Imagine by Toti O’Brien

Imagine wooden spoons, tall forks, ladles and similar ware, sticking out of the narrow mug where I keep them, near the stove. Picture them through the mist of an early morning—or in the middle of night, lit by an intruding moonbeam, by the glare projected by a passing car. Picture them in a time of absentmindedness—one of those mental thresholds, when you’ve lost sight of the metaphorical room you are exiting, but didn’t spot the one you’re getting in. In such hiatus, you glance at those spoons and spatulas from the corner of your eye. Leaned diagonally against the edge of the jar, they bifurcate in bunches, like a pair of antlers. Hunting trophies often hung by the walls of somber medieval kitchens, even more recent ones. Not mine, but these tools look like antlers. What if they were?

This is how it happens.

Argentinian author Julio Cortazar says in his novel Rajuela, something I could translate: “You need all of your mental power to make sense of what your closet contains.” Reality doesn’t come in organized form. It is an active endeavor, requiring energy and purpose. Let’s say in the wee hour, wandering into the kitchen out of a nightmare, or just a troubled dream—perhaps thirsty—I have lost some of my deciphering skills. Let’s say the spoons and forks take me off-guard, revealing their secret life, hidden personality, core wilderness. Here’s the worst: I believe them for a second. Not enough for a word or an image to form inside my brain, yet a feral feeling is brushing me. Perhaps my nostrils flare—the inception of both hunger and fear tickles my throat. Trees—a forest—push against the sill of my consciousness. I don’t quite think of them, yet I sense a sylvan atmosphere—as if the context (an erroneous one) rushed to join, explain, justify whatever beast isn’t there.

I am looking at my kitchen tools, realizing my mind has taken an instant detour. I was so blurred I’ve been microscopically disoriented. So briefly, I only registered a slight crack—the faintest ungluing between moment A and moment B, as it happens for those suffering of petit mal. Isn’t it hilarious, having almost affixed to this shape the wrong meaning? Isn’t that how madness begins?


It’s how language begins and how it ends. It starts with this openness—with an object, shape, action, phenomenon, susceptible to a variety of designations, freely swinging among them. A same thing can wear many hats, more or less in fashion. And the opposite applies: disproportion between our initial paucity of lexicon and reality’s enormous complexity creates ambiguity. Many things answer to the same call, developing strange kinds of connections, arbitrary and misleading. Until, finally, we learn how to link information in solid chains, hanging each of them from the exhibit it defines. Then we know a bird form an airplane from a kite from a cloud from a patch of light moving across the ceiling.

Then we know what to expect from a properly labeled item—its use, function, behavior, effects. More than all, the context where it belongs, its antecedents, consequences, collaterals. The fluidity—which had caused anxiety, constant errors (some hilarious, some frankly embarrassing), also an edge of exhilarating discovery, excitement, and delight—is gone.

I’m sure you remember it. Or maybe you don’t.

When overcome, that kind of prehistory is hastily buried for the reason I mentioned: the organizing remains an active endeavor. Though we grow so adept we don’t feel the strain, the strain is there. We must be teetotalers, never indulge the in-between zone again, unless we’re surrealist poets or painters—a smallish chance. Most of us recall little of the exploring stage—just a few cute sayings parents love to report. We believe them, but don’t resonate. “Did I really say that?”

I was told I insisted in saying “soon” for “noon,” this last being the time when Mom came back from work, gulped her lunch, left again. But that was when I’d get to see her. “Is it soon yet?” I repeated all day long. “Lining room” instead of “dining,” because there Mom kept the runners, tablecloths, napkins and towels, neatly stacked in deep cupboards—and we took our meals in the kitchen. I believed until late we strolled on “sight-walks,” first because we didn’t walk sideways, crab-style. Then I heard of “sightseeing,” and I thought that must be the scope of all outings, no matter their functional purpose.

My young brother called memory “childhood” (since this last is what adults remember). He always bragged about his great childhood when we played mismatch games, getting me profoundly confused. As I stood speechless when my baby sister—I was helping her, she had been sick during the night—asked: “Why are you calling this vomit? It’s soup!” I thought her a genius, and I couldn’t answer. I should’ve introduced parameters of location (in the bowl, in your stomach), chronology (at dinner, late at night) and so forth.

I didn’t, having more immediate concerns.

Later on, I mused about my grandfather. He was said to have made his kids (Mom, for instance) gobble up their puke when, during the meal, they threw up into their plate as a form of passive protest, resistance, boycott—to express ferocious distaste toward unsavory dishes. What they managed to theatrically eject hadn’t gone quite far, true. Still, they counted on some irreversible change of status—at least definition—to exonerate them and send the hideous food to the waste. Grandpa knew better.


He asked for the moon over and over—his tone plaintive at first, then colored with the slightest tinge of impatience, a vague irritation. His eyes switched, abruptly and randomly, from frantic lucidity to blurred inwardness—discomforting and frightening. Someone, irredeemably logical, kept asking him: “What are you saying? Are you kidding?” He wasn’t of course. Someone, more tuned to the situation, more sensitive to its gradual metamorphosis, its slippery motion, tried to understand without asking.

He didn’t give up, although he took long pauses, maybe of rest, maybe secretly visiting some place alien and close at the same time. But he came back: “The moon!” I could perceive his strain, and a kind of despair. He perfectly knew what he wanted, but could not manage words the way we did, and he realized he couldn’t. Clear as day, I saw into his eyes the discrepancy and the awareness of it. He was present—ferociously so—yet language was slipping away, toward the zone of twilight where labels are misplaced, tangled up. Maybe they aren’t tangled. They are loose. They fall off, spread over the floor. They fly—multicolored balloons getting smaller.

Balloons! Was it what he meant? It wasn’t, but he managed to give us a hunch. “The moon Lily brought, yesterday…” Masterful move. Lily had brought him a grapefruit. When she put it on his bed stand, at last, his face relaxed. He looked peaceful, ecstatic. He caressed the fruit with two fingers, then his arm fell down on the blanket, then again, then again. Through the evening he caressed the grapefruit, greatly comforted and soothed by the touch.

Yellow orb. How often had he watched the full moon, low on the horizon—sometimes golden against velvet black. How often, driving back alone. Driving home. Did it mean return, rest, conclusion? End of a day of hard work, followed by an exhausting commute. Did it mean wife and daughter—Lily, who brought this fruit yesterday? Or else was the lemony sphere a bit scary, a bit ominous—like a premonition, but not sure of what. A joy, a prodigy, a novelty, a change? A change, yes.

Look how very lunar is this wrinkled, irregular surface, full of mountains and vales, ridges and craters. A whole planet, a portable universe. A new world ready to be discovered. On the threshold, he explores its skin with the very tip of his fingers, assuaging a last hesitation, last doubt.



Toti O’Brien is the Italian accordionist with the Irish last name. She was born in Rome then moved to Los Angeles, where she makes a living as a self-employed artist, performing musician and professional dancer. Her work has most recently appeared in Paper Earth, Fishfood, Sunlight Press, and ZIN Daily.



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