Blackbirdan online journal of literature and the artsSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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On Stillness

The man was ailing. In fact, he knew he was close to death. As he lay in the bed the nurses had installed in his living room, the heart monitor and oxygen machines giving off a web of soft light like a private, humming city, what he thought must be memory projected itself in his mind on a continuous reel.

Many years before, the man had a job as an art conservator at a famous museum. Night after night, he was tasked with painting and repainting the bodies of various sea creatures in the Hall of Ocean Life, which was a wide corridor of room-sized dioramas populated by full-scale tuna, cetaceans, corals, rays, and other aquatic animals. And so he lived for years crawling and kneeling under low roofs of textured plastic pressed to look like the troubled surface of the sea.

He could feel, now, the way his neck would become stiff from sitting on the turquoise floor and craning his head up to paint a fish’s golden scales with a delicate brush. At times, his hand holding the brush would cramp sharply, and he would have to put his implement down and stretch his fingers open like a starfish.

He worked at night when the crowds had gone and the only other souls left in the museum were a few patrolling security guards scattered through the building’s many wings, walking their solitary paths. And in the Hall, only the slight stick of the man’s bare feet on the ocean floor, the silent brush on the belly of a fish that needed retouching due to light exposure, the pleasure of life organized and frozen in its compartments.

The man remembered how, by day, he slept on a cot in a flat he shared with a friend, blue handkerchief tied over his eyes to block the sun. Or, more often, he slept on a pallet in a secret, circular room in the very heart of the museum, his rhythmic breathing radiating out through the walls. When he dreamed, he often dreamed of thirst. A primal deprivation. Once, he dreamed of a snake-necked sea bird removing, one by one with her needle-beak, an endless series of pearl buttons from deep inside his throat.

Tonight, he is back in the museum in the city, neither of which he can now name. But this time, he is growing still while the fish, turtles, crabs and octopi stir, suddenly and haltingly at first, then smoothly, like a video tape that has been paused too long and begins playing again on its own, indifferent to whether anyone is left in the room.  

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