Revision of “The Four Senses” chapter 1

This is a revised version of the first chapter of my Three-Day novel (which is rapidly becoming my one-year novel). I still plan at least two more revisions. Meanwhile, your comments are very welcome.

 

THE FOUR SENSES

 by Sørina Higgins

They told me that the night & day were all that I could see;
They told me that I had five senses to inclose me up.
And they inclos’d my infinite brain into a narrow circle,
And sunk my heart into the Abyss, a red round globe hot burning,
Till all from life I was obliterated and erased.

William Blake, “Visions of the Daughters of Albion”

Blake

Visions of the Daughters of Albion, Plate 1, William Blake, 1793

 Chapter One

“Do you think I am blind?” I snarled. The tiny 18-year-old shrank away from me.

“Do you think I am deaf, and dumb, and senseless?”

“Of course not, Ms. Woods,” she whined, pressing her skinny body against the orange chair, its metal legs chilly against her bones.

“Do you think I have a two-digit IQ?”

“Of course not!” she whined again. “I just panicked.”

“Look, Jennifer, I don’t want to tell you how to be a better criminal, but seriously! Couldn’t you even change the font? I mean, you copied-and-pasted an entire essay, dumped it into the center of a page, and handed it in? How stupid do you think I am?”

My temperature rose with my frustration-level. A prickling sensation crawled up my neck, redding my face, then down my arms, dampening my shirt.

Jennifer squirmed in her chair, managed a glance at my face, then blurted out: “I didn’t know what you wanted, I hate poetry, what was I supposed to do?” Her fear spewed out along a stream of entitlement.

“You know what you were supposed to do. You were supposed to come see me, and you were supposed to write your own essay.”
“But I don’t know how to write an essay!” Her squeaky-toy voice was rising up towards a wail now, the end of her little nose reddening. “Nobody ever taught me how to write!”

Yeah, that’s probably true, I thought, my anger cooling into embarrassment. They don’t teach them anything now-a-days. I thought of the high school where I had taught for one nightmare of a year, a year that nearly landed me in either the psych ward or my grave (not sure which is worse). Those kids had six English teachers in four years, and the Seniors I inherited had never been assigned a five-paragraph essay in their lives.

“I know,” I sighed. “That isn’t your fault.”

Jennifer twisted her ankles together in confusion at my swift shift in tone.

“It isn’t the high school teachers’ fault, either,” I went on, carried by inertia. “It’s the whole stinking system. For twelve years at least—nearly your whole education—you’ve been oppressed by a broken system that teaches you only superficial formulas and tests meaningless skills and forces everyone to stoop to the level of the lowest common denominator—” I saw her eyes had glazed over. “Anyway, you knew what you did was wrong, so why did you do it?”

“I just hoped I wouldn’t get caught!”

“Jennifer,” I intoned, remembering that lowering the vocal pitch one octave can strike an impressionable youth with the force of authority, “getting caught has nothing to do with it. You still damage your soul whether anyone finds out about it or not. Do you want to grow up to be a felon?” but I broke off again, scoffing at my own pompous hypocrisy. Hadn’t I gone along with the system? Hadn’t I been a meaningless cog in the meaningless machine? Hadn’t I gone against my own conscience in implementing immoral grading systems? Who was I to scold this sad little girl?

“Whatever,” I muttered. “I have to report you.”

She looked about twelve years old then, in her pink leggings, layered tank tops, and cheap beads.

“It goes on your permanent record.”

Her eyeliner began to trickle down her face.

“And you fail the assignment. You were doing so well, too, but failing the last essay means you fail the course. I can’t let you take the final exam, you know. I don’t know why you did this to me, or to yourself. You were my success story this semester!”

I recalled her writing sample: the nonsensical sentences, the random punctuation, the vague clichés, the lack of sequential thought. Then I thought through those long hours we had spent together in this yellowish office, laboring over comma splices and in-text citations. I remember her research paper: a decent C, with some pretty syntax and specific examples. What a waste.

Then I started to shrivel up inside, wondering what papers I had to to fill out, how to report her properly, and what right I had to reduce youth to cringing insects. A vision of forms in triplicate wavered in my mind for a moment, the words policies and procedures buzzing my brain. What if she appealed? What if I had to go before the ombudsperson? What if I had done this all wrong?

Jennifer was sniveling. I lunged up, grabbed the tissue box, dropped it, retrieved it, and shoved it at her.

“You did this to yourself. I tried my best with you. All I can hope is that you will do better next time and have success in the class and everything you do in life.”

I swiveled away. She started packing up all her pink Staples specials inside one another, zipping up pockets, cases, and bags, then slunk away. Yet another failure.

* * *

But the time had come, as the walrus said, to get ready for class. That’s not what the walrus said, but what he said didn’t make much sense, and I had to print a handout and copy it before I went to face what was left of my dwindling class. In the back of my skull, the mental tick of my generation tapped out: check facebook check facebook check facebook. I gave in. There are still ten minutes before class, I reasoned. So I pulled up twitter and facebook and gmail and yahoo—just for a minute!—and read:

To: Cassandra Woods
From: Aurora Dunne
4/12/13

Hey, Cass, I’m in the airport, just catching up on emails here during a layover before I fly out on the last leg of my trip home, and stumbled on something you’d like. Have you seen this fiction blog?

http://thefoursenses.wordpress.com/947382.

Really impressive writing. All these different voices, different tones and styles as if all the different characters wrote the various posts, yet there’s a kind of story weaving through as you go along. I’m guessing this kind of online fiction is the way to go in the future–kind of reader-generated, to some extent, like the old choose-your-own-adventure stories. And it’s got a wild premise. Let me know what you think. You should jump on this kind of stuff and write online blog-novels and make a million! OK, I’m on my way home from–well, I can’t say where I’ve been, but you can guess if you look at the headlines. Uprisings. Genocide. The worst place to be right now, if you live there; Americans are still OK. But it was ghastly: bodies in double rows down all the corridors of the hospital, and mostly children. I took pictures and will tell you all about it. I’ll call you!

Whew. What do you say to that? That’s Aurora for you. Aurora Dunne, as sturdy a friend as a girl could want, but who swirls past me in her own glorious whirlwind, tearing around the globe, saving the world, binding wounds, impervious to it all. She can save lives with one hand, and package them up like neat lab experiments with the other. She was in Haiti right after the earthquake, sawing off legs with back-room carpentry tools, without anesthesia. She was in New Orleans before Katrina had finished pouring in floods of filth, following around after the teams that spray-painted body counts on doors, working her way around the Superdome with pathetic supplies for the displaced thousands. She was in Japan after the tsunami, evaluating the severity of radiation exposures. How much horror can one person see? I have seen nothing, and yet I limp along with a wounded mind. What is her mind like inside? Maybe living a life of service heals the broken brain. I wonder if I will ever grow up.

Meanwhile… I clicked the link.

THE FOUR SENSES

Once Upon a Time
1/1/12
by Not Your Fairy Godmother

Once upon a time, there was a happy little girl with ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, two ears, one nose, and one mouth. They all worked together in happy harmony to show the little girl all the beautiful world around her. They tasted ice cream. They smelled flowers. They brushed her baby sister’s hair and touched her mother’s cheek. They listened to happy songs.

Then one day the Big Bad Men came and cut off her nose.

What?! This is horrible. Why did Aurora send me this? Is it another of those shocking medical narratives, like Richard Selzer’s stomach-churning stories? Ugh.

I randomly clicked another post listed on the side.

Better Than….
4/11/13
by L Van

Being atinitus rather than blesti has its advantages, or so I speculate.

“Atinitus”? What’s that?

I can still read—with my eyes, that is—rather than having recourse to the potentially alienating experience of having to read with my fingertips as some of my associates do who have had their sight taken from them. As a tangent, however, I recall a short story by C. S. Lewis in which a man born blesti received his sight.

Hm. It seems like this writer has made up words for “deaf” and “blind.” OK.

When he first tried to read by looking at the words, rather than touching the Braille, he felt alienated. He had cultivated an intimate, physical relationship with the very textures of words gained through years of actual tactile contact with the embodied shapes of letters.

Aurora was right; I loved this combination of the philosophical with the personal. It was quite beautiful writing, if a bit snobbish.

I suppose that viewing letters with our eyes is also physical, and that each printed character also has a physical shape—yet something in the human animal believes that touch is more “real” and intimate than sight. Love at first sight is not enough; it yearns for physical consummation.

I wouldn’t know….

Yet this is far off the topic. I was going to enumerate the advantages of hearing loss, as imposed upon an adult rather than as a congenital disorder, when compared to the disadvantages of such a loss of sight.

Imposed upon”? Did he have an accident, or a disease, or a botched eye surgery?

I find I cannot do it. I cannot relieve the daily tortures of my situation by reflecting that someone else’s sorrows are worse. On the one hand, that would be inhumane. Any rationally philanthropic human being should desire to suffer ultimate pain himself rather than that anyone else should suffer at all. This is the allegorical meaning of the Christian myth, by the way.

It’s more than an allegory, buddy!

On the other hand, I cannot reflect on my advantages, because I am myopic enough to say there are none. I cannot drive, for instance, though it is not forbidden within the city. It is not safe; I cannot hear horns of warning, nor trucks bellowing up in the left lane, nor the subtle shifts of engine whine that tell me of my car’s health. Small inconvenience, compared to my true woes, but inconvenience nonetheless.

I cannot hear my friends knocking on my front door. This would be a sorrow indeed, had I any friends. But I have none.

Ouch. That’s awful. 

And now I must steel myself to write the true horror. I cannot listen to music. There are more days when I desire death than when I do not, because of this fact alone. What is life without music.

I tried, God knows I tried (if there is a God, which I doubt more and more these days), hour after hour every day for weeks after. I took up the carpet in this wretched flat, wrenching out the staples with a violence that damaged my fingers nearly as much as it tore the upholstery. I set the speakers on the floorboards. I turned up the volume as far as it would go, watching the digital numbers rise with hope and dread. I laid my head against the speaker, ear flat on the floor. It was of no use. Beethoven himself never suffered as I do.

But they let me keep my piano. They shipped it here with the rest of my belongings. It stands in the frowzy living room. I do not know whether that is to exacerbate the torture or to provide release. They let me keep my piano here—yet I cannot touch it. I could not stand its cool indifference.

I sat silent in my faded, musty office, thinking of “Them,” whoever

they were in this dismal fantasy, who would take away a man’s hearing but leave his instrument. My cursor idled over to the archive list, found another post.

THE FOUR SENSES

 Whatsit like
2/11/13
by Stiletto

What’s it like?” they used to ask, when they said anything at all. At first, they said nothing, not to me. They said plenty to each other, sidelong, out of the corners of their eyes. They didn’t believe that I could do the same work I did before. They didn’t believe I could manage people, make the menus, order the food, plan the decorations, hire the djs. They underestimated the power of sight.

The power of sight? Oh, right—because she’s deaf, so she uses hearing more, I suppose. And they’re asking her what it’s like because they have their hearing? OK—so it’s not an imaginary world in which everyone has had their hearing taken away.

So after a while, they began to ask, “What’s it like?” “What’s it like not being able to hear?” They, of course, are all deprived in other ways

Aha! They’re all deprived in other ways! I thought. That’s the premise, I guess. Very clever.

ways that may be more frustrating in catering, but less severe. And I never said what it was like. I just withered them with my stare. Of late, I have been thinking it might be almost time to think of that myself. I have not thought, not once, never sat down to weep or to curse or to pity myself or hate them. I do not know what it is like, because I refuse to think about it.

It was, of course, a long time in before anybody asked me anything, long after we developed our texting rules. They fought and fought my regulations, saying it wasn’t fair to impose my “disability” (that’s the word they have been taught, we have all been taught, reprogrammed, to use) on them, that they had their own, that I should adapt or get out. I adapted. I adapted them to me.

Sweet, I thought. This chick has got chutzpah.

Now no one talks in my presence; everyone texts. And I have so dominated them with my right and my will that I merely tilt my head at anyone, and voila, they show me their screen. It’s as good as conversation. Better, because there is a record. They all use company phones at work. Any personal phones, I confiscate until the end of the day, then charge a release fee to return. No nonsense here: we have a job to do.

Shouts and laughter passed by in the hall. My eyes unfocused and I stared through the computer screen. I tried to imagine the loss of hearing. I remember the old children’s game: Which would you rather lose, your sight or your hearing? That obviously depended on one’s vocation. Being a writer (or wanting to be a writer), I’d rather lose my hearing, I suppose—speaking of hearing, what was all that noise in the hall? Oh man, it’s time for class! And I still have that handout to print and copy. What kind of professional am I—what kind of professor? Not even a professor, just an adjunct, just a “Ms.,” a nobody, an overworked, underpaid, irresponsible nobody….

And so my mind ran on, all the way to the copy room, all throughout the angst of fighting the copy machine. The fluorescent lights hummed and flickered, messing with my eyes. Leftover lunch smells clogged the air: curry, tuna, popcorn, coffee, and ramen. Shakespeare’s jumbled word for stew flitted across my mind. “A gallimaufry,” I mumbled. “Too pretty a word for that sickening smell.” Then the copier jammed, I got toner on my fingers, the seams of my shirt chafed my skin, and sweat lingered against its cotton. Ah, every sense annoyed me. Could I just turn it all off?

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About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is a writer, English teacher, and Inklings scholar. Sørina serves as Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum University and teaches English at King's College and Lehigh Carbon Community College. She has published two books of poetry, "The Significance of Swans" and "Caduceus."

2 thoughts on “Revision of “The Four Senses” chapter 1

  1. Richard Berrigan says:

    I read this between classes just like the protagonist. I ‘ve read a different chapter already (4? I forget). I find the blog as interesting as the protagonist does. She’s deaf and she’s bitter about it, but you can’t blame her. She’s also a hardass at work.

    I don’t know how I feel about the protagonist’s commentary intruding on the blog. It straddles a line with one foot in an experiment turning 2 types of expository prose into a conversation, and the other foot is in a less-amusing version of Mystery Science Theatre 3000. Not that the protagonist’s commentary is bad, but not all of the interjections provide useful commentary. Like “more than an allegory”. This would work if the blogger could respond in real time; then you’d get a debate going and have an interesting conversation, but since it’s the protagonist’s inner monologue, it feels more like an effort to shout “I’m a Christian!” There’s probably a better way to provide this information about the protagonist.

    This is not without its gems either. “I have seen nothing, and yet I limp along with a wounded mind.” Beautiful. So jealous. This sets up the conflict well. I believe the conflict is internal, the protagonist’s view of her own life compared to someone else that actually does have it tougher. I have yet to determine why each blog entry is written in a different persona, but I suspect it reflects the conflict in some fashion.

    • Thanks, Richard! Excellent comments. You’re the second person who has found the narrator’s interjections into the blog distracting, so I’ll work on that. I don’t know if I’ll take them all out, or tone them down, or what.

      Let me know if you want to post something of yours.

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