A Silent Film
A Silent Film
Inside the refrigerator were eight quail eggs crowded on a paper towel I’d folded into a rudderless sailboat. So that no one could steer it starboard and it might remain a nest behind the milk. Originally it had looked like a swallowtail with half a broken wing, but I like boats without engines better than butterflies myself. I like things to move through water when there is no water about. Though if you fall from high enough, even water rising to crests of foam will feel like glass against the crush of your bones.
My three-year-old nephew told me they were baby chicks. But I corrected him, reminding him that they were unfertilized. That the yolk was only unused placenta, my sweet honey child. That their poor mama had been celibate all her days, never once mounted from above and sweetly toppled off her branch. Then we agreed to call them dinosaur eggs certain never to hatch, by way of compromise. Because where would dinosaurs go in a house with ceilings as low as this?
Each egg looked mottled with moles, birthmarks of baby quails never to be conceived. In the four days I spent at my sister and brother-in-law’s house, helping them paint lawn furniture pink as pigeon feet, the eggs are never served. My brother-in-law bought them at the farmers market. For fun, he told me, as if eating them would not also be. As if calling quail eggs dinosaurs caged safely in their shells suffices as a source of sustenance. I make myself eggs for lunch at least twice a week, I noted, and have never minded moles. Just look at those upon my face, dark as ants in a blonde wood sea.
They have been hard-boiled, by whom I’ll never know. Meaning someone has made these chickless eggs too soft for their bones to break when they crash onto some watery glass of their own. Because it is only ever hard things yet to inflate with steam above a stovetop flame that shatter on kitchen tile. Those things brittle and unboiled, so the placenta has yet to solidify into yellow Styrofoam.
I have started holding my breasts in other people’s bathrooms, after I’ve washed my hands and before I finger-comb my hair so it looks less like a nest of flown baby birds. Because these two sacks of flour at my chest would rather be held, I know better than anyone. Because I am a mother to these two breasts and these two breasts alone. And I would rather there be male hands upon them always, eclipsing each areola with the petroglyph of his palms. I want to hang them over a bannister so that he who climbs the stairwell will hold them in my stead. Because they are warm, the house so cold, let’s just pretend. The man ascending the stairs is wearing a sweater and striped wool socks. His hands reach high for the nearest heat source, when we walk back to the bathroom for a bubble bath, locking the door for once.
Boiling ourselves so that we won’t break. This happens all year long.
My sister, seven months pregnant with her placenta hanging low near her cervix, does laughing yoga twice a week, at an hour better spent writhing through dreams that make you bite your tongue and jackknife your knees. She wakes me up at 6 am, when I stumble to her car to learn I can no longer touch my toes. The skin of the Indian woman who teaches the class has more than half burnt off, in patches looking like the relief of continents on a topographical map. Her forehead, otherwise dark as maple bark, is bordered in white like chalk, a nimbus of pain past but present still to those who look. Her arms resemble quail’s egg shells, though. Epidermis untouched by fire as yet—where the bark has yet to peel and let its sap flow—has receded into oblong moles.
While we stretch our arms behind our backs taut as bows poised to fire their arrows, she smiles into my face, which is new to her. Later, when we laugh, scaring away pretend sparrows beneath real rafters overhung with dust, she smiles still wider, with her mouth ajar, so that a sparrow sparing nothing might fly inside her. One we failed to frighten away, that took our laughter all for fun.
Most laughing exercises involve food we can no more eat than quail eggs within a sailboat made of a paper towel. My sister likes the hot peppers best, which force us to wave our fingers frantically aside our mouths, sniggering with habanero vapor at our throats as we fan our tongues like flames of flesh. But I prefer pouring the buttermilk. I prefer turning sideways, straddling four floor boards while holding wide my arms, churning by way of transferring the milk from one pitcher to another invisible one. Buttermilk is less amusing than hot peppers, perhaps, certainly to the group at large. But I laugh more easily when my tongue is cooled.
The Indian woman, twenty or so years older than myself, can touch her toes with the heel of her hand and probably kiss her elbow too. But while my fingers hang slack at my side, I admire my legs anew, their freckled amphorae filled with buttermilk, skin still with the sheen of an egg from whose shell I have yet to break. I regard my ankles’ smoothened scythe, tracing bruises looking like the footprints of frogs languorously up my calves, the result of any number of collisions with stray furniture legs, which oft impede my route. Because I never watch where I am going, people always say, those who see me when I cannot see myself, when there is no bathroom mirror to observe me holding these twin pendulums at my chest. But what pretty legs these are, which I rarely bother to notice. Because the only mirror in my home ends at my navel’s knot.
I would have a far prettier face if I could, if I only had the choice. But at least I have these two legs, which I can see any time I please. Whenever I take the time to bend my nose down to my knees.
My sister and brother-in-law try three times to make me watch a silent film, one in which Buster Keaton goes West, forsaking his small Indiana town. Playing a ranch hand named Friendless, Buster befriends a heifer playing Brown Eyes as herself, with whom he drives a herd of cattle through downtown Los Angeles. They keep telling me I’ll love it, that I’ll laugh and laugh and laugh, but I never do sit through it. I ate too many peppers too early in the morning to sit still for long. I stay standing at the kitchen counter instead, waiting for dinosaurs to hatch.
I never see Friendless don his devil costume just to scare the cows into the L.A. abattoir and save his ranch at movie’s end. I tell them only while I am cleaning the house for the party they will host I am far too friendless myself to find it as funny as I should, a woman with brown eyes and pretty urn legs set for the slaughterhouse. They titter uncomfortably at this while I laugh for real for once, as if I’m pouring buttermilk.
Silent films, I tell them too, are never really silent. They are only unfertilized eggs, waiting for the talkies to come.
I cannot sleep here, where only the frogs make any noise at night. My sister is concerned though tired herself when I tell her I fall asleep only after her son is awake, that I sleep no more than three hours in the night. Normally I sleep seven, I reassure her, and have no shortage of energy. In my Chicago apartment, where the sirens never cease.
I have not cried for nine months, I tell her, and maybe this is too long. I could have had a child within this stretch, after all. Our parents died nine years ago, and she thinks I ought to cry about their absence once or twice a month, if only to restore my REM cycle. Perhaps she is right—why not give it a shot? So I cry in the kitchen while her son spoons cereal down his shirt. I cry as if I am at crying yoga, because I’m eating stale cereal and the unpasteurized milk she buys forms a film of butter over its top. She tells my nephew, who stares with his mouth agape and leaking milk, that everyone gets sad sometimes. That Aunt Melissa is fine, though, we all trust. I am, I nod for confirmation, while feeling the heat rising in my nipples, boiling so they cannot break when the man on the stairs lets his arms fall to his pockets.
I sleep upstairs, in the guest bedroom papered in pine, smelling of the forest razed to build this home. I wrap my body in a blanket my mother knitted the year I was born. It is blue and white and slightly chevron and unspeakably soft. It is the blue of clouds ready to rain their torrents, while the patches of white have yellowed into the color of Indian skin burnt at its esophagus. But a warmth resides there apart from the temperature of the room. I open the window wide to sleep but wrap it around me tightly, hot to boiling as I am, knowing I can sleep long later in the week amid the sirens’ swarm.
My sister’s friend Sara brings more tables and chairs for me to paint for the party next evening, to celebrate the end of the summer and the baby girl to come. I walk outside to play in the hose, letting my nephew spray my legs so grass shavings from the lawn mower cling wet to my calves, when I hear Sara sigh and say her husband’s name, he whose drinking has added an easy hundred pounds since the summer before. Jon teaches English to high school students, and I have met him only once, enough to know he would rather be with someone who brings no one chairs for anyone to sit upon. He has drunk and slept the summer away, Sara regrets, thinking I cannot hear her above the hose’s hiss. She has sunlight hair snaking down her coccyx. Her skin luminesces like enamel apples at dawn, while Jon would like a moon for once. But the sunshine just keeps shining—Sara is planning his meals to control his weight, she says to regain some control herself. She will kill herself keeping this man alive if she doesn’t allow the sun to set and give the moon a chance.
Wiping shards of grass from off my legs and pretending I haven’t heard, I tell them both that I am playing the gong, in a gamelan ensemble whose music has no words. I have played for eight weeks now, among Indonesian instruments looking like bronzed xylophones, though I prefer what looks like a pendulous breast with no body to hold it up, only an oaken truss engraved with leaves of gold. And then my teacher is so beautiful. He has to remind me not to play it too hard when I end the song.
This makes them both uncomfortable, I see by the veins swelling in their neck. Finding another man desirable who is not your husband. Their silence only makes me expound, me whose husband is most attractive of all. My teacher’s eyes are almost purple, I say, with endless ibis legs and fingers just as long. His pupils dilate when I take off my shoes, to step over the instruments we play always on the floor. He is moving to Java, though, I confess, as if this is the world’s end. As if the teacher taking his place doesn’t have purple eyes as well.
My nephew swallows water flowing from the end of the hose three or more hours in a day. He holds it in his cheeks, and then he spits it out, like a cherub with a patina for a face somewhere in Western Europe. My brother-in-law says this must be natural. That boys playing in hoses in the old country must have impressed the great masters with their inflated faces, those who designed the fountains Americans take their pictures of. I laugh, conceding my nephew’s seraphic looks, he who does the same at night in the tub.
Then I tell my brother-in-law better to swallow fire than just keep spitting water out. That all the gargoyles in all the cathedrals aside all of Europe’s fountains derived from only one. That some quondam bishop of Rouen tried to burn a dragon that had already burnt itself. That finding the dragon resistant to death by fire after it had swallowed so much on its own, the bishop beheaded the serpent then mounted it above the drainpipe, to swallow the rain and keep the masonry intact. That a cherub in a fountain and a grotesque upon a cathedral wall are more closely related than you might think. Only one is young and one is old. That if his son keeps swallowing the hose water, he’ll be a dragon soon enough.
He tells me he has come across this of late by way of response, this concept eating fire just to eat some more. He doesn’t elaborate, so I clarify this signals pain’s acceptance, that perhaps he heard it from myself, who makes this a topic of conversation more often than I ought. He nods, says yes, but now it’s over, right? Your parents died so long ago; you might become a parent yet yourself if you do it soon. No, I correct him. It is hardly done, because the earth has yet to spit them out like the water they are not. But it’s not their absence that keeps me awake while your son sleeps, I keep unsaid. It’s these breasts that no one holds, that smash against the bed.
When my husband arrives two days later to celebrate the baby-to-be himself, he grasps my hips then walking his fingers down my sternum while I open the refrigerator door, looking for eggs to eat, ones that I can crack and cook. I push him away among so much company, reminding him this is not our home. I sit apart from him on the couch, rewatching the beginning of “Go West,” when my sister shouts that I am Brown Eyes, to make me sit and stay for once. But my sister has brown eyes too, bigger and deeper than my own, one shade closer to the color of cow manure, and looks more bovine now she is so far along. I stand up to wash the dishes, saying so much ragtime rattles my nerves, brittle as egg shells on so little sleep now. I remind everyone I have missed my gamelan class for this, that cows like Eastern rhythms, I hear.
So my brother-in-law mutes the volume on the silent film, typing “gamelan” into his laptop and plays a song. A song, I explain, with no melody as such, that changes its tempo with the drummer’s speeding pulse. My husband interrupts the music soon enough, professing to the air spiraling from the ceiling fan above that I am in love with my teacher, he who plays the drums. He says it only because it is so far from being true, we equally know. Because we both wonder if I’m still in love with him and, if not my teacher, then with whom.
When Sara and Jon walk onto the deck for the party carrying green bean casserole, I hug them each then set the dish on a folding chair and unwrap it of foil. I sit with them and pour then drink some wine with bubbles crowding its cork while we watch my nephew puff his cheeks with water from the hose. They start to giggle, when I explain he only does this so he can spit it out, as if they have not caught on yet. That if he had to drink the water, he would hardly bother. That they’re best to avoid that region of the yard, with ground so soft you can sink in mud ankle deep. Where he runs in circles spraying my sister until the hose gets a kink.
Next morning, my sister and I make tomato pie. She takes the filo dough from the freezer, so we use flour only to shake onto the counter and roll out the pastry crust, thin enough to overspread the pan like a layer of epidermis. The recipe instructs us to weight it with bags of beans to keep the crust from bubbling up, but my sister has no beans in her cupboard. I suggest we forget this part, that what’s a little bubbling to us? But she says that we ought to find a substitute, that did the bubbling not amount to a hill of beans the recipe would hardly stipulate them. She pours rice over the sheet of foil atop the crust instead, saying that this should work. When we take it out of the oven, though, one side has risen higher and become browner than the other. The rice has slid down, deeper into the earth, in the direction of the sinkhole my nephew deepens with his hose.
We layer tomatoes and cheese over the uneven crust, weighting the fruit more heavily on the side that has risen over the pan’s edge while Friendless corrals his cattle once again. Which I continue to ignore, complaining of the noise once more and reminding my brother-in-law that I have herded cattle enough on my own lost farm when my dad was funnier than Buster Keaton and considerably taller. My sister deftly redirects conversation, recalling when I used to cook only scrambled eggs and nothing more, serving them on Sunday mornings for a table set for four. When the sound of shrill crunching echoed from one plate to another, because I always left some eggshells in, never cracking them open as wide as I should. Because I never watch what I’m doing, do I now? As I bumped my knee against the oven door.
Only eyes can see themselves. The rest of the body cares nothing for its own appearance or that of anything else. My legs have remained indifferent to just how pretty they are, however many bruises scale my thighs, trying to reach my pubis. Touch alone suffices for all our other parts, those without any irises.
On the train to our apartment from O’Hare, I sat beside a man wearing a fez, closer to him than to my husband, who sat on my other side. He spoke volubly to the girl across from him, complaining the plane’s air conditioning vent above his head had rained and hailed his whole ride. Crystallized beads of reprocessed air kept melting on his book, so that he could hardly read the words. The girl only laughed, but I wanted to agree and hit my gong, saying I had the same problem, this air inside the plane turning fast to rain. Then the conductor spoke into his microphone, announcing we would have to exit at the next stop, that from there we could either take a bus or walk.
Standing on the platform, I waited for the crowd to thin before descending the stairs behind my husband. I watched two pigeons mate on a beam above the tracks. Were one not pressing down on top of the other’s back, I would not know which sex was which. They looked so much the same. Neither one with breasts she would like someone to hold should she rest them on a ledge. But from this simple act, lasting only a few seconds, she will hatch some eggs, in some corner of some train track. And if they fall, they will break with their shells smashed into a mosaic against a sidewalk fossilized with gum. These few and fragile baby chicks you might as well eat as not.
About the author:
Melissa Wiley is a freelance writer and columnist for Storyacious. She lives in Chicago, where she speaks softly and carries a big umbrella. Her creative nonfiction has been published in a wide array of literary magazines.