A Southern Sister/Inside This Closed Northern Shit
a short story
Long, stealing cat shadows follow her down the city blocks. A corner. This is where that music, that noise, jangling polyrhythms had first assaulted and enveloped her. She is destroyed inside the memory, and chokes; quickly, a moment of pain in memoriam. Then she walks on.
The apartment where she lives is always stuffy, hot, musky. The living is too close. The living ain't easy. She had wanted to know all the secrets anyway, and had thought this blatant knowledge of life-smells would teach them. It only suffocates them, she found.
She throws open the kitchenette window, wanting the sour smell of greens and pork to sail away on a twilight breeze. Home. Home is. No complete sentence forms itself in her irritated mind. Her mind itching in the heat and odor of close living. Home is here, here is home; and it stinks. She is alone, and her life is somewhere else.
Her ritual, deliberate sinning, of the afternoon cigarette and beer begins. Her ritual of reorienting herself to this place of odd noises and smells. She snaps the radio on. The jive soul station. The jive rap of a jive brother, and the ditty-bop love songs. It all soothes over her current terror with pastel washes of nostalgia. Except sometimes the bouncing bass of the dj, startling her with its abrasive masculinity. Making her remember. Discord.
She never bothers to turn on the lights, and as the early evening fades to night, the walls grow ever-closer to her now inert body. She is dozing on the sofa; the beer three-quarters gone. The ash-tray speckled and dusted with the remnants of four half-finished cigarettes.
She is sleeping through the descending darkness. She does not see the lessening light which produces strange crying shadows on the walls and floor. When she awakens, she will smell rather than see the dingy orange glow. The advent of the day's hour which always bring her wandering to it's unsatisfied end. The hour of streetlights and sharp rank neon. She will smell the colors, and the time, rather than see them.
Nothing moves. The station has gone off the air, and an irritating static buzz sings out from the radio, infrequently interrupted by clamourous chimings of beeps and rings and bits of voices. She is awake. The tension in her. Struggling to make the decision to move. The tautness increasing. This maddening tension as she fights feeling morbid about paralysis. She wants to love it. It is only that, if she does not conquer it, she will never be able to answer demands upon her. So? She equates abulia with original sin. Not like cigarettes, drinking, etc. She laughs. Come on woman, do it! The tremor of the laugh tickles down her body again. Then, finally, her eyes open of their own accord, and she rolls over and sits up.
On time. The doorbell rings. She laughs again.
She always forgot what time of the day it was. In fact, what time of the day it might possibly be, whenever the summer warmth magically changed, into this special sort of rain. Oh; and if the sun shone down just this way, not sparkling in that fertile vernal brightness, but muted, and almost invisible. The sun singing this gentle and soft gray song, like drumsticks covered with cotton, or felt; beating very softly on a loosened skin.
This quiet light wouldn't expose everything, only scattered pieces of the world, and glitter for a moment. It made the world seem broken, and smaller; as if dispresed from a thunderstorm, and shattered and bedraggled.
She thought of wine and grinned to herself. The world is a broken Ripple bottle. Yes, yes, a ripped apart Ripple bottle. Some still glistening fragment attracted her eye and absorbed her. Timeless. Rhythm of timelessness; timeless ocean waves. Her endless drift of unconcerned thinking. A sailing without a goal, or known beginning. A hum started out of her sea-faring self; a song of bright, free ships.
She could taste the freedom. She hummed and felt along her vibrant tongue the sweetness and honeyed warmth of freedom. To awaken was a dying.
Suddenly the Ripple bottle was whole again. A sharp cry passed from her mouth. She was starving. The sharp focus made her delerious. The dreaming, the floating had known no boundaries but suddenly all the edges had returned.
And she had no idea what time of day it was. She wanted to leave this climate, this wetness. She becoming sodden, always drifting and softly dreaming. Sinking, once, in the deep darkness; into the terror that swallowed her. The imminent threat of "no return" whispering all around her; in the whale's gut of her fear; echoing and echoing. Another deeper wave and another "no return"; "no return" splashing against her mind, rhythm of the unceasing ocean. How she had cried and cursed then. Sworn to never again let the drifting carry her so far. Discover so much. Sworn to not feel that movement; rushing in its unquenchable way.
All logic said sternly, "It is only a feeling, the almost unseen end of the spectrum." Logic could not speak to her secure knowledge. The gut of the leviathan had been a teaching; she constantly repeated her heart's promise to never forget the lesson. She must say no to the joy; it must not again come so near to penetrating and filling. Then it was only a blind force, like white lightning, like the od shot. Only destruction, the apocalypse and only that.
Her mind searched out empty places in the air, waiting. She was watching calmly for a sign.
And then the drizzle began; quiet in the beginning, increasing like all other forms of rain. The drizzle began and soaked her. Choices moved beyond her reach, like flying ants. Filled, filled and filling; the emotion's enormity drowned her. Then empty, momentarily and not calm but at least not chaotic; simply being--wet.
This is the way she usually found herself; completely soaked. Soaked! The only word for this world; and she had to leave it. It was too damn sodden, soggy, and dead.
She is going home, trudging. Her legs move, putty-like; but like putty poisoned with lead. The legs lift, one after the other; arch, and plummet down. The motion is achingly slow, or so it seems to her. To the world's eyes, it is graceful. To the world, incredibly sensuous. She is going home.
From a small party, or a simple unplanned gathering, a 'get-together'; a scene, common in all its intrigues: the signals of one highly evolved life-form trying to communicate with another. Uncommon: this group of people having devised (in lieu of rational and effective precedents) a higher degree of intricate developments; though thousands had trudged the same road before.
Trudged. Trudging, a moving upstream in a steep riverbed; the sediment becoming softer and deeper, the further one goes. This is her motion, now, walking; her motion in life always, these days. Invisible fetters are wrapped around her limbs; her arms and legs; flimsy but horribly restricting. To move at all is a victory. To appear to move 'normally', miraculous. She sees the same gentle restraining threads on everyone; scarf-like chains on every person near her; even threaded to their roving eyes. She sees them and smiles, feeling tired. Her walk slows. There are moaning pains in her toes and ankles; her knees, too. Her determined struggle has not yet become machinelike; its life dissolved in the necessary rhythm that keeps it going. Yet it is only rebellion against that growth into automation that brings her the tired pain, the slow aching motion...and the rains begin.... The force, the might of this awful rain beating down on an oppressed earth; beating down upon her and the ooze through which she has been traveling. The rain begins the struggle to wipe away the fetters.
She realizes she must help. The force of nature alone is not sufficient, even for her own freedom. Lifting her dress and tying it about her waist, she begins to run; moving as quickly as she can. With this effort, the muscles in her legs and torso begin to flame. This is work, labor at its most pure; this toiling to rid oneself of chains imposed by some other. Pleasure sharp and murderous, rages through her suddenly. Her motion inside the rain is a war; her battling unnoticed. Even though catcalls seem to be flying from all directions. Tiny boys whistle at her sturdy legs, gasping exclamations of gosh and wow! She pays no attention. Older men whistle and stare, tickled by her constant effort, her stamina, and amazed that she seems to be enjoying what to all of them is an annoyance to be escaped as soon as possible.
At a traffic island she is momentarily distracted, people are shouting "you can't go that way" and she thinks they are warning her, though of what she doesn't know. When she turns however, she sees that a graybearded man in a wrecked station wagon has driven headlong into oncoming traffic, his attention shattered by his reverie, his daydream invoked by ogling her.
Her laugh is a rebellion of notes across the lightning. She turns and runs, her legs pumping and pumping; kneading the wet air. The obscured faces, this odd race called man, flash past her, more swiftly than the tumult of raindrops.
Home. She is as wet as if she had fur, like an animal. She strips shaking and laughing still. Then she walks into the bathroom. There are tracks on the floor. The towel is raindrenched and muddy. He has been here before her.
She did not recognize this house. Whose house was it, this shack crumbling to gray ugly dust in a gray rain? She did not feel like herself either, standing in the crooked doorway, ragged and dusty as the dirt road wandering before her. Who lived here? She knew she must only be on a visit; but whose clothes were these, and what was she doing in them? What was she doing here, in nowheresville, in this ragged dump anyway?
She thought as she opened her mouth and stretched out her arms that she would call out a name, perhaps to question the ragged rain falling all around her. Instead she moaned, a primitive sound she had never made before, and fell to her knees on the mud dusty porch floor, her hands straining towards the rain. She felt caught on the moan, trapped. It sailed from her throat into the wailing wind.
A tortured sound, why did she hurt this way, and supplicate an unknown prescence? Why was she crying in the windy rain, crying out her gray histories of pain? She moaned and moned again. It seemed the only action she could manage. The wind lifted the sound and stretched it out over this barren wild land; stretched it and swallowed it and spat it out, singing. This was a song of wretchedness, a black wretchedness which she sang to the dead sun, swamped inside the wild rain.
She awoke. Her eyes bright open, and aching with fettered tears. Her eyes searching to understand where she might be; kneeling and praying in the cruel tropic rain. She was turned toward a wall, now, but this room was black with late night shadows. Wall? What wall? She stretched out her hand, preparing to turn over, and felt surprise burn up her arm like electricity as she touched a thigh. Whose thigh?
She whirled around to see a man's body, outlined brown under the exhausted sheets. Well, goddam, who is he?
Her hands know, but her mind cannot remember. This face is known by her trembling thin hands. Her fingers have memorized it, with its teasing bumps all over the cheeks and its coarse hair under the nose and chin. Her fingers and tickled and chased themselves inside the small ears, like black goblins on either side of the head. Oh hell, who is this man? She could recall no name or past that belonged to him. He was simply present, and unexplained. Her body shivers in her heart's confusion.
"What's the matter, baby. Why ain't you sleep?"
The voice is the wind that usurped god in her dream, wailing under her thoughts and carrying them away in its raw, unchained motion.
"Had a bad dream."
He coughs and snuffs and snorts, like a sick horse. Wraps his arms around her shoulders, brushes his lips against her neck and goes back to sleep.
Her throat fills with thorns and she wants to scream. The thorns prick into her life and bleed fire. Why should he comfort her in his lame-ass way? She doesn't even know his name. She mustn't awaken him again, oh no; but it would be better to move, to vanish, than scream, for she has no idea where the scream would take her. So with infinite slowness she begins to wriggle from his embrace. He is unaware.
She aches as if more than his arms are holding her to this bed; but she continues, and slides finally to the foot of the bed and breathes for the first time since he dropped back into his snorting sleep.
Her eyes are close to blind, but she can smell the contours of the room, and knows it is familiar. She knows this room in the same way that she knows the laugh creases besides the man's brown mouth. She knows she has clothes in the closet. Why are her clothes in this closet, though? And in her mind, she cannot remember having ever been in the room before.
Afraid to open the closet, or rummage in the chest of drawers, she slips on a pair of jeans and a dirty undershirt that are lying on the floor. They belong to the sleeping, snuffling unaware man. They fit her body like his embrace. They are comfortable and familiar, holding her inside their odor of male sweat and cologne. She walks to the bed and looks at him again, smelling the shirt. Yes, it is his shirt. But who is he? She feels somehow sorry to be leaving him, and with her clothes stuffed in his closet, too.
She stoops quickly to kiss a particularly friendly crevice beside his nose and then she is outside.
This is night air, open, too open, for all its vitality. This is the night air for which she had been longing, though she did not know it herself. Yet, here is nothing that takes her home; or welcomes her on a nostalgic journey to who she is. She is outside in the screeching night air; this night air choked to suffocating with all the voices of those who have forgotten their names, or have not heard them spoken yet.
A Glance in-Him:
Long, black, asleep. Dreaming. A blacknuss man. A jazzman. He does not make music, but he listens. He does make causes, but he listens. A blacknuss man. Feeling that new black world a coming, its women, its bright new cleanliness, through the music. He had awakened and hugged her, this small black southern girl with whom he found himself enchanted. She was having a bad dream, and now it visits him.
He is dreaming of his music, and his woman. But they have painted a devastating picture with this music-madness. He stands back, insulted and fearful. He searches in the ballooning sound, the avalanche of sounds, for his beloved. But she appears in no form he can recognize.
It has not been the hard desperate struggle some foresaw, to teach the quiet gentle man to hate the Greeks. He knew, inside, that the world is all polarities anyway: and now opposed to his brown tenderness, they are the source of all cruelty, the children-eaters, mother-rapists; the source of all fiercely burning cruelty. Why then, are his adored teachers sending her back to him this way?
A long corridor with locked doors.
One knocks:--the echo--the silence.
The polite refusal--the silence.
Again the lonely corridor,
The fading to two dimensions,
The ramming of one's forehead
Against a paper wall.
Each has his reserves,
Rooms of no admission.
(Whether mystery here,
Or sorrow, or dignity, or just death...
What knowledge of such secrets?)
One leaves his roses
By the stagedoor, and passes,
Respecting the doors, the private places,
Retreating to other planes and public spaces. Joan Isaacson
Old Otter Creek has flooded again.
Maybe from the sleet tacking down.
Or the big moon. Listen to the lack of sound!
Old Otter Creek has flooded again.
I hear one duck. At a party. Along. Daniel
Spartan nude beneath the shimmer of a robe; her hair on end and her eyes bright in some dubious ecstasy. This is not she. The woman whirls, the short and tight black body glowing in red lights, and his eyes see the flame-dripping dagger. This is not she. He scratches in his sleep. Snorts, and is angry. Turns and is at rest.
HER MOUTH: A PROGNOSIS
It seems dismal now. That it is brown and dying; not the round, pink living thing it once would become; when pressed and bruised with kisses. It seems more desperate now. It's fullness never opens slightly, seducing the quietest breath of appreciation, or pain. It seems the dead, angry thing it is. The perpetual pout, not a sultry coyness, but the pout of dismissing the world.
It is an ugly thing; this sullen hateful dead mouth; with no remembrances of the soft or ungentle touches it once knew from flowers, or snowballs, a night-stick, a stone, or clean linen. It knows only its tight evil grip to the harsh teeth behind it.
It is worse than the whore's mouth now. The once unawakened young girl, now frightened by the nightmare of her world, aware. The outcast but indispensable woman, the constant worker. Her mouth. When most of the world has fallen into soft sleep, wrapped in that vague warmth of loved ones, or familiar loneliness, or expensive compromise; this mouth, the whore's mouth sucks again on the lipstick reddened cigarette, and begins to harden. The lips unspeaking cry 'fuck you too'. To the ever demanding flaccid phallus, and the rain of sterility.
This is the final word on the mouth. It is useless now to anyone in its unbending hate. It is useless to her in its deadness. And if thy right arm offend thee...
The entrance of the morning sun into the room is as quet as painless death. She kneels. Each morning upon rising she kneels where she can see the cross above her small bed, and the thin stream of sunlight through the ugly torn shade. These morning prayers are different from her prayers before retiring, the light is different. At night pale neon flickers into the room and illuminates the Ghost.
In her morning prayers, when she closes her eyes, she feels the southern sun inside her belly somewhere, burning her dreams' sins, as it burns that southern world which had been her home, as it burns the life out of the people who exist somehow in its heat. As she becomes more engrossed in her confession, and her humble gratitude, the sun melts and pours down to her hard kneecaps; rusty and almost frozen, down on the unheated wooden floor. Steam and smoke from its melting drift upward and wrap themselves about her loins and her heart; finally centering and being released in the hot tears that fall from her eyes with each deep intake of breath and sharp gasp of sweetly curdled praying words.
She prays for her family, her home. Unable to remember individuals, she prays for images of young sweetness and fraility. Home. She prays for a wide-open red space filling with air and heat and dirt. Home. She prays for an ever-burning yet sweet peace. To breathe, she has to open her eyes, and then the broken body on the cross heals itself and walks gloriously into her.
By now, her moans were soft and low, an ocean's breeze, finally sinking after long sailing. Her body rocked, though gently. She barely moved. The morning's great passion complete, she simply chews her thoughts now, turning them over and over, soft, fluid clay. Her thoughts were wordless and unformed; they were just wet masses that hung over her mind, dripping their lack of nourishment into half prayers.
She never goes to work anymore, or bothers to call in. She waits all day, all day. Now the little sunlight that her room catches in the late afternoon is fading away. She is glad. The sun never brightened the room, only spotlighted its shabby attempt at cleanliness and style. She had dressed her room in autumnal colors, deep brown and charred golds, colors that are flat and dead in sunshine's shadows.
She thought about the forest near her family's place in South Carolina and could then feel the low-key steady rushing of the wood creatures heading home. She laughed a small animal laugh; feeling the furry rodent-like animals and the dark birds, settling in for the night; fleeing to their burrows and nests. She was absorbed in the late afternoon rustling of the world's weak creatures hiding away, from night and the predators it cloaked.
A chant, a restless fall breeze challenged her passivity. It begins to wander through her mind like the mourning dove's constant sad cry, its words escaping her memory. She is stirred to reach for them, her anxious searching fingers discovering only seeping sand. The canals in her mind; those channels of memory and meaning have failed here completely. Everything is suddenly flooding. A pounding chant, undammed. Where's home? Where's home?
The room now is flat, with an archaic dusty flatness as if a civilization had caved in and fallen, here. The shadows in the corners are only undusted momentoes of her personal failings; her defeated cities. She would not peer into them. They were without surprise, and without clues to the mystery of the magical chanting.
Pieces of prayers came to her mouth and floated away. Pieces of prayers from other days when the world had become flat and this pounding in her bones had begun.
But the words, the stylized rigid words would not come; nor those loose-limbed fluid cries. Instead she was assaulted by the memories of a group of flowers she had planted carefully somewhere behind the small South Carolina house long ago.
Their green stems were waving, gently; and their cheerful bubbles of sweet bright colors danced around. Then suddenly they were all uprooted. She wanted to scream. They were uprooted, and sterilized, and embalmed in plastic. Hard in their loveliness; ruthless dancers swirling around her.
She felt nauseated by their prophecy. Their articiality stank in her mind, with its proclamation of barren death. Never before had she felt less weighty. Her body was small, had always been small, but usually clumsy and uncomfortably present on her bones. Now she felt fluid, fading into the dying sunlight. She stared at her extremities. Her toes and fingers were slender stalks. Plastic and uprooted like her flowers. Fading thinly into invisibility. Her eyes traveled up her body. Her sturdy thighs, her entire stumpy self was a slender green stem, fading.
She knew soon the stretching, the vanishing, the plasticity would consume her. It was too late to feel any anxiety though. She felt a vague release. Her dreams and her vision had all gone home, cursing her. It was time to follow.