Wendy Oleson

Story of a Room

I. The Room

There’s a region near the middle of the country. Cows’ and goats’ coats turn celadon from the potency of the grass. In this landlocked place we find a pale yellow room. It’s the size of a sweet loaf—more pound than angel food—more light than dark—but not unheavy. Inside, nine objects wait to be discovered: one made of tin, one that makes noise, and one that holds all of her fear. There is softness and stillness and rough-dry paper smudged with the ink of writing performed by a left hand. And two

 

II. Hidden Things

other things harbored in opaque vessels. A furry creature crouches behind the carved wooden leg of a bench that’s Baroque but unappreciated for its intricacy. The wood smells like dark grape skins. We appreciate that it helps hold our heroine. We don’t care that it shelters the animal; the animal’s importance to our story is small enough to replace the pit of an olive, but when it wets its tongue against the roof of its mouth, it sounds almost human. She does not listen. She feels

 

III. Her Treasure

for the charm around her neck—still warm from the oven—then the earrings (one is missing; count it as one of the objects in the room, one of two that cannot be seen unless we know how to look inside of something else, and she is learning). Last night we dreamt about her missing earring. We see it in our mind’s eye. Ruby? No. Sapphire? Not emerald either. Maybe just gold or silver or something carved from the bone of an animal without fear. She unburdens

 

IV. Relative to Another

her ear from the remaining earring: a black pearl set in white gold above an aquamarine. Pearl and aquamarine, as though he, the jeweler, wanted us to think of the ocean, as though we, the dreamers, have been missing the ocean, and as though she, the heroine in this landlocked region in a yellow room smaller than a breadbox and no bigger than a loaf of bread, remembers how it feels to willingly merge the body into another moving body:

 

V. The Senses

cold and alive, salty, full of food and death, and foam and waves of death washing into food for more life. She puts the earring in her mouth and bites the swell of the pearl, rends it from the stone with a snap. Smoothing it with her tongue and teeth it tastes of concentric circles and slate. To keep it safe, she nestles it in her belly button as the animal yawns. Where’s the other? She reads the question in the back of its webbed throat. We imagine

 

VI. Relative to another

cutting through the animal’s skin, muscle, and stomach to search for what she’s lost (what we dreamed), but there’s no knife in this room. (We would be fools to imagine a knife in this room.) The animal closes its snout and rocks on its haunches. It wobbles like an empty nesting doll. Then it is as still as the dead man who carved most of the region’s well-regarded nesting dolls. In the moments that follow, it convulses and coughs,

 

VII. Her Treasure

quickening the flesh of its throat. Nothing precious comes up. How unfair, she thinks. We, too, bristle at the pain of the mouse and our defied expectations. To our heroine’s credit, she has begun to feel the weight of her unkindness. Whether in sympathy for the rat (that used to be a mouse) or as a symptom of the pearl hunkered in her navel, she’s overcome by the need to hold the animal, to inhale its carbon-based stink and feel it squirm out of her arms and hear it fall to the floor—

 

VIII. Hidden Things

There is no despair once you let go. Was that no fear or no despair? Was that her voice or the animal’s? Is the pearl ocean-derived or fresh water? It occurs to us now that the mouse is a placeholder for a lover and the pearl for a child. It occurs to us that the lover is a placeholder for the mother and the mouse for a child. It occurs to us now that we want to be held in place as long as possible, provided the place has heat and potable water.

 

IX. The Room

The loaf of a room is quite pleasant. But if she tries to sleep, there will be too much light. If she tries to run, she will meet a billowing resistance. (Every creature—every object—is possessed of its own resistance.) If she tries to become a green-coated goat, she will be called a witch, so she will forget about finding the object that holds her fear; she will live alongside the tin pitcher and rusted bell, the damaged mouse and missing earring, the fancy bench and the rough-dry paper on which we’ve written this story.

 
 

Wendy Oleson
Wendy Oleson’s recent fiction appears in Carve, The Normal School, and Memorious and is forthcoming in Cherry Tree. www.wendyoleson.com