My mom tells me that I leaped in her belly every time the organ lurched into song. Her habitat was the pulpit in front of the tiny organist and the looming pipe organ, which was gummed into the very architecture of the Carolina church where her earnest voice filled the room as she preached each Sunday.
I want to try to illustrate a time before some things: before logos, before heartbreak, before waters breaking, before jealousy, before I learned to swim, before I could read or play music. While this time has an innocent architecture, it has nothing to do with virginity or conception, immaculate or otherwise. Set aside everything you know about logos spermatikos (the idea of things being spoken into being), the idea that all space is asking to be filled, or the idea that a church can’t be a church devoid of its people (it can). This time was at once bright and dark, and was happy in this state (because it did not know not to be); this was before the separation of bright and dark, which not all of us have regarded as a good decision. There was no dialectic to be resolved; there was not even a conversation to be had. Hardly a binary to spook.
On weekdays while my mom is working, I sneak into the sanctuary to listen to the organist practice the coming Sunday’s repertoire. If I hide up in the shadowed balcony, between the teeth of the balustrade, I can listen without being seen. Not being seen is crucial. It configures a small flame of a room deep inside a body that has not yet been gendered. The only light in the sanctuary comes from the sun filtered through window-stories; with the exception of a small incandescent lamp that bends over her sheet music like an anglerfish’s lure, the organist doesn’t turn on the lights to practice. This room is my favorite place to hide in the church midday because it manages to be at once fully bright and comfortably dark.
There is a queer word I have come to love, a Latin one: alvus. As soon as I heard it I was sure its essence and forms preceded any speaking, any edenic garden, or any discord in a garden. No—though it carries a few terrestrial forms, this is a deep-sea word. Before discourse, argument, reason, logic, or rationale. It appears to resist grammatical gender and a singularity of meaning, much like a fish resists land. It means a lot of things and, I suspect, has more generative potential than logos. It attempts to convey a material and shape, not an idea or thesis; it reminds us to assume forms are shared. Shapes come before laws and sounds before verses.
I was taught all second-declension Latin nouns are masculine (or, less commonly, neuter), but alvus is one of a small handful of very old second-declension nouns that are feminine. Invariably mistaken for masculine nouns, many of these words are reserved for various plants (among them oak and its acorn; alder and sometimes boats made from it; humus; and grapes—particularly of the large and swollen variety).
In an array more finely tuned than the most intricate pipe organs, toothed whales hold, in their heads, small air sacs which they finesse in a delicate pneumatic system.
Sometimes this word means womb. It also is a hollow, a beehive (presumably as hollows in trees). Very often it is belly, or stomach. The hold of a ship, a matrix of fruit flesh (a womb that has sweetened in hopes of seeding), a bathtub. Its diminutive, alveolus, can be a little riverbed or the socket of a tooth. Maybe the space in the gums of a river, where slick, green rocks settle into and slide out of sockets. The little dome of air the organist’s hands shape above the keys, an organ’s hollow windchests (empty space being necessary for the generation of music), the cavern I speculated was behind the ranks of pipes. In an array more finely tuned than the most intricate pipe organs, toothed whales hold, in their heads, small air sacs which they finesse in a delicate pneumatic system, moving precious pocketed air in order to vocalize while they’re submerged. Alvus is a sweet little prelinguistic cavity which, shapeshifting relentlessly, claims a queer fecundity inherent to its concave form. I believe to my young mind it was something like this: An empty bowl on a table is not waiting to be filled with fruit. A bowl’s shape can conjure anything at all at any moment, including but not limited to fruit. Something like, but not quite, a virgin birth: a faceless, sexless magic. Imagine a Madonna surprised to find she is with child, but that there were no gods or men involved, and the child is a fish she dreamed about.
In each arch of the nave arcade, a sperm whale sleeps suspended: nose to steeple, flukes to floor. I am old enough to know about how fossils work, the organic life falling away and leaving its negative in the rock. I imagine a similar process happened here: ghosts laid stone around a small pod as they slept, and that’s how the arcade, with time, got its shape.
Fixed in benthic black gums, the organ gurgles copper trills in a filter feast, its baleen sieving flocks of golden krill. A wide, metallic grin. I think about how to spelunk that big mouth. I am small enough that I could probably fit in the swell box. Even when my mom brings me home at night, I can’t stop thinking about what’s behind the pipes. Is there a hollow? Is it pipes all the way to the walls?
Whales have many hollows. Maybe behind the organ is a glowing cave of spermaceti, that waxy milk boiled, cooled, pressed, and burned for bedside prayer, prenatal vigil, and safe return from sea.
And even before all these discussions (logos) about the functions (telos) of this isolated liquid, before anyone lounged around talking teleology or had devised methods to extract spermaceti from the deep with fleets of seafaring abattoirs, this milky matter simply sat in its organ atop the toothed whale’s skull, helping it echolocate. Beneath the spermaceti organs, all odontocetes have what’s called a melon, a fatty mass above their jaw, which bends and focuses sound toward the ends of hunting, making their way around, and conversation. They’ve been doing these things millions of years longer than we have. Whenever I am longing for someone lost, or a time that has passed, I wonder how much more intensely these whales must feel this. Their enormous neocortex and thicket of spindle cells. Their much older oral tradition. How they echo and locate the most round and heady, sad and lilting tunes of youth (this is religion). We are always doing a similar thing: measuring the space between us and that of which we have been bereaved, as if our next meals depended on it (they do).
Did all this sounding prefigure the fugue with its dense polyphony of voices cavorting in counterpoint? Or was this the archaic dawn of the fugue itself? An Eocene voice suggests a theme to its pod: Shall we find lunch? The ancient whales get to talking about something else. Another spectral voice picks up the dropped stitch in a new key: Lunch? I imagine whales’ repertoire of sounds outranks the pipe organ’s (which is notably vast). Sometimes, when I was a child, my parents put on a cassette of whale song in my nursery. If you, like me, have been looking for a space where sounds crept onto land but were not yet words, I think this might be it. The tetrapods that came before whales left the sea, practiced legs, returned; the ocean’s acoustics could not be beat. A nostalgia for the sea prefigured language.
The organist practices her fugue for hours. The pulling of stops is a soft clicking. I stay hidden up in the balcony up under the blue rose window, where baby-god-and-fish-in-one nurses from mermother flushed in gilded coral. When you melt sand, then salt to color, you can fracture light into any scaled and rainbowed godhead. The fugue’s theme accretes in my ear as an iridescent film of nacre.
In a common posture for a mother and baby whale, described as swimming in echelon, a baby is carried alongside mother in her slipstream. I imagine parent and child as fugue.
Because I have not yet experienced deep loss, I have no ghosts to measure my distance from. Sitting up in the balcony, I use my own echolocation to try to comprehend the dimensions of the sanctuary.
I guess that’s not entirely right: I think the first loss of an aquatic way of moving was very hard for me, and I’m told I latched onto my mom’s heels when she left for work without taking me along, like some kind of remora. But at the church, I knew she was working on her next sermon nearby, so I could relax into a new kind of reckoning while the organist played. Many early church sanctuaries were designed like ships (which, of course, were designed like whales). No one had to tell me the building was designed to sing.
Something shifts, and I can’t help thinking of an empty space being filled. I wonder if the organist can see me. I’m enclosed by the architecture of a composite animal, figured of wood, glass, delicately hammered alloys, quarried stone—one that only wakes when empty, and sleeps when full. I reckon the volume of water that would fill and swell this ribbed and vaulted belly. It is easier to fathom the math of it all when no one’s here. This math precedes symbols, notes, even neumes. I don’t need to know how to read music in order to reckon or fashion it. There is no separation between my fear of floods and my rapture at the thought of a room flooding (its stained glass suddenly relieved of its narrative responsibility and sent on its way back to sand).
As far as I knew, the organ had sprung from the walls, autochthonous. Sprung from the sea foam? I don’t mean like the sea foam from a god’s emissions (I dispute this story of Aphrodite and this etiology of love); no, just like, the sea foam that was already there. Before the sperm and the word, and well before the baroque.
There is a swollen moment—a beat—between the last thing someone has spoken or sung in a service and the first notes of the postlude. It is my favorite part. Then a wave breaks and we are all wet: the first notes of the fugue bring with them immediate laughter and a pulpy relief; there is a rupture where everyone turns to exclaim kind and inquisitive things to someone they know: How is your daughter! Is your father better! What did you bring for lunch! It always startles me. My mom exits the pulpit to the narthex. I look to my dad, who sits quietly beside me; his eyes are wet and fixed on the organist’s back and he is making a point: the service is not over until she has finished. We sit in fugue until she has finished the postlude. We wait another beat as its timbre ghosts, then go outside to eat.