Unmaking

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by Julie C. Day

This story was originally published in Weave Magazine #9 (June 2013). It was reprinted in the e-anthology Outpouring: Typhoon Yolanda Relief (February 2014).

 

The unmaking started with our car, a soft-top VW bug painted bright teal. It disappeared one afternoon while I was out, picking up some food and a carton of juice. The juice was for me. Raymond had stopped drinking it weeks ago, another item on his list.

Too acidic, he said, as though the oranges would etch him away from the inside out.

The local Fresh Plus was only three blocks away. I’d left the car parked in its usual spot outside our apartment and walked. Austin is a city of both music and sidewalks. Our neighborhood, Hyde Park, was alive with grassy verges, cedar trees and people like me, wandering the streets in their kakhi shorts, ponytails and sunglasses.

Too much, thank God. There was just too much of everything. Raymond’s plan would never work.

For the last six months, I’d been working a lot of overtime while Raymond had been focused on his so-called “research.” He’d left UT a few credits short of a degree in urban studies, citing health problems. MCS he called it. Multiple Chemical Sensitivity. Some days Raymond could barely make it out the door before angry islands of red spread out across his exposed flesh. Other days he complained about his tightening skull and a taste of metal on his tongue. Always, he spent long hours pouring over the same yellowing book, reading the lists of words. Tʉbooʔ, I’d hear him murmur long after I’d gone to bed. “Pencil. Hʉkiʔai. Umbrella. Narʉmʉʉʔ. Town.” These were the old words, words that came before the state of Texas, before smallpox and cholera, before steel and asphalt and streets festooned with black-coated wires.

“The Comanche alphabet,” Raymond told me when he first acquired the book, “consists of six vowels and twelve consonants. Eighteen letters, not the English twenty-six,” he stated emphatically as though I were arguing the point. He ran his fork along his half-empty breakfast plate, then grimaced. “The vowels,” he continued, “have both voiced and voiceless manifestations.”

We were eating eggs. Organic. Free range. Cooked in extra-virgin olive oil imported from Partanna, Italy. Even so Raymond, I knew, wouldn’t be able to handle another bite.

“But Raymond, if you erase the present there’ll be nothing left,” I mumbled through yet another mouthful of buttered toast. I regretted the words almost immediately. A red welt rose like an infected mosquito bite along Raymond’s left eyelid. His right eye was riddled with red lines, yet another burst blood vessel. Blisters, like a pox of herpes sores, ringed his mouth. The present, it was clear, was tearing Raymond apart one small segment at a time, and I was the only witness to this personal carnage. Since the advent of his various illnesses, the rest of our world seemed to have disappeared entirely. Now it was only the two of us.

Raymond’s work required precision. It required the glottal stop along with other specialized symbols for all those unspoken vowels. Most of all, it required Raymond’s belief in a seventy-year-old book he’d found at a University of Texas library sell-off. To purge the earth clean, he claimed, all he had to do was actualize each and every word of this pre-industrial language.

“It’ll be better,” he promised. “So much better.”

Of course, I knew it was all madness.

#

Raymond was nothing if not dedicated. It took months of effort.

“Come walk the dog with me,” I’d say as I headed out with Gardner. “You haven’t had a breakout in weeks.”

“Come play with me,” I’d say as I pressed my lips against his neck.

Raymond, meanwhile, would shake his head and go back to his desk by the window and the worn, clothbound book.

“How can anyone learn all these sounds when I can’t hold on to even one?” he asked me during one of those last weeks of spring.

Under his words, I could hear the hum of the air purifier just beyond his desk. We looked at each, silent, and then the practicing began all over again.

“Nʉmʉ,” he muttered. “Family. Potsukaa. Car. Tʉbanaaʔ. Wall.”

#

On the June day the unmaking began, I was the one bringing new words into our apartment: premium, whole grain, Florida, squeezed. They spanned the alphabet with complete abandon, all of them packaged in a beige plastic bag that parachuted outward with each gust of wind. The sun was hot, despite the breeze. The people I passed on the sidewalk ducked their heads as though avoiding my eyes. I glanced along our street and paused, adjusting my grip on the grocery bag. Despite the sun and the summer day, something felt off. It wasn’t until I was half-way up the stairs that I realized what was missing. I reached the apartment and opened the door. As usual, Raymond sat at his desk by the window his head bent over the catalog of words. He hadn’t moved all morning. Of course, there was no greeting.

Our dog, Gardner, noticed me though. He came shuffling out from his spot in the bedroom. The plastic shopping bag crinkled as he investigated its contents.

I took the bag into the kitchen, took out a box, and poured Gardner’s food into his bowl.

“The car’s gone,” I said.

“I know. I watched it disappear.” Raymond replied. He sounded almost happy about the loss.

I glanced in his direction.

“Someone stole it?” I took a step toward Raymond and his book.

“No. Disappeared. You know. An act of unmaking.”

I could feel my cheeks flushing. I knew that tone, the one that reminded me of just how much I had failed to understand.

“I don’t know,” I replied as I opened the orange juice carton and took a long, slow gulp, then I headed for the phone.

Even with my report of the car theft and the loss of our sofa later that afternoon while I was out walking the dog, nothing really changed between us. Raymond stayed inside the apartment, practicing his words, while I wandered through our gradually emptying world. It was an unmaking by increments. The Alamo Drafthouse Cinema where we’d had our first date, the one I passed by every day on my way to work, was gone on Monday. In its place was a swath of nothingness like a strange, starless sky. On a trip to the Treasure City Thrift Store the week after, I found the post office, Blacksheer Elementary School and, in fact, the whole eastern side of Austin had all been unmade. Still, Raymond didn’t seem concerned. He sat bent at his desk, his eyes hidden, learning the words one letter at a time. Aakáaʔ. Devil’s horn. Animui. Housefly. Awomakotse. Dishwasher. He’d figured out a system. He’d laid out the world in alphabetical order, starting with the letter A.

“Raymond.” I watched the movement of his lips as he slowly worked through the syllables of the next word. “Raymond, I went to pick up Sophie’s package. Damn it, Raymond, the post office is missing.” Despite his success, I just didn’t understand. What was the point of all these words? I liked second-run movies. I liked vintage clothes and dinner at Mandola’s. What was so bad about that?

“Raymond,” I said more loudly. I was now standing just behind his desk.

“Huh?” He still hadn’t turned around.

“Raymond, look, I’ve known you for a long time.” I ran my hand across the back of my head, took a breath and finally spoke the truth. “Raymond, it makes no sense.”

“Valerie, it makes all the sense in the world, or it will once I’m done.” He turned toward me and smiled. He glowed with triumph. His face was entirely clear of sores and blemishes. After months of failure, he had finally mastered the book.

What a smile. I had a vague memory of other similar smiles from months or, perhaps, years ago, replaced, at some point, by sweat-soaked fevers and swollen joints. Despite my tacit encouragement, leaving him alone with his “studies,” I had never expected Raymond to succeed. Not really. Yet here Raymond was, unmaking the world, reshaping it, one spoken word at a time. It felt empty already, and smaller. Even the word “no” seemed to have lost its power.

#

Raymond moved more quickly now. By mid-June, he was all the way through the Hs. That I could almost live with. After all Raymond had been miserable for so long. Now it was my turn.

It was in July that our world finally imploded. I’d taken to shopping at the 7-Eleven on the corner. Our grocery store, Fresh Plus, in fact every grocery store, had disappeared earlier in the month. It was a Tuesday. The sun had barely risen. I was trying not to think about our elderly neighbor, Lucy, as I made my way down the hall to the bathroom. She hadn’t answered her door when I’d knocked last night. She hadn’t answered her door when I’d knocked two weeks ago. Grandmother, I thought. Huutsi. That’s when it occurred to me. Gardner hadn’t woken me up for his walk.

“Raymond.” I ran back down the hallway. “Raymond.” I grabbed his shoulder beneath the covers and started shaking. “Raymond! Where’s Gardner?”

” Kaʔamoorʉ,” he said with a slight smile. “Did you know the word for a dog drinking water is kaʔamoorʉ?” Then he blinked, the grogginess slipping from his eyes. “Oh,” he said. “Gardner.”

“No more words, Raymond,” I said. My voice was rising. I could feel my nails digging into his shoulders. I was shaking him. “You’ve got to promise me there will be no more words.” I should use that pillow. Or the blanket. Smother him. That would stop the words. “What is the Comanche word for genocide, Raymond? Huh? Because I don’t think you’ve spoken that one.”

“Valerie, I didn’t —”

I cut across his words. “So you’re the world’s self-appointed exterminator? Is that it? Dogs and old ladies. All those strangers we’ll never meet.”

Neither of us was smiling now.

“Valerie, I don’t want to hurt you. Not ever. I don’t want anyone to feel pain.” He held out his hands and pulled me toward him. His arms, I noticed, didn’t have a single patch of red.

That night we packed our bags and headed out. It was time to get away from the city, what remained of the city, at least for awhile.

#

The log cabin sat on an island, barely more than a sandbar, in the middle of the Brazos River. Raymond had chosen the spot as we followed one of the few remaining roads. We needed a summer retreat, a place to figure things out.

It was Raymond who explained how the native tribes had given a name to even the smallest piece of earth. Later, the Spanish explorers added their own words.

“Brazos means the arms of God,” Raymond said that first day as he dragged our worn, green canoe up onto the banks.

We’d managed three weeks together on this small patch of earth. Three weeks of walking along the path to the river for water. Three weeks of watching the night sky through the elms and cedars. Three weeks without cars, or computers or the blaring of the morning alarm clock. Three weeks without a single word from Raymond’s book. Perhaps there was still something left.

Each night I headed down to the river to collect the water for our cooking pot and morning coffee. Some nights Raymond came with me, but most nights he stayed behind, staring up at the rough boards that made up our cabin walls. Reading the grain he called it, as though this activity was a reasonable substitute for his months of recitation.

Tonight, I stood beside the river. Alone.

I listened to the river rage against its banks while I picked out the constellations: Sagittarius, Ursa Major, the bright prick of Saturn against the edges of Virgo. I couldn’t find Hercules. Its fourteen stars were missing from the center of the evening sky. On the opposite bank of the river, I saw cottonwoods and silver maples, a few willows cascaded down toward the water. It was hard to tell what else remained. I hadn’t seen another human being in days.

A place that holds all of creation.

I turned toward the path and the shadows that made up the low-rising blackberry brambles and twisted branches that led back to our cabin. My arms had started to ache. In my left hand, I held the red, plastic bucket full of river water, in my right the gallon jug.

I started forward through the brush that edged over the path, heading toward the small clearing that encircled our cabin. The only light came from the single lantern that gleamed from the cabin’s windows. It made me think of lighthouses and rocky shores. Ships lost in the night. A gust of wind tugged at my hair. Somewhere behind me the branches of the pines and oaks whispered as the wind bent against them. As I neared the cabin, I could hear something else as well. Raymond’s voice. A litany of words were pouring out: nabusiʔaipʉ, dream, nanakwʉʉhtʉ, marry, naraʔurakʉtʉ, learn.

“Raymond,” I called out.

“Nasuwatsirʉ,” I heard Raymond say. “Forget.”

I dropped the bucket and the jug. My lips tingled but no sounds came out. Remember, I thought. Remember. Remember. Teal Blue. Letters from Sophie. Remember Lucy Costa. Gardner and his nails clicking against the floorboards. Remember.

The cabin stood in front of me. The lantern still in the window. Raymond’s voice. He was still speaking.

“Raymond,” I said. “Raymond, you promised!”

There was a moment of silence, even the trees seemed to pause. All I could hear was my own breath, and the pitter-patter of my heart against my chest. And then the cabin door swung open. Raymond stood in the doorway, smiling. The glow from the lantern surrounded his body like a halo. His shape was a dark shadow in the middle of all that light.

“Valerie, it’s okay,” Raymond began. “I’ve figured out a way—”

I didn’t give him a chance to finish. Who knew what words he’d say next? “Raymond, I want—I need to go home.”

“What does home mean anyway?” Raymond’s voice was soft. He was silent for a moment and then he took a few steps forward. We looked at each other. No more than ten feet separated the two of us. His lips didn’t move, but something had changed. Had I dropped the bucket? I couldn’t remember what else my hands had held. Something…. Had my fingers always been so bare? I could feel them, lost words unraveling in the silence. The unmaking.

Raymond took a step toward me and then another. The two of us were now standing less than a foot apart, surrounded by the darkness.

“What do you see up there?” Raymond asked.

I tilted my head back, following the outline of his arm as he pointed up toward the sky.

“Clouds,” I said. “It’s going to rain.” But even then I knew. The sky was too dark. I could remember some things. There had been stars just minutes before. I was sure of it, even if I could no longer recall their names. There was no rain. There were no clouds. The sky was empty. The stars were gone and with them the planets. The heavens. Not even Venus, the morning star, had managed to maintain her place.

“Home,” I said, “Sofa. Car. Childhood. Mother.” I tried to guide my memories back and with them all the words that had lost their meaning: city and bicycle, lover and friend, Saturn, Venus, the fingernail sliver of the moon.

I wanted to take all those words back in, envelope them in my open arms, embracing each and every one.

Arms, I thought. Raymond.

And then those words slipped away as well, replaced by absolute nothing.

###

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