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Issue number three




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The secret study of dust by Mark Lewis

My husband has locked himself in a room in our house, and there he's remained for the last six months. How he gets his food and how he cleans himself, goes to the bathroom even, is beyond me; all I know is that he's done this because he wants to devote himself to the study of dust. The three times I've spoken to him since this terror began (or, I should say, the three times he's agreed to talk to me), he's alluded to his secret studies. According to him, there are two major types of dust: red and brown. Red dust is light, powdery and doesn't collect easily in corners or along the edges of walls. He claims its origin is in the thoughts we have but don't produce ourselves; they seep out of us and form this corporeal residue to remind us that they exist and that we can do nothing about them except push them back and forth. Brown dust is much more substantial, he claims, being so viscous that if you whisk it with a broom, it won't separate into particles since it's partly liquid. My husband is frightened of it and believes it has explosive properties. It occupies the common areas of the room, but he has to stay away from it; otherwise, he'll injure himself. He thinks it comes from the spots on the floor where his feet have touched innumerable times, crossings where he should never pass again.

I've finally decided that I should enter the room and end this insane disruption of everything that is normal. I've resisted the impulse before, because I believed that his study might be legitimate and it would be wrong to disrupt it if he were to emerge from the room with a deeper knowledge. I can't wait any longer; he's made no effort to communicate with me, and if his dust is real, it could have clogged his lungs and poisoned him by now. I throw a chair against the door, but it bounces off with a dull thud, a deterministic blow, this setback. He gives no cry from inside, no warning to stay away. I survey the problem more carefully, find a screwdriver and hammer, and remove the hinges from the door. It's stuck tightly in its frame, but by striking it at points around the perimeter, I knock it loose. A flying tug, a wrench at the handle, and the fortress falls.

Inside he is lying on the floor, covered in a giant frozen waterfall of dust which towers over his body in dulcet foamy peaks. I intentionally hold off from stepping inside: is this the red dust, or the brown? Can the red dust of thoughts that can't be owned have done this to him, or is this the result of the brown dust's retaliation for his always walking in the same places? Ignorantly I step forward, skirting the sweeping train of dust that carpets the floor from the top of the great motionless flood above him. The color comes into view, a wrought color, a tense color that has no name. I'm enthralled with it and bring my eyes close, poring over the smallest whorls of its structure. Then another color of dust reveals itself to me, more baroque and magisterial. Less functional, it operates on a plane of greater jurisdiction, the plane of death, I presume. I examine the first dust again to learn its origin, but I realize this dust delays all meanings--I have to wait before anything will be apparent to me. I rise from my crawling position, lift the door back into place, and put the pins into the hinges. I slip into the room, shut the door, lock it, and begin my own study of the dust.

Mark Lewis was born in 1968. His book, Himmler's Jewish Tailor: The Story of Holocaust Survivor Jacob Frank was recently published by Syracuse University Press.

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