in the silence of a grassy clearing: a short story

How can narrative embody life in words and at the same time respect what we cannot know?
— Saidiya Hartman

one

He parts his lips. He cannot feel the air that whispers against the roof of his mouth. They sit cross-legged on strands of brown grass that sprout from the hardened earth. Distant glass walls wink at the sun. Folds of flesh hang slack within his throat. Again and again he fails to push pitched air from his lungs, empty air all that can escape his mouth. But speech must sound; he knows no alternative. She watches him and her eyes are vacant, something tightening just behind them. He panics in the silence of a grassy clearing.

The perennial daylight is a relentless mocking pleasantness. It’s hard to tell time. She’s watching him. She leans forward, reaches toward his face. Her thumb is on his cheek, the press of her palm against his jaw, but he feels nothing. He wants to clench his throat, but can only watch her retract her hand. He grabs her wrist, grips it, but he feels nothing. He doesn’t know if he’s hurting her, he doesn’t want to. How long have they been here? If he could feel a familiar rhythm in his chest, it would hammer frenetic. But inside he is a cavern, his alien body a husk.

Panic is sudden, but despair is a slow dawn. He imagines choking, his throat a bitter knot coughing tears from his eyes. But he feels nothing. He releases her hand and she sits back. “Are you okay?” he wants to ask. He imagines the hazelnut smoothness of her skin. He imagines red tendrils creeping from inner nooks to outer corners across the porcelain globes of her eyes.

She feels herself wilt as she sits back, yet she knows that she cannot feel. She has known it since she became conscious again, but still she reached for him like a broken dream. His hand is wrapped around her wrist, but she already knows she cannot feel his autumn skin. She awakened in a grassy clearing with a stranger, a man to whom she is bound with an inexplicable familiarity. She wants to ask his name but it is already like a latent sneeze hovering just beyond conscious grasp. Besides, to ask is to sound, and she cannot. She watches his sun-struck eyes, so like the glass walls that tower in the distance. Incandescent enclosures.

orange tongues

and a shadow dance

the warm curiosity of a mouth

and a willing tingling ear

She gropes toward a prostrate consciousness again. She opens her eyes and he swims into focus, stumbling strides and flailing arms. In the distance behind him, the place where they first stared silent and open-mouthed at each other. She pushes herself upright, unsure of how she got to this spot. He reaches her at last, stoops, grabs her hand then lets it fall. Touch is useless here. She must look to the quickness of his movements for a trace of voice, a language like wind. He must be afraid.

She wants to peel her eyes away to expose the trembling that knots her insides, but she cannot feel. Can he see beyond the dead membrane of her outer flesh to that virtual place hidden inside her? In the awful wake of these episodes she begins to find a grateful familiarity. But what invites them? She measures time in indefinite bouts of unconsciousness. What is this place?

She turns from his empty face toward the wall. They are much closer to it than before. She sees it now, a solid towering perimeter that hems them in. She sees this and panics anew. Existence has become one endless terror: of another episode, of an uncertain future in an enclosed timelessness. How did she get here? What is this place so like and unlike her time? How could she have just opened her eyes in a grassy clearing to find herself without possessions, without home, without voice?

Then she hears it.

 

two

behind, the cold place where spine and concrete collide

before, neat rows of white enclosed by fleshy pink too close

swift

swipe

red pain streaming

the wake of man and fist

He awakens and the day is endless. Consciousness is slick as he reaches for it, plummeting. He presses a palm against his face. At length, he lands on conscious ground, squinting. He opens his eyes to a formless sky before him, the sun a dizzying sameness.

She is there, and he follows her gaze to his contorted legs. They are bent at disconcerting, unhuman angles. He feels nothing in them. His eyes meet hers again, the tightness behind them like the glint of sunlight on glass. He wonders if she has the same question that gnaws at the hidden space inside him. How did this happen? And what exactly happened? Memory is an unfaithful friend. It will not permit him beyond the threshold of this time and place. Except … the red, the pink, the concrete hang in a cloud over his thoughts. He shakes his head as if to dispel them.

And then she is cradling him. He watches her. She presses a forefinger to the side of her face, her tragus yielding beneath the touch. He stares a question at her. She taps a few times the soft mound where her ear and face meet, wiping his eyes closed with the cupped palm of her other hand. Without sight, he makes of his ears a wide funnel. Then he hears it. A sound like the scratch of a pencil etching thought into paper, confining it to linearity.

The first few times, she thought it was only inside her. A kind of gnawing residue from the episodes. Then she began to notice it just before his convulsions, the invisible force of something immense lifting him from the hard earth, she turning quickly away from the awful crash of his ragdoll body into the ground. She knows now that the faint scratching is a harbinger of terror. She wants to convey this to him, but if speech must sound, how can she? Can he even hear it?

Bereft of her own sound, she must visually represent to him what she hears. The sound reminds her of note-taking. She can still feel the impression of a pen in the crook of her thumb, but how long has it been since she held one? Her fingers curl around a formless utensil, nothing but air to grasp. It can’t have been that long since the fleshy edge of her palm grazed neat sheets of blue-lined white. Her mouth is bitter with the hazy memory of it. It can’t have been that long ago. How did she get here? And wh

a mist of clink and chatter

a smile, sun-struck

a hazelnut clasp

across a plastic tabletop


three

You look from your work to the glinting glass box far below. Your suit is pewter. Your room is a perch at the top of a narrow tower. You return your gaze to one of the glowing squares before you. You see them there. You watch her cradle him near the southern wall. You see them and you see yourself. You see your voice, the raw data of it, the immanence of it, in their brown bodies. You grip the slender stylus and begin scratching at a smaller glowing square. You watch as contortions begin in the grassy clearing below the tower.

In the wake, the past that is not past reappears, always to rupture the present.
— Christina Sharpe
David ChavannesComment