Playing with Fire // Squirreling // Precipice: 10.3.16
I turned our last three themes into cues for a three-part short story. That was fun.
Playing with Fire
A voice feels like a secure thing, safe in our throats humming up and down our vocal chords, but we lose them all the time. The first voice I found was at the grocery store, bumbling and buzzing, stuck in a pile of lemons. It was easy to catch, like scooping up a moth battering itself against a window. All the way home it burred and ta-ta-tummed in my pocket. It was warm in my hand and tickled my skin like an owl feather. I tried to let it go, honestly I did, but it was lost and befuddled, clearly missing its person. Once it felt my warmth, it clung to me. I had to keep it.
It was a deep voice, a man’s, a little rough from smoke or shouting, with a soft Scottish burr. It hummed tunelessly, maddeningly, for hours on my pillow. At 2 am I sealed it in a mason jar and stuck it between bags of dried beans in the pantry.
In the morning, I considered the jar with puffy eyes as I sipped strong coffee. As a child I had loved to chew things – I’d suck on plastic Barbie shoes, gnaw the salty ends of my glasses, bite my fingernails to nubs. It was an intense compulsion, a hunger, and I felt something like that now as I listened to the muted voice from inside its jar. I wanted that voice.
I unscrewed the jar. The humming briefly became louder, then muffled as I jammed it into my mouth. I tasted wood smoke and musty wool, bergamot and spearmint. I coughed and gagged. It was like trying to swallow a milkweed fluff and I gulped for air, eyes watering, until it settled itself in my throat.
The next time I coughed, it was a deep Scottish smoker’s rasp. I laughed, astonished, with throaty chuckles that were not mine. A little puff of something flew out of my mouth and landed in my lap. It was my own voice, bewildered and shrinking from the light. I carefully tucked it into the jar. I narated my actions as I washed the dishes, recited little bits of poetry, told myself some knock knock jokes, anything to hear the bass viola coming from my chest.
But I couldn’t go out into the world like that. Dislodging the voice required something close to self-inflicting the Heimlich maneuver while in downward facing dog, with a long rest afterwards. With relief I sucked my own voice back into my throat and went to work.
I barely made it til lunch. Faking digestive troubles, I spent the rest of the day hunting for more lost voices.
Like any diligent forager, I began to see my quarry like bright acorns among the weeds. Lost voices were snagged in the wire of shopping carts; tumbled into lint traps; wrapped in a delicate husks I would peel back before pushing them into my mouth. I thought of them as orphans which made capturing them feel more altruistic. It wasn’t as if i could staple posters to telephone poles, “Found in laundromat, Silky Female Spanish Accent, approximately age 40…” I didn’t see any posters begging, “Have You Heard Me?” The voices needed me. Soon I’d moved all of the cereal and pasta out of my pantry and lined the shelves with mismatched jars holding a chorus of flittering Found Voices.
I became skilled at switching them with one forceful thrust from my wind pipe. Alone in my apartment I’d I put on a different one each day, sometimes two. I had my favorites: the Italian boy who sang like a lark; the girl from Brooklyn who tasted like strong coffee; the British woman who was perfect for reading Harry Potter aloud; the wistful caramel tones that tasted of pure con artist.
My collection became…unruly. When I opened the front door and switched on the kitchen light, they would caterwaul and screech in gibberish, vying for my attention. I had to put sound-proofing foam pads on the pantry to keep the cacophony from filling my apartment. I began to notice that some of the voices I never wore, like the woman who barked the simplest questions or the young man who whined like an oboe, were fading, hardly moving in their jars. A voice, I concluded, must need to be active to remain fresh.
The whim of the voices started to fade. I found many gave me a terrible sore throat, an allergic reaction, that lasted for days, making even the most beautiful voice a croaking wheeze. I couldn’t keep the collection active enough and some of them were definitely dying, fading into a puff of ash at the bottom of their jars like spent incense.
I unlocked the pantry one morning and heard only the faintest whisper from my collection. It was time. With my own familiar voice in my throat, I filled an industrial-sized rubberized tote with every jar. They hummed and hey’d with curiosity and worry while I brought them up the elevator to the roof. The jars clinked as I lugged the bin to the edge. One by one I unscrewed the jars and shook the wisps of voice into the wind. I watched as they drifted off, milkweed-down floating all over the city to tangle in treetops and snag on powerlines. Maybe they’d be plucked down by another collector, or a surprised mute. Maybe they’d drift back to their own person. Or maybe they’d just fade away to dust, a murmur in the sunlight.