A Cluster of Characteristic Criteria

by Jane Carnall

Once it was easy. Walk between first light and sunup to market, and meet with proud indifference the foreigners from beyond: people with different names and a strange way of speaking who farmed different crops and whose women sold odd-tasting cooked food. Walk for three days, staying out of sight, and everything is foreign: you can say what you like about yourself and it will be believed. I had a world of infinite distance then, and it seemed to me in my first youth that it would never end: forever I would walk three days and find myself new land, a new woman, eat new foods and taste different smells when I lay down to sleep in a new hut.

The horse-tamers changed that. Their strange mastery annihilated distance: they could travel three day's journeying between sunup and noon. They would not teach their art to those not kin to them: so I became their kin, marrying a youngster of their tribe in blood, and rode with him a thousand years from sea to sea. Still, the world then was a large and empty place: I never knew how large. I never knew, when I was a walker, that it ever had boundaries. I learned my boundaries in that time: I learned to think in years, not endless cycles of seasons: I learned annihilation.

A song ends when the singers' throats are cut: a memory ends when the head that holds it is a dusty skull: the record that is told in knotted strings and beadwork and tallysticks ends in fire. I had seen clay tablets with birdtracks impressed into them and let to dry, but when I discovered what they were - a record that survives fire, a memory that outlives bone, a voice that speaks even after the breath is cut - I knew this was the new mastery, that I must learn this skill that masters time as a thousand years ago I had learned the skill that masters distance. I became a writer. The records that were meant to entrap me became my tools. Instead of travelling a distance and becoming someone new, I write myself again, in clay, in wax, in paper of reed or skin or rag - they lose me as they think they have me found.

The word-tamers found new copyists: a slow work of years became a hundred copies in a day, an hour, a second. A lie is still easier to spread than truth: I live inside time, inside the records, and they don't see me, even those that know I'm there. But the world is small, now: so small. The great boundaries, the seas, the oceans, the mountains - they have learned to leap them in hours. There is nowhere to run now except inside the spiderweb of words, and it cuts closer and binds tighter each year, each month, each day. There is no distance. There is no time. There are no words. There are no boundaries.

I have learned annihilation.


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(499 words, 28 minutes, July 2002)