A moment is makeshift. It is constructed of sticks and child’s glue despite the strong wind. Huff and puff and you can blow it over. Watch it dissipate like dandelion seed. It sinks between the cough and the orchard, the bow and the string. The elbow in time is the part that gives. Milk stilled in the glass. Trains arriving late. Deserts sounding like one fabric rubbing at another. Scrimshaw holding the memory of the whale surfacing and sounding, scribble of bone.
I remember when I first felt the future might influence the past. I was expecting a letter and thinking of the letter’s arrival in the box. Wondering whether it would be there when I returned, lying pale on its side like a market fish, sealed gills still, happy news or sad. Suddenly I felt the way I crossed the street or the route I took could alter its news, could alter what was said inside. That time didn’t just happen one way, past to present. That cause and effect were not as linear as we might think. That what I did right now was influencing my mother’s childhood. That the way the weather behaved tomorrow would influence the dawn of the earth.
Einstein tells us all time happens at once.
When I try to remember my first conscious moment, I grasp the vague dream of a red mitten in snow. I know it isn’t my first awareness, but is only the first moment my memory has held.
My life of memory began the night I dreamed of the single red mitten in the snow.
I was four years old. The dream was colorful and tangible and soft. Like touching a chimney full of wind. It was like the small moths that rise up from the uncut grass when one walks through it. Like kerchiefs, like dust, like eyes edged in fright, like the miles before the train comes, or headlights gone dim. Like sunlight coming through a lens to set fire to dried-out leaves.
This mitten was the present and the past. I had dropped a single red mitten in the snow that afternoon, while the light was waning, and when I noticed, I pulled on my mother’s hand, but it was too late. She was in a hurry, and hadn’t seen.
So the mitten was left behind.
Because the clouds filled up and the rain came down. Because the drywall went up and the struts went in. Because the threads let loose and the seams unraveled. Because even houses are filled with wolves.
When I woke from the dream, I felt a serious dread. An understanding that the world in my mind was dead, but that the world itself was very alive. I had made something in my mind; it wasn’t memory, and it also was. All the wormholes opened. All the realities and their shadowy fictions clashed. I understood that I could never truly understand what was real.
I understood the past. I understood the self. I understood that the two were separate, and the same. I was dreaming something in a dream that wasn’t real. But I could go outside and the reality would be made. The mitten could be there.
The sensation mimicked the one I felt when I went to the house where I’d grown up. The house was there, and was real. There were trees outside. There was a road out front. But inside the sleeve of that house, inside the tunnel of my seeing that house in my mind, there was the other house, still white with blue shutters, still with a pine tree at the corner that was small. Still with two children playing by digging holes and pretending to cook in them pine cones and stones.
Too much lushness: I couldn’t make myself drive past. Everything had grown out of control. The oak at the corner cut back from the telephone wires, the neighbors’ bushes along their suspension wall. The pine tree my sister had planted as a sapling towered taller than the roof. Its shadow fell along the length of the house. The room at the corner that had been mine I imagined no longer filled with sun.
It was there beneath the skin of what I was actually seeing, this other skin, the neighborhood of the past. This surface neighborhood was a stranger. That deeper ancient neighborhood was in my very blood. The place where I’d turned off the road to walk the path to elementary school, the sign there once sprayed with graffiti, the kind neighbors who knew me, all grown old. The pain of that. The pain of loss.
The sensation that came with those two houses dividing. Again, the red mitten was in my dream, and also outside in the snow.
Maybe it wasn’t a dream, but a memory so vague, so far at the beginnings of memory, that it seemed like one.
When I carried my children, I remember reading they could dream in the womb. I remember looking at my daughter during the ultrasound, as she sat curled at the bottom, a long way down, gazing straight up, seemingly at me. I remember the camera traveling my son’s spine until it looked like the backbone of a dragon or a fish. I remember holding him as a sleeping newborn in the hospital as he twitched, as his eyes paced the rooms beneath their lids, back and forth, and feeling excluded. He’d known me such a short time. A dream. He was inside himself. I wasn’t there, and I doubted he could remember me; I was so new. Then suddenly his lips puckered and his mouth suckled, and I was overjoyed. I was there! He was dreaming of eating. And so dreaming of me.
I was in that moment aware: I was my son’s past, his present, his future. I had grown his teeth and eyelashes and fingernails and wrist bones in my body, with the material of my body. Someplace, cells of his still floated in me. He had made me a chimera. His cells were in my body. His cells were in my brain.
When Einstein dreamed of the universe’s shape, he dreamed differences added in velocities, at 186,000 miles per second: light speed. The moving beam versus the moving ball. He was dreaming of people aging more slowly on spaceships shaped like whales and traveling at the speed of light. He dreamed of density, hyperbolic curvatures, flatnesses and spheres. He dreamed of an infinity. Sheets of paper and leather saddles, tidied bedspreads and empty shoeboxes. Collapsing. He dreamed existence as the skin of a balloon, spinning teacups and fireworks and tailspins of stars.
Traveling quickly, we age more slowly. Even in cars. Even on trains. We may travel more quickly in space, but any forward accelerated movement means the slowing of age. How is this possible? Don’t we age by years? Don’t we age by moments strung together in a necklace of our memories and developments and scars? Time is elastic, is relative. And, for us, is largely dictated by memory.
But my brain at times also remembers the future. I know someone will call. And they do. I know I will see someone I haven’t seen for years at an event, am sure of it, and they are there. I know six deer will appear in the road. The six deer appear.
Déjà vus occur that are so powerful, I know what will be said next. I follow a conversation I already remember. Perhaps an as-yet-unpractical or unawake part of the brain contains a memory of the future. Perhaps our ancestors will see all time at once, and cause and effect will move forward instead of back. This happens to everyone at times, doesn’t it? This sensation of going into a familiar inevitability?
Right before it happened, I dreamed of my grandfather’s death. It was the day after my grandmother died. In the dream, my grandfather sat on the passenger side of a gray wagon. It was hitched to a gray horse, in a gray room. The reins sat lax in the driver’s seat. I went around to the back of the wagon, where a gray mirror hung on the gray wall. When I looked in the mirror, I saw my dead grandmother’s face. Then I got up on the bench beside my grandfather, took the reins in my hands, and drove the wagon off.
A week later, I got the call: my grandfather had been struck by a car while crossing at the crosswalk on 86th Street in Brooklyn, four blocks from their apartment.
Three days after that, I found myself saying goodbye to him as he lay unconscious in a hospital bed. Never before had I seen stubble on his chin. When I wasn’t watching him, I watched the East River barges move like the slow bodies of those who have come to witness the last days of those they love.
The moment is a drop about to fall from a leaf, a floor about to be swept, an empty parking lot at dawn, seashore-white. The moment is water from a faucet poured into a cup.
I can’t tell you how because there is no how. Or maybe there are too many. An orb weaver builds a web in the corner of my daughter’s room, lays eggs there, comes down from the ceiling on a long strand. I examine the web, places the strands intersect, shapes made and contained in the structure. In the scaffolding, strands that aren’t there, but also make the web: air, atom, molecule, nucleus, material from an exploded star, black hole pull, the spider’s last meal, the creation of webbing in her spinnerets.
I examine the abdomen of the spider, hourglass shape, nautilus shape, cactus shape, iris shatter, galaxy splay. Fragment and fractal. Einstein’s universe there. Time there, future and past. A language there, an obelisk of hieroglyphs, spinning words not quite understood, as though they were whispered just below the threshold of the ear’s ability to hear.
My daughter dreamed this spider while still in the womb. My daughter dreamed it there in the time before she could remember, until it was real. There in her brain, the contours and movements, the intricacies, angles, and absences, the legs, the hourglass abdomen, the fractals and webs of her synapses firing, the darkness before and after it exists.
Jennifer Militello is the author, most recently, of A Camouflage of Specimens and Garments (Tupelo Press, 2016) and Body Thesaurus (Tupelo Press, 2013). Her poems and nonfiction have appeared in American Poetry Review, The Kenyon Review, Mid-American Review, The New Republic, The Paris Review, Ploughshares, Poetry, and Tin House. She teaches in the MFA program at New England College.