Conjunctions:52 Betwixt the Between

Secret Breathing Techniques
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 empty.


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 might visit. 

     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 is unavoidable. 

     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 things. 

     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 the summit. 

     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 would change. 

     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 style. 

     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 days.

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 together. 

     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 their mouths.


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.

Ben Marcus is a recipient of the Morton Dauwen Zabel Award from the American Academy of Letters and a fellowship from the Creative Capital Foundation. His work includes Leaving the Sea: Stories (Knopf) and The Flame Alphabet (Granta Books).