A Body of Water
You are in a small lakeside cabin. The sort that people inexplicably inherit or come upon. It is the off-season. There is a fog thickening the horizon and time passes slowly, imperceptibly. You wait for a rain. A freezing. Something that is not this in-between.
The occasion is a dinner party. You came a few days in advance to acclimate to the cabin, to understand what exactly needed to be done. The cabin is only a few miles from where you live, an inland town, and not nearly as beautiful as the town that contains the cabin.
As it happened: You were hired to attend a dinner party held in a lakeside cabin on a foggy night. You arrived alone and were instructed to bring your own cleaning supplies. For this inconvenience, you will be reimbursed.
When you unlock the cabin, you realize the windows were left open. The sound of water lapping is distinct.
You clean the cabin and think of how your body is seventy percent water. All breath is in rhythm with the tides edging, and then retreating, from the shore.
Or: the shore is where water reclaims land, soaking the sand to a deeper shade. A wavering edge.
The dinner has been planned a year in advance. This is because the guests are very interesting people with very full schedules. You did not invite them. If you had been in charge of creating a list of people to invite to the cabin, it would have only been your close friends, for whom the pretense of remaining interesting softened long ago. Your close friends, when you invite them over, talk about the best way to cut their hair, why the grasses are not as tall this year, and the varieties of fatigue. This has been of great interest to you and your friends lately: the shape exhaustion takes. How its fragrance – something like sour clothes and vegetable peels – has begun to smell pleasant, lulling even.
After you finish cleaning, you wait for the guests to arrive. They will not arrive until morning, so you lay awake in a bed that is not yours, perfectly sheltered, and listen to the high-winds whip around outside.
The guests requested that a knowledgeable local be present at their party. Someone who could provide them with the best information of how to get to and from the airport, how to identify ideal locations to visit (if they had time), and most importantly, to do the work of making the cabin hospitable. You like to think that you are hospitable, knowledgeable even. Though you decide you will not tell them you are inexperienced as a guide-host and that you come from the town over, which is not as beautiful, and therefore not as interesting.
The first guest arrives (Guest A). She studies oil. How in the past it seeped slow, but now gushes upon the slightest provocation. She explains this as she hands you her coat, still dewed from fog. There is no smoking allowed inside, but you do not tell her this, as it is pleasant to watch the velvet smoke cascade from her mouth.
You do your best to destroy any inclinations of restlessness. Guest A is the only guest here, and so far she has no interest in what you have to say about the cabin, or the town. You even tried to tell her about the boy, but the other guests began to arrive and she flitted off. You notice that after last night’s storm, the leaves have turned champagne-colored.
During a drought in the town over, a farmer asked his son to plow a dried-up field despite the hardness that the land had acquired. The boy paced the rows, plow attached to waist, the groove of the path etching deeper with each pass. The boy was instructed to continue walking until he could smell the metallic damp of groundwater.
You are paid to watch the house and greet and serve the guests who are artists, scholars, and revolutionaries. They recognize that you are not any of these and you think that it is better this way, to be quietly disregarded. You take their coats and smile and direct them to the seating area where wine and small bites have been laid out. They nod and walk past you, greeting Guest A in a manner that suggests many years have lapsed.
You are, in fact, happy to have this job. The job previous to this one was automatic. You transcribed hundreds of hours of market research. Each video contained a single person who set up a video camera in their home to test products for an entire year. During this transcription process you spent hours staring into rooms you have not, and will never, enter. You watched the woman you were assigned to transcribe – whittled thin, voice gone to ash – navigate her divorce and move in with her elderly parents. You were told to keep transcribing no matter the circumstance, to write down everything that was said.
Before the party you were instructed to collect as much water as possible from the lake. You were instructed by the cabin company to provide the guests with ample water to bathe and recreate in. Never mind how the lake is unclean. How you distracted yourself from this task by walking along the shore, keeping pace with an unmoored boat that trailed plastic and rope and netting behind it.
The other guests:
A man from Cairo (Guest B) who is an expert in mega-dams. He is invested in harnessing power, not from the dams, but from those committed to dismantling them. You see him and his acolytes, young idealistic engineers, stalking the perimeters of dams with pick axes, willing fissures and streams, praying for spectacular chaos.
Guest C is a poet trying to forge a new syntax from heaps of words plastered on bus benches, scrawled under overpasses, typed furiously into forums. The poet arranges these words into new patterns. They prefer to be known as a weaver, knotting language fibers into images.
Guest D is obsessed with systems of emergence. How behavior arises from a complex dance of small interactions. How for instance, bees understand mathematics. How plant roots smell water, how mushrooms seek out damaged fields. Even this gathering, he whispers to me, has latent emergent properties.
The last guest to arrive in this cluster is a Russian poet (Guest E). She is learning how to translate the prairies, looking for folds in their long unfurling. Places where secrets might be tucked away.
The only parts of the cabin that have been modernized are the parts that are visible to the guests. It is, to be sure, a fully equipped cabin. All that needs to be seen is the room in which the dinner is to be held and the bedroom where each guest will sleep. In the dining room there is nothing but a large, rectangular table. The walls are white-washed. There are six chairs arranged around it. Every bedroom is similar: a single bed and nightstand against powder-white walls.
You think about the space around the cabin, for it is what allows you to make sense of the cabin itself. Negative space reflects the edges of things. Small borders abound. Around the cabin there are low sand dunes, a rising fog, and dark sky. As for the lake, the sound of water aspirating on shore and of wind skimming the surface shapes it. You imagine it as being quite near, but with contours that are slippery, opaque.
Inside once more. The dinner party has begun. You bring out the drinks and the food. The guests are here to talk about the potentialities for a ruptured, then repaired, future. This is what they say. Potentiality. You think this means potent. And actual. And reality.
You have never made food for such dignified people before. But you cook what you would for your close friends. You will call the soup and bread that you prepare a regional specialty so that the guests will feel they are coming into contact with authenticity, which you have gathered is important to them.
The last guest arrives, Guest F, to take the last seat. She is a scholar of poverty. Scales of poverty. She is one of the few who takes pleasure in the wine and food. Leaning back in her chair and sucking the tips of her finger, she exclaims that the food is sumptuous and rich. When the others ask her about poverty and pleasure, she says in her defense, she takes pleasure because there is no need to defend pleasure.
Because you flit in and out of the room with the dining table, you only hear small strands of conversation. You hold on to the most salient threads, which you have faithfully recorded. Which you return to again and again.
the high dam broke forever and the surface of the lake is likely to climb
higher … eventually unleashing
you’ll see a change in the flow of money, but it was
unknown, its impact –
that is, is still officially unknown, yes, and there are eventual
this red is so fruity, do you want mine –
in a sense, it’s really about pleasure… in dissonance… things that are
beautiful because they are warped, or fall apart?… but most of all I love to
plug things into walls, to see the slithering shape of wire in a space –
which is not just a plot of land, but rather it is the dirt and
and … all the signs and lights and memories –
like a dam, everything stored for its potential, choked … making memory
would take a form of engineering unknown, an engineering comfortable with
death, that becomes other than –
a room with a small chair set up for weaving…
even those in these adjacent slums –
we can ask what’s her name, the village girl
a life of loneliness where we cannot even track a memory, like the taste
of some summer stone…
It is too hot in these muggy little towns
I spent all summer trying to keep the floodwater out
more bread than strictly needed
She came and asked for the simplest thing, to feel pleasure and I did not
know what to say
ravishing, I could take you upstairs
are there any sensitivities that prevent you from continuing
the threshold when we live in different households
You, you there
You move in and out of the dining room for several hours, watching the conversation peak and then slip away. The guests spend many hours debating the efficacy of certain policies, of which you only understood their intentions. To fix things. Things that have long been broken. It was late. You observe how the windows in the cabin frame an inky darkness and watch as the wine, dark as the windows, is finished off. The guests, because of the enormity of their night, began to fall asleep at the table. You are responsible for tapping them gently on the shoulders and escorting them to their rooms.
But part of you wished they hadn’t fallen asleep so soon. You were waiting for a small opening in the conversation to tell them about the boy plowing for water. How you were sure he was still out there, just beyond the lake, walking in neat rows, sweating even at night. How he was all of the things they were talking about – a choked memory, a slithering wire, that threshold to another household – expect that he was also real because he knows the pleasure and devastation of how things fall apart.
You do not say anything because you do not know how to speak this. And because there is no one awake to witness your speaking.
You wake the last guest and escort her to her room. She is flush. This is an intimate moment – a woman undressing before going to bed. She has just pulled off a stocking. The indentation left by the elastic band is visible just below her knee. Her raised skirt allows you a view up along her bare legs.
You close all their doors. Turn off all the lights. You linger in the hallway. Listening to the six bodies breathe together. Listening to the wind move in perfect angles around the house. You think of the lake just beyond the cabin, also breathing, keeping perfect time.
The idea of recording is illusory in landscapes made of fog, water, sand, and cabin. You note how observations do not remain fixed for very long. How impossible it is to measure and forecast what you are living through.
Instead of sleep, you sit at the dining table alone, having cleaned the dishes and wiped the table. You enjoy one drink to yourself and as you finish you suddenly feel deeply ashamed. Though unable to name an incident or image that produced this shame, you feel it as strongly as if there were a reason. You think about your own silence. Your own inability to transcribe your experience to the guests who build their theories on representations. This shame, which you see now is really only your failing, comes out of you, gushing, and you think of the boy who might have finally found his water.
When you sleep, you dream. You fear having to represent the dream you had because it is mutated. Some deep gauged canyon at twilight. At its center, the battered pulp of an animal. Deer. A deer that looks back at you from behind a shaded boulder. You see the light fade quicker now until the canyon is boundless dark.
In the morning you wake hunched over the table and then prepare a breakfast of dry toast and black coffee (another regional speciality) and watch as the guests leave one by one. Each one has a separate car that has been hired to drive them to some other destination. The two poets linger at the breakfast table, whispering across a shared sheet of paper, as you clean off the counters and load the dishwasher. They stand and thank you before leaving. You see they are holding hands. On the threshold of the cabin they turn around to look at you, indicating for you to stop your work and come close. They hand you a small scrap of paper. Wait until we leave, they say. And so you oblige. Unfolding it as they drive away, you stare down at a lake. It is drawn across the paper, smudged where it crosses the folded creases. Near the lake is the cabin you are currently standing in. And just beyond that a battered chain-fence. It has a hole with frayed edges, just large enough to slip through, and within it some address in a town far away.