Inhabitant lies on the unmade bed and lets the white walls surround him. He closes his eyes. He opens them. It does not matter. Except that for the first time he notices the absence of white directly above him. How is it that he has not noticed there is no ceiling? Is he deceiving himself?
When you close your eyes long enough, you start to smell things, things you may not have noticed with your eyes open, things with different meanings because they have reached you directly, without the interpretation the eyes require, often without the opinions of the other senses. This bypassing of explanation a trick smell is particularly good at. This is one of the things you learn when you are waiting, and you can sometimes enhance this knowledge by denying your eyes.
Often, however, you do not have to concentrate on smell. It will find you. It will confuse you quickly, and with the greatest of frustrations, when your olfactory memory can’t quite place the odor. Touch lives in the present, for the memory of it is different than the experience of it was, as with hearing and with taste, and even more so with sight, but smell exists at once in the present and in the past. The other senses would to, if they could, but they do not have the autonomy of smell. Even the eyes emit a different kind of odor when memory closes them. The odor remains when the eyes are open only if they are still receiving old sensations and do not get confused with the signals arriving from the other senses. This is not the way of smell.
New odors do not replace or even modify old ones, but join them, living alongside them until they fall away next to them. Smells are not forgotten, but they disappear inside, when they are not called upon.
Inhabitant buries his face in the sheets, expecting the unwashed odor of bedding to shock him. It does not. Has he washed the bedding? He doesn’t think so. He doesn’t remember doing it. He feels the shape of his face smoothing out in the returning pressure of the mattress. He thinks about his face without wrinkles, without flaws, without identifying features. He smiles into the mattress and feels the mattress take away the dimensions of his smile.
The bedding is cool, almost cold. Inhabitant wonders if he has gone somewhere and just returned. Why hasn’t his body warmed the sheets? What has he been doing with himself?
He slides his head up to the pillow and squeezes himself into it as if he intended to smother himself. A faint odor of stale almonds. He does not recognize the pillow. This smell is not in his memory. He holds his breath until his body demands air. He does not recognize what it is that stops him, but it stops him.
The smell of snow is sharp. It’s the smell of painful goodness. It’s the odor of white, and it persists longer than other odors. It’s the smell of the still world before you were in it. It’s the smell of the same world as you leave it. It’s the smell of everything we once longed to be a part of. It’s the smell beyond the human that humans can sense when their senses are cooperating. And it’s desire if they are still gathering themselves, if they are still learning.
The smell of death is not the smell of death but the smell of life preparing for death. Its preparation room is large and contains many mistakes. Its assistants are not well-trained, and they make mistakes that endear them to you. They too are preparing, and for them, you are the assistant.
Smell is not logical. Smell arrives in experience before the brain can think about it. Smell is instantaneous. You cannot protect yourself from it. You cannot call it up satisfactorily with only memory.
Smell is the easiest of the senses to let go. You’ve already forgotten it before you know you intended to. You just have to keep it there, in the forgotten. Wherever smell goes when it is not assaulting us, it doesn’t want to stay there. It’s the tree in the forest that doesn’t fall unless you are there to notice.
Let it belong to someone else. Let it go.
The smell of blood on the back of his hand. The smell of clean plastic. The smell of a dog you know better than yourself. The smell of the dog leaving. The smell of absence, one part at a time. Where does such a smell come from?
Inhabitant strokes the sheets. He runs the edge between his toes, between his fingers. He holds the feeling of white there where he can control it. He wraps himself in it. He unwraps and rewraps. He rolls from one side to the other. He explores every inch of the bedding. He thinks of almonds but he cannot smell them.
Didn’t he just smell blood? Plastic? A dog? Absence? What has happened to him?
Inhabitant reaches beneath the mattress and the feel of cold springs pleases him. The box spring has no box, its coils open to his fingers, his palm. He takes time exploring the cool metal, but he no longer has any concept of how much time that might be. For that time he is happy with himself. He thinks about declaring it, writing it down. He rises up from the bed to look for the desk. The desk was there once, wasn’t it? Hadn’t he intended to write a book? Wasn’t that the reason he isolated himself in this room?
He doesn’t look. He thinks about looking. Because he knows there is only white. No desk. No ceiling. No knife. Is there still a wall? Yes. That much he still counts on, but what has brought him up from the bed?
He flops back down and continues caressing the metal coils. He listens to the gratifying scrape of his fingernails against them. He touches them gently, until he cannot hear himself touching them. He moves from one to the other, holding the bed sheet between his toes as he explores.
Suddenly he feels pain and pulls his hand away as he hears a dull thud on the wooden floor. Instinctively, he puts his fingers to his mouth and tastes blood. The coils have bitten him. But the blood does not stop, staining a growing portion of the soiled white bedding. He puts his other hand to the floor, and there, without its sheath, is the knife that has been missing from its place on the wall. He grips the handle and stabs the knife into the floor.
His left hand pulls back from stabbing the knife and wraps the sheet around the fingers of his right hand. Slowly the flow of blood seems to be decreasing. He holds his hand to his nose to detect the faint odor. With his left hand he can feel the wet bloody sheet thickening. He relaxes. He reaches down and pulls the knife from the floor. He puts it to his nose and cannot smell his blood on it. He feels the blade with his left hand. It feels crusty, but not dirty.
Has the knife been used before?
Is there dried blood on it from some prior incident?
He cannot answer his questions about the knife’s history, but asking them brings a scene to his attention that he no experiences as if he were an actor in it, playing a role for the audience inside himself. He’s hunting with his dog, trying to flush grouse in a logging area where the barely passable road follows the edge of the denuded forest. The two of them are stepping carefully over deadfalls and rocks when the dog (perhaps he even remembers naming it “Dog”) puffs out a little squeal and pulls back from a log that holds him there, his foot caught in a trap. Inhabitant remembers prying the teeth of the trap apart with the knife. He remembers playing with “Dog” weeks later. He remembers the woman he shared his life with then joining them in play.
Inhabitant is wrong. The woman left him, taking the wounded dog, only a few days after the accident.
Inhabitant thinks he hears a dog barking in the distance, a bark of greeting. He tries again to smell the blood on the knife, the old and the new, but there is no odor, not even a metallic one or an aged one from the bone handle. His left hand searches in the bed coils and comes back with the sheath. He imagines the smell of its leather, but does not raise it to his nose. He puts the knife in the sheath and puts it back inside the coils of the bed. He buries his face in the pillow, wet now with congealing blood.
Inhabitant thinks about the complicated smell of a body releasing. The smell before it has begun releasing its contained fluids without the aid of a wound. The smell when only Inhabitant can smell it.
It’s a smell that becomes the absence of odor. Or the absence of any new odor. Which is not a smell. And then perhaps you realize how the smell that is not a smell marks your place in time.
It’s comforting, and it doesn’t seem to belong to you.
You can sleep here.
You don’t have to think about where you are.
We try to relax. We listen to our bodies making sounds. We try to arrange the noise until we can think of it as merely a jumble of songs. Somewhere deep in the jumble the song of sleep sings to the back of our eyelids, and a world of quiet darkness flows out beyond the comfort of rest. Another life awakens in the body’s submission.
Or is this a return home? The foreign land we have left for sleep falls finally away to bring us back into the world of our own creation?
You have celebrated this so many times before, and it feels familiar, if not exactly remembered. Settle in to your internal work. Let me take your coat. Your hat. Your unknown innocence. Your body has given this before.
Let me show you the garden. Here is where your servants sleep, in the soft round chamber you have given them. Let me show you its habits. Let me surround you with something warm. Yes, the tiny reminders are for you, but they have work to do, and they will do it whether you work or rest. Even in sleep they will be searching through your appetites for what you really need.
Sleep now. You have other matters to attend to.
Deeper. Farther away. The warm chamber aflutter with activity so naturally designed it is hardly even noticed, filling the carefully culled larder on the way to the next possible engagement. Every tiny worker filled with busy singular intent.
Everyone preparing to do something. Everyone becoming.
Uncle Morris arriving in a taxi, Aunt Sophia in a carriage. Cousin Lawrence is watching the dwarf’s mother sip a mint julep on the balcony. The Greek neighbor guzzles créme de menthe and urinates in the flowerbed. The Great Rescusio saws a cellist in half and disappears. The gathering spills out over the courtyard, over the sleeping world, disturbing its pretense of rest.
What difficult herbs and spices could have created this?
Midnight and the guests glance about with nervous eyes. “There it is! There it is!” screams the dwarf, jumping up and down and pointing as the orchestra brightens and begins a tango and The Famous Bleeding Heart slides into the ballroom.
“Speech! Speech!” shouts the Greek at the end of the tango, and The Famous Bleeding Heart moves to the head of the orchestra and conducts the players in his most famous operetta; We Must Begin Again to Suffer the Depths of Our Pleasure.
But you, you with the mooning eyes, warm inside the ragged horse-blankets of the servants’ quarters, dream yourself into a dangerous South American political refugee’s adventure. He is infiltrating Argentinian high society. Is he deserting his country and cause for the beautiful American woman at the decadent American dinner party, the dinner party where they are serving the richest food he has every eaten?
Did you think we didn’t know?
In the servants’ quarters you dress yourself in the darkness, sliding into a fluid nearly pink coating of a suit that swallows you, and you return to the party to find your father. He is wearing a silly blue foreigner’s boating cap from a country you can’t identify. He is snoring beside the grand piano, his hand beneath an empty red satin dress. Softly, as he snores, you move across the dance floor to the bedroom and return with a box.
When your father wakes, his body feels soft and smooth inside the dress. Daylight shines through the crack between the drapes onto the box in the corner. A large glass bead and an ivory key shine softly in the light. Both of you have had too much to drink. You imagine that people understand, that they have forgiven each other.
Porcelain becomes worthy of a kind of worship.
Everything becomes beautiful, but nothing is amusing.
Your father lifts the red dress and kisses himself softly on the knee.
Finally you open the letter you have been carrying, and it’s your father’s handwriting. It is nearly as difficult to read as a prescription. You can tell by the way he addresses the woman that they were lovers. The language remains abstract, the kind of language people speaking in codes use when they prefer the world they have created to the one created for them.
The woman has many names––Belovéd, Darling, Precious, Dear One, even Indigo.
You want to stay in their world.
For once, you can dream of the servants sleeping and they actually do, the chamber they live in filled and forgotten.
In the morning, you enter your life slowly, performing the rituals of separation with great thoughtless deliberation. Soon enough the difficulty waking has passed. You do not remember your recent adventures.
Your father does not yet know that he has let you go.
I have some sighing I wish to do, but I cannot hear it. I have some green noise. Perhaps I have some red. I can offer this, but I cannot know that I have given it. I no longer fear my difficulty distinguishing whispers from snores.
Most of the noises here are in the trees, which are outside and stacked up on their sides to make my room. The stacked-up trees still contain all the noises from the outside trees, and they release many of them quickly, but some of them will live between them longer than I do.
The color of sound is lighter than the traveler’s back can carry.
Once I was on top of myself in the egg carton. I had gone to the refrigerator and forgotten what I was after. I found myself listening. I could hear the milk, but I couldn’t hear the eggs, and I almost couldn’t breathe what was next. I was that cold, and I couldn’t hear it.
Inhabitant listened with his mouth open. Inhabitant heard whispering and silken exclamations. He could not interpret the meaning of the fading sounds. He thought some of the sounds had been made by the wound in his hand.
Of course it was funny, thought Inhabitant, but it was dark funny, which gave it an edge falling into the next moment with its tail still attached. Inhabitant thought about that, about the humor running from him like a mouse, which stayed funny if he didn’t think about going after it with the knife. Inhabitant couldn’t do that, not think about going after it with the knife. Neither could he go after it with the knife, not without being able to see it, which he also thought about.
Inhabitant decided it was thinking about the incident that made it funny, so he thought about it some more.
My voice lowers as I start to talk about death. It’s a foolish affectation. Death is the secret we all know.
Inhabitant says these things though he doesn’t think about who he’s saying them to, why he’s saying them instead of thinking them.
Inhabitant listened to himself saying things and decided that made them more truthful. The lower his voice went, the more truthful they appeared to be, but the lower his voice went, the harder it was to hear.
Why did he need to hear when he already knew what he was saying?
It wasn’t long enough before his voice was hard to hear when it didn’t go lower. He thought about that, and he was afraid it was something he was thinking about entirely too much.
The only friend you have is empty between your arms. From now on let’s talk like rocks.
The farmer let all the rabbits go, but they came back, more concerned with killing most of the vegetables in the farmer’s garden than they were with whether or not their children would be available for dinner and stylish hats. So the farmer thought about dinner and stylish hats and Inhabitant thought about the farmer.
After thinking about it for a long time, Inhabitant remembered that it was Red who had raised rabbits and not the farmer at all. He found this very amusing and thought about it a lot, but it disturbed him when he laughed. He couldn’t hear the sound it made.
Inhabitant thought maybe he had forgotten how to laugh.
Which was very very funny indeed.
You have to learn to ignore the sound of a baby in the death cry of a rabbit.
The flood has arrived, unannounced and uninvited, as floods will do, and the water is knocking at the door, but the friendly water is already inside. I open the door and do not know what goes out and what comes in.
I think about going out, but I don’t know if I go out. I can’t remember.
I think it was Easy who tried to ask the worm what it felt like to eat and shit out your own house. It was Easy who told us that the worm tried to say, Not any different than it feels to eat and shit out your sorry ass, but Easy had his mouth full, and you couldn’t understand him much most of the time anyway, so I must have been listening real close that time or he might have been saying, Go ahead and cry when I tell you; I like the eyes best when they aren’t dried out.
Maybe that was the seagull that was outside the window a few days ago when it snowed.
And then he whispered and drew us in.
And the boys who break open the frogs do this because they want to know what’s inside when you don’t know, like a frog, what you are.
Red said that.
While she was putting flesh colored putty into a chest wound that belonged to a young Finnish boy named Per Gotlieb who fell out of a haymow onto a scythe blade. He was running from a rabid skunk. Red assumed he knew the skunk was rabid, but just being a skunk might be enough to make someone like Per run. Per was excitable. That’s what we called it.
I don’t know why I thought of that. I’m not very excitable.
Maybe I don’t know what I am inside.
I have nothing good to say about this person I’m thinking about, so imagine I didn’t say it, and then imagine what it might have been that you imagined I didn’t say. But it’s worse than that, it really is, so I won’t say what it is, and anyway it’s not just one thing.
Perhaps you want to carry your life around on your back and see how that works, but some things break if you don’t leave them alone enough. Easy told me that, but I think he was talking about pulling on yourself.
Maybe he wasn’t.
You can make another one of a broken thing, but it would belong to the burden that has already passed and not the one that approaches. My place is here among the fallen, I like to think now, raising myself without a body to a flight without wings, a flight with a mysterious lowly purpose, a flight with no need for rising just beyond.
If it was the end of the world, he didn’t know it.
The apparition said some things we could understand. The things we couldn’t understand had moss in them, and things you could find on the forest floor, things we had never thought of doing anything with.
Easy and Red said it looked like a Great Blue Heron wearing shit-brown sunglasses. They probably didn’t want anyone to think they were taking it seriously.
I thought it looked like a hunch-backed old man with bark and feathery gray and blue lichen and dark green moss covering him nearly up, except for his black eyes and red tennis shoes. Maybe I made up the tennis shoes because of the way he walked, all hunched over but smooth and fast, without moving his feet, or moving them so fast you couldn’t see them, like a joke in a Saturday morning cartoon. That was the part we agreed on, which scared us a little, but we went back, looking for him. We spent a long time looking because we couldn’t find the place that looked like the place where we saw him.
That time we didn’t see anything, but now I think he’s here in this room. I don’t know why, but I find it comforting.
Funny, isn’t it. I seem to have forgotten that Easy was blind.
If I ever found someone careful enough, I would tell them everything.
Easy lived in a place where there weren’t any surprises. So he made up something in the silverware drawer, and right there in the living room, something a chair dreamt, or a story about an antelope resting inside a lion. Why would the antelope go there, we wondered, if it didn’t think it was coming back? And eventually we got around to asking, What if the lion was inside the antelope, and it wasn’t about eating or reincarnation, or anything else you could explain? What then?
Not just the old man, but the whole thing, began to seem like an apparition, and the apparition said, I’m not here. Just ignore me. One of us was sure to remember the floppy things we sewed together to remind us of who we had been. The guy who remembered that was the forked guy, the guy I almost forgot about. Or made up. Or didn’t want to think about before now. That’s just the way he was, kind of unreal even when he was real. He lived with a movement I think of as a peach-dark rib warbling, not quite arrival, but going up and down like maybe it was survival. Or maybe just a bird imitation. Like the way a bird drinks from a mudhole. We all made beautiful metal birds for the wind pointing. You’ll want a layer for sooner or later. You’ll be taking on powder and your whole head firing.
If it was in the flame, the next door knew, and I listened to it. The only whisper that could still reach me.
The person who did this should be ashamed. I am ashamed to say that I am that person. But I am not ashamed that I did this. I am ashamed of too many other things.
Rectangles were available at the time. Squares were not. It didn’t seem to bother the seagulls much although I think it might now. I don’t think they’re even in this room anymore. You would think the ceiling not being there would be enough to keep them curious.
The model garage had been built of arrows and dried tubers. I remember that.
Fresh daisy-covered scrubs were given to the guests for their bowling balls.
It seems to be what I thought I was when I was thinking I was no longer someone else. When I recognized my voice in its silence, my volume expanded all the way out to my skin, but I couldn’t feel that, so how did I know it?
First Thomas Alternative Edison invented himself, and then he invented meat packing. He was not about to invent the same system of cheese-naming the Danish had used for centuries, but he mistakenly reinvented small pox. Frequently, he was asked to marry. When asked about himself, he didn’t answer. Perhaps he didn’t hear the question.
There were rooms inside the village, and there were villages inside my room. Some of the younger ones were still innocent. We had some work to do. I would listen to innocence and innocence would deceive me. I would stop on my way to the window and play a tune on the street-cleaner’s guitar. It sounded like the distant chatter of departing birds. I still remembered the song, but the notes were flying away. I wanted to follow them. I added a verse to the song that said this, but I couldn’t hear it. And then I couldn’t remember how to get to the window, so I looked inside myself, and I sang, “Look, that boat tied to the sinking vessel is yours.”
I traveled between one ear and the other. I found rivers and streams. I found white sand and clouds full of silent rain that wouldn’t fall. I found waiting, and I found too much patience to live on. I lived on it.
It turned out the island I live on is two feet further west than the surveyors thought, or maybe it’s moved, I don’t know, but my neighbor claims part of my driveway belongs to him, and the only way I can get him to back off is to get his neighbor on his other side stirred up enough about the two foot intrusion on that side to talk about cutting off the corner of the man’s roof. Meanwhile, the seals might have moved in on his bulkhead and slowly dismantled part of his retaining wall, but I had been too busy accenting the shift in wind direction that donated several shake roof tiles to my kindling pile, and anyway, I didn’t want to get too friendly, in case the island actually has been shifting and isn’t done yet. Sometimes I have to get right down into the surf to hear the sound it makes. This is not possible with the neighbors. I do try to listen to what I am saying but I am not really saying it. Have you ever heard the sound of thinking?
I am two years old. I am not supposed to remember this later. An adult, I don’t remember which one, has told me so. Later, I remember that I am not supposed to remember this, and then I remember this.
We still had a long way to go before the brains would descend, and in touching their own sound, fall inside. Stop doing that is what I wanted to say, and I didn’t because I had some thinking about it once, but I don’t know if it’s still there.
Those markings on the memory, the ones which had looked the most like tears, had hardened and attached themselves to the glass while those that had appeared to be tiny seeds had evaporated. There’s an idea trapped in the room, allowed by artificial machineries of affection. Some memories are not memories of what happened to us, but memories of what was supposed to have happened to us. Such memories often feel more real than the implausible real ones, and they’re quieter. Sound seems to be already leaving them, which gives them a beauty they may not deserve.
It occurs to me that there may be a house containing the room in which I have been existing, but I think about it carefully, and when the house arrives at the door and signals its desire to enter, the door opens inward, and the house keeps right on knocking, the sound of the knocking growing fainter and fainter until it’s only a vibration, which has been understood to exist from fragments of memory and not from any sound at all.
Rich Ives’ writing has appeared in Verse, North American Review, Massachusetts Review, Northwest Review, Quarterly West, Iowa Review and more. He is the 2009 winner of the Francis Locke Memorial Poetry Award from Bitter Oleander.