The mother wakens at 4 am to hear, from the open doorway, her young child speaking. Was this speech, or the intonations of speech, before words? The Mother has been working late, translating a poem from English to her native Russian, under a deadline. The tea by the bedside is cold and the lamp still on. The meaning of a difficult phrase has eluded her and become a taut physical presence in the room. Her daughter, eighteen months old, talks with a small zebra in her crib. She does not know the name for the creature tucked under her blankets, but he is attentive. The child babbles, halfway between speech and song. The mother listens intently. The phrase arrives; it’s a child’s translation really. Those words dissolve whatever it was in the room haunting the mother.
The garbage collector on the back of the truck before dawn drops down while the truck is still moving, heaves another can off the pavement. The sack bursts; things spill onto the street. He will leave it; the truck has already moved on. He spots a small zebra, a toy, covered by a banana peel (he’s almost missed it). He swoops it into his pocket, wet and slimy. That night he remembers it and draws it- not a good drawing, that first one. A year of drawings later, the little zebra is magnificent, especially to the garbage collector.
The girl reads by streetlight though the open curtain so as not to disturb her younger sister sleeping. She reads about transcendental functions, the inverse functions of calculus. The girl has just turned fourteen, yet she follows the text easily: “Let A be an open interval and let f : A → R be injective and continuous. Then f−1 is continuous on f(A).” The assignment calls for a proof. On her notebook she writes in pencil: “Proof. Since A is an open interval and f is injective and continuous it follows that f has no local maxima or minima. Therefore, f is either strictly increasing or strictly decreasing.” Or perhaps both, she wonders. No, that cannot be right. She has no friend she might ask, no one in her family who might know. She sleeps and dreams of the continuous stripes on a small zebra, the open and infinite space of reversibility.
The prisoner stands a full hour in his cell, looking up at the ivory square of brightness at the top of the metal door. He tries to remember (but it is only a glimmer memory): a place among trees, a fragrant silence, the voices of his family calling, and stars pricking the dark. In the corner a sad zebra watches the man who can’t remember the faces of his own family.
The doctor goes downstairs into the fogbound street in early morning light, through which he can make out nothing but a big oak. He remembers the young woman he was treating has died- and stands still, without purpose. He thinks he sees the head of a zebra, ears up, rounding the base of the tree. The long stripes, all shades of gray and charcoal, mirror the shades of the branches. The doctor returns to the house and smells coffee brewing. He considers the zebra’s nose, its darker shade. It is as though this warm nose has bent down and kissed him in his sleep.
Sometimes Amos hears voices sounding inside the deep cave of his belly. Sometimes the violin feels a tiny sound spark from each “f” hole as Amos blows a warm breath over its strings. These “f” holes look like an elongated “s” in cursive, and Amos wonders if they are really “s” holes, after all. Soon Amos is laughing. Laughter rides the whole room, travels up the stairs in the dark and enters our dreams. This music we hear in the night is Amos among us.
Amos and the violin study one another. They take their time. Amos opens the violin as if peering into small drawers in a printer’s cabinet, one at a time. The violin emerges in segments, fragments of mystery. He sees, from a distance above himself, that the silent violin and the silent zebra have been strung to speak, one drenched in amber, the other in stripes. They take their positions, wait for the music.