Every second of every day unheard worlds tremble past my dim senses. Occasionally, when I’m in Africa, the air around me begins to thicken as an elephant’s vocalizations lift from infrasound into a register my ears can hear. Airquakes. Fractures and heaves of oscillating air. Another language, one without words, without speech.
I almost know infrasound. No more than two miles from my home freighters push through the deep waters of Puget Sound. On flat black nights the thump-thump of their propellers travels through water, through air, churns into my bed, my bones and into the lowest threshold of my hearing. It’s a mechanical throb, born in the bellies and boilers of machines, carried along rotating shafts which turn the metal blades of propellers, which slice through water like a dull knife hacking flesh. . . . . Whummp . . . whummp . . . whummp . . . . . . . . .
Out in the bay that fronts the town where I live, aggregates of barnacles coat docks and pilings and rocks. Their shells open and close, open and close, as feeding appendages catch food on the tides. Barnacle larvae hone in on the vibrations of feeding and settle in with their relatives so that they may easily exchange sperm and eggs with their kin. The sound of a large bed of barnacles can be heard for up to ten miles underwater.
Sound moves in waves similar to light waves. Light can be carried in a vacuum such as outer space but sound cannot. It needs a conducting medium. There’s a terribly silent universe beyond the top layer of earth’s atmosphere. It’s cold, breathless, without wind, without water, without life. On the moon our alien footfalls fell without sound into its dead dust. No one hears anything, unless you are in a spacesuit, listening to your own breathing.
The storm grows throughout the night. Gusts of wind slap and pummel the side of the house with open palms and a horde of fists. It moans around the edges of the front door. The arms of my chair tremble with each blast.
I push the tip of my pen across a piece of paper, try to quiet the storm of voices inside my head. The world is sealed outside, my thoughts sealed within. An ant climbs onto the paper where I’ve written these last few words, bumps into the ink marks, recoils, bumps into them again, recoils again, and gives a wide berth thereafter to ink. I empathize with the ant. None of my words are the right ones. The damp animal scent of fear chases them into the darkness beyond the candle on my desk.
The power is out. The candle is a miniature sun. It creates light the same way the sun creates light, by consuming itself. But a candle burns faster, has a much shorter lifespan. It flickers in the drafts flowing through the house like ghosts.
The rain picks up its tempo and sounds like hundreds of nails thrown against the window behind me. Squalls beat against the glass as if the storm has gone mad. An image forces itself into my imagination – an image of the furious wind taking the house in its hands and shaking it.
I write until the candle gutters and I have just enough of its light to find my bed. I cannot sleep. Words swirl and dive and surface and sink. My useless eyes stare into the dark. My heart beats as if it is marching to its doom. The house shakes and shakes and shakes. Finally, bone-weary sleep overtakes me.
I dream a night-full of quicksilver dreams, of wild-haired crones, potent seers and wisdom that fades with dawn. The absence of wind awakens me. Emerging from the cocoon of sleep, I go outside.
Long fingers of light spread behind the mountains, the palm of the sun still hidden. The few stars left burn out. All that distant, distant past up there – before humans, before dinosaurs, before one-celled lumps of life began wriggling in the sea.
Clouds with gray weighted bottoms float behind the wake of the storm. Their fluffy tops begin to glow. Rooted to one spot like a sunflower, my head turns toward where the sun will rise. And I wait.
It’s the exact moment of daybreak. Outside my tent window the sky brightens from black to blackberry. A call from a nightjar floats in through the mesh of the window, gurgling and untuned against the silence beyond it. Other birds begin to shift and rustle in the bush at the tiny hint of light in the sky. A damp coolness shifts upward a degree.
I emerge from the cocoon of sleep, roll over and watch blackberry become gray. I hear a lion’s roar, faint and comforting in its distance. The light turns curry, then yellow, then the pale blue of an egg. The shifting birds flutter, then fly free from the bush as if released from cupped hands. Air dries and lightens, and the sky turns to a transparent blue.
By the time I leave my tent the sun blooms between clefts in the hills. I stop and face east. My body is covered with downy sunlight, soft and warm as peach fuzz. Little coolness remains; the day is already sweet with possibilities.
There is a reason why the sun was our first god.
As a writer, the unarticulated language of each day is what I try to comprehend. Gray grammar, revealing run-on sentences, naughty nouns, veritable verbs, placid paragraphs, excited exclamations, or periods big as moons – I try to comprehend the meld of minutes and hours, but all of it without words, until I begin to think about meaning. But it’s never close enough, this thinking in images, to relive the day. It’s not the whole, not for a person who spends her life following a trail of breadcrumb words constantly picked apart by the birds in my mind, birds of short attention spans who flutter in and flutter off.
I try to pin each day to the page. I run after the squiggly pen marks that scamper off and disappear, my thought unfinished. I try to make every thought come together in the center; I try to herd them, one slow word at a time. I try to leave a tangible record of where I have been and where I might likely be found in the terrain of my mind. I watch the hourglass drip grain after grain of sand. I bend my head closer to the page; push my pen faster as a dusky rose light fades in the west and the moon sets into a blanket of black trees standing in a pool of fog.
Melting from yellow to orange the swirled, stained-glass sun hangs round and unfastened, rolling down a line of bush. The last hot breath of the day exhales and in a single moment the sun drops and is gone.
A lemon sky turns violet. Moisture thickens as plants exhale and shadows deepen. As light fades, smells condense – the cold iron of stars, the ancient, clean smell of cold sand under my feet, sage on my fingertips, smoke in my hair.
Palm trees fan black silhouettes against the stars.
I look up at a sky filled with diamonds where the giant, gem-studded belt of the Milky Way girdles the full belly of the night. By its light alone I pick my way to my tent.
The moon sails west, round and immense, shining a clean, pure light that has a whiff of blue about it. The brush is full of crickets, each one singing in a different rhythm. I hear a few individuals among the many – soloists. I hear collective phrasing – the choir. And right before I sleep I hear them singing even more loudly to the sizzling stars.
I inhale. Exhale.
Ah, essential air. Rare air. Barely there air.
The first and last thing I will ever know.
Air may be light, but it is not empty. Even the cleanest air is filled with microscopic organisms: bacteria, viruses, spores, fungi, rusts, molds, yeasts, amoebae and pollen. Twenty-five million tons of air fill every square mile on this planet. Your average lungful of clean air contains about 200,000 particles; on any given day in the most polluted cities of the world, the count may be as high as 375 million.
The sky that begins miles above my head reaches its fingers all the way down past the roots of grass and into the earth. Molecule by molecule, oxygen, nitrogen and hydrogen sift into the smallest spaces, into the burrows of snakes and earthworms, into the spaces between grains of sand.
Eighty percent of the atmosphere huddles within ten miles of the earth’s surface. If the earth were the size of an apple, the air around it would be a single layer of wax. That thin skin of sky, a biofilm just fifteen miles thick, that ocean of air, holds most of the earth’s weather and most of earth’s water – just enough of both to protect us from the lethal vacuum of the universe.
The earth is our space suit. Think about that each time you breathe.