Counting Breaths

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The first, I imagine, was unwilling. Drawn from me on a mid-winter’s night by the practical violence of a doctor’s slap.  A wet uncertain gurgle bubbled forth as pink lungs first tasted the world’s air. Then the clawing animal vitality, the desire for life, surged forth in a harrowing scream that pierced the still Highveld night. When that long cry sputtered and faded, it was for lack of breath not lack of passion.

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The last, I hope, will be willing. Embraced by me on a cool summer’s evening as I would an old friend. A smooth, deep inhalation and I will taste, one last time, the world’s sweet air.  Then a soft lingering sigh and the last life within me will join those soft summer breezes. The urge to life, its passions fulfilled and vitality expended, will stop all breath.

Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.

The next, I know, is my choice. With twelve thousand I could read a good book and only a million are needed to write one. Instead I use twelve hundred to write this; two thousand to polish it; and just twenty to post it. You used thirty-eight to read it.

7 thoughts on “Counting Breaths”

  1. The good

    Me like!
    Especially “wet uncertain gurgle.” [Don’t read anything into that.]
    Nice turn of phrase.

    The idea of using breaths to count stuff is ace, and especially when turned on the reader at the end.

    I liked the shape of the story a lot. I guess I mean the narrative. Vocab ugg.

    The bad

    I didn’t groove on “it was for lack of breath not lack of passion.” Um, baby? It not wot of passion, what it are? “Clawing animal” really worked, though.

    The 8m breaths repetition didn’t really work for me. Maybe one at the start and one right at the end would feel better? At the moment it feels a bit interrupt-y.

    The ugly

    Constructive criticism again?
    You are brave!
    I’m happy surfing the “be nice” highway for now… :)

  2. That is a lovely little bookend – the beginning, the end, and the now. I enjoyed the way it flows and particularly the last paragraph – the way it zoomed in from the recent to more recent past and suddenly caught up with the exact *now*. It gave me the feeling of great precision, for some reason.

    The middle paragraph was the weakest and on the first reading my eye just slipped over it. It has gentleness which you want, but may need a little work. Maybe trimming?

    I liked some turns of phrase – the clawing animal violence, the idea of the last breath becoming the breeze. I was particularly taken with the idea of the first breath being drawn out of you – the transfer of responsibility to an external party.

    I agree with max in that I’m not sure about the repetition. It does stand out a little but I do appreciate the return to centre after each paragraph. I wonder if using a different phrase that changed the meaning would work better – something like:
    Eight hundred million breaths is a future.
    Eight hundred million breaths is a lifetime.
    Eight hundred million breaths is a moment.

    Bla! I don’t actually know if these work any better, it’s just an idea of how to mess with the concept. If you see what I mean.

    “When that long cry sputtered and faded, it was for lack of breath not lack of passion.”
    – i am actually fine with the “passion” here, though Life could have worked equally fine, or vigour. What i did not like in that sentence is the “breath” since the paragraph is *about* breath, if that makes sense. “It was for lack of air” could have worked better.

    “The urge to life, its passions fulfilled and vitality expended, will stop all breath.”
    – This sentence bothers me a little. I don’t think it actually makes sense.

    You have a tendency to use the same words in this short span. “world’s air” and “world’s sweet air” are too close for repeat. Also watch “soft”, “passion” , “write” and also “breath” – outside of the key repeating sentence it comes up a few times.

    Excellent effort despite my nitpicking (I had to read quite a few times to be bothered by most of the above), and I think a big improvement in style over your previous one.

  3. Nice one. I will dissent and say I liked the repetition of the “8 million” line, it gives it a dirge-y, elegiac feel. Sombre. And I liked the last paragraph, it’s all meta-, break the fourth wall, po-mo personal-like. A bit “If on a winter’s night, a traveller…”, if you know what I mean.

    But as a slight crit, I do think parfles’ right about the other phrase/word reuse. Also a bit adjective-heavy for my taste, but that’s maybe just me.

  4. I really enjoyed the meter of this piece. It is poetic. Given that, I really like the repetition, both of words like ‘world’s air’ and of the refrain line. The repetitions in the first two paragraphs feel like they fit together and contrast with each other as the first and last breaths do. I enjoyed the personal connections, which brought it down to earth – “Highveld”, and the personal pronoun. For me, the word ‘passion’ works very well, as it conveys a lust for life which is powerful in the new born child.

    There are two sentences that do not work for me. I agree with Parfles that the sentence “The urge to life, its passions fulfilled and vitality expended, will stop all breath.”, is difficult to parse. The idea of an urge to life stopping all breath does not make sense to me. I also felt that the third paragraph began a little awkwardly. “The next…” confused me after having discussed the last breath. Some reference to the breaths in between being up to the writer would have worked better for me.

  5. This is a reflective piece about the narrator’s eagerness for life, and the cost, in terms of time spent, that our choices have.

    I like the last paragraph: it brought home the message of our limited lifespans, and the cost between different choices (I thought the word, “Instead,” worked well here).

    I’m unsure either way about the repetition of, “Eight hundred million …” It was noticeable, but did not leaving me feeling as though it substantially added much. I also did not feel that it detracted from the piece, though. I see others have commented on this, and offered opinions 😛 So I’ll just play devil’s advocate and suggest leaving only the last occurrence (where the counting of breaths starts in earnest).

    Unlike your previous piece, this one has a good lack of adverbs 😉

    At some places I thought the micfic could’ve used more commas. For example (with a comma added):
    > A smooth, deep inhalation[,] and I will taste, one last time …

    Thanks for sharing!

  6. For me the success of this piece of writing was in the last sentence – it made the delineations of number of breaths in the previous paragraphs suddenly and horribly immediate and personal, it really worked. I think the repetition of the “eight million breaths” line is effective, it ties the ideas together, although Parfles makes good points on potentially varying the refrain. As a meditation on the significance of breaths, the whole thing is punchy and evocative, and the images very vivid.

    The main problem I had with this was that occasionally your language goes a little over-the-top, the main jar being “harrowing scream”, which is really a bit excessive for a description of a newborn’s cry. The “urge to life” sentence is, as commented on by others, overly dense and elliptical. I think a little more restraint might have improved this.

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