It seems to wake up just before you do, and meet you as your eyes first crack open. Yes, there it sits, an indistinct smudge in the dark but undeniably the thing is there, an inky silhouette perched sphinx-like, its black weight pressing down upon your chest, waiting for you to wake and feed it in the pre-dawn gloam. Its shadow trails you through the darkness to the bathroom, weaving all about your feet where you seem to see it in peripheral vision, but when you look directly at it, then it flits away, or else is swallowed by the blind spot we humans are cursed to look around the edges of in low light. The bathroom lamp clicks on and banishes the thing from taking any physical forms. Somehow the thing lingers, something like a smell that doesn’t fade even after it’s source is taken from the room.
Some smells that linger:
burnt popcorn, skunk musk, vomit,
body odor, rot…
Without warning, something shoves its way through to your attention, a memory of a boy you barely knew, a kid brother of a junior high school friend, acquaintance really. Years after you left your hometown, the story of the kid brother came to you as it does now: unsought. You were not so much told the story as you were made aware of it obliquely as it arrived through cobwebbed back passageways. In fact it was not the story of the kid brother at all when you first heard it. It was the story of a car, a new Camaro that was totaled by a smell, an odor that could not be cleansed out of it after its first owner took his own life while sitting in the driver’s seat, parked far back into unused logging roads in the National Forest. The car and the boy within were not found for weeks. Mechanics removed every part of the car’s interior, seats, carpets, dash, head liner, everything, down to bare metal, but to no avail. This car that looked show-room new on the outside would forever smell like an unrelenting, just barely registering hint of death on the inside. It was only after someone else listening, incredulous, demanded places and names, that you realized you knew the person in the car, the acquaintance’s kid brother, and the otherwise forgettable story slid like a metallic sliver into your mind.
Other spots slivers
hurt: under nails, finger
tips, feet, open eyes.
That thing that you don’t talk about follows you throughout your day as well. At times, it fades into the background of life’s daily noise, the way your tinnitus slips from your awareness sometimes when the physical sounds around you are sufficient to drown it out or to distract you from its constant drone. You remember your father once describing his own tinnitus to you as the two of you watched the synchronized movements of a great flock of red-wing blackbirds twist and coil in the slate-gray winter sky like a Chinese dragon. “That’s it,” he said. “The ringing in my ears. It sounds just like that. Thousands of blackbirds screeching, like they all want to say something and are trying to scream it over the rest.” At the time you wondered what all those birds wanted to say. Now you wonder what your dad would say if you could ask him just one more question. Of all the stupid things you ever did ask him, you remember once asking him, though you can’t for the life of you remember why, if he thought there were such a place as Hell. You remember that he said, “Yes. And this is it.”
Your own tinnitus does not sound at all like blackbirds. It sounds, for all the world to you, like the crickets, katydids, cicadas, and tree frogs that chirped and cheeped and croaked and droned through all the sweltering summer country nights of your childhood, steeped in sweat, waiting for a breeze. The sounds of the summer night rose and fell in the dark, humid air, and now forever in your ears. You swear, sometimes these ghost echoes are not even all that bad, a faerie-fire reminder of your younger days, if only you could turn it off when what you really need is quiet, just for a little while. Just for once.
Echoes of ghosts are
endless. You have forgotten
what silence sounds like.
That thing that you don’t talk about is downright arrogant in its confidence that you will do just about anything but talk about it. It’s not like you don’t wish you felt you could, even indirectly, as a line of discussion about literature, for example. The good Reverend Dimmesdale in The Scarlet Letter carried his thing he didn’t talk about to his death, wracked by it. Chillingworth too, was warped into a demonic caricature of himself, twisted, ruined. Both of them could have been free, and Hester Prynne too, if only they had talked about that thing they didn’t talk about. They could face pain and even death, but not that. Such is its power. Dimmesdale’s daughter, Pearl, knew this instinctively, tried to tell her father, baptized him with her tears after his final, fatal failure not to talk about it, though even there, that lucky bastard Dimmesdale found some peace in her ferocious compassion.
Ah! but those tears are…
richer than all his tribe…pearl
enough for a swine
Pearl. You’re reminded of the precious “stone” that is her namesake, which is not a stone at all. It is the result of a tortured oyster, a grain of sand or grit digging into its soft tissue as the oyster slowly does the only thing that it can do: secrete a coating, layer upon layer to cover and smooth over the cruel irritant. In nature this happens by chance, but we humans cultivate them intentionally to produce more pearls, seed the oysters with grit, sow them with pain. We consider the result of this process a thing of beauty, and so it is, a pain banished, buried, hidden inside of a beautifully crafted orb. All of this, of course, is hypothetical, safely couched in fiction and metaphor, until some thoughtless clod proposes that Hawthorne must have based these characters on some observations of human nature. He must have known someone who had things he or she never talked about. Maybe a lot of someones, and wouldn’t you like to know what it was they were covering up? Now you wonder, why would anyone cut open a pearl to get the grain of sand back out?
This, by the way, is the way your mind works as it tries to shake the thing you don’t talk about, cutting down back alleys, looping back, creating diversions, toppling tall stacks of boxes in the thing’s path, but then there it is again, the thing you don’t talk about, lurching toward you.
* * *
And then there are times you begin to suspect that others somehow know about your thing that you don’t talk about, despite the fact you have not talked about it. How can this thing haunt your mind and not be written on your face, in your posture? Perhaps it is obvious, so you avoid others, talk less and less about anything at all. At work, people laughing near you must know, and dear God, how can they think that this thing is funny? So you blow up, throw pencils, storm out of meetings. You recall a time at home your children left the room, stunned, after you’d grounded them because they had, without knowing, tread too close to the thing that you don’t talk about. As far as they knew, they had been punished for no reason whatsoever. You’re not sure which of their expressions cut the worst, the one whose freckles quaked with heartbreak or the one whose dark eyes seethed with indignation at the injustice. With both, you fear you’ve lost something irreplaceable.
A pearl of great price…
every several gate was of
one. Cast before swine
Now on top of the thing that you don’t talk about, you feel judged for being unloving, angry, toxic, bad. You join the others in judging your behavior. And it’s not something you can explain, because you can’t talk about the thing that is using up all of your resiliency, leaving none for anything else. You can’t watch sports anymore, find yourself avoiding them and regretting it when you do not. You reject requests to play poker or spades or hearts with friends, or board games with the kids, seeming rude because, again, you cannot explain. You can’t even make excuses because you worry you might somehow slip, say it without consciously willing it. Parapraxis, they call it. Freudian slip. No sense taking chances. Not talking about it is not at all an inability to talk, far from it, or the threat it may reveal itself would not exist. One thing is for sure, to be a thing you don’t talk about it has to be a thing you can’t stop thinking about, or it would slip from your consciousness and cease to taunt you.
The effort required to not talk about it is exhausting, and each night, as you tumble into whatever ragged state of sleep you can manage, the thing is sure to be there, that smudge in the dark, watching for its moment to slip in through your drowsing eyes and down into your dreams as well, where it curls around those parts of your self you show to no one and it whispers, in silver-hushed, lullaby-low tones that might even seem sweet, if not for what they say. It whispers, through a long night of fevered dreams, what it has done to you.
Worming deep inside,
oozing down through your marrow—
not just in your mind
Try to root me out.
Open up your bones and see.
What was you, is now—
Dennis Humphrey teaches writing and literature at Prince William Sound College in Valdez, Alaska, snow capital of the USA. He has a Ph.D. in Creative Writing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, and he served in the US Army/Arkansas National Guard for nearly 30 years. He has run with bulls in Pamplona and piloted helicopters in Iraq, where he once stood atop the Great Ziggurat of Ur, showing his propensity to turn all his travels, even a combat deployment, into an occasion for educational tourism. He hopes his children will one day forgive him for this and for not taking them to commercial theme parks. He has his doubts. His prose has appeared in such places as StorySouth, Clapboard House, Prick of the Spindle, Blood Lotus, SN Review, Toad Suck Review, Collateral, and Copperfield Review.