Chapter One – Stories in Dust and Song
Elizabeth Woodfall was a historian of wind. Her histories were constantly in motion, and she created a home that facilitated her work. She kept the doors and windows open, she carved holes in the walls, she ripped apart her roofing. She hung gauze curtains in each room, and sunk pinwheels into the floorboards, and scattered crumbs around to lure local birds – she didn’t like to keep anything caged – and she would disappear for hours, on blustery days, with kites she had made from silk and straw.
When working on a project, Elizabeth also read the wind in powders and particles. After crumbling a document into dust, she would cup it in her hands and take it outside. When the wind caught the dust, it quickly covered Elizabeth’s skin, knotted up her long hair, filled her lungs. Sometimes it would storm into her ears so that all she could hear was a rushing, or maybe a murmuring. In these moments, breathing was a kind of reading: though the particles of letters of fragments of words of sentences of documents were constantly scattered and continually in flux, she had an uncanny sense of smell that could link them into chords and patterns, distinguishing the cold, white scents of tomb inscriptions from the sharp greens of birth records and the ambery musks of love letters. As Elizabeth read her documents in scent, she often composed her historical narratives that way as well. She kept an incense library of powders and dried saps, crushed leaves and ground seeds and bone.
Elizabeth specialized in local history. (She was kind of a public historian.) Townswomen would come to Elizabeth and ask her to tell their stories. They brought certificates of family births and marriages, genealogies and diaries. (She would dry these out in her oven and grind them up and keep them carefully sealed in little bottles and jars.) They brought the death masks made of their uncles and grandmothers. (Elizabeth would walk these up long flights of stairs and stop at the top and hurl them from banisters and landings, quietly watching them shatter. She would collect as many of the shards as she could find and tie them up in a little sac and then go up the stairs once again and drop it again, over and over and over, until the bag was full of powder.) The women brought her paintings and bonnets and tiny spoons and feathered jewelry. (These Elizabeth kept in her study, sometimes licking or sniffing them for hours.) When she had covered herself in the grit and breathed in the powder and licked the cutlery and smelled the fabric until she was satisfied, Elizabeth went to her library and pinched and sifted and mixed and folded and when she was done she sealed it all up very, very carefully in a box made just for that purpose, and she waited on the weather. When the breeze was right (and sometimes it took days or weeks for that to happen), she called for her client. When that woman arrived, Elizabeth tied a scarf around her eyes and sat her in a quiet spot behind the house and stood slightly upwind of her and opened the box and shook out its contents. After the woman had taken in her history – and sometimes there were tears, and sometimes there was giggling – she went home, and she lived her life.
On rare occasions, a woman would ask that Elizabeth sing her history instead. For this, she needed research assistants. In these cases, she paid local children to canvas the woman’s living relatives – her lovers, the baker she bought bread from, her pastor – and to return to Elizabeth with each one’s song. Sometimes they were just a few notes, but occasionally a child would sing for hours. Elizabeth listened, and wove, and shaped, and when she was ready she waited for the weather and when that was right she called the woman to her home. When that woman arrived, Elizabeth tied a scarf around her eyes and sat her in a quiet spot behind the house and stood slightly upwind of her and opened her mouth and sang until she was finished. After the woman had taken in her history – and sometimes there was moaning, and sometimes just silence – she went home, and she lived her life.