Friday, April 17, 2009

Thoroughly Thurled

In the dream, my old college professor feeds page after page of the Torah into the scanner, letters scrolling down a nearby computer screen in a kind of river-like matrix, flickering, converting to numbers and back again.
The Hebrew alphabet has no vowels; this is what my boyfriend and I discussed over lunch the day before, sitting in the cafe of the local natural history museum, munching on organic veggie wraps and grilled cheese sandwiches. The linguistics of thought, the shape of consciousness, mind itself, embedded with grammar, running over syntax like water over stone, plunging, eddying and moving on again. Breath, exhalation, that which is sacred and cannot be written. The Hebrew alphabet has no vowels. We asked each other, does that make a difference?

In the dream, the computer script searches for meaningful combinations of letters reconverted according to some obscure theological algorithm, a pulsating crossword-puzzle alive with juxtaposition. Now and then, a word in red slips by amidst the stream of symbols and nonsense text. "A red-letter day," my old professor jokes. Mundane words, articles and adjectives, verbs, nothing that coheres or speaks. One catches my eye, and I peck at the keyboard to check the software for bugs.

"There's something wrong," I answer my professor's raised eyebrow, "It's generating noise, now. 'Thurl,' for instance, isn't a real word."

"Yes it is!" He laughs shortly. In dreams, he's often laughing.

"I've never heard of it. Then what does it mean?"

"It is the time," he says, "in a TV Western pistol duel, between when somebody shouts 'Draw!' and somebody else shoots. Or, it is the time right after afternoon tea, but right before an early dinner." I can tell he's teasing me. I wake up scoffing and grinning.

Down at the park that day, I'm too enthralled by the moving surface of the stream to notice the hem of my dress darkening with muddy water where it drags along the rock's edge. I crouch, bare feet planted on the warm rough stone where it juts out into the middle of the creak, and watch the tangled green locks of algae wriggle in the current beneath webbed reflected sunlight.

"I looked it up," I tell my boyfriend, "and it turns out, it means, 'the hip joint of cattle.'"

"So you got that one wrong!" He dips a big toe into the water, saying, "It's not as cold as I expected--but slippery."

"Well, I don't know. So, the other definitions were, 'an aperture or hole'--or as a verb, 'to cut through, to pierce.' And then there's something to do with mining, 'a communication between two adits.' An adit is the long, horizontal entrance or passage into the mine."

"I still don't see what that has to do with dueling." He straddles rocks, gripping his way from one to another towards where I'm perched over the raw umber rushing water. The stream presses itself through a few cracks in the stone, becoming a small waterfall that churns iridescent and pushes an exhalation of soft-gray bubbles down to brush the bottom of the streambed before rising swiftly back to the surface. From where I sit, I can watch this happening forever, never growing old.

"There's a story--I think it's a Zen parable--about a butcher whose knives never get dull. Everyone thinks he must have some magic about his knives, or a special kind of metal, so that he never needs to sharpen them. One day, his young apprentice gets up the nerve to ask. And he explains, his knives never get dull because he doesn't actually cut through the meat and bone the way a less skillful butcher would. Instead, he finds the thin-spaces-between that already exist in the flesh, and he just slips his knife into them."

"That sounds like it's probably Zen," my boyfriend agrees. I stand to embrace him as he steps cautiously onto the rock where I've been crouching. It's then, straightening up, that I notice for the first time my skirt's hem, damp and heavy dragging along the rock, leaving a dirty streak where it slaps and clings to my pale lower calf. "Don't you feel as though winter is still hanging around?" he asks, looking out over the surrounding swamp. The noisy creak twines through last year's leftover straw-like cattails. The sky above is an aching hue of blue unbroken by clouds. A few overhanging trees have just begun to bud. He holds me close, and I can feel his diaphragm expand and contract, his whole body warm against me as he sighs.

"Maybe a little, but I can't really feel it when you're smothering me like this," I say to provoke him. He pulls away in playful defiance, teases and prods me until I recant.

"I think it was a story about the time between when you breathe in, and when you breathe out," I say, sometime later. "But the 'hip joint of cattle' reminded me of it, and then there are all those obsolete definitions about piercing and apertures, openings, entrance-ways, communications. And--if you think about it, that moment of a duel between the draw and the shot, that thin-space-between when nobody breathes. Or the time between meals, I think that was supposed to be a joke about just how wide that space-between can feel sometimes, when someone is hungering. And then, if Hebrew has no vowels, 'thurl' is just how you'd say 'thrill' without the 'i', thrll. Isn't thrill also a kind of moving through the thin-space-between?"

He looks at me with a mix of incredulity and amazement. "How is it that you can learn vocabulary in your sleep?"

"I'm just that good." I wrinkle my nose at him, which is my way of winking or raising an eyebrow.

"And this morning you were saying you were 'too full of words.'"

"I was--too full of words, my brain was noisy. I couldn't focus. But being out here..."

We're walking home, through the wooded ravine that will lead out of the park back into the cluttered urban neighborhood. The soles of my feet are still recalling the warm solidity of rock beneath them, my toes the quick sliding skin of water. We're still stuck smack in the city, the white-noise grind of traffic reaching us through the trees, but everywhere the birds are following each other, the scrappy chipmunks skittering over roots and the ruts left by bicycle tires in the mud. There are insects again, bees in the underbrush, and I feel as though I have escaped, finally, from some cold pressure that has wrapped my lungs for so long I had ceased to notice it. There is space again, movement in all directions that pull and stretch the landscape into distance, opening it up again. Everywhere, life is opening it up again under a high, bright sky. Birdcalls pierce the breeze, connecting one long, dark tunnel of mind to another.

"Being out here... I'm so full of thurl."


  1. The red is read and is beautiful.

  2. Your writing is spectacular. I really think this is the kind of thing you do best. I can't help feeling a twinge of jealousy though towards whatever professor it is you're dreaming about.

  3. Nathan, don't be silly! It was you! :)

  4. P.S. And it's true, almost every time you're in a dream of mine, you're laughing about something. I must remember you as quite the jolly fellow. ;)

  5. Ha. I'm glad it's not usually nightmares, anyhow.