From "The Wind Wound Bow"
1. The chanting giant bears down. Groans echolocate his depth. I know without looking down the narrow gauge of the world, the taut lines declining purchase, the fucked up way the wind blows. In two we split existence: there is change and there is the changeable. The only difference is we once thought we could make a difference. We still think we can make some difference. But from what no one asks. The giant's accent has mutated. A downeast choke: A garden apartment. A east port art center. A cave littered in licked bones. A fire once consumed him, but now, in the dark, the giant shifts his hip bones against the hard floor, stretches first his left leg straight, then the right. Then the cave is silent and I can feel him looking into the darkness, a memory of fire licking out from the back of one deep eye. I sway, step forward, tuck toes around a line, descend.
If I could turn, even just swivel my head to glance back, I could see the ledge from which I began. When was it? But the movement — I've tried it, just the beginning of the swivel — it knocks me off balance, even in the dark, even when I can hardly see the lines ahead of me, disappearing into the cave. The ledge is too far behind now. I could never swivel my body — it would mean lifting one foot from the lines, letting the cable slide into the arch of one foot, the other passing through the void, then trying to find the same cable with the correct toes, then — an eternity to be unmoored — doing the same again with the other. Maybe seconds, but that long with no grip would be a form of falling. The giant exhales somewhere ahead, or below, or after where I am.
There were birds. There still are but not where I am. I can recall them. When I stepped from the ledge the cables were new. They had not yet oxidized in my breath. Or is it the giant's breath that has made them rust? When I first stepped out, everything changed. Bedrock, its insistent chill, is different from air and steel. Glacially spreading out under pressure, its aliveness is something more like bones, shedding flinty layers as the world wears its way over. Thin winds tug. An ocean lapping each grain of sand back, forth, eons spreading themselves thin. Something vibrates in the cable. A raindrop. I have become accustomed. I know when a raindrop lands on the line, and I can feel it let go, surface tension abandoning the hold. The hollow song played by light fingers.
The wind's fucked up way is unlearnable. What I was sure I knew of it yesterday, mere steps back, I now know was a misunderstanding. I have learned about the cables, the lines, I don't know what to call them. Or, I have learned what they have done to the skin between my toes where I must grip, slide, release and grasp. My nails grow long. My toe nails. My finger nails have disappeared, my arms grown into a stick, solid from finger tip to finger tip, across the rigid knot of my shoulder blade, forever extending for balance. But I can feel the way my toes have become some thing else. The giant again shifts. He rubs his back against the cave wall, either for comfort or to itch. To scratch an itch. I don't know. I have no access. One foot slides, the other waits. One foot waits, the other slides. The giant watches with out a fire, assuming, maybe, progress. The urge to swivel, for a single glimpse back, then it's out of mind. A drip on the line, a drop lets go.
The giant's accent changes, but the giant is still the giant, and he is still. It is southwestern, more syntax than the vowels now. I can hear it when he inhales. My tongue even is part of the balance. It moves me back, and pulls me forward. An elongated O. An E instead of an I. The taut lines as irreducible as the darkness the giant can not dispell. Calloused skin smoothed out by the line. Behind, if I could see it, I know what I might see still: The smooth lines stretch back to the ledge, fine coating of my skin where I gripped the cable, and the rain, now and then, clinging, letting go, beyond the rock, the bones that won't. Then an exhale in a new accent, like Alaska, or Florida.
The giant preens in his cave. There are no mirrors and there is only the light imagined into being from that one grave eye reaching out into the murk. I know all this because I have been there already and I can remember. This is all the turning back I can do, suspended, inching forward, ever so slightly swaying above whatever, I cannot see it, and will not call it the abyss. It isn't the abyss. I am not there yet. So I swivel without straining my neck. On the backs of my eyelids pulse red striations and roving floaters that congeal into what I'd seen in that cave. When I was there before.
There was a lot of snow then, and it came from every direction, blown sideways, rising up from the ground, falling like rain straight down even through the concatenation of evergreen shoots that darkened the woods. I sought shelter and found none. Leaning into trunks of trees and finding no leeward break, just wind and white and numbing cold, burrowing into drifts to make a cave that suddenly whisked away in a gale, crawling amid a ground swept clean of boulder or rootbank or decayed windfall, the only shelter was movement. And so for days so darkened by storm cloud they lost distinction and seemed one interminable grey miasma, I clutched at anything — small fissures in the hard dirt, nubby roots barely protruding, the merest hint of the path I had lost whenever, five or ten days ago — and crawled. A raindrop grips the line and falls, and I open my eyes, surprised how quiet and warm this utter darkness is. It seems in some ways the opposite of that memory — this darkness, that whiteout — but all was grey then and all is grey now. I crawled on then and I inch forward now. The snow drove in from every direction then, and here, the drops of rain incessant. But there is another taut line I've walked, from that winter's gelid trudge to this, and it is on that tightrope I'll inch backward for a while.
The snow never ceased, and the wind howled in my dreams, speaking under its roar some tongue my brain worked at, tried to parse, inventing voices that invented words that my overwrought brain transcribed into instructions, into songs, into my lost lover's plaintive urgings, into sermons and curses. When I woke up and found myself windswept and frozen I crawled on and on and there was no end that I can remember.
Someone must remember, because someone must have found me. They could tell their own version. Inching back that line of memory there is an abyss — a real one — that I can stare into all day long and never discern any form or depth to. But the line leads eventually to the schoolhouse where I awoke in a bed of pine needles, a fire in the broken school bell lying cracked and misshapen in the center of the stripped room.
That was when my fingers had gone. All but these two. I flex them now, or which flex on their own as if to jog my mind that they still exist, and not to let them go, too. The silence was worse than the roar, that sudden anchorless feeling or hearing nothing after days, weeks of hearing nothing but the bellowing world.
2. Consider all the tools at your disposal. There's the inclined plane. The funnel. The long-range rifle-scope. Take the rifle scope. The crosshairs in the scope reflect an ideal. You don't have to be as accurate as the instrument suggests, though it is important to maintain consistency in how you use your tools. Otherwise, what happens is a continuum of guesswork. Instead, what you want is a sort of learning curve, where X reflects the ideal, Y's the margin between guesswork and finesse, and as one approaches X, you sort of learn to whittle away at the space between you and your machine. Never mind. I don't want to lose you. But still. Time, then, reduces human error, and marries us to the instruments we choose. In the end, understanding less about yourself or the machine unifies your aspect in the world while simultaneously making you less human, less yourself. This is why machines were invented. Sorry — this is why we invented machines. This is also why we name our children, but give adults titles. There is no opposite process. Just dehumanization.
In the jetstream it's the vacuum that powers the plane, that directs the trajectory by suturing the rifts our movement makes in time. You can physically hear time rip. But. There is no trace left behind. In a sense, where we just were is something like a thought that you never acted on. Remember that the planet's orbit is an ellipse, but cyclical as well. Varied possibilities simply retrace the fuzzy logic of happenstance.
Elasticity is the permeation of time with variation. Sculpting a painting, so to speak, or committing one thought to one space between two unrelated doorways, each one leading to unconnected rooms. Without time, we can't use the pronouns that had always given us some sense of being. Instead, we loop back to an original being, ghost memories of what habit makes you believe is a structural latticework upon which you can hang yourself. You point to a scar, say "there, that's what..." or, more likely, "This memory is of when." You might feel compelled to tattoo the pronouns on the skin of memory, but their grammar will simply reciprocate a false memory grafted on to the cyclical nature of knowing, or hanging a skin on a frame of bones that tense against it, until the skin rots or bones crumble.
Or consider another position. You've begun shouting out of your doorway, out of your room (or cell) and into a hallway into which you are forbidden to pass. Your shouted sentences reflect and reverberate, imparting the tone of your voice with a kind of drywallish metallic ring. You recognize this tone is shared by all of the voices you hear from all of the cells you suppose likewise line your hallway (and others, around the corner, down the next corridor). You feel good about that. In the same way that a radio station's EQ curves and de-essing compressors normalize its various deejays's voices to a standardized tonal color, so does the building materials of the cell from which you shout. The morning zoo guys are all the same guy. The classical gals are all the same gal. You can count on it. You do count on it. And sometimes driving in some foreign city with the rental car's radio on scan, you feel great comfort in the tonal quality you recognize from home. And so the same is true for the hallway's voices. The same is true of those voices you hear, shouting into the hallway. They are a kind of home. And stuck inside your cell, there's a limit to how foreign, how independent, you can be. That's a comfort.
You will never see the face of your fellow shouters, but their voices are your voice, because your room is the same shape, your walls constructed of the same materials, your shouts differentiated only maybe by the words you choose. Maybe not. There's only so much to shout about. But individual differences are smoothed out, and the overall pleasant effect is that all these disparate voices are unified beneath the compendium of the structure. There is a unified design principle, an even tone — certainly unintentional — to the collection of shouts that emanate from these individual cells.
But then it also dawns on you that the structures into which you have placed yourself — your cell — have this odd effect. Comfort is a weird thing. You very much like the way everyone's voice sounds... well, sounds like this place. But you also enjoy the kind of coterie you've joined, the specific way of talking that has become second nature. The jokes, especially, you enjoy. It is nice to be among people who understand you.
And even if they don't know your name, or what you look like, it's nice that they laugh at your jokes. Some of these jokes are really subtle — a slight inversion of syntax that sounds like maybe a fake Italian accent or something — and it's a great comfort. Sometimes there is a new voice from some new room (but not really all that new, since its walls are made of the same stuff as your walls and its dimension no doubt exactly the same as your room's). It's fun to listen to that new person get used to the sounds of the hallway. Funny, too, to listen to them acclimate to the coterie's concerns and tropes. They'll make these mistakes maybe you once made, little barbs of difference, but they'll stop. These mistakes will go away, since all they elicit from the hallway is silence, or scoffs.
Imagine the hallway. You've never seen it. But imagine it, what it looks like, what the walls are like and what the carpet is like. Imagine how far apart the doors are, where you neighbors live. What do you think they look like? Imagine them, every feature of their faces. You can intuit this, you think, by the small differences in their voices. Clearly, a high voice is thinner, a low voice barrel-chested, strong-jawed. Every detail of a person's face, body, even clothes can be extrapolated from the tiny differences in their voices. Listen. Just listen. You can hear the color of their shirt, if they wear boxers or briefs, if they're a virgin, if they had their tonsils out, if they have shaved. Put it all together, and you've got a perfect picture. You don't even feel compelled to see them, so sure of what they look like, because your sensitive ears have so carefully read those voices, even though they sound so similar to your own.
There is, though, this nagging question. They know, then, what you look like. They know everything about you. You cannot hide anything, not your lactose intolerance, not the slurred tongue of your drinking problem, not the fact you are lying on your back on the couch, masturbating. So you can no longer do these things, or you can no longer shout along with them, with all the others, with whom you are one. Silence. But silence only from your cell, not theirs. They will keep shouting, and you will hear this polylogue continue without you, and this is unbearable. And so you must stop drinking wine. You must be careful what they can see of you. You know it cannot be masked. You must not only be careful what you show, but what you don't show. The things you keep hidden, these things you want to be able to do in the privacy of your own cell, you cannot do them and you also don't want to be forbade to do them. So you try to stop thinking about it. Try to stop desiring these things that will only cause you anxiety. You must get used to not even thinking about them, if you want to make your life less painful and maintain your role in the hallway's chorus of voices. And then something breaks outside, maybe a vent or an airduct, and a bird nests somewhere behind the wall. When you press your ear to the drywall, there it is, a tweet, then another. They sound nothing at all like your voice. If you had a hammer, you would be able to break the wall apart, get rid of this nest. But you have no hammer, no tools at all.
In the hall, expertise manifests both via initial, literal volume of address and reciprocated, continuous volume of reiteration. It may be the middle of the night, when the polylogue begins its ebb tide, and a single striking voice rises up and out, your attention roused from half-brain sleep to full awareness. But it may also be gradual, this becoming-aware of expertise: The slowly-rising tide of a single idea reiterated, even in different permutations but ultimately reaffirming both its ideal and the voice that first uttered it.
What does it mean to be safe in one's room but threatened by voices? Is the projected self an assailable self? When we talk about reputation, where exactly does reputation exist? If someone's reputation were destroyed, where would its lack be? The rooms don't need locks. There's no one in the hallway. No one will ever come in the door. There's no real threat except the threat of silence. The threat of just hearing your own voice reflected back, but none other's. The threat of monologue.
But also: No alliance can actually bring together anything but imagined bodies. What value is there in imagined alliances? Silence becomes a poverty. This is a discussion of constructing other imaginings we share as shafts spent into the sky, parabolic, brutal, and inevitable.
Chandler Lewis lives in the Hudson Valley of New York.