirens. Only an echo remains:
Argos’ old soldiery
On Troy beach teeming,
Charmed out of time we see.
No life on earth can be
Hid from our dreaming.
This is an unenchanted age. Whatever marvels we have or find are packaged into exhibitions and sold into traveling circuses, which delight the stupid and horrify the sensible. The gray pools of water, the greasy makeup, the deformed bodies, the dimly lit tents, and gaudily painted signs– these are a uniquely modern hell. In the eyes of children in the crowd, where there should be the light of childhood innocence, instead there flickers a greedy lust for spectacle and strangeness. It’s enough to make well-thinking people everywhere sick.
I recall a great commotion, on a certain visit of the circus, about a young girl who had recently joined the company. Above her tent were painted some tasteless pictures, as well as the words “SINGER FROM THE EAST” and “MEET THE LOVELY SIREN.” Inside, a pallid girl of about twelve, with dull gray eyes and stringy dark hair. Her song moved even myself.
In the flickering torchlight, the dogs softly snore. From the Ithakan hills, nocturnal birds, familiar yet unseen, echo through the night. Odysseus leans in the doorway. He has not slept in days. Leaving Penelope lying in bed, he stares at the glimmering vault of the heavens and the black roiling of the sea. He is remembering hot days outside Troy, his men lost in the waves. And the words of the smiling sirens: “You will never come home.”
A cold Northeastern night. A young student steps out into the night, Odyssey under her arm. The glow of gaslight illuminates the falling snow. The stars overhead, chapel-song gently floating. My God, how long ago and far away.
At the bottom of the pool, you hear nothing but the bending of sound. When I chase you, you always laugh, duck under, and I follow—and when I laugh, you don’t hear my voice, you hear its echo—off the bottom, the sides, the water molecules. When my voice reaches you, it is not my voice. But you remember where it came from. You laugh. You always laugh back.
When we arrive, you always get undressed first, because you want to get it over with. You crouch in the locker room in the furthest corner, ashamed to be seen pants-less but too proud to enter a bathroom stall. I always watch you. I get undressed wherever, I take my time. It’s only my naked body, after all, it’s no different from anyone else’s—especially not yours.
But I always get to the deck first. I stand and smile back at you, who always wobbles, and won’t look at me, and hugs your arms around yourself. You’re always anticipating something. You never feel ready. You’re always cold. You’ll always be cold, I sometimes remind you. Sometimes you blink back, teeth chattering. Sometimes your eyes just remain closed, and I imagine you’re trying to suck all the world’s warmth back into yourself, back under the surface of your naked skin.
You don’t get goosebumps anymore, though.
And I always jump in first. With a splash, the slap of a belly flop, the eye of the lifeguard already turned my direction. You follow with dipping toes, with nervous giggles, and the whole pool room fills with your voice, your reverberations.
Once we’re both in, though, we’re both in.
Once we’re in, we’re both in.
Games are not meant to be easy. Games are meant to be hard. Sometimes I feel your knee on mine, or your elbow in my stomach; sometimes, I feel your soft skin beneath the nails of my curling fingers. But usually, we try to get further without touching each other, see how long we can go and how much we can do without touching.
Sometimes I think you’re me, floating over there, mermaid-hair and eyes reddening with chlorine. Sometimes I think I can only breathe chlorine. Sometimes I think I’m made of water, and that’s why I feel so trapped and so safe.
And games are meant to be fun. We always have fun. It never really hurts; it hurts in the way time hurts, or friendship, or love.
It hurts in the way time hurts, or friendship, or love.
You’re all slick with water when I finally get you, my arms tight around you, my air bubbles gliding over your face. I want to ask you to open your mouth, to taste my air, to tell me if it tastes like yours. But you’re not hearing me, only my echo, by the time it reaches you my words aren’t words anymore. I want to hear your voice, but it never fills the pool.
I want to hear your voice, but the echo has left the pool. I want to shake you, but you won’t shake me back. I want you to tell me it wasn’t on purpose, but I only hear the echo of your laughter.
In a couple of years, AI will be able to capture our voices and we’ll be able to hear anyone long after they’re dead. Whenever you miss someone, you can just select their voice on any device, and you might even be able to have a full conversation.
Sarah tells me this over dinner. She’s working at the lab to create AI voices that sound more human and not so creepy like Siri. Sarah’s a master of intonation. A woman in STEM.
You won’t be able to talk about deep topics for a while, because that requires downloading a personality. But you can chat about food, or the weather, any time you want.
In her application for the lab position, Sarah wrote about her grandmother and how she would do anything to hear her voice again. Imagine a world where the day’s schedule, tomorrow’s alarm, even the next song on shuffle, was read to you by a voice you loved, she wrote. That’s the world I want to create.
The world I want to create is away from here, where we study the past to feel better about the future and study the present to feel better about ourselves. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more immortal, and I want to live knowing that I can come to an end. But Sarah’s idea is innovative, I’ll give her that.
I keep thinking about my family. I’ll probably be paranoid by thirty, calling my parents every day to make sure they’re still there even though they never leave the house and just nag me about a mortgage and a Roth IRA. Where’s the balance between preparing for a stable future and trying to root myself in an unstable present?
Let me know when they come up with it, I tell Sarah.
Last week, I went to a memorial on Zoom for a student that had been in my freshman seminar. I had spoken to him maybe twice. There were 100 little boxes on the screen and a palpable grief that I’ve never known.
Everyone took turns speaking and I turned off my camera. Listened to his high school teachers, his aunt, his camp counselor while I folded my laundry. There was one girl I recognized from school; she talked about how they’d connected at orientation over a love for period K-dramas. We’d text after every episode, she said, and once he got too lazy to type everything, so he left me four voice recordings. I just found them again, she said, and I can’t stop listening.
Would you mind sending them to us? His mom typed in the chat.
Everyone joined in. Us too, if that’s okay! Please. How special.
I guess we’re all no better than those famous people who clone their dying dogs. We want to cling to a life where everyone we love is a call away. After the memorial, I draft a text: crazy request but can you just send me a voice memo? But sending it seems too morbid, so I just call my mom, my dad, my boyfriend, and Sarah, in that order. So nice to hear your voice.
Sarah says her lab is doing demo-testing and they want to borrow my voice. I just have to say a bunch of everyday phrases into a mic. Testing, testing, that’s my cue. I speak over the faint echo.
I pull the faded pink quilted cover over my shoulders, resting my head on the ivory pillowcase. A momentary shiver scurries across my body, reaches my toes, and escapes into the foam mattress. Your soft voice echoes across the chill of my dark bedroom, and I shift my body to face you. The yellow lights of the faraway bridge filter through my window, subtly illuminating your features. “It was 1940,” you say as you shut the blinds and embalm your features in darkness. The bridge disappears. It was 1940, and you were just a child. Younger than me. No mother or father. An orphan tucked away in the dark green hills of war-torn Romania. It was 1940 a lot in my childhood bedroom. And 1945, when you emerged from the Holocaust in Bacău, young and alone. 1946, when you turned to the black market to survive. And then 1958 when you escaped, free from the grasp of communism. My mother read me Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are growing up. I turned the pages of Olivia, fascinated by her shenanigans. I laughed aloud at Amelia Bedelia’s blunders. But those were not the stories of my childhood. Or rather, that is precisely what they were. Stories. Your words were history. History that flew across my bookshelves traveled along my dusty pink carpeting and gently began to play in my head as I shut my eyes. During those chill dark evenings beneath my pink quilt, you sitting beside me, it was not 2006. The light illuminating your face was not from the Brooklyn Bridge. And you were far from 80 years old. It was 1940 and our voices mingled in the chill of brisk Romanian evenings, lights filtering in from the small bakery across the way. You were just a child.
A faded pink quilt above my shoulders. A shiver. The echo of your soft voice. I shift my body to face you. Lights of a faraway bridge illuminate your features. “It was 1940,” you say as you shut the blinds, the bridge gone, your features dark. It was 1940 and you were just a child. An orphan tucked away in the hills of war-torn Romania. It was 1940 a lot in my childhood bedroom. And 1945. And 46. And 58. My mother read me Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are. I turned the pages of Olivia and laughed at Amelia Bedelia’s blunders. But those were not the stories of my childhood. Or rather, that is precisely what they were. Stories. Your words were history. A vivid black and white film that played beneath my eyelids as your voice echoed across my bedroom. During those chill evenings, it was 1940.
Quilt above my shoulders. A shiver. Your voice echoes. I face you. Lights of a faraway bridge illuminate your features. “It was 1940,” you say. It was 1938 and you were just a child. A war-torn orphan. It was 1940 in my bedroom quite often. And 1945. And 46. And 58. I read Goodnight Moon and Where the Wild Things Are. Olivia, and Amelia Bedelia. But those were just stories. Your echoing words were history.
A quilt. A shiver. I face echoes of your voice. Bridge lights illuminate your features. “It was 1940.” You were just a war-torn child. An orphan. I read books. But those were just stories. You were history.
The love my brother had for me is the worst thing I’ve ever killed. My brother used to yield to me. When we were kids he would fawn and copy, worshiped me older and babied me younger.
Forever ago with my cruel kid ways, I taught my brother coldness. He has never loved me so much again.
Still, when we come home from school I find us wearing the same clothes and singing the same songs. Around the same time we decided to retry religion. He’s trying to learn Hebrew and so am I. Last summer he gave away my pants by mistake because he would have bought them too.
Our sibling-speak has always been the most damning evidence that we are, in fact, twins and not Big Little Brother and Small Big Sister. We are too tired now for family dinners, and I’m sure our skills are rusted, but we used to share one stuttering brain, and my brother would always say the last word of my sentence—a broken, buffering kind of twin telepathy. It would annoy me that he did this. That last word was an echo and a ghost. The shivering, stunted body of that sweet bright thing that died.
When I used to run and cry to my mother about some savage insult my brother had said, she would tell me, You raised him like this. You taught him to be cruel. I would get angry because I knew it was true.
Being a twin has always felt translucent to me. My brother is loud. His laugh and limbs fill a room and take up space. His antiparallel, I am small and shrewd and scrunched up tight. He might have raised me this way, meek.
My brother and I are tied loose with spider silk.
I like to forget myself. The punch of my footsteps against the stairs at night rattled me, and so I learned how to walk without noise. The other day I left my room in hard soled boots and turned back on the first step down, returning with sneakers.
Some people remember me loud, but in truth I am always speaking quietly, repeating things twice and talking from the side of my mouth. My smile is crooked from doing this, but it had to be done, because my face used to creak when it moved. When I spoke my muscles would screech, and when I blinked you could hear the unending ping of a dropped key.
In my home, the desert, words are carried, stretched, and buried. It’s the brightest pitch black at night, and there’s a very present nothing that moves just beneath the ground. I want to be sand-quiet.
When you discover that somebody has never moved, you start to realize things about them. Like why they slept in for a week after their first kiss, and why they stay home when the rest of the family drives upstate for the weekend. There’s a room in my house that slants and vaults, twice as tall as any other one. For eighteen years I threw my voice up at the ceiling and watched it stick.
My grandmother called my grandfather things in Yiddish. Things like stupid, foolish, lazy. I wish I could have those words too. I would wield them like an heirloom and strike you, until we fell down purple and gray.
I heard the golden trumpets and the sound of heavenly harps
Echo down the corridor, covered with ivy, laden with light
She sang all the right notes, hit all the sharps
Until the stars lifted the curtain of the night
The seers told me the world would end soon
That the oceans would evaporate
We would turn to dust, face the moon
And quietly accept our fate
But how could we ever say that we,
The children of the sea and sky
Would bow down to adversity
Bow down to a singular eye
There is no greater delight
Than having your actions echo
Through the marbles halls—so white
Sowing seeds into the lands so low
I smelled the burning orange grove
That one summer, when the sun
Blazed bright overhead, our alcove
Was a cerulean green, comparable to none
You said our bond was unbreakable, a stated fact
You said we’d live, that we’d survive
That we would each play our part in this act
That we would not fear the hive
May our thoughts reverberate when the younger ones recite
All that we have preserved in thumbnail sketches and ink
Look how we’ve worn gloves threadbare, how our doves still take flight
As we watch over the battlefield, our forest, our dreams, and think
Will my words echo in your mind, as yours do in mine
That night, we almost held hands, almost
Become close enough to hear our heartbeats, a sign
That we were more than friends, more than a ghost
You are my mirror, and I am yours, forevermore, forevermore
You leave, so unexpectedly, but you always return with a grin
Do I trust you, when they urge me to leave you on the shore?
Will I hear your voice again, above the clamor, above the din?
A faint memory, a fading whisper of something
You wanted me to know, to sing
You showed me the falcon’s wing
As if I were an Ancient King
We played music together once, as friends
But as we’ve navigated all these bends
And painted skies for our mortal ends
Glory, gold, meet me at the temple to cleanse
Will your love waver, visage fade?
Into the darkness of dawn, we wade
Through the mist, I draw my sunlit blade
And look, always, for your plaited braid
Your bird led me to the old well
Where we as children fell
Under the fairies’ soothing spell
That rid us of worries, so we no longer dwell
I search for you in the empty halls, the high plateau
I have saved all your maps, you know
When I reach the summit, I see you glow
Only to realize you are just an echo
The ocean reflected the shape of your smile
Subtle, fleeting, soothing, wise
When you ran along the train platform while
I saw tears fall from your bright eyes
Sister, how long its been since we
Played strings together, touched the autumn air
Remember when you lifted me to see
The enchantress’ silver-white hair, so fair
Now your music box guides me
Toward glimmering machines
My thoughts roar like the sea
I join the clockwork queens
How she sleeps
And wakes, keeps
The sun in her pocket
Her heart in her locket
Reflecting our last waltz
Through the hidden vaults
Where Echo resides
Away from the tides