Saturday, June 23, 2007
You were born on the back of a cockroach, his mother told him. She guffawed from the belly, hard enough to bring tears to her young silver blue eyes. Right here in this room, his mother continued. Her downy soft arms held him gently. Through the cracked window, its drapes dirty and tied-back, the morning sun flung spangles that danced across baby George’s forehead. I was on that there bed, she pointed to the second-hand thing, the worn mattress, the putrid cream colored headboard. You know my aunt Hannah died on that bed and then you were born on it. So there you have it. And when you came out, it was dark in here, just after midnight, and a cockroach done crawled right up underneath you and carried you away. His mother laughed. My midwife went crying and screaming round the room, chasing after you, but you were off. Born into it, son, on the back of a water bug.
The sound of his mother’s laughter, again now, more solid than before, a beautiful, halcyon vibration, hardened into what was to become George’s first memory. A profoundly unsettling sense of otherness overcame him in this instant. The laughter of his mother was not he himself. What there was before was simple and primordial. What there was now was emptiness and spinning. George began to wail as he had not yet wailed. His mother was disturbed, chilled by the shrill sound. She rocked him lovingly in her arms and told him the story again.
Oh, don’t you cry now, Georgie, it’s nothing. Lots of babies are born on the backs of cockroaches in these parts. They say if them buggers could vote, they’d have the Louisiana legislature locked up. Ha! With the flat palm of her hand, she beat softly on George’s little back. Hush now, baby, don’t cry. She sang to him in a voice as sweet and tender as her laughter.
Hush little Baby, don’t say a word
Mama’s gonna buy you a mockingbird...
Something had happened in George. As he surveyed his surroundings, he began to see things in their separateness. Ignorance took hold of him, and in this moment, a cloud passed over the sun, and the room dimmed. Here was his mother, her breast, her touch, her voice. From whence came this unimaginable distance between himself and his mother? What gulf of terrifying space is this? Worse yet, wordlessly did this terror descend upon him. Its effect was emptiness and spinning.
The sound of his own wails compounded his fear, for these very sounds were more instances of otherness, of something separate. But from what? Separate from what exactly? From he, from him himself: his soul.
And if that mockingbird don’t sing
Mama’s gonna buy you a diamond ring...
A storm’s coming, you feel that? said Me-me, George’s grandmother, sitting quietly in the corner of the squalid rancher. She was blind and she sat in a wicker rocking chair and she did nothing but keep open her remaining senses to the world. I feel the wind shifting, she said.
Sally, George’s mother, stood and crossed the room, still rocking her baby, humming the remaining few bars of lullaby. She passed George off to his grandmother’s wanting, outstretched arms, from which her skin waggled. Here, Sally said, you hold him a while, Ma. I don’t know what’s gotten into him. He always loved that story about the cockroach. But not today. I suppose today’s a new day.
Me-me took the bundle to her chest and kissed the crown of his head. Her eyes opened onto an infinite expanse, reflecting only space, without discrimination, without recognition. She wore a light, summery gown of cheap cotton and a pair of simple, single-strapped sandals. Wisps of wave-white hair flitted about her head as the wind blew from one window clear cross the room to the next.
There’s only the wind, Georgie, she cooed, in a high-pitched voice, seductive on the level of the sublime. There’s nothing to be afraid of, Georgie, there’s only the wind. You feel that, little one? That there’s just the wind, and that there’s all there is.
Summer in the South was brutalizing. Palpable pockets of heat poured in through the windows. The humidity caused Sally to sweat and her white dress clung oppressively to her back. She stood in the doorway, head titled, right elbow on the frame, the back of her wrist resting across her forehead. A portrait of perseverance. A storm’d be welcomed, she beamed. I’m boiling up like an egg in here. The phone rang and Sally turned and walked back a pace toward the kitchen, where she picked up the receiver, put it to her ear, and held it there with her shoulder.
—Hallo? Who is it?
George wrestled with his Me-me. He wanted free. His newfound sense of otherness imprisoned him. What else was knowledge? What else didn’t he know yet? What other mistakes and discoveries of consciousness lay on the horizon? He began to bite toothlessly, viciously at his grandmother. Look at you, little one, she cried. Why don’t we let you go, then? Me-me stood up gingerly, bent down and released George onto the ground. Even the ground felt new to him, different, other. With a sense of exploration, he began to crawl along the floor of the living room. A cheap bald brown carpet, burned in places, stained in others. Free and distracted, he was and his wailing simmered to a whimper.
Ineluctably the world rushed into George now. What fingers are these? Pawing at the gnarled carpet. Picking at the woven fabric there, inserting bits into his mouth. The world through his mouth: that’s the way it would be. Objects swarmed around him: colors, too: grey-blue carpet, red-orange ball, pale-pink leg of Me-me. Namelessly the colors presented themselves, forced themselves upon him as new truths. A bundle of sense perceptions now: that is all. No return to the simplicity of yesterday was possible. He crawled, in a terror, toward the back door, hanging halfway off its hinges.
—Well, we paid that bill only a week ago. I have the processed check here in my hand. Don’t see how we could owe again so soon.
His mother bickered on the phone with the collectors. She leaned again, against the wall-papered kitchen wall, her right wrist crossed over her forehead, in her pose. The phone dangling from her shoulder. Breakfast dishes stacked high beside the sink, teetering. The syrup hardening. Molly sat at the table, coloring in a book, the outline of an animal. The room was dark with the sun still behind the storm clouds. Sally tapped the tip of her white sneaker on the linoleum tile, spat angrily into the phone.
What terror was this? The terror of discovering open space. Suddenly the emptiness in George, this gross gap discovered between he himself and the objects of his world, opened up beneath him like an abyss. The carpet split wide like the mouth of a monster. The spinning became a vector, taking on the direction of a downward spiral. And through this darkness George descended, downward, deepening.
Molly’s ears in the other room perked up at the sound of George’s cries. A brief recollection of her likewise revelations skid across her young mind.
George was falling: this was the fall. For the mind to cleave from infinite space, its origin. Through space he fell, through the living room he crawled. With his soft bald head, he pushed the screen door open. He dropped down the single concrete step with a thud. The sun hid behind the clouds.
Ma, Georgie just crawled outside, called Sally from the kitchen, her hand held over the mouthpiece of the telephone, its chord tangled around her back. Oh, let him be! Me-me called back, rocking at a slow, steadying pace, sniffing the air.
Out back, along the tattered lathe and wire fence separating her neighbor’s existence from her own, George’s mother kept a fruit and vegetable garden: tomatoes, cucumbers, carrots, radishes, cantaloupes, honeydews. An earthbound woman, Sally was, like a tree trunk. George’s odyssey was to cross the lawn, on all fours, dirt-bound. In nothing but a diaper. Terror-stricken. Each knee forward, an eon. Propelled forth by a hunger: to return, to recapitulate. When he reached the garden, the smell of the brown dirt brought to mind his mother. How is everything also another thing? He dug his little fingers into the warm soil of the garden. The dirt jammed up beneath his fingernails. In his palm now, he stared down at a earthworm, he licked it.
Tilting his head back, he dangled the worm above his lips, then dropped the squirming thing into his mouth. Unknowingly, he ate of God’s living kingdom. The worm guts warm and acidic against his tongue. Namelessly, objects associated with each other in his mind: worm, dirt, mother, poop. Fundamentally still one and the same to George. Their different forms only ever so slowly making themselves manifest. Though at some level he knew this dirt in his hand was not his mother, nevertheless, he ate of it with her in mind. Handfuls of dirt-mother to mouth. With his cheek resting in the garden soil, with two hands, George pulled the dirt toward him and feasted upon the earth. This brought about a solidification, his empty belly filling full. George gorged.
But the spinning continued, heavier now. A larger, more matter-filled object, George fell dizzily through space. It began to rain. The dirt turned to mud and George stuffed his mouth full of dirt and mud. He swallowed a few small pebbles. His face was a single streak of mud, from ear to chin to ear. His nose, blackened at the tip. A voraciousness, a new energy of hunger: mud in the mouth! It tasted so good, so true. And as he swallowed, the spinning did briefly ebb, only then to return quickly, to flow again, so George swallowed again, more and more, obsessively eating mud in the rain.
He fell on his back and watched the raindrops careening toward his face, like so many meteors in a nightmare. The great force of gravity pulled these pellets toward him in its inexorable fashion. Full-bellied, spinning, free in the yard, George lay beneath the downpour. He felt himself to be a falling raindrop, a muddrop, a fat baby dropping through infinite space. With his grubby little hand, he pulled another fistful of mud to his mouth.
—You’ll have to call back when my husband’s home, Sally lied into the phone. Her husband Ralph had nothing to do with paying the bills. Sally was the family’s mind, Ralph, its body. She slammed the receiver down and called out for George.
There it was: that sound. Goorrr-geee, ooorr-geee. It came in through George’s ears and excited him like no other thing. Not the mud, not the rain, not the breast. Georgie! Oh, to hear his mother’s voice calling out that sound, that sign of that indivisible thing: his soul. But was his soul merely this sound? Or did the sound point to something else, something that would walk with him always. His beloved soul, form of forms.
Sally pulled her hair back and bound it up with a small, black elastic circle-thing. She wiped sweat from the back of her neck. You just let Georgie crawl out back like that? she said to Me-me as she passed through the living room, but Me-me had already fallen into a short, ignorant nap.
Rain pelted the rooftop. A drip began to fall at the far end of the kitchen. Molly didn’t even look up from her coloring book.
Sally opened the screen door on to the back yard and shrieked. George was on his back, the rain pouring down upon him. His face was covered in mud. Moreover, his face was beet red and his cheeks puffed out. He kicked at the ground with his tiny feet. Sally ran through the rain and swooped up her child. His eyes were closed, as if deep in concentration.
Georgie! Georgie! his mother yelled.
In terror, George was holding his breath, seeking a way out, a way to stop the spinning. When his mother noticed what was happening, a shock of horror consumed her. Her baby wasn’t breathing. Breathe, she cried, breathe, Georgie! With one foot in the garden, she held him in her arms. She shook him. Her baby wasn’t breathing. In the sky, a shock of lightning flashed.
For the love of God, Georgie, breathe!
George had discovered how ceasing to breath stopped the flow of energy through his body. Even the spinning, the inescapable spinning, slowed when deprived of oxygen. Naturally, upon making such a discovery, George set out to experiment. How long could he sustain this calming sensation of non-breath? It only took an act of will to maintain the state, and in summoning this will, George felt again the comforting intimations of his soul. Here was something he himself was doing. So, with scant thought or deliberation, George held his breath. He did not panic as parts of his body began to lack the oxygen necessary for normal functioning. First his extremities twitched. No problem. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary to George, for there was no norm.
Sally grew livid, screaming at George to breathe, hustling back into the house. The trees thrashed wildly in the wind. She pushed at George’s stomach and popped his cheeks open. This broke the spell: George took a breath. But he then returned immediately to his experiment. Stubborn, indomitable, George discontinued his breathing. If there was a way out, George would find it now. If there was a way back, George would find it.
They were on the living room floor. A rumble of thunder shook the whole house, causing a lamp to fall off the end table. Me-me awoke to the vital, crisis energy in the room. What’s wrong? she begged from her chair. Georgie’s not breathin’ right, said Sally, wiping Georgie’s face clean with the hem of her white dress. She popped his cheeks again, but this time, to no avail. George had discovered a method of holding his breath in which the mouth did not even have to be closed. A brilliant revelation! In an inspired state, he continued to hold his breath.
Things were stilled, becalmed. Things came back together. The world melded into one thing. Colors merged into a blended whiteness. A cool sensation of sliding pervaded his body. Soon there was only this: the cool sensation, the sliding; then, not even that: nothing, a primordial blank.
Goddam boy won’t breath right, cried Sally, frustrated, angry with her misbehaving baby. She began to shake him violently in the dim light of the storm-darkened room.
Honey, calm down, said Me-me, crawling on her feeble knees toward the center of the room, where George was performing his miraculous disappearing act. Molly stood befuddled in the doorway to the kitchen, a blue crayon in her hand.
For a moment, Sally thought her baby boy might die.
Georgie, she yelled, if you don’t breath right right now, boy, I’m gonna smack you!
From an uncanny space, as if lost deep down an impossible tunnel, George heard again this sound, this familiar call, his name: his soul-sound. It came in through his ears, so many vibrations of space, same as his mother’s laughter had come.
But George was not going to breath. A decision had been made, an act of volition, an exercise of indelible freedom. Frightened beyond reason, his mother shook him and smacked him, terrified by her own violent reaction, possessed by a fear of death, she tried to force her boy to breath. Me-me pulled back on Sally’s flailing arms. George’s face turned a myriad of colors: blue, purple, white. Then he was out. Consciousness: off. Sally was hysterical, helpless. Her body fell down upon George’s body, her tears soaking his dumb, mud-caked face, her mouth blowing furiously into his own. Me-me scrambled to her knees, to her feet, and into the kitchen. She called for an ambulance.
Then Sally felt the faint rise and fall of George chest. Lacking consciousness, George’s body had begun to breath again. There was no escape.