Memorial for modes of Counting
A line thin as a glass filament runs from Dendermonde to St. Louis. It will resemble a telegraph line. How delicately such things sway in the air that moves them. How they tremble with information. Small city overlooking the Mississippi River, overlooking the century behind it—full of prone bodies and battlefields, acquisitions and the auction block and dolomite. Newly independent city, where industry puts its green shoots out. Overnight, dark red flowers with gilt centers bloom: lead, brass, dog food, and beer. The lines on the map fly over everything, insensible and mute.
From Dendermonde to White Marsh, to Florissant, to Council Bluff in Iowa, to Lac Pend Oreille, to the source of the Columbia River, to Alberta, to Fort Edmonton, to the Bitterroot River, and to St. Louis, finally, where we’ve been waiting so long for an arrival. The priest is a mark moving in landscape. On the face of the map his name stamped where his feet did. Other names come to the surface, blurred as if through water; a translative equivalent here and there. We cannot begin in Belgium, which does not exist. The United States do not exist. Let’s use the word territory, a story all by itself. Let’s begin where languages encroach on the regions of legality, and are disappeared.
Sixty-nine years earlier, Meriwether meets with the Otoe. (Who says meet.) The intervening time generates 140 of these maps, marked mostly in English. (Who says map.) Lands that never existed (who says exist) east of the Mississippi are on paper, a marvel of empty space where everything can happen. Nothing in the way but the Rocky Mountains and the grace of God, wavy ridges wait for vineyards. Lea sides wait for farms. In a century, a potent fertilizer. Birds’ eggs so thin the light comes through them. The priest’s hand moves with hungry pity. All that space.
A new west cedes itself soft as whispers in the middle of a century crying Progress! and its people move to invisible spaces with the beads and bottles that stand in for treaties. No one has signed a thing (who says signed). You see the places where thread and loom took the place of free migration through midcontinental plains, where government cheese and infected blankets and forced urination on bare feet in January are a stormfront in an otherwise empty sky. (Who says empty.)
Strands of those beads fill the continents. In a furnace a murrina is heated until the filaments of glass stretch, although the word ‘murrina’ will not exist for another five years. Beads come as ballast in ships emptied of human bodies and run through forest and down rivers; a girl’s body is worth $200 at four dollars to the pound. A Murano necklace of green beads with copper chevron details (126 g.) sells at auction a century later for £160. The beads are running through the landscape in hands and pockets, though the strands fall apart rapidly in this kind of weather, and dogs creep about at the edges of the camps, and the black and brown bodies will not do as they are told. (Says worth. Says do what. Says told.)
Their hemp or linen strings disintegrate and the beads are loose like teeth. Anywhere you scratch, a bead comes to the surface. In Oklahoma’s dry dust the beads dance on the surface, a mockery of agriculture, melted by fire; for a moment the priest sees the outline of a cathedral window. His country, which had been no country, is pulled together by an invisible drawstring. Sometime soon the awkward pouch of Flanders and Wallonia will be a kingdom. Borders shade themselves in. A ship leaves port looking for magic lands where crops are grown for free by people so willing to work the soil they happily die in the fields, where strange fruit leaps from trees and the earth is a breast for suckling, out of which gold flows like milk.
From the Venetian furnaces themselves; from rooms in Holland where migrant Venetians bend glass rods by fires in low-country light, longing for home; from Poland and Czechoslovakia where women on wooden benches press molten glass into molds, colored beads stream out. Red beads discolor in the soil. Carl Lumholz is studying theology in a Norwegian winter, and a man whose name is unrecorded pushes beads into a wax tablet with his thumb. Through the air, like strands of yarn from bobbins to a tapestry loom, the strands of beads make patterns, and Lumholz dreams of the future, making small mistakes in translation as he goes. He sleeps in a rain of clear glass beads with raised gilt dots, applied threads, dots of colored glass.
Something called a Removal Period hovers in the distance like a mirage, more dangerous than a mirage, made of unstoppable force and forgetting (who says forgetting).
It is 1873 and nine Pekin ducks are brought to Long Island. Their meat will be sold in restaurants in Manhattan, where the construction of a new bridge has already begun; its girders house pigeons whose dark meat is as delicious as duck, but déclassé. The ducks are white. Their flesh is soft; their feed is grain. Their offspring populate the menus of Chinese restaurants for a century. In the dark simple houses of their brains they learn new languages. The females lay six eggs each over the course of two weeks. Machines are invented to turn the eggs while they incubate. A candle held to an egg shows the heartbeat.
In a hundred years, a Belgian conglomerate will buy the St. Louis beer company and its warehouses and brewery will sit empty; the remembered echo of boys playing kick-the-can will reverberate and the cemeteries will fill with those bodies. A cobble holds the memory of the feet that struck it. Under the stones under the blacktop, the dust is restless, and the bones in the dust want to move.
The body of the duck remembers the green river, and the dream of the duck in its wire cage is a dream of slick weeds in half-salt water, like the street’s dream (beneath the stones, shards of a girl curled around a shattered jug, a scatter of tiny opaque beads like a halo). The dream duck gulps river weed and the sun rises through fog where thin boats break the reeds.
Where is the ordinary person in these places, full as they are of wire factories and bead factories, anonymous masses and crushes of humanity, tracks through snow which has melted and left nothing behind? The body lives in the space we call a name and we write it down like an I-beam holding two neighboring houses apart. Into that space the person falls; like all soft things, the individual rots away.
We are walking through the orchards where the city was, we are walking across plains. We lay down in the belly of the ship and become our height, weight, number of teeth, and date of passage. Become our price. Become what we traded our land for. A pair of thumbprints. A needle on a wax cylinder. Become the latest mark at the end of a list of dead. Become exemplary, invisible, general.
It is the morning of September 17, and outside the window of a brownstone building the honey locust trees which leaked sap all summer have begun to turn bright yellow, and the meterologist turns over in bed. A thirteen-year-old science etches its light graph across the western sky, invisible for now behind the building across the street. In ten years he will travel to Tokyo to establish the Tokyo Meteorological Observatory. His fingers trace the shape of storm formations on surface weather maps.
Tomorrow is the real beginning of winter, although the meteorologist does not know that yet. Along 33,000 miles of railroad track the telegraph lines have begun to chirp and tick, and a flock of blackbirds flies off a field somewhere near Columbus, setting the last of the ripe wheat shaking, and the doors of the Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College open to their hallways’ honey-colored wood and the dark trim characteristic of Midwestern land-grant universities of the United States. The meteorologist’s fingers flex and extend. Under the thin cotton sheet and the pair of wool blankets, if you were to trace his body it would barely exist.
The blankets exist, woven by the J. E. Ashworth & Sons company in Hartland, Vermont. And every calendar clearly bears the 1 and 7 on the third Thursday of the ninth month of this year, the year of water-powered mills and five looms making ten thousand blankets. In some 79 years, synthetics will win and the mills will close, taking part of the eastern Vermont economy with them and establishing a pattern of vacancy which will haunt the state well into the next century. The blankets will become collectors’ items, hunted on eBay and in antique markets, most prized when their woven labels have gone unfaded.
Even the brownstone apartments exist, micrometers of their front steps dispersed on the soles of residents passing in and out, as the meteorologist does, now, heading down the street and into a fall morning that typifies the genre—blue sky made crisper by the changing leaves, the red-brown of the Triassic sandstone. The winter that’s coming will last six years and reduce the buildings to tenements, lower floors infested by rats which come in through drains, roaches everywhere, puddles in the corners, penny-shaped tiles peeling off the entryway floor.
It would be beautiful if you could imagine him whistling.
Move the pieces you read and believe and see and think as if playing an immense game of chess, no longer on a plane but in a network, in all directions at once. In the archives, surrounded by their eternal present tense, the Belgian priest crosses the ocean on horseback, following the line of ducks who swim through a the ghost of an unbuilt canal: the girl shakes her strand of beads and leaps into the crowd, which becomes a pool of water surrounded by old-growth trees. The body of the undertaker and the body of the lynched man and the body of the government agent and the dupe root and grow tendrils and are forgotten while the people we love live on, even the unseen ones: their brands, their scars gleam. And we move into patterns of weather we only know with our bodies, forgetting their repetitive tracking, while the sleepy meteorologist rubs his eyes and writes down the movements of the last ten snowstorms to cross the Great Lakes and the snow we are living in now stings our eyelids. Snowstorms like the thin regular lines of graph paper. You and I, here, now, we are real, we think. (Who says real.) We push our bodies together. And around us is a circle of light we’ve become convinced is what exists: the sum total of the visible universe. But the light from a hanging lamp brightens a limited sphere; outside, the lives of the past are groping and climbing, singing in languages beyond our ability to receive. Without fever or plague blankets, without a nameless man pushing a woman into a ditch. The city disintegrates and a new one swells.
The light is the light on the desk, the round brass lamp that keeps a small warm space. The green baize of the desk. The ledger. And just outside what is visible, the archive turns into a prairie. Its grasses blow in an extinct wind.
Éireann Lorsung’s favorite piece of road literature is Kimiko Hahn’s The Narrow Road to the Interior. She (Éireann, not Kimiko Hahn) is the author of Music For Landing Planes By (Milkweed 2007), Her Book (Milkweed 2013), and Sweetbriar (dancing girl press, 2013). Recent poems appear in Beloit Poetry Journal, Colorado Review, and Women’s Studies Quarterly; excerpts from a novel-in-progress are in Two Serious Ladies, DIAGRAM, Mandala, and Bluestem. She runs MIEL, a micropress (miel-books.com) and is the residency coordinator at Dickinson House, a space for writers and artists in Belgium (dickinsonhouse.be).