Rebecca Elliott

Not Sound but Water
 


To go from something like this (pure noise) into that place – the
darkness is at first a total darkness, and the silence a complete and utter silence. A few days later, there are stars – the light the Milky Way produces enough to see each face of each piece of gravel that makes up the driveway – and crickets and frogs and
things that move through the bushes at night but remain nameless.


And the things that move through the bushes while remaining nameless.


And the sound they make.


By the end of a week, constant night fluctuates into dawn. Twelve days in, the sun rises over the hills to the east illuminating the western hills from the top down, tree by tree, until, some time later, light reaches the valley’s bottom.


At this point, the traveler may enter the house.


In the refrigerator, leftovers from Thanksgiving. It is January.
Squares of color and light. A jar may be either gravy or
butterscotch.


What do these trees contain. The leaves are oak and covered in
thorns.

My brother and I go down to the creek where it passes by the labyrinth. The blackberries grow thick, as they grow thick everywhere in summer, and we’ve often stood near here gathering buckets full. When you come down to the labyrinth, you turn off the main road (dirt, once the stage coach line) and walk a small way down the hill along another road, this one grass, to get to the creek. If you are continuing on to the labyrinth, you will then have to cross over the water – a small amount of water, but the bedrock juts up in such a way that you can’t drive through it. At one time – at the time when Jacob and I go down to the place in the creekbank where the blackberry bushes break open and reveal a cave – there is a crumbling bridge made of interlocking bricks only Grandpa’s red jeep is allowed to pass over.

 

A cave or a mine shaft: a mine shaft. Something so easily broken.
 

Here I mean memory, which is not whole, but flickers in and out like a florescent lamp – too quickly for the human eye to see, but still flickers in and out. For example, a fly can tell:


The first few nights I can’t work up the courage to go outside.
Everything’s – stars visible nowhere else. But look out the front door: fifteen feet: utter blackness.


Nick sits on the roof of the log house looking at the sky and thinking about UFOs, alien abductions, and chupacabras, when he hears a wild scream and then hooves running down the road below the house. Something huffs and grunts in the bushes just outside
the fence. There’s a whole world of animals trying to get in the gates, and all we have to fortify our defenses is bungee cords.


My sister calls me on the phone and now she says it was actually an owl that ate Wildcat, not a mountain lion. I start to wonder where she’s getting her information.


Animals that live here but I’ve never seen:
• Tarantulas
• Mountain lions
• Owls
• Bobcats
• Bears

 

At New Year’s, Grandpa gives out spirit animals from a deck of cards.
     “I got a bear,” Jacob says. “It’s the animal that’s your guide for the next year.”
      I want one! I run to the front porch where my sister says, proudly, she got the coyote. The next day she proves it by jumping up and down on the frozen fish pond until it breaks.

     Mine is the rabbit. Of course it’s the rabbit.

SOMETHING EASILY BROKEN,
so we are led to believe, is a mine shaft left open by the gold miners who lived here 150 years ago. We bring a flashlight to point into the cave. Does the roof sag? Is a wooden crossbeam at the mouth on the verge of shattering? How much heavier does
rock really become with age? I climb inside first. Jacob has the flashlight and lights up my path from behind, but my body blocks the beam so I keep having to press myself against the side of the passage in order to see. The rock cool and wet. My hands and
knees slippery on the floor. We continue, half crawling, half stooped. Behind me, only the beam of light. Ahead, nothing but a trickle of water through yellow stone.

 

Eventually we arrive at a small clearing in the stone. We are deep within the mountain. Jacob and the flashlight have melded into [a single object that rejects the physical form of either of its constituent objects]: just a ball of light. In the middle of the room water spurts a foot into the air. This is the spring! This is where all the water comes from! Now I have the flashlight, and I point it directly at the water where it comes up out of a hole in the stone floor. I don’t wonder at all how we’re going to get back out of here.
 

CALAVERAS COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
Calaveras means "skulls." The county takes its name from the Calaveras River; said to have been named by Spanish explorer Gabriel Moraga when he found many skulls of Native Americans along its banks. He believed they had died of famine or been killed in tribal conflicts over hunting and fishing grounds. In fact, the human remains were of the native Miwok people killed by Spanish soldiers after they banded together to rise against Spanish missionaries.

In my last memory of my grandfather standing he stands in the doorway to the log house down the hill. He’s thinner than I’ve ever seen him – he and my grandmother have just been to a raw foods retreat and are eating nothing but fruits and wheat grass. “The Naylors saw a mountain lion,” he says, like he says whenever I come to visit. “You know what you do when you see a mountain lion?”

 

Maybe this is the same doorway: I hide up the hill on top of Black Bart's rock – a massive dark boulder surrounded by live oak branches – and watch. The uncles stand in the doorway to the house with firecrackers in their hands. They light the firecrackers and hold on to them just long enough so when they throw them they’ll explode in mid-air, sending a shower of sparks onto the dry leaves. Under the leaves is the cement in which are embedded rows and rows of horseshoes.


I say to myself: You can continue or what else can you do.
Then I say: You know, it’s not so bad. Remember that time when you were a kid and you—
I say: Yes I remember. It was horrible. This is nowhere near bad as that. Thank you for your help.
But I’m lying, just trying to get me off my back. I go find somewhere else to sulk. A waterfall Nick found upstream that involves clawing through young buckeyes and poison oak. But then sitting on top of the waterfall you forget it’s only five feet high and
a little disappointing to come upon.

On Memorial Day, the uncles stand in the water down at the swimming hole and pile the heaviest rocks into a dam, which they then cover with sheets of black plastic held down by smaller rocks.  We play around on inflatable rafts and catch minnows with nets
and mason jar, staying in the water until we are shiver so hard our mothers yell at us. Then we stand in a patch of sunlight on a narrow rock at the far end of the swimming hole and watch the water evaporating from our skin in great clouds we imagine are our
souls leaving our bodies.

 

At Labor Day, while the air is still hot enough to make the water bearable, they knock the dam down again. In winter the floods wash everything clean. 

 

Aunt Louisa says, “When you dream, your spirit leaves your body and flies to other planets, but it’s all real. You fly to the planet of the unicorns and see wonderful things. If you see me there, it’s
because my spirit has also flown to the unicorn planet that night.” 

 

Grandpa says, “If a turkey’s in the road I’ll speed up, but if there’s a tarantula I’ll stop the car and wait for it to cross. Tarantula’s are about the smartest animals in this valley – and that’s counting
grandkids!”

Imagine holding an animal in your hand: the heartbeat of a small bird that looks up at you in terror; the leg of a sleeping deer, just above its ankle, the tendons; a live fish; the infinite, unfeelable feet of a cricket.

 

Goats bleat longingly from their steep, rocky enclosure. Turkeys line up and glare while I try to take their picture. I am not sure why I’m trying to take their picture.
 

One kitten is found dead in the pantry, rat poison.
 

One killed by Sam.
 

The same dog kills another, older cat, my mother’s beloved halfface tortoiseshell.
 

We find the dead chickens one by one, their heads bitten off through the wire fence.
 

My 4-H angora goat is killed by the half-wolf dog Thea, who we usually keep tied to a tree and call Puppy as she lunges and barks.


The creekbed dries up quickly in the summer. Mosquitoes grow in the stagnant pools.
 

We leave, shutting the gate behind us.

There is also a period of time in which I become a large rock on the property, up by the writing shack and the rope swing. I think it lasts about 150 years – maybe a little less. It begins around the time the Miwok are driven off the land and the miners come in to
replace them, and it ends when I first visit with my parents as a little girl of only two or three years. At that time, my consciousness transfers from the rock into the body they call “Rebecca.” The rock remains. I don’t know if it’s empty or now inhabited by another
mind, because, despite crystals, despite everything, to a person in a person’s body, a rock can never be anything but a rock.


DUSK WHICH CAN MEAN ANYTHING
On the side of the hill below the rope swing, I watch the bats fly out of the writing shack’s stovepipe. Their motion, darting constellations, different from a bird’s smooth glide. I say to myself, yes this is how a bat flies. In low light their shapes are difficult to
make out, but by watching the motion of their wings… The thought doesn’t go anywhere. It hovers in my mind for a long time as each bat leaves its shelter and spirals out into the black web of branches and beyond, into the green dusk deepening into dark.

 

Sound, water, as most things are actually water.
 

And then my brother comes by and says, “No, no, I don’t remember that at all.” Shrugs. “But that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

Things that come in at the windows:                   Things that come in at

                                                                                    the door:


• a long line of mice                                                    
• a chair scraping along the                                         
floor                                                                                  
• a metal chair scraping along                                    
the concrete floor of the patio                                    
• everything there covered in                                        
brown oak leaves

Ah, I say, I thought we were having a conversation here.

Another thing: those mice in the walls infuriate us. Grandma
describes their path in this way:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Also in the rough plaster are pictures of anything. Generally creatures with long noses.
 

We wake to loud banging. We are in this house alone and we don’t lock the doors at night. “What is it! What is it!” I’m convinced someone’s trying to get in the back door. I cling to Nick. “Please don’t go look!”


It happens a couple more nights and Nick goes out to look. He opens the back door and stands on the concrete steps, passing a flashlight back and forth over the yard, the fence, and the bushes beyond. Opossums come bursting out of the trash cans.
 

Dead moths lined up on the windowsills can be explained in this way: at night he places paper cups over the moths and in the morning they are dead.

How many people have lived in your house before you? Voices carry farther than you might imagine…

 

If there’s a cat in the window, I’m a cat in a window. Where is joy in all of this. The wooden floor radiates from a single point. One small sound the house makes can mean so many things. But what about the strange insects in the creek, the leaves, the
paths through the dense underbrush on the south side of the valley, and what about the burned branches on the north side? What about the invisible creatures that pass always through us, wherever we stand? And the tree that used to stand in this space? It exists here still. This is what I was trying to say about time travel: blink your eyes fast enough and everything exists simultaneously. The Pauli exclusion principle says two things can’t occupy the same space at the same time, but when you take time out of it,
everything collapses, space goes dense with the emotion of the last 4.6 billion years. You burn because long ago, this was all volcano.

 

In the pantry we find:
• a large amount of tequila, which we leave alone
• a fifth of brandy, which we drink
• apples just on the edge of rotting
• all the small appliances a person could dream of (my
favorite: the pasta-matic, a plastic electric pasta maker,
mainly produces noise)

Nick squeezes his head and one arm through the handles of a canvas bag so it hangs diagonally across his back and bunches up tight under his armpit. Contents: pocket mushroom field guide, paper cups, scissors, flashlight. He heads off on foraging expeditions on the other side of the creek. When he gets back I make him first throw all his clothes in the wash (POISON OAK) before he sits down at the big round table on the front porch and pulls out paper cups of mushrooms – mainly Amanita (POISON).

 

In the winter, a small side-creek appears next to the log house and look: the bubbles cast not shadows but small spots of light. A twig hangs from nothing in midair. In the pond, goldfish swim in their own reflection.
 

How do you describe the pain of an inanimate object?

In the back of the barn are fifty five-gallon buckets of wheat, rice, and beans. More in cans and jars under the house. Wheat found in the pyramids is still able to sprout, thousands of years later. Honey can last indefinitely.

 

Four winters before this: my grandfather dies quickly of lung cancer in the west bedroom.
 

Eight years before: Aunt Louisa with the big red hair spreads a map of the property out on the kitchen table and holds a crystal pendulum over it. This is how she discovers a new spring during a drought.
 

Fifty five-gallon buckets of air. Grandma cries and says she needs me to help her turn the barn into a bunk house so I start arranging things. The buckets of wheat are old and the lids crack when I try to move them, and mouse shit gets in with the grains so I have to throw them all out. We can save some of the wheat Grandma, I say, and she says it’s too old and has lost its energy. Uncle Holger drives up from Newcastle and we throw it all over the hillside behind the barn. The turkeys come around.
 

When we see the wild turkeys by the side of the road we lean out the car windows and shout BUDDY BUDDY BUDDY BUDDY, and they put up their tails for us to see.

A HUMAN FORM THAT BECOMES A PIECE OF FURNITURE
The sheepskin covers on the living room couches slide off whenever we sit on them, so Nick folds them into squares and puts them under the telephone table. Whenever someone comes by I spread them back over the couches, and when they leave Nick takes the sheepskins off again.

 

Whenever someone comes by they aren’t sure whether they should knock at the front door or not – unless they’re Aunt Louisa or Aunt Anna, in which case they walk right in.
 

GRANDMA’S DREAM
She enters the mountain through an opening left by an old goldmine. It is dark and smells of sulfur. The passage narrows, though gradually at first, but before it becomes too cramped to continue – throughout this she has forgotten the chronic back pain that has been plaguing her for the last few years, forcing trip after trip to Paso Robles to stay with her daughter Anna, a nurse – before the passageway (dimly lit from an unknown source)narrows so much she can’t continue, it widens out again, to the size of a broad two-lane street, or broader, wide like the streets she remembers from her childhood in Chicago. The air lightens too – where it was close and sulfurous before, now it smells like freshly cut hay on the side of a hill in summer. Crickets and wasps pass her on their way up the road, which inclines gently but steadfastly.

 

The passage opens up at the top of the mountain. A low branching oak tree, then rough stone, then folds of orange poppies. Across the valley, no logging roads. Bob is there, and, young as he has never been---

The world is empty. When it’s gray in the valley, it’s gray for an eon. The clouds stay no farther away than the tops of the trees and, moving closer to the ground, they push the air in, increasing its density and pressure. By the time I make it down to the bridge to the labyrinth, my ears are ringing. A pain grows behind my eyes, the air thick and mottled. The crumbling brick ford has by now been washed away by winter floods. Now there’s a couple of boards laid from one bank to the other, tethered by a plastic rope to a fence post at one end so it can be put back in place every spring when the water goes down.


I dig around in the blackberries for a long time before I find the mine shaft. The brambles are long and difficult to cut and untangle. I clip one, pushing down hard on the clippers with both hands, and then find a spot between the thorns to grab onto while I walk backwards across the creek, backing up into the blackberries on the other side and pulling out this long vine with me. It seems the best way to do things, but it’s very tiring and by the time I’ve opened up a big enough gap, the spots in my eyes have gotten so bright---


Imagine all this in black and white because that’s how it looks, in this kind of weather.
Make a list of the things you hate and throw it in the fire. You have no business feeling this way. The light coming out of your eyes isn’t light at all, and the rainbows spurting from your ears certainly aren’t rainbows. This rage isn’t becoming – but what exactly are you even trying to become?

Less than a mile into my first and only morning jog with Uncle Robert, I’m lying on the dusty road clutching my throat, gasping for breath. I mean, my first and only asthma attack. “It was terrifying.” But was it? And what did I see? 

 

In a dream a man dies. I awaken in a different room.
 

In the kitchen, Nick is cooking. It doesn’t matter what it is.
 

In the sink, a tub of cold water and bleach. This is how my grandmother does the dishes. The waste water drains out onto the hill. Somehow, the grass still grows greener there, or at least brighter.

I mean this in the way you might take a gold pan and scoop up some mud from the bottom of the creek, then hold it in the cold, shallow water and rotate it slowly for several minutes, allowing the sand and lighter particles to float out of the pan as the heavier elements settle to the bottom. Eventually, something glistening.

 

To continue on like this with such focus and concentration that everything else becomes a wash and falls away. What is left then? That type of blankness couldn’t be said to be a blinding white. Neither a blur. Not a clarity of vision. Come, rest your ear against the rough – almost grating – bark of this tree, and tell me what sound it makes, the sap going up and down, or the beetles eating away at its interior.


And the walls, oak, and the trees, oak, and the ground not dirt but oak, or thick layer of dust over oak boards, or rocks not quartz but wood.


Grandpa says, “Wanna count my belly buttons?” and lifts up his shirt. We scream and turn our heads violently.

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