There are no inventors of language, just people over time agreeing with, acquiescing to, one another. I don’t write what another has written, I write what everyone has, and I draw, from time to time, what can be read.
Sometimes I imagine my own children, the one who had just learned to walk, the one who could not yet scream, as children, bearing inside their silent selves the origin of language, holding their first pencils in still chubby hands, their mother pointing out letters, her hand over theirs, showing them the movements, mouthing them aloud, sight and sound, the older one teaching the other, each at some point in their still new lives writing the letter A dutifully, attentively, not wondering why, they were entering the world, not knowing as they ventured through the alphabet, first arduously as though up an endless staircase, then gliding like fingers skimming all a piano’s keys, that they already had letters they took more pleasure in writing, that some, for a time, they would take care to avoid, that they too would keep their eye close to the page and know what came next—soon enough they’d already know how to read, and they would take on, unwittingly, their first form of meditation.
At times these imaginings feel like memories, or, rarer, follow the swiftness of a painless retreating dream. Their hands are those of strangers I’ve seen, their faces culled from television screens.
Let’s say one person drew our alphabet.
Imagine him, her, hard at work forming a series of symbols, each different enough from the other to be distinguished, then homogenized as a unit. Likewise, I cannot attribute my children distinct features, only wonder what unwritable ways they diverge from a face. Would it have been less difficult to keep them in my life? I cannot forget that they exist. Memories are much more fragile than the imagination, which is itself made up of memories, and what you don’t know is the strongest of all. They slipped from me like question marks. I’ve toyed with the ideas of each as I last knew them, holding a pen and writing, knowing full well the impossibility of an infant taking studied notes or a fetus at an old-fashioned secretary desk. I am closest to the one I never met. That it heard my voice terrifies me. Had I stayed with them until I died, their faces would have forever reflected back at me two question marks.
For long after we parted, I sent her letters on eggshell stationary almost the texture of tissue paper. It matched the delicate strength of her pale fingers. The letters were difficult to write and even more difficult to fold in half, out of sight. When I pictured her opening the envelopes, I also imagined her tearing up not her hands, but mine. If I had only written one, the letters would not give me anguish, but because I couldn’t stop writing them, they haunted me. What would the letters tell, opened and juxtaposed sequentially? What was I exposing? Without a response, I have no articulate answer, only the address reflected backwards in the mirror.
The letters were simple expressions, not unlike self-portraits. In that sense, over the years I took dozens of photos I’d never see developed. In the upper right hand margin I wrote the date. Half an inch down and the left hand margin, I wrote her name with a comma following, just grazing, the last letter. Then, leaving however much space I needed between, I signed my name in the center. If the letters were made into an animation, I suspect my name’s migration throughout the page would be the most telling. In one of the few I can recall clearly, I angrily scrawled my name over her own. In another, I signed the opposite side, all the way at the bottom of the page.
I wrote in my journals about each letter, before and after—the rising desire, then need, to; the subsequent feelings of relief or guilt, worry or remorse, satisfaction or hope; but in these entries, I cannot see her breathing face the way I did when I wrote her name.
I’ll admit I have a hard time understanding others. It was easier for me to watch your writing appear than to have a conversation with you. I consider myself a good listener, but how could I ever convey to you I understood what I read? Did it appear in your subsequent words? I have to believe it was there, that it is all there, that words are gifted by the hand that writes, a song resonating in the entire act—in action—an eye on the past and everything’s reverse—the ink brings the pen; the shape of each word, the angle, the flow, then everything stops at the hand.
The hand is machine, is instrument, is living cursor. It blinks while you think, hovering above the page, jogging in place. The best forgers are as respected as artists, replicators of expression, inside pressing outwards, the subtleties of behavior revealed to be too delicate and inscrutable for deciphering, but not too mute to be copied. Are most people ideas we have? She told me I see souls in handwriting, the way another might see them in a pile of boots bunched below a coat rack, a game of solitaire. I’m still proud that she valued my sight so highly, and ashamed that I didn’t value her understanding.
Where was I? It isn’t helpful when it isn’t always felt. I rarely write by hand anymore. The difficulty of re-entrance. When the page alienates, it has always been too messy. The hand and eye cannot work together. I’m not sure which comes first. My crouched words, the strewn stars resembling black flies marking ‘important thoughts’. Pesky dreams. I flip back through my papers and comprehending my own words is as possible as seeing through lenses of too strong a prescription. Today the clouds reach all the way down to the ground. I’ve retraced your old handwritten notes, simple shopping lists, my pen where yours was, with the care of a boy allowing himself the indulgence of pressing his lips where yours were once pressed upon the glass. I don’t argue with what allows me to write.
I did screw my eye into the page.
Three fingers press the sheet my forehead hovers over. Three fingers grip the pen, half an inch from ink. The other hand, no less active, cracks. This close, my eye can focus on one letter and know proper distance between next: each slow stroke, confection. Drawing away, the eye reveals inconsistency, slants, trembling inclusion. Warbling attempts. Eye needs closeness to diminish the wallow. Nearsightedness gifted by one or two.
Staving off seeing, hand, faster, needs more space for a legible letter. It gets harder to look back, easier to keep the eye out and turn the page over. Because we must write. The faster, the more letters’ lines grow, fading out at their longer ends. Penmanship is flourished, feathered, with impressed centers, certain at too small a middle not to crumble. A rush to finished decays comprehension, delays ever done.
Lora Straub, 31, lives in Allston, MA. She received her BA in Literary Arts from Brown University and was awarded the Judith Lee Stronach Scholarship for Excellence in Poetry by St. Mary’s College of California, where she earned her Poetry MFA. She considers her writing to be hybrid genre and is in the finishing stages of her first book. Her work can be found in Construction Mag, She Explores, The Fem, Small Po[r]tions, Wave Composition, et al. Her chapbook "Id Est" is forthcoming from SpeCt! books.
This originally appeared on July 19, 2017