S. Brook Corfman
The Anima, a play
STAGE DIRECTIONS, who has no past
WHEN'S SUDDENLY, an anxious contraction of “when is suddenly?"
REPRESSION, who is trying not to say
NON-BINARY, who is non-binary
TWO PARENTS, as TWO & PARENTS, mother & father, played by the same
A family scene, or something like it, filtered through the impressions of a singular aperture: TWO PARENTS, as one person; REPRESSION, a child; and NON-BINARY looking sad, or something like it. WHEN'S SUDDENLY, a startled contraction, a kind of grammatical feeling, stands behind them. Shall I be seated, feet dangling, perched at the edge of the stage? Or would you rather I stood, surrounded, turning slowly toward each attraction as we went?
Here's the only thing you need to know as we begin: I'm STAGE DIRECTIONS. That is, I say the things that don't get said—a gesture, emotion, necessary actions. The other things we don't say— well, there's REPRESSION, floating around, you'll meet him in a moment. I wouldn't dream of stealing such a role.
STAGE DIRECTIONS winks.
See? Like that. That's how it goes. The rest proceeds more or less conventionally, although, I suppose, it depends on whom you've been reading, and for how long. So even if an actor forgets, or they move ambiguously, I can tell you what to make of it. It's really quite the solution to ambiguity.
And so! To the show!
At which point STAGE DIRECTIONS offers a flourish before settling in.
REPRESSION begins to turn a fouetté downstage left, which he should continue in as long as possible, stopping if necessary, but always starting again.
WHEN'S SUDDENLY wanders the stage, as if underwater, continually surprised, seeming to be in his own conversations.
TWO PARENTS, anxiously shifting from foot to foot, watch NON-BINARY, dressed all in tight black but wrapped in a large colored shawl. He heard once a version of the story of Joseph, in which the coat of many colors was a dress, and the shawl is a little bit like that. Mostly, NON- BINARY takes notes on WHEN'S SUDDENLY as he moves about. Here's the first thing unsaid, that NON-BINARY holds confusion within him, the one he studies, and holds it at a distance in each note he takes.
So, NON-BINARY, listen to me, how some small quality of sound changes as I say...
Is it made of stone or diamond? That crack there, it never reaches the valley, and the trees wither. A shaping determined by the force of the soil.
Look how he looks up but not at me.
I remember withering. Watching the crack approach but knowing it would never hurt, a kind of feeling walled off. That there are outside things—building a sandcastle, or a tree fort. That we had gym shoes over every telephone wire, in one way a sign of presence. And that there are things on the inside, or things the inside takes in from the outside.
Can you hear me?
NON-BINARY is startled, but it seems does not believe I could be real, this voice.
I can hear a story, how I wore dresses a long time ago, and I didn't outgrow them but decided against them. There were several options, and I chose a different one.
I'm not sure it was the right decision, but it was the best one, I think, at the time. It seems I wouldn't have been happy, either way.
He always wanted a pet, but we had allergies. He named the hamster Emma, but I swear we were told the hamster was a boy. Did he name Emma “Emma" anyway? In the night she gave birth to six baby hamsters and in—what, fear? a revelation?— broke out of the cage and left her babies to die. We never found her.
We buried the babies next to the bleeding hearts, that year his favorite flowers in the garden.
Perhaps the store lied to us. Perhaps they didn't and he wanted everything to be female, and it was the one time he made that wish that it came true.
He's never felt particularly attached to pets since then, even having lived with them. I don't know if that makes him cruel, as he's been told—is it cruel to be moved by the screen, its cuteness, but be uninterested in what it takes to support the life? Or is it simply a drawing of a boundary, like a line in the sand. As the sun sets, there's a second line, distinct, marking the night as it stretches across the beach. How it moves past the distinction without being bothered by it at all.
Who's the attractive man here?
At this outburst, REPRESSION stops spinning briefly to say:
That wasn't the last time I cried, but I did cry. The last time it was when I saw a man see his own fate in a ripped linen curtain. We had curtains like that in the house I grew up in, where I got in trouble for jumping, for pulling them—
I don't think it's me.
Have you chopped down a tree before?
I have or I haven't.
And look, REPRESSION begins to spin again, with so unsatisfactory an answer, when what he wanted was to know what happened next, after the tree fell, what it weighed.
Have you stolen a cigarette, or only asked to borrow one? Have you shared one as it burned? I lit a candle and it didn't melt to its edges, only burnt a small column in the middle, off-center. It smelled like sandalwood and something else, like the canopy of the woods in Michigan, in winter, if woods even have a canopy. Maybe only jungles do, which have never had winter, but might, one day.
NON-BINARY once stole a pack of gum, and confessed it to us.
REPRESSION stops spinning again, to confess something to TWO PARENTS.
I was thinking of wearing pink on my nails today, pink, because when I wore clear they thought it was pink anyway.
And resumes the spin.
Not like this, not outside the house.
NON-BINARY struggles with this, has what I like to call “a bodily reaction," and he's alone so he lets himself follow it through:
No more of this hammering at the walls, this pounding at the ground of me. I can feel it when I try and walk, when I feel myself feeling how far apart my feet are, how they land, every time. I can never decide what's appropriate. The pounding wakes me up when I'm sleeping to tell me I should just be sleeping. I could sleep forever, through the sunlight, born under the sign of the eclipse, but you keep waking me up. And then there's no food and the stores are closed and I'm hungry and I could just be sleeping, but it's so hard to get there, how I worry that I live outside of myself, in a space where other people could address me, and I would have to respond, and so be someone they knew, and so I would be responsible for this person they thought I was. I am addressed at all times, even at night, or I might be, and so the days cannot divide.
I've been told some missed sleep is ok, that some lost in a lifetime is fine, but a little bit of a lifetime might be several years. I was lying to my mother about how often I lay awake.
When I pulled the blackout curtains nothing changed. I still slept, or I didn't, only I couldn't find the relationship between that sleep and anything else other than myself. It was as if I was alone— which, I suppose, I was.
REPRESSION, don't you have something to add? Stop spinning.
I learned to meditate from a girl afraid of the dark, from a boy a briar loved so well it left a mark. When he wasn't paying attention, the vegetable dyes he tattooed to hide the scar grew and flowered and never died. On the other side of the roof she sat with her weaving, said count the threads, get lost in the loom and you will not see the setting sun, the warp and weft will untangle that wool your body sends out into the world. You are a wisp of wind, a steady flickerless. First bring it in, then let it go, then you will not need to move, you have a number, mine is seven, the boy's is five, now begin—count to the number, hold, count to the number, hold, see how strength is a ward. The boy picked up each weed after weed sprouting from the straw. You have weeds too, he said, and each weed may not be a weed when viewed from above. Put them in the basket that is your body.
And this was good, or it was good for things other than sleeping. But it asked something of a body in tandem with a mind, and what a difficult thing to ask of mine.
Won't you help me find my friend, my little tree frog, all in bright? He wears the blue ink on his skin.
He never said he wanted to hurt or hate himself, only that he wanted. I don't know what we would have done if he said that. I don't know what. We wanted him to live to be a grown up boy.
So here, folded forward into an emotional life, I am reminded I have a body, or, rather, I am reminded I cannot control my body, or I cannot control how other people see that body. “Body" is an important word to me, and still so general.
That there is “the small dance," how we are always falling and catching ourselves.
I was told that to breathe deeply activated a somatic response, a mechanism the body had for calming—the body, that is, every body—and it has never worked for me. So I was surprised to find, from that same mouth, a statement that was true about me: that the places of my body that hold stress turned out to be the places of the body that hold stress—in the breath, its hitch, the shoulders, although there I do not like to be massaged, the knees, my lower back, which I once thought was strong. How someone I know slipped a disc getting out of a chair, and then on a bike my back seized and I was sure I had slipped a disc too. But I hadn't. Or not that I know of. But still it seems only a matter of time before something slides a bit out of alignment.
I was remembering the time I told my therapist how regularly I got sick and she said, and what if it were psychological? What would that change?
Here's a memory for you, one that's collided: TWO PARENTS, won't you come here and do us the honors?
A spotlight on TWO PARENTS, in a botched replication of NON-BINARY'S recitation of “The Walrus and the Carpenter," by Lewis Carroll, penname of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, originally from Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There published in 1871 by Macmillan, for Mrs. Rhododendron's sixth grade Reading class.
Perhaps a different tone—yes, happiness, even as the words miss, a kind of garish vaudeville, a hysterical dance. It's a little bit embarrassing for the parents to do this, it's true, but we're aiming for a certain discomfort.
And just for effect, since we'll be talking about oysters, perhaps some might fall to us as this proceeds, hm? A nice effect.
And we'll all turn to watch:
He did his best
to middle the night—
the moon was done.
You could not see a cloud,
because no cloud was in the sky.
The Walrus! The Carpenter!
To see such quantities of sand—
“We cannot do more to each."
The eldest Oyster shook to say
he did not choose.
The time has come, the Walrus said,
To talk of many things:
Of sealing wax, of kings.
And why the sea is what we chiefly need
if we can begin to feed.
After such kindness, a fine view.
Cut twice, a shame to play
a trick. With sobs and tears,
the answer came—none—
they'd eaten every one.
Recorded applause plays as TWO PARENTS bow, crying, not sure they conveyed what they wanted it to, as REPRESSION seems to be deviating from the script, running around picking up the oysters. Protecting them? Checking for life? Or perhaps, more selfishly, for pearls.
Something I wrote once: to shuck an oyster, first make sure it is alive.
With a little more anger now, please, a little quiet rage, I can see that in you.
NON-BINARY looks at his pen.
When you die, if there's a question about how, there's an autopsy.
It seems like it's about time for a torch song for someone, maybe that one from Oliver! about staying just so, here in the same place ongoing, wasn't that the first one, I think it was—
A Y incision is made, the cuts extending to the shoulder joint.
—or it could be that one the ill woman writes in the voice of her love, who doesn't exactly hate her—
There is little blood, because the blood has ceased to move. If there are breasts, the arms of the Y curve around them. Shears open up the skin.
—there's the one about that towering feeling, which I always thought as an omen—
And then the ribcage is opened. The cartilage between the breastbone and the ribs is weak.
All this to see inside.
—but I think the best one is about the dimmed lights and the thoughts and sweeping but not succeeding—
And when they put the organs back in, and sew the skin back up, the bones don't fit quite right. The chest juts out. Makes itself obtrusive. As if a good whack would settle it into place.
Do you see how WHEN'S SUDDENLY keeps interjecting, but not saying much? How he can keep his attention on a topic but not the details, can't quite decide? Truthfully, this is new for him, he's spent most of his time watching very carefully and failing to pretend, always reacting, bursting over in little energetics. But I'm not worried. He seems to think that trying to say is better than that, I think, even though we don't know what he's saying yet. In trying to say, he suggests, it's possible each try will be different.
But this is new: look at him. As if he's remembering something. What does it mean to show in one's posture, in one's face, the feeling of remembrance, of accessing a door in the air? This time even I don't know what it is.
Can you remember having dreamt if you do not remember any of the content of the dream? Can you remember that you forgot something, even if you don't remember anything about the thing you forgot? What if you made yourself forget? How a suddenness points a present towards a twirl, becomes a life full of things that have happened, as opposed to a life devoid.
It's true, they've been thinking about outlines to avoid that sense stuck to their spine, at the back of their ribcage, the one that says something's wrong. In one version of this, NON-BINARY sought the answer to a question: What is the line between a feeling, like a mist, and sharp content, like a red square, like a seeping outwards? What—
I've seen that door.
A pause. I thought this was about NON-BINARY.
I can speak to fish but not to frogs.
Well that's … a lie. I think. You're lying and I did not say it.
REPRESSION, NON-BINARY, and I all look fearfully, excitedly, at each other.
Close up on NON-BINARY's eyes, which are extremely dilated. A clenched hand, like a possession. Back out to a wide shot of this stage, filling with water.
TWO PARENTS run for a pail, to bail the water off onto the audience, as if they might look away.
When the tide comes back. See that the water level sinks, just slightly? How it has frozen and shattered more frequently? When it rises we'll try again to put ourselves adrift. We've no boats but our own. Trying again is the definition of something, but what? I can almost remember. I can almost say.
No? You say no as you've stopped being sudden?
You're not that different from me.
But a sense of order is important.
And you, despite yourself, you are speaking with the authority. You imagine one order but begin to live another.
This is for us a great loss, I think. But I at least had this moment of speech, if I had it. It's not that we'll become whole, it's that we'll be left behind, I think.
Can you give me the clinical definition of amnesia, its likely causes?
We can't all be STAGE DIRECTIONS, who has no past.
REPRESSION looks mournfully at STAGE DIRECTIONS, mixed with a kind of desire.
I have a past. Once I said things as they happened and now it seems I am not the only one. Isn't that a past? To have once been concurrent and now to be belated?
No—a past is an attic or an ocean floor. Not dark, not without light, just too far away.
Mine's just the ocean, whole.
I don't think we should see this.
Stay, I think this will become important when we look back on it, for me, if not for you.
WHEN'S SUDDENLY takes out an inkpot from the desk, filled with dark blue ink, and dumps it out over himself.
It's all blue, so I'm never sure if I've brought the poison or not.
WHEN'S SUDDENLY dips a finger into the ink and licks it.
NON-BINARY, REPRESSION, & WHEN'S SUDDENLY
Certain forgettings are suddenly remembered.
NON-BINARY looks at REPRESSION for the first time.
Wait I don't want that, actually. I don't think I'm ready.
Once I spoke and now I speak, and now such speech cannot help you.
Once I said things only after the fact but it would be nice to be STAGE DIRECTIONS and say the things that happen and be without a past. When the past remains it is always interrupting even though I do not want to.
Well, we can try it. STAGE DIRECTIONS come here. I'm relieving you of your duties.
I'm not sure what will happen.
REPRESSION becomes STAGE DIRECTIONS.
The water on the stage evaporates.
We all drink too much poison, especially NON-BINARY.
NON-BINARY looks at REPRESSION and WHEN'S SUDDENLY as they remove a wet piece of clothing. REPRESSION is STAGE DIRECTIONS is WITHOUT A PAST.
Safety, it seems, for the moment, as we look at four upon a stage instead of five.
S. Brook Corfman is the author of Luxury, Blue Lace, selected by Richard Siken for the Autumn House Rising Writer Prize, and METEORITES, a limited-edition chapbook from DoubleCross Press. This Lambda Literary Fellow's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, Indiana Review, Muzzle, and Quarterly West (Best of the Net Nomination), among other places. @sbrookcorfman