This is the voice of a man talking. The air moves with my breath, quivers its way out of the dark. This is elemental. They leave me here, the words. A man, sitting, speaking, waiting for the words to fall, or fade, or return. They do none of these. They simply allow themselves to be uttered. This is no great allowance. They have little power, the words. But the dark sits thick on an old man's shoulders, leaves the hands cold. My breath no longer warm, it only shakes the air, moves with my lips. There is little movement. Sometimes the words are just sounds, like now, but they mean. They mean. They mean that my breath still moves things, if only air, that I am here, a man speaking. The others are unimportant. That's not what I mean to say, though it is what I mean. I mean...
Listen. My boy was born blue and gasping and turned red when the air came to him. He turned red and screaming, eyes all screwed against the light. That's how I knew he was mine, the screaming. His mother called him William, and I didn't argue. What did I know of such things? What do I know still? William is as good a name as any. He seemed to take to it. We called him William, and I held him in my two hands. I don't remember the doctor. Perhaps a midwife? It's unimportant. William was born blue and gasping, and someone removed the fluid from his throat and nostrils, a wet suck, and William took the air hungry. My boy, moving the air, hands and feet trembling. That's what the words mean.
Or this. That I am a man alone, and the words move things, if only air, and the air continues to move. I feel it against my arms, a cold movement. And all I can feel of warmth is not even in memory, but in the words. Sun means nothing, nothing but a warm word in a sunless mouth. This is how we go on meaning, talking ourselves out of the dark.
There was a time before this. And a time before that. Sometime there wasn't, I'm sure, but that's unimportant. Separating the darkness is a parlor game. Time means everything here because someday, when there are days again, days will end. That's the shape of time. Here, in this moment. But now, the words carry back into the light, back to the time before this.
Listen. My mother had a serving girl when I was born, a Philipino girl of about sixteen. In the old house beneath the dead cypress trees. This is no story. My father played the accordion. He squeezed this chromed lung in the front parlor with a short glass of gin. My mother bled quietly onto the sofa while the serving girl put wet towels between my mother's legs, smoked cigarettes while leaning out the window, and read movie magazines. There was a sickness in the town then, the streets all deserted and the bodies of dogs swollen in the gutters, and the Philipino serving girl read her magazines and shook her ash out into the white heat of the afternoon sun. In love with the sound of my own breath moving. My mother could not be moved. She bled out onto the sofa, the horrible music wheezing itself out, and I came with little fuss. A healthy boy with eyes of a certain color, with or without hair. The Philipino serving girl put her hands up against the flow of blood, pressed her palms between my mother's legs. And my mother breathed out two lives. My father set down his accordion and climbed the stairs to his room. Soon, the sickness passed.
Sometimes, the words rise above sound, aspire to music. If words aspire. This music contains something of that day, that dry bladder squeezing out its tune. But that's just memory, of course, or something passing for memory. There may be memory still. It's possible. There may be so many things. But what I know is this dark, this cold, this voice pretending to sing.
This is the voice of a man talking, though I've certainly never been called that name. Few even address me at all, or did. Now, no one does, of course. Has this been said? It's been said. Yes. It's all been said. But might the truth not be uncovered still? Perhaps a song of smaller voice? If I understood these questions, I would declare them unimportant. Perhaps I am not a man after all.
I am the story of a man speaking. I was born in darkness and died young, my father a eunuch, my mother a gaping void. Born of this most unoriginal sin, I am fallen, falling, destined to fall always on deaf ears. But I am tidy, and for that sake, much is forgiven.
No. Nothing is forgiven. I am, for lack of better words, a man. A man speaking. A man speaking his lack in little words. Listen. Listen. They're getting smaller.
William cried and cried. This was to be expected. But he cried constantly, and as if in pain. His mother was no bleeder. She was pacing the floor with him the same day. I was just a voice from behind a curtain, a breeze in the room, a man. It was his stomach. It wasn't closed properly, they said, later. Like a cow, I asked? His mother clawed my neck. Not like a cow at all, but a child spilling into himself. That's it: make it untrue, the sounds so beautiful. Fall deeper into the dark. He was three days old. The smallest voice. That's some truth. That's a truth to shut your eyes against.
Let me speak plainly. Sometimes, it is the agonizing beauty of the world that sends us scurrying as we do. To try and find one ugly word. But we love them all.
To do it all again what? everything again, I would leave the words behind. I would sit silently in an open room, in the fell of the mid-day sun, a Vermeer oh, even here, such blessed onomatopoeia I would be a Vermeer glowing with its own light. And the questions would no longer be meaningless, but silent. Is this a man? Is this his voice? Does his story open out, holding forth its own burning heart? No. This is not a man. This is not a story. This is a voice only, a voice speaking from nowhere, as unseen as light before it falls upon the page.
Josh Hanson is a graduate of the University of Montana writing Prgram with an MFA in Fiction and an MA in literature. He lives in Humboldt County, California. Previous publications include Slow Trains and Stirring.