First You Hear the Voices
Rich Ives

I've turned the lights off yet another time. Right now, it only takes snuffing a candle. The power's been gone for days. I haven't bothered to find out why. It's not even cold outside, and I don't remember any storms. It makes me feel like I'm inside the glass head I have sitting on the kitchen table. Next to my glass of water. Drink up. When the glass head is your head, the water may turn to wine. That's what happened in my dream.

Now it's raining again. No storm, just rain and more rain. The creek floods, and I have to put in baffles to keep it from exceeding its banks. If you let a creek explore too much, it becomes a marsh. I already have a marsh. I don't need another marsh. And the pathway to the forest needs the creek to find the most expedient way to maneuver between trees and large rocks. What pleasure would there be in a pathway without any relationship to water? There's something comforting in knowing you don't have to carry canteens or plan your waterless hours between pools mysteriously rising up out of the confusions beneath your feet.

The creek is coughing and mumbling whatever the rain told it. It's quieter when it's been nearly dry. This far from civilization the water's clear and reliable, but it gets shallow when the sky hasn't been paying any attention to its needs. At night the water has more to say, but the language changes, goes whispering. It can be soothing or frightening, depending on what you've decided the world thinks of you. You're lost. Take me with you, is one thing you might be saying. Or, Come along now. Pull your pants up. Quit poking at the ferns.

There's a poison in the south. Here in the north we call it cave juice or cannibal time. Something still behind you when the life you've been given moves on. There you are, in between and nestled into yourself, embracing the moment gone. We don't have so much history here. We're not cottoned off or smoked. We just wait a lot for something to happen. It always does. It's a different kind of poison. You have to filter it through the old country. You can't just plant it and weed out the indigents.

Sometimes the earth comes down with the rain, as if returning home after a philosophical visit. After that, staying home gets easier, but not dryer. Sometimes what you have to say is already blowing away. Storms leak back out without even sitting down. Long passages of scripture arrive in mourning boxes. I open them. I forget which direction I came from.

I'm listening to the ghost lips of events passed half sleeping. The rock that I slept on before I found my tree gets up and boards a bus to Barstow, where it takes its rest outside a recruitment center, useless as a wooden sailor cloning a desperate kind of appearance, meant to look like success. The rains have gone wild again, and I've begun masking the offended doorways to restrain a thick damp smell that deepens and spreads as its associations fatten. Everyone owns this cautious dream in its myriad forms. It's little more than a pause for orange blossom tea with a dreamy amniotic horn intruding, as if it were announcing yet another return to the lie of profits.

The glass lifts from the table now, empties and breaks, spilling itself and its contents as more rain. This takes place inside the glass head, which you can no longer see through. It too has lifted, reattached now to its body, no longer fragile. Go ahead. Give it a couple wacks upside. It can take them with you.

There is a pattern of dried tea leaves on the glass table like a map. It can seem a great distance from one room to another, and I like to think of the halls paved with bird song and breezes to ease the journey. In truth such pleasures exist only erratically, but in memory they are continuous. The leaves are not attractive, but appear as welts and flakes and the lid of a single fat eye that seems to gaily pronounce its most profound experience as misery. Why do I find this appealing? I would like to answer that it is because I am not afraid of the truth, but am I afraid of my own happiness? Do I fear that if it arrives, it will be taken from me because I do not deserve it?

* * *

I return to the marsh library to research misery. This makes me feel that it's someone else's word. I find the word in lily pads, where it remains beautiful as it reaches out beyond the suffering with its petals. I find it in the avid researchers laboring beside me like ducks pruning the pond bottom. Their colorful heads are pillows that remain dry, and their fingers look tasty. I find it in the frog babies with their fear of breaking surfaces. They are not all they're meant to be. I find it in cattails fresh with clubs too soft to damage anything but themselves. For them it's a pleasant experience. I know this. I find it in the first avalanche beneath the surface of the ant's communal brain, where too much is not enough. I find it in the occasional leaf turning its dress to a brighter color to fall from grace and experience the motherland. I find it in the motherland. There are no bandages there but spit and mud. I find it in spit and mud. I find it in water-striders and oar beetles and ancient scarabs with fine lines on their abdomens. I find it in exhibits of butterflies with bodies that no longer belong to them carefully mounted on Styrofoam to show off their slower migrations. I find it in papermaking and the treeless aspirations of the field children.

Later, from nearly the top of the same tree, where I have come to get a fresh view of the fresh meadow, I can see the arrangement of stumps on the far side, where the landscape begins to slope down and away. How orderly they are. I did not notice walking among them. It appears they must have been an orchard some time ago. They have been hand-hewn, for the edges are ragged, at slightly different angles and heights, perhaps cut by several different workers. Why would they remove them? Firewood from trees that were no longer producing adequate fruit? Did they once stand tall enough to provide shade for the cemetery? A bit ironic, isn't it, since the cemetery at certain times of the day, thanks to the slope, now provides shade for them?

This time I have come here to read comic books, which I pretend to detest, but once collected as avidly as any younger child. A taste for pulp seems to go well with adolescence, but it soon appears shallow and exaggerated in all the worst ways, just as do many of the most cherished memories of childhood, all those sidekicks and abandoned would-be lovers writing their own precious confessionals now without need of exaggerated illustrations. I still believe there is something charmingly antique about them, the way children must sometimes think of me when everything not amusing enough seems dead. It's like having the piece of childhood that never really existed back again.

As for the weather, it's sometimes gray, sometimes impossible. Well hello there! says the little cloud with its littler comprehension, and we're off on a tangent that involves no crying for days because he's back every morning and gray days require him, until he gets too big and spills. You can't even mention it though, or he'll spill before he's ready, and that's when he doesn't realize how much damage he's capable of doing. But I prefer the days of white clouds or no clouds. They're distant, and quiet, and I can ignore them. Why respond to vague references to purity when the inner ear can be so beautiful and lonely all by itself?

* * *

I'm not wearing a shirt this time, so there's no flag to warn the hawk today that I'm going to be watching her. My pants are camouflaged by their absence, which no longer appears as pale as it once was. Sometimes the whole day floats the way that hawk does.

The road is it's own hospital, but the road doesn't tell you where it's going. The road's often painful, a treatment that can feel worse than the illness. That's what Howard said when I told him we should rest.

Sometimes I confuse the whole day with a strange earthy circus. I send a ton of unwritten letters on those days. I don't want to miss any of the performers, but I want to tell all the ones I've just seen how much I appreciate their artistry and what I learned from it. It's my eyes and my ears that I don't write those letters with. I don't use any verification. I just let myself.

The mountain ash needs no mountain. The rose hip needs no leg. Think of yourself as an extension of only yourself. Make yourself happen. Howard again. Sometimes he doesn't even open his mouth, and I want to stuff it full of clever little needles. Have I sanded him too smooth? I think I'd enjoy roughing him up a bit.

Howard arrived late. First came the coyote and hen. Then the eggs and their deceit, echoing contemporary politics. The citizenry disappointed by a doctrine of tribes, an allotment of tendencies with nothing really definite. Like a man named Bob visited as a Hoopoe and another man named Bob as another Hoopoe but not the same Bob. You just can't see them as the same thing.

So then I had to explain Howard's recent distractions. My sandwich grew incontinent. It leaked. I didn't have anything like bread to hold it together and using the insides as the outside doesn't always work although it tastes just fine. On circus days I like to wait until I reach my seat before I start eating, which doesn't always work so well. My trail of breadcrumbs isn't really breadcrumbs, and the hunger mostly just interferes.

* * *

Nor am I willing to allow Hawaiian shirts in my wardrobe. They're happier than reality ever really allows, so I don't allow either. One doesn't want something that bright and generous trying to cheat one out of one's sadness. It's like the way you can't have a different morning when the morning in front of you is sill unfolding, but it can have so much to say, the different one, that you can choose which part of it to listen to. Don't worry about the morning. It's got its own lifestyle. You have to let go of the morning. You have to speak to the afternoon a little differently too. Especially when it's raining. But right now I'm inhaling curtains and gloom. I can say things I don't mean later.

I have my couple of pains, and I have my traceries. I have my blur from the last understanding. I have everyday carpentry inside, and I have loose ideas to spread out and attend to. Don't think that I don't have a long way to go to get here.

Lust and curiosity really are the same thing, aren't they? You want what you haven't got. Where would we be without being without? A doctrine of elision, then, blistered tonal frequencies, ferment, great engines of tender ark, an atonement of accidentals, nestled in the pauses collecting the next few years like something one has actually achieved.

What's new today is old yesterday. Howard, of course.

Gossip must contain something because it cannot contain itself. Yes, Howard again.

The disasters quiet down for much longer than they scream. Howard again.

Tic-toc's the sin, says the djin. Howard. An indirection mode. I'll need a different angle. Perhaps a finer grit. Appearances aren't everything, but nearly everything creates them.

The body is a mystery, but the mystery is not the body.

Idiot or sage? Don't ask the listener. He's either just another idiot, or he's already decided. You need some questioning. All that moonlight coming down on the chosen mother in her gutter, where there are no gutters, and in the brambles, where there is little else but brambles, her cloven idea of herself spread out and flattened like a printed remembrance of the mother, blurred by an absent father who doesn't think about himself as relevant, who lives in a room with lots of imaginary windows and no doors. There's not much laughter in that church, but attendance is pretty damn reliable.

* * *

Today I found a wig near the cemetery. Well, there's that. And the pleasure of the surprise I felt in finding it. And another half-formed thought about whose wig it might have been. The wig was upside down in the grass with twigs and leaf stems and straw and some kind of animal fur woven into it. It held two speckled baby blue eggs, and I thought of it as a scalp, with two wrong ideas, still unhatched, beneath it. Delicate loose knots. Unsettling hunger.

It's dark now in the meadow beyond the limits of my vision. I've been thinking of the grass, but beyond the grass is only more grass. So I go on thinking about the grass, and I fall asleep knowing the grass will still be there when I can no longer think about it. I'm watching myself do this, and I don't seem to realize the grass will not be the same grass.

Heavy rains singing an unsalted whale song several countries from the sea. I am not myself. My windows are taller and thinner. You could break them, but you couldn't climb through. These thoughts are quiet but desperate as prayer beads, articulations of a circular logic. I want to create something that lasts longer than I do.

Indulgence. Just a bit of it and no obvious correlation. Mutton where there are no sheep. It fits in my mouth, and I let it stay there, enjoying the hunger before, enjoying the reason. It's another country. It's alone now and wants to read. It wants its own filtration system.

Has she not been arrived at by indirection, this lost daughter of mine. The shoebox she lives in is direct, but she is not. Neither is her child, who might still not seem very particular. I put her shoebox by the marsh in the kitchen and she becomes Little Girl by the Marsh. I give her a dog, named Lester, and he is only a manifestation of another dog. I take away a leg and Lester is Harold, digging in the cemetery. I don't take away the cemetery. The one thing you can count on is the ending. The ending is always waiting just around the corner, which might yet prove to be both vertical and circular at once.

If you study intelligence, you know that it's incompatible with religion, the "necessary lie," as intelligent philosophers have called it. Just as the mind is incompatible with the body, it must inhabit by default. Where else could you keep such a monster?

The way shadow draws from edges to a single theme as night comes on, so shall the days be multiplied. Howard sings his unbroken abendlied in a faint faraway voice. You'll find that song hanging in the window, next to the butcher's tune, but you won't be able to see the notes. Improvise. Theme and variations. We have a limited number of possibilities with which to prove that we are unlimited.

Or can we merely believe, not prove a thing but existence, moment by moment, trusting in something other than what we are doing? Or would this mean we are doing nothing?

A place then of different unidentified people within, who have different goals and may all be you. Are you there yet? Are you as fat with yourself as I am? Take another bite. Keep your mouth closed. This is your reason for staying. You don't need a reason.

* * *

The next time I thought about it, I was busy taking pictures of my food. I did not want to eat (the way the parts fit no one else but fit each other). I was not there at the time. I was anticipating. (You're verb is a noun. Stay where you are. There's still nothing to do.)

It's improper to behave this way, isn't it? Telling you not to do things I've done. It could make you angry. Don't let it do that. To exist is to exit. You're on your way out, which is, I'm certain, scarier than merely knowing that I am. A box of sting, a string of unbound, unseemly tidings, but I don't hold them apart from you. Nor you from me.

A closer sense of self-importance, that's what I'm looking for. But why? It's but a fleeting thing. It might carry me beyond myself to a place that does not exist, or exists only in my thoughts, a satisfaction from which I must return before I even arrive. Are you here to offer more? Am I? Each of us seeking the other with what should have been unselfish intent?

The sun eats away the curling leaves, spits out the insides of a cloud. Catfish whisker their way across the hidden face of the marsh, their expressions smooth, patient and unfolding, like cautious mistranslations of an alternative intent. We're past that now, at the other end of a patient path, near the edge of the great forest. An eagle is feeding on the carcass of a fawn. Don't you want to tell yourself he's cleaning up an accident?

Today dawn breaks blue and tepid, fawning away from yesterday's intensity. You can't go to the horizon and exchange probabilities, but you can apply less saturation to the reception. I aim my stick at one end of the question and drag it across the visible landscape. There is no other prison here. Any memory of bars will imagine you behind them. There are no escapes, merely passages and turns to different part of the journey, narrow spots where travelers might gather if they weren't so convinced of the uniqueness of their vision, and thus the passage from one room to another often goes unremarked.

Between green and deathly there isn't much distance. It's a marriage with inevitable intimacies, less humid, perhaps, but dripping, redolent, approaching it's greatest intensity. Moments of what was expected have been flushed from beneath the Maiden's Hair Ferns like stocked game hens in the damp morning.

* * *

Movement again. Now the yellows of the marsh plants, the marigolds and skunk cabbage, seem to be competing for a punch line, ripe joking to dispel the aggressive intentions, and the winner receives only the turnaround, the wrinkle of spotted death-yellow that always waits just long enough to appear surprising.

The stretches of forgotten landscape are inside me now. I travel them as if the goal were self-evident. There must be something at the end. It feels like a great distance, but I may be nothing more than a nervous man pacing from room to room. Each room appears different when you're life has changed, but the room doesn't alter the meaning. You do.

What's left of my romanticism tonight tells me this is not the way the stars are supposed to arrive, but I've been led to a clearing in the forest in the moonlight (by what?) with a lot of aged limbs broken along its incautious edges. What thoughtful storm laid them down so gently? I imagine one branch telling another something worn and ordinary, belligerent perhaps. Your bark should be left outside with the dog. Why don't you just keep your feelings with the bats, hibernating in the rafters, or under the stained snow-bank, kissing the chicken coop. We'll see if you can hold a candle to what's still nesting in its own little shelter of domestic routine.

I hesitate to say it, but I no longer find Nature so compelling. There's as much squabbling and self-interest in a bird or a salamander as there is in a human. So much of what is good is merely instinct. We aren't even responsible for it. When I get tired of myself, I climb down inside my mental refrigerator and wait for the chill to start me shivering. Then I climb back out, and the warm air is a gift from someone I haven't met yet. I turn around and there he is. What a fresh new face he has. What a chilling expectant embrace. I'm wonderful again, however briefly.

The pleasure of dessert comes after the removal of food. It requires preparation. You must experience the life of the other before your own life can be fully experienced. You must be nourished by what you did not know you wanted. Your body will not tell you how to find it, but it will tell you when you are experiencing it. Then you can successfully desire more. The more will be more because it can then be different. Contrast is not a principal but a necessity. I'm not convinced there is any dessert.

If you mumble when you read, you might be thought to assimilate with greater depth, or you might be thought slow. Both could be true. Ancient people knew this before they learned how to read, before books were created, which merely allowed a further development of "reading." Now that the books seem to be leaving some of us to live in a more appreciative environment. The lack of mumbling might be thought to be an indication of an advanced civilization. It is not, but there is nothing that feels more silent than the moment the swamp realizes you have arrived at this. That pause tells you everything you need to know. You are slowly being accepted for what you are. By you. As you appear in your "reading." Then the assimilation of further knowledge continues once more. The noisemakers have completed their understanding that you are just another evolutionary discard. They continue mumbling in their own slowly and thoughtfully acquired manner, while you must find your far too impatient way back out of the decay your progress has brought you to.

But Nature remains smarter than we are. Every part of it has been given the means to self-destruct. Nature does not make it possible for all the parts to self-destruct at once. Energy is transformed, not destroyed. Each part has been given the means to adapt in limited forms. Not by some great master plan but simply because it is not possible to contain all adaptations in a single form (it cannot be known which combination of adaptations will require which means to adapt further) unless the single form is the constantly changing combination of the individual forms, which is not a religion, but can easily be given many names that might appear to make it one. Each discovery reveals how much more there is that we do not know. Some parts have been given the means to discover this. It does not stop them from self-destructing. Change is not the destruction of nature, but the essence of nature. Each part cannot stay the same, but it can self-destruct. Other parts will prosper in the absence of any one part because its features are contained in different combinations in the other parts. Humans existed before "humans" existed because their parts were always there in other combinations. This is the only way I have been able to discover to make death meaningless.

Now there is a dead spider, to all appearances recently dead, on the leaf nearest my formerly sleep-engulfed head. Do I eat him, leave him alone, or bury him for others, who sleep in the earth and might enjoy waking up to dinner (which is the same thing as eating him vicariously, isn't it)? Eating is not just survival. It's housecleaning.

* * *

I've realized that the levers I think of as my means of expression are not completely within my control. How often have I done something without thinking? Are there not things I do which I have never thought about, not even in first learning them? How will I ever get control over all my tools? What could I make of myself if I do? How would anyone understand it if no one has control over all their levers?

Humans are not another species, another part. They are not even here at all, most of the time, where these words and this partial understanding reside. And when they are, it will be for only a fleeting moment before they insert this part into all the other parts they have stolen. An important lever, is it not? Why don't you gather some more levers to build a shelf on which you may store these levers? Levers creating space for more levers. Could this too self-destruct?

First you hear the voices, not literally but as a way in which you think, and then you assemble an idea of their sources. The idea may be wrong, but it becomes more real than the voices. You don't have to know if the voices are real to create the idea. This is the way I understand many things, though I continue to question them. I want to say it's the way I question them all, but I don't know them all. The voices may be surprising, but they're yours, and you know it. It's just another way of talking to yourself. About yourself.

It's a warning, this marriage of perception and reality, because reality doesn't have perception's reasons for doing things. Now I seem to think it's a kind of airport I've arrived at. I'm waiting for my flight, which never comes because flight means going, not coming. He wasn't dead yet, this groom, but he wasn't thinking clearly. After he resigned himself to his fate, he tried thinking about a little more in the same way, but it's always when you die that you know the least about what death means.

A long time ago my stage name was Crackers. It was a kind of fame, but it didn't really apply to me. I was everywhere and nowhere, at once. There were boxes of me available for use with cheese and soups. I used that. I was a lot of different things to a lot of different people, but mostly I was funny. There were jokes about my mental health and racial slurs that were cruel and funny. I was whiter then and ripe. There were clown jokes and 4th of July jokes and knuckle jokes and jokes that didn't make any sense at all because not making sense was funny. I was always funny, even when I wasn't funny, because I was supposed to be funny and no one had to apologize for laughing at me. You look at someone in that way, and they're funny. You could have watched me get hit in the head. You would have laughed. You might apologize later if I was really hurt, but then there would be another joke about it afterwards. I'd be expected to laugh too, because it's easier to agree unless disagreeing shows how wrong you are, which is also funny. Classmates taught me that when I told a joke, they didn't know what to make of me, which was a kind of power. But it was a disappearing act. There I was, Crackers the Good Sport, Crackers the Floppy-Shoed, Crackers the Red-Nosed, Crackers the Corny Sidekick, Crackers the Sleepy-Eyed, Crackers the Reliable Self-Deprecator, Crackers the Friend Who Always Made You Look Smarter, Crackers the Bad Joke Steam Valve, Crackers the Reliably Invisible. Everybody saw me as Crackers, so I didn't have to be seen. I can't say it made me sad or empty. It just taught me something, and now I'm trying to figure out why I have chosen this moment to remember it. I'm not searching for causes, just understandings.

There's always a hole, and the hole is always ancient. It may have come from somewhere else and appeared as if it were a new hole, but there's really only one hole, although it looks different to different people, and sooner or later you fall in it because it's not your hole. Then it becomes your hole, and you start again from somewhere else.

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