No Bird but an Invisible Thing

by Christian T.S. Crumlish

I reached under the lampshade to turn off the light. I turned the wrong knob. It felt natural in my blind hand and it's always the wrong one that feels natural as you grope, that slides between your fingers, that you turn even as you are realizing that it's the wrong one and you're turning something on not off. And then the room is brighter. This happens every time. It's almost as if one light must come on before the other can go off. Except they all turn off in the end.

I'll try again:

In the real one I'm up late trying not to make any noise. The windows are closed the air close. I'm feeling enclosed inside this small hyperbola of light and yet this scribbling seems loud and I worry too much light will spill in on her just one door away. I stop. I notice when her breathing changes. And I freeze. And then she breathes again, snoring gently with a new different rhythm. And just before I sat down to write my pulse pounded as I tiptoed in sockfeet to turn off a lamp only to turn on and immediately off the other light in the same lamp (ochre yellow then sepia). And for a moment I considered working in the dark a stupid thought.

Where was I?

The story can start anywhere but there are traditional places to wade in. Another way to tell the story would be to talk about the beautiful doomed Antinous and his mentor and lover, the emperor Hadrian. You've never heard this one? Good, this story gets stale if you know it too well.

I forget what a grimacing monster we are when we grope through hated light. Why are you reading here? she blurts. On the way back to bed she passes me again and when I say are you all right (because she looks like she's in pain) she says the light is shining in. I say sorry. I turn it off finish up realize it's late and go to bed.

So is foreknowledge then an essential aspect of the story? No. It is possible to drown without knowing it. It is possible to surrender and be transformed without realizing it. It is possible to wake one day with false memories of going to sleep the night before. Often you're the last to know.

Look. A man drowned in a river or was dismembered and scattered in a river. The narratives differ: there are discrepancies. Some stories even lack the river. In each though there is death. That runs through the cycles of stories without fail. He conquers death. Here the stories again diverge. In one his sister or his lover or both reassembles his pieces (all but one) and he lives again or he descends into hell for his bride (and returns, having conquered Death, but without her). This happened before his death by dismemberment. In the river. Or he simply returns. In many of the stories there is a beloved woman.

Often the stories do not do justice to the women making them into male fear symbols. To get her story, you have to read between the lines study an incomplete record divine what the men have censored.

The record is incomplete, at times a nightmarish pastiche. I must have dreamt it the horror.

Still I spend the whole day occupying myself fidgeting unable to be still and summon my thoughts. The sun bouncing noisily about the apartment from room to room distracts me. Now when it is quiet she is asleep. The blinds are drawn etc. I can continue to assemble the story, still not sure it is my story, my story alone or ours together. I know that she enables me to write this. At night I dream but pay no attention. Only rarely my psyche, a butterfly, flits over the threshold to conscious dreaming. The snatches I bring back after diving deep through the layer of sleep to the shallows of wakefulness thought the most mundane level of existence, those snatches have lost their virtue. I plant my dubious mental shards like magic beans (one cow's worth) and see what grows.

The characters in the story tell each other the story without recognizing it as their own. The stream flows off the page wipes it clean of print of text of those symbols or have we perspired on the page. Were we crying? Even the teller does not make up the story but merely manipulates the pieces. The hubris. Think you can play with the fragments without getting hurt? Be careful, the edges are sharp.

            He is dead.

Trying not to think about money for instance I have to shake the day by day feelings that ground me keep me crawling forward one small insignificant inch at a time. Put it aside put it aside let the other feelings thoughts mainly feelings flood in push it aside clear out some space some space in space some space in time. Build build build up one idea one image on top of another make something real I must I must.

The distance that seems necessary for writing, not absolute, but some balance between involvement and dispassion, it's so useful isn't it?

It is in these brief times I have to myself that I can overcome the urge not to do. Strange that I need the distance to have myself to myself when all the time I'm trying to get closer closer to myself closer to her.

And what kind of love is it that equals drowning that conjures up that final moment when the struggle ends, the lungs give up their last reserve of air, the body slips in the water falls like a leaf? What about the moments between? The still moments before or after when the wind is motionless on the surface but the currents run deep below?

And if you were always in the now always looking ahead always conscious of the present moment of the current state of your body of the amount of money in your wallet right now, and if you never look back never notice where you came from how you got here what you expected when you started out, then how would you ever really know who you were?

She came out squinting just now and is upset that I'm up so late writing. I bet she thinks I'll be tired tomorrow and won't want to go on a walk with her, but I won't be and I will. I've rested enough.

Finally it came to me what they saw.

            He is dead.

Let me tell you how she saved my hand:

The final step in making her special chili was preparing the garnishes. In this case three peppers, I forget which kinds. I know it was two of one kind, one of the other. One type was jalapeņos I'm pretty sure. My job was to roast them over an open flame on the burner on the stove. To turn them repeatedly until they blistered all over. When ready we'd put them one by one in a bowl and cover it again with a plate. They were supposed to steam off most of the blistered skin. She would then strip them clean, cut out the seeds and other innards I think.

I was diligently trying to blister the entire outsides of the peppers (all green) but the deep part of the dimples resisted the heat. Inevitably I singed myself again and again, singed my left hand with which I manipulated the pepper by its stem, its stem charred by the flame and in one case burning through, leaving me with a stump barely suitable to flipping the pepper. Getting the ends blistered also required my fingers closer to the flame and I smelled the faint sickening smell of burning hair and saw the curled shriveled hairs on my knuckle flake away. It didn't hurt any more than a callous a toughening of my skin.

So I felt a little burn pain in my left hand anyway.

The chilis didn't peel much in the bowl like they were supposed to but the bowl became cloudy and showed condensed moisture inside. She managed to peel and slice them just fine anyway. I got a sponge and started wiping down the stove where little flakes of scorched pepper skin had settled. I grabbed the burner out of after-dinner-cleaning habit, realized my mistake before the motion was completed, and threw the burner back down. I may have said "Ouch." I'm pretty sure I made a loud noise. I darted toward the sink: she anticipated me. I remembered:

    We were unpacking and putting away kitchen gear, mostly hers, and I was trying to get a feel for where everything was going, was going to go. With the refrigerator door open she said Oh yeah, this is very important. This is aloe, she showed me an unmarked dark amber bottle in the leftmost position of the upper shelf in the door.

      "If you ever burn yourself
      "immediately put some of this on the burn."

I remembered and pivoted. This all happened in the first second, easily. Again she was anticipating me already had the door open had the aloe out. I was afraid.

From the moment it happened I had been berating myself. I called myself an idiot or something worse. I

felt like a fool. Strange that I had room in my mind to be embarrassed even as my body thrusted this way and that in panicked crisis management. But she soothed my feelings all along. I've done that, she said to reassure me.

She showed me that I had to tip the aloe onto my fingers myself. I couldn't specify where I was burned. I knew of course but I was deliberately not focusing my attention on those three spots, the first joint of my thumb and middle joints of middle and ring fingers, inside all, on diagonals. Imagine how you grab a burner off the stove to clean the enamel rim beneath it.

I tipped the aloe, pulpy like apple sauce but smoother, onto my hand but it ran like water through my fingers. I started rubbing it into the spots on my way back to the sink. She told me, Don't rub. You'll warm it. She was already filling a metal bowl with ice. I ran the cold water. As soon as you feel the burn, put your hand in the ice water and keep it in as long as you can. After a minute or less I doubted my own perceptions. Could I feel a throbbing ache? Did the joints feel stiff if I flexed them slightly? I asked, Is there any reason to delay putting my hand in the water? I noticed how precisely I was speaking. From inside my head I sounded oddly calm but was anticipating the next few hours, hours of a party we'd been planning for months, hours of a party I'd been anticipating all day, as the preceding hours unrolled slowly. I anticipated hours trying to entertain guests and ignore the searing pain of a brand.

I had been holding my hand in the water for a little while and now on the thin skin of my wrist I felt the pain of the cold. I held the back of my wrist to the bottom of the bowl my hand like a claw. The whole point, she explained, is to prevent your nerves from sending the message to your brain that you're burning. It'll send out the histamines and you don't want that. I was beginning to be hopeful. I thought perhaps I had escaped a maiming and I relaxed for the first time in what must have been about five minutes but felt like thirtyfive. You saved my hand, I said. I really think you did.

I kept my hand in the water longer as long as I could stand. The cold really hurt but seemed worth it and sure enough my hand was fine. It's fine now. Telling this story earlier I thought I could feel something in my thumb but if so the twinge was so subtle that I bet my imagination was just enlivening the story.

During the party I forgot about it. I didn't even brag to anyone about this wonderful woman, my love, who saved my hand. If anything my left hand, singed in the flame, hurt a little bit.

            He is dead.