The Young Ladies of the Telephone

Jenna McClelland

On this morning, Leonara could not see past the aureole of sunlight that dripped in through the tiny slit in her window.

When clothed by its luminescent dress, the Sun created the contour, its warmth transforming the chemistry of her skin. Blood rushed to meet heat to heat like soldiers to fleshy borders. A perimeter staked out by fire, to arrest the circular motion of in and out. Leaves of eucalyptus set to flame will burn ecstatically, for a few moments, until their light is snuffed and it is only the edges that burn magmatic orange.

Leo’s edges required constant guard for, should they disappear, it was Leo’s entire being that was swallowed.

The Sun was a true shelter, architecture designed to separate the private and public. The Sun was the division—the catalyst for mitosis—and a thread through the labyrinth. The Sun offered her a truth to ground her apart from all others.

Leo found a way to live, and it was to burn.

Through the tiny slit she left open for air during the night, Leo could witness the Sun’s rays directly, the rest of the large, rectangular window veiled by golden curtains that allowed inside only a hint of its native power: a round, orange glow.

The morning was heavy, and could not be forced open, but would need careful fingers to peel it back like the buttery skin of a mango, which would make Leo a fine breakfast once she left her seat at the round table of her dreams.

The night, holding a second life, does not rely on the senses, but instead on a language that is located in the radiant rim around. That this vision is understood is one small part. That a smell or taste or sound can forge the breaking of the dams and begin the flood once more gives this invasion an eternal hue, as it spreads from its starting point into neighbouring limbs. The residue is heat, without sign of fire—fingerprints on a pane of glass—sunlight hitting skin.

In the molten substance of dreams, Leo could not feel the contrast. Each voice, each vibration entered at the same decibel, braided together as one. Her own voice could not defy these terms, either, becoming one instrument in the greater orgy of bright music.

The day would interrupt the revelry, dispersing one into many, and despite the safety it offered it was a shame each time to break apart once more.

On this morning, lying in her bed in the early hours, Leo noticed the divide before her: the small sunlit opening, or the lure of repetition—to dance the dance continuously.

Leonara left the golden curtains closed and, by doing so, sustained the slack pulse that orbited her bedroom like a closed circuit current.

The fruits are ripe, full, bursting—every single drop contains—each drop falls slowly downward, descending the spiral staircase, into the depths of mouth, then esophagus, my belly—all ajar.

It is a bullseye shot—there are no buffers any longer—I receive it all—my reflection is here! In Sue’s seat under the tree, Pollyanna trading one medicinal antidote for another, Suz’s thick, syrupy paints, Dr. Don Mariano Morales: 'Have you been stressed? You are grinding your teeth so much your jaw begins to click, your gums recede!'—I am laughing hysterically as the dentist takes the mold for a night guard—the ever irritable handmaidens of the mystery!—the gooey material that will rectify a clicking jaw drips down my lips—stress was not what made me grind, and so I did not respond, laughing in lieu of language.

The concrete word, how much fits into each letter relationally to the next, like a set of teeth—no language, just yet, to articulate what makes me grind!

The mornings offered Leonara a solace from the task of articulation as she straddled the line in between, like sticky glue, pulling apart just before it crusts to permanently bind.

Last night, a dream of an editor, the butcher of words. This editor pointed his pen at one writer only, his Venus, who could refract light with prose. The editor’s seat at her round table had emptied for the moment, and Leo knew in that way that only happened in dreams that he was in the midst of leaving his wife.

How would he dissolve his marriage? Words as flesh, and words as light—more often, to his relief, words as dissolution, a substance more acerbic, to grind down at recalcitrant fossil. The editor could press down to produce the finest essence—coal into diamond—but would require that first substance to create his masterpiece. His gift was in choosing, dividing, and paring down, until the right chemistry clarified through hardened facets of newly formed transparent stone.

These stones teased Leonara. Minerals that materialized the unspeakable. To speak directly, without buffer, and test the hypothesis.

Grinding teeth to hell, Leo would use first names in writing letters to her muses, following them to their homes, their deathbeds, in order to find what was true with the skin of her own bare feet. An unfortunate need to shit outside of Anaïs’ home, overcome by sleepiness in Edith’s apartment, a lack of funds at Arthur’s grave to offer him the flowers that would soothe his late bitterness—but here it was! An answer to her call! The only answer to the question of contact: her own fragile nature.

The fragment was not the modernist nightmare she had supposed—though the thought of accidentally writing a modernist novel still bothered her a great deal. In Genesis, division is the principle tool of creation.

—Kill your idols, Pollyanna says to me over a bowl of grapes, but I will never kill Proust.

Language uses difference to find unity.

I am lifted, in a tiny increment, and take this comfort—I have found a deadened sense of touch and taste—though sex is an exception! Sex carries me over, but returns me promptly after I am no longer in contact with skin—skin's so porous—that’s one way inside!—and when, after finding some height, I return to behaviours and actions that should satisfy—habits have the ability to disturb meaning—rituals, when we are not careful, fling us into motion!—I am lost again, and it takes a good shaking to remember why I move—breath! The dance! What is found there? What ritual is mine?

The things I like to do: to drink a large butterscotch coffee in a paper cup, to repot my expanding plants, to sleep alone in my peach sheets, to sleep with another—someone I think I can love. Each of these short actions can offer renewal, if I know I have reached it of my own accord.

There are times, too, when some external necessity brings me into contact with these jewels—it is now that the caffeine dulls my eyes instead of prying them open, and now that the Sun burns my pink skin, turning it red.

To get off the ride, for a moment—aborted when it can’t be absorbed—compromise, yes, weeds in the flower’s beds, yes (though my mother would protest and find work there immediately)—but when it asks of you something other than what is at the centre, the answer is sometimes no.

Leo began to sip from her mango, staring at her phone as it rested motionless on the pillowcase to the left of her head. She hoped soon to consume something much larger.

The question that hung over her in these devouring moments: was it her own reflection she sought? A magnified mirror image, that expanded outside of her bodily aperture?

The mango Leo took whole, biting into its side where her teeth grinded the edge of its wooded core.

Shutting her eyes, Leo found another pulse. Occasionally biting in, Leo was otherwise stationary in her peach sheets.

My paralysis has been evident—an afternoon in the park, where I read, bored that I could relate—connection, yes, but no longer pure when I am using the same text to achieve other goals—to run away, this time, fast—My Life in Books, Henry Miller’s documentation of the books that moved stones in his lifetime—the opening that made me weep—'Only one in five in America, it is said, are readers of "books." But even this number read far too much'—standing in the grave that is The Strand’s basement, the ‘Life Writing’ section—products of living, mirrors of our own daily bread—without the nutritional content that gives our bodies the vitality to act.

Every moment is filled with myth, poetry—to write it down is to experience it twice—to commit to June Miller, to have her committed to paper in The Rosy Crucifixion does not protect a lost marriage. I wept in this beautiful aisle on Fifth Avenue, knowing I had spent five hours piling texts that may be faulty conductors to my surroundings.

How to cut open a mango. The juice drips on to the knife. I cut it in half but it does not yield to me, and I will have to find another way into its flesh. The absurdity of relying on a receiver—someone to digest—I must find beings who resemble me!—pass or fail—I want to be touched!

The monuments I sleep under, three portraits of three women, mimetic intoxication. I mimic freedoms while acting out a habitual life—this world is a shadow of a world more real—can you not see that I am you?—other’s words and music, spiritual doorways—the umbrageous priestesses of the invisible!—to make into a discipline what is only an initiation is to give it too big a part—Marcel knows this threshold well, incidentally preserving his skin in cork lined walls, his barrier and division.

I am hot, but do not sweat over the transition, for the moment.

Her bedroom, full bodied, was a striking curve of orange, liquefied to adjust to the new heat.

Leo would use first names in writing letters to her muses:

           To Sue, who I am linked with spiritually.

           To Sue, whose soul is lit from the inside as a lantern, though with an opaque skin it does not reveal itself to the world—it can only be felt. Here, too, I begin to grasp new speech: will it be disastrous to stare into what is not visible?

Another sight: 'I would paint you in white, red, yellow, blue, with the tiniest bits of green'—Suz, whose drawings are life like, though he sees bodies as lizards, with two dots for eyes, two dots for noses, and long, skinny tongues. The skin, an intermediary between the internal and external, can be semi opaque, shifting in relation to one’s emotional state, giving warning of pain, or pleasure. Skin, the separation. Suz playing a phrase of Bach’s 'Die Kunst Der Fugue' on piano in repetition—'can you feel that?' he asks, and I can’t, and am washed with sadness. Bach does not reach outward to touch me, like you do! I need to be touched! Consumed! Fire! Fire! How to render skin faithfully on the canvas: to see, to mimic, and experience a second time.

In childhood, Leo walked circles around a game of house in Daisy’s basement. With her walkman and headphones, the background a murmur of Daisy and Heather and Sally-Blossom knocking telephones and plastic plates into place, Leo managed to miss the entire game. Intermittently removing her headphones to hear the mimicry of living sounds, mixed with her own soft footsteps, her humming audible in the silence of this underground space, Leo would always choose to place the foam barriers back over her ears. Though it removed her from the faux domestic hearth, it allowed her to remain in unison with an art already perfected.

Presence, in this particular world, is a given: the musical note produces resonance, waves meet the ear drum and absorb—I take you in.

A vibration sounded.

Leo gently peeled her eyes open.

The throbbing room steadied to a thick, viscos rhythm.

Pulling away from the large range of youth’s dream, Leo turned her cheek to the left,where the buzzing concentrated, razor sharp, cutting the circuit.

The wingbeat of a tiny fly enclosed all other aspects of the room into a singular focus.

Descending downward to the twin pillow, the fly stroked its wings so quickly that a tiny grey aura around it was the only clue that it sought height. Even so, the fly appeared to be falling—wings failing—and the dying sound nurtured Leo, whose eyes were now on the same plane as the insect.

Leo stared, remaining completely still, to watch its final movements. Instinct, like a curtain, would always flash open at the moment required. Leo was learning a new language, and it revolved around volume.

Tobe quiet and loud in different intervals throughout the day. Leo was deciduous and required both.

The fly’s movement was finally arrested.

Another vibration.

The dead insect rested beside Leo’s phone, which now took its turn to light up anew.

When the phone rings it is always Sue, and Sue is fluent in languages of the sky and of the soil—a trip upward, or a trip straight down. Leo reached over to pick it up.

'I had a dream that I was moss slowly spreading across a valley,' Sue greeted Leo.

Leo smiled and in this moment could think of no position better suited for her evergreen friend.

The way their fluencies were identical, yet opposing, caused Leo to stare widely into the gulf, the space between.

'Just moss slowly moving. Really slowly. Nothing else.'

Leo had been spat back out, finding oxygen again. The trip through quicksand was determined fatalistically by the rope that Sue always left dangling above her. His voice was the sound of distance overcome—hers, one of the young ladies of the telephone.

Leonara stepped out of her peach sheets to draw the curtains wide open.  

Jenna McClelland

Jenna McClelland lives in Toronto. She is the recipient of a Key West Literary Seminar Scholarship selected by poet Rowan Ricardo Phillips, a finalist in Nowhere Magazine's Emerging Travel Writer's Contest, and a Doris McCarthy Artist-in-Residence. You can read more of Jenna's work at

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