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Declarations and Observations

The marks ink makes obscure the nature of the substance itself. Ink can be blue or black, eked out of a pen nib, or sprayed out onto a moving page by tiny, precise nozzles. People or their machines have compacted it into plastic cartridges, or stuffed it down into a bottle, or scraped it from a solid wedge onto a stone and then moistened it. The first act of calligraphy is the writer’s rhythmic rubbing of the dry ink across a rough surface. The writer begins by calming the hand, preparing it for its exertions.

     A story could begin, “They took him into a room and beat him.” The story could go on, “On another occasion he was forced to lie down while MPs jumped onto his back and legs.” It might continue, “In the foregoing parts of this memorandum we have demonstrated …” and from there, we could stop.

     The inexpert writer may have mixed her ink too thin, and her composition will show weak streaks and drips. If she has not thoroughly and patiently prepared, uneven glops will show up in her writing like underlinings or exclamation points, clumsy emphasis. Typewriter ribbons, soaked in ink and then dried like noodles, rotate around their spools. They are used up by the repeated strikes of tiny metal mallets.

     The writings of the poor have been mostly impeded by lack of time, but also heat. In winter, the ink freezes in the bottle. The writer begins by holding the ink container in his armpit. Sometimes the most magical thoughts cease to appear because of ice crystals. A word is followed not by the next right and appropriate, perhaps brilliant, word, but by a gap and a shard of ice. Two things couldn’t be more different, ink and ice. One melts without a trace, one is created only to make traces.

      The ink maker begins in the woods, cutting hawthorn. The hawthorn branches are next peeled, and the bark soaked in water. This water is boiled down until it blackens, then is mixed with wine. The maker of ink may be making wine simultaneously, in another vessel. Alternatively, ink can be made from the galls that swell on oaks when certain wasps lay eggs in them. The wasp’s hormones provoke the oak into blistering, and this round protrusion protects the wasp family as the larvae grow. Their home shelters and feeds them, until at last the larvae change form. They were worms, bound to one spot, and now they fly around in the open, graceful bodies ending with a pen-like point.

     Or this—men and women study extensively in universities, and then are hired by tech companies. There they conspire to illuminate different colored capsules, some black, some white, in an imitation of paper and the words written on it. The human eye can’t see these individual capsules without magnification. They hover beneath the surface of the glass book, turning and rising, then sinking away in a complex pattern choreographed by the alphabet. Words, sentences, whole book-length memoranda command these capsules to bob and sink. Maybe one minuscule white one was for a brief moment next to a black one within the letter “r” within the word “room” within a report that begins, “They took him into a room and beat him. On another occasion, he was forced to lie down while MPs jumped onto his back and legs.” The person reading touches the bottom of the screen and the microcapsules sink, turn, twist, and rise into a completely new configuration so quickly the reader doesn’t even notice. This action seems to go on ceaselessly, with ease, like breathing.

     In yet another method, maids collected the soot from lamps and sold it down the alley to the soot dealer. The soot clung to their fingers, and entered their mouths as they ate. They wiped their runny noses with the backs of their hands. In fact their faces, and the faces of their siblings and children, were coated with a thin film of black at all times, cleared only by tears. In this way, moments of sorrow wrote themselves on their cheeks, briefly.

     Carbon ink remains black, while ink based on gall nuts or other tannin-bearing vegetables can turn from green to blue to black and then back again. Lines of choral music or a proclamation about sin start out thunderously dark, and then age into a more tentative gray. Some ink chemically incises itself into the page and bonds with the paper, while other ink dries on the surface. We will not judge which is the better ink, because each belongs to its time and category and appropriate situation. Burnt animal bones make bone black. Mixing this with lamp black provides for a darker combination. For most of history, the users of ink would have been only a few accountants. School children wrote with chalk on slate. What they inscribed one hour was gone the next. The school principal threatened little Jack with a mark on his permanent record, because only he had the means to write “Poor Behavior” in letters that might fade to brown but still be legible thirty years later.

     I’d like to bathe in ink, bottle myself up in ink, drink myself sick on ink. The squid blots itself out with its own ink as it flees, creating a cloud of black where once there was an animal. One time in New York I went to an auction for crates of letters rescued from a sunken liner. Their addresses still clung bravely to the greened and spotted envelopes. The collectors sat still in their wooden chairs, competing avidly with tiny gestures. They wanted the mark the post office had inked across the envelopes: LOST AT SEA. This brilliant red had lost none of its color.

     Stark’s ink, Runge’s chrome ink, alizarine ink,

     (which contains Dutch madder and Aleppo galls)

     invisible ink, ink that poisons the reading eye or taints the finger that turns the page

     mixed with glue from stag, cattle, or fish

     likewise soot, varnish, egg white

     The story begins, “They took him into a room and beat him.” It goes on, “He was forced to lie down, while MPs jumped onto his back and legs.” It ends, “After careful consideration of this matter, we have demonstrated that …” and after that, nothing. The ink on which this document is printed is called toner. It is made of electrostatically sensitive plastic particles, as well as pigment and traces of iron. It is safe to ingest in small quantities, though best handled with gloves.

      Some inks have ingredients added to make them shine. Without these, words formed on a page look back with utter dullness, brownish-black, gloomy, bored and boring. The nice salesgirls in the holiday shop write names on tags with silver and gold ink, creating gleaming curlicues out of words like “Mark” and “Eric.”

     It wasn’t even necessary to write a statement in blood on the walls. We have extensive accounts, typed out neatly: “They took him to a room and beat him. On another occasion, he was forced to lie down on the floor, while the MPs jumped off a table onto his back and legs.”

     A Frenchman created a magic screen, where aluminum powder and plastic beads conspired to draw inkless lines at the turn of a knob. With a shake, the lines disappeared. The Etch A Sketch was not ink, but the absence of ink, and yet this might be the important factor. Ink pretends to keep on, to penetrate, to make dark, to confirm suspicions. People will do anything to acquire this sense of permanence.


History of the Umbrella

Next I thought I would learn about the history of the umbrella. Surely a man named T. S. Crawford devoted years of his life to this study. A dentist with a thriving practice, he only got to speak on his specialty once a year. He formed a club with the other umbrella enthusiasts. They met in Boston, in a rented hall in a suburb far from the harbor. In the main room, mill workers had gathered to discuss conditions. The hall shook with their shouting. They described a girl stooping to fix a bobbin on the loom, and the rollers taking her hair. They had watched as the machine bent her down and pulled her to it, inch by inch, winding her towards its clacking gears. Luckily, her partner thrust a yardstick into the roller. The girl lost a six-inch strip of scalp, though her life was saved. What they wanted was an emergency switch to turn the things off, but they had been denied this safety feature. In the smaller conference room in the back of the hall, the aficionados examined images of ancient umbrellas. Some were made of palm fronds, some of silk. Their holy colors had been white, gold, black, or red.

     The enthusiasts agreed that the origins of the umbrella were entirely symbolic. Protection from rain was a late invention. At the origins of civilization, the sky itself was understood as a woman’s body arched over the earth, her toes and her hair touching at either end. The curve of her hip held the sun at noon. The umbrella spoke with its shape. It projected holiness and told a story of a benign universe. When the queen marched by under her sunshade, she was describing with this object her relationship to her people: I will shelter you.

     “Ladies, ladies,” shouted the mill owner’s representative. It was the first time he’d come to a meeting. It was exactly as he suspected, a lot of emotion and very little reasonable discussion.

     The club members shared their photographs and drawings of crowds in Burma. Bits of ancient manuscript laid out the price of silk, the process of making banana leaf paper, the cost of an ordinary functional umbrella in various world economies. They looked at sliding ring mechanisms and Buddhist temple umbrellas shaped like upside-down wash buckets. The meeting was scheduled for ninety minutes, with tea afterwards.

     Next door, the women displayed their misshapen hands or badly healed wrists and told of their near misses. They described the bits of thread and cotton fuzz that floated through the mill air. They breathed in these fibers and coughed them out again on the dark, hot, noisy shop floor. They spat them off their lips and tongues hours after they had finished a shift.

     The connoisseurs fell into their long argument, the two factions lined up with the plate of ginger snaps between them. The umbrella as shield from rain was not the same instrument as the holy shadow caster. Rains in the ancient world and every part of the East were torrential. No cloth dome could hold off the force of these vertical floods. People would have simply stayed home, or gotten wet. They could not have hurried up crooked alleys, their horizons narrowed by the dripping hem of the umbrella.

     It was unjust how umbrellas, once replicating the divine sky, were now associated with gloom and drizzle. “It’s a burden,” one of the enthusiasts said. He had a small collection of prints showing various popes under umbrellas, and the others in the club believed he was actually Roman Catholic. “Your wife hands you an umbrella on a dreary morning, saying you might need it later. You’d feel so light without it, such a gambler. But you know she’ll scold you if you come home wet. It’s like you don’t believe in anything—the sun might come out later. But you have to be prepared for the worst.”

     He was only trying to be provoking. The rest of them didn’t take him seriously. They looked at remains of yellow fringe, pressed between plates of glass. Their newest member relayed a synopsis of an essay on hunting dogs. None of them knew why. It turned out he was thinking of breeding his spaniel bitch, and his tale had little to do with squirrels or raccoons or hunting horns or Beethoven, and not at all with umbrellas, though when he had started out, he had implied that he was responding to what was left of a pattern on the material in front of them. Various tartans and calico checks had regional significance, he had said. They watched his red lips, seeming so bare under his mustache, as he went on about his two sons and how his wife couldn’t get them to eat vegetables. The umbrella enthusiasts were all past the moment when they had thought he was making a long detour that would nevertheless return to the subject under study, and therefore widen the orbit of the umbrella’s influence. An umbrella formed an entire world around a person, especially on a dark evening when the only light was reflected from the streetlamps out of puddles. This world could have anything in it, including baying hounds and women’s songs. But that wasn’t what he was talking about.

     “It’s a simple thing,” the mill workers shouted. The mill’s representative could hardly get to the question and answer period. The women seemed to already know all the answers. They were in fact fixated on this safety switch. They didn’t have the skill or the discipline to do the math for the cost of implementation. It was far more than the price of the gizmos themselves, it was the production process interruption, and the possibility of further shutdowns at any silly whim. They would be the ones to pay for that, if the mill wasn’t profitable. They couldn’t think that far ahead. Did they want to lose their jobs? The mill’s representative looked out into the sea of buns and braids, the scornful eyebrows, the open mouths. They had to bind their hair tighter, he thought. It was, in most cases, their most beautiful feature, but it didn’t accord well with the machines.

      One of the mill workers, looking for a back door to the yard, wandered into the scholars’ meeting. “Umbrellas?” she said. The newest member offered her a ginger snap. The rest of them looked away. One of them might have thought how an umbrella furled and held tight under its narrow strap and snap was like a widow in a dress. No breasts, but waist and hips, and the flaring hem around the ankles. Out in the street, when it began to sprinkle, a hand pressed the mechanism, and the widow disappeared. She was now something else entirely, an even array of struts.

     If they had asked the mill worker, she might have told them about the mildewed tub in the orphans home where the umbrellas suffocated, facedown in their own mess. The club men had their own memories of desecration, the umbrella abandoned beneath a bar stool or in the corner of a restaurant, or in the cubby at the theater that held all the lost scarves and gloves. An usher or a patron caught out might borrow one of these castoffs. The goddess’s body passed hand to hand, only temporary, each new user leaving it without a thought behind a chair or on a window ledge. No one even bothered to repair umbrellas. Broken ones accumulated in closets under stairs. New ones poked out of displays at cheap cigar stands, unnoticed until it stormed, and then it was too late.

     The mill workers filed into the night. They breathed in the mist rising from the bricked street. The corners and intersections separated the crowd, combing out its density. The umbrella enthusiasts walked together to the street car, now talking about taxes and the bad habits of their managers, supervisors, or secretaries. They lugged the boxes of their collected goods, while their own favorite umbrellas swung from their forearms. A few of the mill workers sat at the back of the car, still furious but also laughing. However, the umbrella club couldn’t identify them anymore as the group that had rented the bigger part of the hall. They had a sort of unified look to them, but no insignia. Out in the world, they were just women.

     The enthusiasts had not talked at all about the sound of rain hitting an umbrella, or how a person’s cuffs got wet, but their thighs stayed dry. If you were walking with a person, each got wet on the outer half, left arm and left leg soaked, and your partner the mirror image. They had not brought up the sensation of walking along in your own darkness, and then noticing that the sun had come out. The brightness after the umbrella went down was a widening, a lack of limit. For some this was a happy moment, but for others, fearful. The streetcar too was like an umbrella, and so was a house, or an auditorium. A day could be faced with bare barbarity, or dimmed down and circumscribed by the umbrella’s skin. The best time for umbrellas was mid-afternoon. The primitive inventors of the umbrella could not have known what a crowd of businessmen would look like, seen from the third floor of an office overlooking the main artery of a commercial district. The goddess herself, now withdrawn from the earth and looking down from a safe distance, might remark at a misty boulevard filled with black circles. What a beautiful sight, this momentary shielding of the heads and all their wishes and quarrels. Seen from above, the umbrellas simplified the writhing humans into a floating geometry. Their metal spikes and caps glinted. Water ran down their ribs as the tide of city people tilted and jostled. The collection of umbrellas lofted down the narrow sidewalks like flower petals, uniform. It might have looked from this vantage like the umbrellas comported themselves by themselves, no fierce hands gripping their sticks.

Angela Woodward is the author of the novels Natural Wonders and End of the Fire Cult, and the collections The Human Mind and Origins and Other Stories. She won a Pushcart Prize in 2017 for her Conjunctions story "New Technologies of Reading."