Words were your superpower.
They helped you make sense of everything, but now multisyllabic words from a different vocabulary circle the sounds you understand, vultures waiting to devour the corpse of your useless language. These new combinations of letters—cytotoxin, angiogenesis, immunohistiology—swallow the words you are familiar with in large gulps.
You begin to detach from yourself. The white walls of the gastroenterologist’s office collapse like a file box into black velvet corridors. You see your husband but he can no longer see you. Your feet have been pulled to the velvet, your body stretched rubber, words bouncing off your skin.
Next, the corridors unfold into a labyrinth of rooms, stairs, doors—all brushed black velvet, devoid of sound. Your gastroenterologist is talking to you, and your husband is touching your hand, but you’ve left them. Their mouths are moving but the language is garbled, the bubbles of fish under water. Without the ability to understand, you reach your hands to the walls, soft and thick and sticky. Each step pulls your enlarged body forward. The floor is a conveyor, doing what it must.
Once you’ve arrived fully in the velvet underground, new walls erect around you—the white drywall adorned with gold-embossed diplomas disappears into the black fabric, and the world where you came from is shut behind clear glass. You realize you’ve left your clothes, but it’s too late. Your stretched rubber body bounces slowly floor to ceiling, wall to wall, your pale skin naked and electric against the dark.
Your doctor gives your husband a referral to a colorectal surgeon and turns back to his computer. A Shadow-you remains seated in the office, calmly writing down the next steps before gathering her belongings to leave. Shadow-you is making lists:
– talk to your dean
– find a cat sitter
– tell Mom
– find substitutes for classes
– fill out FMLA paperwork
And you realize Shadow-you is doing the same thing you did when you were seven and your father had a heart attack and all the grownups thought he would die within a year even though they never told you that. They told you everything was fine, but your eyes saw their lies. Cleaved in half, his chest scarred, his Daddyness had disintegrated into bruised cells. You broke apart then, a seven-year-old fragment watching a seven-year-old Shadow-self making the lists that she believed would save her:
– tell extended family
– write eulogy for Dad
– take care of Mom
– cry all the tears out now
It didn’t work then; your tears still swim behind the decades of fine, but nonetheless, Shadow-you makes the lists that will overcome this crisis:
– prep classes for two months
– set up auto-pay for credit cards
– find proxies for your committees
– update your will
You wonder if that girl-fragment and her girl-shadow ever found their way back together again, but there are now more pressing matters, such as learning new vocabulary words and finding the key and the door to leave this black velvet place. The dark labyrinth stretches behind you and the double-paned sheet of glass in front of you is smooth. Shadow-you is smiling, saying something to the doctor, cracking a joke perhaps, and your husband has retreated to his brain to figure out how to fix the rebellion of your colon cells.
Shadow-you leaves the office, credit card in hand, to pay for services rendered in codes. You don’t know the language of codes yet, of billing and declining and remanding, but you will. Shadow-you has a string tied to her wrist that reminds you of the friendship bracelets you would make in the backyard of your North Carolina home before your father got sick, before you moved to Arizona, before he died, before you shattered and the abuser got in, before cancer, but upon closer look, the shimmering string stretches, a connective thread from her body to you in your strange velvet box, and Shadow-you is pulling you and your new house behind her like a carnival balloon.
You press your face to the glass, but it distorts, and the waiting room and then the parking lot and then your red Toyota constrict and slip farther away. Shadow-you calls your dean, makes an appointment, checks an item off the list. You’ve been leaning on the glass and when you back away, the imprint of your forearms forms a keyhole.
A raven appears between the panes, right leg shorter than the left, a lit Pall Mall cigarette clipped in its beak. You rub your eyes. Shadow-you in the passenger seat of your car is now a brush stroke in an impressionist landscape. The raven, blue black and iridescent, grinds its cigarette out beneath its claw and uses its beak to tap along the inside of the glass, edging your armprints with its tick-tick-ticks. When it finishes, it pushes the cut piece of glass toward you and you jump back as it lands silently on the velvet. The raven cocks its head, its right eye finding yours, and winks as it steps through the keyhole, turns back for the dead cigarette, and then hops to your bare feet.
You reach your hand through the hole and touch the exterior pane, the world on the other side of it increasingly unfamiliar. You retreat and the raven fans its wings and leaps to your shoulder and its cool breath raises the hair on your still-naked flesh.
You have no words for this.
The wind from its brief flight from floor to shoulder tugs the fabric from the walls into a shift dress, which wraps snug around you. Raven pulls a dandelion from beneath its chest feathers and tucks it behind your ear, its white fluff floating between you.
“I have been trapped between the glass for so long,” it says. “I wondered if you would ever come for me.”
You shiver and the dandelion drops seeds.
“Do you have a light?” asks Raven. “We might be here quite a while.”
Shadow-you has arrived at the college where she works with the copies of her colonoscopy report and the referral note. Her dean will meet with her in twenty minutes, so first she’ll scan the medical records, start to keep a file and make notes of questions, things to do, things to stop doing.
“Look at me not her,” says Raven. “I’m the one you’ve been focused on for thirty years.” The bird flits quickly, floor to ceiling, wall to wall, biting at the velvet until it becomes a branch, and then it perches and shrieks:
“I see I see I see from sea to shining sea that you have created quite a story for us to act within like characters in black box theaters and you have built it so that we have just three ways to end this show: I will go, or you will go, or we will go together.
“I’m the one you pressed between the glass like clover thinking you could keep everything the same stop decay and hold me hostage to your past, but daughter, I too have things to say and miles to go but you have captured me and kept me from my death.
“Tell me, daughter, are you so attached to me that you will die as well or now that you are at your crossroads will you reconsider what you’ve held and toss it up and down and out so you can see from sea to shining sea what still can be? Are you ready? Shall we write a script?”
His unpunctuated speech unspools your throat. All you’d ever wanted was one more chance to talk with him and so you whisper, while Shadow-you is filling out forms and calling your mother and researching words, while her cells are eating themselves, you whisper old-new words, “Daddy! Yes, let’s make a play!”
“It will be a cast of only four: you and me and my mother and my father, and we will speak until there are no more words between us,” says Raven. “And then you can decide the ending.”
You look behind you and the halls have morphed into proscenium and arch, a wide stage draped in black velvet curtains, a single blue-white spotlight aimed at the floor. Raven plucks a feather, slices at your flesh and dips it in your blood. “You go first,” he says. “It’s your story.”
You take the quill and start to scratch on the stage floor. The spotlight finds you. Houselights dim. You pause, body stiffening. “I can’t. I can’t write the story that contains your exit.”
“Tick tock tick tock,” Raven says. “It’s my departure or yours.”
Shadow-you is talking to your step-uncle, a doctor, who is telling her about the daVinci machine that will cut her belly open and remove part of her colon and put her back together. Shadow-you writes notes, good girl, good student, but her hand is shaking.
“Tick tock. Write.”
Rumpus original art by Clare Nauman.
Excerpted from A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens, by Laraine Herring. Copyright © 2021 by Laraine Herring. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of Regal House Publishing.