At first I couldn’t believe the news that scientists had discovered a way to ascertain why each of us was born, by pricking us slightly through the moons of our thumbs and putting that tiny specimen under a high-powered microphone that can actually detect sound that lies deeper than genetics — these scientists call it purposeful humming. Then they amplify this sound by a billion until they can hear its harmonics. It’s somewhere in these haunting harmonies that they’ve been able to isolate the code, the secret, to our purpose, the role we were born to fulfill. Soon, one of these scientists says, we’ll be able to prick our newborns so they won’t waste time trying to “find themselves,” and eventually we might even be able to prick babies in utero and design our cities, our very society, by responding to what we hear there.
There’s a pattern to everything, of course, including time, so it follows that birds and butterflies might be trained to fly through time without necessarily flying through space. You see? The possibilities are as exciting as discovering another organ inside the body, a sponge-like part of ourselves that can soak up the memories we don’t want anymore and squeeze them back out as newly-minted fractals of experience that make us feel so good we might almost say we’re happy.
It’s like the time our subway stopped beneath the river. The doors slid open and everyone got out, pulled back the curtains of darkness that hung there and walked into a place and time where they were exactly who they should have been, even if they should have been ugly or alone, which hardly ever happened, or they should have been a dog, or a bat, or a field mouse, which did in fact happen, more often than you might expect.
And then the curtain closed again, and the empty train moved forward through the dark.
One night, my wife and I dreamed the same dream: we had carried our mattress to the ocean, thrown it into the water and climbed on. We lay together in that bed as we drifted out into the deep water, in a night that was teeming with stars and silence. We slept deeply in the lulling motion of the waves, and we dreamed we were sitting in a cafe by a ski lift in the sun, drinking coffee and watching people slide down the mountain. The language we were speaking is not one we speak, but we understood each other perfectly well. By then our mattress had drifted out of sight, and fish had started circling — but we were still sleeping, dreaming that we’d decided to ride the ski lift to the top of the mountain, despite the fact that we had no skis, that our clothes were barely warm enough for the outdoor cafe.
Then my wife woke and looked out at the ocean’s taut body, at the water which was so calm it seemed to have been oiled. She took off her nightgown and slipped off the mattress. She swam quickly away — she’d suddenly become a good swimmer — while I dreamed I was freezing at the top of that mountain, looking out across the valley. By the time she was out of sight, I too had awakened on our mattress, alone in the ocean. When I heard my name being called from the distance, I dove in to follow her voice.
As I swam I could see clear to the bottom, where the precious things we’d collected in all our years together were assembled as though it was a huge room we could live in. Our books and CDs and family photographs, our clothes and instruments and computers, all these things sat on the floor of the ocean, as though waiting for us to return. We pulled toward each other, hoping to wake up soon, before we felt the impulse to swim down there too, to start something else we could never turn back from, as vivid and empty and as the moon.
We were reading a story about William Thompson, the English-born railway worker who feigned death while he was scalped by Cherokees, who lived to retrieve his scalp after it fell from a warrior’s belt, put it in a pail of water and even tried to have doctors sew it back on his head. Before he died, many years later, he mailed that scalp to the Omaha library, and they put it on display. His hair is still healthy-looking and gleaming in its dried-up scalp. We were reading aloud about Witold Pilecki, the Polish hero who walked voluntarily into Auschwitz in 1940 and stayed for three years, documenting what he saw. We were reading that the oceans are rising more quickly than predicted. We were reading about the eyesight of swifts and kites, of hawks and eagles and crows. We were reading a review of that movie about the strange planet hurtling into the earth, how the power would fail and cars wouldn’t start and people would have trouble breathing. We were only half-reading about the music of Wagner’s later period. Instead, we were reading about Susan Sontag’s diaries, how grandiose and self-involved she was. We were skimming a review of a book about John Berryman, who was even more grandiose and self-involved; about sculptures in the snow that melt when the snow melts, whose melting is their truest form. Then we were reading about the vast rivers underground that gush out in millions of gallons every hour. We were wistfully reading about a Japanese spa where we could drink small cups of green tea while we sat in a pool of warm water, being scrubbed or massaged, while the breeze fluttered the curtains which fell across the open door, to push them open wide enough for us to see the garden’s rocks and sculpted waterfalls. We were reading small poems then, not quite haiku, of Basho and Dogen: A snowy heron on the snowfield/where the winter grass is unseen/hides itself/in its own figure. We were putting our reading aside and going out to work in our garden, to listen to the cardinals and mockingbirds and mourning doves, to smell the spearmint we’d planted by the henna tree. It was raining then, softly, and we let ourselves get wet, soaked through to the skin, which belonged to us now.
Yesterday, riding our bikes in the Everglades, my wife and I noticed a large group of vultures about 100 yards ahead, hopping around a carcass. A man with a camera stood amongst them, but they seemed to pay him no attention. As we approached the group we could see that the birds were tearing the last bits of flesh from the skeleton of a huge alligator, the bones of whose tail lay scattered across the narrow road. The photographer smiled quietly as we passed, so still in his demeanor that the vultures had forgotten him. They started landing again as soon as we’d passed. Of course I thought of Tibetan sky burials, the sacred vultures that so thoroughly clean the human carcasses set out for them that the bones are scoured, denuded of the ichors of flesh. How high do those sacred birds fly, shitting their human remains across the land?
Somewhere, I’ve heard, they’ve developed a way of cremating the body and mixing a small amount of the beloved’s ash into panes of glass, so those who still live will be able to look through their beloved, through glass that is only slightly foggy with the eternally-preserved fragments of bone and sinew, those precious remains. Might a whole house be equipped with windows tinted with loved ones’ ashes, stained glass windows of a sort, grayish or flecked with fur-like particles? The kitchen windows might be cloudy with father’s dust, while ashy smudges of mother’s dark hair might dye the bedroom dormers. Perhaps even patterns or portraits could be rendered from the ashes, etch-o-sketch-like impressions, or vague shapes like clouds. Maps or shapes like birthmarks or scars. We could look through our loved ones as we looked out at the world. So every house we lived in might feel like church again, and looking out through any pane might become a form of prayer.
Have you heard of that country where people lived without shoes, because they believed that only bare feet sang to the ancestors buried in the ground, only bare feet caused the ground-people to sing back to them as they walked through the woods and fields? Have you heard the stories of how far they could walk, adorned in their shells and twigs and mica, these people who wore the scents of forest-breeze and dream? Once I kissed a girl whose feet looked like hooves, who dreamed of walking like anyone else, who swam underwater back and forth across the pool with flippers strapped on, and a snorkel. I remember how her mouth tasted, even after all these years. We sat by the sea wall while she told me of the barefoot tribe, and of her grandpa, who’d traveled to those woods with a duffel-bag stuffed with shoes he gave out there, to teach those people a new way to live. That’s when she’d kissed me. There were swans in the harbor. On the transistor radio she always carried with her, the Beach Boys sang “Caroline, No.” But once they put those shoes on, she told me, those people never took them off, not even when they slept. Then she took off her necklace —a twig on a string — and draped it around my neck. Sometimes I pretend it’s still there. It was as though those boots had replaced their feet. Soon they were all wearing shoes, and their paths straightened out into pure destinations. And though they were still naked, they’d started to kick things, stomp around loudly, and sing pop songs in languages no one understood. She fell silent then, as we watched a group of boys throw a net out into the water for minnows, which they pulled up with glee and spilled out onto the dock. The fish flip-flopped for a while; then they lay still. A few of the boys pierced the little fish for bait, but the others seemed content to just watch them slowly die.
I came across a rack of antlers jutting from the dead-low tide line. There must be a head, I thought, still bristling with fur, with a mouth and nostrils and eyes, buried just below, and a whole body just below that. Fishing line was tangled in the antlers — the only litter I’d seen on that beach — and there were tiny feathers caught in that filament, down or dust or hummingbird wings. So I unwound that line for the feathers and took it home in a bundle that looked like a nest. I put it under my pillow and fell asleep at dusk.
Next morning a flock of small birds lay on my front stoop, with bright yellow bellies and black silky wings. I hadn’t heard them slam against my glass door. As I picked up and breathed across each delicate body, it stirred to life; and then it was standing, quivering, singing its one note and flying off. Soon I was throwing birds up into the sky.
Overnight the tide had fallen even further. Huge fish had been stranded. They flapped and quivered as they suffocated. I headed out through the muck in my hip boots with a bucket. I poured water over their bodies and sang a song that makes the tide rise.
If that didn’t work, I thought I’d start a fire and drag those fish up to the beach, gut them for a solitary feast that might last deep into the evening: Good food must not be wasted, I told myself again.
But that evening, as the tide rose, the strange deer returned, with branches on their heads, full of nests full of birds. They walked along the beach, poised like those women you’ve seen — but only on TV —who carry massive baskets of food on their heads, across great distances, always looking straight ahead, to keep those baskets balanced.
Then certain of the lucky people started to assert that they were entitled to own other less lucky people’s silence. Silence, they argued, was a privilege not a right, and they started to appropriate that silence, not by making noise exactly, but by making sure those less lucky others stayed awake for so many hours that their heads buzzed with static and gibberish. The lucky ones did this with light at first, then by drugging the air with a caffeine-like perfume, until merely breathing was like snorting speed — a great ride at first with a deep sadness to follow. Some of us still believed sadness made us real, so we breathed more deeply. It was hard enough already to earn enough money to rent sufficient darkness to cover us all night. So we all bought machines that mimicked the sounds of wind and rain, we yelled when we spoke to each other. And we tried to ignore all that noise inside our heads. Most of the non-human creatures had vanished to the south, where silence was still free. And despite the fact that people moved so quickly now, life seemed in many ways as it had before. Children went off to school and play while adults spent their time as adults always do. Our families and skin were still ours; our eyes and mouths and whom we fell in love with, whom we desired and kissed, these were still ours. The sky was still blue. Fruit was still sweet. We counted our blessings, giving thanks to what we could.
Because our house was infested with termites, we hired exterminators to wrap it in a tent and fill the tent with deadly fumes. That’s the normal procedure in this part of the world. Deadly poison gas wafted into our closets and drawers, our books and clothing and pillows — every nook and cranny of our house — killing even the most miniscule creatures, including the mold in our bathrooms and closets, the moths in our clothes and lizards in our walls. When the tent came off, the house had to stand open for a full day before anyone could safely go back in. And for the first few days back inside the house, we were afraid to breathe deeply: Who knew where the gas might be lurking? Then we started smelling the dead animals that had been caught in the walls and in the crawl space beneath the house, the stray cat we’d fed for years, which we’d thought had run off somewhere. There he was in the semi-dark beneath our living room floor, swollen and swelling and covered in flies. So we duct-taped a rake to the end of a pole and we reached in to roll him and shovel him out. We buried him then beneath the banana trees, still heavy with bunches of fruit that had started rotting by the time we noticed them hanging there, calling out their sweetness to the squirrels and the bees.
...a model of order, even if set in a place which is full of doubt... — Ian Hamilton Finlay
A stone dropped into the ocean depths may fall for weeks before it touches down. Most of that fall is through absolute darkness. As it falls, the weight of the ocean presses in. It seems to move more slowly the deeper it falls. It drifts, as it falls, with the deep currents. It is just a stone, but someone dropped it there. Part of that person remains with that stone, as that person imagines it falling through the dark.
She lives in a city without a name, in a country no one remembers anymore. The streets are already crowded with pedestrians when she steps from her front stoop, early each morning, to hurry off to work. She moves anonymously through the crowds; in fact she seems afraid to be recognized. But in fact all the faces in this city are the same, and in fact no one looks at each other as they walk.
Her job is to put the white back into milk. Other people deal with snow, still others with skin, and eggs, and eyes.
Out in the country in this country no one knows, wild animals build houses and tend to the farms. No one here speaks badly of wolves, and foxes are admired for their precociousness and style. All the bears in their caves are thought of as philosophers.
And when the bombs fall, everyone dances. These dances resemble the old full-moon harvest hoedowns, even as the dancers are blown to smithereens.
Then there’s the story of the man who could unwrap his own skin and show off the other animals beneath it. He’d let them all run out, the mongrel dogs and alley cats, while he stood there like some kind of moment that would never end. After a certain amount of time, all the animals would seem to remember something. They’d return to him — dogs, cats, pigeons, squirrels, crows — and they’d slip back inside while he wrapped himself back up. Then he’d start the long walk home. Sometimes, if he was tired, he’d take the bus, though this made him nervous since his animals always wanted to look out the widow. Their noises inside him made the other passengers think he was mumbling, talking to himself, or that his stomach was churning with sickness. He couldn’t say anything about his situation, so he only smiled. Once when the bus was empty he unwrapped himself a little, and two of his favorite pigeons flew out into the bus and out the open window. He grieved at this loss, since he knew they couldn’t live outside his body for long, that they’d fly as though they were going somewhere, until they were exhausted; then they’d land in some strange place in the actual world without any idea where to find him. Perhaps they’d survive there. But he could feel them dying already, even as he tightened the skin around his face and looked out the window for home.
Behind every face, there is another, with slightly different wrinkles and a different slant of nose, but essentially the same as the one that meets the world. And beneath that face is another just about the same. Sometimes you can see these under-faces as they scowl or laugh at what the surface is saying.
Since her parents had grounded her and she hated watching TV, she lay on her bed and wondered if she could fit a river into her body, if the river were the size of her veins or the nerves that branched out everywhere. And if so, what would the source of that river be? And would that river join other rivers, growing larger every few miles, until it reached the sea? Maybe it was more like a mountain creek, with waterfalls, whose water was so clean she could drink it, so refreshing when she swam there she felt clean through and through, and happier, almost, than it was possible to be. And what about the landscape that river flowed through? Would it be possible to fit it in her, too?
In that way we’re like fish moving just beneath the water, while a soft breeze blows a small boat slowly out to sea.
Michael Hettich’s two most recent books of poetry are Like Happiness (Anhinga Press, 2010) and The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers Press, 2011). His newest chapbook, The Measured Breathing, won the 2011 Swan Scythe Press Chapbook Contest. He lives in Miami with his wife, Colleen, and teaches at Miami Dade College.