I.S.O. Fernando Pessoa, The Book of Disquietude
Immediately, I notice how big the sky is: so wide, and eternally deep. On mornings like this, when I notice things like these – the yellow that reflects in the fountain, the grey-green of trees at dawn – I often feel more vibrant, my fingertips cool but my core smoldering. But on today's morning walk, after having slept for twenty minutes just before the sun rose, the people seem uniquely shadowed, their features blurring into monotony before my steady eyes; the leaves, however, the appearing sun, even the lampposts lining the blocks and roads shine in a way that only I can feel.
One often wonders, when caught in streams of thought so unprovoked that they must be followed, how exactly the eagle – which dropped the fatal tortoise onto Aeschylus – mistook his bald head for a jagged rock in the first place.
Where else in the world could I ever conceive of being except where I wish I was? My ordinary surroundings are so repetitious that they are ingrained in my mind – therefore, however – disappearing from my mind's eye. The few postcard pictures I do retain – filed away together in a far-off corner of my conscious mind – are of places I have heard of where I will never walk: long-destroyed cities, the scorch of leather sandals under my feet, volcanoes and icebergs which shift and change, islands that exist only on ancient maps. No life exists in daydreams – nothing more real than this clay and flesh – but the only thing left in my waking life is dreaming.
Even the stars change over time, maturing like we do: growing brighter and duller until we fade, our glow only seen light years away from our remaining substance.
I spend hours in front of a mirror: one hangs above my desk, crisp and lightly dusted, the depths of which contain shapes I can never seem to find on the opposing walls. I stare behind myself, thinking of where these stains, visible only to the mirror's eyes, may have come from: the wallpaper is smooth and clean.
More often than not, I resolve to take a walk after this mirror business ensues, pursuing the same route on which my mornings take me: past the bus station, the power plant's chimneys, the darkened downtown buildings – all locked. The world seems hidden behind a veil of dust, catching light in ways that it usually does not; I walk with the same heavy, lucid eyes as in my dreams, trying to discern the stains lining the sidewalks.
There is an intensity that lives constantly in the present moment when one has lost the time for dreaming and those stories begin to steal your waking attention: the mind's survival games….
My dreams are easier to translate than reality. Isn't it only normal that they would bring more comfort?
A strange heaviness is resting in my belly, stretching its long legs, rubbing its swollen stomach. It spreads to my head, a hazy recollection of what I have not done: the scattered stones that should be resting securely in concrete along with the others I have stacked, and not in the wet dirt where they still lie. There is a tightening deeper in my gut that twists my torso and hollows my legs, immobilizing my terrified aspirations before they have a chance to take breath….
An impending beginning is tiring: the suffocation of ambition by the bony hands of fear.
I have found the beginning; now I must dig up the rest of my ripening words.
An air of mischievous glee always accompanies me to a friend's house, when I get to experience a new place for the first time. I will wait until I have entered the house: from there, I begin to plan out the rest of their abode – down to the trim color – before I have seen even another doorway. I walk through the rooms just before we arrive in them – on the "official tour," of course – and try to fix arrangements done incorrectly, each wall erected in the wrong place, pictures which don't suit the colors in my head.
A certain delight finds its way into my fingers and I touch objects that I like, labeling them mine – by the rule of finders-keepers – even if I allow the objects to stay with their now-former owners. Just before the front door is again opened and closed for me, I look around and imagine my things – the ones formerly theirs and currently mine – clearing the floors, brightening the walls, filling the rooms.
I always leave smiling – my vision crisp – at having found a new place for my restless dreaming legs to roam.
When I wish to sleep, my eyes never tire; when I must forge ahead, my mind decides to hastily fade: before I notice, I am waking up, minutes or hours later, panicked, work still to be done – as there always is, threads left unwoven, paths never sojourned.
Something magic rests in the moment of tired realization, though – something that presses its warm neck against our hanging hand, rubs its calico face against our cheek – when I can feel my dreams swelling within my mind, pushing lean fingers into my attention span: disabling it. I often catch myself with my eyes averted, bleary with thought, my pen hovering above the page, until I realize my unconsciously-conscious state; I sit sculpted: a bent, distracted tree.
I clutch those moments of tired erasure – internal, expansive nothingness – as if my arms are spread and I feel no barriers, just a low, steady breeze that is cunning and warm, touching every part of me. Just when I sacrifice my remaining mind to the tired intrusion, my eyes brighten, thoughts lucid, the zephyr having grown and moved the fog from those reaching arms, closed eyes: a dream begins, the dreamer building as he goes.
How They Clasp Their Lips
I.S.O. Dave Eggers, When They Learned to Yelp
At the Americans' first footsteps off the rickety bus onto the village soil, the lips of the African staff, guides and residents tighten and release in the breath between words – it is quietly learned and does not appear all places the way it does here, but the steady stare is always present – they offer their hands to the Americans, whose pale fingers accept stiffly.
"How can you not see, not remember?" their dark eyes whisper. "Don't they teach you these things in America?"
The only answers the Americans can muster are dull smiles, unfocused gazes.
It begins in the shoulders: straightening, flexing, sometimes only slightly, and the tightness goes to the waist; the feet shift, squaring themselves, as if in military inspection.
The face works in four steps: the nostrils flare and shrink, then gape for a second time; this is the moment of horrible realization: the sniff is hard, anxious, like a last breath.
Then: the eyes brighten as the idea of what is happening – who this is and what they, their people, have done – becomes crystalline, focused; it is going into the basement from the sunlight, and bathing, for a second, in what could happen there, in the dark.
After which: the eyes narrow and do not widen again – the settling that happens just after an injury, the dizzy exhaustion that tears everything else away, the quiet moment when the entire world is pain, wide and comforting.
Finally: the mouth moves as if to speak through the closed lips – jaws making way for the seething tongue, which flicks the gums and molars – the jaw strikes shut. The lips push against each other brutally: a stealthy, sour taste coating the mouth after the smell of bad milk.
This marks the end of the soundless fury that develops in the belly and spreads to the arms, toes, the burning ears – something so raw and old that the intensity seizes the muscles of the chest and squeezes them: the mind perceives only the present moment.
The clasping is essential, and is a custom passed down without words, having evolved in many places into many actions; the rage and screams and spilled blood all fall in on each other until the chest feels completely still, a star after collapsing: it encompasses hurt too big and buried to be spoken of and thrusts it into the bones of the living.
A Botswana witchdoctor danced, the same dance his father and his father's father had done, swinging his arms and shaking his beaded chains – luck seeds and plastic bells, whistles and reed skirts – and said he had a vision of Suzanne, the honey-haired elementary school teacher from New Jersey, "that she is good luck." The villagers all turned to her, speaking and patting the pale skin of her back; she looked directly into their eyes for the first time, smiling – their lips no longer clasped in her presence.
Those who clasp their lips have been chained in the dark, sent to ships and taken to another world; worked like machines until they were; they have felt their spine, hands, feet as open callouses, the bones brittle and close to the skin; the bullets and sun, the spit and swinging rope.
The clasping can be done any place, at any time deemed necessary; the chest may tighten while outside or indoors, and the clasping comes whether you have planned for it or left the thought unattended. People's lips are clasped in Hiroshima, standing on the grass; in Berlin, touching broken stones; and in Dresden, they are always held clasped – tourists with cameras, agitated smiles.
The Americans did not meet Dineo, the African who never clasped her lips, until later, after the village and the witchdoctor: her eyes never narrowed, the tannin-brown was always searching; her skin was taut, her laugh deep and throaty; she threw her many tiny braids over her shoulder while she spoke. Her daughter, she said, would be sent to America to go to school, in hopes that she could come back home to Africa and aid her people – help to ease the clasping.
"It will happen," Dineo – whose name means 'gift' – told the Americans that night. "Sometime, our children will not be scared when green trucks pull into the villages. They will not fear skin lighter than their own or the men who speak only English. We push them quickly, the parents and generations older try, but the undoing of things is harder than the doing, yes?" Dineo smiled. "It will happen. When it does, the people will dance, open their mouths to laugh; they will never stop singing again."
is a native Virginian who completed his MA in Fiction in May 2009. His creative work has been presented at several conferences. Since graduating, he has taught various English and writing classes at several universities, has received a few outstanding teaching awards, served as a co-curatorial assistant for the art-book show "Somewhere Far From Habit," and is co-founding editor of the new online literary and art journal SPACES
. He currently lives in New Mexico.