by Jared Green
William Cheselden's Osteographia (1733)
[An Anxiety Attack]
I can feel them looking. See them see me. When I close my eyes, they will be here still, between dream and delusion, burning ever brighter in gaslight. I have lived in the blur for them alone, to keep them just as they are. Without them I would not be I. I cannot blame them when their suspended bodies tremble for freedom from the adoration of my gaze. My hunger to see myself seeing myself. They understand that this is a strange loop. Sometimes one, paper-thin and harlequin-colored, or a plump one, grinning razor wire teeth, will discover that the room is without walls, is not contained by any geometry. Then they might imagine the possibility of no longer being thought by me. But they are, as with all aquatic creatures, mercifully unburdened by memory. Every moment is always present, in process and lived for the first time. The past slips by on evanescent waves. In absolute stasis, their freedom is boundless. Without memory, they cannot conceive of the pain I feel.
Long—long have we been in this merciless dark. Years now, it seems, but then I have no measure. I do not understand this space, this depthless plane. Attached to an invisible network of wires, radiating from beyond the vanishing point (I fear finding the source and so do not seek it), they are held in this watery synthesis only by time, this fiction that binds us, this anterior future. This is no more than an interval of sleep for them. Their movements are slow, so much so that a stranger to this world would think them an illusionist’s diorama, a cabinet of The Horizon as actuality. wonders. It takes great patience to understand the eloquence of their motion. To see that these are at once only fish yet nothing at all like what we mean by fish.
When I first arrived (but then what does this mean? Arrived from where? And when?), I thought they were nothing more than simulacra. A mobile, perhaps, of found objects, stamped tin. I examined one, a little angelfish, pulling it free from the silver hook sunk into the base of its spine. I could not identify its materials but its texture was pure pleasure. So fine were the details, the diaphanous fins and glittering onyx of the eyes. The iridescent scales meticulously crafted by the hand of an exquisitely skilled jeweler. I removed these, one by one, to reveal another layer, another texture; nacreous and glistening as the flesh of a grape separated from the skin. This, too, I peeled away, probing the softness of the gills, the smooth polished bones that bent beneath my fingertips. Then the magnificent little organs; the heart so delicate that it seemed to throb in my palm. And when I bent to inspect it, only then did I see the tiny, faint scarlet trace that its blood had left on my skin. Only then did I know them to be alive.
Now, we understand one another, touch only with a gaze. They have forgiven me for that thoughtless act. Since then, we have come to be in perfect symbiosis; I surrender my energies to them and, in return, they mark my place in time. The balance is perfect: once a year, when the hands fall into place, one of them will turn a slight degree, raise up ever so slightly. Another will expel its waste. One or two will exhale. There is nothing to which the beauty of these movements can be compared.
If there are no walls or ceilings—an untestable hypothesis!—then this room must occupy other dimensions beyond these Euclidian boundaries. I believe that mine is only a single membrane, one of many in the infinite labyrinth of this organism. From here, though, only the dim recesses of an adjoining hall are visible; there a single portal opens onto the moon in apogee. I once dreamed I would follow wherever this corridor would lead, perhaps seeking out those rooms like this one, housing other people like myself. I have never explored these possibilities, their promise of endless reticulations. Such terrors you cannot imagine. (But who is this you? Better to say it or we or invent a word that is a plasma.). There is mystery enough here in this diatomic architecture. Perhaps you (again!) can't imagine how intoxicating this is because what I mean is not a metaphor for things alive but is itself alive. Alive and full of growing things, moving things, across the globular surface of a nictitating membrane and I me you is then the was. But language fails. I must get this right.
Now that I've learned to see them, I hardly desire to stir from where I sit. Rare, too, are the moments that I sleep. Not that it matters much, but I do miss the dreaming from time to time. Other than this, I cannot say that I regret much about departing the exterior world, or what I recall of it at any rate. I do have memories of certain books once read, however. Unbidden, they will exhume themselves and the taxonomic system, the quadrilateral equation, the morphemes and phonemes, the quanta, will spring forth. And also this:
Lalu lalu lalu lalu la!
I do not know where this comes from, nor what it means. But it cannot mean nothing, because there it is. I read it aloud and wonder: what is the sound of the space between brackets? Is it silence or is it an electrochemical pulse across synaptic gaps? I am proud to ask such questions, suspecting that my past contains an education. Still, these mute fragments refuse to surrender their order or purpose. No matter. I am only too happy to be stripped of things that would cause me to ache. Free of the ideas of others, I can think clearly. This is what is required of me to do my job well, to keep the machine running smoothly. Ambivalence fouls the gears and then I can hear the fish laboring for breath, which pains me deeply. The less I remember, the better it is for all of us. Yet still: Lalu lalu lalu lalu la! I cannot deny that these words—their abyssal mystery!—have a grip on me, insistent as a metronome. This is my mother tongue. I have prepared a translation:
I remember a woman. Her hair was long and copper-colored. She might have been my mother. I remember a billowing sky, topaz in the afternoon light; the leaves of the trees moving overhead, shadows moving on the ground. There, she took my hand in hers. She spoke my name, softly, into my ear. I could feel the moist lips when she whispered, the satin of her slip between my fingertips. Is it this woman that I miss or the feel of her, the sound of my name in her breathing?
That was when I had a name. Now I am always something different. The fact is, that I am no longer an I. A generator of sorts. I am the one who keeps this whole machine running, just as before me there was another, just as after me there will be another. For the time being, however, I am the one who powers this great mechanism. That this room is a clock, there can be no doubt. But that is only the beginning, if such a word can be used. It is many other things: a garden of nocturnal solitudes, an aquarium of ideas, a geometric theorem for the growth of flowers. This is the meaning of time: it is a rhizome. I know this, even though I was not supposed to realize it so soon. Such lucid moments must come when the battery is almost dead, when it sees for the first time that it is also a camera, a photograph whose being burns a hole through the emulsion.
I have made mistakes. There is corruption in the information. I have said 'they,' but I do not mean the fish. Nor am I certain who 'they' are, so I must allow for the possibility that there no one, or only me, Janus-faced and multiple. I am an exceptionally talented mimic, that is certain. I have been an oryx and an amorphous solid, at other times the Hagia Sophia, a harp seal, and the Oort Cloud. One never knows. I bend light, reflect and refract the one into the many. But really, I am a photograph. Inside me resides the light that once passed though this space. I am a trace of someone who once was. Words fail me.
The fish deliver materials with which I construct my stories. I believe that they use these for food, as I often find the shapes of my letters in their angelic offal. But at least that is proof of something.
I constructed this paragraph from the fragments I have gathered. The first sentence is made entirely of metal shavings, the second of glass filaments and lengths of copper wire. This one, which is my favorite, contains the last piece of the gray flannel suit in which I first arrived.
And then there is this, a remnant:
I do not know how to say this out loud.
Now, no more remains of the person I was. But this is no loss, no cause for despair. In every space that we cross, we leave something to mark our place. Everything moves. Everything changes. That is why, in this clock which is a room which is a camera which is a memory, this I, we, the battery are running down. Beyond the invisible waters of this room, I can feel another twilight gathering. The hands of the blue hour are shifting; their fingers enfold me and I know I can speak no longer. I must save my remaining energy for what I have to do. One of these fish has opened its eyes. One has spread its fins. Another year is passing, and with this line, will have already passed.
Jared Green is an author, screenwriter, experimental literary performer, and professor of English literature at Stonehill College. His poetry has appeared in Tiny Seed and his fiction in The Write Launch and The New Limestone Review. He has also published scholarship on modernist literature and early cinema in numerous peer-reviewed journals and anthologies in the US, France, Canada, and Brazil. His fiction has received a 2019 Gurney Norman Fiction Prize and has been recognized by the Martha's Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing with a 2019 MVICW Fellowship and by the state of Rhode Island with a Robert and Margaret MacColl Johnson Fellowship.