Title: Breathing Lessons
Author: Madeleine Mitchell Carr
Summary: Josh contemplates the action of breathing. A companion piece to 'Anatomy Lessons'
Nobody heard him, the dead man,
Stevie Smith, 1957
In the hours of half-life, before the anaesthesia had completely left his system, Josh imagined that Donna breathed for him. It seemed logical that she, who did so much, instinctively and intuitively, to smooth his path in life, could easily perform an action that he had assumed to be involuntary, but now seemed so difficult and painful.
Later, when the inevitable process of inspiration - expiration - pause - repeat began to seem more natural to him, her continued presence nonetheless bolstered him. Her steady respiration beside him provided an example, a profound exchange of air, a synchronicity. The miraculous breath curled out of her mouth, transformed sometimes in words; substance out of invisibility. He clung to the sound and shape of her breath for he knew now how swiftly it could be snatched away.
It took him a long time to notice that somewhere along the line, the synchronicity faltered. It was a subtle thing and he was, in some things, not a subtle man. Until recently, he had been unacquainted with his own body except in the blind impulsiveness of needs and urges, of hunger and desire, of the adrenaline highs of elation and jealousy and terror. Now it seemed that he lived somewhere behind the wall of his own skin, trapped within cells and systems and nerve endings. The sound of Donna breathing had been the bridge that had brought him back but he could no longer hear it clearly. Was his own traitorous body distorting the sound, the air that carried the sound, the interpretation of the sound?
He felt this was not normal; surely nobody else thought of their body as untrustworthy, the involuntary actions following an agenda they had no knowledge of. Yet his body continued to function. His mind functioned. He tried hard to believe that he made them function. He tried hard to believe that he would continue to breathe.
How to describe the fear that it would stop? Yet how could he control it? Breath was air, air was sound and speech and vision. Cycling, recycling, used and re-used, an invisible stream of existence, of connection and continuity.
He polluted the stream.
Why else did his breathing falter? Why else could he hear things between the sounds that weren't there? There was a darkness inside him; a malignant presence that his conscious mind couldn't understand but his sub-conscious took orders from. Yet, he had somehow created it. With an ease that he envied and longed for, his friends navigated the stream; they had a light and careless touch, they flew and soared. He slunk in his self-appointed dungeon, his wings clipped and useless.
He tries to form connections but his body has forgotten how and the links he forges are twisted and brittle. At his darkest hour, he closes his eyes and sees a vision - the air as light, the light refracted, the spectrum dividing until the red of her dress is all that he can perceive. He sees the air as a stream of sound, the breath of her body coalescing in words. He breathes them in, but they shift and reform inside him; he poisons the sounds, there is a foulness in his soul. He regurgitates the words back to her as something misaligned and malicious. He hurts her because he is damaged inside.
He hurts himself.
He wants to release the pain, but is afraid to because his senses have been rewired. He spits out words that have no connection to what he hears; music is dissonance, cacophony; a toneless wail rising and falling as his chest rises and falls. He breathes in synchrony with the sirens.
He perceives the sounds from outside of him, yet they seem to live within him too as if his body knows them intimately. The sounds suffocate him; he is drowning in air. Air is a great wave, a tsunami, that he cannot escape from; it breaks over him with a force that shatters him like glass, the light capturing the fallout as splinters and motes of luminescence, sparkling and shifting, settling gently around his feet like snowflakes.
He has drowned, yet he still breathes.
The pain is different now, more immediate. The pain can be treated. He comes to understand that although he could not explain the darkness inside him, somebody listened to the silence between his words. There was a connection that existed that he could not find. He had lost the key, but he could still be rescued, the wall to his dungeon broached. He had forgotten to hope.
Donna is holding his hand. He shivers in the frosty air, his breath forming clouds about his face. Her voice is the light at the top of the well. The bricks inside the well are slippery and dangerous to climb, he could still fall back and drown and he is afraid of this, as he is afraid of the way sound still distorts and echoes in his enclosure. He can't articulate this thought, his truest voice is creaky with disuse, but she hears him anyway. The eerie echoes are softened by her own unspoken words.
He no longer imagines she breathes for him, he is learning to do it for himself. Instead, they breathe in tandem.
That is where the hope lies.