Bodies are fragile. Take, for example, this 1601 banquet in Prague: candle lights on castle stone, greasy meats, goulash, cheese. Bohemian wine and laughter booming through grand stone acoustics. Among the giddy guests, the polite astronomer sits, content and sheepish, sipping wine, afraid to disturb the flow of things—ignoring the urge of his bladder. Unable to excuse himself, too shy to leave for the toilet, the astronomer and alchemist Tycho Brahe sits on his urge, holding it in. And when the banquet ends, he can’t seem to relieve himself. He never finds a way to release what built up that night. Ten days later, he dies. Kidney failure. Quick.

When I talk to Tycho, he says something about parallax. The distance between us.

*****

In 1786, Josef Mayer lectured at Prague University, the first to speak on moldavite: a sea-green, naturally occurring glass. These pieces were plucked from the river and studied, said by the Czechs to harmonize marriage. Mayer named the new shards after the Vltava (Germanic: Moldau) where the first greenish pieces were said to have come from. 

In 2015, I row across the same river on a cold Saturday morning. We’ve packed a cooler full of Pilsner, prepared to lounge all day in this boat. Songs by LCD Soundsystem crackle through speakers; white sunlight cracks over Charles Bridge. I’ve gone to Prague to study punk culture, the Velvet Revolution, the power of music and art to transform. I have been trying desperately to find ways to fight my own sense of smallness. My professor is a ball of fire, a booming woman with bright red hair: the opposite of small. In the 1980s, she and her all-girl punk band Dybuuk fought against communist rule. They used their bodies and fought. She shows us a VHS tape, her and her band, running through the streets, causing mayhem. I am nineteen years old and I think I know things. But I’ve never had to use my body that way. 

*****

In 1900, mineralogist F. E. Seuss noticed rippled patterns and markings on the glass that was pulled from the river. These grooves couldn’t be due to water. These grooves signaled something else: this glass had come from a meteorite. This was space glass. Terrestrial debris, tektite. It spoke in its way.

*****

3,090℉. That’s how hot a fire must be, to turn sand into glass.

*****

Charles VI sits on his plush seat and tries not to breathe. Every inch of him vitrified, he waits for the moment of breaking. It comes; it will come; it’s always been coming.

“Do not approach me!” he’d yell, known out of earshot as Charles the Mad. He’d sprint through the castle, shrieking, screaming himself to exhaustion. Special rods were made to reinforce his clothes, a guard against shatter. He thought—he was convinced—that he had turned into glass.

*****

I lost a friend to self-immolation. He lit himself on fire like he always said he would. The Self-Destructive man. Protesting absurdity, protesting nothing. I, like Charles, am turned into glass. Grief makes me fragile. I storm through the castle, stark naked, screaming. 

*****

Little is known of the art of smelting. Little is known about how, in 2,000 BC, they could reach such a devastating temperature, how they could produce the heat to make glass. But the evidence lingers: peat bog records, copper bowls. We can picture the worker bent, long hair braided down her back, heating the ore. Extracting. Though the metal workers of South America practiced their craft long before the Europeans arrived, they rarely attuned their hands to violence, were not interested in crafting weapons. They focused, instead, on the necessary. Daily objects. Art.

*****

Wes, my friend, was an artist. It was evident in the way he saw things, the way he taught me to see. He could always present the parallax angle, could always provide another way to look. 

*****

Standing in Chicago, before Chagall’s America, you are bathed in blue light. Incredible blue. You get a sense of his fingers, cutting the glass, arranging his vision. A six-paneled celebration, each window containing an art: music, painting, literature. Theater and dance. Movement between them. A sad, subtle urging. You drink in that blue.

And find yourself the uninvited guest, France, 1964. You cough into your wine and try not to step on those meant to be there, the great minds of Paris: Picasso, Breton, Duchamp. Our host, Chagall, serves up mussels, musing briefly on shells. The conversation leaps from point to point, transitions quick, hard to catch. Breton, aging yet still fat on his vision, drunk off bordeaux, sings to us his latest poem. As the night goes on, the two expats talk more fervently, leaning in, slapping the table top, cursing.

“When Matisse dies, Chagall will be the only one who truly knows color,” Picasso is said to have said. 

“That Picasso, he’s a genius,” Chagall is said to have said. “It’s a pity he doesn’t paint.”

*****

King Charles VI truly believed he was made out of glass. Convinced himself that he was constantly on the verge of breaking. His own fragility, imminent. Always on the cusp. 

I tell my therapist yes: this is how it feels.

*****

It’s during the peregian tide, when the moon comes closest to us, that most sea glass tends to wash up. Having been tumbled over and over in salt water waves, blunted, dulled, reduced to frosted fragments. The salt rubs the glass, softens it, turns the shards into something new. The process takes twenty to forty to one hundred years, years of turning, tumbling, softening.

*****

Grief, anyone can tell you, is a terrible thing. It never goes away. You are forced to know your own fragility. How close Death is. How temporary, the body. The slightest memory, sound, smell can lead to cracking, to breaking. You don’t feel at home in your skin. You try, desperately, to tear it off.

*****

Spring, and I’ve stepped on glass. A small, insignificant piece enters my foot; my foot won’t release; I can’t walk without that hot, sharp pain. We try it all: tweezing, soaking in a salt-water tub. We put tape over the point of entry and pull. Nothing works. The fragment stays lodged.

I don’t notice, don’t feel when it happens. Weeks, maybe months, pass. Later, eventually, it works its way out.

*****

Nostradamus, scrying, looks into the water and knows. He sees devastation, destruction. He predicts 9/11, Hitler, a slew of atrocities.

The water is there, but I won’t look. I refuse. I don’t want to see all the awful yet to come. I think there’s been enough.

*****

Wes would sketch all the time. A recurring image, a boy with a hole in his belly. Looking back, it’s obvious. What else? He would drink honey straight from the bottle. He would rub his knuckles against concrete walls until they bloomed pink and white. None of these anecdotes get to the person, to what was really there. 

*****

Reports claim the Countess of Fiesque traded an entire wheat field for a single glass mirror. A whole field of golden wheat for one piece of glass. A steal, she considered. I try to imagine the novelty: solid reflection. Venetian mirrors like the one she bought spanned around forty square inches. A quarter the size of an airplane tray table. So small; so costly; such a high price for vanity.

That’s probably what Wes would say: how vain it is to keep grieving. Our flesh is permeable, impermanent. Nothing will last.

*****

I’m back in Illinois, autumn. He introduces himself in the narrow dorm halls. He’s absurd, quiet. He challenges everything, he’s a boy full of questions, and I fall in love with his urge to subvert. We walk through the Norwegian maples and oak. We smoke cigarettes in the corn. Things seemed endless, life rushing at us in full fauvist color.

In three years, he’ll be in flames.

*****

The first mirrors were just pools, as Narcissus knows. There’s always been the same problem—of looking too closely at the wrong thing. Rose windows—Catherine windows—control the light. Stained glass filters, controls, having been cut and soldered, arranged to tell one story.

Here’s a story: until 1841 the breaking wheel was used, a mirror punishment, lex talionis. The object being mutilation, not death. Victims would spin, attached to the wheel, while the executioner swung his hammer to crunch through limbs, triturate bone. Relentless, lasting hours, the god-awful swings wouldn’t kill—victims would be left in agony until lack of water took mercy. Sometimes there’d be a coup de grâce, a blow to the skull. A blessing. 

When Catherine was sentenced to die in this way, she raised a finger. Instead of her body, the wooden wheel shattered. When they finally got her with the axe, she found a language in which to resist. From where the blade kissed her neck no blood came, only milk, flooding out, frothing. 

Her body spoke to us, urging us. Nurture.

*****

 1 Corinthians 13:12

For now, we look through the glass darkly.

*****

There are some things we’ll never understand. We’ll never know exactly, until we are there. Our own fragility. The moment of breaking.

*****

2:47 a.m. He did it on the music building, having sat himself on a large bed of rocks. Behind him an enormous panel of glass, windows to the great theater’s stage. 

That night some kids sat at the foot of the building, drunk off cheap beer, chatting. They said there was silence, then flash: flames licking up, mirrored by the great windows above.

I think a lot about Westley. About the heat, the crackle, those last glowing moments. I think about his ash, flowing out, mingling with elements, with sand, heating again, eventually vitrifying.

 

He urges me to look and see, look what you’ve been doing. Running, refracting, skipping from stone to stone. Look, he says. Just look. I plug up my ears, scream senseless, run naked through the hall.

 

Cover art: “Realize” by Autumn Hunnicutt

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Aiden Baker

Aiden Baker lives in Berkeley, California. You can find her work in The Ninth Letter, Sonora Review, Orca, and elsewhere.

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