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Stretching the Spine

By C.W. Bryan


I have a small collection of white rocks.

The rocks are relatively round. Some of them are squared off, or jagged. Some of them are broken. No two are alike. In this way, they are like snowflakes. Each of them are small enough that I can hold usually seven or eight in my pocket at one time. In this way, they are nothing like snowflakes at all.

I started collecting small white rocks about three years ago. These are the rocks of the common man, no fancy gemstones, no shining faces. In their younger years, these are the rocks that come perfectly ovoid, an egg comes to mind, maybe smaller. The kind of rocks that line driveways, cover up embarrassing bald spots in lawns, circle mailboxes. Eventually, time and the simple pressure of existence wears on their semi-porous bodies until they crack. When they crack, I take them home. They served well and should live out the rest of their lives in the relative comfort of an air conditioned apartment. I wear only corduroy pants because they are incredibly efficient at holding rocks. The pants also make a swooshing sound as I walk down to the well at the end of my street. The sun is well over the horizon now. The birdsong has burned away like morning fog.

The well is wide. You cannot see the bottom for the blackness. It holds no water I can see. It would make for a good portal to hell. If hell is not the orange glow of hellfire, the endless screams of torture, I would put money on it being an all encompassing blackness, an omnipresent, omnipotent silence. The silence it holds adds to the blackness somehow.

Sydney is sleeping still, despite the sun. The window is open. She sleeps late and dreams of colors that do not exist yet. Other times she dreams of nothing. It is June 30th.

The white rocks get swallowed up by the blackness of the well. The white color simply winks out, though it fights hard to maintain itself. For full seconds after I drop them, they are still white. Soon, however, they lose their color because I cannot see them. Their little winking bodies assimilated to what I assume is the bottom of the well. I never hear them hit the floor, not even a whisper, no plop of arrival. They fall silently. In this way, they are like snowflakes once again.

Sydney is brushing her hair in the hall mirror when I arrive back home after dropping only six rocks in the well. She does not look away from the mirror as she speaks. One-hundred brushes each morning. Her hair is separated into two long, brown ropes. Fifty brushes on each side. “We do not think about our spines enough,” she finally says, staring into her own eyes.

“I only dropped six rocks today. No sound again. The bottom must be there somewhere.”

“I read in a magazine that seventy-eight percent of young adults neglect spine health.”

“You would prefer to be the twenty-two percent,” I say. She yawns, and stretches her arms up, up until they almost detach from her body. Up, up on her tip-toes before falling back down to reality. I follow her upstairs.Soon we are both sitting cross-legged on a thatched carpet. It is rough material. The fibers dig into the soft flesh of my forearms as I lean back. Sitting on the carpet now strikes me as an ascetic practice. It is not comfortable, but it is necessary. Like picking up dog shit. We do not think about our spines enough, the magazine says. It is not comfortable, true, to think about a cord of marrow and calcium tethering me to existence. So I begin to think. I sit up in anticipation. Sydney’s eyes are closed. Her breathing is slow and consistent. Her shirt is loose. She is not wearing pants and so I know that the carpet must be digging into the soft flesh of her ass and hamstrings. When she stands up there will be red marks that prove her body has mass and weight. Her skin will look like a petri dish filled with red parasites.

She cracks an eye. An airplane rumbles languidly overhead. I glance up at the seventy-two tiles in the roof. On a slow day, after a dreamless night, Sydney counted them. I believe there are seventy-two, though I cannot be sure if she is pulling one over on me. No two tiles are alike.

The heat of her perception pushes against me so I sit up straight again. “Be present,” she says. “It only helps if you are very intentional. You can feel your spine. Most people don’t think about it enough.” I feel my spine lengthen, but I cannot hold on to the sensation. It slips delicately away. A dryer sheet in a stiff breeze comes to mind.

“What else should we think about?” I ask. The air smells like lavender. I am impressed by her spine. Impressed by her ability to think about it. Sometimes, she seems more alive than I am. Other times, she complains about the bucket of rocks by the front door.


The well is set to be poured over by thousands of pounds of concrete in October. A house is going up there. I have nearly three hundred rocks. I cannot do the math—if I have enough days yet to get through them—but it feels like I will.

Sydney breathes slowly, intentionally. In, out. In, out. Her spine is straight, there is construction going outside, farther up the street. A nail gun sounds off rapidly leaving no time to think. I stand up, and the swoosh of my pants pulls Sydney out of her meditation. “Where are you going? You know, you should take this seriously.” But there is not enough time in the day. The day is picking up its pace, assuming a rapid lope into evening, a dead sprint toward tomorrow. Winter is coming. I take a second handful of rocks from the bucket by the door. They feel heavy in my hand. They are cold to the touch. I open the door, and leave.

The wind has picked up and it burns my face slightly. The well is staring, open-mouthed at my approach. The rocks are in my hand until they are not. All seven down the well at once. They are white until they melt away into the blackness, leaving as sure as they came. In this way, they are like snowflakes. I  lift one foot up onto the short wall of the well and set the other over the edge, dangling. I pull the other to begin to lower myself down, hanging from my fingertips.

In the fibers of my muscles and the folds of my brain there are no thoughts, no worry—there is just peace, and blackness. I fully stretch out, point my toes to the bottom. My spine has never felt straighter. I know that they are down there, huddled all together. Some of them are perfectly round, some are squared off, or jagged. At the bottom of the well, they are black as night, quiet as a dreamless sleep. In this way, they are nothing like snowflakes at all. I begin to think again.


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