restricted access He Who Would Have Become "Joshua," 1791
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He Who Would Have Become "Joshua," 1791

Soon, after it all is over—after many more here have ceased breathing and also have risen and flown—we will remember how, immediately after she clamped her jaw shut forever and stiffened, she began once again to tell it: the oldest woman on board, telling us all again how fiercely that jealous river of our memory, before it destroyed every living thing in its path, once flashed through a solemn pair of eyes, even as two boys, their legs caressed by slinking weeds, remained hidden beneath those waters for seven uninterrupted secret days. We will remember how, with her mouth perpetually closed and her form rigid and unbreathing, she told us how, so long ago, in that village, a young girl fought with all her strength (but at last to no avail) to escape the coming horrors foretold by whispering trees, and how, not long afterward, the ground all about became soaked with the salt water from three days of a woman's agonized tears. We will remember how she recalled what some of us, even in this darkness, witnessed for ourselves: how only a few nights ago those two, including the one who, like her, always spoke without opening his mouth, did not sprout wings yet arose out of their rigid forms among us all and flew: flew up out of here and out over the water and then into it, her voice told us, to reawaken back there. Back there, she reminded us, in the oldest water of our longing, so very far from here. She who should never have been taken with the rest of us: an error committed by someone back there who was not, like us, of there. Someone—surely one of them, the ghosts so fond of forcing open our jaws each night, as they bend over us and leave behind that bitter taste in our throats and on our tongues—who did not look carefully enough into her withered face, at her sunken shoulders, and at those useless, sagging breasts. Someone who surely knew that she would be no longer useful for breeding—of use to whom, with those drooping breasts, that slack, hanging jaw, that sour old woman's smell?—but who thought ancient, yes, but perhaps a few years of harvesting left in her. The hands like claws, that someone must have thought, all the more useful for grasping the grain. So load her, then, that someone thought; and so she came. Came but, fortunately for her, ceased all breath only a short time ago.

For all this time, none of us except her have been able to tell how long we have been out here. But "Forty-seven days," she groaned, whispered, late one night—sick in her stomach, we thought, from the constant rockings and heavings beneath us, unlike anything any of us have ever known, especially in this way. In this way bound here on our backs, every single man and woman and child, staring up into this darkness that is always blackness, that is never anything but hotness. Stench. And the cries. So hot, a child nearby us moans, writhing but bound far from her mother no longer here, and filled with the stench of what we all are becoming: what we are becoming, groans another in another corner, way over there [End Page 420] on the far side, who also would have flown, had he been able, like the others, to clamp his jaw shut forever and close his eyes. What they are making us into, another cries out in his dreams when he is able to sleep, when small things, and sometimes bigger things, do not move beneath where he lies and reach up to scurry over his exposed flesh.

She who would soon stop breathing also knew, in the way she has always known these things, how those two managed to fly.

"Forty-seven days and nights," she said, not opening her mouth, "because the star of wanting has gone over there, and the golden star of remembering is now directly overhead. O yes."

How can you know, mother, a young boy...