There are no windows in this room, but even so that metallic shrieking outside is so loud, it’s like something drilling into our skulls.
“Is this strictly necessary?” she says, her hands covering her ears. She’s trying to make a joke, but her mouth is warped, like the mouth on a tragedy mask.
I just shrug. Maybe that’s cruel, but I don’t see the point in joking, or in pretending that a joke might make this easier. I’d already been in this room for hours when they brought her in, and I’d been working hard on zeroing out the shriek, on dial-toning it—on dial-toning everything, in fact.
She’s sitting against the wall just across from me. I’m sitting against the wall too, but I’m thinking of lying down. There’s stuff all over the floor—grit, and jagged bits of concrete. Or maybe it’s ash, like what’s left over after smelting. I start to smooth it away with my hand and she asks, “How can you stand it?” Actually she’s shouting, her hands still over her ears.
“I can’t,” I say (I’m shouting too). “But… I don’t know… What else am I going to do?”
I shrug again, and I can see something like hatred come into her expression.
And then she’s on her feet, her hands out, her knees bent—like she’s about to dash off. But where to? It’s a step and a half to the wall in every direction. So she just freezes like that for a while, though something’s clearly breaking to pieces inside her. Slowly her arms settle to her sides. Then she turns to the wall and puts her forehead against it, her hands going back up over her ears.
She’s wearing this strapless summer dress, which looks completely ridiculous in here—the sort of thing you might wear to a beach party, or on the deck of some penthouse. So maybe what happened is she was standing someplace like that, looking out over the ocean, or the city, thinking how beautiful it was, how vast. Maybe she was talking to someone, smiling, sipping a glass of white sangria. And then the glass was finished, and she put it down on a mosaic table, just beside her. And then: Wham!—all of that was over.
As for me—I got up before dusk and walked out into Bear Swamp with my camera until I came to this part where all the trees had died. Twenty or so great blue herons nested there, each in a concatenation of gray twigs balanced atop a different tree. When I arrived, just as the sky was going pink, only one or two herons had its long-beaked head sticking up out of its nest, keeping watch. But then, after I’d been snapping photos for maybe five minutes, every single bird in the flock popped up its head all at once. It took me a moment to figure out what had happened, but by then, of course, it was too late.
It began with drumming inside the tabletops, and then flames spit from electrical outlets, and all the score counters flipped back to zero, zero, zero, and the writing on the cereal boxes became unintelligible, while the pictures were all meteor scar, crow’s tongue and headless children. Forget that. “You shall shudder for seven years,” said the pale man in the tin hat before he covered his face and disappeared into the crowd along the muddy road. It seemed that, henceforth, “promise” would only be used in the sense of “lie,” and that none of us would get our government checks. The rain continued despite all predictions, and most of us were wearing wool now, although it became so heavy and cold that many people shed their clothes and walked naked. “What’s the difference?” they said. I don’t know if any survived. We were walking with our neighbors, but we lost them when the redhead began to vomit. People were very good at making homes then. You could see a rug, a lamp, a family in a row on the couch, even a flickering TV, although mostly it was old numbers and that white. Cold in the sense of steel. In the sense of dead-white. Forget that. There was sulfur everywhere, and poker chips, and oiled feathers. I bought a new watch and some reading glasses. For several days, I remember, there was a joke going around that “love” was now equal to “making a sale.” We did it all: the books, the genealogies, the sports competitions. That was when she pulled me into some mossy place where refinery fire lit the night clouds. “I want you to…” she said. “I want… I want…” And there was much grappling. And some tears. I remember the streaks of mud my hands left on her ribs. But, somehow, it wasn’t interesting. Cold in the sense of inert, in the sense of the old numbers.
I learned to cry in college. It’s not as hard as you would think. I mean, love your enemy—isn’t that just ass kissing? And don’t even try to tell me you’re not for sale.
So she’s the one who wears the camisoles and walks the dog; he’s the one who can’t repair the lawnmower. That’s all there was to it at first.
The director said, “Think someone you love is dead.” That was useful, but now I don’t need it. That scene at the end, with the screen porch and the fireflies and the tears—I can do that no sweat. It’s just natural now. The thing is they want to own you. Tears aren’t enough.
“You have no emotions,” she said, and I said, “Aren’t these goddamn tears?”
It was meteor season, and we were on the porch. The coyotes were going yippee-yip across the valley and the wine bottle was already empty.
For a while I thought it was worth it. I just did what she said. I’m talking about therapy shit. I tried putting my head down on the steering wheel and squeezing the bridge of my nose. One night, I even collapsed in front of the television and cried, “I can’t stand it!” She just looked at me, and, right there in the middle of the dress rehearsal, she said, “I just can’t work with this guy!” And, after that, every time we did a kissing scene, she would spit on the floor.
So I built a little world. It’s called Home. You’re either Mom or Dad or Baby or Sis. And you get to choose: lead pipe, meat clever or Gatling gun. Everybody loves it! So now I’m making real money and she’s stopped complaining. You can make her walk down the road in a camisole, and every time a pickup passes, it honks. That’s the way it’s programmed. In the summer the valley is all yellow grass. In the winter there’s snow, even on the telephone wires—the world is endlessly white and gray. And in the spring, all the birds are robins. I use the same color for the sunsets. And all the while he’s busting his balls over that lawnmower. It’s ironic. Everybody’s happy.
I used the money to buy us a big white house. Do you hear chainsaws? That rooster on the hilltop? She loves it as much as I do. Except I don’t know what’s going on with that girl. Her parents keep pigeons, and the first time we did a kissing scene, I noticed her hair smelled of pigeon shit. Fuck it. I mean: Love your enemies?—I mean: Feel that! You see what I’m saying? Fake is as good as it gets.
The thing is, sometimes we sit out on the porch, peepers and crickets going deedly-dee in the bushes, fireflies winking and we’re just smoking, and sharing that bottle, and who gives a fuck what it is, you know. It’s peaceful. First you hear her voice in the dark, and then you hear mine. So what? You know? Just so fucking what?
It always happens, eventually: You dial-tone it. Otherwise there’s nothing you can do. So after we’d been in there for—I don’t know—hours and hours, what it felt like was a weight lifting off of our bodies.
“Oh my God!” she said. “It stopped! Oh my God! I can’t believe it!”
She’d been hunched in the corner with her hands over her ears, but now her hands hovered beside her head. Her eyes were wide and her open mouth expressed wariness doing battle with delight.
“It’ll start again,” I said.
“Why do you say that?”
“It just will.” I’d been lying on the floor, but now I sat up, leaned against the wall.
“Why? How do you know?”
“They did it before, they’ll do it again. Why wouldn’t they?”
“But maybe they’re done.”
“With what?” I said.
“With whatever they were doing. Maybe they were building something, and now it’s done.”
“Then why did you say that?”
“It’ll start again. Why did you say that?”
I shrugged. “Because we live in a fuck-it universe. You know: a vale of tears.”
When I said that she looked at me like I was a trash fire. Then this shutter went down inside her eyes, and for a while she pretended I wasn’t there. She paced from wall to wall, her arms folded across her chest, her head lowered, this crunch between her eyebrows. Every now and then she’d yank the handle on the door, but it was like trying to pull rebar out of a concrete block.
“Why are you here?” she asked.
I’d been lying down again, but I sat back up. “You got me,” I said. And then I told her about my morning, about the great blue herons.
“But you must have done something,” she said. “There must have been something you weren’t supposed to photograph.”
“Don’t think so. It was just a dead trees for miles, with these big blue birds sitting on the top of them.” I shrugged. “What about you?”
“It’s a mistake,” she said. “I don’t know. That’s what I’m trying to figure out.” She started to pace again, waving her arms, her voice loud and off-key. “I mean my sister’s just had this hysterectomy, and she’s been putting on all this weight because she’s so depressed and everything. So I’m visiting her and she tells me she’s decided to give away all her clothes to thank the world for her not being dead. But also because they don’t fit her anymore. Anyhow, she wants me to take this dress.” She stopped pacing to tug the material at her ribs. “So I tell my sister, no way am I taking her clothes. She’s not going to be fat forever, and then she’ll regret it. But I go into the bathroom to try the dress on anyway. Then there’s this banging everywhere in the house. And voices. Then the door bursts open and the next thing I know I’m in this dark van and they’re taking me here. And I’m saying ‘Why are you doing this? There has to be a mistake!’ But they don’t answer me. The won’t say even one word. And I can hardly even see them it is so dark. Just their guns, their boots, their insignias.”
Don’t. I don’t want so much at one time. The trees are withered and leafless in the yellow yard. And our childhood home is fire-gutted, its black hollows fragrant of that perfume you used to wear by red water, by red stone, back when we were a variety of young. Now we must undo it all. Now the goal is reject. Call back the glint of eye, the tongue, the sigh. Love all we once dared ignore, feeling safe. Now is the era of destruct. Now is the era of I don’t want any more. Now is the era of I want to lie beneath the rails as the sky thunders past and live only in the instant of blank, in the instant of, “No you won’t.” Summon your carriage, love. Set the wheels rumbling, the horses foaming. Wave your green flag. It is time to be off. There is no forgiveness in this vacancy. There never was.
You know how it is: They let you get used to it, then they take it away. First noise, then silence. First a world defined by brick and steel; then you’re at sea, dangling a fish by a hook through its lips; then you’re in some truck stop toilet: cracked tile and greasy dust heaped in the corners; then it’s just snowflakes falling on a vacant field. It was hard to walk that morning, but we had no choice. A rooster had been crowing since before light, and a dog in the forest answered with long howls. “That figures,” she said. But when I asked what she meant, she wouldn’t answer. We couldn’t talk as we walked beneath the fragrant cedars, fog against our bare skin, and yet, word followed word. The first was “orange.” The second, “sycophant.” The third, “hunger.” And the fourth was the word we could never say. She was shivering. I put my arm across her shoulders. Footprints trailed behind us in the ash, and then it was my turn. The first was “motorcar.” The second, “betrayal.” And the third was “want.” Again: nothing but finality, and moment following moment like a hammering at the door. We had packed a bag before going to sleep, but animals ripped it open in the night, and so we made do. “Beach,” and “breast” and “affinity.” And so we lived with the unspeakable. It was night. We lay hip to hip on the moss and rock, cheek to chest. I didn’t sleep, but I dreamed we were glazed with moonlight. In the morning, fog drifted through the trees. Perhaps it was colder. Soon the leaves would fall. There would be ice. “Blossom” and “rage” and “umbrella.” And so we walked along a trail between what we couldn’t say and what we couldn’t think. “Fear,” she said. And “hatred.” These were the important words, the ones that would give us strength in the times ahead. And yet, when she touched me in that way, and I saw them on her lips, I felt something that was neither courage nor shame. “City,” she said, and “fuck” and, again, “fuck.” Then silence. Footprints in the ash. Stone and sky and flesh. Memory.
It’s too late, but what I meant was that none of it was true, not the gasping by the cemetery wall, not the mumbled promises in the bar dark, not even the haystacks or the moonlight. It was all just a way of living with the hunger, the yellow teeth. It was all just solitude fleeing solitude, a soft touch there and in that way, in the radium light, when the sleeping pills don’t work. A spasm tricked out as joy.
Stephen O’Connor’s novel Thomas Jefferson Dreams of Sally Hemings will be published by Viking Books on April 5, 2016.
Born in rural Pennsylvania, USA, Martha Colburn is an artist filmmaker based in Lisbon and Amsterdam. Her films have screened in the Venice Biennelle, The Stedelijk Museum, Art Basel, Sundance Film Festival and Cannes Film Festival. She has made music videos/films for bands such as Deerhoof, Felix Kubin and many more. In 2010 her films were included in the collection of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In 2013 her film Metamorfoza was commissioned by and performed by the Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra. She was a 2015 grantee of the Creative Capital film Award.