My grandmother used to say something about the darkness of hope. How it bears fruit in the light of wisdom. By watching her when she was living and listening after her death, I knew Grace. This was her name.
Revolt against death, she would say, by remembering the dead; the next breath a reminder that it was their breath before a final exhalation. Knowing this, breathe full and long. To forget is to die a little.
There were pages and pages behind these reminders. I read them as survival manuals for creatures of flesh. They said, be poor. Go down. Be despised, love anyway. Serve instead of demanding service.
There were maps too, but no territories. They said only: Look––in hunger and thirst, through long nights and vast deserts. There you will find company with the soul of all souls. You will hear the heartbeat and what follows will be the first song of the world.
What do you call a spring without birdsong? Carson wondered and the answer was dying. Without this symphony, sentience itself is suspect. Sing, shriek. Chirp. The people who knew before genocide called what moved here holy wind. All breath, all spirit, all soul.
It is something, isn’t it, to live when a common descriptor of our common malaise involves the need to get away and breathe. Where is away, then? When everyone’s chest is aching, there is a silent agreement: don’t mention it. Is it true that a wolf can smell a body’s feelings, or is it only fear that scents?
If we were the gods of the people who once listened, we could turn ourselves into wolves and know. Take the flight of raptors, stretching our sights. Assume the bodies of dolphins and realize our depths. We could hear an octopus cry, taste its tears, dance with urchins, and let the lamprey finish our sentences.
Then we might know breath again, the word meaning life. Meaning, duration of a moment; a short time; a movement of free air. Air, meaning the invisible everywhere, ether of arias, current of hymns.
We didn’t think about squandering, then,
and it never once occurred to us to save.
Remember when we shot our breaths out of ourselves, laughing at the last loud fart? We couldn’t stop
And we sprayed gasping iridescent drops into the air like water from the spray nozzle of a garden hose, just for dancing.
We played chase like being hunted was a game, like capture was a cartoon scene, we fell down laughing. Wait, we said, I need to catch –– like it was slow feathers falling from the sky to be cupped in our open hands
––And remember, how we painted with it, too? We blew our canvasses across car windows, fingertips tracing: here a smile, now a cat, heart.
And sometimes it was smacked from us, as when we fell back off a ladder or a swing, but the trick to waiting was knowing the metaphor and trusting that if the next breath could be knocked out
like a ball from a basket, it could also come swishing back at the next run up the court, catching nothing but the nets of our wide-stretched throats.
We didn’t think about squandering, then, and it never once occurred to us to save any of what we spent so freely, those fortunes that we took for our inheritance. We had no way
of knowing, then, how easily they could go. Really, it takes only a certain amount of pressure, applied across a certain length of time, but how could we have begun to measure
what we had yet to grow the strength to apply?
We couldn’t, not when time was what we flew threw, roaring our laughs like lions until they ran out.
Consider this breath, the sound
behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note.
If a scream erupts in a forest, and no one hears it —or if none of the hearers can connect the substance of the scream to the face of the wounded, whether because these hearers are out of sight or otherwise unable to perceive how a body nearby could be capable of keening like that, or because the hearers are not in the habit of connecting the nuanced arrangement of particular human features to the nuanced arrangement of particular human sounds, when considering a particular cry of distress after shutting eyes tight against any witness— did it happen?
Same question may be posed with other variants. If the cry was piercing and potentially recognizable but muffled by the presence of a sudden hand against an open mouth, does it count? If the moment of the cry coincides with the collapse of the known world and the known world in question was once synonymous with the depths of the forest, did a cry even happen, if the place that it would have poured into was suddenly gone?
Now consider other variables. If access is granted, but no one is told, does the person at the gates no one was trying to approach after years of denial get to shrug, raised eyebrows, and claim innocence––based on, well, I didn’t say they couldn’t. . .
Get to: what does this even mean? A body gets to do what it will do until acted upon by an opposing force. Except in the case of survival. Except in the case of protection of children. A body will persist until it can’t, and in persisting, adapt to certain givens for the sake of survival. As in, this door is locked, this knob will burn your hand, this exit will get you shot. If someone on the other side unlocks the door quietly in the middle of the night, hides the key and leaves it closed, is it to be considered open?
Define: cry. Which sounds are included? Define: pains. Which count? Define: life. Which forms are we talking about here, who is screaming––and who has stopped?
Where do these faces go when they leave us? Here’s a better question: why do we keep insisting that they are ours?
If someone shuts their eyes against some never-ending light, can they be considered a witness? If someone builds a dam across a river of time, can it be stopped, and what is the name for the resulting body? And if someone removes a dam and the river moves again, now altered in shape, is the dam still real, or has it been erased?
If eyes trained on sky notice wild promises in stars, do these vows have any bearing once obscured by the light pollution of the empire’s cities?
If breath denied fails to void the depth of inhalation, what do you call the sound that follows? The rising, leaning, lilting unsparing hallelujahs of nobody knows, the forever-present notes that no hand grants and no thief can steal, reaching back to some original promise, in the first splitting of atoms, when it was discovered that the matter they contained was mostly open spaces for the vibration of shimmering notes, haunting the seeming solids behind the spectral gates; what is this?
Consider moving. Listen. Consider this breath, the sound behind it; consider the open mouth, the next note. Sing.
About the artist: Alma Woodsey Thomas, now a renowned figure of African-American art history, had her debut showing at the age of seventy-five, after a thirty-five year career of teaching art to D.C. junior high school students.