Insomnia: A Suite in Thirteen Hours
Count sheep, my father said. Count ewes and lambs, count in the
spiraling horn of ram the shape of shells, the fair arc
of the nautilus. Take a census, especially,
of black sheep who balk at the wall and refuse to jump
over. How woolly they are, placid and quiet, once
they've stopped bleating and rolling their eyes—ridiculous
obstacle! Turn away. There's grass waiting, and flowers
full of scent and honey. Count the bees, their intricate
dance of direction—Here is sweetness, here is dusty
pollen yellow as hammered gold. Count how many ways
you cannot follow. If you are still awake, number
moth wings, do sums with frog and dragonfly, enter the
long division of heron between water and air.
What if I count every syllable in this sentence?
What if I count in all the languages I once knew?—
Eenie, meenie, minie, moe, unos, dos, tres, quattro—
What if I total the sighings of small winds through pine
in the half-moon-lit hours of a night in December,
each murmur numbered, each cold whisper accounted for?
What if I only measure words? Tart turpentine bend
of spruce, sugar-echo of tamarack after all
its needles have yellowed and fallen, a skeleton
of itself all that remains—lovely broken wooden
bones. What if I tally the hairs of your head, stricken
sparrows, the hours remaining for heartbeat, for breathing?
Listen: One, two, three, four…it could be any moment.
What if I use only my fingers and have to stop
at ten? Every carton of eggs short two, two hollow
gray nests unfilled—who would go without breakfast, which cake
would fail to rise? What if I count the forks in the road,
paths untaken, graves? Or stars, if I began with known
constellations, familiar galaxies, if I find
a way to follow darkness, never lose my place, if
none flare and go out like candles—Out, out, brief candle—
What if some angel waits, celestial calculator,
for that inevitable moment when we falter?
What if we add up cracks in the sidewalk, cold river
channels, stones? Or feathers on a raven's wing, taut and
shimmering with being lifted, weightless, by the wind?
What if we counted faster? Two, four, six, eight, five, ten,
twenty…Or, perhaps, agreed to certain limits, a
vocabulary of quantification—cubit,
chain, hand, myriad, gross, acre: each sweet blade of grass
within its boundaries multiplied by roots and worms,
subtracted by the hunger of rabbits, the famished
ache of deer; their herds likewise divided by lion
or wolf or bullet, by misjudged leaps
over barbed wire fences. Then there are the imaginary numbers—
herds of bison and giant camels, woolly mammoths,
the Carolina parakeet, bright fairy hoards who
vanished over water into the west—a number
for each treasure lost, each love, each kind word unspoken.
Once we were children, counting, This little piggy went
to market, this little piggy stayed home. Remember,
we said. Blizzard winds piled snow so deep it buried us,
house locked behind walls of white, how the horses lowered
their heads and kept walking, broke one narrow path open
between the barn and water. Enumeration by
happenstance—Phoebes nested in the mailbox. A girl
wandered off into the sagebrush and slept with the sheep,
as if she had been a lamb, once, and missed the sweet smells
of milk and wool. Jigsaw puzzle: reassemble the
unstrung body of yesterday, recollect what's been
scattered—as if by taking water, earth, desire, we
might give our breath back like a gift, a resurrection.
How shall we notice if the slow clock of the world is
unwinding? We're caught in the body's calculations,
the perpetual arithmetic of cells, windy
binary of breathing—in, out, open, closed, zero,
one. We know our saints: Pythagoras and Diana,
Xeno and Arianrhod. The four letters of the
true and unpronounceable mutable Name of God
ride the roller-coaster helices of memory:
life replicates an incessant dissolution. Light
becomes soft darkness. Winter follows autumn. Each dear
presence becomes absence. I do not doubt that all things
return—but where love is, in the shifting synchrony
of molecules—shall I count ghosts now? Number spirits?
Among my companions I imagine the slick worms
counting with their bellies each inch of me under earth,
beetles telling bones. I'm prepared for a last judgment,
a reckoning: my weight in water, my weight in dust,
the seven vertebrae of a giraffe's neck, a swan's,
numbered the same as mine—bony stem, blossoming skull,
who will pull those stiff petals off, saying, I'll marry,
I'll marry not? What if I learn to count the spaces
light makes between pale branches of aspen, what if I
master perennial computations? Cone and seed,
leaf and flower, mycelia and fruiting body—
Such long litanies: From storm and thunder, heat and gale,
decay and withering, please, do not deliver us.
This winter is unseasonably warm. Fat squirrels
busy themselves with accumulation—nests in the
woodpile, nests in the roof, larders under mounds of slash
we left unburned because no rains came in September,
October, November. What if I counted the firs
lost to mistletoe, the heat-seared needles of yellow
pine, stems of knapweed, a purple profusion watered
by drought? What if I counted each note in the carols
the squirrels are composing above my head at night
while rest eludes me? The cocoons of spiders (sixty-
seven); mud-wasp nests (fourteen); the shadows of the dead.
Moon flame burning my seconds away. The pale smoke of
hours gone to embers, ash, rising in darkness like prayer.
Who keeps the ledgers of heaven? Who attends to the
computations of clouds? Is there a broker of souls,
a clerk of constancy? If stars are bright beads on an
abacus, whose fingers are moving so quickly? When
particles of dust rest in a sunlit room, tiny
boats adrift in a lake of radiance, how many?
Who knows how many? Who numbers nebulae, who counts
the pulse of quasars, the quivering throats of birds? God
is that great black hole into which we pour all questions,
a density so heavy that no answer escapes
the pull of its gravitation. The Ten Thousand Things
open their arms to us and say, Come in. Our bodies
step over the threshold. Now I lay me down to sleep…
And in that sleep of Death what dreams may come? What sorrows?
Count ants welling up from their sandy fortresses to
carry away the fallen—paper wasp that buzzed its
short life away against the window, flies exhausted
by rotting fruit. Count the prayers of mandible, thorax,
abdomen, shiny tripartite priests solemn in their
funerary duties. Or list the varieties
of arachnids and their traps: funnel webs, parachutes
floating in green meadows, orbs like wheels, the gossamer
belaying lines which mark their passage from one corner
to another across the dark mysteries of space. Trace
the planar geometries of lichen on granite,
slow mandalas, a silent century of summers.
It happens, mostly, in silence, beyond the noises
of highway traffic, the sonic disturbances of
jets shattering heaven: orderly tabulations
of maple, willow, cottonwood—blood red, rust, yellow,
another autumn, leaves swooping in cold crosswinds like
disembodied wings of birds, unstrung kites, small boats
forever broken of their moorings. Invisible,
that great ocean of air, its tides that crash against bleak
escarpments, flinging a spume of snow. And we are lost
at sea, I am lost, and drowning. Count the rippling dark,
count wave and trough, count the sea birds, their plaintive calling.
Number every desolation. Keep the names: black gull,
kittiwake, storm petrel, all of us so far from shore.
When the wind comes down through pines it sounds like water, as
if a dam had given way above us. The trees bow
down, twist and bow down, until it seems their trunks must snap,
their heartwood break. Sometimes ice weights their crowns until they
bend, touch earth, and never rise again. Count the greeny
branches, count the spiral windings of nests, soft fabrics
of grass. It's winter, the weavers are flown south. Count four
directions, sharp compass points, our dark magnetic rose.
Count in slow increments the chiming hours, the ticking
clock of your heart. The hands move. We are vanishing, we
are almost gone. Above us Orion hunts the Bear,
his little dog barking in ecstasy at his heels.
Count his bright arrows, count loss and longing, count desire.
It's December, it's raining, the year is almost done.
How many translucent fingers, how many tiny
silver hands? Is there a number that means We're falling?
Is there a number for Ice by morning? For highways
made treacherous? For a crust on the snow that will slash
the delicate legs of deer? Two weeks ago, six weeks
early, the great owls were calling at twilight, “My mice,
my trees!” On Christmas Day a bluebird quick as summer
flew across the road in front of the car. The geese float
north, there are young eagles fishing the Bitterroot and
the Clark Fork. Who will count the sleeping buds of apples?
How many swallows can nest on the head of a pin?
A version of “Insomnia” was previously published as “Mad Alyce's Insomnia” in the newsletter of the Newington-Cropsey Foundation.