The Creation of Echo
by Rhiannon Catherwood
I step into the café, the door creaking shut behind me and closing out the sound of the street traffic as I adjust my sunglasses and my grip on my long white cane. I listen for the hiss of the espresso machines and clatter of utensils to orient myself toward the counter, but it must be a slow night because the place is quiet except for a little breathing, tapping on keyboards, and soft jazz on the speakers. Fortunately, the barista spots me looking a little lost. He greets me loudly and calls me over—I wonder if anyone noticed me start walking a half-second before he spoke.
I order a coffee to go—decaf—paying with a bill folded in half vertically (tens are vertical, twenties are horizontal, fives folded into thirds, and singles not at all), and then I feel around for the plastic tip box to drop in my change. As I do, the phone behind the counter rings, and he says it'll just be a moment. In that moment …
A man sitting by the window glances between his watch and the sidewalk through the glass, his latte sitting on the little round table in front of him with its perfect foam leaf undisturbed.
A woman in the corner focuses on her laptop screen, a too-long e-mail drafted, mouse cursor hovering over the send button as her elaborately manicured fingernails drum with uncertainty.
Someone at a table almost directly behind me is staring at my ass and not even trying to be subtle about it.
Then the moment is over, and the barista hangs up the phone and turns to pour my coffee from a large black carafe, leaving the one with the colored indicator sitting on the shelf. He hands me the paper cup, helps my hand find it, and thanks me for coming in. I pause. Maybe I should just drop it, but I don't want to be up all night.
"Um …" I start, hoping he doesn't ask questions, "Sorry, but I think this is regular. I asked for decaf."
"Oh, that's right, you did!" He apologizes and takes the cup back, dumping it and refilling it from the right carafe. Somewhere in mid-pour, it hits him, and when he turns back to hand it to me, he can't help himself. "I don't mean to be rude, but … are you really blind?"
Turning to go, I shrug and tell him, "It depends on how you look at it."
I fully lost the use of my eyes way back in high school—the doctors called it severe early-onset macular degeneration. But I gained the use of everyone else's eyes even earlier. The first time it happened, I was a little girl with ice-cube-thick glasses struggling to see the candles on my birthday cake when I slid into my mother's eyes and watched myself leaning in just close enough to blow them out. Later, I learned to do it on purpose—just slide into someone's eyes, and whatever they see, I see. Doctors don't have any words for that, so I've kept it to myself ever since. Now, twenty years later, I fall asleep reading braille, and I wake up to my morning alarm in the dark. I choose an outfit by texture and memory, wondering what I look like. I listen and feel my way down the stairs of my apartment building, but I step out my door, and there's the world, and there I am.
I take a moment to get a sense of myself from the man walking his dog on the sidewalk, the woman sitting in stopped traffic, the drug dealer leaning against the lamp post. I turn right—my right—toward him—left of her—away from the other guy—and I start moving. I pass myself from one set of eyes to the next as I make my way down the sidewalk, disappearing and reappearing, walking opposite directions without breaking stride, trying to maintain awareness of my audience and myself like an actress on a revolving stage. It can get disorienting, but it's better than not seeing at all.
I try my best to stick close to the buildings, to stay to the right, to keep my audience all on the same side, but going through intersections is trickier. Suddenly I'm awash in perspectives, and my mind can't decide whether the construction worker at four o'clock or the taxi driver at eleven o'clock has a better view of me, and for a moment, I get dizzy and trip on nothing at all, and then everyone is looking and thinking they know why I stumble. None of them realize that it's them.
I tap my cane in front of me like any other blind lady, but I'm not really paying attention to what I feel with it. Instead, I'm feeling something else, a subtle tactile sense I've developed to know who is looking at me and from where. This is the real reason why I carry the stick—and why I dress in bright colors and eccentric styles—it gets attention, and attention helps. The trouble is most people—polite people—only look for a few moments and then turn away because it's rude to stare at someone different. That rule is a little absurd when it comes to staring at the blind, though, since the blind—at least most of us—wouldn't realize you were staring. Still, they turn away, maybe less to avoid staring and more to avoid being seen staring. Does being rude matter less to a person than being seen as rude? Maybe there's no difference.
I wish that they would stare longer because it can be even harder to follow myself as I don't always look the same from person to person. Mostly, the changes are small. My hair is a strawberry blonde on one block where the girl on the bike swerves around me and a dusty gold on the next block where the sidewalk drummer begins to keep time with the tapping of my cane. Waiting to cross the street, I still have the freckles I had as a child; on the other side, they're gone. I wonder, did the hot dog vendor imagine them, or did the cop fail to notice them? I grow a few inches, shrink a few inches, gain ten pounds, lose ten pounds. I try to focus on my outfit.
Unfortunately, the ones who look most and watch longest are men who don't care about politeness, and their looks change me most of all. I watch helplessly as my face, one moment bland and dull, blooms with makeup. My skirt gets shorter, gets longer, is barely covering my ass, is frumpish, is just kind of weird. Beneath the skirt, I'm swaying my hips seductively—now I'm not—was I ever—am I still? Sometimes, I'll try to linger with a kind set of eyes longer, leave a cruel set faster, but when the crowd thins, beggars can't be choosers.
And when the eyes are more distant, I'm other women entirely. I've heard that police sketches of suspects often wind up looking like celebrities as the witness tries to see, to remember, through a haze of pop culture. In Under the Bypass, Erica Singer is played by Jennifer Lawrence. Coming soon, Scarlett Johansson as Erica Singer in Passing the El Station. I'm Carrie Underwood with darker hair; I'm Taylor Swift with lighter hair. I'm Julia Stiles twenty years ago. I'm that girl who hosts that one talk show with that guy. I'm the lady on that one billboard for that insurance company, I think.
I'm so many people by the time I get from one place to another. Maybe we all are. And maybe I shouldn't complain. Maybe I should be thankful for all of them who lend me their eyes. But I can't help but wonder what I look like, who I am, to me.
"Siri," I begin, "send a text message to Chloe."
She answers, "OK, what do you want to say to Chloe?"
"Hi Chloe, it's Erica. I'm outside your apartment."
A few seconds later, my phone vibrates and chimes in my hand, so I ask, "Siri, read the last text message from Chloe."
"I found the most recent text message from Chloe," she says and goes on: "OK, wait, I'll buzz you in." I'd found the door handle ahead of time so that I wouldn't miss the buzz. On the way down the hall, I thank Siri. She responds graciously, "You don't need to thank me."
"Siri, what time is it?"
"It's 10:07 AM."
I was afraid of that—my first appointment and I'm running behind like always. Chloe won't mind that I'm arriving a few minutes late, but she would mind if I didn't stay as long as usual. I'll have to push back the rest of my day a little.
"Siri, change my 10:30 AM alarm to 10:45."
"OK, alarm set for 10:45 AM."
"You don't need to thank me."
She's told me that a thousand times, but I can't help it. Maybe it's the effect of a childhood full of science fiction stories about androids and cyborgs and the people who treated them like outsiders, like less than a full person. I always felt a kinship with those machines. And maybe it helps that to me, it doesn't make much difference whether Siri has a body. So what if she's just a voice? So are most of the people I meet—if we never touch and if you don't smell particularly good or bad, you are the sound you make. And sure, she can be a little hard to talk to, you have to phrase things carefully, and she won't always understand, but my job is a little like that too.
I work as a life skills coach for adults with developmental disabilities. Sometimes that means making home visits to the ones who can manage to live by themselves with a little support. I stop in to make sure everything is going well with her job, with her landlord, with budgeting and paying bills, and I make sure she's eating well. Some of my clients need a lot of help, but with a woman as capable as Chloe, I mostly listen to her talk.
The door is already creaking when I'm only halfway down the hall to her door, and I can hear the smile framing her voice as she calls out something like my name. Chloe's biggest difficulty is with speech, so it comes out a little twisted, sounding almost like "Echo." I say hello back, and like always, we start with a hug. Chloe is more than a voice to me; she's a marshmallow warm set of arms enveloping me, then grabbing my hand and pulling me through the doorway.
I slip into Chloe's eyes as she goes to turn off the TV. The apartment is clean—or cleaner than mine, at least. She goes to the desk in the living room where I notice mail and important papers organized like we talked about—good. But she's not picking up letters or envelopes; she's opening the drawer to find her sketchbook.
This is always the first order of business with Chloe. We won't get anything done until she's had the time to show me her latest works. She'll bring me to the couch to sit down next to her, and one by one, she'll flip through drawings and paintings of parks and people and city streets and the dogs she's seen on the sidewalk, and with each one, she'll ask, "Do you like it?" "Do you like it?" "Do you like it?" And I always do. She holds the drawings so I can see them, as though she doesn't know I'm blind. But she also takes my hand and walks me from place to place as though she does. I can't figure out if Chloe understands me less than everyone else or more than anyone else.
What I know is that the version of me sitting on the couch next to Chloe looks different from any version on the street. I'm another woman, one I don't recognize, one I'm not sure Chloe recognizes either, but who looks just a little bit like Chloe herself. Based on the way she proudly brings me her creations—"Do you like it?" "Do you like it?"—and the way she beams when I later compliment her on how well she's balanced her checkbook, I wonder if the mother who abandoned her as a baby is springing up from some instinctive place before conscious memory and finding her way into my face.
Whoever I am, I like it. I'm not just different here from who I am everywhere else—I'm better. As capable as she is, Chloe knows she can ask me what to do when maintenance takes too long to fix the heat or when a coworker might have been rude to her at the grocery store where she works, and I'll have good advice. Most people, whether they mean to or not, see me and treat me as someone deficient, someone lacking, someone to be pitied. Here, I am a superhero. Strong, smart, capable—someone to rely on and someone who cares.
In between checking up on bills and diet and exercise, she just wants to talk. She wants to tell me about her boyfriend, whose parents abandoned him too and who is also on my caseload. She wants to show me a video game she's been playing. They've gotten a lot more complicated since I stopped being able to play them, since the years when I would spend whole afternoons navigating a little character I identified with from one side of the screen to the other—good training for my adult life, I guess.
Then she shows me a comic book she's been reading. They've gotten a lot bloodier since I stopped being able to read them. I read a lot of comics in the years between when the video games got too blurry to play and when my eyes went away completely. It was a bit of rebellion for me as my parents and teachers pressured me to learn braille as fast as I could. As much as I loved to read, I resisted braille fiercely. Even as my eyes got worse and worse, some part of me wouldn't accept the doctor's conclusion that they would never get better. Maybe there was nothing he could do, but how did he know it wouldn't just happen? My eyes were going away for no reason at all. So why couldn't they come back for no reason at all? I didn't understand why one of these things made sense to grown-ups and the other didn't.
So while I waited for my eyes to come back, I read comics full of big, bright, flashy images that could carry a story on their own if I couldn't make out the words. I liked superheroes who had powers they had to keep secret. I liked Daredevil, who was blind but whose other senses worked so well that he could tap his cane against the ground and hear his way through the whole city by the echoes, the sounds seeming to create the world in waves. I wished I could have his powers instead of mine. But now, looking back, all I can think is that photographs and screens and mirrors would be the same to him as they are to me.
Hundreds of eyes, hundreds of selves later, I'm back at my apartment. When I close the building door behind me and the kid drawing on the sidewalk can't see me anymore, everything goes dark. I count the steps up two flights of stairs to the door, and I feel the shapes of my keys while I try to smell if Nicholas has started cooking dinner yet—he hasn't. Moving inside, I feel a brush of fur against my ankle as Ovid purrs. He only rushes me at the door like that when he hasn't been fed, which means Nicholas hasn't come home. I wish I was surprised.
I also wish I could borrow Ovid's eyes—if I could, I'd take him everywhere. "You'd love that, wouldn't you?"
I turn my old FM radio on and head to the kitchen, the music getting a little fainter behind me. I listen to the specific creaks of specific floorboards on my way and open the window so the sound of traffic and rainfall gives me another point of reference. I listen to the clatter of kibble in Ovid's bowl and the bubble of water for my tea, and when I'm done, I carry my mug back to the living room and settle onto the couch.
I may not have Daredevil's powers, but I do think most people underestimate the importance of sound—of everything besides sight, really. They didn't always. I read that back in Mozart's day, people flocked to symphonies, and the power of the music would drive the crowds into a wild frenzy. And in Shakespeare's time, they didn't use to say they were going to "see a play," they would say they were going to "hear a play." Listen to how we talk now, and you can tell that we're obsessed with vision; it works its way into everything. Even I find myself saying, "We've been seeing each other for three years” and "I'm not sure we see eye to eye” and "things changed in the blink of an eye” or "maybe I turned a blind eye …”
I need something to distract me, and the music on the radio is a little too peaceful and ambient. I adjust the knob looking for some chatter, but the weather must be causing interference because all I'm finding is static. Most people think static is just a nothing sound, but I read that, in fact, it comes from the way our satellites and antennas catch the cosmic microwave background radiation that fills up all of space, and that radiation is really the afterglow, the eternal echo, of the Big Bang itself. When you listen to static, you're listening to the explosion that the whole universe came from. It isn't nothing; it's everything.
I turn the radio off and ask Siri to play some Mozart, and of course, I thank her when she does. I reach over to the table to pick up my book. Siri has replaced a lot of the junk I used to haul around with me to make it through the day as a teenager, but my library in braille stands as a body of evidence that I really am blind as a bat—which I've always found to be a funny expression since they aren't.
I run my fingertips over the cover of The Odyssey. I've read it before, but lately, I've been back on a mythology kick. There's a special feeling I get from stories written by people whose worlds were smaller, whose perspectives were more limited, to the point that it made perfect sense that the Earth might be the body of a god or that it might now be sitting on the backs of giant elephants who were standing on the backs of giant turtles who were standing on more turtles and turtles all the way down. In the times when the night's darkness could only be kept as far away as your torchlight, and there were as many kinds of monsters in it as a person could imagine ways to die, like the ones Odysseus faced in his travels on the wine-dark sea.
That's a funny phrase that shows up all over the story. "The wine-dark sea." It struck me the first time I read it since even I know that seawater isn't the color of wine. I'm not the only one who's noticed. Some people take this as a sign that people's eyes worked differently back then, that they really couldn't see the same color that people see now when they look at the ocean or the sky. Maybe. Or maybe their eyes worked the same, but they just didn't have a word for it, and they could only see the things that they did have words for, the things they thought were important enough to have words for.
They had, for example, a lot of words for love. Agape for the love toward family, community, and the gods. Eros for sexual passion. Philia for the bond between friends. Sort of like Eskimos with snow. Or is that really true? "Siri, do the Eskimos really have a lot of different words for snow?" I regret the question almost as soon as I ask it. I've made this mistake before, asking something too complicated. I already know that in a few seconds she's going to come back with "Here's what I found. Take a look!" Not much help. I thank her anyway, then I set my phone aside, flip the pages to my bookmark, and start reading. My eyelids are already starting to feel as heavy as the big ball of fur that's climbed into my lap, so I close them. I take a sip of my tea which, I have been told, is black.
I leave my eyes shut as under my fingers, Odysseus is stalking through shadows thick with the sweat and breath of men and giants. His sandals sliding on the slick rock, his callused fists clenched around his spear. He is searching the darkness of the cave for the cyclops keeping them prisoner, the cyclops who he told that his name is "no one." In a moment, he will brutally thrust that spear into the soft yolk of the creature's only eye, and it will cry out to its friends that no one has blinded it, that no one is killing it. It is equal parts brilliant plan and dick move.
But that balance shifts when the hero and his crewmates make it back to their ships, and he just can't help but scream back at the cyclops that he is Odysseus, badass supreme—I paraphrase. Because he does this, the cyclops will ask his sea god daddy to send Odysseus off course for the next decade or two. We're supposed to see this as a sign of the hero's fatal arrogance, but I wonder if he actually did it in a panic, if in that moment he realized that to not be seen, to not be known, is truly to be no one. Being no one is a horrible and terrifying thing.
Still, at the moment, it's hard to sympathize with him, while Penelope is back home in Ithaca, watching the sea, lonely, wondering…
"Siri, what time is it?"
"It's 7:13 PM."
"Siri, when was the last text from Nicholas?"
"The most recent text from Nicholas was received yesterday at 2:57 PM."
"Siri… where is he?"
"He would tell you he's working late."
"I know he would. But in three years, he never once had to work late until two months ago. So where is he really?"
"He's probably cheating on you."
"But he loves me …"
Or at least he did once …
The day we met, I was standing on the platform waiting for the train, and since a talented breakdancer was performing for tips a few feet away, I was invisible. As I recall, I was also a little depressed. It hadn't been long since I'd broken up with my last girlfriend—she'd said I was "clingy," and she was probably right. Since our parting, I'd felt the absence of her loving eyes on me, and it felt like dissolving into the dark.
Then in an instant, my whole body bloomed with goosebumps, and there I was, at the center of someone's vision, and I was stunning. I was tall, statuesque, glorious, my dress and my hair blowing about me like clouds around a mountaintop.
Standing still, I came closer to myself, and then there he was. "Hi. My name is Nicholas." Nicholas was resonant, low pitched, very modulated, soft but powerful, like a firm handshake. He was smoky, silvery, breathy at the right moments. The kind of voice that reminds me just how tactile sound is, that makes me think about how every syllable is a movement of his body vibrating invisibly through the air to rumble against my body. It made me want to lean into it and see if it would hold me up.
But there's no denying that as much as I liked the velvety touch of his voice, really it was love at first sight of the gorgeous, powerful, brilliant woman he believed me to be. Soon I was watching myself across the table on our first date, blushing and warm in the glow of the candles. I watched myself laughing and lounging on the couch, a picture framed by his arms. I watched myself walking in the park with the touch of his hand around mine, and everyone we passed was blurry and out of focus; the whole world was my smile in the sunshine. I was addicted to his gaze, so unwilling to exchange it for another whenever we were together that I barely had any sense of what he looked like at all.
The first time we had sex, I felt something I never had before. I had felt examined, judged, scrutinized, objectified, claimed, but I had never felt discovered. He unbuttoned my shirt and slid off my jeans like an explorer, taking his time with every new inch of moonlit skin, and he never closed his eyes. I lay back and discovered my body with him, the gentle curves of my breasts and the wrinkling hardening of my nipples under his touch, the shallow pit of my belly button that overflowed with his warm breath, the dim glisten as he set his mouth to me. By the time I found myself looking down at my own beaming face as I took him into me, I was sweating, panting, mouth wide, and the most beautiful woman who had ever lived.
That kind of beauty, though, is a difficult thing to maintain. Things changed not long after he moved into my apartment. I don't know how it started—whether he was in a bad mood one day or I was—I only know that something in his voice was wrong, so I slipped into his eyes, and I looked different. Small, misshapen, frail. I didn't like it, and maybe that made me act differently, and maybe that made him see me differently still, and I didn't like that either, and who I was and what he saw bounced back and forth between us getting more distorted all the time until he stopped looking at me very much at all. I can hardly stand it.
Just thinking about it has me weeping on the balcony of my island palace with the cool, salty night wind nipping at me through the thin fabric of my tunic. The faceless goddess offers me her shoulder, and I lean in and put my weight on her. "There there," she says, and I thank her through my sobbing. She pats my back, "You don't need to thank me."
Taking my hand, she leads me somewhere I can't see because I don't dare to borrow her eyes, but I trust her. I ask her for help.
"What can I help you with?" she asks.
"I don't know. I don't know how all this started, I don't know what's gone wrong, and I don't know how to fix it. Something is missing, but I don't know what it is."
"Here's what I found. Take a look!"
And there I am, curled up on the couch with Ovid curled up on top of me, my book on the floor, and Nicholas's hand reaching down to touch my shoulder and wake me up.
"You fell asleep on the couch," he tells me. "I'm going to make dinner if you want some."
I nod, yawning, but he's already turned and started walking to the kitchen. I follow him. He sounds like Nicholas, but he smells like someone else. "What time is it?" I ask as we round the corner into the kitchen. I can see the clock as well as he can, but I want to hear him say it's "8:30." He's looking at the pot he's filling up with water.
"Where were you?" I ask. "I was worried."
"I had to work late." He's looking at the pasta he's pouring into the pot.
"You could have texted me."
"I was busy." He's looking at the distorted reflective surface of the refrigerator. "And if you were worried, you could have texted me."
He's right. Just like sound bounces back and forth, silence does too.
He looks at the wine he's pouring into my glass, at the bowl of noodles he's handing me. He looks at his own, and he keeps looking at them all through dinner. Staring down at his food, at his drink, and once in a while, his phone—I don't look then. Borrowing people's eyes to get around easier is one thing; borrowing them to spy on their text messages would be something else. I'd rather he just put it away anyway.
"Are you already packed for the weekend?" I ask.
"Mostly," he says, sliding his phone away, looking back to his dinner. Finally, then, he looks across the table, straight at me for a moment. I'm the bags under my crusty eyes. I'm my messy hair. I'm Courtney Love on a bad day. He hesitates, then asks, "You …you still want to go, right?"
I hesitate too, but answer, "Yeah, of course. You …?"
"Yeah," he says in a way that makes me wonder if his answer would have been different if mine had been different.
"If you don't want to go, you can tell me. But I'm packed, I put in for time off, ordered a book about the area to read on the way."
"I want to go," he says.
"OK," I say, muttering, "I mean, it was your idea."
His volume matches mine. "I thought it was yours."
"I don't remember," I almost whisper, pretty sure it was his but not willing to argue.
Whoever's idea it was to go away for the weekend to a remote cabin in the mountains, I wanted it, needed it. Out there, away from anyone else to see myself through and anyone else for him to see, away from his job and my job and his friends and my friends and our friends and Ovid and Netflix and the electric bill, it would only be us. He would have to look at me then, really look, and I would find out what he saw.
Because right now, he isn't looking. Like every night lately, we seem to simply drift by each other in these rooms, exchanging a few words as we eat, until he finishes his food, says he's tired, and disappears, a fading voice receding into the darkness. What is it they say? Like ships passing in the night.
It is a long, long journey across the champagne bright fields, and most of it is very, very boring. I don't even mind how often I have to leave Nicholas' eyes because he's looking at his phone since every time I borrow them for a look at the country, it looks the same. I wonder, sometimes, if we're really moving at all, or if it's the same stretch of road iterated over and over again.
But in the middle of the second day, things change. Fields become hills, and hills become mountains, and my ears start to pop as the tired engine revs us uphill. Nicholas has to keep his eyes on the road now, through all this twisting and turning as the route cuts between rockfaces and winds around frothing riverbends. I don't realize how much we've climbed until we round a curve and we can see across miles of spruce trees and firs and an endless network of little streams running with the reflections of sky and clouds, like cracks letting you see through to the other side of the world.
Then, the road having straightened and leveled for a moment, Nicholas looks down at his phone. I sigh and turn my attention to my book. As I absorb the information through my fingers, I decide to warn Nicholas, "Whatever you do, don't honk your horn around here."
"How come?" he asks.
"Avalanches," I tell him. "I guess these mountains are some of the most prone to avalanches in the country. People die every year."
"I'm more worried about wildfires," he says. Of course he is. The little sparks that can cause wildfires are things you can see, after all. It's easier to doubt the physical consequences of a sound. I hope he stays off the horn anyway. I also hope he's paying attention to the road and not his cell phone. Maybe he's less likely to look at it if I give him something else to think about.
"Do you want to hear a story I just read?" I ask him.
"What kind of story?"
"A legend from the indigenous people who lived in this area for thousands of years, it's about the mountain we're staying on, and where the world came from."
"Sure," he says. He doesn't sound terribly interested in where we're going or where the world came from, but I'll still tell him.
"The legend says that in the beginning, this mountain was all there was. There wasn't a world yet—just the mountain and the animals that lived on it. And they were all very quiet because if they got too loud, the mountain might just get angry and shake them off.
"But then one day, Coyote tricked Bear into letting out a big roar, and the mountain shook more than it ever had, and all the snow and rock and trees and water that fell down from the mountainside became the whole world. There's something really interesting about that way of looking at things, don't you think?"
"What do you mean?"
"Just try to hear the story like they would. For these people, avalanches must have been terrifying—so dangerous, so destructive. But at the same time, they thought their whole world started with an avalanche. It sort of shows how creation and destruction are all wrapped up in each other, you know?"
Nicholas doesn't answer right away. When he does, it sounds like he's shrugging. "I don't know. Story doesn't really make sense."
"At the start, there wasn't a world, there was just a mountain? So what was the mountain standing on?"
"I don't know," I admit. "Maybe it was hanging from something."
Now I'm shrugging. "More mountain, I guess? Like mountain all the way up?"
He doesn't say anything, but he doesn't have to. I can tell this isn't doing much for him. He isn't finding the kind of logic he's looking for. He doesn't understand that myths don't have to be logical—they make a different kind of sense.
And I don't know how to explain it to him, so I let it go and lean back against the headrest quietly. I read my book and borrow his eyes occasionally as we work our way up the narrow pass, but it takes much longer than either of us expected, stopping again and again as construction reduces traffic to a single lane. Somewhere between fun facts about the plant species in the mountain range and information about dating the movements of glaciers through the region, I drift off for one of those dreamless moments that turn out to be hours that last until the car lurches over a bump hard enough to wake me up.
Listening to the soft crunch of gravel and dry leaves under the tires, I slip into Nicholas' eyes to get a look around. I'm too disoriented from waking to get a clear sense of things, but it's night, and we're twisting and turning, our headlights sliding over the vertical shafts of trees and the horizontal shafts of cabin walls. By the time I've gotten it together, he's pulled up to the doors of the main building.
"We're here," he says. "I'm going to go check in, do you want to come?"
I tell him I just want to stretch my legs outside for a minute. I take a few careful steps away from the car. I smile, breathing in the clean air, listening to the quiet. It's full of the smell of the trees and the distant humming of insects, but utterly empty of voices and perspectives. It's perfect.
Satisfied, I follow the voices inside until the lady at the desk notices me. I look groggy. She says a quick hello as she watches my approach, and then she observes Nicholas signing documents while she catches me up.
"I was just explaining that we're a few miles drive from the park entrance, but only about a mile from a station where a shuttle can take you into the park or into town. Everything will be pretty empty—off-season, you know. You're only the second cabin I've got anybody in right now. If you want to leave your car here, there's a trail that goes right from the north end of our lot to the station. It's a pretty easy walk but a little uneven, so you'll have to watch your step."
As Nicholas slides her the signed papers, she slides him a map. "I've marked your cabin right here," she says. "It's clear across the lot, so you'll want to drive over, but remember that deer and elk wander in from the woods sometimes, so keep an eye out."
"Just deer and elk, or do you ever get anything more dangerous?" Nicholas asks.
"Well, there are bears in the woods, but we've never had one show up out here. Once or twice we've had a mountain lion, but you probably won't see one."
No, I probably won't.
The inside of the cabin smells cool and earthy. We drop our bags, and I feel my way to the bathroom, close the door behind me, and set my purse down on the counter. No sense in wasting time. I take out a brush and run it through my hair, arranging it around my face and shoulders. I unbutton my shirt and slide it off, the bra next, and then I kick off my shoes and my jeans and my underwear. I take a deep breath before opening the door again.
Nicholas is looking out the window at the gravel paths and the shadowy woods beyond when I round the corner and call to him. He turns around, and there I am.
And I am beautiful in an unavoidable, undeniable kind of way. I am my long legs, my round breasts, my smooth skin. I'm not everything I'm looking for, but I'm something I haven't seen in a long time. It's a start.
"I'm not tired," I tell him. "Are you?"
He doesn't say anything, but I can feel his smile from across the room, and then the distance closes, and that smile is kissing me, his hands finding the small of my back, his whole body guiding me to the bed and bringing me down like a wave, toppling me and catching me at the same time. He watches me sliding to the pillows as he takes off his clothes. I'm warm, I'm soft, I'm smooth. His eyes know it even before his hands.
But then … he comes down on top of me again, and his eyes close as his face buries into the pillow beside my head, and he doesn't open them again until we're done.
He doesn't rush away. Once he pulls out, he lays next to me for a while, holds me, strokes me. But he doesn't look. He stares at the wall, at the desk, at the blank television screen, at nothing. Then, with a brief squeeze that means goodbye, he gets up and goes to the bathroom. I hear him pick up his cell phone along the way, and I can't help it now. I have to know, have to see. So as I hear the bathroom door close, I break my rule. I slide into his eyes.
And there he is. Nicholas isn't looking at his phone. Instead, he is staring into the mirror. He stares for a long time, longer than he's looked at me in a while and longer than I've ever had the chance to look at him. His eyes drift down to his body sometimes but keep finding their way back to his face. I lose track of how long it goes on, how many blinks, how many slow breaths. But he keeps staring, and so do I.
Even as I look through his eyes, I struggle to understand what he sees.
Is he thinking about who he is, who he used to be, who he might be?
Is he imagining himself saying the words to me, practicing in his mind what it will sound like to leave me?
Is he scrutinizing his body, looking to see if he's gained weight, if he's started to get gray hair, if he's started to lose hair, weighing how hard it would be to find someone else?
Is he questioning the kind of person he is because he's found someone else already?
Is he just wondering, looking at himself, what everyone else sees?
Eventually, he leaves his reflection and finds his way back to the room where I'm still sitting naked on the bed. He is looking out the window, and I can tell he wants to say something. His strange, uneven breath is like blank, textureless sheets of paper—empty but for the stark impression of words that could be there and aren't.
And because I can't listen to the silence bouncing back and forth anymore, I break it. Finally, I just ask the thing that I've wanted, needed, to ask all this time.
"Nicholas… why don't you look at me anymore?"
And he says the worst possible thing. "Erica, you don't even know whether I'm looking at you or not."
He could have answered me honestly—or he could have denied it—but he did neither. He refused to acknowledge what I said, as though my words were meaningless because I was the one to say them, because I couldn’t know, because I was deficient, lacking, pitiful. So maybe I have my answer. He doesn't look at me anymore because that's how he sees me now.
It makes me furious. I leave his eyes and promise myself I'll never slide into them again, and then I snap. I stand from the bed, and I shout. The exact words don't matter because it's the tone of them, the force of the sound, that shocks him. He doesn't know what to do but shout right back at me, and in this tiny enclosed space what bounces back and forth between us gains volume rapidly and becomes an incoherent sprawl of ideas. We repeat each other and repeat ourselves and everything we've been feeling collapses out of us, and sense and reason are buried in the mess.
Is it his fault? Is it mine? Do we still love each other? Did we ever? Or did he love a version of me that he saw, that maybe I never was, that maybe I used to be but changed, that maybe I still am, but it's just become stale and distorted from too much repeating? Did I ever even know him enough to love him, or did I only love that version of me that I used to see through his eyes? I realize, sadly, that the Greeks gave us a word for that kind of love too, but it isn't a kind one.
"So just say it," I whisper when it's finally quiet enough to hear a whisper. "You want to see other people … you already are seeing other people."
At the end of a long breath, he manages, "I'm sorry … so what do we do now?"
I answer quickly. "I think you should go. Get another cabin or get another hotel room—there should be plenty of things open. Off-season, you know. Then drive yourself back home and look for a new place to live. Or I will."
"What, you want me to just leave you here?" he asks. "I can't do that."
"Why? Because I'm helpless and can't take care of myself?"
"I can come back in the morning and drive you back to—"
"Don't come back. Just go."
He relents and starts to gather his things. As he does, he's telling me where things are in the room, my phone, my purse, my duffel—"Just go"—and telling me how long the cabin is already paid for—"Just go"—and giving me instructions about getting food, about getting a Lyft—"Just go"—and telling me where he's left cash for anything else—"Just go. Just go. Just go ...."
When the door closes behind him, I realize I'm still naked on the bed, my skin prickling with the cold silence. He's gone. Truly gone. I feel dizzy, disoriented. Maybe our love was never what it should have been, but whatever we were to each other, we were those things for so long that we had become constants, points of reference around which to navigate, and now he's gone. Only we didn't at all pass each other like ships in the night. We crashed. It was a slow, gradual collision, rending our hulls, and as soon as his wreckage is removed from mine, I feel the tea black water flooding in through the breach.
I let myself start crying, and I don't hold back. I'm off the bed, staggering while the cabin seems to lurch in waves. I'm gasping for air through my sobbing. I'm grabbing at the walls, rolling along them, bumping and tumbling into furniture whose location keeps seeming to shift as though it is sliding around. It's getting colder and quieter, and somehow, somehow, it is actually getting darker.
I'm sinking. Below the surface where there is no air, no sound, and where the light can't reach, a blacker black that I can't name because I don't know a word for it. I know a lot of words for black. Obsidian. Ebony. Jet. Onyx. Pitch. But all of these are darknesses that people can see, otherwise, we wouldn't have words for them. This is the darkness of the deep trenches where submarines can't venture without being crushed into thimbles. The darkness of black holes. The darkness that only existed in the infinite moment right before the Big Bang.
I have to get out. I can't breathe. So as I roll along the walls and my hip bruises against the doorknob, I abandon ship.
Stumbling out, I pause for just a moment when my bare soles touch the gravel. It's still as dark as ever, but for reasons I can't explain, I can breathe a little easier with every step I take. I tentatively feel my way forth, listening for sounds, for echoes, for anything, but all I hear is an ambient hum that sounds powerful and ancient. Like a secret. Something to be respected, not repeated.
So I just walk, cutting my feet on the loose rocks and trailing blood on the leaves. I don't know where I'm going. I don't know why I'm going. Maybe I'm going to climb to a peak and keep climbing until I'm among the stars, if any of these things are really there. Maybe I want to stand in the abyssal sky and offer myself up to the cosmos, to let it look at me and find out what it sees.
Because right now, in this eyeless emptiness, I am unseen. I am unknown.
I part my lips and project that word into the void. "Unknown."
And the void answers. "No one.”
Then another sound—loud and fast and sharp and snapping and angry and right in front of me—whips out of the nothing and rocks my body, stopping my heart, shuddering my flesh from my bones for a moment until my own gravity drags it all back together, and then I'm standing, frozen, terrified that if I move I'll fall apart.
More sounds. Low, guttural breath. The slow, soft, padding scraping of heavy paws with long claws. And then a quiet somehow even more frightening because I don't have the slightest idea what it's doing except watching me, waiting ...
I hold still for a long time, but eventually, I have to try to move. I don't know where because there is no where, and it doesn't matter anyway, because so rapidly it seems to respond to even my thoughts of motion, the snarl erupts again, and this time, something happens that has never happened before.
I see it. As the sound explodes out, the blast lights up the creature, ignites it, and it burns into being as though it is creating itself in front of me. The monster is massive. It rears up on the back legs of a lion, snatching at the space between us with its eagle talons. Those legs support the too-large body of a man, nearly hovering with the aid of leathery wings, and on his shoulders are seven long necks leading to seven bull heads and upon each head are countless snakes with twice countless eyes and all of them are fixed on me.
Don't you know it's rude to stare?
I don't exactly believe what I see, but I realize it doesn't matter. It's still there, so close I can taste its breath. It's still padding and scratching at the ground, watching me watching it and not giving a damn what I see or what I believe. Its fangs and claws will be just as quick and just as sharp no matter whether or how I or anyone else sees it. And I will be just as dead.
Maybe I should feel lucky that no one is here to see that.
The words rattle around inside me, but they're getting quieter. No one… No one…
No, I will not be unknown. I will not be no one. If the monster towering over me could create itself from its own sound, then so will I. I take a deep breath, my arms lifting on their own, my feet going numb. I am floating. My expanding lungs draw everything there is inside of me, gathering it into my depths. What begins in desperation only finishes when, for a brief moment, I forget the monster exists at all because I'm more concerned that I'll burst. And then I do. I erupt. I explode. I scream.
Louder and longer than I've ever screamed, than anyone has ever screamed, than it is possible to scream, I scream. And it is not a scream of terror—it is a scream to strike terror. It is a chaotic noise, pitch rising and falling, rhythmless. My body bends and twists, every muscle tensing; my throat aches, and my scream goes on.
My scream swells into a song of wild power. It is a banshee's wail, the shriek of the Valkyrie, the roar of the Bear. My scream is bluuuuuuue rushing out of me and suffusing into the infinite black, and it is colors there are no words for in any language because no one has ever seen them.
My scream is me. And as it expands, it takes the shape of trees and clouds and rocks and stars, and I know now that I am not no one. I am me, and so I am everything around me. I am the musk of the wood, and I am the dust on my naked feet. I am the mountain that shook off the world. I am the mountain the mountain descends from.
And below me and below me is still me because I am all around me in all of my pulsing, vibrating, resonating, radiating energy. I am the rush of the rivers, the dance in the autumn leaves, the lick of the wildfire, and the sprouting in the earth, because all of it is humming, reverberating, singing along with the mad mad music of me.
And it echoes and echoes out even after my lungs are empty and my still gaping mouth is only releasing a long, breathy hiss that sounds like static.
The monster is gone, obliterated, or at least swept away, and everything is quiet, and someone is looking. Through bleary, crusted eyes, someone is staring from the open door of a cabin. He sees a gaunt body, dirty, hunched, with gnarled arms twisting out like the branches of a wizened tree. The woman he sees is deranged, confused, probably drug-addled. But he is wrong. I see that now.
I see that I am strong, confident, and victorious. I see.
I walk back into the cabin and close the door behind me. Neither hurrying nor hesitating, I get dressed and tie my sturdy boots. I pick up a backpack from the floor and stuff it with bottled water, bagged granola, and a camera. And why not, I grab my book. I pause for a moment, chuckling. It has a mountain on the cover.
Outside, the sun is peeking pinkly over the range, and the air is so full of birdsong you could taste it. I navigate the scattering of cabins to find the trail at the north end of the lot, and I walk. Gradually, the cabins disappear behind me and the road is lost somewhere through the trees. I walk for what feels like a long time. I can't remember how long the front desk woman said it would be, but—I hop over a pothole—she was right about watching your step.
The rumble of bus engines slowly builds into a backbeat for the chorus of sparrows. I follow the noise until my boots set on pavement. I make my way through the parking lot and approach the turnaround as the bus back to town lurches and lumbers forward. It moves like a sliding curtain revealing the platform, and there she is.
Standing alone near the benches, she is a vision in khaki shorts and an olive tank top, her space black hair mostly tied into a ponytail, with a few rebellious strands draping down over her cheeks. She has eyes like my mother's. She has a backpack stuffed a lot fuller than mine, but poking out of the back pocket is a familiar book with a mountain on the cover (the printed version, of course). She is short, muscled, bare-faced, and the most beautiful woman in the world.
Her neck is craned as she pivots, taking in the nearby rocky outcroppings and the distant snowy peaks, the woods, and the clouds, and the sky, and everything there is. I want to ask her, do you like it?
She does. Her smile gives that away. A smile that shapes her whole face stays precisely the same as her head turns from one mountain to the next, to the next, to the next ... to me. It never changes. I don't even need to borrow her eyes. I know what she sees.
I'm standing in front of her, and I haven't thought of anything to say. So—with an awkward laugh—I show her my book and gesture to hers. She laughs too.
"Hi," we say, at the same time, and we laugh again.
And because one of us has to be the one to go first, I tell her, "My name is Echo."
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Rhiannon Catherwood lives in Syracuse, NY, with her wife and cat. She is a teacher, circus artist, photographer, and road tripper. She has published memoir, travel writing, literary fiction, and discourse on everything from sperm banking as a trans woman to bartending in a Leia bikini at science fiction conventions. She believes that good fiction should expose truth and good creative nonfiction should be about creation.
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