Fiction - Dropping Balm, The Absinthe Literary Review

a short story by M. Allen Cunningham

How it Comes to Me . . .

This is a true story. It comes to me just like this.

I don’t know Nadja. But because people wear their stories in the tilt of their pen, I learn hers from her handwriting. Blue words, slanting over a page. What I know is this: two people—Wendell and Nadja. Besides the names there is language like a stout elixir. Words like fingers waving inward in summons. Loneliness. These things make the story. Feed the story. End the story.


Who They Are . . .

Perhaps Wendell is a man of silence—but not taciturn. No: he has a generous quietness, an air of intense listening. He loves Nadja quietly, in a way that seems all openness and draws the eloquence out of her.

Perhaps she’s a woman quick-limbed in everything she thinks and does. Yes: Nadja always prefers frankness to delicacy, conversation to cinema, speech to writing. Yet Wendell’s quietness draws hard at the fragments of words deep within her, collects them into pulp, hurls them through her veins, and delivers them up in poetry.

She’s never felt language so thick within her, such a yen for words. In her first months with him, Wendell’s quietness moves her to put pen to paper in a greater, wilder profusion than in all her college years. (She was a poet for a few weeks in her first semester at Berkeley. Then finding nothing sonorous in her effusions she fled from the pull of words – being a biology major. A serious student. Not a poet.)

Now when Nadja meets him twice a week at the Ethiopian restaurant, she brings folded wads of blank verse and lays them on the table for him. Though they live in the same town, she mails him long original verse and hand copies of poems she reads.

His silence, though it spurred the poems, agonizes her now. He lifts the packets of paper from his plate, unwads them slowly and reads them in silence, tilting them toward the centerpiece candle, his brown eyes growing browner with tears.

She listens to the modern African melodies in the restaurant. She clenches her skirt beneath the table, drags the light fabric of it back and forth over her thighs. She endures her heart, which has become an untamed animal ranging in her breast.

Wendell reaches over the plates to lay his soft palm at her neck, cupping her jawbone gently. He weeps somewhat, never saying a word.


How It Is . . .

She feels some long string within her, tautening each time they meet. It’s like a heavy cable-width cello string that runs the full length of her—from her heel, up through her leg, between her hips, into her torso, clear up her neck to the back of her throat. It moans and threatens to uncoil altogether each time she lays her offerings before him.

When at last the string begins to vibrate of its own accord, just humming under spontaneous pressure, she cannot stand it anymore. She starts writing words on her skin. Then she wears words beneath her clothes with a secret pleasure. Her body whispers words when she moves.

One day, she knows, that heavy string will break, snap clean at the middle and come whipping out of her. She will erupt with words, splinter into syllables, like the street-lady who sits against the buildings down on Durant, pools of guttural talk rising around her, nonsense.

But for now she sits across from Wendell and drinks her honey wine and feels the word Ascendancy inked across her midriff beneath her blouse. Juggernaut at the small of her back. Redolence on the fleshy under-part of her bicep.

Wendell rolls the translucent Ethiopian bread under his fingers (soft moisture flexing, bearing the press of his hands) and murmurs about his day, his writing, the new thoughts that occupied him this morning.


How it Began . . .

He’s a professor—though he’s never been her professor. They met in the big parking lot down at the water’s edge, near the horse-track. She was wandering by the rocks on her lunch hour, her back to the bayside factories. He was gazing across the bay to the hazy outline of Mount Tamalpais and needed to know the name of the point just below the main peak.

He thrust a finger into the air before him, squinting. She looked at him while he looked out at the mountain.

“Point Destiny, isn’t it?” she said, with not a touch of irony.

He turned and found her smiling. “I’ll take your word for it. I suppose I’m just curious.”

“Yes you are,” she said. Then she laughed for the first time in the way she would always laugh in his presence—an ecstatic, slightly unnerved trill under the breath. She studied the furrow between his eyes; it gave him a sincerity that was immediate and irresistible. “I recognize you from the university. You’re a poet, aren’t you?”

“If you say so.”

They talked awhile. They stood, chatting and looking at their feet, glancing out over the water. They sat, their legs dangling over the rocks, water lapping beneath them, bits of trash and kelp collecting in piles down there.

They first met for dinner that same week–Ethiopian–at a restaurant he knew. A low-lit place with straw mats on the walls, blue globe candle holders. They pressed at their pale bread, gathered food in their fingers (he instructed her), talked in a shy way.

His brilliance was like a taste to her: such soft slow words. She gave her nervous laugh, spoke in cogent spurts through her shyness (a shyness new to her, brought on by his presence). He listened and grinned with his fine mouth.

After dinner they walked up and down streets together, held hands, pretended interest in window displays. Finally he pressed her to a wall, turned to her with a grave look, walked her backwards three slow steps and kissed her mightily. That sage mouth lapped at hers in a hungry way. His taste was ample and elegant, like so many rare words.


How it Goes . . .

He’s on a sabbatical now, working hard at a new translation of French Imagist poetry. Hunching over language manuals, scribbling into notebooks, referencing and cross-referencing, the constant whisper of pen and pages turning.

She stops by his house one afternoon without phoning first, catches him un-expectant.       

He opens the door to her. “Well, hello.” He stands smiling in a gray half-alert manner, twirling a pen between his fingers.

“Hi.” She laughs. “Thought you might need a little break, a little company.”

He walks down the three porch steps into the garden with her and they sit in the sun on a wooden bench, talking. Pink cosmos lean toward them.

He says, “I’m no kind of host when I’m working like this.”

She stares at the flowers, remembering the word she barely succeeded in scrawling at the small of her back this morning: Efflorescence. The second and third syllables stretching as she stretched, swerving down between the two ridges of muscle back there: flooo-resss.

After half an hour he rises and kisses her forehead lightly (dry lips brushing there, wash of breath eddying against her eyes), thanks her for her visit, and goes back inside to his work.  

It’s been several weeks and she hasn’t been inside his house. He hasn’t come home with her yet.


How She Spells Hope . . .

She tells herself he will uncover these words she writes on her skin. One day she’ll watch him draw back her clothes and glimpse the poem of her. Then he will translate her. She watches his impassive eyes ranging over the blue restaurant plates. His lips frame words with that great gentility of his. One day he will find Capacious at her shoulder-blade. Languor at the thin rail of her heel. Readiness at her hipbone.


Words and How They End . . .

The sun is vicious this summer in Berkeley. It plunges down along the streets. Refracted heat totters along the sidewalks—a drunken, wavering light. The panhandlers do away with shoes and shirts and stand against the buildings, steam lifting from their browning bodies. They half-heartedly rattle the change in their cups.

Upstairs in the restaurant the tables are bending under the swelter. The servers have flung the shutters open and the sweating street roars below. It all conforms to Nadja’s heat. She listens to Wendell’s voice, the current of his glistering words, and she feels slow water trickling from her skin, sliding down between her body and her clothes. The black ink streams. Words slip from focus, stretch into dark fuzz across her belly and spine. Incendiary pools up in her fire.

She cannot know how abruptly this will end. How one day, in just a matter a weeks, a stranger will find a second-hand book of poems at the store on Telegraph, (a like-new copy he’ll buy for $2.25) which will tell him her story in a handwritten inscription and an uncracked spine. It will be a book she bought for Wendell. When Wendell sells it, he will sell her story and his part in it for the purchase of any stranger, disowning her story to commerce and to someone who will read her blue ink on the end pages, the tilted pen work in which she wrote Wendell’s name then hers, and in between wrote: “You are my source of being. You are the language that writes me. You are the incendiary to my straw-like limbs.”

Tonight, not knowing all this, she makes a silent decision: if he does not come with her, she will write new words in new places, contorting before a standing mirror in the silence of her third-story flat, twisting into an S on the floor. The pen on her skin will be cool at first but will quickly grow warm. She will watch the letters spreading backward across her flesh. notnaW. elppuS. tnegluffE. Black letters upon her pale regions, the wan extremities she always covers from the sun. She will whisper promises to herself: One day he’ll open my garments to read me. He’ll find words up and down my limbs, in the slopes at the bottom of my feet. He’ll wash me of words. They will rinse free under his soft hands. Together we’ll make a new word.



© 2003 M. Allen Cunningham

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