Imaginary Dinner Party, Part Thirteen

By Lynn Crawford

Guests sip from cups of coffee or punch in the library lobby before assembling in the auditorium for the evening presentation from our visiting aquatic researcher, Robert. He sits on the stage floor, behind its closed curtain, looks up at the ceiling, and revisits a scene from his childhood:

There is a heavy winter snow. He and his mother Nathalie, arms linked, walk up their street to a holiday gathering. She—dressed in a fawn, wool coat, grey gloves, and burgundy fur-lined boots—holds onto him tightly, possibly for warmth, balance, or both. Once inside she removes her hat, gloves, and coat, and replaces the boots with heeled shoes of the same color. The shoes are loud on streets and wood floors but not on this home’s thick rugs and carpets.

She then slips on her indoor gloves; silk, cream-colored, embroidered with a single line of jewels from the middle finger to the end of her wrist. The gloves once belonged to her dear friend, Christine, Robert’s birth mother. The gloves themselves, Nathalie tells Robert (more than once), are Christine; elegant and protective just as she was. Nathalie and Robert take hands and briefly stare into one another’s eyes before giving their coats to a man, wearing a red cape over a traditional tuxedo, who hangs them on a rack. Nathalie and Robert thank him, enter a room filled with neighbours and strangers, just as someone stands at a podium and, pumping a fist, says, “If the people are poisoned, I shall be poisoned. We are one.”

Nathalie listens with the crowd. Robert moves toward the window and watches the snow. Suddenly, a face appears and, for a moment, a forehead rests on the windowpane. Robert smiles, waves. The figure smiles, waves back, then disappears.

Now, decades later, from his seat behind the stage curtain, Robert wonders who or what that face belonged to, but then a bell signalled it is time to begin his talk so he leaves the memory, stands up, the curtain is raised, and begins his presentation, easing into his topic: Zones of time. The allure and impossibility of entering and remaining in just one. But he does not start there. Here is a portion of his introductory content:

“Greetings. I sometimes wish I could time-travel, but that feat requires different kinds of wiring than mine. The impossibility, at first, was dispiriting, but like many things which are restrictive, it has turned into a comfort. Keep in mind that believing something can be done does not mean you must attempt it, let alone achieve it.”

Then, reminding himself that his wife cautioned him this morning against sounding more like a coach than a scientist, he turns to data, citing information on the ocean at the edge of town and devices used to explore it. Several minutes into his address he sees the head librarian, Rose, flecks of snow dotting her hair and shoulders, enter the auditorium, walk down the aisle, and take her seat in the front row, next to his wife. The two kiss, clasp hands, sit straight, before turning their eyes on him.

Comforted, he speaks of the hydrophone, an underwater listening device that allows humans to hear but not transmit sounds in the sea.

This form of listening is sometimes called passive.

He opens a dictionary, waiting on the pedestal, and reads from it. “Just as a microphone is used to detect sound in the air, a hydrophone detects sounds in the water. The first ones were developed during World War One to prevent submarines from crashing into icebergs.”

Robert adds, “I am not sure how this important device was ever given the word ‘passive.’ How is listening, hearing, alerting, ‘passive’? Incidentally, sound is of immense importance to whales, far more than sight or smell. As far as I know.”

Part Two

Earlier this week, Robert was reminded of his mother telling him that she and her childhood friend Christine regularly recited words they associated with war: Gun, gallop, horse, cannon, helicopter, bell, rooster, plane, cannon, scream, sob, moo, bray, squawk. Nathalie embroidered them into wall tapestries, oven mitts, and pillow covers.

She thought frequently of sounds on her own too, including those made during private exchanges. Her first kiss, for example, when she said “Oh” and heard him say “Ah, yes.” That kiss, sudden, fleeting, took place in a dark room during a game of hide-and-seek. It was a surprise, a sweet surprise, and so beautiful, so igniting, all her vessels opened up and she looked forward to a life packed with them. She kissed, as often as she could, the same way she looked at the ocean, ate grapes, and roller-skated, and expected other surprise kisses to be beautiful too. They were. Until enemy soldiers, robust, athletic, well-organized, combed the area for weapons. Invaded. Anonymous men who came and fought and left. One of them kissed her badly, horribly.  And there were ugly scenes with her neighborhood’s crime lord, Frank, who entered their underground shelter with food, blankets water, medicine. He was a saviour. Until he kissed Nathalie and turned vicious. “Learn” he whispered repeatedly in her ear, pressing himself into her, “Learn.”

She did not want to remember any more of him, or of that. For so long, remembering and not remembering him was not her choice. Scenes seeped in erratically, unexpectedly, and she was never prepared. But she practiced ways to conquer their presence and now, after so many years, before even the slightest whisper of a memory, she thinks and says, stop. Which does not block the visits every time, but it blocks them sometimes and having absorbed the strategy she feels much less alone.

Underland: A Deep Time Journey
By Robert Macfarlane
W. W. Norton & Company, 2019
Robert Macfarlane’s books include Mountains of the Mind, The Old Ways, Landmarks, and, with Jackie Morris, The Lost Words. He lives in Cambridge, England, where he is a Fellow of the University of Cambridge.

Species of Spaces and Other Pieces
By Georges Perec
Edited and translated by John Sturrock
Penguin Books Ltd, 1998
French novelist, filmmaker, documentarian, and essayist Georges Perec was known for his formally complex works that focus on ordinary, everyday minutiae that often go unnoticed. He was affiliated with the mainly French group of writers known as Oulipo, a “workshop of potential literature.”

The Human Race
By Robert Antelme, translated by Jeffrey Haight and Annie Mahler
Marlboro Press, 1998
A member of a French Resistance group headed by François Mitterrand, Robert Antelme was arrested by the Gestapo in June 1944, sent to Buchenwald, then to a work camp in Germany. ... this moving memoir is a testament to Holocaust survivors’ furious desire to remain human.”
–Publishers Weekly

Time moves differently here in the underland. It thickens, pools, flows, rushes, slows.
–Robert McFarlane, Underland:  A Deep Time Journey

Everything speaks, we hear everything, everything possesses some power.
–Robert Antelme, The Human Race

… it happens that testimony can fail
–Georges Perec, Species and Spaces

Imaginary Dinner Party is a literary series by Lynn Crawford that explores “what happens when books join forces.” Read the archive:

Part One, Under Stories (spring 2021)
Part Two, Heal the People (summer 2021)
Part Three, Think Like a Detective (fall 2021)
Part Four, Possession (winter 2022)
Part Five, Forms of Engagement (spring 2022)
Part Six, Conversations (summer 2022)
Part Seven (fall 2022)
Part Eight (winter 2023)
Part Nine (spring 2023)
Part Ten (summer 2023)
Part Eleven (fall 2023)
Part Twelve (winter 2024)

Lynn Crawford’s books include Simply Separate People (2002), Fortification Resort (2005), Shankus & Kitto: A Saga (2016), and Paula Regossy (2020). She is currently working on her next novel, Closely Touched Things. An excerpt from that book, Take Away From the Total, was published in issue no. one of Three Fold.

Founded in 2020, Three Fold is an independent quarterly based in Detroit that presents exploratory points of view on arts, culture, and society in addition to original works in various media, including visual art, literature, film and the performing arts. We solicit and commission contributions from artists, writers, and activists around the world. Three Fold is a publication of Trinosophes Projects, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization located in the historic Eastern Market neighborhood in downtown Detroit. Click here to check out Three Fold’s events page and view a schedule of the publication’s on-site activities.

Three Fold recognizes, supports, and advocates for the sovereignty of Michigan’s twelve federally-recognized Indian nations, for historic Indigenous communities in Michigan, for Indigenous individuals and communities who live here now, and for those who were forcibly removed from their Homelands. We operate on occupied territories called Waawiiyaataanong, named by the Anishinaabeg and including the Three Fires Confederacy of Ojibwe (Chippewa), Odawa (Ottawa), and Bodewatomi (Potawatomi) peoples. We hold to commit to Indigenous communities in Waawiiyaataanong, their elders, both past and present, and future generations.