I HAD APPARENTLY BEEN living in one of the towns that was now
gone. According to reports, I held my own against one of the younger
organizations. I fought well and long. The ending of the report is
muddy, with many foreign words and phrases, and an indecipherable
series of pictures. There is no clear sense that I survived.
Photographs of my body had circulated,
flags had been stitched with secret instructions.
There were instances of my name in the
registry—the spelling varied, and my date of birth was frequently
listed as unknown. A scroll of hair, probably my own, was taped to
the paper. Mention was made of what must have been my house, a vehicle
I summoned to cross the water (skirmishes, courtship, evasions—the
report is unclear), and the amount of sacking I had contributed to
the yearly mountain effort. I ranked slightly above average.
People wrote of seeing me in the morning by the water; several
photographs featured me wearing a beard, concealing something in
my coat. A Nacht diagram rated me favorably, prior to the revision.
The Wixx index claimed I might have perished. I read accounts of
myself ostensibly accompanying a family to the market on Saturdays. I may have been their assistant; I may have been their captor.
The wording is vague. Some sentences depicted me handling the bread
in an aggressive manner, as if searching for something inside it.
It is possible I was collecting samples. I would not rule it out. It
would explain the long clear jars I found stored in my clothing that
day when I woke. But it would not explain why those jars were
In the clearing beyond where I’d slept there were men smashing
spades against the sand, the sound of children holding their breath.
It was the first promising sign I had seen. I knew to breathe in threes,
to squint, to crouch while surveying, lest I be deceived. Such were
the ways I would keep myself alert.
Elsewhere in cities the men were reportedly listless, sleeping in
long troughs lining the town square, their exhalations steaming in
unison over the river. It would be the season of strategic fatigue.
Many citizens carried slender needles and used them to induce sluggishness.
Exertion had been mostly ruled out since February. Motion
was under a quota.
I practiced a paralysis style I’d learned as a child as I waited for the
others to stop moving. The footage, if examined, would depict a man
awash in the brush. That man would not come when called. That
man would not even speak. But inside him there would be life, of
sorts. A kind of loud activity that would constitute his secret.
As far as I knew, I had not been breathing well that day. It was too
early in the season to steal much air from the region and I was favoring
my lungs for the later peril. This was called pacing. If you did not
pace, you blew out. If you blew out, you were left roadside, where
picking occurred, where feeding occurred, where a type of casual violence
But after a full day of travel from the city, I crouched in the scattered
pine needles and allowed myself several full breaths, which
filled my chest like one of the early waters and brought on several
uncomfortable memories. There was no time to extract the paper
cutouts from my knapsack, to stage a scenario alleviation, so I
exhaled shallowly, through a mouth shape that I rarely used, one that
reminded me of my younger self, until the memories grew thin again
and retreated outside my person.
I should start with those moments I can relate firsthand, which will
restrict me to events involving the mountain and the town. It
reminds me of the beginning to a famous old story: “There was a
town, above which loomed a mountain, beyond which threatened
a sky, from which came a certain person.” Is it simply a coincidence
that my story begins the same way?
I am confident I can tell the truth about such matters, that my
information is worth imparting, though I recognize my confidence to
be a decoy. There will be areas of the report I will fail to relate,
usually toward the bottom of each exhalation, where I become emotional
and inaccurate. I perform more reliable thinking on the front
end of an inhalation.
This report will omit references to a so-called rescue. This report will
omit references to an apparent secret breathing technique
called the Charlesfield, a method of acquiring air ostensibly bestowed
on certain of my partners in the effort. This report will not
assert assisted methods of remaining aloft. This report will restrict
itself to what is possible, surely a lamentable limitation, but one that
No mention will be made of a man my mother once knew who
breathed through paper.
There were great days of greenery. I saw the sun firsthand. Its proximity
made me feel shy—I was just so many years old, I knew just
so many things, I felt sensations I could not describe. The shiny
items on our path each day were touchable, but we were smart to
refrain from contact. Touching them had early on proved fruitless
and disappointing. A man should know better than to erase the
distance between himself and an object. He should not destroy distance.
It would be perilous to reduce my curiosity by knowing
Every time I woke up a man lingered over me with calipers,
breathing heavily, his mouth as slack as a bag. He posted measurements
outside our tents, recording the day’s changes—American
numbers—our bodies alternately bloating and shrinking as we approached
Our first task each morning was to assess altitude. This was done
with our mouths open, facing upwind. The number was then carved
into a stationary rock and dated, in case the altitude in that area
Mr. Hawthorne was small in the mouth cavity, as with many of
his family, who could not all open their mouths at once, since they
shared dilation privileges. He used his hands to dilate the opening,
but he was frequently knocked to the ground anyway. He used people
as lean-tos. Those of us with larger mouths stood strong in the
valley bluster, letting the area breathe for us.
I spat something up that looked potentially revealing, so I dried it
to a shriveled husk on a south-facing rock, and then pocketed that
husk for later examination.
There would be four of us this time to make the mountain effort.
Some science had gone into the devising of this number, but it was
not for me to fathom. We were brought in to face the townspeople at
noon on the eve of our trip. I had not met the other three efforteers,
and tradition demanded we did not regard each other, so I stood apart
from them and kept my head down, practicing a Spanish breathing
style that promoted indifference.
Someone’s mother sat foremost in the auditorium. She looked to
lord herself over all of us. She had the arms of someone in charge.
It was easy to feel suspicious of her. She was the first to throw the
forecast sticks at us. I watched her pale arms folded in her lap. I
do not know why looking at the mother’s arms should trouble my
focus the way it did, but I was certain for a moment she was covered
in canvas, which would have been poor foreboding. I did not wish to
see a cloth-covered lady, particularly before a journey. I had read
enough of the Bible to be afraid. During my introduction, which featured
a three-quarters time signature that flowed from the Description Hole,
I moved into the center of the room and crouched,
wheeling in a circle so all could see me. It was the standard promotional
A small crush of applause emerged from the floor grille, clearly
prerecorded. I tried to blush. These people would all be dead soon,
and I was embarrassed for them.
If I had thoughts, they occurred as hard noises in the foreground, a
kind of thunder I walked into to discover instructions. Even though
motion was mainly restricted, it was the primary way to discover
what to do. The thoughts were mainly of myself. I rehearsed what I
would do in certain scenarios, should the scenarios arise, though the
scenarios were mostly unlikely or impossible.
One of the unlikely scenarios was that we, the four hikers, would
return alive. We nursed the possibility regardless. I rehearsed a living
posture. A probablist followed us through the valley, chanting his
numbers. He walked with short, hard steps and surveyed the landscape,
throwing his Estimate Sticks into the distance, which made a
sound like small bones snapping. We knew not to try to outrun him,
for we needed to save energy when the incline came, yet it was difficult
to hear him decrease our chances for survival as we progressed,
his numbers growing shorter and less exotic as we walked, his
mouth cinching over time into the smallest little button.
We desired to walk toward the longer numbers, but those always
seemed behind us, and behind us was where the sun prohibited access.
The probablist sang such a song that we saw no animals for
There was a morning of thin, false air when we kept to our tents. I
could not say which morning it was, but I could hear how fake the
day was, how artificial its sounds and smells.
A good map will determine what cannot be breathed, since inhalation
toward behavior changing is based on a rough calculus of hills,
valleys, and water.
Our maps were fair to good that day, though mine were colorless,
and smelled of children.
My partners utilized ventilators ornamented with items from their
homes, and alternated surveying the site through their scenario
flaps, which filtered out color and the smaller organic life. I parceled
my own breaths and rebreathed what I could.
Each breath that I saved in my shirt, that I rebreathed, produced in
me a standstill, a deep pause, that generated a slowness even in my
partners, so that if I chose to, I could cover all of us in the clear syrup
until we froze. It was my first sense that I could stifle their progress
entirely through breathing styles of my own invention. It would be
another notion I kept to myself, however much my mouth seemed
to want to report it.
On the first day of complete air, small sentences became available to
our group, sentences such that children might use if they were dying.
It was undecided who should use them. A coldness due to elevation
prevented most of us from speaking, but someone among us must
have felt warm in the mouth, because there arose a quiet language
that filled the tent, inducing older feelings in me that I would have
preferred to avoid. I knew that an overdeveloped sensitivity would
ostracize me from my partners, so I practiced an inner translation of
all that I heard, until I was speaking again in a simple child’s voice
that used tones mostly of wonder and awe. This was a speech that
my face found strenuous and foreign, but I persisted.
Knowingness, I sensed, was a peril. Belief was a peril. Certainty
was a peril. I chose a low conflict mode and wore it deeply. I adopted
a silent accent.
A notion arose that our bodies were being used as a repository for
feelings that were not our own. We were being employed as storage
containers. Who created this notion I do not know, but we were all
at once nodding to each other, affirming a belief that had yet to be
fully articulated. In any case there was the sense that we were acting
This language in the tent was producing certain attitudes and ideas
in us: We should climb only at night. We should burn a shirt each
morning. We had been sent from the town in a purging action. We
should escape the statistician, who had lapsed into inaccuracy. The
statistician was a withered old man from Gregge. Our people at home
were being killed. Our people at home had been killed. Our people at
home were no longer there—but then where would they be?
The suspicion I kept to myself: It was I who had accomplished this
purging and killing, through actions I no longer cared to remember.
Why else would I have felt so uncomfortable? I looked at the statistician,
slumping against the tent wall, his mouth embossed with a
customized Gregge that shone in a conventional way. We had all
conspired to look so seductive. It seemed useful to remain open to
the possibility that I was this man, or a portion of him, even though
his shallow, wet breathing style seemed entirely foreign to me. How
appropriate, then, that this person of remote techniques was a facet
of myself I had been ignoring?
Silence was the tactic I favored.
The first real day I remember was the day of needles, since all of us
had courted a partial paralysis as a mode of prayer. It followed the
day of grain, which I only read about later. In the day of grain a prediction
was issued regarding tomorrow, tentatively termed the day of
blankets, since a smothering had been predicted, which of course
would prove untrue, and would be retracted. I regarded this tentative
prediction with suspicion, since the day of needles had forced me
from my tent on a long, steep ascent, free of partners, even though
climbing alone was deemed aggressive, violent, asking for retribution.
I used a one-person language on myself and purged most of my
confusions. Once my vocabulary had been exhausted I resorted to
gesture, and when my limbs and face were stricken w/ fatigue I
fell back on thought, though that too was a kind of secret motion,
requiring a high-speed travel of blood through my body, a greedy
travel that I knew would soon put me in further danger.
Even as I climbed, I knew that a prediction had been made that I
would climb alone, struggling against a loose stream of rocks. I carried
the prediction within me, unsure of how public it had been and
why I again was suffered to know something incidental and unimportant
that had yet to occur.
If confronted, I would claim the need to establish a lookout position,
though my real motivation would remain hidden, even from
myself. I would simply not know what I had been doing, and this
would have to be acceptable. But from then on—and this really
happened—I would remain isolated from the others, outside their language.
I would satisfy their need to produce a treason, a killing.
Alone in my corner of the tent, uncomfortable with English sentences
and their mouth-breaking force, I would look like the perfect
target for their weapons. It was comforting then to discover that I
might be of some use.
There were too many tactics to trace. We had surpassed our strategy
quota. I was tired of having ideas. Luckily there were men among us,
high-altitude persons, who were eager to think for the group. Not
only did they think, but they spoke of what they thought, and if that
wasn’t extreme enough, they believed what they spoke and seemed
ready to enforce their ideas with weaponry. I wished that just for a
moment I could feel, however fleetingly, that I was not controlling
There would be nothing more comfortable to me than knowing I had
failed to understand entirely everything up to this point. I wish I
could say I did not know the meaning of the word “mountain.” A
comfort, to not understand sentences. A comfort, to fail to recognize
people. A comfort, to find all languages foreign.
I would feel so relaxed to know that I never understood my expedition,
that sentences of unbearable sound came from my head.
If only I could know something as simple as that.
In truth, I had a fairly clear sense of my name and my purpose. I
understood my people to be dead. I felt a kind of invisible harm circling
me that I knew the others would only call air.
When I looked down on the town from the high ledge we had gained,
I saw nothing.