Winter 2011-2012

The Hours: A Guide for Synesthetes

Shelley Jackson

This contribution to Cabinet’s “24 Hours” issue was completed in Brooklyn, New York, in 17 hours, 37 minutes.


For the synesthete who perceives both letters and numbers as concrete things, the twelve-hour clock is a horological zodiac, rich in images. When I was a child, and still believed that symbols held the secrets of the world, I thought these images were augurs; I told my future when I told time.

At 6, the infant day sits up, robust, though cobalt blue with cold. It rocks on its weighted bottom like a buoy, in no danger of overturning, since like all even numbers it is sturdy and upright. The word six, though, exposes a complexity concealed in 6, and a threat: the red of s, the clinical fluorescence of i, the chrome-plated scissors of x compose a cutting word for a cutting hour. Six bares the claw in 6.

7 is the sunniest number, a field of mustard flowers in morning light. Seven confirms 7’s promise. With a flash of s’s cherry red, it slides into view, then basks in the glory of its e’s (v’s gilt gleaming in between them), and ends with the gentle nudge of n. Rise, shine.

At first glance, 8’s a workaday hour. (Walnut brown, it’s made of wicker, judging by the shape.) But eight, though lit by e and i, sinks into the mud at g; h and t—a quick breath, a sharp point—suggest a nasty end. Look back at 8: with a quarter turn it opens masked eyes, through which infinity measures your mistakes.

Black-violet 9 is night-owl, uneasy in the day. Balanced on its spine, with its giant head and tiny curved body, like a comma or an embryo, it cuts an ungainly figure. But in its doubled n, by the violet light of i, nine regards itself with satisfaction. It says its name out loud and thinks it is a palindrome; it doesn’t know that it’s leaking e’s. This unwitting liberality is what redeems the costive hour of nine.

10 is a hollow hour. Through 0 blows a black and chilly wind; the 1 is a shaft of white light. Ten, though, prods you into motion with the steel-toe boot of t, then warms you up with the sun of e, soaking into n (good leather molded over batting to make a seat, or something to push off of).

Golden eleven warms 11’s whites: sunny e twines like a ribbon all through it. Magically twinned, 11 is an hour of promise, its paired 1s lintel posts of a door opening onto the elven land that eleven almost names. Or themselves a pair of dryads, aspen-white.

Noon? It’s symmetrical 11 that deserves that palindromic name. 12’s mismatched pair is an enigma, a masonic emblem: tangerine swan contemplating a femur. In twelve the elves turn up again, but they don’t just glimmer and hint: w hardens the soft gilt of eleven’s v to bugl

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