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A Mountain of String by Jowell Tan

Three ladies — one blind, one mute, and one deaf — are unspooling a ball of yarn. 

The blind one rolls out the string with one hand and guides it with the other. The mute one continues pulling the string, letting it run across her palms to make a coil at her feet. When the time is right, she takes one palm off the string, pressing the string between her thumb and finger. The deaf one, alerted by her sister’s tap on her shoulder, brings up a pair of scissors to the spot where the mute one is pinching and — snip. The rest of the string falls to the floor, where the mute one then kicks it to the pile behind her. A hill of cut string of varying lengths, each lying atop another in a messy heap, short and long mingling together, end upon end.

The blind one senses my presence before the other two. “Come out from the shadows, dearie,” she says, “we don’t bite.” 

The deaf one says, “Who might you be, dearest? Come, come closer, we don’t bite. Isn’t that right, sisters?” 

The mute one grunts. She pinches another spot on the string and taps the deaf one on the shoulder. “Oh, time for the trimmer again,” and the scissors go up and — snip. I pick up the string and I see: this time it’s so much shorter than the last one. I measure it from the tip of my finger and it barely crosses over into my palm. “That was a baby, that was,” the deaf one says. Her cackle is rough and scratchy, resembling more like a smoker’s cough. Her voice echoes off unseen walls, fades away into the emptiness around us.

“What are you making?” I ask quietly. This elicits a loud howl from the three ladies. They bend over at their waists laughing, lean on their knees to stop themselves falling. When their laughter gets softer and their bodies stop shaking, they pick up the ball of yarn and the scissors off the floor.

“We don’t make anything, my dear,” replies the blind one. “We’re more of the finishing kind, if you catch my meaning.” 

The deaf one sings, out of tune: 

snip snip, snip snip! 

you won’t see it coming! 

we’re the ones who cut the string! 

we see the end of everything! 

“One day, this ball of yarn I’m holding,” the blind one continues, “Will unroll itself fully and we will have no more string left to cut. And when that day comes, we will pick everything up off the floor and tie all the ends together to make a new ball. And we will continue on, as if there was never a pause at all.”

The mute one grunts. She points upwards behind me. I turn to see a small, round, white-bright spot. The circle is expanding rapidly. The deaf one, looking up, shouts: “The light!”

The blind one smiles. “It seems it’s almost time for you to leave us, dearest. Such a pity — I’d hoped to talk with you more. But it seems there are other plans in store for you. Though, before you leave us — Will you lend an ear to a piece of advice from each of us?” 

I turn back to the three ladies who have stopped unspooling, stopped pinching, and stopped cutting. They look at me, waiting for my reply. I hesitate for a moment. I sense the white light approaching me at speed. I nod, crossing my fingers to hear their counsel before the light takes me. 

The blind one says, “Do not walk in the paths chosen for you; instead, carve your own journey through the forests.” 

The deaf one says, “Do not heed the words of those out to deceive you; instead, find your own truth.”

The mute one does not speak. She only stares, deep into my eyes. 

The light arrives from behind me. The ladies return to their work as I see the blinding light creep slowly into my vision from the sides, blotting out everything I see. The blind one speaks one more time, the black of their silhouettes slowly melting into the whiteness, becoming lost to time: 

“We are endless. We are always here. If you are lucky, you will see us again once more. We will be exactly where we will be.” 


Three ladies — one blind, one mute, and one deaf — are unspooling a ball of yarn. 

The blind one does not cast judgement on the length of the string. 

The mute one does not intercede on behalf of the string. 

The deaf one does not hear the voices pleading for more time. 

And so it goes; the three ladies continue toiling away, unknown to all, a mountain of tangled string lying behind them.

A Mountain of String: Text

Jowell Tan writes. He thanks you for reading, and he appreciates your time.

A Mountain of String: Text
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