'Breathe' by Kellie Carle

Something in the way Mavis Mahoney says her name, Sylvia, could send her to join her Mama, above the clouds she loved staring at for hours on a bed her feet dangled over, without looking back. She keeps the echoes of her name playing in her mind while she takes her place center stage, sees the crowd for the first time, eyes hoping to hold her again.

            She finds Mavis among the men too tired to fight for a place in a world that never wanted them. Among women worn down from mending or carrying their wounds. Even in all that misery, Mavis smiles, raises her hands and starts clapping until everyone pulls themselves away from drowning in reflections staring back at them through half empty glasses.

            She raises the mouthpiece of her clarinet to spit shined lips, lets her breath flow through the barrel and slide down the upper and lower joints while her fingers stroke and press cold, silver keys. Surrendering the vibrations of her breath into woodwind instruments to pocket, twist, and release into songs is the only pleasure she shares with others. A flute she finds in a white man’s trashcan tickles and teases her Mama’s ears when she gets sick for the final time and words no longer reach her. Saxophone murmurs on those nights she rocks on the porch when it rains, not wanting to talk to a body she could never call a lover.

            A clarinet mixing her breath with a slow spreading sadness she steals from everyone in the room. Blankets them in the warmth the bell of her instrument releases in clever tangles that trick the mind into thinking what they’re keeping holed up inside is something beautiful. Nearing the end of her song, Sylvia listens to the sounds of it being sucked in. Feels the breath of the audience on her bare arms, on the bit of her leg peeking through a slit Mavis insisted having added to her dress so she could be more comfortable on a wooden stool, center stage, under a blue spotlight that she’s sure is making every drop of sweat look like a river instead of dew.

            And Sylvia borrows bits of their breath, keeps it turning inside her throat when her audience forgets how to look at somebody in the eye and blink. Then Mavis rises, throwing another smile that could send Sylvia back amongst the clouds. The applause is quiet at first, swells until cheers, the sound of someone blowing their nose, people whistling between the gaps in their teeth, surround her. When they beg for more, Sylvia closes her eyes, remembers the way her name sounds when Mavis releases it into the air between them. She lifts the mouthpiece her clarinet to her lips, trying to summon that bit of beauty playing in her mind, and lets it slide though the barrel, upper, and lower joints before erupting from the bell in one, smooth breath.

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