“The Witness at a Loss for Words, Briefly,” by Ray Agostinelli

Apr 20th, 2024 | By | Category: Fiction, Prose

The crowd murmured as the Witness took the stand.

“Sir,” said The Prosecutor, “You’ll be assisting us in understanding the events surrounding Jebediah Martin’s entry into the library on 14 April of last year, is that correct?”

“That’s correct.”

“And also his use of a step-ladder to reach a high shelf to extract a book, ostensibly for the purposes of reading it.”

“Is it permissible for me to interject here that I hold no grudges against Mr. Martin nor any of his family?”

“Your Honor,” said the Prosecutor, “Is it permissible for the Witness to interject here that he holds no grudges against Mr. Martin or any of his family?”

“Sustained,” said Your Honor.

“Count it said, then,” said the Witness.

The Prosecutor nodded. “Okay, onward. I’d like to work with you then to reconstruct the aural landscape of the day in question.”


“Let’s start with the Defendant leaving his house.”

“I see it in my mind.”

“I assume there was a water sprinkler or other lawn care device at work in the vicinity?”

“If I remember rightly the neighbor’s lawn was being watered by a sprinkler.”

“Which sounded like… what?”

“Mr. Prosecutor, it sounded like a defibrillator.”

“A defibrillator?”

“Yes, a bit of a whirr underfed by an abstemious warbling.”

“Ah, like a sanitizer then?”

“Hmmm. More like a weed-whacker.”

“I understand,” said the Prosecutor. “After passing the lawn sprinkler, we’ve ascertained that Jebediah Martin next made his way to the library. Is that correct?”

“It is.”

“And how did he get there?

“On the bus, of course,” said the Witness.

The crowd chirruped.

“Which stopped several times, I imagine?”

“You imagine correctly.”

“And when it stopped?”

“Bit of a scratching sound.”

“A scratching sound. Like a cat scratch?”

“Not exactly. A cat scratch sounds more doleful than a bus, plus which it’s frequently followed by a human wail. This was different. This scratching was more like de-magnetized iron combining with nickel in a heavily ionized phosphate bath.”

“Ah, a chemical scratching, then?”

“More properly, the collateral mechanical consequences thereof.”

“I understand,” said the Prosecutor, “Now we come to Jebediah’s arrival at the library.”

“In my mind, yes, he has arrived. He is there.”

“The sound of the trees thereabout?”


“Of the crowd?”


“Of the wiener vendor with the red and black umbrella?”

“Hmmm. Can I use gestating here?”

“Your Honor, may he use gestating to describe the sound of the wiener vendor?”

“Overruled,” said Your Honor.

“Okay,” said the Witness, “then how about pseudo-redemptive palpations?”

“Your Honor?”

Your Honor silently sustained.

“And finally,” continued the Prosecutor, “we are outside the library, you’ll recall.”

“In my mind, I am there,” said the Witness.

“There is wind in the trees?”

“More properly speaking, between the trees, yes. But your point is taken.”

“It’s sound, Sir?

“The serial death of strangers.”

“The s… what’s that, now?”

“I’m sorry. It’s the best way I can put it.”

The courtroom crowd buzzed.

“The serial death of strangers,” mused the Prosecutor. “Can I understand this to mean… like perfumed water bristling between the fingers of a four-year old?”

“Not exactly.”

“Like a carton of orange juice being reamed on a lathe?”

“Not quite.”

“Hmmm.  Is it like a… like a… like a jellied eel then? Singing to something? A rock?”

“Close, but not exactly.”

“My, my, my,” said the Prosecutor, a tone of defeat and weary regret beginning to creep around the edges of his voice. “The serial death of strangers. I’m afraid I’m at a loss.”

A woman in the front row raised her hand and said, “Your Honor, if I may speak.” She sounded like silt.

“It’s highly unusual,” ventured the Defense.

“Let her speak!” said the crowd.

“We’re seeking understanding here, are we not?” said the Prosecutor.

“It’s not allowable under law,” said the Defense.

A thin man with a long beard stood up in the rear of the courtroom. “The law is merely air perturbed,” he said. “The same as sound and word.”

“Overruled,” said Your Honor, “No, wait. Sustained. I meant sustained. She may speak.”

“Ma’am,” said the Prosecutor, “The serial death of strangers. Can you relate it to something that makes sense?”

The woman looked at the Witness with a guilelessness born in a complete lack of guile. “Sir, pardon me if I’m way off the mark on this, but I’m hearing a lackluster sound here.”

“Possibly,” said the Witness.

“Something tumescent, even?” continued the woman.

“One might call the sound tumescent, yes.”

“I hear… for some reason the wiener vendor is sticking in my mind, and I’m thinking that the wind between the trees is direly affected by the arc of his umbrella. It has to be. And I’m hearing inside, no—beside—the lackluster tumescence kind of a confabulatory trill. Almost religious in tone and inflection. Like blathering, only kinder.”

The crowd gasped.

“And that’s not all but… it’s cascading, is what I seem to almost feel the wind doing here, in its aural incarnation as the serial death of strangers.”

The Witness smiled in recognition and gratitude. He nodded.

The Prosecutor said, “So the sound of the wind might more properly be described as a lackluster tumescence cascading beside a religiously-inflected confabulatory trill. Have we got it, then?”

“I am greatly indebted to the lady,” said the Witness. “She has found words for everything I can only hear.” The woman grinned fetchingly and sat.

“One final question then, Sir,” said the Prosecutor.

“If you must.”

“Overruled!” said Your Honor.

“As has been determined by previous testimony,” continued the Prosecutor, “Jebediah entered the library, walked to the second floor reference section, stood upon a step ladder, and extracted Anthony McQuestridge’s Atlas of the New World from the second-to-the-top shelf.”


“The book extraction,” said the Prosecutor.

“Its sound?” confirmed the Witness.

“Yes, please, Sir, if you will. The sound of the book being extracted from the second-to-the-top shelf.”

“Like a book.”


“Being extracted.”

“I think I see where you’re going,” said the Prosecutor.

“From a shelf.”

The crowd exhaled.

The Prosecutor appeared to be stunned, but pleasantly so. “It’s absolutely accurate,” he said, “is the only thing I can say.”

“It’s what it is,” said the Witness.

“We thank you for your testimony, Sir. You may return to your seat cushion and listen now as we conclude these proceedings with a bang.”

“Sustained!” said Your Honor.

The crowd mumbled inaudibly to itself.


Ray Agostinelli lives in Colorado with his wife & family, works in tech, writes on the side. His essay collection The Also-Rans: Unsung Heroes, Lovable Losers, Runners Up, and Forgotten Failures is currently being adapted as a short-form podcast series. Favorite candy: black licorice. Favorite element: osmium.

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