No wonder the damselflies scatter when our kind confer. We are now linked organisms, but still we move away from one another. Twinned, but not beholden to the shackles of cellular differentiation. Our mother removes all the photographs from the house. It is time, she says. This is when we begin to forget what we looked like.
“Here,” she says, “take this basket of fruit.” She holds out her hands. They are empty. “Place these restraints on your elbows and knees.”
Restraints are a precursor to exodus, and the lack thereof. Elbows and knees are appendages that must be at some times tucked in, but at others spread out. We are still learning our new selves. The musculature responds. It is around this time we begin to pack our belongings into boxes. Our boxes into shipping crates.
I think, How funny we must look.
Before the transformation, the cabinets contained the definitions of who would be permitted to depart. Surely not ourselves—surely some form of acquired or imposed self, with interests and abilities determined by lottery. Surely not those who signal failure via paired cerci and other pinching weapons. The polished wood and brass of the cabinet is a remnant of other more artisanal times, but its architecture signifies the new era: an environment of near-anonymous forces which overemphasizes the orderliness of the drawers and cabinets. This cabinet has been forced to relinquish its romance and now is programmed to broadcast the message: anyone too awkward to meet our criteria will be carefully trimmed off with a sharp blade and a straight edge; and at times it seems that none of them even notice what is being excised. The slick snip of the skin closing neatly on itself, containing its orderly inhabitants.
Another tangent. Once, for example, we used to have a machine devoted to the extraction of stimulants from beans. This too was chrome. A solid went in, a liquid emerged. This brought us comfort, and stimulation to perform duties that were otherwise too exhausting to comprehend. Like socks that must be placed appropriately on the feet before shoes are applied. When we had feet. As children we went to school in bedroom slippers before being scolded with the bell of obedience.
Today, these are the learned behaviors that now allow us to predict the perceptions of us by others. Vestigial beings that we are, I say, and those of us remaining with perceptible heads nod in agreement. The others make indications that suggest nostalgia, resentment, confusion. Betrayal.
Our mother can no longer tell us apart. We were rebirthed in seawater, on a subtropical coast of rocky outcrops and narrow, sandy inlets. The water of the ocean was warm and had deep, nutrient-rich currents which brought the small shoals of baitfish in closer. Despite manifestations of desire and arborescent shapes we were often controlled via tiny invertebrates and involuntary memories. Our mother spent the late afternoons under some mysterious spell in which her eyes would track the sun until she claimed she couldn’t look away.
To us, she was haltingly adorned with strands of hair, vanishingly present. To others, she was a sturdy woman with nervous habits who wore a crucifix like a belt around her neck. Many years later she became known as the woman who impaled herself on a fence post by leaping from a great height. That was before we embarked on our gloomy little killing spree. It was before we hid lilacs and other aggressive species in our cabinets.
Sometimes we wore the same clothes as one another. Other times we responded to the same name. The functions of certain pronouns became confused and difficult to pin down. For years, she cradled us in her wide arms, until one day there was a tinge in her voice that hadn’t been there before and, after that, everything changed and became indecipherable. Twinned, but unable to cohere. We referred to each other as Sasha. Gender neutral, but identified by opposing demographics.
Two syllables are all that is required to start an exodus. SAH-shuh. We hear our names pronounced like corpses, or future archetypes. There is glittering at the back of the throat, and the weight of tongue. Or, there are the new lips, and the limp lungs. Machinery of valves and stops. The departure comes with a release. There is a user manual of course, which helps describe the shape of a curve, or the tilting of a planet. It tells us how to pronounce the words, but for whatever reason, we have chosen to stay mute.
Somebody, we can’t be sure who, joins us who claims that they can travel in and out of time. We can’t move backwards, we think, but neither can we move forward or stay put. This is archaic knowledge, time travel. Time has been suspended until further notice. There are postings on every surface. Time is beholden to the same apparatus of silence. Hold up the ear, try to apply a sort of fungal form of cartilage to dismantle or distinguish meaning. Inside this form, the pieces settle into anticipation. The longing to understand. Bones in constant motion are ceaseless in their movement, invisible within the hair and rising wind.
The person who joins us moves into the back room, the one whose doors open out onto the ocean. She begins to convey something about these things—time, architecture, the changes in our bodies—but loses momentum halfway through. I ask you to tell her that you have given up blood. You say, “I have given up blood.”
Without a clearly understood and readily operable engine of conveyance, we wait. We wait for her to tell us one or even two things: a half-fragment from a salvaged manual. A scrap from the days before, to site the way.
Instead, she says, “Let’s pretend that dusk is dawn. Let’s suppose that ambivalence is our default position.” We agree to her terms, but what we think that means is she will get to wander freely, while we will be suspended in limbo, waiting to say something which cannot be contained in a sentence. “I have never wandered freely,” say her lips, and the angle of her jawline.
Indeed, there are filaments and there is no limbo, only a sway to her tide that can be navigated consciously, or not.
Paradoxically, it is at this exact moment when the entire ocean recedes, revealing pools of squirming marine invertebrates and shimmering piles of ooze unaccustomed to the harsh rays of the sun. Hidden is a temporary state, and remains so whether or not the secrets are sensed. Syllables are insignificant until they rise above the horizon, glowing. It was at this moment when we replaced all the pronouns in the text with the word “we”.
We have become newly aware that echinoderms are more than ossified skeletons and raw materials for the dye industry. Something lurks behind them, which is even murkier. Perhaps seditious. We stare down at them in the reflective muck. Faces in the mirror. A nose inverted, and then instantly corrected for the comfort of our visual protocols. Audit controls. Risk matrices. Notification pathways. Language predates our move to New York. It predates our disappointment with that rough city and our resettlement to a small coastal village near the Pacific Ocean.
It was here that we drafted the manual and here that we studied methods of torture and pain tolerance. You look out over the ocean and say, “It all comes back to the arrangement of sound.” In our previous forms, we could not hear ourselves at all. We blame architecture: either human or whatever it is we have now become.
We prepare the syllables for automobilization, with ample notice to secure the required permits and clearances from Command Central. The funny thing about Command Central is that there is a flickering of light there that often goes unnoticed. Is it the quality of the fluorescents? An overworked copier machine? Something creepier and more primordial?
Our mother once relayed the story of how we came to emerge from the swampy undergrowth of estuarine environments. Mangroves from which the other participants were extended downwards. But we rose upwards. Our mother, to her credit, always planning for an emergency, envisioned a world for us in which we could live underwater, among the waving crests of sea grass.
I ask you, “Did we even have any friends growing up? Can you remember any of their names?”
“They had names like Feather and Willow and Red Skull and Tui-Belle.” The vocabulary of a diaspora fails precisely because it does not accommodate occipital function and thus we are unable to replicate the things people actually talk about.
The corpses begin to float to shore in clumps. Sometimes we want to wind the clock back to a time before we would approach the glossy blades of kelp with trepidation. I say, “It’s hard to believe we used to approach these areas without the apparatus of documentation.” Recording. Registering. Reporting. Neither of us like the term witnessing. The gatekeepers will not let our messages through. Simultaneously nonlucrative and ethical. How embarrassing for them.
More simply put, friends and confidants are in short supply. As their bodies drift towards land, we traffic in endocrines. We swap places. We exist in two or more forms. One form suggests the skin of strangers but is in a constant state of deterioration. In this state, we are easily excited, yet also very dour. Victory seems just out of reach. Those who are closest to us suggest it is not very becoming, so we retreat. Or perhaps they do. But to what and where, we are unsure. There is no map. Maybe we are still in New York after all? Maybe our summers are spent out on Fire Island? Or in Flushing, Queens? There is no glossary. That which was sacrificial has become anthropomorphized to the point of vacancy.
Here is a face I recognize. Another carcass tumbles through the waves and washes up on shore.
The person who joins us relies on intransitive verbs to target distant organs. She says, “Some memories are filled with foreboding architectures, but entrap us with their elbow-shaped lobbies.” She looks at her elbow and notes its improbable bones. She’s right. The last form is forever unattainable, but still, it hulks through a catacomb of tunnels, performing sloppy risk assessments as it goes.
You say, “Consider variants of speech. Consider the manner in which one can hold a piece of paper up above them to block the light.” One side of the paper has been marked with vegetal designs and misty places. The other side diagrams a water vascular system whose canals are mysteriously aligned with the footpaths of ancient cities now covered in mounds of clay. Underneath the city is still another city, covered in clay.
And thus, below us, farther still, is another city, charted on another strata of something like ink. Is that our comfort zone? In the unoccupied quadrant? In this city there is neither light nor air. The inhabitants feel their way around each other using nothing but their tube-like fingers which end in beaker-shaped suckers. They have awkward, scuttling movements and extract nutrients from the rocks by attaching a waxy black tube to the intake valve in their navels. Surely this is a more ancient place, although it is entirely possible that the ancient place holds forgotten answers to remembered questions.
One day you arrive home from the airport with a new suitcase. You say, “There are people everywhere being given similar suitcases to carry.” I feel the handles. The anachronistic latches. They will never hold.
I say, “Even they don’t know what’s inside them. What is going to fall out.” It is easy to succumb to the looseness of the screws. To grab a small implement from our pocket in order to tighten them. Out of necessity, we reconsider the allotrope. We check and recheck the map. You say, “Red is not a color. Islands are not surrounded by water.” If we were still permitted the calculation of time, we would readily admit to ours being overallocated to confusion.
We have lurked in the water waiting for others to enter in order that we might cannibalize the carcasses of their predecessors. There is often not a word for the acts we are about to perform. Even the implements seem removed from the act of killing. There is often not a use for what is already known. Delete. Discard. Disambiguate. Repurposed contexts speak to us through their microchips and polished squares of granite.
I tell the person who has been assigned to us, “You never lived here. You couldn’t. It was impossible. Your shape would not conform.” I too have given up blood, but this stranger betrays some evidence of former veins. What liquid runs through? We are afraid to ask.
Then again, this is the same person who claimed we couldn’t be reduced down to our password recovery details. Nor the name of our first pet. DNA samples shall be collected and then tested. Tissue tinctures. All shall be revealed: a different place is necessary for each vanishing strand of DNA. Assignment papers with new addresses and identities will arrive shortly. This person predicts they will discover the traces of scales and claws and feathers in us. There are particles of skin and flesh underneath our fingernails. If the people in our reassignment zone are anything like us, then up is a possibility, and so is down.
Quick tangent: Our father was on the scene there for a little while. He was a keen boatsmen and taught us that only via safety lines and points of anchorage could we be lowered. He said, “Karabiners must be shaped like a pear and serve as a proxy for coral environments.”
Our memories of him are clouded and lack distinguishing characteristics. Sometimes we remember his face draped in a mustard-colored beard. Other times he had no beard at all. We remember he wore a navy blue rain slicker, even in bright sunlight. Back then, the water was warm, and one could walk right in without noticing.
But then, one day he just completely disappeared. He was erased, replaced by biomes of flesh near the high-tide markers.
We consider the length of time required for mastery of navigating streets that cannot be sensed but still somehow exist, until we are dissolved, and the suitcases are swept away. The person who has joined us attempts to master a delicate balance of optimism and despair. She plays her LPs on the hi-fi at inappropriate times. Josef K. The March Violets. Red Lorry Yellow Lorry. Ahead of us, a syntactical debris field, nonetheless littered with belt buckles and boots and permits for passage. What can become unnecessary is not a knowable outcome. Everything pivots around a deep throbbing bass sound.
We enter through the front door of the house, but are greeted by unfamiliar smells; faintly citrus. Although we have been absent for weeks, the air seems as if it has been recently disturbed.
Our lips exchange root verbs and other granular material. We allow our bodies to become vapor. We allow the particles of our body to circulate in the air, towards the ceiling. We allow a text to become a grouping of dark clouds; the beach, covered in black beach balls.
Each time another body washes up on shore, we wave sheets of smoke beneath the entrances to our home. This is a ritual that is not discussed.
The person who joins us says, “There are other uses for chalk, and the outlines of a hand on wall until the wall itself becomes that hand, which we see as closed or open. There are villages impervious to poison. There are beds that succor visions.”
It’s almost like she knows. Or is preparing us.
We drink seawater and it tastes like blood. We concoct poisons in the sleepout and test them on the person who has joined us. Their body undergoes temporary transformations in which it is possible to reconsider the utricle and the effects of vertigo. It is possible that even decommissioned people sense their adversaries; that they want to be colonized.
You say, “It’s true, the absence of syntax will tear us down until we become tedious and esoteric.”
Or much worse, covered in drop cloths and chirpy airport music.
We agree in our own ways. There is a mannerism to such beds—a manner of changing over time, like poisons, or chalk, or the impact of a lexeme at dawn or dusk or dark. To anyone who is about to be transformed I say, “Sometimes becoming something less is the route to becoming something more.”
For some, there is a kind exhilaration in obtaining a primitive state. These are the ones I feel the worst about. Regret, that’s what we’ll call it. Then again, watch how we become fused together, spongelike and porous. How we pull apart, rearrange, and come back together again in unanticipated reconfigurations.
The nonfunctional human has not been removed, not yet. This grease mark, this tenuously preserved flower, fleeting as an offering at an outdated mausoleum. People pay to be buried. At least for a while.
The car continues through a landscape that no longer exists for us. The chrysanthemum of grease watches without comment or glottal stops.
Half-remembered vestiges of symbolic order, as stately as chrome-mirrored condominium complexes scaffolding the foothills of a sacred mountain. A body wrapped up in a navy-blue rain slicker. The one we call Sasha says, “I don’t want to touch it.” And nobody knows what that means, but we all understand how it feels.
A narrative is suggested and then curves back on itself. But there are complications. We appropriate from the narratives of other stories. We leach details from hardwood ash and manzanita pine. Language, despite what the authorities tell us, is still public property. Disk florets are concealed until dusk. At night, our eyes open. One of us is incredibly downcast, but is unable to pinpoint the reasons behind this sadness. The grief is seeping. It’s in this way that adjectives compete for space.
The year is 1994. A year on continual repeat. Our mother shepherds us into a lively room full of martyrs. She tells us, “We are going to party until the power goes out.” On the steps of a house, another habit: she brushes her fingers against the leaves of a shrub. Our lips are tinted blue and suggest words that have not yet been invented. Hominy. Anise. Piloncillo.
We remember the billboard near the freeway overpass, a comforting beacon from a forgotten era. Or, the place is indeterminate, but lies near the coast and houses sleek, triangle-shaped buildings. Or, it’s nonspecific, it could be anywhere, at any point in time, where language occupies three of the four known dimensions.
We know where the people who will not survive the night are stored. The ambient temperature is just low enough to delay decomposition. Organs are harvested and blood is streaked across their faces. Before they are marched away one of them looks me in the eye and says, “Somebody must have set us up.”
It’s Sunday. Our mother has a craving for pozole and Bloody Marys. Her mouth moves in slow motion, says, “In this context only very small things can be classified as creatures.”
You were listening to Pavement back then. We saw Mudhoney open up for Sonic Youth at an all-ages fairground.
Perspective unearths beautiful objects but will not satisfy critics.
To deter escape, we dug pits beneath all the windows on the bottom floor. These pits were covered with brittle palm fronds and filled with large shards of broken glass.
The smoke from the doorways settled comfortably in the hollows.
A child asks us to describe the four valves of the heart. We remember when people conjectured the geometries of Atlantis. The questions are not dissimilar. The month is June. The month is July. The beach is teeming with people. We notice that some of them resemble misshapen tapirs and other slow-footed ruminants. Behind some of them trails fluorocarbon fishing line, attaching them to the latches of suitcases. Others carry scissors. Clumps of kelp hide the bodies that have already washed up.
I say, “Blue represents the lines moving away from the heart. Red indicates those that are returning. But, I digress, red is not a color.” The child sees this organ as a formless mass, resembling a canister, lacking both pulmonary function and the ability to colonize.
The child interrupts my explanation. “I know you. I know what you did here.”
To the left is caution. To the right, a thinly laid array of palm fronds and bamboo shoots. The quality of light is distracting, but in a nonspecifiable way. Let’s not pretend that fear is not involved here. When night falls, there is less light to discern the particulars.
Our vocabulary is replete with indications of signs. When further analyzed, those indications reveal themselves as meaningless. I say, warily, “The meaning may emerge over time.”
We consider keeping records. Organizing the meaninglessness by alphabet and taxonomy. Or is that what we have decided to leave behind? We decide to proceed despite the terror of rampant ignorance.
And in that way, parts of speech begin to adhere to one another until something delicate emerges from the debris. It makes a brief appearance in our line of sight, but then, just as quickly, it disappears.
After a long journey, we reach the edge of the wilderness. The wilderness is full of contaminants and provides an audience for our designs.
The year is 1987. We are surrounded by familiar signs, bereft of connotation or context. The landscape features small contourless shapes resembling cones. The color is red. Our mother takes her crucifix to the sandstone wall and presses it in up to where her elbow used to be. Her other hand turns into a schwa. With it, she sweeps all the piles of umber dust into an envelope and folds. She can’t help but scurry around the place, verifying specs. She invites the man in, in the hope that he will offer up more than he did before.
But he offers nothing, outside of this cautionary observation: “The moon prevents transmission.” For some reason, despite his protests and delay tactics she keeps schlepping him along, in the general direction of something pink and brackish. Shawl to Schwa. Swab to shark-fin soup. She believes in context, and she believes in the moon, but how the two beliefs will get them to a site where they emerge as whole selves seems elusive. They follow the shoreline, avoiding the nets and straight lines. She begins a ritual chant that he supposes surrounds what they are leaving behind. He can hear the latches on the suitcases popping open, like bivalves.
The man has an unsettling shape, plunging and farfetched, in which the body is inscribed with branchy signals and mass-produced trinkets; small objects displayed for attraction. After all these years he is only recognizable by the sound he makes. He has a mustard-colored beard and long water-resistant jacket which nearly reaches the ground.
His memory of the event has not been this kind. He reminds her, “You were never here. You were never mysterious in the way you imagined.” Thus, he places a small dot on her skin; one marked Confidential: For Internal Use Only.
Beyond the known body is the unknown body. You bring the person who joined us into the living room and say, “In the ancient cities, it was preposterous to assume we could stand at the edge of the unknown and hurl a spear without it continuing into the unknown. But everyone argued that there was a solid wall, and the spear would recoil back and maim the person who hurled it. This is true of galaxies beyond the Milky Way in particular. They are isolated behind a seawall of one’s own conception. There is no seawall. And yet this empirical evidence, recent in human history, is resistant to our emotions in this situation.”
The person who joined us hesitates to hurl. Behind her, the empty suitcases.
Leaving the shoreline wasn’t as difficult as we expected. There are holes in either side of the skull for just this purpose. The lances were not particularly painful, and the rotation on the linear axis provided an opportunity for our plans to develop further. A rotary fan blade began to take shape on our collarbones. In the beginning, we might have considered these to be injuries. Enigmatic wounds. But the evidence is incontrovertible: our velocity increased as a result. There was no seawall, just a thicket of negating verbs that could be averted with the careful use of antidotal numbers.
We hurl spears across the great chasm of letters. Only the spears are returned, defanged of their meaning.
We embark on a very long journey. When we reach the end we shall have attained expertise in nonspecific domains. We shall become bell-shaped and camouflaged by particles of light.
We are tethered to a large tree of unknown origin. The person who joined us begins to winch down on the knots to make sure no air can penetrate the fabric of rope. She argues that, since we are in the middle of nowhere, the tree must belong to this place. But she cites the history of migratory foot travel that came through here and begins to imagine the people who walked in this place, dropping seeds behind them.
She believes that tiny islands of exotic shrubs and fruit trees grew where nothing had grown before.
She understands the curves of the freeway in an intuitive way and correlates its shape with the contours of the ocean.
This is the spell we are under. Shapes, flashing orbs of light, and the rectangular windows of nondescript buildings overlapping one another. Variations of blue and red. Periwinkle. Ultramarine. Navy. Liberty. Space cadet.
“Did you forget?” There is irritation in your voice. “Red is not a color.”
Here’s what we remember about our former lives: There was a black box on a black floor with black wires and cords protruding from it. There was a black book with black paper and words written in black ink. There were black clouds floating above a black beach covered in black beach balls. Exposed black rocks poked above the wash of frothing waves. I had ten million words which could be used to describe darkness. The syllables were draped in deep shade.
Color identification has been suspended until further notice. These bulletins are now widely posted. It was with this in mind that it seemed best if we headed back to the coast, that thin band of green on maps where a light mist from the ocean blankets the houses each morning, but now that we had left, you wouldn’t have it. There is no green but memory.
Finally, you decided to take us against our will.
We are going to a very specific place, but we have no map. Only CAD diagrams made from recursive cartographies and nonparticipatory controls. You say, “Say something sweet.” But then, just as quickly, “No, stop. Pretend I didn’t say that.”
We continue to travel in the direction of the coast and its variations of shamanism. Every surface is covered in the veneer of peace, love, and understanding, but underneath the surface something disturbingly evil. I enter a taco shop but leave before eating because I believe someone has spiked the salsa with hallucinogenics.
There are ghostly shapes in the air which we can sense but are unable to manipulate. What happens when we drive the lance through our skulls and become the vehicle of exodus, well, you couldn’t say. Sophists and fortune tellers conclude the same: It is a violent and contemporary point in time.
We are only just now beginning to digest the mountain of industrial artifacts by the side of the road. Metal offcuts and magnets past their sell-by date. You say, “I invented concrete. I captured fire in the form of protozoa.” You tell us that individual agency is only possible from within a collective unit.
There are corpses in our wake. We are moving faster than ever before, but appear to be frozen in time.
A mark placed on the flesh signifies carnage, but also growth.
Something about the setup appears artificial, as if it were manufactured in a land far, far away, and then smuggled into our bodies late one night while we slept.
I tell you, “I’m attracted to the patterns generated by incidental human behavior.” In lieu of human contact, you fiddle around with your injuries when no one is looking. We all do. Inside us are phonemes waiting to be birthed. Breech. The phenome who joined us addresses us in a way to indicate that there is only one. And that this is how we ended up together, curled around a color we struggle to describe.
Quintan Ana Wikswo (@QuintanWikswo) has long been active at the intersection of art and social justice. Her conceptually based interdisciplinary work integrates fiction, poetry, memoir, and essay with her original photographs, performance, and video. A former human-rights worker, she uses salvaged government typewriters and cameras to navigate known, unknown, obscured, and occluded worlds where crimes against humanity have taken place and whose complex histories involve the intersection of gender, disability, queerness, and race, with a special focus on human-rights aftermath issues. Inhabiting the intersections of sexuality / gender, warfare / power, and mythology / shamanism, she creates sites for investigation of existential questions about humanity, our societies, and how we can navigate beyond the boundaries that contain us. Her several books include the acclaimed collection of photographs and stories The Hope Of Floating Has Carried Us This Far (Coffee House Press). She has presented multiple live performance works and solo museum shows in New York City, the Berlin Jewish Museum, and elsewhere. Her work has appeared several times in Conjunctions’ online magazine.
Craig Foltz’s most recent book is We Used to Be Everywhere (Ugly Duckling). His writing has been published in numerous journals and his visual work has appeared at the Anna Miles Gallery (Auckland) and The See Hear (Wellington). He lives and works in New Zealand.