Lately, Pierre has felt his brain expanding. Growing lighter, as if swollen with air. This morning, a thrust against the roof of his skull. Last night, a pressure in his jaw. Before long, he suspects, the whole machine will burst. Words will trickle through his ears, scamper back into the world. So as not to forget them, he has built a lexicon:
Mirror, n. A palindrome.
Loneliness, n. Wordlessness.
Indigestion, n. Swallowed noise.
They were half-bloomed people, Angelica’s dolls. White-eyed and ribbon-tongued, with glass teeth. From their mouths wafted a peculiar sound, not unpleasant, and almost opaque. The sound was indistinguishable from wind.
Every evening a new doll arrived. All day Angelica trimmed and stitched until a face emerged from the cloth. By dusk, ribbons streamed from the dresser drawers, and shards of fabric lay scattered on the ground. The new doll was always identical to the rest, except for the region behind its face.
Angelica filled each skull with precisely tangled yarn. Some of the brains were yellow, some were blue. Now and then an eye would come loose, and the yarn would spill through the socket. Sometimes both eyes would erupt, until all a doll could see were its woolen thoughts.
Angelica’s dolls stood in lines, atop a wooden dresser. When a new doll arrived, Angelica placed it at the end of the last line, near the edge. Older dolls moved inward, displaced by the new. They were luckier than bloomed people, Angelica’s dolls. Time sustained them.
Once, a doll fell. Its teeth shattered into glass so fine it resembled salt.
Angelica sent the broken doll to town. Town was nothing like the dresser. The dresser could be touched, and stood upon. Town was a collective hallucination, a fiction of the bloomed. Bloomed people were temporary, Angelica knew. For the dolls, life was neither a sequence of questions nor a gallery of pain. Life was cloth and glass and ribbons, and the sound of neighboring dolls. The world was the dresser, and the dresser’s edge.
Jerome kept his patients in rows. Across the bookshelves, against the sink, balanced lengthwise along the banister. They ticked so loudly that Jerome had forgotten the sound of his own heartbeat. Even his organs throbbed in time with his patients, with their collective pulse. Jerome enjoyed their company. He would slip out of bed, fix his tea, and spend the morning at the window. When there was no one to cure, he watched for new patients, flipping his shutters open and closed until his house appeared to be blinking.
Jerome’s patients were clocks. Wall clocks, watches, even sundials. Their infections were temporary, and often mild. He could trace most afflictions to a chink in the ratchet, a missing pin, or a clotted notch in the minute wheel. In almost all cases, recovery was swift. Sometimes Jerome installed a second, barely visible infection, to ensure the possibility of return.
Jerome would be buried in a clock. A grandfather clock, whose pendulum stood bronze and limbless in the hall closet. Beside it were the shards of an old experiment: a wind-up calendar, its pages scattered now among spools of wire. The pages were labeled by month, the days by number. Jerome had glued the pages to a wooden spool, which he nailed to a length of branch. He used the branch as a lever, setting the spool in a cradle and winding the calendar round and round until its pages resembled wings. Year acceleration, he called it. The seasons had spun from autumn to spring so quickly that the blood in his thermometer splashed up and down, leaving a ruby film on the glass.
One morning a girl had come knocking, carrying a brightly colored watch. Jerome had held the watch to his ear and listened for a pulse. Next, he’d examined the face. The minute hand was crawling at an hour’s pace, while the second hand had stopped altogether.
“Nothing serious,” said Jerome. Still, the girl said nothing. She watched Jerome unscrew the metal lid and dip his tweezers into the joints of the machine. Within moments the hands were awake, clicking along at their natural pace.
“Cured,” Jerome pronounced. The girl was watching him still, her face a question.
“Do you know the secret of time?” she asked.
Jerome sighed. “The secret of time is that it isn’t,” he said. “It’s your invention, see, and you can measure it as you please. If you chose to live by milliseconds, the world would transform—or rather, you would see things as they always were, at a different speed. A minute would dilate into hours. Bullets would crawl, and birds would appear to be flying in place.”
The girl frowned. “And if I lived by years?”
“Ah, if you lived by years—each month a second, say—the world would be unrecognizable. You’d find your hair spilling from your scalp, and the sky ablaze. Cliffs would liquefy into sand.”
The girl opened her mouth, then closed it.
“Like I said, you can live at any speed you like. Reality is a question of pace. Let me know, and I’ll fix your watch accordingly.”
“Well, what do you live by?” the girl said finally. “Seconds, hours?” She glanced at Jerome’s watch, whose face lay strapped against his wrist.
Jerome smiled. “I’ve a tempo all my own.”
Time, n. The illusion of change.
EXPERIMENT 4: HOW TO FORGET
Light bulb, magnet, drill.
1. Drill hole in bulb.
2. Locate memory.
3. With magnet, extract memory from eyes.
4. Trap memory in hands.
5. Notice the melody of wings on skin.
6. Lift memory to bulb.
7. Open hands.
8. Watch memory flutter through hole, to filament.
9. Turn bulb on.
10. Notice the flames.
Felix was knotting his tie when he noticed that he’d left himself in the mirror. He checked his watch: forty past. He’d be late for work, without question. Anxiously he paced the glass from end to end, thrusting his palms against the wooden frame. Nothing budged. He swung his head into the glass, but cracked his vision instead, collapsing beneath a swarm of yellow gnats. When they dimmed, he examined his room. Nothing seemed to have changed. His sheets lay wrinkled, his shoes untied. By the window his coffee still steamed.
Felix considered. The best way out is the way in, he thought. In his mind he retraced his morning, miming every gesture, every frown. He paid special attention to the memory of the tie. Standing before the mirror, he had looped it round his neck. As he knotted, he had noticed something curious: his pupils were dilating at great speed, consuming his irises and the surrounding whites. Soon they had let in so much light that he could hardly see. It must have happened then, Felix thought, when the bedroom vanished. A flash of light and I became my reflection. Nothing to do now but wait.
Gradually Felix realized that he was not alone. Something brushed against his shoulders, caught the end of his tie. Felix wheeled around. A man was walking away from him, deeper into the glass. Felix caught the scent of a familiar cologne. He called out, but the man did not turn. Warily Felix set out after him. He was inches away when he felt around his ankles a pair of tiny hands. He started, nearly crushing the figure below. Blinking up at him was an infant, a boy with almond eyes and a single tooth.
“Hello there,” said Felix. “Have we met?”
The infant frowned. He was studying the glass beside Felix.
“Aye!” said the infant, “Eye, I!”
The air thickened. On his neck Felix discerned a new warmth. He turned to find a stranger before him, a young man with almond eyes and a mouthful of teeth. The man was looking past him, but Felix did not notice. His mind had drained. Every thought had bled through the sieve of his brain, around his lungs, along his arms, out his fingertips. The thoughts piled on the ground, intact, like bulb upon bulb of mercury.
The young man was Felix. Around his neck was a tie Felix had lost long ago, on his finger a bronze wedding ring. He was looking beyond the mirror, into the bedroom. Felix followed his gaze.
The room was filled with mourners. They moved from wall to wall, murmuring, sipping glasses of Scotch. Felix watched them dwindle and depart, nodding gravely, still sipping. One woman remained. She closed the door and stood alone. Felix did not allow himself to recognize the woman as his wife.
“Ella,” he mouthed, “Ella, please.”
It was useless, he knew. He watched her tip her chin back and inhale deeply. A sob loomed in her throat, then dissolved. She smoothed her blouse, ran a palm over her hair. She left the room.
Felix felt his muscles transform into broth. He slid to the ground, breathing in knots. The yellow gnats returned, lancing the weight of her absence, of his. Felix did not smell the lemon of evening tea, nor watch the last guests filter from the lawn. He did not hear, as it loped by, the engine of the now empty hearse.
Self, n. A hidden crowd.
Several days before the war, the philosopher died. The autopsy revealed a wheel in the place of his brain. He had choked on premise A of the argument for fatalism. Premise B had lodged in his ear, and premise C had coiled up his nose, into his skull. The doctors found it there, intact, knotted and double-knotted round the spokes. The wheel was moving still, driven on by inertia. In time they noticed a buzzing in his chest, and found an engine between his lungs.
“It could not have been otherwise,” they murmured as they gathered their tools.
The conclusion had replaced his pulse.
EXPERIMENT 8: HOW TO FORGIVE
1. See Experiment 4.
These vignettes have been excerpted from Town of Shadows, a debut novella called “exquisite” by Tin House and similarly lauded by many others. Buy it on Amazon or directly from the publisher, Scrambler Books.