Indoor Voices – Imogen Osborne
March 21, 2023
We speak in our indoor voices. Words pass by with their halos, floating bright with the blurred edges of lamplight. I lie on the bed, my hand resting where you rest, the size of a mango. You turn inside my nothingness, which had threatened to stretch out indefinitely until you punctuated it with the fact of your being. We’re on the sixth floor, in the box bedroom, and the city is worn away outside like an old rug. The prospect of motherhood is all neck and teeth to me, discomfort, avoidance. But I like communicating with you like this, to feel you listening, hungry for the world, which drives itself to death outside, knowing nothing of you.
So I tell you about the world, in my indoor voice that seeps past platelets and cellular threads, never once suffering the rough exterior of words communicated verbally. These words stay wet and soft as clay, untouched beneath rock. They are ours and ours alone. I lie there with my eyes closed and I tell you about the bare things that assemble in startled fury to make all that you will eventually come to know. I tell you in a voice only you can hear, about the coffee cups and cushions and chimneys and keyrings. You like the sound of recycling. You like the jubilance of the toothpaste tube when it squirts excessively. You like how water circles the drain and darts into darkness without hesitation. You say it is like an ax falling, and although you are wrong, I know what you mean. Both are abrupt, frank, elegant in a way.
Once you grasp the simple things we move on to stranger items; binoculars, light bulb filaments, blades made with the sole purpose of opening envelopes. You absorb these in your nothing way, in great handfuls, soaking them into your new-life ecstasy. With each new object you seem stronger, moving through the darkness with hot impatience, pushing me into the furthest stretches of my own form, from the inside out.
You love the wind with all its wild, animated nothingness, dressing the world in invisible layers of fabric that cause windows to rattle and clouds to rip through the sky in endless variations. You love aging, though you can’t understand it yet. How sometimes a single day seems to fit perfectly onto a disk like a sweet song, other times a grey shade draws out from dawn to dusk, and life can only peek through, from beneath a hat of years.
In exchange for my efforts to taxonomize the outside world, you tell me your dreams. You are dreaming all the time. Of course you are, because you are unborn. Being unborn, you tell me, is to exist in a perpetual state of anticipation. Eyelids fluttering, toes hooked to the end of the diving board. Your arrival is incomprehensible to me. It’s often disturbing. But for now, I can help you with your dreams, tweak them as you hold them up to me, not quite through sound or image, but felt with two hands across the unsubstantial territory that we share for this short time. This feels like a manageable confession of affection. Like licking an envelope.
No, I say in the indoor voice, When the leaves fall, it’s less of a plummet than a shudder. They shimmer to the ground because they are light, which means they carry nothing. Or, Yes, ice spreads above the pond when it’s cold, yes it’s clear but sharp and has edges. Sometimes it’s luminous, othertimes dark. It turns wet when it’s warm again. Yes, it can get so wet that it disappears, also carrying nothing. Most people have a TV these days. When the TV’s on you can fold yourself up into a square and live another life. You’ll see one day. Branches hold the same ragged shape as lightning, but they’re kinder.
Hours pass where you and I send images and words back and forth through the indoor voices. Kettles, turtlenecks, shipping containers, beanie hats, pavements, plant-pots, paper and so on. At last the city seems to quiet itself outside and with it I slip into sleep, away from the dark menagerie of a world recalled. It has been a long time since my sleep has taken me anywhere but the box room. But this time I pass through into your world, not quite the one we share, somewhere beyond that. It is the world you have translated from the scraps I’ve given you. Made second-hand, from hope and stories, threaded into a nest. A place that almost makes sense.
Here in this hybrid garden, filled with all alphabet of things, is where I find you. It’s nearly a beach. I emerge from a row of trees, draped with perfectly circular leaves, worn thinly, like a windbreaker. The leaves drip liquid light, causing the sensation of flickering. The earth is damp with light. As I step out of the treeline my feet cause light to emerge from the ground like moisture from moss around my shoes. Ahead of me ocean waves unfold from left to right across the surface of the water, rather than climbing up the beach itself. Something starlike clutches the surface of the water, and I realise this is how you have understood birds. A giant bulb-filament hangs across the ocean in lengthy coils, aglow like string lights. There is a textureless moon hanging low, yet it casts no reflection. I remind myself to teach you about reflection.
I continue down, picking my way through glints of detritus — forks, bicycles, belts, tangled severely into tough ropes like seaweed — towards the shore. A roar can be heard breaking from within the cold water. The waves toss the noise upwards. I see uneasy shapes emerging from the surface like fins in the distance. At my feet is a toy from my childhood. A red wooden boat with white sails. So, this place is ours, I think, having never told you about this item. I reach down and take it in my hands. It is much smaller and lighter than I remember. Plastic, not wooden. I throw it towards the ocean and it disappears before it meets the surface. You do not know about sinking or floating. Outside of understanding, it ceases to exist.
I do not want to leave, and worse still, I do not want you to leave and encounter the paleness of reality in comparison to your creation.
But you are hungry for truth, which I am yet to tell you about, though I know you sense its outline. You will break windows and tear down doors to find it, and I will let you drift further and further away from me and towards yourself. You will forget this world, with its amnesiac trees, not quite real, not quite anything else.
I reach a rocky outcrop that slopes into the water. The waves drag their crests up its flintish face, then shudder back towards the sea in a fan of white foam. Something turns at the top of the rocks. I can’t quite see it, but its presence emboldens the beach, like rays from a lighthouse. It shudders and twists, it blinks and paddles and sinks. I watch it reach towards language then rebuke it entirely. I toss words upwards, they scatter like pebbles falling against a tent canopy. They skitter down the rock and gather at my feet. When I am sure I am close to knowing this turning thing, something breaks and its promise deteriorates.
Left alone the thing grows back. Without substance it is able to burn, embrace, give and grieve. It is filled with holes where the wind gets through, chapping its heart with a chill but sending a whistle over the roar of the ocean. I can sense you nearby, though I cannot see you. Without warning the word arrives like a slant of orange light pinned to a white wall through a square window. It arrives fully formed and angular against the exposed stretch of my mind. My mind welcomes the warmth of the word. I say it, in my indoor voice, though I can’t hear how it sounds over the noise of the waves.