To telescope, we choose one word and ask writers to consider it in a series of increasingly short vignettes. We begin with 300 words, then slice the word count in half for each successive section. We stop when the numbers stop dividing evenly.
I remember how it felt in my bones, on my feet, under my skin. My bones were cold. My feet felt soft and thick, like spheres. My skin was taut but unrelenting, and rhythm could only bubble beneath the surface.
I was walking. I was wobbling, back and forth on my spherical feet, and my vision was doubling, creating shadow images at every angle. I didn’t know which images were the “real images” and so I kept changing direction with every step.
And then I arrived. I was pushing back the bench with shaking hands and listening to the roar of metal legs scraping against the wood-paneled floor; I was pushing my hair away from my face, out of my mouth, and tasting sweaty fear on my lips; I was pushing down on the bench with weak arms, twisting and straining against the round knob on its side, trying to lower it one single inch.
I faced the piano. I felt my blood pulsing with the rhythm of music that I had spent all morning playing, over and over again with an increasingly furious energy. I felt the rhythm all around me—in the breathing of the audience, in the echoing of every corner of the high-ceilinged church, in the straining beneath my skin.
What key, again? What key was it in?
My eyes found middle C. But there were two middle Cs. I squinted. Now just one. One middle C. That was the one.
Which hand? Which hand started?
I lifted an invisible dumbbell. My hands were the dumbbell. Fused, as one unit, weighted, so great that the room would ring with their fall. I knew where middle C was. I had one hand. The two would connect, unite, and the music would come.
But that’s never how it goes.
My vision split. There were two middle Cs again, and somehow I didn’t have a single hand anymore, I had four. And I didn’t have two lungs, or one mouth, or two nostrils; I was a solid-cored and impenetrable monster bearing four, billowing, disobedient tentacles. I wanted to scream, but that would require a mouth. I wanted to cry, but that necessitated eyes. My body was rhythm’s prison, and there was no way out.
I was seeing myself from above now, a figure curled in on itself, gripping its own body, divorced from its surroundings. A little planet in its own orbit, fully unaware of the whole rest of the galaxy, clueless of the fact that it wasn’t even close to being alone. A body shaking to a rhythm no one else could hear, not even me, the unsympathetic lookout in my own panopticon.
A minute passed, or more accurately, 576 triplet eighth notes at 96 BPM per half note. Allegro con brio. I counted every triplet eighth note. The multitude thrilled me. The silent music sank into my skin. Each sound was gloriously invisible. Meanwhile, I could not have counted the keys on the keyboard before me. Or, I could have, but the number could have been anywhere from 88 to 176.
Hours later, I perched upon a squashed and musty pillow, facing my own familiar, yellowed keys.
The rhythm now controlled me—having turned on its master, it slit me down the middle and excavated my bones.
The tips of my toes hit the ground first. Not all at once, but rather folding over one at a time so that the top of my foot and shin roll over onto scratched marley. A deep, pulsing beat rumbles through the ground. The dance studio always turns the music up too loud—I wonder why we don’t get complaints from the accounting firm next door.
There are twenty-four other girls in the cramped studio, lined up to do the same old combination, but, presently, it’s only me who makes eye contact with the floor as I move between movements. Chaînes-relevé, chaînes-plié, calypso-to-the-floor and UP and chassé and grand jeté, like a song I’ve sung a thousand times. I come up from the ground, away from the vibrations of the floor, and rush into the chassé so as to prevent dissonance between the rhythm of the song and the rhythm of my body.
The teacher tells me to stop rushing.
I get back in the line, now the twenty-fourth or maybe twenty-second girl; I’m not exactly sure. The music surrounds us. We usually gossip while we wait, and we do so today, but we are forced to shout over the synthesized music grating through ten-year-old speakers. It’s cacophony. Our squeaky tweenaged voices can never compete with the volume, only managing to steadily beat against it.
The music pauses. Silence.
“Now on the left,” my teacher says. “Quit talking so much.”
A few girls before me. I pull myself up into prep position, muscles taut. A deep breath. Five, six, seven, eight, in my head. I chaînes.
One-e-and-a, two-e-and-a, three-e-and-a, four-e-and-a. Classical music doesn’t count in eights, if you’re lucky. My fingertips just barely rest on the piano keys, wrists high, like I’m holding bubbles under my palms. My foot, so used to the pointing and flexing of dance, rests like a dead fish on the pedal. It’s just out of instinct—this is Bach, which means no pedal, ever, just me and miles of tiny sixteenth notes meant to ring out clear as day.
They march across the page like an army of ants, mocking the speed of my fingers (too slow) and forcing me to squint at the score. My fingers move almost of their own accord, slipping here and there to make sure I don’t fall short of the metronome’s click.
My teacher tells me to stop rushing. I reach for the metronome and tick-tick-tick the dial back a few places.
The ticking is incessant. I don’t know who thought putting a ticking clock in a therapist’s office was a good idea, but it wasn’t one. All I can hear is a time bomb. It’s tick-tocking the minutes until I cry, until I reach for the box of tissues and give in to my baser emotions.
“You can’t rush through therapy,” says my therapist.
The beat of my feet on the pavement thuds in my ears alongside my podcast. I rush through the door and downstairs to my laptop. I am sweaty and disheveled and rushing but on time.
Those Saturday mornings my mom woke me up early—so early it still looked like night out—the alarm never did it. I stayed in bed too long, the room cozy and slept-in, warm with the unbraiding of weekday anxieties. Those Saturday mornings I stayed until my mom turned on the lights, searing and real and too soon. It was then I had to leap out and rush to gather everything—violin, music theory books, school assignments if I could find a second between my lesson and rehearsal, concert clothes if I was performing that day.
Those Saturdays were for music in the city. Once we got in the car, I’d reach into the brown paper bag. Mom packed me funny breakfast sandwiches: egg and raspberry jam on bagels, toaster waffles with avocado. I pointed it out, laughing but couldn’t complain; I was lucky she made those brown bag surprises in the first place.
My mom took 280 because she found it prettier than 101. The green hills, the houses perched on them; the sun rising to meet us, her gold fingers brushing us. I had a playlist for those car rides. We hummed along to Norah Jones and Ed Sheeran. I looked out the window with big thoughts, little thoughts, or no thoughts at all. Funny how while we were moving, headed for something, there was a strong sense of arrival.
We were always so afraid to lose it, so we talked about it. My mom would say, “You know, it’s funny, you make me do this drive but I’m really going to miss it.” A mother’s love is strange, and I never knew how to receive it. “Me too,” I would say. “Me too.” I wondered about that goodness, and when it’d come next, and for how long.
And Saturday always came. Those Saturday mornings we found ourselves in, Saturday finding us in the car, looking onto the sun and city ahead.
Even now—here, especially here—we need it. I entered the kitchen. “I’ve heard ‘Sweet Caroline’ maybe twice in my life,” I said, “but I feel that I need to listen to it right now.” You pulled the peeler down the carrot’s skullish body, the orange shedding onto the kitchen counter. “I fully support this.” The carrots were smooth and bright orange with resurrection.
You opened the drawer to grab a knife and I played the song. We didn’t sing along because we didn’t know the words. Instead, you chopped the carrots on two, three, four—a lopsided bounce off of Neil Diamond’s syllables—and it ruined us, we fell apart. I pressed up against the wall. You kept chopping as you bent forward laughing.
It was everyday kitchen violence, it was insistence, it was vaguely remembering a song, and coming back to it, which, somehow, was pure novelty.
I remember I was sitting listening to San Francisco Symphony play Mahler 6, and I was next to a boy, and I wanted him to hold my hand, like maybe if I thought about it hard enough I could will his hand to lunge for mine, and he didn’t, and eventually I realized I was being silly and clasped my own hands together, feeling that eager pulse of blood and life, in myself, and Mahler said Yes and I blushed, my fingers blushing too.
There was this one friend: walking down long flights of stairs, we’d line up our footsteps as triplets against duplets. Beats fell in and out of each other. The weight of our bodies rattled the metal staircase.
“My silences had not protected me.”
Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action
“[I]n her panic to hold it together she leaped from the edge into soundlessness and went down howling, howling into a stinging awareness of the ending of things: an eye of sorrow in the midst of all that hurricane rage of joy. There, in the center of that silence was not eternity but the death of time and a loneliness so profound the word itself had no meaning.”
Toni Morrison, Sula
“He wants this word to fall silent.”
Anne Carson, Variations on the right to remain silent
“Normally the bride neither cries out nor weeps: she lies an open-eyed victim on the couch, after the male has departed, fleeing from the smell of sperm and the idol’s perfume; and the closed thighs prevent any cry from escaping.”
Assia Djebar, Fantasia: An Algerian Cavalcade
“[Silence] is a presence / it has a history a form / Do not confuse it / with any kind of absence.”
Adrienne Rich, Cartographies of Silence
“Knowing that my silence is active in the room, I stay silent because I want to make a point of that silence.”
Claudia Rankine, Just Us: An American Conversation
“Alice Manfred stood for three hours on Fifth Avenue marveling at the cold black faces and listening to drums saying what the graceful women and the marching men could not. What was possible to say was already in print on a banner that repeated a couple of promises from the Declaration of Independence and waved over the head of its bearer. But what was meant came from the drums. It was July in 1917 and the beautiful faces were cold and quiet; moving slowly into the space the drums were building for them.”
Toni Morrison, Jazz.
It is July and she leaps from the edge into soundlessness. The right to remain silent. Closed thighs prevent any cry from escaping. Just Us. And her word falls silent. Anyway, word itself has no meaning. She neither cries out nor weeps. Graceful woman. Her beautiful face is cold and quiet.
She makes a point of her silence: not an absence, not protection. Listening, with a stinging awareness of the ending of things. There, in the center of that silence is not eternity.
Open-eyed, marveling, knowing: an eye of sorrow in the midst of all that hurricane rage. A loneliness so profound; repeated promises. Even in her panic to hold it together, the bride moves slowly into the space the drums were building for her. The death of time. The Transformation of Silence.
The idol’s perfume. She lies. Language and Action. What was meant came from the drums. A Fantasia in Jazz.
In the center of that silence: building, listening. Drums. Fleeing. Waving. Graceful marching women. Not protected. Neither crying nor weeping. Howling, howling.
They fall silent. Active, stinging. Beautiful. Cold and quiet. Eternity? The ending of things; the death of time. Loneliness and sorrow. Panic. Fantasia.
Into the space of the drums: a Cavalcade. That hurricane rage of joy. Open-eyed Variations. Moving slowly. Jazz.
A Transformation. A history. A form. Presence. Departed.
How, how? Vary. Transform. Soundless. Aware, active.
Lonely. Cold and stinging. Slow. Beautiful. Fantasia. Drums. Listen. Act.
Flee. Escape. Rage of joy. Smell. Quiet, open space. Jazz.
Time. End. Death? Vary. Transform.
Just Us. Justice.
I. and2. and3. and4.
Greetings from the belly of the beast! Will Nill’s here too, and his chest flutters erratically, syncopates the Red Mellow we inhabit, linked only by the presence, the now and now, the blood. We sing to the creature’s tune (hm, hm). The creature that holds our bodies sighs and Will Nill and I press against the water wall we float inside. It pulses? feeds? us, I guess, and the sounds from outside the perfect sphere sound so, I don’t know, they have a certain, hm, lilt to them. Will Nill’s eyes and mouth hover gracefully over his face, but his inability to keep up with our tempo stresses me out. The cadence outside of the creature sounds like a swinging shudder outside and Will Nill’s ghost-puckered eyelids flinch with an understanding that one day time will touch us. He says it sometimes in his throat, the chords blipping a song about negotiation and future. I told him if he said shit like that again, I’d eat him! He keeps struggling to keep pace. It really does stress me out. I cannot see I seek to sense. I just like the beat of the creature; I feel her steps and stride. Can’t he feel? His expression lingers in the soup that seeks to sense us. When she fills her stomach it pools into my tummy. Waiting to be born sounds a lot like Χάνομαι, Χάνομαι / Σ’ αγαπώ μωρό μου / Μα έτσι αισθάνομαι να φεύγω / Απ’ της ζωής μου τον ρυθμό in a voice that stutters and shifts and warms, cradled in the hm, hm of the drum hum. Vibration, mother, vibration. Tremors in the belly of the beast. Through the muffled speaker of the deep pink palisade, we hear the Time––murmuring, buzzing––that presses in on all sides.
II. and3. and4.
And I worry sometimes because I think Will Nill and I together are too much for the creature to carry, even when it was just our spines sluiced in the warm water. I want and hope the creature will shield us from the phantom,Time, but even the creature––as much as it hopes to––can’t hold us forever. I feel it dissolving, its bones are so flaccid. Will Nill is smaller than me but his heart’s awkward babble stifles the sap we sit in. I try to teach him, to help him, but his skin slips off whenever I want him to focus, to listen. I count him in, I follow the creature’s beat, but still his heartbeat sprawls out behind us. If we are doomed to live in time, I wish he would make an effort as long as we share the same placenta. His face floats, instead.
III. and4 and I hate him I ate him.
I ate Will Nill. I slurped him into my birdish bones. I don’t know if the
creature will notice I hope the creature does not notice he tasted salty
going down. Or, I invert him. He turned into a shadow and I swallowed it,
the shade of myself, and it felt good to put him out of his limp palpitation. He didn’t make so much as a hum (hm, hm).
IV. and1 oh and2 day but2 morrow τώρα But i don’t can’t. oh here is time she touches.
s o m a
so many thinκ to τime about
The first time the ocean’s relentless waves crashed their entrails chased my feet and then relented. I was simultaneously enthralled and a little scared of the force behind the deceptively beautiful ocean. So far, Senegal was unlike anything I had experienced in my quiet midwestern life. Each day I experienced a new pattern, a new rhythm. As I walked to my destinations, I would greet my neighbors or vendors I was friends with on the street. The boys who were always playing soccer would chant “Mane, Mane, Mane!” excitedly as I cheered for them because I frequently wore the Senegalese footballer’s jersey. The cars and buses would honk at each other and drivers shouted phrases to attract more passengers. I would hear people on buses, myself included, calling out our destinations while coins clinked, passing through people’s hands. It all had a musical quality.
In another attempt to decipher these new patterns, the first thing I did when my homestay sister started playing Niamakh Niamakhi by Bass Thioung, a popular Senegalese musician, was try and recognize the words, but I understood nothing. The foreign Wolof terms went in one ear and out the next. As my sister grabbed my hand, however, and pulled me up to dance with her, I realized the words were not important, but rather the rhythm. Agile steps, hops, and hand gestures accompanied the tag-taggle-tak of the drums. And then my favorite part—the WOOOOAAAHHH—caused my sister to put her hands on her head and shimmy to the floor, followed by a backwards hop to the drums. I watched in awe, trying to mimic her skill.
As I let the beat take me, I started to catch on, and I laughed with my family, as we got lost in the pattern, the rhythm, together.
The first few brown leaves undulate the line between grass and asphalt
succumbed to rain.
I want it to fall harder on my back, in my head
Inside my cells
louder than my thoughts that
To outrun it
Pick up the pace. Feet
Like they used to.
Of, In me.
Stopped in traffic.
While the pelting lick picks up pace
Thoughts on a tin roof
We chase each other’s personalities in circles.
Me trying to be like you who’s trying to be like me (so am I trying to be me?)
Maybe I just love the idea of you.
The kitchen door
I pry it open
3AM- The cicadas
The frogs the owls the crickets
A cacophonous choir
If you could even call the ear-splitting disarray of sounds music.
Things my dad says
- Pass with the inside of your foot, keep your heel down toe up—“stupefy”
- Everything is a Hamlet reference
- A good title matters
- Don’t spill the “water cup”
- He didn’t even have air conditioning as a kid
- Barcelona is always better than Real Madrid
- Listen to grandpa’s stories
- Pull the weeds up from the roots
- Listen to the owls
- Dinner in two minutes! (meaning 20)
- Make it a great day
- Trust the process
- I love you
I notice a pattern of ants. Their only purpose is to make it from point “A” to point “B,” but do they notice the clear, blue sky overhead or stop to savor their crumbs? Do their hearts beat too?
Their pulses all fed parasitically off one another—the cat’s, hers, her two friends’, and the last one, which, for her sake, she had to be imagining (because it was too weak to be real, and the timing too soon for it to be there at all)—making a grainy positive feedback loop of noise and fear, which made it difficult to watch the movie, a comedy, about nuns (it felt, once again, like the wrong time for such a concept as nunship—Nunhood? Nundom?) but it was equally possible that it was just a wrong time generally; for, in her experience, some nights had a tendency to lay themselves out like dirty carpets, wasting no time making clear their crooked courses speckled with hardened knots of old gum and dark red Coke stains, almost like a bad time was destiny, and, yes, she’d been told several times over by amateur psychoanalysts and professionals alike that it was a matter of her own manifestation, that it was she who laid that carpet, she who spat out still-sweet candy and spilt coke that was not yet flat, she who tilled and sowed and watered her own fears to fruition, but tonight she felt as though she’d done no such labor; things were shaping out poorly all on their own and she had to admit that it was more than a little bit liberating—it was something about the new cat (softer, smaller, orange) laying where the old cat used to, and the collective breathing that was not yet so syncopated as to be sweet, and that charged other thing that they could talk about in voices laced with nonchalance and laughter, but couldn’t (and stubbornly wouldn’t) conceptualize or conceive of. With her head on her friend’s stomach she tried, actively, to hear anything except a heartbeat.
Sometimes I put my hand on my heart to make sure it’s still there. Consumed by delusion, I forget that if my heart were to stop beating I wouldn’t actually be sentient enough to feel for it. That swift, anxious feeling wouldn’t be possible, and I certainly wouldn’t be upright. This line of thinking is a comfort, except for when it isn’t.
I’m awful at those yoga breaths—those in-hold-out, eight-count breaths with the alleged capability to open your pores and cure your depression and help old ladies across the street. I never quite got the hang of them. Once they brought those singing bowls into my therapist’s office and traced the glass with mallets until the entire room danced with vibrations. You’re at the beach, she said, You feel the water wash over your toes.
I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was afraid of the ocean.
My friend used to get annoyed because I played rap music too quietly in the car. I had the volume consistently set to eleven out of twenty. She’d laugh and say, “Let’s try for twelve… now thirteen… ooh, fourteen,” while she messed with my radio controls, and it felt like getting accustomed to a scalding shower while I waited for my ears to adjust to the new volume. Higher than fourteen and I would have killed us both.
When I was seven, my best friend told me I was a bad dancer. Six years later, I spent every classmate’s Bar Mitzvah sat poisedly in a chair, telling everybody I was too tired to dance.
The first thing I remember is water.
I am on a pier of hard, smooth wood. Years of tides and rains have made the underside soft, soft enough to scrape with a fingernail and retract a hand freckled with soggy splinters and sawdust. Lakewater laps at the posts, spraying tiny droplets that outline a glistening spider web.
I hear voices. I am vaguely aware of my mother, or rather, of a presence so warm that it could be no one else. My brother, somewhere nearby––likely dangling his feet over the side of the pier, or lying on his stomach and trailing his fingertips across the water’s surface. The voices are not theirs. I trace the sound to a pair of shadows reclining on fabric folding chairs. In one cup holder sits a plastic water bottle.
“The water in this bottle is the same as the water in that lake,” a voice says. The speaker feels soft and indistinct, like a distant relative whose name I never learned.
The water in the bottle does not dance like the water in the lake. There is no wind, yet the surface ripples anyway, as if moved by a subsonic whisper. Moonlight caresses the crest of each wave as it radiates out from an undefined center. The lake seems to glow from within, a glow interrupted by the circular rhythm of the water as it ebbs and flows, rolls and recedes, rises and falls.
On either side of the lake loom the ragged silhouettes of summer trees. From their leaves sing cicadas and from the grass murmur crickets, together composing a nocturne of the Northwoods. High above, where the sounds of the earth dissolve into shapeless waves, is the crystalline sky, one interconnected constellation comprised of more stars than I have ever seen since.
My mother says I can’t possibly remember that trip around Lake Michigan. I was only one year old. I would like to believe that I have some superhuman memory, but she’s right. It must have been a different lake.
Every summer since I was six, my extended family would embark on a week-long fishing trip. We always stayed in the Midwest. Branching out from Chicago, we drove to various lakes in Kentucky, Missouri, Indiana, and Wisconsin. Together we rented a waterfront cabin. For that one week, we were all under the same roof ––my mom and brother, my uncles, my grandparents, my cousins, and me.
I used to enjoy fishing. I liked catching things, even if they were as small as bluegills or sunfish. Now I am content to just exist on the water. Lakeside memories of muggy summer nights blur into one another like ripples emitted by bobberless lines.
2009, Missouri. Look, a turtle! my brother says. I see only ripples in the water, fishing line and bobber, green on top with a white underbelly
2012, Indiana. Riding an innertube behind the boat. The spray arcs above me like silver fish leaping out of waves that converge and submerge
20something, Wisconsin. The sun, a waxen shadow through the morning fog. Breath of the water, lost in the air, the boat swirls around, around, around
insects thrumming soundwaves swelling nocturne starlight singing buzzing
water rolling moonbeam glowing soundless whisper water flowing
distant voices softly speaking someone somewhere unnamed unknown
mother brother uncle cousin water shadows raindrops falling
waterdripping waterlapping wearing time away