CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
The Before Unapprehended
Gabriel Blackwell



Somehow, though, this seems awfully familiar.

     —

     No, I’m not less bothered by his absence than you, brother. How could I be? We were eleven and now we are ten, and yet there is no body, none of us can name the one who’s missing, and what must all of that mean? This silence worries us equally. Or, no, not quite equally: I think we all now agree my verses were next. If anyone should want this lonesome rest to break, it’s me; I mean, if I can’t claim a deeper anguish at brother’s disappearance, I can add to it the anxiety of not knowing what to say. The bodies of our departed brothers will only get heavier the more steps we take, and though we all share that burden, how many steps we all take under it—at least for the moment—is up to me. Glass houses, brother.

     —

     You make it sound so simple. I’m not prepared to … I’ve forgotten even my own verses now; I can’t be expected to remember his! No one’s fooling anyone here, brother: You don’t know them either. You would have spoken up earlier if you did. I might have been able to recite them if I’d known I was going to be called upon to do so, back when the last of you who spoke, spoke—maybe—but so many days later, I can’t remember where whoever it is left off, much less what comes after that. Be reasonable. And, I mean, of course I remember parts of what I would have said—of course—but where that starts I can’t remember, and so then everything else … This chapter, that chapter—does my tongue really have them in the right order? Which one comes first? Am I simply recalling things already recited? You know how it is. One uncertainty leads to another, and that one to another, and that one to yet another, until it’s uncertainties all the way down. And anyway, the whole thing’s moot: Since whoever it is isn’t here, I’d have to recite for him before beginning my verses, and I don’t know his verses, and, clearly, no one is going to step in to recite them for me, and so here we are, struck completely dumb. Still, this strange interruption in the ritual has given me a chance to think: What if this confusion, this silence, isn’t such a bad thing? What if the ritual has changed, brothers? What if not speaking is his part, and this, what I’m saying now, is mine? Obviously the words aren’t the same, and so the terrain they cover can’t be, but perhaps the path they lay out for us will take us where we want to go anyway.

     —

     Yes, we’re going a little ways off. I know! I’ve just said as much. You’re an expert in the obvious, brother, a true master. But here is a fact that must have escaped you: Like you, I’ve been following the verses and stepping where they tell me I ought to step. I’m carrying one brother now—I haven’t shirked my responsibilities. But, as soon as we hit this blear patch, I took on an extra load also—you see, even back then I felt certain the silence was in part my fault, but my mind drew a blank as to how to go about addressing the problem. We proceeded carefully through this impossible fog, not knowing the brother who should have been reciting had already disappeared. Though there was no way to know our next step wouldn’t carry us over the edge, my mind did not panic at the uncertainty of the path; instead, it mirrored the landscape. Empty. But that thought, that emptiness, panicked me, because I felt I was the cause of it and yet I couldn’t think of how to remedy the situation. Even without knowing it, you’d all been waiting for me to speak, to reveal the path ahead. I know it; I had been, too! Yet nothing came. Look, you know my reputation. I’m not chary with my words, and last season, I carried three brothers up to the opening, but this—no thongs exist with which to hold up such a thing. I had come to believe I had to speak. I had to say something, even though I knew it would lead us off the path. What I had to say weren’t verses, or weren’t verses I could recognize, but while we are still alive, we continue to move, and while we move, the story goes on. That’s how it’s always been. So, even if what I’m saying now is clearly wrong, even if we’re definitely not going in the right direction, at least this will be something. And you can see for yourselves I’m right—we find ourselves in unfamiliar terrain, sure, but at least it is terrain.

     —

     I agree: We probably ought to go back to the beginning. At least then we would know where we were. But the first verses escape me. I think I have them right in my mind, but when I try to speak them out loud, my throat dries up and then my mind looses them from their tether. Every time! Let someone else speak them. No? Surely someone still remembers the beginning? I mean the very first verse? Not even the brother who recited it back when we started out this season? No? No one. Then, please, let me speak a while. If, somewhere along the way, any of you remembers that verse, let him recite it, but until then, bear with me. At worst, we’ll keep climbing until someone remembers the words, and then we’ll end up where we end up every season, at the opening, on the plain. A little worse for wear, true, a little more exhausted, but such is life. At best, we’ll follow the one who’s missing to some other place.

     —

     Yes! Think of it. Brothers, no matter what else you may say, no matter what the ritual tells you to think, you can’t deny the one who’s missing is no longer on the path. Look for yourselves. Not a mote out of place. No errant brother anywhere along the Spire. For that to be the case, he would have had to … Well, just listen. First, you must picture a hole in the Spire.

     —

     I know: There is none. You will have to use your imagination. This hole is very deep, falling down and away from the surface into blackness. Inside it, it seems, there is nothing. No light, no sound, nothing. You can’t see through to the other side, and there seems to be no bottom. Though the brother who is reciting has stepped past it and all ahead of you move forward as though nothing out of the ordinary can be seen, your eyes are drawn toward this man-sized void when the brother in front of you knocks a bone out of its resting place and into it. You do not hear an impact. Startled, you slow down, look deeper into the hole, but the verses keep coming and so you must keep going forward or you will be lost, die from exposure, and your desiccated corpse will have to wait until next season to be carried up to the opening and thrown inside. Later, huddled with your brothers on the escarpment thinking of your verses—which you will have to recite in the morning—the landscape you’ve already traversed naturally becomes a blur. You have tomorrow’s verses to recite, too much already to remember. If one wishes to revisit some earlier feature along the path, one begins the ritual again and comes again to the spot. It’s arduous work and I don’t blame you for not bothering. If someone asked you if you’d seen the hole the instant after you’d seen the hole, easy!, you’d say yes, but no one asks and so you don’t think of it. And so it becomes a strange sort of subverse in the ritual, a verse half-written but then erased and written over, and then that rewritten verse is erased and written over again next season, and so on and so on. Most traversals have such subverses, we all feel that to be true even if we cannot know it. Things we pass along our way briefly flicker at the edge of our consciousnesses—we are certain of them—and then they disappear. These things stamp themselves on our memories so imperfectly we can’t recall them even if, later, we are questioned specifically about them. The ritual itself makes it so. Let’s take my hole as an example. We passed it some time ago on our way up the Spire, notwithstanding the fact that we can look back down the Spire and see it isn’t there; still, it’s clear as day to me, even though I have to imagine the hole—that is, acknowledge it isn’t real—to make it so. You see, I think brother must have fallen into this hole, and if he’s fallen into it, it must exist. But I don’t remember such a hole, the same as I don’t remember who it is who’s gone. But then, that’s the whole point of the hole, isn’t it?

     —

     Look: If, later, back on the plain, on our way to the opening, I wanted to ask if you remembered this hole, I would first have to recite for you chapter and verse where it was I saw the hole, or where, at any rate, it is that I’m wondering if you saw the hole. That is, in order to ask you if you saw the hole and not be spouting nonsense, I’d have to also be asking where in particular in the verses you saw it; I could not ask you if you saw a hole nowhere—how could you answer? In first conceiving of asking you if you’d seen the hole, I would be asserting—to myself—that the hole exists, since I know you couldn’t very well have seen a hole that didn’t exist. But it goes without saying that, in forming that question into a string of words to be spoken, I’d also be covering over any memory of that hole, because of course in order to ask if you saw the hole where you saw the hole, I would have to give its presumed location via verses that do not already contain the hole, and so I would, in asking you about this hole-where-a-hole-doesn’t-exist, also thereby be asserting that no such hole exists. I couldn’t very well ask about a hole in The-path-is-level-and-unbroken-forty-steps-past-the-remains-of-our-brother-who-passed-away-from-the-woe, could I? What else could you say in response but, I think you must have the wrong verse, brother? So the path, like the verses, closes over the hole, and the hole leaves the world without fully entering it. But then, to return to the original conception, of course there must be a hole, because how could I ask about it if there weren’t? I mean a hole in theory, a hole in the language. And this is what I mean by subverses. There must be a reality that does not obtain, but does exist, and it seems to me brother must have found it. What if he found a way to follow the steps given by these subverses instead of the steps the rest of us were taking, the steps given by the verses being recited? Where would such a path lead? Wouldn’t it take him into regions that exist in the same way undreamt daydreams exist? Not places exactly but rather abstractions, premonitions, wherever it is things reside before they are conceived of. It would have to, wouldn’t it? It would have to. That would explain his disappearance, his … nonexistence. I can’t think of another way to explain it, can you? Where does brother exist? Not in front of us. Not in any material space we can perceive. And yet we can talk about him, though we cannot locate him, not even by name—that is to say, in verse.

     —

     Look, we know a brother is missing. That much we know. What we do not know is where he is now or who he is. He is nowhere, nothing. Thinking this naturally puts me in mind of this hole, for how else can it be our eyes can search the entire surface of the Spire and find not even a trace of him? He must have somehow fallen into the Spire. Of course; he cannot possibly have ascended from it! But then how can there be a hole that is not in any of the verses, a hole that is then not visible? You’ve seen for yourselves: no hole, no brother. And even more perplexing: How can it be that we do not know who it is who’s missing? This further convinces me that I must be right. Like a feature of the Spire that briefly exists but which is not recorded, it is as though the missing brother never existed. And yet of course we know that he must have once existed, because, again, we know that he is missing, and what doesn’t exist cannot go missing.

     —

     Sometimes I exasperate even myself, brother. I know, it is confusing. Possibly the whole thing’s obtuse, or not well suited to my purpose. Let’s see … take yesterday’s gruel. At this moment, before I’ve asked my question—I’ll get to it—that gruel was and is as pure as gruel ever is. In your memory, it is a solid and impregnable thing: gruel. Unadulterated. But what if I ask: Wasn’t there an emmet in your portion, an emmet you nevertheless didn’t notice in your haste to get the stuff down? I mean no offense, brother, but even you can’t deny it’s inedible. Now that emmet cannot be entirely dispensed with—it may be that it was in your gruel but you didn’t notice it, and there is no way now to know which it is. Before I’d asked the question, no emmet. No question! After, emmet. Perhaps there were emmets in every portion. Perhaps there were more insidious contaminants—perhaps there were toxins, microbes, intoxicants, emetics. It’s only now, now that I’m saying this, that any of it occurs to you, but, now that it has occurred to you, it’s impossible to completely deny. Why should your gut be rumbling so early in the day? Were your bowels loose this morning? Is the sinking of your stomach in response to the thought of what you might have eaten, or, instead, to what you really and truly did eat? The emmet has gone from inconceivable to imminently conceivable, transformed itself into a problem of perception and memory, which we know are reliably imperfect faculties. And the converse to all of this must also be true: If we can manage not only to not talk of a thing—think of the emmet before I brought up the emmet—but also not to think of a thing, that thing will enter into some state of existence that is indeterminable … existence seems like an inappropriate word for that state, but I don’t know how else to put it. The emmet might have been in our gruel regardless of whether I ever questioned whether the emmet was there, and so, somehow, that emmet exists despite not being conceived of. What I’m saying is: Brother has made himself into an emmet-before-we-questioned-whether-there-was-an-emmet. We have ceased to be able to speak or think of him. I don’t know how … Yes, brother?

     So the waters and the earth were brought before the first father. He had been given the task of imparting to each thing a name, and the waters and the earth waited to see what they would be called, and a morning and an evening passed, and the first father gave them their names: waters, earth, and thus they were known. And the stars and the other heavenly bodies were brought before the first father, too, and the day and the night, and the first father named them also, and each star had to itself a name and forever after was known by that name. And the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the creatures of the sea were brought before the first father, each one given a name, and thus the days and nights passed. The flowers in the Garden were likewise brought forth and named, and the trees, and the other growing things. And even the rocks upon the land, and the mountains that rose up out of it, and all of the various features of the Garden—to each was given a name and by that name was known. And the first father looked around him, and it was good, and he saw that it was good, but for each name, for each new thing, there too had been created a step in a path, a path leading out of the Garden, and, because he had named all that had been brought before him and thus filled the Garden past filling, he had, with each name and each thing been displaced from where he began, at the center of the Garden, and thus he found himself far, far away from the center; far away, too, from that which had brought before him all of these things. And indeed, the first father found himself outside the Garden and even so far away he could no longer see it or anything within it. And, too, he could no longer find the path that had brought him where he found himself, for it was not a path like those in the Garden he had named paths, this path was instead itself a name, and the last name, the one the first father had reserved for himself.

     —

     —

     I, too, am sorry this season has come to such a frustrating close, brother. How could I not be? Still, I think we’ve come farther than ever before. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of. Come, let’s toss these old bones into the opening and rest our limbs.




Gabriel Blackwell is the author of three books, the most recent of which is The Natural Dissolution of Fleeting-Improvised-Men (Civil Coping Mechanisms). His fictions and essays have appeared in several issues of Conjunctions, as well as in Tin House, DIAGRAM, Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. With Matthew Olzmann, he is the editor of The Collagist.