It was the twentieth of February when Lance came across the mountains. The snow lay thickly on the craggy peaks; the boulders, sheer faces and scree formed a band of grey between the snow and the treeline. The forest sloped down to distant valleys and pastures, patchy carpets of varying greens.
The damp cold insinuated itself through his paltry jacket, his fingers stiff in his pockets, hopelessly wet gloves abandoned in his small backpack. At these elevations, it was the sort of rain that makes one think snow would probably be preferable: stinging, chafing, chilling moisture; finger-blanching, marrow-biting cold. Lichens pulsed with inconstant water, while clouds scurried by, bringing variety but rarely reprieve.
He observed himself shivering. He learned that he could stop thought by watching it. With his awareness aiming only at itself, there would be a few moments of pleasant silence in his mind. In such moments, the aching in his legs subsided, and the cold felt less pervasive. Then, first one thought then another would creep up, murmurations and curses would reverberate, and, lost in the thread of muttered monologue, he would forget himself again.
There was a winter’s worth of downed trees to contend with. The branches of the larger trees formed a huge, snarled pile, blocking the path and forcing him to cross it. This springy mattress of branches, with its unreliable integrity, always involved a risk of slipping or breaking through a weak spot, possibly spraining an ankle. Sometimes his obstacle was a large trunk, slick with moss. In many places, the trail was soft with foot-sucking mud. Whenever the rain let up, the mist appeared. The cumulative effect was of an intimidating feeling of density, as if the world was so full around him, and he so empty inside, that ultimately the world would naturally penetrate into him. The prospect was appealing; it was with hopes of such inspiration, such direct contact with unmediated nature that he had decided, against advice, to make the journey on foot. While much of his muttering was some variation on the fundamental complaint—damn this rain—he generally made good progress, and was surprised at his own stamina.
Disturbance came first in the form of desire, a desire untethered from an object, a flailing, grasping, aimless yearning. As he picked his way from ridge to ridge, the sky weeping with rain during the day and weeping with meteors at night, he felt this weird ineffable desire, which was not hunger (though he was hungry!) and was not lust (oh! lust! fountain of sorrow!), and he looked for something, in the trees, in the moss, as if searching for a lost parent, a missing marble, a misplaced purpose.
It’s hard to say which episode was the culprit. The one that came on when he was standing on a fallen log? When he was checking his compass? It matters little. The episodes came on every once in a while. When the storm raged off southward, for example, and left the sun slicing through to dazzle the distant fields, and the earth seemed enlivened by an awful disturbance; or when the mist made faces and the rocks shook, as the crows cawed after a screeching hawk; or when the waterfall’s sound became overwhelming—one after another these moments came when it seemed as if the earth itself was screaming, no, moaning really, an all-pervading ululation rumbling up from the mountainside. The sound became deafening. He felt electric shocks in his arms and legs. Then he had to lie down, as the energy of the earth thrilled through him and he shuddered in torturous ecstasy. Then, it would end, and he would stand up, looking around, remembering nothing.
It was in one such episode that he lost the contact lens. Back home, this would have been less of a problem; he would have pawned a guitar or something to pay for a replacement. Here in the mountains, though, it was serious. His glasses had been missing for weeks, so he had been relying on taking fastidious care of his contact lenses, removing them every night and placing them safely in their little case.
Without the lens, his right eye was almost completely useless. The next day was difficult; a ridge would appear to be a certain distance and then turn out to be much farther; he took wrong paths three times due to inattention, haste, and fatigue. Several times his right shoulder came into brusque contact with trees; one of these encounters was almost serious: a broken branch snagged into his deltoid, scratching the skin but luckily not too deeply. The pain made him all the more hasty. He needed to get to town.
He scrambled to the top of a ridge, where he could see for many miles. His heart leapt as he caught sight—impaired, monocular, depthless sight—of the town of Belmont in the valley down below. An awful, shuddering thunder erupted below his feet, penetrating through him, buckling his knees. The void inside him was too great, and he felt that the world, in all its horror and variety, would flow into him with such force that it would kill him. For a few minutes he was on hands and knees panting. The prospect of immersion in civilization seemed simultaneously intimidating and urgently necessary. In a panic, he dashed down the mountain.
Hours later, arriving in town, humanity’s predictability was shocking. Children played tetherball amid melting puddles. Women trundled home with the day’s purchases. Human faces were a welcome sight. His pulse slowed, and he felt relaxed, optimistic, a glimmer of the uncomplicated happiness he had known in childhood.
He finally reached the Wildwood Inn, the pub his friend Sam had told him about. His face was grubby, hair a shambles, sleeves torn.
“Hello, I’m Ed,” said the barman. “Do you know the way to the kitchen?”
“Hi, my name is Lance. My friend Sam told me to get in touch with you. He said you might let me play a gig here.”
“Oh, hey, right! I forgot all about it. Sorry, man, I thought you were the new dishwasher. Lance. Lance. I get a lot of musicians in here. Wait, are you Lance Javelin?”
“That’s my stage name, yeah.”
“I love that song of yours about starfish, man.”
“You’ve heard that recording? I hope you don’t judge me by it. It was only a demo. My new record—”
“It’s a great song. All your stuff is good. Here, do you need anything? A beer?”
“Lance Javelin, man. It’s nice to meet you, bro.”
Ed was loquacious. He had known Sam at Oberlin. His fuzzy jowls shook a little with each syllable. He made Lance a hot black tea with milk and served him the day’s beef noodle stew. As Lance ate, the tremor in his hands and voice subsided. He told Ed about his journey, how he had started in Dover, hitchhiked to Mount Cudgel, and then hiked all the way here to Belmont, across the wilderness area, living on dried fruit, boiled creek water and a bag of bulk whey protein he’d rung up as flour. He told of his difficulties in the pass, of the many wrong turns in the bewildering network of trails, of the storms and the washouts, the damp, the blackening toenail, the contact lens. As he spoke, he noticed more and more people stopping in a circle around him, listening to his tale, and he started to feel confident, started performing the story with that dramatic charisma one sometimes paradoxically finds in the deeply shy. Riding this wave of bonhomie, Lance felt the appropriate moment to show his hand:
“Hey, d’you know any place a fellow could stay for free tonight? I don’t really know anyone in town…” which Ed coolly and kindly dismissed:
“Don’t worry, man. I’ve got you covered.”
Ed lived in the loft above the Wildwood Inn, which was not in fact an inn but a pub, but which lived up to its name whenever a band that Ed liked needed a place to crash after a gig. Upstairs, Ed gave Lance an armload of blankets, saying, “Couch or floor, pick your poison. Hannah wakes up early for work, so there’s that. Do you drink coffee?”
“Hot and brown, suck it down.”
“Right. Tall guys like you usually hate this couch. Just saying.”
Stretching out between blankets on the floor, Lance found the flatness of it off-putting—after seventeen days negotiating for sleep with uneven slopes, roots and rocks, his body rejected the floor’s uniformity. He rolled left, then right, unable to find comfort. Frustrated, weary, he got up onto the couch and flipped on the TV, which erupted with sound. He leapt toward the television, knocking over his water glass on the way, and, cursing, pressed the mute button twice, then twice again, then finally, breathing, a final time, leaving the television silent. He muttered quiet curses as he mopped up the water from the hardwood using the bath towel Ed had provided him, then finally sat cross-legged on the couch and watched the silent screen. It was the PBS show Nova, with a special episode dedicated to the show’s namesake, the nova, the phenomenon of exploding star death. He watched the computer animated renderings, with their flashes of light, and it occurred to him that this was the most accurate way to view such events: on mute, since there is no sound in outer space. An animation showed a star engulfing its planetary system. Then Neil DeGrasse Tyson said something clever while running his hand along a banister in a futuristic room, and raised an eyebrow. The screen showed another star, large and blue, then zoomed out to a grand scale so that the star looked like a tiny dot. It exploded, and the flash of light expanded outward, engulfing other stars, and the view zoomed out more, to show the galactic context, showing how the supernova swallowed up several surrounding stars and then collapsed again, leaving a vacancy in that part of the galaxy and sending a few nearby stars careening off from the spiral, producing intergalactic orphan stars, the loneliest places in the universe.
On the couch, Lance felt a wave of shuddering dread creep up through his pelvis, rising uneasily through his guts, tightening his ribcage and clenching his teeth; the wave reached his brain as a powerful, terrible thunder, a strident complaint conducting upward like lightning, his body its victim and conduit. His stomach spat acid up into his throat, he had to stand to keep from choking, had to run, had to leave this room this place run downstairs and find something, he blasted out the door and up Market Street, tripped clumsily and skinned his knee, didn’t know what he was looking for until he stumbled into the city fountain, which was not running but was full of rain water, murky green, and he plunged into the water, bathing himself in algae, seeking an impossible ablution.
A few people he’d met earlier at the Wildwood, a woman named Tanya and her boyfriend Aaron, saw him and stopped, called his name and touched his shoulders, and he snapped out of his trance, happy to see friendly faces. They brought him back to Ed’s where he was given a warm shower, a bong rip, hot chamomile, and finally was able to fall asleep.
Ed accepted the disturbance with saintly forbearance. “I should of been a nun,” he said as he replaced the bandage on Lance’s knee. Ed listened to his guest’s enthusiastic ramblings and paranoid lamentations, nodding gently behind his red beard. Days passed, and when the actual new dishwasher was caught stealing from the tip jar, Ed offered Lance the job.
Lance never had an attack while washing dishes, thank goodness, the kitchen being full of hazards, a terrible place for unbridled panic. They set up a gig, with the agreement that they’d promote it well, charge for entry, and that half of Lance’s cut would go to Ed as rent. Win-win.
The show started out great. The opening act was called Sisterbang, and the lead singer Elizabeth wore a nun’s habit and recited ominous Hail Marys over droning guitar loops while her drummer Martha laid down thunderous beats. Ed had the night off, so he got pretty drunk, and by the time Lance had his stage set up Ed was wearing Elizabeth’s habit. “Look, man,” he said as Lance finished tacking the blanket to the ceiling. “I found my vocation!”
The clutter of glasses and shouted conversation filled the room. Lance’s stage setup was very peculiar, a chair surrounded by candles and a blanket tacked in a ring to the ceiling, forming a curtain, so that he could perform from within it, his body hidden, only the guitar and mouth visible. Lance called it his “vibe tent,” telling the crowd that he always performed this way and playing off as an aesthetic quirk what was in fact a psychological necessity. He was using Hannah’s guitar, and kept knocking it against mic stands, to Hannah’s horror.
His first song began as a complex arpeggio, a bit rushed at first but then settling into a manageable rhythm, and the clamor of the bar subsided as his wavering, haunted, glottal voice filled the room. He sang about falcons and falconers, a Bible printed on wasp nest paper, flowers unfolding and shedding their petals. He sang the Leonard Cohen song “Bird on a Wire,” and then Ed’s favorite Lance Javelin song, with these lyrics:
When the starfish meets the oyster
She cleverly destroys her
When the parents drink the poison
It silently destroys them
When the priest betrays his calling
Stars around his head are falling
When the hawk breaks the horizon
There’s a cold wind rising, my son,
There’s a cold wind rising.
As the words flowed melodiously through him, he began to feel a vibration in his legs. At first he thought it was feedback in the PA, but soon he recognized that familiar, plangent calamity, the onrushing train of panic, smelling like smoke and tasting like ashes and screaming hellfire and looming doom, his left eye went starry and his hand seized up, punching the guitar, which rang out with one last dissonant chord before he collapsed forward, falling off the stool and smashing the guitar on the monitor, whereupon many people gasped and Hannah screamed, and now the feedback was real, it filled the room with its loud, steady blare.
When he came to, he was back up in Ed and Hannah’s apartment, Hannah attending to him, offering him soup.
“You passed out. Only you didn’t. You weren’t unconscious. Just catatonic.
“Yeah, it’s a thing I get, apparently. I never remember.”
“You smashed my guitar.”
“It’s destroyed. I loved that guitar.”
“Wow, I’m so sorry.”
“Maybe it’s vaso-vagal.”
“Maybe. Hey, have you seen Andrea anywhere around here?”
“Andrea. My wife.”
“You came here alone.”
“I’m sure she’ll turn up.”
“Oh… kay. Listen, I have to run, but look, here’s my cell number, right on this list by the phone. And here’s the number for the bar downstairs. You call Ed if you need any more help, and call me if you can’t reach him.” She was standing off to Lance’s right, so he was unable to see the look of pity on her face as she put on her coat, grabbed her handbag and left.
Peeling up a corner of curtain, he realized it was midday.
After giving all of his gig money to Hannah for her guitar, Lance couldn’t splurge on a replacement contact lens. He took to wearing an eye patch. It was a child’s toy, purchased from the drugstore for 79 cents, a black vinyl patch with a white Jolly Roger. This was funny for a while, and the humor helped people in the kitchen and around town feel more comfortable, despite his growing reputation for strange behavior. Only Ed and Hannah were aware of the extent of his delusions, as he spoke frequently of Belmont as if it were his hometown, and of his wife, Andrea, whom he continually claimed would be back any day now. Ed was a stalwart support, even when Hannah started complaining that they never got to cuddle on the couch anymore, and about the smell of the houseguest’s feet, which was repugnant due to the slowly detaching dead toenail and the pain it caused, making effective washing impossible. For his part, Lance was aware of but unable to respond to Hannah’s growing impatience with him. He got more erratic: he spent hours picking through the ashes in the fireplace for suitable bits of charcoal to draw with, much more time in this activity than actually drawing, and when he did draw, it was always the same scene over and over: a woman in anguished childbirth, her vagina gaping open to display the baby’s tortured face. The ash would get all over his shirt, neck, cheeks, arms, and since he never looked in the mirror he didn’t notice. He cut a hole in the crotch of one of Hannah’s favorite pairs of tights and began wearing them as sleeves, his head emerging through the crotch. He cut arm and neck holes in a burlap bag, and wore that over the tights, cinched at the waist with a rope. He made Ed and Hannah horribly ill by preparing them a stew with cherry laurel leaves. He threw shouting fits in the street, arguing with his chess partner, the blind and elderly Rupert, about poets nobody had heard of and philosophers no one had read. He tried to get a job as an orderly in the pediatric oncology ward, but failed the background check and the drug test. He developed a boisterous fake laugh, which he used to change the subject whenever someone said something that contradicted his delusions.
One sunny day in mid-April, Hannah chanced on him playing chess with Rupert, calling out his moves to his blind opponent. With his eyepatch, his hair grown long, his burlap shirt and his cheeks grubby with ash, he looked like a medieval convict, like one destined for the stake or the gallows.
“Hi, Hannah,” he said, quietly, not looking up from the game. “How ya doin’?”
“I’m not happy, Lance. This isn’t working.”
“Harhar! You betcha. You seen Andrea anywhere?”
“Please don’t change the subject.”
“Right, I’m sure she’ll be back from her mission tomorrow. It’s complicated. Probably lost her passport.”
“Look, Ed and I, we need you—we need you to find your own place. To live. Ed has a really big heart…”
But Lance was already stomping off down the sidewalk.
“Hey! I said, hey, don’t ignore me! Lance! Look at me!” she said, following him.
“You know, it’d be a lot easier,” Lance said, shaking his head. “This whole thing could be a lot easier.” He stopped, turned to face her. “You ain’t seen Andrea at all?”
“Dammit, Lance, I don’t even know what Andrea looks like!”
He was clutching at his temples.
“This would all be a lot easier if it wasn’t for that sound!”
“Gaaaaaaaahdammit, that sound!” and he pointed at the sidewalk, at the weeds growing through it, at his own feet, at a woman walking by with a stroller, inside of which a baby cried.
“Lance, what sound? What sound?”
“Oh, for Christ’s sake. You guys can’t hear it because you’ve lived here too long. It must be the trainyard. Or the underground electric cables. Or, I don’t know. It’s like a constant goddamn mooooooooooooo. You don’t hear it?” Then he saw a limping dog across the street. The wound on its leg was festering, and it stopped to lick it. The sound grew louder and louder, rising again from the bedrock, through the sewers, through the sidewalk, permeating the city: MMMMMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH Lance fell to his knees AAAAAAHHHHHH fists at his ears, AAAAAAAAHHHHHH weeping. The baby AAAAAAAAAHHHHH screamed. Hannah patted AAAAAAHHHHH his shoulders, trying to bring him AAAAHHHH back to his senses. AAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH The dog barked, spraying the AAAAAAAAAAAHHH air with a AAAAAAAAHHH cloud of AAAAAAAAHHH pus. The sound AAAAHHHH was overwhelming, the rumbling of AAAARRRGGGGGHHHH amplified decay, AAAAHHHH of primordial rupture, inherent disorder MMMMMAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHH—something wailing at the bottom of everything.
“The Contact Lens” is the result of an encounter between the classic German novella “Lenz” by Georg Büchner and the poem “Il y a dans le fond quelque chose qui beugle” by Raymond Queneau. These two texts share a similar theme—that of a deep, disturbing resonance emanating from all things. I was drawn to the idea of rubbing the two works together to see what sort of sound they would make, what sort of fire they might start. The resulting piece is a contemporary retelling of “Lenz” sprinkled with themes and motifs from Queneau’s poem. The powerful realism of Büchner’s story gives it a timeless appeal, well suited to adaptations such as this one. Details about the protagonist were inspired by a friend of mine, and the story also reflects my own experience with anxiety and panic attacks.
“Lenz” is widely considered a foundational precursor to modernism. The radical scientist and polymath Georg Büchner based his 1836 novel on an episode in the life of Jakob Michael Reinhold Lenz, who was a playwright, translator, and a contemporary of Goethe. To craft his story, Büchner drew upon the journals of Johann Friedrich Oberlin, the hospitable philanthropist character represented in my story by the barman Ed, as well as Goethe’s memoirs. Büchner left the novel unfinished at the time of his tragically young death in 1837, but it has nevertheless gone on to have a wide cultural impact. The story has been retold in prose by Peter Schneider and Gert Hoffmann, and was made into a chamber opera by Wolfgang Rihm. It has been translated into English by Michael Hamburger and Richard Sieburth.
Raymond Queneau’s poem “Il y a dans le fond quelque chose qui beugle” is 5 stanzas of hypnotic, cryptic verse, touching on the themes of blindness, patricide, and inevitability. A fairly literal translation of its title would be “There’s something bellowing deep down inside.” It was published in the collection Le chien à la mandoline in 1965. It has never been translated into English, though I am currently working on a series of constrained and procedural translations of it, which I hope to be able to publish this year to celebrate its 50th birthday.
The story “The Contact Lens” has not been authorized by the holders of copyright to Raymond Queneau’s “Il y a dans le fond quelque chose qui beugle.” The present use of thematic material from the poem constitutes fair use under US and French law.