We Named Them One By One

by Connie Phlipot

It began with counting.  Steps, blossoms on the begonia, dark green socks.  Joanna wrote down the results in a small notebook she kept in her handbag.  She preferred the notebooks with graph paper — the boxes made it easier to tally up the final count.  She filled book after book with numbers — miles walked, cups in the dishwasher, clothes pins in a bag, panties on the neighbor’s clothes line.  She placed the notebooks in chronological order in a metal trunk that she had inherited from the previous inhabitant of her flat.

Joanna started to incorporate sound in her numeration.  Easy-to-count sounds at first: tolling off the church bells, toots of the train whistle. A visit to a port city in the south provided an aural-numerical treat. Throughout the night she woke and recorded the blasting of the cruise ships.  Within a week, she could predict the timing of the horn — waking just before the first sounding.  In the morning, she ran down to the harbor to see what ships had come in or left during the night.  She counted the passengers, noting how many were coming ashore, how many scurrying back to the ship.  She devised a system to indicate the pitch of the ship’s horn so she could identify each unique blast.

That extra complexity led her to focus on musical beats.  She had never studied music — except for a grade school encounter with a recorder, a cheap instrument parents bought their child when they weren’t sure if the interest in music would endure.  Which it did not for Joanna.  Melodies, rhythms didn’t attract her.  She didn’t feel like dancing or singing, not bobbing her head like the other kids in class during music hour.

But once she figured out that she could count the beats, differentiate between the pitches, calculate the numbers of notes in a chord, she became fascinated by music.  She selected CDs by the complexity of their rhythms and the range of high to low tones.  Piano was her favorite — the striking of keys was easy to hear.  Drums, however, were too simple.  Once she accidentally bought a modern classical piece in which whole batches of notes were struck at once.  The musician must have used her elbow to play.  She hated that one — it would have destroyed her system.  She sailed it out the window onto the top of an abandoned Christmas tree.

Each evening Joanna played one section of a piece of music over and over until she had an accurate count and an adequate sense of the range of music.  She laid out large sheets of blank paper —she had found a newsprint supplier who sold her whole rolls cheaply.  She plotted the music in a pictorial scheme she had devised herself.

A friend looking at her notations asked why she didn’t just buy sheet music. “Why invent a whole new way of recording music when the notational system has worked for centuries?”  

“That’s not the point,”  Joanna replied.  “But what is the point?” her friend asked.  Joanna didn’t have an answer.

Joanna still counted other things.  It was as automatic to her as breathing, but she rarely wrote the numbers down anymore.  She spent so much time with the music that she was too tired for the other bookkeeping.  She was, in fact, taking a rest.  Her hands were tired, her skin dry from the paper as she sat on a park bench.  Five pigeons approached two small boys wearing jackets, one with two buttons, the other with two.

“Actually it is four pigeons.  One is a magpie.”  Joanna turned to look at the source of the utterance.  Absorbed in her observation, she hadn’t noticed someone had sat down beside her nor realized that she had been counting aloud.

“Oh, yes, you are right,”  she said.  “Actually I’m not very good at the name of birds.  I never studied that.”

The person next to her was a young man, about 25 years-old, wearing a dark blue beret like a 19th century poet.  “The names are the most important part.  You don’t need to study them.  I mean you can just make them up.  You are in control after all.”

She asked him to explain.  “Well, it’s easiest to understand by doing it.”  He took her hand and led her through the park.  “Let’s start with that animal.”

“I know that.  It’s a squirrel.”

“Well, yes, but don’t stop there.  Give it a special name.”

“Like what?”

“I’ll call it a banjo squirrel.  And let’s see if there is another one like him.”

“That one, maybe?”  Joanna pointed to a slightly grayer version.

“No, I think it’s different.  What should we call it?”

“How about a mourning squirrel, mourning like sorrowful.”

“Excellent … and that tree?”  he asked and squeezed her hand.

“Could it be the infinity love tree?”

About Connie Phlipot

Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus.  She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe. 

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