Music and Memory
Once, when I was old enough to look into mirrors whenever I passed them, I noticed myself. My hair swept my waist in tangles, and it always looked dirty, but I didn’t know it then; I usually felt, if not beautiful, at least opaque, and warm. I was walking past the bathroom my mother painted mint, the door half open and the blinds pulled up, so the sun spilled across everything, and the water in the toilet bowl shone. I walked to the mirror, watching the way I moved, my wrists lifting to push back my hair, the gentle shift of my shoulders, lips parting in surprise, caught together with a thread of spit. I had not thought that I was growing up, because I had made it so clear to anyone who would listen that I was content here– to chew strawberries, and smack my lips if I wanted to, to sink my bare feet into the muddy creek, and announce everything I knew, loudly and sincerely through gapped teeth, like children do. But I had grown, and I was starting to forget the scratch of my dad’s beard on my neck, and the way muscles can laugh, all wound up inside, when you run so fast that no one can catch you and all of the street lamps are only smears of light, (sometimes ringed by rainbows, if you’ve been swimming,) I was starting to forget how to make-believe convincingly.
I am not ashamed to say that I dog-ear pages in every good book I read, whether or not it is on loan from the library, or from a friend. I am reading some collection of words that I can’t stop chewing, that just tumbles in my mouth too deliciously, and I am feeling the rhythm of it now, the feel of something true enough to holler, the rhythm of crushing ice cubes between my teeth, or making love. I fold the corner in on itself, I iron the crease with my fingertip, only a quarter inch of paper. Retrouver, to find again, by accident, flipping through the pages when the air grows much colder, and my fingers are much more tired.
Greensleeves found me, peering at my newly aged face in the hollow of the mirror, and wondering if it hurt to grow up, if it felt like wilting or fading or peeling away, like the skin of an orange. I began to hum the tune I’d learned from my mother, notes swelling from my tight throat, hovering together in the quiet heat before pulling apart and diving, plummeting to the tile, each one transparent and gold. It is important that it was Greensleeves, and not the Christmas carole, What Child is This, by the same tune. It was somehow less beautiful to me, weighed down by the words of traditions that have more to do with church than with a forest floor, the smell of broken pine needles.
After that day, I carried it with me; some beautiful grief that was better to me, I think, than any joy; so that even when I stretched taller, and gave away different sacred parts of myself, and forgot completely the softness of my mother’s hands, and the intimate laughter of Christmas morning, that I would at least preserve that single minute of staring into the mirror, and unraveling myself into a thread that would pass through everything, knotted in certain places.
Studies have been conducted about the relationship between classical music and memory, how the brain can recall details more accurately if it is singing, if it is dripping with sound, with the pitch and sequence and rhythm of song. I press my lids closed, calling back the rise of the song, when I peered into the mirror, the smell of chlorine, drenched and knotted hair. I picture the highest notes, that crack and melt together like glass, and it is as though I had studied them in my sleep–one note a flash card for a face, for a freckled spine, hunched beneath the humid sheets.
I breathe in the pages of the book, my nose wedged in the crease of the spine. I insist on starting this way, before I read anything; on smelling it, like I was taught to by my grandmother. Mothballs, predictably, and less predictable, jolly ranchers. Watermelon, latching to the bed of my molars, splintering into five thousand pieces, floating into the irretrievable shadows of my mouth. I run my thumb across the pages, eight dog-ears, loose from the binding, pulled taut between thumb and pointer finger too often.
I hummed Greensleeves in the mountains, standing in the undergrowth of the Tetons, breathless and burning. We watched bison rub against each other, crushing pine needles with their heavy feet. I had cried then, slapping my face until the water dried. I hummed it into his collar bone, in Nebraska, beneath the most relentless thunder storm, feverish lips splitting in the dry air. I yelled it once in the ocean, below the water, struggling against the ache for air. I opened my eyes to see the notes escape, as bubbles, extinct, giving themselves to light. The notes break sometimes even in my throat, trying to hold too much of the moment, gutting themselves as they emerge. It is then I have to choose what to let go of, and what to hold onto.