I. Heard But Not Seen
The children noisily assert their existence around the corner of the school building down the street. Raucous laughter and screams erupt through the otherwise subdued suburban neighborhood. Everything is a crisis. Girls cry shrilly; boys brag and yell, always the center of attention. I cover my ears against the assault.
Somewhere a bell rings. Finally the streets are quiet, except for a dog barking hesitantly, not sure he deserves to be heard. A thread of wind passes through the trees, sewing up the air with tiny stitches.
I reflect on the past as it imitates the present. Yes, I was once six years old. Once a miniature menace, spawn of Satan, a stubborn, willful useless excuse for a child. Other children never chose me for their side. I was the butt of jokes, the subject of ridicule, constantly poked and teased. My coat was too small, my shoes pinched; I wore what my mother wore when she was my age. I hated saddle shoes. My mother always said, “They’re not laughing at you, they’re laughing with you.”
I protested: “I’m not laughing.” How could she, cheerleader and party girl, comprehend cruelty and rejection without breaking past the silence into the realm of the invisible? If she ever heard me call, she could not see me through the dense mist of her memory.
Sometimes I forget I am even here to begin with.
II. Seen But Not Tasted
In the vast hall, the long banquet table brims with items of unparalleled yumminess: Fried chicken, potato salad, Dutch apple pie, lobster bisque and focaccia, chocolate pudding, thick slices of rye bread with slabs of butter, caviar and crab claws so big they could snap off my head.
I plan to allow myself just a glimpse of the chocolate cheesecake, imagine rolling it in my mouth, savoring the moist bites, but my hand strays to the jelly donuts, garlic mashed potatoes and fettuccini. I linger over the prime rib, aching to tear it apart with my animal teeth, chewing and swallowing the meat in big gobs. Vanilla ice cream and fudge nudge me to sample them.
Pancakes await, swimming in boysenberry syrup; bacon and sausage and French Toast beckon.
This is where I lose control. My will and resolve cease to function. I’ll do anything to eat, and eat, and eat, never suffering from fullness or requiring Rolaids. I feast with my eyes and conjure the taste, blind with gustatory delight. But if I’m unable to experience such paradise, I’d rather be struck senseless, left to suck on stones.
III. Tasted But Not Smelled
A certain unity of purpose circumscribes the senses of taste and smell. They go together, hand in hand—young children at play, or a chain-like sequence of words (of which this treatise is an example).
In the aforementioned banquet hall, all can be seen, but not all tasted. The smell wraps up the entire scene, an unbearable lure, a Siren of unimaginable glory. Now all the dishes steam, summoning diners with a promise of gastric bliss. When I dive in, collateral damage of flecks and drips explodes across my shirt and whatever is nearby. I barely have time to surface for air and get my bearings before returning to the project at hand—the consumption of a five-tiered wedding cake using a child’s teaspoon.
Curious, how taste weakens when smell is impeded. A whole labyrinth of canals snakes through the sinuses. Block one with post-nasal drip and you can no longer appreciate your chocolate Easter bunny. The warm, waxy smell enters the nose at the same moment its taste does. You bite off the head, roll the sweet, molten morsels over your tongue. A symphony rises in your mouth, exaggerated a hundredfold by the combined action of all sensory organs. They teeter between one and another. What would be better? To smell and not taste? Or taste and not smell? It is an innocent question and the answer is not binding in the least. Nor do you have to decide. At least, not now…
IV. Smelled But Not Touched
My brother and I discovered a huge dead bass. The stench lured us off the trail to the edge of the lake, where the fish had washed up in the dirty suds of post-storm detritus—twigs, leaves, handfuls of mossy algae. The hook still gouged a corner of its mouth. How could I describe this smell? It was thick, for one thing. And sharp. Its odor sawed away at the lining of our nostrils. Breathing was difficult. Instinctively we covered our mouths and noses. It even made us angry, that such a remnant could so thoroughly color our senses and take up so much room in the air, strangling us without excuse or apology.
We peered at its cloudy eye. I dared my brother to touch it, “No way.”
“No I’m not.”
“Yes you are.”
“If you’re so brave, touch it yourself.”
“I don’t want to.”
“You’re the chicken, then.”
“At least I’m not stupid,” I said, because I was smart. And brave. And recognized that something that smelled so horrible was worth avoiding at any cost.
V. Touched But Not Seen
I knew a blind chess champion who played the game by touch. His opponents sat dumbfounded by every capture and checkmate, giving up in flustered sighs that told the winner he’d triumphed again, undefeated by any for miles around. I played him once. Somehow, he knew black from white, the curve of the bishop’s hat, the blocky shape of the rook’s turret. He trounced my knight and threatened my queen. She succumbed to his impudent pawn.
I often wondered what his world looked like. I imagined acres and acres of soft darkness. A womblike web of muted sensations that blended together, floating and ebbing and swirling in gray half-light. The feel of another’s face, the fair skin, the long tresses of wavy hair. The fingers lingering in the curl of an ear, the lips parted gently like a blooming rose.
When I awake at night, the house is dark. I’ve memorized the path to the bathroom. Here is the corner of the bed with its soft wool blanket. Then the doorway. Then the armchair in the living room, the table along the wall. The smooth, cool curve of the sink’s edge next to the toilet. When I flick the switch, I can see again.
My chess opponent never had that luxury. He’s been blind since birth, no visual memory to guide him. Or be deprived of, either. I watch him snatch up my king with one of his knights, which has been hovering nearby for several turns. “Checkmate,” he says.
“Whatever,” I say. I can’t see myself ever playing him again.
VI. Seen But Not Believed
The first thing I recall was my mother’s breast, the soft brown skin around her nipple nuzzling the single barely formed tooth I was born with. At the time, I did not recognize the volume of sensory input that poured into every orifice of my being. Nor did I understand that birth and death were identical processes.
My life had begun. I saw God in my mother’s face. Her hair brushed my snail-like nose. Her eyes defined me, even before I had a name. Her voice held me in fibers of a soft language; I lay back into the cushion of not-knowing.
In the beginning was the word “God.” And God was the word that defined the world. People worshipped the word and brought light to the language that rolled from their tongues. And with light came life and life-like illumination that exposed the world for what it was—a cesspool throbbing with darkness. The darkness lived in people’s hearts and minds, hovering at the edges of vision. There was much interplay and conflict. People divided the world into a tenuous dichotomy, spiking a war between Good and Bad, Love and Hate, Light and Dark, Life and Death, God and Devil.
Although I can see the word “God,” I cannot see what it represents. For one thing, I am incredibly nearsighted. Even with glasses I cannot discern objects that others see with ease. And if I could see God, would that make God more real? Does God wear disguises—the old, bearded man with silver hair; the merry red suit and black boots; the fiery devil with horns and arrow tail? If I saw God everywhere, enshrouded in clouds or sunrises or mountain vistas, would that make me believe? Why has God always tried to stay hidden from worshippers? Why should faith be so hard?
My mother taught me all of this the moment I looked into her eyes and recognized her as Other. She died several years ago. I burned her up and put her in a box. I still keep her ashes near the open window, where children’s laughter drifts from the schoolyard down the street.
Zan Bockes completed his MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Montana, and has nonfiction, poetry and fiction published in many magazines and anthologies, including WRITERS AND THEIR NOTEBOOKS, PHANTASMAGORIA, OUT OF OUR, THE PEDESTAL MAGAZINE and CUTBANK. My first collection of poetry, CAUGHT IN PASSING, is available from Turning Point Books.