By Sylvia Foley
There was not much call for o’s that winter. The District Capital had declared the past tense passé; the people of Ysto were worshipping the present moment. Physicists and monks, needing o’s for om and coulomb, still called for us, but I was starving on that stark fare. So I took what work I could find, first in the bait stands along the quay, rising to the traces in worm and cockle, and then at last in a donut shop. I was too small for hole cutter’s work (although they used me so, now and then). But certain words were cried repeatedly there, same as in any Capital’s kitchen. The bitter chill brought even the poorest customers to our door, with their palms holding coins and their mouths painstakingly forming their requests—powdered jelly, coconut, hot cocoa—and as I rose in that warm conscript’s air, I was almost happy.
Until the month of the milk carton, and the missing human child.
In the trash yards near the quay, the winds blow cold. One night I turned in early, having found what I thought was an abandoned crab shell half-buried in the sand. I gathered seaweed and some washed-up parentheses to line it with, and in that warm nest I soon fell asleep. It was still dark when I awoke to discover that I was no longer alone. Two rotund members of my species, a pair of o’s redolent with cooking smells, had arrived. Their breath reeked of burnt lard, and their hides, dusty with confectioner’s sugar, glowed pale in the moonlight. I knew them: they were hole cutters, grown fat from tasting the wares and so barred from sleeping in the shop. Without asking, they spun themselves round as dogs will, their rims clattering dully, and were asleep before I could protest. Thus crowded, unable to breathe comfortably, I extracted myself from between them and slipped over the side. As I dropped to the sand, I saw that the crab’s shell I’d crept into was in fact the torn husk of a milk carton. And I saw, only then, that it bore the likeness of a child, and a name: Oola Orimba.
I loved her name from the start. Oola, with each o unique in its casing (the stout Capital and the little cousin beside it), the graceful looping l, and the a with its needle-sharp tail: that union of the soft-bellied and the spike-hard seemed perfection. And Orimba, with the i’s eye-dot faithfully leading those blind consonants—what wonders might it see? The whole name rolled forth and sang in its calling, begging the mouths that uttered it for repeated life—and the mouths surely complied. Oo-la, Oo-la, I imagined they’d often sung. No glottal stops, no fricatives to scrape the throat; only the honeyed pleasure of those o’s and the lingual la-la that followed.
The child? The spot-code of the photograph was badly rendered, and yet I went on gazing. She was a plain, dark girl, with eyes as dusky as the operculums of moon snails. Her close-cropped hair had a waxy sheen, and her mouth held a startled expression, the lips parted, as if she’d been alarmed by the picture-taker’s flashing camera, by the funnel-shaped lights he’d strung to light his chamber, by the mottled blue of the backdrop. (I am imagining this, as the milk carton was printed in orange and white, but who has not seen those false skies?) She was missing.
The following day, the shop’s radio broadcast the song of the parents’ lament. It might have been playing for weeks; I had not noticed it before. At first I felt nothing, indeed I expected to go on feeling nothing, for this was a human matter. Why should I be so taken with a lost child? But there again was the name, two words of unutterable beauty. I longed to rise to its call.
From an early age I was often shunned, for it was known that while other o’s were leaping to hope and opulence, my own ancestors had served the red names of common blood and the pornographer’s infamous Capital. My mother had sought to improve our lot before she died. She would not allow my longings to blind me. “Look,” my mother had said one day, fixing a weary gaze on me. “The mouths of blow-up dolls are cut to resemble us; the anal sacs of cats and dogs surround us; bullet entry wounds bear our likenesses. Do you think every word will have you?” At that moment I did not care. I was content to receive her rare attentions.
My mother had found refuge in scientific vocabularies, whose words accepted her, if only to prove their impartiality. We were living in a chemist’s laboratory then, sleeping in dusty nests behind the glass retorts. Each day my mother rose into words like oxygen and cobalt; the names of the inert gases (argon, neon, xenon, krypton, radon) steadied her and gave her a kind of peace. The cobalt quickly poisoned her, of course. I fed her osmium tetroxide to keep her from fading; but it was no use. She was soon gone.
Orphaned, unable to bear the laboratory’s stark confines without her, I wandered through the town until I found myself at the trash yards. There were other castoff letters there, living in rough packs like strays amid the torn seines and abandoned Quadexes, cracked chalkboards, puppets’ teeth, and the beaks of cuttlefish long dead. Scores of silent e’s huddled together, rocking incessantly on their curved legs, as is their habit. A few o’s, driven out of contractions such as isn’t and can’t, trained their pinpoint eyes on me impassively. But I knew my own: the vowels’ presence soothed me, and I followed them. By day we jostled for work in the bait shops, or scavenged among rotting sailcloth and the stripped bones of fish, and often starved. At night we dug our nests in the sand, quarreling over abandoned crab shells and laying low against the winter winds, which sang fiercely to us as our mothers might have.
Before she vanished, my mother had begun to teach me the forms, print and cursive; and so I practiced with the other strays, spinning out along the tattered blue lines of an old training ground above the White Sea. In the beginning I sprawled elongate or ovoid as I pleased. I did not yet understand the need for symmetry, for matching the other o’s radius for radius. I tended to list to one side or another and often found myself plummeting between the blue lines into the incalculable white depths below. Above us the n’s tittered, prissy things, needlessly proud of their variant upper- and lowercasings, whereas we rounders had but one shape, and it was only ballooning to a larger frame that was required in uppercasing. Below us, the p’s cowered as descenders will, dangling their drooping tails at odd angles. Whenever I fell, the n’s taunted me cruelly; but the p’s took pity on me, extending a tail so that I could haul myself back up to the line, shivering, drenched through.
Cursive proved easier, though it requires one to trail joining ropes from particular rim points. I learned to make mine snap and lash so that the air crackled around me, and this skill at last gained me a small measure of respect. In joining, I began to mix more with the other letters, though I remained leery of the n’s and kept my distance if I could. We waited for the trashmen, and when a word was called we’d fling ourselves out along its traces to form it. I loved especially any word that found me beside a cousin, for I felt less lonely then: oolong, ooze, cooperate—we flew over the blue lines fast as crabs, racing the sea breezes that gusted at our backs, threatening to topple us. We led or followed the other letters; it made little difference. We loved the word as most vowels do, for we knew our centrality, we knew that no matter how base we might be among alphabeticals, with words we rose and became more than we were. So it was.
All day long the shop radio gave off the sharp, cold words of the newsmongers. In this way I learned who the child was.
She came from the lower coast, from the outlying district where the chandelier cleaners lived. The chandelier cleaners were looked down on as such people are; and yet they looked up, by both trade and resolve. They built their houses out of chicken wire and lead sinkers, which they hammered flat against the stones. They built without roofs, preferring even the most torrential downpour to the sight of a ceiling overhead. They existed in the sight of their god, and their children were blessed with a bristling curiosity, so that when young Oola vanished, at first it was assumed she had simply wandered farther than usual. By the time her parents contacted the district authorities, by the time these authorities could be persuaded to concern themselves with such a child, by the time the correct beseechments had been chanted, and the requisite paper cranes begged from the origami thieves, and bribes paid to the newsmongers, and orders issued for her likeness to be stamped on the milk cartons—by the time these things were done, the child had not been seen for nearly a fortnight.
At first her frightened parents uttered her name all the more, cooing it mournfully, in love and terror, to any who would listen. Because little was known, much was left to be imagined: some believed she’d been kidnapped, others that she had drowned. They spoke of her fascination with bouncing balls, with doorknobs and pendulums—such a child was easy to mesmerize, her father said, wringing his hands. He told of her careless heart, how she would crouch over beached jellies to stroke their backs. Various theories were floated over the airwaves: she had followed the marble peddlers, she had fallen down a well. A strange child, with a rounder’s yearnings. I knew them as well as my own. I thought of lost and weary things, of the hiss of escaping gasses and passing minutes, and my own name spoken by my mother. I thought of the child, unmoored in the great cacophony. It seemed too difficult to bear.
Hardly conscious that I was doing so, like one obsessed, I began to search for her. As I hurried to work each morning, I veered down alleyways and peered into open manholes, hoping to spot that small face. I did not stop to wonder why. But as I searched, I thought again of my mother and felt my inner rim vibrate with trepidation. That disappearance had been quick and irreversible. She was there and then she was not. I had not been able to keep her from crossing that vacant conjunction. So I dared to think I knew what Oola’s parents must be suffering. As the days passed, as no witnesses came forward and no sightings were reported, my rim began to quiver uncontrollably. I felt I too was shimmering between existence and erasure. Only now do I see that it is the emptiness in the world that binds us, any of us, and nothing more.
In the donut shop, I was distracted, rising unsteadily to form the words of the customers’ orders as I waited for the shackled radio to whisper Oola. My inattentiveness displeased my two companions. At night, bedding down in our damp nest, they jostled me between them and scolded me for endangering our meager livelihood. The customers called words that never quite formed; you could see the looks of confusion pass across their faces. But I could not rouse myself, and barely noticed when they left the shop shaking their heads, saying “Let’s go to Fat Jimmy’s, suddenly I feel like eating eggs for some reason.” Eggs! Our mimics and rivals. I could no longer bring myself to care.
The donut hole cutters, who grew ever more torpid, now complained of the faint, sour odor of the milk carton that disintegrated more each night under the heat and press of our bodies. One night there was a thaw, and this further softened the carton’s coating, causing it to slip-slide beneath us. The cutters proposed turning it wax-side in. Unable to endure the thought of their hides rubbing against the child’s name and face, I waited until they had gone off to work to carve out the scrap that bore her likeness. In a limestone cave below the sea wall, I tucked it into a crevice for safekeeping.
After a time, Oola’s parents spoke less of her presence than of her absence, issuing pleas until their lips bled, knowing these might or might not be broadcast across Ysto. They spoke the child’s name less often; perhaps it pained them too much to say it, for they must have been aware of its now unbearable beauty. At night they wailed at the sea wall, weeping in a wordless grief. Like so many, they were beggars at the shore of the deep White Sea now. Kept awake in our nests nearby under the shared roof of the stars, we could only listen. And yet when a lull came, I could not sleep, though I craved it. Silence seemed a breach of faith from which none of us could recover.
Shall I tell you how the shrieking gulls found her? Vanished—yet she was with us all that time. The White Sea returned her with a jellyfish-stung pallor, blistering in her mouth and privates, rotting weeds in her hair. I am beset by nightmares. Red questions rush at me. Had she walked into the sea, chasing the zero that lives in the sea star’s mouth? Or had she cried no! at her kidnapper, and had I failed to heed, hanging back on my joining rope, while an n laughed and rose alone?
I have visited the long grasses where she lay, her cold arms curled round an ancient manhole cover as though it were a life preserver and might float. She could not have drowned, for her tongue was chalky with the dust of an unformed word. How she died, what the word was—some things cannot be known. The newsmongers again breathed her name, and it resounded with undiminished beauty, as if she were still alive. Her parents laid her to rest nestled in a black tire, on a hill just beyond the trash yards. Under a waning sun, a monk spoke of the sieve of dreams, and the mourners cried her name a thousand times. Letters rose, shuddering under the weight of the grief they bore, and each time the name sounded and was gone. A terrible longing overtook me. I waited until another o faltered. Then, seeing my chance, I raced forth, skimming the hill’s crest, casting my joining ropes high. I knew I deserved nothing. Yet without hesitation, a rising l caught my rope as it whistled past, and drew me near; though his narrow visage was expressionless, he did not let me fail. In the wake of such kindness, an endless sorrow lives. Oola, my dear one, someone cried. These words too dissipated and then I was alone again, falling. I rose for the child’s name over and over, until my rim dragged and I could no longer lift clear.
In the limestone cave below the sea wall, I’ve carved a nest from the anemone’s crevice. The tide comes in and Oola’s likeness wavers in the frothy water, floating, the scrap of milk carton tethered only by the rusting virgules I’ve pinned it with. I stretch my rim as wide as I dare that I might hold all that remains of her—name, face, dates of birth and of vanishing—within me. By day the sea crabs scuttle with their sharp claws across our nest, bold in my absence. I see her fade before my eye; her name goes unspoken. The nights are blind and cold.
Sleepless, I ride the breath of those who speak of things despised or forgotten, the names of insects, and faint stars: codling moth, looper beetle, omega Callaloo. In such work I find a bit of solace. I throw my joining ropes up to the line where the others run, and they haul me in. I’ve worn so thin they cannot see when I am near and haul too hard, making me fight for balance. They speak of me as if I am not there. O! they exclaim, chiding one another, hurrying to the word, which rises warbling and then, too often, changes. One of these days soon, my weakness will matter: if I stumble alone, mire for more; if an e also lags, harm for home. Such failures mount up. I yearn for one sound from the unheard, her small gasp in the wind. I pray to a missing god for forgiveness.
Oola I will love for the rest of my days.
Sylvia Foley’s book of linked short stories, Life in the Air Ocean (Knopf, 1999), was named one of the Best Books of 1999 by the Los Angeles Times. The title story won GQ’s 1997 Frederick Exley Fiction Competition. Her stories have appeared in various literary journals, including Story, LIT, Zoetrope, r.kv.r.y quarterly, and The Antioch Review, as well as in the anthologies On the Rocks: The KGB Bar Fiction Anthology (2002) and They’re At It Again: Stories from 20 Years of Open City (2011). Her poetry has appeared in Black River Review, Sinister Wisdom, Conditions, and Alaska Quarterly Review. She holds an MFA from Columbia University and has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and Yaddo.
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