By Jasmine Lin and Kirk Shellko
We don’t lie next to the books late at night when it’s dark. They give us a sense of security and awe when we look at them and a terror when we read. Last night at 11:31 I was brushing my teeth when Kirk came and stood in front of me. He was scratching his leg, his face ashen.
“I have to show you something”, he said. Something in his voice made my heart pound.
“Did you get another bite?”
“And I looked under your Joyce,” he said.
“Did you see a passive verb?”
“I think so.”
I felt sick to my stomach. We went over to the bookshelf and he took Dubliners from the second shelf. It still had my cheek marks on it from the previous night, and a few commas and semicolons dangled from the spine. I looked over the book quickly because of a simple fear that oppressed me at that moment. The commas did not intimidate me, but the semi-colons gave me pause. That “semi” part of the colon never set well with me; I could never determine what was amiss and what not.
“Is it a sentence?”
“Is it a list of things too big?”
“Is it some experimental use of the semi-colon with which I am unfamiliar?”
I flicked away the comma into the small, portable trash can I had nearby and carefully removed the semicolons with the incision of a surgeon and my word-knife. I placed them into the language-bag that I had for just such occasions. I was relieved but there was much more to do, my work and trepidation hardly completed.
“Where did you see the passive verb?” I asked.
“I thought it emerged page 115 and then it seemed to slither back into 75,” said Kirk.
“Oh, so it’s moving back in the story?”
“Yeah. ‘Below’ as they say.”
“Well, we know where it’s going, at least I think,” I said, though I remained apprehensive.
I paged my way carefully back from 115 to 110. I didn’t want the verb to think that I was onto him. The semi-colon is notoriouslt dangerous, if you didn’t know. It can create havoc in a student paper, or in expository writing, if it is not handled in the secure and proper manner. I dog-eared 109 and leisurely read backward, trying to keep away suspicion. I pretended to be searching for an earlier moment in the narrative, something that might explain some sentence whose reference was unclear. I was uncertain, but it seemed as if the verb had not departed 75. I wondered at how it would find its way into the paragraphs. What word and thought would it displace with its mere presence, and what aspect of flow would it disrupt further with its passive-ness were thoughts that came to me. I recall having read exposition by several of the greats, some of whose words and phrases, paragraphs even, had been mangled by that hideous and absurd structure.
It was then that I beheld “she was badgered”, three plain words not the living body but a shell, a ghost of the former quote and meaning, on the bottom of 74. Was that even Joyce? Or had this verb-complete-with-subject ridden in on palindromic phrases from Wolff – or worse, Sylvia Plath? I remembered that a book of her poetry had lain next to Joyce at the last months’ end, and that she often would affectionately visit his tortured expressions, bringing with her pages of almost-loose dependent clauses. As I stared at the three words, activity began clawing at my eyebrows, a busy certainty that “was badgered”, the same species of passive that had produced red ferocious welts on Kirk’s leg, was now slowly branding my forehead and eyelids with deliberate disturbance. The “was” began an attack on my regard of it, holding me to its passiveness by bringing my will into mastery of it. I withdrew my impetus sideways, wanting desperately for the language that could move itself to do something – anything – to me. With my “was” sunk below the minimum danger level of subject, I rushed to the freezer and pressed an ice cube to my brow, but an ice cube was being pressed to my brow, though I was being iced by a cube, so that the brow could be made into the sentence to which I was being done.
“Jas? Everything okay?”
The track lights overhead buzzed with a bass of “z” and high overtones of “s” and “f”. Then everything happened at once.
“We’d better get to bed” was spoken by Kirk.
The dried toothpaste was rinsed out by water gurgled around through my teeth by my jaw muscles.
The lights were turned off by our fingers and tendons.
And from that moment onward, our books were slept with, and read, by conjugating activists possessed of a nothing that was determined not by us. We have begun the long journey forward, and we inspire terror when we speak, now terror when we are seen. We have not been granted sleep since then, and a fourth layer of blistered skin has become detached from our bones. The floor is covered with it.