Safe inside "the contemporary."
I, the Traveler
I, having come down the road shaped like a finger, had not yet attached myself to the land, but I was nearing its edge. And even though the ridges were steep and cragged, my legs, my muscles clenched against the gray rock, did not even waver. I was closing in on a particular space – where the people took their places in peculiar occupation, where a great wall surrounded the even greater city gleaming at the bottom of a ravine mirroring the one I had already traversed. I stepped lightly over the rough and broken land, my arms clutching my stores against my body, for I shivered between the walls of rock where no light had ever shined. Later, when I peered back down at the gorge and felt the exhaustion of having passed through it, I finally saw the light glaring in conclusion of what lay behind me, blank and empty, the stare of a figure searching the story for the voice, the words, it cannot yet remember; the light approached language in a way I had left behind, as what I had decided, above all, was to tell, and that telling, itself, was how I would enter the gates, but I was using my body to tell so that my words would carry my body along the edge of the story; the story was part of the land, inseparable from the forms that supported it, and each word formed itself with the arcane, yet lifelike meaning of stone. My way, which remained constant in one thing only – its obscurity – revealed me to the night, and at night, as I held my head against solid earth, I saw only the sky over me, blacker than the mute walls of rock that shot forever upwards, my breath racing as an accompaniment to the dizzying darkness. I hardly breathed now; the bitter cold in the air gave way to the barbed rays of the sun beaming directly ahead of me – which guided me down the road and sharpened the end of the finger, changing it into an instrument of pure writing – "writing" because I was speaking into the center of a story that did not exist until now, as I wrote it, for my story announced the travels of man as couched within the "I" only found in literature – the "I" that is literature.
It was a strange thing to think – the road pointing ahead like a finger – and I questioned my own phrases, but that was how the road named itself when it turned to me – I felt as if the road were looking at me and waving its finger in the air. But it did not tell me to look at the sun – I was to keep my eyes on the road so as not to miss swinging the gold-hinged gates of the city open and hearing the great noise of the hinges, for they announced my presence to the inhabitants, who wanted to see the figure that had overthrown the grand gorge’s challenge. But I was not used to keeping my eyes to the ground because when I was almost beneath the earth, I used the sky to escort me through the misfortunes I continued to bear. Its everlasting openness allowed me to mirror the parts of myself I had, until now, neglected. I was changing how I saw everything that was coming to me, because the road signified only the endlessness of moving forward, where linearity created everything I like to call "meaning". But, earlier than this, what I was meaning was only what I could lift my head to feel, to know, to admire, no matter how far from the sun I was. Looking down at the road meant that I had to gather all my parts into one large whole long enough to believe that I could move linearly, even if, later, when I was becoming the story (and realizing that my traveling was itself the telling), I would abandon moving forward for language itself, where I would enter description.
I called the words I used to designate description "my phrases as I break into the story," for the story needed me to set it, and yet this setting belonged to a mood I refused to define for the sake of tone, which lay beyond the reach of the precipitous rock and the land's cracked ledges. In spite of tone, the road had spoken: "I point outwards because what I am and what I mean will show you how small you are when you do not move along my surface to enter the true depths of the world." I was learning, now, that the world contained many depths. Yes, I had passed through the valley, where my throat closed around stone, the smooth speech I lacked, even though the water tasted so clear and definite that I thought I would never lose words again. This contradiction revealed that, although I was aware of the many complexities hanging in the air around me before now, it was only when I thought of myself as the tale that I began to be explicit in my questioning, alighting precisely on the problem of form itself.
My own form presented a complete contrast; I, myself, pointed towards nothing at all: that of a potato, my belly bulging, slightly swollen from the many goods I had consumed (I held court with myself through my consumption, insulating my inner world against all the threats from on high – such as the distant sky, which appeared with the kind of radiance from which I have been told to separate myself, and I wanted to retain my separateness; I made sure my belly was as round and visibly potent as the sun), and my body sprouted little hairs from small patches of blotched skin. I had eaten too much; my skin was saturated with oil, and the follicles were enjoying their feast more than my eyes mine. My legs had grown longer from my travels, as my knees, having borne the weight of every image I had carried with me, gave way near the end of my journey, and after endless evenings of massaging my tissues back to feeling, I stood up to find my pants pressed into the middle of my hips rather than just beneath my belly, where they usually hung. I saw things from a higher, and subsequently lighter, perspective, and I felt a safety envelop me I had hitherto ignored – primarily because my new height allowed me to accelerate in any direction.
Safety was a priority I could hide myself behind. Thinking that the world was dangerous gave me a sense that, at the heart of things, I was safe, for it was impossible that I should know what safety was and not be able to experience it. Safety only existed for me because I was within it, and my being within it showed me what I had not previously known regarding the limits of the world that preceded me. Since the land surrounded me, I was anterior to it, and the flat plane sloping down into the valley clarified my entrance into a new phase of things, what I normally call "the beginning", although I was too old to think that everything was new – I did know how to raise my hands over my head and spread them out across the sky, where my palms would catch the heat and translate it to the remainder of my body. I was safe inside "the contemporary", and I had my own body to thank, regardless of its deformed aspect – my belly expressed the curious joy I felt when I closed in on the land's edge, and the blotches on my skin tingled in the burning sun (my mouth, too, tingled and burned, but this was not because of the atmosphere – it reflected the inner world I felt becoming language, the story pursuing the outer air through "me" as a means.) For the story moved through the world, beyond the people who told it, surrounding them in a ring of darkness, the circle of continuous language signifying how repetition functions. I, the traveler, will leave my body to mount the tale: the messages are retrieved within me.
I continued to devour the shelled nuts I had strewn about my room. I made a game of gathering them into the palm of my hand and counting how many allowed me to laugh about the act of "gathering": to "gather" was to believe that there was not enough, there would never be enough, but these particular nuts grew on every tree in every forest lining every road that cradled the land; my laughter expressed the absurdity of my game, which I had created to define what "absurdity" meant on the outside without being described in words – a perception whose existence depended on its own negation. I saw that the land sloped downward, and that the valley below contained a great city, encompassed on all sides by smaller, simpler towns. This organization, so comforting to the eye at first, shifted as I spoke the sentences through which I expressed my astonishment at the elegance of such well-established norms to myself, because in this particular institution, possibilities announced themselves on the people's glistening faces, resulting in the awkward assertion that the world I had come from had deserted me. The world I had come from was such that I would leave nothing to chance, nor would I let anything go to waste, as there was now a lack of resources in nature, for the world had been depleted, drained of all its bounty. But that world would no longer appear for me – I had picked it up and tossed it skyward, the small stone immediately enveloped by a cloud, where it remained suspended, though not in air: a prisoner, instead, of deep space and its billowing emptiness; I stepped through the wooden gate and entered the very outskirts of the city; the hinges creaked in stillness and silenced the past as a place both behind and beneath me. I would reenter it later, fully filling my words with the ancient noise of tenses passed. The smooth texture of the nuts felt clean on my tongue, and even though the meat, when I tore at it with my teeth, stuck between my teeth, I persisted, and my consumption remained steady, unaffected by the change in my appetite or the color of the sky. I kept the plastic package of nuts in my right breast pocket:; I kept track of how often I came across the color red in the sky and recorded the way it affected both myself as well as the objects it was describing – I mean that the sky was linked to the flesh of the nuts, that its deepening hue contrasted their arid flavor. I would examine this relationship in time, but for the moment, I turned towards the people who walked just ahead of me. They, too, had come through the gates, and their weariness had vanished in the haze surrounding their new accomplishments.
The people were walking slowly, but their paces never changed; their feet would take them over the road, across the ever-expanding land. Everything moved here: the road wavered in relation to the sky, so one had to act carefully – they set their feet down on the ground with an assured confidence that came from attending to nothing else. The road had been paved for them (itinerant gate-crashers like myself, but with less to display) and as they disappeared over the crest of the hill they climbed, I could see them suddenly scurry – it was as if they bore small, frightened animals within them; I was taken with their appearances and the differences between these idiomatic styles because each moment threatened me; it seemed as if time itself were about to explode and form into something foreboding, a shape with a mouth, claws, wings and damp fur. I mean that it had not yet expanded: time was clenched not like a fist, but as if it were the thing around which the fist gripped, the reason for the body-that-included-the-fist's tightness. I did not know whose "body" was so tight when I perceived this image, but my belly's appearance bothered me, and my dissatisfaction with its bulging caused me to slump over as I walked, a method of tension made visible (I revealed myself on the outside) with the most extreme lucidity – all my muscles relaxed, and I grew slack as I matched my step to the curves forming in the road. There was a sense of danger in everything: something waited behind every object, or every object itself was waiting, as if my noticing it would change me. But because I was only able to notice everything around me as scenery, I spoke to no one.
I was seeing the sky now from where I was, seeing the people pass, and I knew it would not take long. For me, the fist in which I clenched time rested in the mythical holster at my hips, above where my pants pinched me, and this fist endured as long as I rubbed my hands together because I wanted to create something warm, a place where I would not only speak, but in which I would be feeling the effect of that speech upon me. Because I would have to speak to myself for the time being, explaining to myself what the city might look like on the inside, what glowing prizes awaited my seizure, until I met someone who would outline a plan for me. My mouth lay dormant – I could even say that my mouth was sleeping now, but I did not want to say such things because I did not like metaphors; I wanted my perceptions to be clear, forceful and exact, without having the burden of comparison laid upon them. It was a problem of understanding, of what it meant to mean a thing and have that thing clarify itself instead of translating itself through the terms of something else, a distant thing brought closer through an increasing distance, meaning that its closeness was less an experience than that experience's resemblance as an image. I was approaching the image of the city, with the shifting road beneath me and before me, and I wanted no other image to distract me from the pleasure of walking down a flat plane to a place of absolute distinction, where my story would take root, and where I, the traveler, would earn the meaning of my name.
It may have been that knowing no one meant that I was looking for reasons for my solitude. I was trying to explain solitude as a practical means to an impossible end. But I wasn't experiencing "solitude" on the level of the word or the code the word indicated – I was new to the land, which spread itself out beneath me like a large hand holding me, and my newness was reflected solely in the solitude I felt within myself, as "a man who knew no man", and within space, as "a man who does not know the road he travels". Because it would not take long. In a way I was already deserting solitude and meeting people – the men with the long beards and the women with the long thin legs tapering where their ankles buckled into their shoes – because I was making sure that I interpreted every signal, that no signs would pass of which I did not take particular note. I observed the world in the conditional because it seemed to me that my observations, and, therefore, my language, were the only conditions on which I opened my journey, and I did not want my beginning to determine events, to set the course of my fate as if it had already been decided upon. (I was thinking now, though I spoke aloud to match my thoughts with my speech: "I will have no story at all if my fate is closed within itself, because a true story is tied only to the way in which a man decides and lets this judgment lead him away from himself.")
Yes, this was a story. I crouched at the side of the road – not a road but a path: "A road leads to the end of the world by solving the world riddled with questions, while a path divides the world into three sections, two of which, because the traveler rejects them, help distinguish the story for the traveler” – and I saw that the story was beginning to form from the language of the objects around me, which started to speak their own names to me when I looked at them." I noticed how much the path lead away from the center of something; I was warming the body's extremities. But I was too carried away by metaphor to call it a story now. I would have to right myself and let the blood flow from one end of my body to the other, when I would be standing upright, firmly, with a grip on things as if I were that fist closed around time itself, although I did not need to hold it so tightly. I began to think of it like a bird that I cupped within my hand so that it felt the warmth of my blood, its feathers slightly matted by the sweat from my palm. I left enough space between my fingers for the bird to turn its neck and open its wings, but I kept my fingers curved like a dome over its head, so that time could not flutter away. I would own time in this story long enough to be able to speak my story. I did not want to claim more time than I needed because I would lose my story to all time, which was larger than anything I would be able to say about myself, and I did not exist beyond my own time, the space of my story, which was just beginning with my reflection at the edge of the land. I saw the land "stretching", but it was quiet in this movement because it dodged my description, and whatever eluded my capacity fit comfortably into a verb of progression, a personification of the world's inertia. The world waited at the edge of something – it was listening to me, it wanted me to finish the story I had not yet begun to tell but which I was gathering myself to recount – and I kept my fist clenched in honor of my own time, out of respect for the fact that I was telling a story of events that had already happened, but the story was only about to happen, and the telling gave life to the events as if I were creating a new person from the events that had turned from actions into sentences, or further actions. I caught the red in the sky out of the corner of my eye, and I turned to face a sea of red, although the sea was further than the hill over which the people were scurrying, and I, the traveler, could not see over the hill and down into the sea.
Because red was everywhere, I was following it – the people were all wearing the color in various forms. Some wore it on their socks, while others wrapped scarves or handkerchiefs around their heads to blot out the sun and hold back the wind. One woman clothed herself in a red skirt, and I was not the only man who watched how she swung her hips towards the sky, as if she were trying to match her red thighs to the red above us, or at the very least, invoke a comparison that made us think not only of her, but what was beyond her, and beyond ourselves thinking beyond her. I noticed that "I" became "we" when I observed her, because my perceptions were now linked to a larger idea – that the city was an image, too, for all of us, a place where fulfillment lay in wait for us, possibly to spring itself on us and gobble us up before we even noticed what it was we wanted to attach ourselves to. "That beast – the shape with a mouth, claws, wings and damp fur – was not time at all, but the possibility of time being on our side, of it being in league with us as we tried to enter the city to make out our fortunes." And, sure enough, the woman with the red hips was smiling at me – she was facing me with a resolute smile as I closed the gate behind me, and my belly was flat. I felt like my body had assumed the shape of an arrow; all I could do was beam ahead to meet her. The woman almost smiled at me, but just then, the path twisted itself around my ankle, and I fell forward, my potato-belly softening the blow as I touched the ground.
I flecked my story with my myriad bits of experience – I remembered how, when I was among the caves, I would refer to books I had read as a means of preserving words for myself for when the time came for me to speak. I was afraid I would lose myself to language altogether, and one line returned for me: "blood-flecked lips". Would touching the ground (I was almost bleeding, or I was almost ready to bleed) inflect my words with blood, too, where, narrating my actions gave them life in the form of a flowing tale? I knew that the land spread itself out before me, but, even if this was the way that the story, too, awaited me and my travels, the story could not assume the form of the land because the land preceded me, while the story was only coming into being with my telling, and my being, likewise, was what I was telling through the story, into which I had disappeared, a new form of travel, with words as the land and the cracks in the land and the edges, too, of the land.
I looked up at the sky; my mouth was bruised, and, touching my hand to my lips, I raised my fingers to see the evidence of my fall. The woman, who was smiling now, handed me a white handkerchief, which I put into my mouth to momentarily absorb the blood. "You were too concerned with the road to see your own step." I heard her giggle, but it was not meant for me. She was standing still, her skirt a pillow in the soft, steady wind. I felt as if I were deepening the color of her hips by simply bleeding on her white kerchief. But she took it from me before I completed the thought. And in my mind I saw the sentence breaking off, the story interrupted by the narration of an unforeseen companion.
Jono Schneider’s first book, ...But I Could Not Speak..., is due from O Books.