Fiction: Excerpt from Knotty, Knotty, Knotty by Joshua Kornreich

Fiction: Joshua Kornreich

from Knotty, Knotty, Knotty

You could hear it buzzing throughout the house.

It was a small house, our house. It had an upstairs and a downstairs, but it was a small house, regardless. You could hear any sound from any room inside the house if you listened hard enough.

The nanny’s girl couldn’t hear jack no matter hard she listened, and I say more power to her.

I mean, I would have traded my conflicts for her problems any day of the week, especially when it came to the day I heard the buzzing sound coming from upstairs.

I thought maybe it was the tube at first. I thought maybe the nanny’s girl turned on one of those scrambled-up channels that we weren’t rich enough to see descrambled, and the buzzing was coming from that. But when I went into the room with the tube in it, the nanny’s girl wasn’t there and the tube was turned off.

It didn’t take me long to realize it was coming from the nanny’s room.

The buzzing sound, I mean.

I figured she was giving the old man a haircut in there, and that’s what was making the buzzing sound. No one in our house was rich, so when it came to haircuts, the nanny was it. I mean, when it came to cutting hair, the nanny could cut hair with the best of them. Sometimes she would cut other people’s hair, too—the hair of people who weren’t rich and didn’t live in our house—and she would let me sit in and watch. The old man said it was a way for her to make extra money outside of her being a nanny, and since he got a slice of the extra money she made, who was he to stop her from making the extra money?

I liked watching her cut the hair of these other people who didn’t live in our house. I liked watching their hair fall from their heads onto the floor. She would cut their hair with the same scissors she always used for cutting hair, and the scissors she used for cutting hair would make that snipping sound I always loved. I mean, say what you want, but when it comes to sounds, the sound of a scissor snipping hair is a sound to end all sounds.

Am I right or am I right?

Of course, I am right. I am always right when it comes to sounds.

Whenever she would snip away with the scissors, she would softly hum this tune from the native island she came from in the ears of these people, and, for whatever reason, these people whose heads she cut hair from would always end up loving the tune she was softly humming in their ears, even though it was killing my ears, drowning out the snipping sound of her scissors that I loved so much, that I thought was the sound to end all sounds.

Sometimes she would also braid the hair of these people—the women, I mean. She would braid their hair into braids that were just like the braids she and the nanny’s girl had in their hair. Sometimes the nanny’s girl would watch the nanny braiding the women’s hair into braids and she would laugh and clap and make the kinds of mouthy sounds with her mouth only girls who could not hear or talk can make. Sometimes when the nanny was all finished up with the cutting and braiding of a customer’s hair, she would make me and the nanny’s girl sweep up the floor. The nanny had this broom and dustpan that she kept around just for sweeping up her customers’ hair. I would grab the broom and the nanny’s girl would grab the dustpan, and together we would sweep up all the hair. We would sweep and sweep until not a single hair from a single customer could be found on the floor. After we finished up our sweeping, the nanny would say to me, “Good work, little bahss, good work,” and pat me on the top of my head. Then, she would turn to the nanny’s girl and say things to her with her hands that only girls who could not hear or talk can hear.

The nanny’s girl couldn’t hear things with her ears, but she could hear things with her eyes, if you know what I mean.

So, whenever the nanny said whatever she said with her hands to the nanny’s girl, the nanny’s girl would smile with her little gums sticking out of her mouth, and then the nanny would kiss the nanny’s girl on the top of her head, and that would be that.

Sometimes I would run to my room and cry without tears when the nanny kissed the nanny’s girl on the top of her head this way.

Or maybe it was that I would run to my room and have tears without crying.

I can’t remember which.


No one was getting a haircut when I opened the door to her room.

She was lying down on her bed, the nanny was. I could see the silver metal shining between her legs even though her big native hands were in the way of most of it.

I remember thinking I had never seen a comb that buzzed that way before. I remember thinking that I wasn’t sure if it was the comb or her you-know-what that was doing the buzzing. I remember thinking that maybe that’s what happens when you touch a you-know-what in the way she was touching it with the comb.

I mean, it wasn’t really the comb that was halfway up her you-know-what, but, back then, I thought it was the comb. I mean, I saw the silver metal shining the way it was shining, so that’s what I thought. I remember thinking that all that brown stuff from the comb was probably getting shoved inside her you-know- what, and thinking that made me very sick inside.


It was her face, not the silver metal shining out of her you-know-what, that got my attention the most, though.

Her braids kept getting in the way of her face as she shifted her head this way and that way, but I stood there long enough to get the picture.

It was her eyes, the way they opened and saw nothing, the way they closed and saw everything. It was her cheeks, the way they rose with pleasure and sank with anguish. It was her nose, the way her nostrils flared, the way they sniffed the air around them, as if the very thing she was doing with the comb had a smell to it.

It was her mouth, the yellowness of her teeth, the blackness of her gums. Her lips, the way they quivered, her tongue, the way it curled and twirled with each stroke of her hand.

Yes, it was her mouth more than anything else.

It was the sounds her mouth was making. They were mostly just that—sounds.

Syllables, at most.

But sometimes these sounds, these syllables, came together in a way that formed words, and these words were words that I had heard uttered by other mouths that were not her mouth, mouths that I had seen with my own two eyes, as well as inside my own head, scrambled and descrambled.

Joshua Kornreich is the author of the novels The Boy Who Killed Caterpillars (Marick Press, 2007), a debut novel reprinted in eBook format by Dzanc Books, and Knotty, Knotty, Knotty (The Black Mountain Press, 2013). Other publications that have reviewed or published his work include Unsaid, Meridian, Largehearted Boy, and Emerging Writers Network. He lives in New York City with his wife and son.

Photo credit: Jon Helgason,

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