For half a century the housewives of Pont-l’Eveque had envied Madame Aubain her servant Felicite.
For a hundred francs a year, she cooked and did the housework, washed, ironed, mended, harnessed the horse, fattened the poultry, made the butter and remained faithful to her mistress – although the latter was by no means an agreeable person.
Madame Aubain had married a comely youth without any money, who died in the beginning of 1809, leaving her with two young children and a number of debts. She sold all her property excepting the farm of Toucques and the farm of Geffosses, the income of which barely amounted to 5,000 francs; then she left her house in Saint-Melaine, and moved into a less pretentious one which had belonged to her ancestors and stood back of the market-place. This house, with its slate-covered roof, was built between a passage-way and a narrow street that led to the river. The interior was so unevenly graded that it caused people to stumble. A narrow hall separated the kitchen from the parlour, where Madame Aubain sat all day in a straw armchair near the window. Eight mahogany chairs stood in a row against the white wainscoting. An old piano, standing beneath a barometer, was covered with a pyramid of old books and boxes. On either side of the yellow marble mantelpiece, in Louis XV. style, stood a tapestry armchair. The clock represented a temple of Vesta; and the whole room smelled musty, as it was on a lower level than the garden.
On the first floor was Madame’s bed-chamber, a large room papered in a flowered design and containing the portrait of Monsieur dressed in the costume of a dandy. It communicated with a smaller room, in which there were two little cribs, without any mattresses. Next, came the parlour (always closed), filled with furniture covered with sheets. Then a hall, which led to the study, where books and papers were piled on the shelves of a book-case that enclosed three quarters of the big black desk. Two panels were entirely hidden under pen-and-ink sketches, Gouache landscapes and Audran engravings, relics of better times and vanished luxury. On the second floor, a garret-window lighted Felicite’s room, which looked out upon the meadows.
She arose at daybreak, in order to attend mass, and she worked without interruption until night; then, when dinner was over, the dishes cleared away and the door securely locked, she would bury the log under the ashes and fall asleep in front of the hearth with a rosary in her hand. Nobody could bargain with greater obstinacy, and as for cleanliness, the lustre on her brass sauce-pans was the envy and despair of other servants. She was most economical, and when she ate she would gather up crumbs with the tip of her finger, so that nothing should be wasted of the loaf of bread weighing twelve pounds which was baked especially for her and lasted three weeks.
Summer and winter she wore a dimity kerchief fastened in the back with a pin, a cap which concealed her hair, a red skirt, grey stockings, and an apron with a bib like those worn by hospital nurses.
Her face was thin and her voice shrill. When she was twenty-five, she looked forty. After she had passed fifty, nobody could tell her age; erect and silent always, she resembled a wooden figure working automatically.
Like every other woman, she had had an affair of the heart. Her father, who was a mason, was killed by falling from a scaffolding. Then her mother died and her sisters went their different ways; a farmer took her in, and while she was quite small, let her keep cows in the fields. She was clad in miserable rags, beaten for the slightest offence and finally dismissed for a theft of thirty sous which she did not commit. She took service on another farm where she tended the poultry; and as she was well thought of by her master, her fellow-workers soon grew jealous.
One evening in August (she was then eighteen years old), they persuaded her to accompany them to the fair at Colleville. She was immediately dazzled by the noise, the lights in the trees, the brightness of the dresses, the laces and gold crosses, and the crowd of people all hopping at the same time. She was standing modestly at a distance, when presently a young man of well-to-do appearance, who had been leaning on the pole of a wagon and smoking his pipe, approached her, and asked her for a dance. He treated her to cider and cake, bought her a silk shawl, and then, thinking she had guessed his purpose, offered to see her home. When they came to the end of a field he threw her down brutally. But she grew frightened and screamed, and he walked off.
One evening, on the road leading to Beaumont, she came upon a wagon loaded with hay, and when she overtook it, she recognised Theodore. He greeted her calmly, and asked her to forget what had happened between them, as it “was all the fault of the drink.”
She did not know what to reply and wished to run away.
Presently he began to speak of the harvest and of the notables of the village; his father had left Colleville and bought the farm of Les Ecots, so that now they would be neighbours. “Ah!” she exclaimed. He then added that his parents were looking around for a wife for him, but that he, himself, was not so anxious and preferred to wait for a girl who suited him. She hung her head. He then asked her whether she had ever thought of marrying. She replied, smilingly, that it was wrong of him to make fun of her. “Oh! no, I am in earnest,” he said, and put his left arm around her waist while they sauntered along. The air was soft, the stars were bright, and the huge load of hay oscillated in front of them, drawn by four horses whose ponderous hoofs raised clouds of dust. Without a word from their driver they turned to the right. He kissed her again and she went home. The following week, Theodore obtained meetings.
They met in yards, behind walls or under isolated trees. She was not ignorant, as girls of well-to-do families are – for the animals had instructed her; – but her reason and her instinct of honour kept her from falling. Her resistance exasperated Theodore’s love and so in order to satisfy it (or perchance ingenuously), he offered to marry her. She would not believe him at first, so he made solemn promises. But, in a short time he mentioned a difficulty; the previous year, his parents had purchased a substitute for him; but any day he might be drafted and the prospect of serving in the army alarmed him greatly. To Felicite his cowardice appeared a proof of his love for her, and her devotion to him grew stronger. When she met him, he would torture her with his fears and his entreaties. At last, he announced that he was going to the prefect himself for information, and would let her know everything on the following Sunday, between eleven o’clock and midnight.
When the time grew near, she ran to meet her lover.
But instead of Theodore, one of his friends was at the meeting-place.
He informed her that she would never see her sweetheart again; for, in order to escape the conscription, he had married a rich old woman, Madame Lehoussais, of Toucques.
The poor girl’s sorrow was frightful. She threw herself on the ground, she cried and called on the Lord, and wandered around desolately until sunrise. Then she went back to the farm, declared her intention of leaving, and at the end of the month, after she had received her wages, she packed all her belongings in a handkerchief and started for Pont-l’Eveque.
In front of the inn, she met a woman wearing widow’s weeds, and upon questioning her, learned that she was looking for a cook. The girl did not know very much, but appeared so willing and so modest in her requirements, that Madame Aubain finally said:
“Very well, I will give you a trial.”
And half an hour later Felicite was installed in her house.
At first she lived in a constant anxiety that was caused by “the style of the household” and the memory of “Monsieur,” that hovered over everything. Paul and Virginia, the one aged seven, and the other barely four, seemed made of some precious material; she carried them pig-a-back, and was greatly mortified when Madame Aubain forbade her to kiss them every other minute.
But in spite of all this, she was happy. The comfort of her new surroundings had obliterated her sadness.
Every Thursday, friends of Madame Aubain dropped in for a game of cards, and it was Felicite’s duty to prepare the table and heat the foot-warmers. They arrived at exactly eight o’clock and departed before eleven.
Every Monday morning, the dealer in second-hand goods, who lived under the alley-way, spread out his wares on the sidewalk. Then the city would be filled with a buzzing of voices in which the neighing of horses, the bleating of lambs, the grunting of pigs, could be distinguished, mingled with the sharp sound of wheels on the cobble-stones. About twelve o’clock, when the market was in full swing, there appeared at the front door a tall, middle-aged peasant, with a hooked nose and a cap on the back of his head; it was Robelin, the farmer of Geffosses. Shortly afterwards came Liebard, the farmer of Toucques, short, rotund and ruddy, wearing a grey jacket and spurred boots.
Both men brought their landlady either chickens or cheese. Felicite would invariably thwart their ruses and they held her in great respect.
At various times, Madame Aubain received a visit from the Marquis de Gremanville, one of her uncles, who was ruined and lived at Falaise on the remainder of his estates. He always came at dinner-time and brought an ugly poodle with him, whose paws soiled their furniture. In spite of his efforts to appear a man of breeding (he even went so far as to raise his hat every time he said “My deceased father”), his habits got the better of him, and he would fill his glass a little too often and relate broad stories. Felicite would show him out very politely and say: “You have had enough for this time, Monsieur de Gremanville! Hoping to see you again!” and would close the door.
She opened it gladly for Monsieur Bourais, a retired lawyer. His bald head and white cravat, the ruffling of his shirt, his flowing brown coat, the manner in which he took snuff, his whole person, in fact, produced in her the kind of awe which we feel when we see extraordinary persons. As he managed Madame’s estates, he spent hours with her in Monsieur’s study; he was in constant fear of being compromised, had a great regard for the magistracy and some pretensions to learning.
In order to facilitate the children’s studies, he presented them with an engraved geography which represented various scenes of the world; cannibals with feather head-dresses, a gorilla kidnapping a young girl, Arabs in the desert, a whale being harpooned, etc.
Paul explained the pictures to Felicite. And, in fact, this was her only literary education.
The children’s studies were under the direction of a poor devil employed at the town-hall, who sharpened his pocket-knife on his boots and was famous for his penmanship.
When the weather was fine, they went to Geffosses. The house was built in the centre of the sloping yard; and the sea looked like a grey spot in the distance. Felicite would take slices of cold meat from the lunch basket and they would sit down and eat in a room next to the dairy. This room was all that remained of a cottage that had been torn down. The dilapidated wall-paper trembled in the drafts. Madame Aubain, overwhelmed by recollections, would hang her head, while the children were afraid to open their mouths. Then, “Why don’t you go and play?” their mother would say; and they would scamper off.
Paul would go to the old barn, catch birds, throw stones into the pond, or pound the trunks of the trees with a stick till they resounded like drums. Virginia would feed the rabbits and run to pick the wild flowers in the fields, and her flying legs would disclose her little embroidered pantalettes. One autumn evening, they struck out for home through the meadows. The new moon illumined part of the sky and a mist hovered like a veil over the sinuosities of the river. Oxen, lying in the pastures, gazed mildly at the passing persons. In the third field, however, several of them got up and surrounded them. “Don’t be afraid,” cried Felicite; and murmuring a sort of lament she passed her hand over the back of the nearest ox; he turned away and the others followed. But when they came to the next pasture, they heard frightful bellowing.
It was a bull which was hidden from them by the fog. He advanced towards the two women, and Madame Aubain prepared to flee for her life. “No, no! not so fast,” warned Felicite. Still they hurried on, for they could hear the noisy breathing of the bull behind them. His hoofs pounded the grass like hammers, and presently he began to gallop! Felicite turned around and threw patches of grass in his eyes. He hung his head, shook his horns and bellowed with fury. Madame Aubain and the children, huddled at the end of the field, were trying to jump over the ditch. Felicite continued to back before the bull, blinding him with dirt, while she shouted to them to make haste.
Madame Aubain finally slid into the ditch, after shoving first Virginia and then Paul into it, and though she stumbled several times she managed, by dint of courage, to climb the other side of it.
The bull had driven Felicite up against a fence; the foam from his muzzle flew in her face and in another minute he would have disembowelled her. She had just time to slip between two bars and the huge animal, thwarted, paused.
For years, this occurrence was a topic of conversation in Pont-l’Eveque. But Felicite took no credit to herself, and probably never knew that she had been heroic.
Virginia occupied her thoughts solely, for the shock she had sustained gave her a nervous affection, and the physician, M. Poupart, prescribed the salt-water bathing at Trouville. In those days, Trouville was not greatly patronised. Madame Aubain gathered information, consulted Bourais, and made preparations as if they were going on an extended trip.
The baggage was sent the day before on Liebard’s cart. On the following morning, he brought around two horses, one of which had a woman’s saddle with a velveteen back to it, while on the crupper of the other was a rolled shawl that was to be used for a seat. Madame Aubain mounted the second horse, behind Liebard. Felicite took charge of the little girl, and Paul rode M. Lechaptois’ donkey, which had been lent for the occasion on the condition that they should be careful of it.
The road was so bad that it took two hours to cover the eight miles. The two horses sank knee-deep into the mud and stumbled into ditches; sometimes they had to jump over them. In certain places, Liebard’s mare stopped abruptly. He waited patiently till she started again, and talked of the people whose estates bordered the road, adding his own moral reflections to the outline of their histories. Thus, when they were passing through Toucques, and came to some windows draped with nasturtiums, he shrugged his shoulders and said: “There’s a woman, Madame Lehoussais, who, instead of taking a young man –” Felicite could not catch what followed; the horses began to trot, the donkey to gallop, and they turned into a lane; then a gate swung open, two farm-hands appeared and they all dismounted at the very threshold of the farm-house.
Mother Liebard, when she caught sight of her mistress, was lavish with joyful demonstrations. She got up a lunch which comprised a leg of mutton, tripe, sausages, a chicken fricassee, sweet cider, a fruit tart and some preserved prunes; then to all this the good woman added polite remarks about Madame, who appeared to be in better health, Mademoiselle, who had grown to be “superb,” and Paul, who had become singularly sturdy; she spoke also of their deceased grandparents, whom the Liebards had known, for they had been in the service of the family for several generations.
Like its owners, the farm had an ancient appearance. The beams of the ceiling were mouldy, the walls black with smoke and the windows grey with dust. The oak sideboard was filled with all sorts of utensils, plates, pitchers, tin bowls, wolf-traps. The children laughed when they saw a huge syringe. There was not a tree in the yard that did not have mushrooms growing around its foot, or a bunch of mistletoe hanging in its branches. Several of the trees had been blown down, but they had started to grow in the middle and all were laden with quantities of apples. The thatched roofs, which were of unequal thickness, looked like brown velvet and could resist the fiercest gales. But the wagon-shed was fast crumbling to ruins. Madame Aubain said that she would attend to it, and then gave orders to have the horses saddled.
It took another thirty minutes to reach Trouville. The little caravan dismounted in order to pass Les Ecores, a cliff that overhangs the bay, and a few minutes later, at the end of the dock, they entered the yard of the Golden Lamb, an inn kept by Mother David.
During the first few days, Virginia felt stronger, owing to the change of air and the action of the sea-baths. She took them in her little chemise, as she had no bathing suit, and afterwards her nurse dressed her in the cabin of a customs officer, which was used for that purpose by other bathers.
In the afternoon, they would take the donkey and go to the Roches-Noires, near Hennequeville. The path led at first through undulating grounds, and thence to a plateau, where pastures and tilled fields alternated. At the edge of the road, mingling with the brambles, grew holly bushes, and here and there stood large dead trees whose branches traced zigzags upon the blue sky.
Ordinarily, they rested in a field facing the ocean, with Deauville on their left, and Havre on their right. The sea glittered brightly in the sun and was as smooth as a mirror, and so calm that they could scarcely distinguish its murmur; sparrows chirped joyfully and the immense canopy of heaven spread over it all. Madame Aubain brought out her sewing, and Virginia amused herself by braiding reeds; Felicite wove lavender blossoms, while Paul was bored and wished to go home.
Sometimes they crossed the Toucques in a boat, and started to hunt for sea-shells. The outgoing tide exposed star-fish and sea-urchins, and the children tried to catch the flakes of foam which the wind blew away. The sleepy waves lapping the sand unfurled themselves along the shore that extended as far as the eye could see, but where land began, it was limited by the downs which separated it from the “Swamp,” a large meadow shaped like a hippodrome. When they went home that way, Trouville, on the slope of a hill below, grew larger and larger as they advanced, and, with all its houses of unequal height, seemed to spread out before them in a sort of giddy confusion.
When the heat was too oppressive, they remained in their rooms. The dazzling sunlight cast bars of light between the shutters. Not a sound in the village, not a soul on the sidewalk. This silence intensified the tranquility of everything. In the distance, the hammers of some calkers pounded the hull of a ship, and the sultry breeze brought them an odour of tar.
The principal diversion consisted in watching the return of the fishing-smacks. As soon as they passed the beacons, they began to ply to windward. The sails were lowered to one third of the masts, and with their fore-sails swelled up like balloons they glided over the waves and anchored in the middle of the harbour. Then they crept up alongside of the dock and the sailors threw the quivering fish over the side of the boat; a line of carts was waiting for them, and women with white caps sprang forward to receive the baskets and embrace their men-folk.
One day, one of them spoke to Felicite, who, after a little while, returned to the house gleefully. She had found one of her sisters, and presently Nastasie Barette, wife of Leroux, made her appearance, holding an infant in her arms, another child by the hand, while on her left was a little cabin-boy with his hands in his pockets and his cap on his ear.
At the end of fifteen minutes, Madame Aubain bade her go.
They always hung around the kitchen, or approached Felicite when she and the children were out walking. The husband, however, did not show himself.
Felicite developed a great fondness for them; she bought them a stove, some shirts and a blanket; it was evident that they exploited her. Her foolishness annoyed Madame Aubain, who, moreover did not like the nephew’s familiarity, for he called her son “thou”; – and, as Virginia began to cough and the season was over, she decided to return to Pont-l’Eveque.
Monsieur Bourais assisted her in the choice of a college. The one at Caen was considered the best. So Paul was sent away and bravely said good-bye to them all, for he was glad to go to live in a house where he would have boy companions.
Madame Aubain resigned herself to the separation from her son because it was unavoidable. Virginia brooded less and less over it. Felicite regretted the noise he made, but soon a new occupation diverted her mind; beginning from Christmas, she accompanied the little girl to her catechism lesson every day.
After she had made a curtsey at the threshold, she would walk up the aisle between the double lines of chairs, open Madame Aubain’s pew, sit down and look around.
Girls and boys, the former on the right, the latter on the left-hand side of the church, filled the stalls of the choir; the priest stood beside the reading-desk; on one stained window of the side-aisle the Holy Ghost hovered over the Virgin; on another one, Mary knelt before the Child Jesus, and behind the altar, a wooden group represented Saint Michael felling the dragon.
The priest first read a condensed lesson of sacred history. Felicite evoked Paradise, the Flood, the Tower of Babel, the blazing cities, the dying nations, the shattered idols; and out of this she developed a great respect for the Almighty and a great fear of His wrath. Then, when she had listened to the Passion, she wept. Why had they crucified Him who loved little children, nourished the people, made the blind see, and who, out of humility, had wished to be born among the poor, in a stable? The sowings, the harvests, the wine-presses, all those familiar things which the Scriptures mention, formed a part of her life; the word of God sanctified them; and she loved the lambs with increased tenderness for the sake of the Lamb, and the doves because of the Holy Ghost.
She found it hard, however, to think of the latter as a person, for was it not a bird, a flame, and sometimes only a breath? Perhaps it is its light that at night hovers over swamps, its breath that propels the clouds, its voice that renders church-bells harmonious. And Felicite worshipped devoutly, while enjoying the coolness and the stillness of the church.
As for the dogma, she could not understand it and did not even try. The priest discoursed, the children recited, and she went to sleep, only to awaken with a start when they were leaving the church and their wooden shoes clattered on the stone pavement.
In this way, she learned her catechism, her religious education having been neglected in her youth; and thenceforth she imitated all Virginia’s religious practices, fasted when she did, and went to confession with her. At the Corpus-Christi Day they both decorated an altar.
She worried in advance over Virginia’s first communion. She fussed about the shoes, the rosary, the book and the gloves. With what nervousness she helped the mother dress the child!
During the entire ceremony, she felt anguished. Monsieur Bourais hid part of the choir from view, but directly in front of her, the flock of maidens, wearing white wreaths over their lowered veils, formed a snow-white field, and she recognised her darling by the slenderness of her neck and her devout attitude. The bell tinkled. All the heads bent and there was a silence. Then, at the peals of the organ the singers and the worshippers struck up the Agnes Dei; the boys’ procession began; behind them came the girls. With clasped hands, they advanced step by step to the lighted altar, knelt at the first step, received one by one the Host, and returned to their seats in the same order. When Virginia’s turn came, Felicite leaned forward to watch her, and through that imagination which springs from true affection, she at once became the child, whose face and dress became hers, whose heart beat in her bosom, and when Virginia opened her mouth and closed her lids, she did likewise and came very near fainting.
The following day, she presented herself early at the church so as to receive communion from the cure. She took it with the proper feeling, but did not experience the same delight as on the previous day.
Madame Aubain wished to make an accomplished girl of her daughter; and as Guyot could not teach English or music, she decided to send her to the Ursulines at Honfleur.
The child made no objection, but Felicite sighed and thought Madame was heartless. Then, she thought that perhaps her mistress was right, as these things were beyond her sphere. Finally, one day, an old fiacre stopped in front of the door and a nun stepped out. Felicite put Virginia’s luggage on top of the carriage, gave the coachman some instructions, and smuggled six jars of jam, a dozen pears and a bunch of violets under the seat.
At the last minute, Virginia had a fit of sobbing; she embraced her mother again and again, while the latter kissed her on the forehead, and said: “Now, be brave, be brave!” The step was pulled up and the fiacre rumbled off.
Then Madame Aubain had a fainting spell, and that evening all her friends, including the two Lormeaus, Madame Lechaptois, the ladies Rochefeuille, Messieurs de Houppeville and Bourais, called on her and tendered their sympathy.
At first the separation proved very painful to her. But her daughter wrote her three times a week and the other days she, herself, wrote to Virginia. Then she walked in the garden, read a little, and in this way managed to fill out the emptiness of the hours.
Each morning, out of habit, Felicite entered Virginia’s room and gazed at the walls. She missed combing her hair, lacing her shoes, tucking her in her bed, and the bright face and little hand when they used to go out for a walk. In order to occupy herself she tried to make lace. But her clumsy fingers broke the threads; she had no heart for anything, lost her sleep and “wasted away,” as she put it.
In order to have some distraction, she asked leave to receive the visits of her nephew Victor.
He would come on Sunday, after church, with ruddy cheeks and bared chest, bringing with him the scent of the country. She would set the table and they would sit down opposite each other, and eat their dinner; she ate as little as possible, herself, to avoid any extra expense, but would stuff him so with food that he would finally go to sleep. At the first stroke of vespers, she would wake him up, brush his trousers, tie his cravat and walk to church with him, leaning on his arm with maternal pride.
His parents always told him to get something out of her, either a package of brown sugar, or soap, or brandy, and sometimes even money. He brought her his clothes to mend, and she accepted the task gladly, because it meant another visit from him.
In August, his father took him on a coasting-vessel.
It was vacation time and the arrival of the children consoled Felicite. But Paul was capricious, and Virginia was growing too old to be thee-and-thou’d, a fact which seemed to produce a sort of embarrassment in their relations.
Victor went successively to Morlaix, to Dunkirk, and to Brighton; whenever he returned from a trip he would bring her a present. The first time it was a box of shells; the second, a coffee-cup; the third, a big doll of ginger-bread. He was growing handsome, had a good figure, a tiny moustache, kind eyes, and a little leather cap that sat jauntily on the back of his head. He amused his aunt by telling her stories mingled with nautical expressions.
One Monday, the 14th of July, 1819 (she never forgot the date), Victor announced that he had been engaged on a merchant-vessel and that in two days he would take the steamer at Honfleur and join his sailer, which was going to start from Havre very soon. Perhaps he might be away two years.
The prospect of his departure filled Felicite with despair, and in order to bid him farewell, on Wednesday night, after Madame’s dinner, she put on her pattens and trudged the four miles that separated Pont-l’Eveque from Honfleur.
When she reached the Calvary, instead of turning to the right, she turned to the left and lost herself in coal-yards; she had to retrace her steps; some people she spoke to advised her to hasten. She walked helplessly around the harbour filled with vessels, and knocked against hawsers. Presently the ground sloped abruptly, lights flitted to and fro, and she thought all at once that she had gone mad when she saw some horses in the sky.
Others, on the edge of the dock, neighed at the sight of the ocean. A derrick pulled them up in the air, and dumped them into a boat, where passengers were bustling about among barrels of cider, baskets of cheese and bags of meal; chickens cackled, the captain swore and a cabin-boy rested on the railing, apparently indifferent to his surroundings. Felicite, who did not recognise him, kept shouting: “Victor!” He suddenly raised his eyes, but while she was preparing to rush up to him, they withdrew the gangplank.
The packet, towed by singing women, glided out of the harbour. Her hull squeaked and the heavy waves beat up against her sides. The sail had turned and nobody was visible; – and on the ocean, silvered by the light of the moon, the vessel formed a black spot that grew dimmer and dimmer, and finally disappeared.
When Felicite passed the Calvary again, she felt as if she must entrust that which was dearest to her to the Lord; and for a long while she prayed, with uplifted eyes and a face wet with tears. The city was sleeping; some customs officials were taking the air; and the water kept pouring through the holes of the dam with a deafening roar. The town clock struck two.
The parlour of the convent would not open until morning, and surely a delay would annoy Madame, so, in spite of her desire to see the other child, she went home. The maids of the inn were just arising when she reached Pont-l’Eveque.
So the poor boy would be on the ocean for months! His previous trips had not alarmed her. One can come back from England and Brittany; but America, the colonies, the islands, were all lost in an uncertain region at the very end of the world.
From that time on, Felicite thought solely of her nephew. On warm days she feared he would suffer from thirst, and when it stormed, she was afraid he would be struck by lightning. When she harkened to the wind that rattled in the chimney and dislodged the tiles on the roof, she imagined that he was being buffeted by the same storm, perched on top of a shattered mast, with his whole body bend backward and covered with sea-foam; or, – these were recollections of the engraved geography – he was being devoured by savages, or captured in a forest by apes, or dying on some lonely coast. She never mentioned her anxieties, however.
Madame Aubain worried about her daughter.
The sisters thought that Virginia was affectionate but delicate. The slightest emotion enervated her. She had to give up her piano lessons. Her mother insisted upon regular letters from the convent. One morning, when the postman failed to come, she grew impatient and began to pace to and fro, from her chair to the window. It was really extraordinary! No news since four days!
In order to console her mistress by her own example, Felicite said:
“Why, Madame, I haven’t had any news since six months! –”
“From whom? –”
The servant replied gently:
“Why – from my nephew.”
“Oh, yes, your nephew!” And shrugging her shoulders, Madame Aubain continued to pace the floor as if to say: “I did not think of it. – Besides, I do not care, a cabin-boy, a pauper! – but my daughter – what a difference! just think of it! –”
Felicite, although she had been reared roughly, was very indignant. Then she forgot about it.
It appeared quite natural to her that one should lose one’s head about Virginia.
The two children were of equal importance; they were united in her heart and their fate was to be the same.
The chemist informed her that Victor’s vessel had reached Havana. He had read the information in a newspaper.
Felicite imagined that Havana was a place where people did nothing but smoke, and that Victor walked around among negroes in a cloud of tobacco. Could a person, in case of need, return by land? How far was it from Pont-l’Eveque? In order to learn these things, she questioned Monsieur Bourais. He reached for his map and began some explanations concerning longitudes, and smiled with superiority at Felicite’s bewilderment. At last, he took a pencil and pointed out an imperceptible black point in the scallops of an oval blotch, adding: “There it is.” She bent over the map; the maze of coloured lines hurt her eyes without enlightening her; and when Bourais asked her what puzzled her, she requested him to show her the house Victor lived in. Bourais threw up his hands, sneezed, and then laughed uproariously; such ignorance delighted his soul; but Felicite failed to understand the cause of his mirth, she whose intelligence was so limited that she perhaps expected to see even the picture of her nephew!
It was two weeks later that Liebard came into the kitchen at market-time, and handed her a letter from her brother-in-law. As neither of them could read, she called upon her mistress.
Madame Aubain, who was counting the stitches of her knitting, laid her work down beside her, opened the letter, started, and in a low tone and with a searching look said: “They tell you of a – misfortune. Your nephew –”
He had died. The letter told nothing more.
Felicite dropped on a chair, leaned her head against the back, and closed her lids; presently they grew pink. Then, with drooping head, inert hands and staring eyes she repeated at intervals:
“Poor little chap! poor little chap!”
Liebard watched her and sighed. Madame Aubain was trembling.
She proposed to the girl to go to see her sister in Trouville.
With a single motion, Felicite replied that it was not necessary.
There was a silence. Old Liebard thought it about time for him to take leave.
Then Felicite uttered:
“They have no sympathy, they do not care!”
Her head fell forward again, and from time to time, mechanically, she toyed with the long knitting-needles on the work-table.
Some women passed through the yard with a basket of wet clothes.
When she saw them through the window, she suddenly remembered her own wash; as she had soaked it the day before, she must go and rinse it now. So she arose and left the room.
Her tub and her board were on the bank of the Toucques. She threw a heap of clothes on the ground, rolled up her sleeves and grasped her bat; and her loud pounding could be heard in the neighbouring gardens. The meadows were empty, the breeze wrinkled the stream, at the bottom of which were long grasses that looked like the hair of corpses floating in the water. She restrained her sorrow and was very brave until night; but, when she had gone to her own room, she gave way to it, burying her face in the pillow and pressing her two fists against her temples.
A long while afterward, she learned through Victor’s captain, the circumstances which surrounded his death. At the hospital they had bled him too much, treating him for yellow fever. Four doctors held him at one time. He died almost instantly, and the chief surgeon had said:
“Here goes another one!”
His parents had always treated him barbarously; she preferred not to see them again, and they made no advances, either from forgetfulness or out of innate hardness.
Virginia was growing weaker.
A cough, continual fever, oppressive breathing and spots on her cheeks indicated some serious trouble. Monsieur Popart had advised a sojourn in Provence. Madame Aubain decided that they would go, and she would have had her daughter come home at once, had it not been for the climate of Pont-l’Eveque.
She made an arrangement with a livery-stable man who drove her over to the convent every Tuesday. In the garden there was a terrace, from which the view extends to the Seine. Virginia walked in it, leaning on her mother’s arm and treading the dead vine leaves. Sometimes the sun, shining through the clouds, made her blink her lids, when she gazed at the sails in the distance, and let her eyes roam over the horizon from the chateau of Tancarville to the lighthouses of Havre. Then they rested on the arbour. Her mother had bought a little cask of fine Malaga wine, and Virginia, laughing at the idea of becoming intoxicated, would drink a few drops of it, but never more.
Her strength returned. Autumn passed. Felicite began to reassure Madame Aubain. But, one evening, when she returned home after an errand, she met M. Boupart’s coach in front of the door; M. Boupart himself was standing in the vestibule and Madame Aubain was tying the strings of her bonnet. “Give me my foot-warmer, my purse and my gloves; and be quick about it,” she said.
Virginia had congestion of the lungs; perhaps it was desperate.
“Not yet,” said the physician, and both got into the carriage, while the snow fell in thick flakes. It was almost night and very cold.
Felicite rushed to the church to light a candle. Then she ran after the coach which she overtook after an hour’s chase, sprang up behind and held on to the straps. But suddenly a thought crossed her mind: “The yard had been left open; supposing that burglars got in!” And down she jumped.
The next morning, at daybreak, she called at the doctor’s. He had been home, but had left again. Then she waited at the inn, thinking that strangers might bring her a letter. At last, at daylight she took the diligence for Lisieux.
The convent was at the end of a steep and narrow street. When she arrived about at the middle of it, she heard strange noises, a funeral knell. “It must be for some one else,” thought she; and she pulled the knocker violently.
After several minutes had elapsed, she heard footsteps, the door was half opened and a nun appeared. The good sister, with an air of compunction, told her that “she had just passed away.” And at the same time the tolling of Saint-Leonard’s increased.
Felicite reached the second floor. Already at the threshold, she caught sight of Virginia lying on her back, with clasped hands, her mouth open and her head thrown back, beneath a black crucifix inclined toward her, and stiff curtains which were less white than her face. Madame Aubain lay at the foot of the couch, clasping it with her arms and uttering groans of agony. The Mother Superior was standing on the right side of the bed. The three candles on the bureau made red blurs, and the windows were dimmed by the fog outside. The nuns carried Madame Aubain from the room.
For two nights, Felicite never left the corpse. She would repeat the same prayers, sprinkle holy water over the sheets, get up, come back to the bed and contemplate the body. At the end of the first vigil, she noticed that the face had taken on a yellow tinge, the lips grew blue, the nose grew pinched, the eyes were sunken. She kissed them several times and would not have been greatly astonished had Virginia opened them; to souls like this the supernatural is always quite simple. She washed her, wrapped her in a shroud, put her into the casket, laid a wreath of flowers on her head and arranged her curls. They were blond and of an extraordinary length for her age. Felicite cut off a big lock and put half of it into her bosom, resolving never to part with it.
The body was taken to Pont-l’Eveque, according to Madame Aubain’s wishes; she followed the hearse in a closed carriage.
After the ceremony it took three quarters of an hour to reach the cemetery. Paul, sobbing, headed the procession; Monsieur Bourais followed, and then came the principal inhabitants of the town, the women covered with black capes, and Felicite. The memory of her nephew, and the thought that she had not been able to render him these honours, made her doubly unhappy, and she felt as if he were being buried with Virginia.
Madame Aubain’s grief was uncontrollable. At first she rebelled against God, thinking that he was unjust to have taken away her child – she who had never done anything wrong, and whose conscience was so pure! But no! she ought to have taken her South. Other doctors would have saved her. She accused herself, prayed to be able to join her child, and cried in the midst of her dreams. Of the latter, one more especially haunted her. Her husband, dressed like a sailor, had come back from a long voyage, and with tears in his eyes told her that he had received the order to take Virginia away. Then they both consulted about a hiding-place.
Once she came in from the garden, all upset. A moment before (and she showed the place), the father and daughter had appeared to her, one after the other; they did nothing but look at her.
During several months she remained inert in her room. Felicite scolded her gently; she must keep up for her son and also for the other one, for “her memory.”
“Her memory!” replied Madame Aubain, as if she were just awakening, “Oh! yes, yes, you do not forget her!” This was an allusion to the cemetery where she had been expressly forbidden to go.
But Felicite went there every day. At four o’clock exactly, she would go through the town, climb the hill, open the gate and arrive at Virginia’s tomb. It was a small column of pink marble with a flat stone at its base, and it was surrounded by a little plot enclosed by chains. The flower-beds were bright with blossoms. Felicite watered their leaves, renewed the gravel, and knelt on the ground in order to till the earth properly. When Madame Aubain was able to visit the cemetery she felt very much relieved and consoled.
Years passed, all alike and marked by no other events than the return of the great church holidays: Easter, Assumption, All Saints’ Day. Household happenings constituted the only data to which in later years they often referred. Thus, in 1825, workmen painted the vestibule; in 1827, a portion of the roof almost killed a man by falling into the yard. In the summer of 1828, it was Madame’s turn to offer the hallowed bread; at that time, Bourais disappeared mysteriously; and the old acquaintances, Guyot, Liebard, Madame Lechaptois, Robelin, old Gremanville, paralysed since a long time, passed away one by one. One night, the driver of the mail in Pont-l’Eveque announced the Revolution of July. A few days afterward a new sub-prefect was nominated, the Baron de Larsonniere, ex-consul in America, who, besides his wife, had his sister-in-law and her three grown daughters with him. They were often seen on their lawn, dressed in loose blouses, and they had a parrot and a negro servant. Madame Aubain received a call, which she returned promptly. As soon as she caught sight of them, Felicite would run and notify her mistress. But only one thing was capable of arousing her: a letter from her son.
He could not follow any profession as he was absorbed in drinking. His mother paid his debts and he made fresh ones; and the sighs that she heaved while she knitted at the window reached the ears of Felicite who was spinning in the kitchen.
They walked in the garden together, always speaking of Virginia, and asking each other if such and such a thing would have pleased her, and what she would probably have said on this or that occasion.
All her little belongings were put away in a closet of the room which held the two little beds. But Madame Aubain looked them over as little as possible. One summer day, however, she resigned herself to the task and when she opened the closet the moths flew out.
Virginia’s frocks were hung under a shelf where there were three dolls, some hoops, a doll-house, and a basic which she had used. Felicite and Madame Aubain also took out the skirts, the handkerchiefs, and the stockings and spread them on the beds, before putting them away again. The sun fell on the piteous things, disclosing their spots and the creases formed by the motions of the body. The atmosphere was warm and blue, and a blackbird trilled in the garden; everything seemed to live in happiness. They found a little hat of soft brown plush, but it was entirely moth-eaten. Felicite asked for it. Their eyes met and filled with tears; at last the mistress opened her arms and the servant threw herself against her breast and they hugged each other and giving vent to their grief in a kiss which equalised them for a moment.
It was the first time that this had ever happened, for Madame Aubain was not of an expansive nature. Felicite was as grateful for it as if it had been some favour, and thenceforth loved her with animal-like devotion and a religious veneration.
Her kind-heartedness developed. When she heard the drums of a marching regiment passing through the street, she would stand in the doorway with a jug of cider and give the soldiers a drink. She nursed cholera victims. She protected Polish refugees, and one of them even declared that he wished to marry her. But they quarrelled, for one morning when she returned from the Angelus she found him in the kitchen coolly eating a dish which he had prepared for himself during her absence.
After the Polish refugees, came Colmiche, an old man who was credited with having committed frightful misdeeds in ‘93. He lived near the river in the ruins of a pig-sty. The urchins peeped at him through the cracks in the walls and threw stones that fell on his miserable bed, where he lay gasping with catarrh, with long hair, inflamed eyelids, and a tumour as big as his head on one arm.
She got him some linen, tried to clean his hovel and dreamed of installing him in the bake-house without his being in Madame’s way. When the cancer broke, she dressed it every day; sometimes she brought him some cake and placed him in the sun on a bundle of hay; and the poor old creature, trembling and drooling, would thank her in his broken voice, and put out his hands whenever she left him. Finally he died; and she had a mass said for the repose of his soul.
That day a great joy came to her: at dinner-time, Madame de Larsonniere’s servant called with the parrot, the cage, and the perch and chain and lock. A note from the baroness told Madame Aubain that as her husband had been promoted to a prefecture, they were leaving that night, and she begged her to accept the bird as a remembrance and a token of her esteem.
Since a long time the parrot had been on Felicite’s mind, because he came from America, which reminded her of Victor, and she had approached the negro on the subject.
Once even, she had said:
“How glad Madame would be to have him!”
The man had repeated this remark to his mistress who, not being able to keep the bird, took this means of getting rid of it.
He was called Loulou. His body was green, his head blue, the tips of his wings were pink and his breast was golden.
But he had the tiresome tricks of biting his perch, pulling his feathers out, scattering refuse and spilling the water of his bath. Madame Aubain grew tired of him and gave him to Felicite for good.
She undertook his education, and soon he was able to repeat: “Pretty boy! Your servant, sir! I salute you, Marie!” His perch was placed near the door and several persons were astonished that he did not answer to the name of “Jacquot,” for every parrot is called Jacquot. They called him a goose and a log, and these taunts were like so many dagger thrusts to Felicite. Strange stubbornness of the bird which would not talk when people watched him!
Nevertheless, he sought society; for on Sunday, when the ladies Rochefeuille, Monsieur de Houppeville and the new habitues, Onfroy, the chemist, Monsieur Varin and Captain Mathieu, dropped in for their game of cards, he struck the window-panes with his wings and made such a racket that it was impossible to talk.
Bourais’ face must have appeared very funny to Loulou. As soon as he saw him he would begin to roar. His voice re-echoed in the yard, and the neighbours would come to the windows and begin to laugh, too; and in order that the parrot might not see him, Monsieur Bourais edged along the wall, pushed his hat over his eyes to hide his profile, and entered by the garden door, and the looks he gave the bird lacked affection. Loulou, having thrust his head into the butcher-boy’s basket, received a slap, and from that time he always tried to nip his enemy. Fabu threatened to ring his neck, although he was not cruelly inclined, notwithstanding his big whiskers and tattooings. On the contrary, he rather liked the bird, and, out of devilry, tried to teach him oaths. Felicite, whom his manner alarmed, put Loulou in the kitchen, took off his chain and let him walk all over the house.
When he went downstairs, he rested his beak on the steps, lifted his right foot and then his left one; but his mistress feared that such feats would give him vertigo. He became ill and was unable to eat. There was a small growth under his tongue like those chickens are sometimes afflicted with. Felicite pulled it off with her nails and cured him. One day, Paul was imprudent enough to blow the smoke of his cigar in his face; another time, Madame Lormeau was teasing him with the tip of her umbrella and he swallowed the tip. Finally he got lost.
She had put him on the grass to cool him and went away only for a second; when she returned, she found no parrot! She hunted among the bushes, on the bank of the river, and on the roofs, without paying any attention to Madame Aubain who screamed at her: “Take care! you must be insane!” Then she searched every garden in Pont-l’Eveque and stopped the passers-by to inquire of them: “Haven’t you perhaps seen my parrot?” To those who had never seen the parrot, she described him minutely. Suddenly she thought she saw something green fluttering behind the mills at the foot of the hill. But when she was at the top of the hill she could not see it. A hod-carrier told her that he had just seen the bird in Saint-Melaine, in Mother Simon’s store. She rushed to the place. The people did not know what she was talking about. At last she came home, exhausted, with her slippers worn to shreds, and despair in her heart. She sat down on the bench near Madame and was telling of her search when presently a light weight dropped on her shoulder – Loulou! What the deuce had he been doing? Perhaps he had just taken a little walk around the town!
She did not easily forget her scare; in fact, she never got over it. In consequence of a cold, she caught a sore throat; and some time later she had an earache. Three years later she was stone deaf, and spoke in a very loud voice even in church. Although her sins might have been proclaimed throughout the diocese without any shame to herself, or ill effects to the community, the cure thought it advisable to receive her confession in the vestry-room.
Imaginary buzzings also added to her bewilderment. Her mistress often said to her: “My goodness, how stupid you are!” and she would answer: “Yes, Madame,” and look for something.
The narrow circle of her ideas grew more restricted than it already was; the bellowing of the oxen, the chime of the bells no longer reached her intelligence. All things moved silently, like ghosts. Only one noise penetrated her ears; the parrot’s voice.
As if to divert her mind, he reproduced for her the tick-tack of the spit in the kitchen, the shrill cry of the fish-vendors, the saw of the carpenter who had a shop opposite, and when the door-bell rang, he would imitate Madame Aubain: “Felicite! go to the front door.”
They held conversations together, Loulou repeating the three phrases of his repertory over and over, Felicite replying by words that had no greater meaning, but in which she poured out her feelings. In her isolation, the parrot was almost a son, a love. He climbed upon her fingers, pecked at her lips, clung to her shawl, and when she rocked her head to and fro like a nurse, the big wings of her cap and the wings of the bird flapped in unison. When clouds gathered on the horizon and the thunder rumbled, Loulou would scream, perhaps because he remembered the storms in his native forests. The dripping of the rain would excite him to frenzy; he flapped around, struck the ceiling with his wings, upset everything, and would finally fly into the garden to play. Then he would come back into the room, light on one of the andirons, and hop around in order to get dry.
One morning during the terrible winter of 1837, when she had put him in front of the fire-place on account of the cold, she found him dead in his cage, hanging to the wire bars with his head down. He had probably died of congestion. But she believed that he had been poisoned, and although she had no proofs whatever, her suspicion rested on Fabu.
She wept so sorely that her mistress said: “Why don’t you have him stuffed?”
She asked the advice of the chemist, who had always been kind to the bird.
He wrote to Havre for her. A certain man named Fellacher consented to do the work. But, as the diligence driver often lost parcels entrusted to him, Felicite resolved to take her pet to Honfleur herself.
Leafless apple-trees lined the edges of the road. The ditches were covered with ice. The dogs on the neighbouring farms barked; and Felicite, with her hands beneath her cape, her little black sabots and her basket, trotted along nimbly in the middle of the sidewalk. She crossed the forest, passed by the Haut-Chene, and reached Saint-Gatien.
Behind her, in a cloud of dust and impelled by the steep incline, a mail-coach drawn by galloping horses advanced like a whirlwind. When he saw a woman in the middle of the road, who did not get out of the way, the driver stood up in his seat and shouted to her and so did the postilion, while the four horses, which he could not hold back, accelerated their pace; the two leaders were almost upon her; with a jerk of the reins he threw them to one side, but, furious at the incident, he lifted his big whip and lashed her from her head to her feet with such violence that she fell to the ground unconscious.
Her first thought, when she recovered her senses, was to open the basket. Loulou was unharmed. She felt a sting on her right cheek; when she took her hand away it was red, for the blood was flowing.
She sat down on a pile of stones, and sopped her cheek with her handkerchief; then she ate a crust of bread she had put in her basket, and consoled herself by looking at the bird.
Arriving at the top of Ecquemanville, she saw the lights of Honfleur shining in the distance like so many stars; further on, the ocean spread out in a confused mass. Then a weakness came over her; the misery of her childhood, the disappointment of her first love, the departure of her nephew, the death of Virginia; all these things came back to her at once, and, rising like a swelling tide in her throat, almost choked her.
Then she wished to speak to the captain of the vessel, and without stating what she was sending, she gave him some instructions.
Fellacher kept the parrot a long time. He always promised that it would be ready for the following week; after six months he announced the shipment of a case, and that was the end of it. Really, it seemed as if Loulou would never come back to his home. “They have stolen him,” thought Felicite.
Finally he arrived, sitting bold upright on a branch which could be screwed into a mahogany pedestal, with his foot in the air, his head on one side, and in his beak a nut which the naturalist, from love of the sumptuous, had gilded. She put him in her room.
This place, to which only a chosen few were admitted, looked like a chapel and a second-hand shop, so filled was it with devotional and heterogeneous things. The door could not be opened easily on account of the presence of a large wardrobe. Opposite the window that looked out into the garden, a bull’s-eye opened on the yard; a table was placed by the cot and held a wash-basin, two combs, and a piece of blue soap in a broken saucer. On the walls were rosaries, medals, a number of Holy Virgins, and a holy-water basin made out of a cocoanut; on the bureau, which was covered with a napkin like an altar, stood the box of shells that Victor had given her; also a watering-can and a balloon, writing-books, the engraved geography and a pair of shoes; on the nail which held the mirror, hung Virginia’s little plush hat! Felicite carried this sort of respect so far that she even kept one of Monsieur’s old coats. All the things which Madame Aubain discarded, Felicite begged for her own room. Thus, she had artificial flowers on the edge of the bureau, and the picture of the Comte d’Artois in the recess of the window. By means of a board, Loulou was set on a portion of the chimney which advanced into the room. Every morning when she awoke, she saw him in the dim light of dawn and recalled bygone days and the smallest details of insignificant actions, without any sense of bitterness or grief.
As she was unable to communicate with people, she lived in a sort of somnambulistic torpor. The processions of Corpus-Christi Day seemed to wake her up. She visited the neighbours to beg for candlesticks and mats so as to adorn the temporary altars in the street.
In church, she always gazed at the Holy Ghost, and noticed that there was something about it that resembled a parrot. The likenesses appeared even more striking on a coloured picture by Espinal, representing the baptism of our Saviour. With his scarlet wings and emerald body, it was really the image of Loulou. Having bought the picture, she hung it near the one of the Comte d’Artois so that she could take them in at one glance.
They associated in her mind, the parrot becoming sanctified through the neighbourhood of the Holy Ghost, and the latter becoming more lifelike in her eyes, and more comprehensible. In all probability the Father had never chosen as messenger a dove, as the latter has no voice, but rather one of Loulou’s ancestors. And Felicite said her prayers in front of the coloured picture, though from time to time she turned slightly towards the bird.
She desired very much to enter in the ranks of the “Daughters of the Virgin.” But Madame Aubain dissuaded her from it.
A most important event occurred: Paul’s marriage.
After being first a notary’s clerk, then in business, then in the customs, and a tax collector, and having even applied for a position in the administration of woods and forests, he had at last, when he was thirty-six years old, by a divine inspiration, found his vocation: registrature! and he displayed such a high ability that an inspector had offered him his daughter and his influence.
Paul, who had become quite settled, brought his bride to visit his mother.
But she looked down upon the customs of Pont-l’Eveque, put on airs, and hurt Felicite’s feelings. Madame Aubain felt relieved when she left.
The following week they learned of Monsieur Bourais’ death in an inn. There were rumours of suicide, which were confirmed; doubts concerning his integrity arose. Madame Aubain looked over her accounts and soon discovered his numerous embezzlements; sales of wood which had been concealed from her, false receipts, etc. Furthermore, he had an illegitimate child, and entertained a friendship for “a person in Dozule.”
These base actions affected her very much. In March, 1853, she developed a pain in her chest; her tongue looked as if it were coated with smoke, and the leeches they applied did not relieve her oppression; and on the ninth evening she died, being just seventy-two years old.
People thought that she was younger, because her hair, which she wore in bands framing her pale face, was brown. Few friends regretted her loss, for her manner was so haughty that she did not attract them. Felicite mourned for her as servants seldom mourn for their masters. The fact that Madame should die before herself perplexed her mind and seemed contrary to the order of things, and absolutely monstrous and inadmissible. Ten days later (the time to journey from Besancon), the heirs arrived. Her daughter-in-law ransacked the drawers, kept some of the furniture, and sold the rest; then they went back to their own home.
Madame’s armchair, foot-warmer, work-table, the eight chairs, everything was gone! The places occupied by the pictures formed yellow squares on the walls. They had taken the two little beds, and the wardrobe had been emptied of Virginia’s belongings! Felicite went upstairs, overcome with grief.
The following day a sign was posted on the door; the chemist screamed in her ear that the house was for sale.
For a moment she tottered, and had to sit down.
What hurt her most was to give up her room, – so nice for poor Loulou! She looked at him in despair and implored the Holy Ghost, and it was this way that she contracted the idolatrous habit of saying her prayers kneeling in front of the bird. Sometimes the sun fell through the window on his glass eye, and lighted a spark in it which sent Felicite into ecstasy.
Her mistress had left her an income of three hundred and eighty francs. The garden supplied her with vegetables. As for clothes, she had enough to last her till the end of her days, and she economised on the light by going to bed at dusk.
She rarely went out, in order to avoid passing in front of the second-hand dealer’s shop where there was some of the old furniture. Since her fainting spell, she dragged her leg, and as her strength was failing rapidly, old Mother Simon, who had lost her money in the grocery business, came very morning to chop the wood and pump the water.
Her eyesight grew dim. She did not open the shutters after that. Many years passed. But the house did not sell or rent. Fearing that she would be put out, Felicite did not ask for repairs. The laths of the roof were rotting away, and during one whole winter her bolster was wet. After Easter she spit blood.
Then Mother Simon went for a doctor. Felicite wished to know what her complaint was. But, being too deaf to hear, she caught only one word: “Pneumonia.” She was familiar with it and gently answered: –”Ah! like Madame,” thinking it quite natural that she should follow her mistress.
The time for the altars in the street drew near.
The first one was always erected at the foot of the hill, the second in front of the post-office, and the third in the middle of the street. This position occasioned some rivalry among the women and they finally decided upon Madame Aubain’s yard.
Felicite’s fever grew worse. She was sorry that she could not do anything for the altar. If she could, at least, have contributed something towards it! Then she thought of the parrot. Her neighbours objected that it would not be proper. But the cure gave his consent and she was so grateful for it that she begged him to accept after her death, her only treasure, Loulou. From Tuesday until Saturday, the day before the event, she coughed more frequently. In the evening her face was contracted, her lips stuck to her gums and she began to vomit; and on the following day, she felt so low that she called for a priest.
Three neighbours surrounded her when the dominie administered the Extreme Unction. Afterwards she said that she wished to speak to Fabu.
He arrived in his Sunday clothes, very ill at ease among the funereal surroundings.
“Forgive me,” she said, making an effort to extend her arm, “I believed it was you who killed him!”
What did such accusations mean? Suspect a man like him of murder! And Fabu became excited and was about to make trouble.
“Don’t you see she is not in her right mind?”
From time to time Felicite spoke to shadows. The women left her and Mother Simon sat down to breakfast.
A little later, she took Loulou and holding him up to Felicite:
“Say good-bye to him, now!” she commanded.
Although he was not a corpse, he was eaten up by worms; one of his wings was broken and the wadding was coming out of his body. But Felicite was blind now, and she took him and laid him against her cheek. Then Mother Simon removed him in order to set him on the altar.
The grass exhaled an odour of summer; flies buzzed in the air, the sun shone on the river and warmed the slated roof. Old Mother Simon had returned to Felicite and was peacefully falling asleep.
The ringing of bells woke her; the people were coming out of church. Felicite’s delirium subsided. By thinking of the procession, she was able to see it as if she had taken part in it. All the school-children, the singers and the firemen walked on the sidewalks, while in the middle of the street came first the custodian of the church with his halberd, then the beadle with a large cross, the teacher in charge of the boys and a sister escorting the little girls; three of the smallest ones, with curly heads, threw rose leaves into the air; the deacon with outstretched arms conducted the music; and two incense-bearers turned with each step they took toward the Holy Sacrament, which was carried by M. le Cure, attired in his handsome chasuble and walking under a canopy of red velvet supported by four men. A crowd of people followed, jammed between the walls of the houses hung with white sheets; at last the procession arrived at the foot of the hill.
A cold sweat broke out on Felicite’s forehead. Mother Simon wiped it away with a cloth, saying inwardly that some day she would have to go through the same thing herself.
The murmur of the crowd grew louder, was very distinct for a moment and then died away. A volley of musketry shook the window-panes. It was the postilions saluting the Sacrament. Felicite rolled her eyes, and said as loudly as she could:
“Is he all right?” meaning the parrot.
Her death agony began. A rattle that grew more and more rapid shook her body. Froth appeared at the corners of her mouth, and her whole frame trembled. In a little while could be heard the music of the bass horns, the clear voices of the children and the men’s deeper notes. At intervals all was still, and their shoes sounded like a herd of cattle passing over the grass.
The clergy appeared in the yard. Mother Simon climbed on a chair to reach the bull’s-eye, and in this manner could see the altar. It was covered with a lace cloth and draped with green wreaths. In the middle stood a little frame containing relics; at the corners were two little orange-trees, and all along the edge were silver candlesticks, porcelain vases containing sun-flowers, lilies, peonies, and tufts of hydrangeas. This mount of bright colours descended diagonally from the first floor to the carpet that covered the sidewalk. Rare objects arrested one’s eye. A golden sugar-bowl was crowned with violets, earrings set with Alencon stones were displayed on green moss, and two Chinese screens with their bright landscapes were near by. Loulou, hidden beneath roses, showed nothing but his blue head which looked like a piece of lapis-lazuli.
The singers, the canopy-bearers and the children lined up against the sides of the yard. Slowly the priest ascended the steps and placed his shining sun on the lace cloth. Everybody knelt. There was deep silence; and the censers slipping on their chains were swung high in the air. A blue vapour rose in Felicite’s room. She opened her nostrils and inhaled with a mystic sensuousness; then she closed her lids. Her lips smiled. The beats of her heart grew fainter and fainter, and vaguer, like a fountain giving out, like an echo dying away; – and when she exhaled her last breath, she thought she saw in the half-opened heavens a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.
Elli wouldn’t let me stop until we’d crossed the line into Utah. She was a nail in the passenger seat—rigid, sharp, her blue eyes darting back and forth between the speedometer and the double yellow lines. Dry rivers of makeup connected her eyes to her chin. Leon lay where I’d put him across the backseat. His chin was propped on a pile of Carlos Castaneda books. Strands of drool hung from the orange spines. His haunches trembled whenever we went over a bump. His glazed, suffering face was fixed on the back of Elli’s bare shoulder. We’d gotten most of the blood out of the slate-colored fur on his back but there were still flecks on his pale belly.
Route 89 flanked the scrub brush and dust of Nevada for thirty miles before turning north through Kanab. A half-empty bottle of Popov rattled in the cup holder. Elli lifted it by the neck. “We might need that,” I said. She paused, considering, and then sipped it anyway. Power lines, suspended from transformer towers, were strung across the sky as far as I could see. Probably they ran all the way down to Mexico, like bandits.
Kanab only had one gas station, a neat little Sinclair with a scrubbed forecourt and gleaming green pumps. I pulled in, parked. It hardly even smelled like gas, the air was so fresh. A pine forest came right up behind the store. “Home of the State Champion Lady Rams” read a banner on the window where the beer advertisements should’ve been. I put my foot on the concrete plinth beneath the pump, swiped my credit card, and lifted the nozzle from its holster.
Elli got out and stretched. Her long torso gave her a snaky, undulating look as she leaned right and left, her arms over her head, her bare feet on the pavement. She walked stiffly to the bathroom at the side of the store, rolling her neck. ‘Put some shoes on,’ I wanted to yell after her, but I knew she wouldn’t. She was free-spirited about germs, money, underwear, and directions. Everything else she worried about.
A clump of fur clung to the hem of her orange dress. One of the shoulder straps had fallen. It hovered above her elbow. Clothes had a way of slipping off her frame, unable to disguise the girl beneath. My shoulders ached from driving all day, and from carrying Leon.
She came out with a wad of wet paper towels, her face radiant with worry. She opened the Sentra’s dust-sprayed back door and started dabbing the fur around Leon’s wound. We’d doused it in vodka and bandaged it up as best we could with athletic tape and a clean t-shirt from my gym bag. The bullet had gone in through his hip. I wondered if it was a bad place for a coyote to get shot—if they kept any organs back there.
“He’ll be fixed up by this time tomorrow,” I said. “He’ll make it.”
Elli didn’t answer. She just kept dabbing. Her thin arms were surprisingly muscular. She didn’t work out, but she was tense all the time. Even in sleep she ground her teeth. Leon didn’t complain about her touching him. He never did; never growled, not so much as a snort. Elli put her cracked lips against Leon’s nose. Their eyes met.
A gust of wind came in from the north and I shivered as I replaced the nozzle. We were climbing into winter latitudes. “Montana,” she’d said, when I’d emerged from the canyon with Leon a bleeding bundle in my arms. She knew a vet there, a friend of her father’s. She’d seen him bring a shot wolf back from worse, apparently, and he wouldn’t report us to animal control.
“Everything okay out there?” the cashier asked, when I went in to buy some water and chapstick. She was prettier than most women who work in gas stations. Tan, with feather earrings and a mother’s worried smile.
I nodded, realizing there was blood dried on my shirt. “Spilled some coffee.”
Mountains began to break through the desert. Red ones first: mesas, buttes, hoodoos. I told Elli about the time my father took us to Zion. We stayed in a Travelodge in Hurricane. It had HBO, and my brother and I just wanted to stay in the room and watch. My dad got so angry that he broke the TV screen with his fist and we went home two days early. Elli traced triangles on the window with her finger as the yellow-brown landscape blurred by. She wasn’t listening. Her lips, wet now with chapstick, were pressed together. Freckles shone through the makeup carelessly dusted on her nose. She was beautiful in a wrung-out, haggard sort of way that I couldn’t get over.
Leon peed. It hissed onto the floor, soaking the carpet and empty Styrofoam cups under my seat. The sweet toxic vinegar stink made my eyes water.
Elli turned and watched him struggling to get out of his mess. He knocked two of the books off the seat. His paw flailed the air. His hind leg was soaked, the wet fur matted to the bone. Yellow drops slid down the plastic seat cover onto the floor. “It’s okay,” she said. “It’s okay.”
I rolled the windows down and let the dry air blast my face. We merged onto I-15: four wide lanes running north all the way to Butte. I kept my eyes away from the rearview mirror. In a day or two, three at most, I’d be back home, freshly showered, lying on my couch with a cold beer, watching women’s tennis. Brown grass grew through gravel in the median. Semis rattled as we passed them, spitting diesel from their dark underbellies.
An hour went by before Elli spoke. “He needs food,” she said.
“It’ll just make him shit,” I answered.
She looked at me like I was a half-squashed insect.
“I’m kidding,” I said. “C’mon.”
I took the Nephi exit and drove up and down the quiet Mormon streets, past rows of white clapboard houses with blue trim and lawns mowed down to a military stubble. There was a hardware store, a confectioner’s. I didn’t know what we were looking for. Leon liked to eat cats, and he liked to eat them when they were still alive. I suggested using catnip as chum to lure one into the car.
“It isn’t funny,” Elli said.
We found a shaded parking spot behind The Country Kitchen, between a dumpster and a waxed red Mustang, probably the manager’s—some kind of hotshot. I changed shirts, gathered the piss-soaked cups in the old one, and threw the whole mess into the dumpster. Elli cracked the windows. She opened the back door and promised Leon we’d be back soon. I came and stood beside her. I’d need new floor mats, maybe new seat covers. Her head barely crested my shoulder. If she ever left, it was the fresh coral smell of her scalp that would haunt me. “Be good,” she said, like he was her own son. “Stay.”
He lifted his head off the books, blinking. His amber eyes were wider than usual, glowing in the short white hair around them. His mouth was clamped shut. He was embarrassed, hurting. When he was happy, his mouth lolled open toothily.
Damn coyote. I reached out to touch his face. He whipped his jaws at my fingers, snapping.
“Goddammit.” I jerked my hand away. He’d bit me once, when he was just a pup, and I still had two small scars beneath my thumb. He was five times that size now. His incisors were a half-inch long and I’d seen what they could do to a cat’s skull. My ears rang. I wanted to hit him. I turned and walked quickly toward the restaurant.
Elli murmured to him, gently shut the door, and followed me inside.
The waitress led us to a booth in the corner. Each of her thighs was as wide as Elli. Her blue apron was stretched tight across her groin like a linebacker’s jock. I hoped the Mustang was hers. The vinyl covering the booth squeaked when I sat down. There were paper placemats and a cup of crayons. Elli looked out the window at a gray steeple knifing into the sky. Her blond hair was cut one length all around, at her chin. Her face was drawn and gray at the edges, marked by exhaustion, physically beat, but also lit by it, as if she were becoming more alive.
She ordered a cherry malt and a steak.
“You need food too,” I said.
“I’ll eat the potatoes.”
The steeple didn’t have a crucifix but it was a church, sure enough. I’d heard somewhere that you had to be a Mormon to go into a Mormon church. I wondered if that was true, and if so, what was inside. I drew Richard Nixon in green on my placemat—all glowering jowls.
The waitress brought the malt on a silver tray. A cloud of whipped cream floated on top. Elli gave it all of her attention. The tendons in her neck stretched tight as she worked the straw. The skin on her right shoulder was sunburned a deep red from the car window.
“Slow down,” I said. “Your brain will freeze.”
When the glass was empty, Elli folded the straw into a triangle. She filled the triangle with salt—a white pyramid. Dry blood was crusted around her nails.
“He tried to bite me,” I said.
She broke a grain of salt with her thumbnail. “He’s hurt and scared.”
“Well they’d kill him here. All these hunters.” I nodded at the empty street.
Country music was playing softly and the waitress snapped her fingers just once as she pushed through the swinging steel doors into the kitchen. My burger came out separated into components on the plate: lettuce, tomato, onion, bun—all lined up next to the patty. Elli watched me put it together and then she watched me eat. The steak in front of her was shaped like Nevada and just as barren. I could tell she was counting the seconds in her head—tick, tick, tick. The waitress was leaning on the counter by the pies, watching me too. I hardly chewed.
When the check came, Elli didn’t ask for a box. She just wrapped the steak in a paper napkin and carried it out, dripping, in her bare hand. I left a tip and followed her, smiling apologetically.
The air outside was sharp with the coppery smell of exhaust. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. A drop of steak juice ran down her calf. It had been hot in Phoenix when we left. Now, dusk was settling over the Wasatch Mountains. The snowy ridges made a jagged pink EKG running north. I put my hand on her shoulder, feeling the bones.
“It was Rod,” she said, opening the back door. “I know it was.”
I shook my head. “There’s lots of people it could have been.”
“It was Rod.” She held the steak out to Leon. I told her to be careful, but it wasn’t necessary. He ate it gently, keeping his teeth away from her fingers. He nodded his head back after each bite, gulping down the meat. Juice clung to his whiskers. He glanced at me, smugly.
“Rod’s a fag,” I said. “They don’t have guns.”
Leon finished and licked Elli’s hands clean. “They have cats.”
“Had.” I laughed, despite myself.
Elli exhaled, long and slow, and I pictured myself as a chart inside her head. Two sides: good and bad, with scraps of conversation, things I’d done, memories, posted on either side. The bad side just kept filling up.
“I’m doing this for you, you know,” I said. “Skipping work, driving all this way. I mean, I care about Leon.”
“Do you?” she asked.
“Of course.” Anger warmed my chest. “But he’s a wild animal.”
She squeezed his skull, massaging the base of his ears. “So you’d let him die?”
“You know that’s not what I meant.” But maybe it was. He’d been trouble since the day we brought him home. He stank up our bed, gnawed the baseboard, shed everywhere. I’d find cat parts strewn around the yard: a paw wedged in the gate, innards on the tomato plants, a half-chewed skull on the welcome mat. He’d start to growl whenever I raised my voice at Elli.
He pressed his long bristly chin into her hands and licked her wrist. “We’re almost there, love,” she whispered. “Just a few more hours.”
I turned the heat on and we continued north. I held the needle at seventy-five for a while—I didn’t know what I’d say if a cop pulled us over—but Elli kept staring at me so I edged it up over eighty. The big empty plains closed around us until the only light was the wedge of the high beams. I was exhausted. My head hurt. The muscles in my thighs ached from climbing up and down the canyon walls, tripping in the dark. Leon had been well hidden in a dugout between two boulders. I’d found him and carried him out. Elli seemed to have forgotten that.
She sat with her feet up on the passenger seat, her arms wrapped around her shins, her thighs against her stomach. Her chin hovered above her knees. The dashboard lights shone hazy and green on her drawn face. Her left eye twitched, the pinched skin revealing the pattern of future wrinkles. We listened to the radio until it crackled and turned to static. I knew there were farmhouses and pastures not far off but it felt like the world could end and we wouldn’t know till morning.
Trying to stay awake, I pictured her naked. Right there in the passenger’s seat, like she was, except the dress and underwear gone. Her thin muscled arms wrapped around her knees. The skin over her ribs scratched and bruised from clambering through the canyon. Her body folded over itself, pressed together, the color of wheat.
I put my hand on her knee. I let it slide down to where I could feel the rough lace hem of her underwear. She shifted away from me, pushing down my hand and her dress.
Fine, I thought. Fine fine fine.
Salt Lake City was a ghost beneath the freeway: silent buildings forming the uneven steps of a skyline at night, the slow blink of airport lights. The temple, with its turrets and balustrade, looked like a lost castle, stranded on the wrong continent. An American flag hung motionless on a hilltop, lit from below.
Past city limits, the houses gave way to fields lined with huge crouching sprinklers. One of them was on, throwing arcs of mist into the night. Time sped up and skipped forward. I thought of the women I’d known, the places I’d been, bandits, wolves. The car was so warm. My head fell, then jerked upright.
“We have to stop,” I said. “Get some rest.”
We switched places at another gas station. The clerk watched us through the window, a toothpick rolling between his lips. He was black. Black in Utah. It couldn’t be easy. The motel next door was a long low twenty-roomer slung around a parking lot. ‘Thunderbird,’ read the blue neon sign. I knew the mattresses were probably thin with stained yellow sheets and sharp springs, but I didn’t care. I just wanted to stretch out. Leon’s eyes gleamed in the rearview mirror. Part of his tongue hung between his teeth, pink as bubblegum.
Elli drove with both hands on the wheel, ten and two. Her lips moved every once in a while. Pursing into an almost kiss, then pulling back over her teeth.
“Does this vet have beds?” I asked.
“At his house,” she said. “Go to sleep. I’ll wake you.”
I let my head roll against the seat. It smelled like fur and piss. The engine hummed beneath me and I imagined giant horses and giant natives, a hundred feet tall, thundering over the dark mountains.
The car was stopped when I woke. We were on the shoulder, a vast plain all around. The headlights were off. Pure black, and above, a field of stars. I blinked, trying to swallow some moisture into my parched mouth. “Look,” Elli whispered.
Leon was sitting up. His front paws were underneath him, propped unsteadily on the shifting covers of the books. His nose was pushed against the window. His scrawny body—only two, still a puppy—was angled down to where his wounded hindquarters rested on the seat. His eyes were fixed on the waning thumbnail of moon as if it held the answer to all suffering.
The dark southern hills rose and fell like waves. His breath fogged the glass.
He pressed his long gray ears flat against his skull, opened his mouth, and howled. High and sharp, the sound sliced open the roof and carried into the night. He held the note. Piercing. Desperate. It was so loud it hurt my eardrums.
“No,” I said. “No barking.”
His haunches shook. He slipped and fell against the door.
Elli was twisted around in the driver’s seat, stretched toward him, her face contorted, her skin the same color as the moon.
“Where are we?” I asked.
She paused, staring at me. Her bared eyes held something frightening: disgust, maybe, or the beginning of hatred. “Get out,” she said.
I looked at her blankly. A few strands of her hair stuck to the headrest, straight out beside her, taut with electricity.
“Please. Just give us a minute, alone.”
I fumbled with the door; I kept yanking the handle until she reached across my chest, shouldering me back, and unlocked it. I pushed open the door. The cold night air stung my face. I stood up, dazed, then leaned back into the car. Elli stared at me, her lips pulled tight, the tendons in her neck raised against her skin. Leon’s claws scrabbled the plastic seat cover in the back.
“He’s going to die,” I said, and slammed the door.
Pebbles crunched beneath my sneakers. I walked away from the highway, down into a ditch, and back up again. I smelled snow, trees. Idaho, maybe. I thought I’d walk until I found a place to fall down. Orion’s Belt and The Big Dipper hung at opposite ends of the sky. I couldn’t remember any of the other constellations. Just a mess of stars.
*This story originally appeared in Narrative magazine, 2013. Copyright © Maxim Loskutoff.
How quickly that dark line gets longer,
how quickly the snuffed-out candles proliferate.
(Tr. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard)
“It used to be that wars would thin the herd. Now that there’s peace, disasters help a little by killing some people off. Don’t look at me like that—it’s just the way it is.”
The old woman pointed to the tiny TV screen with a finger twisted by osteoarthritis. Ever since, three months earlier, she’d agreed to move into the home, she’d been torturing her son: she had to have a television in her room; it was urgent and of vital importance, because if she died without knowing how the trial against the philandering bullfighter turned out she’d never forgive him for it. There were days when she swore that if he didn’t come through on that very nearly last wish, when he died she’d go down to hell to find him and sink her dentures into his forearm. “I’ll leave a scar,” she threatened, tapping him with one of the three canes she always kept within reach, hanging from an armchair where, in theory, visitors were supposed to be able to sit in comfort.
It had taken three weeks for her son get around to buying the television, and it had been on night and day ever since, at a deafening volume, since she was hard of hearing. She missed the midday and evening news programs because they coincided with the lunch and supper times for the residents—the old folks, as she called them—in the dining-hall, but she spent the whole afternoon and much of the night catching up with the celebrity gossip. The bullfighter was already in jail. His story, which was no longer of any interest, had been swapped for one about a surgeon who raped anesthetized patients: every day there was new, increasingly gruesome information meted out, so that the audience ratings would inexorably grow.
That afternoon, the old woman was laying out her world-overpopulation theory to Rafel, the only grandkid who ever visited her. He came once a week, when he got off work at the pet-grooming salon, and, after politely taking her perceptive comments about how he reeked of dogs, he would put up with one of her monologues on whatever was being discussed on the television in front of them. Rafel knew more about the jailed bullfighter and the surgeon rapist than about his grandfather, who’d died when he was three: if he’d ever thought about that fact, he would have forced himself to smile, because he always tried to stay upbeat. That afternoon, a newscaster was explaining that a fire at a nightclub in Brazil had left 255 people dead. There were also more than three hundred wounded, a third of whom were in a serious or critical condition.
“They need disasters like that in those countries. If they don’t get rid of a few people every so often, they won’t have enough food for everybody.”
“That’s enough, Grandma. You know I don’t like when you say stuff like that.”
“It’s not that I like that they happen, but they have to. They’re necessary.”
In an attempt to change the subject, her grandson started talking about his routine. At ten on the dot he’d already lifted the shutters of the grooming salon—called Doggie Style—and was ready to solve the first furry challenge of the day.
“I don’t know what you see in dog haircuts. You do wash your hands well before you leave, right?”
“Of course, Grandma, of course.”
“I should hope so.”
Before opening up the salon that morning, Rafel had bought groceries for the week and gone to the park to walk Elvis. Rafel had never mentioned his pet to his grandmother. He had fallen in love with the tiny dog shortly after Nikki left him. Elvis had a shrewd gaze and was jumpy, and he would see him in the window of the neighborhood pet shop on his way to work. After a week, he told himself that if the little dog was still there in three days’ time he would take him home. “A dog that tiny can’t be a big problem,” the shopkeeper told him the afternoon he decided to enter the store, willing to adopt the little animal for a reasonable price. Elvis had come from a long way away. His breed was created in the fifties based on the English toy terrier and was one of the favorite pets of the Russian nobility, who for years had kept them practically in secret: Communism didn’t allow for any sort of luxuries, especially if they had Western origins. The English toy terrier turned into the Russian toy terrier (Русский той) and soon quit hunting mice—the original purpose of the breed—to devote itself to the typical frolicking of a mammal weighing barely two kilos. It was a breed loved with equal enthusiasm by skinny girls, teenagers who had already given in to the temptations of vodka, sad-eyed mothers, and fathers with those bushy mustaches that are an attempted tribute to Stalin but actually seem more like a nod to the useless majesty of sea lions.
Thanks to Elvis, Rafel had gotten over the rough breakup with Nikki. They had been together for five years, and, while there was no denying they’d reached a point of stagnation, he never thought she would up and start from scratch in Klagenfurt, a small city in Austria.
“Give me a little time, Rafel,” she’d said, taking him by the hand as if he were a child. “I need to know that I’m still alive.”
He was convinced that Nikki was going to Klagenfurt with someone else. He was hopeful that her stay wouldn’t be as idyllic as she was expecting and that after a while she’d come back to Barcelona with her tail between her legs. She thought keeping a pet in an apartment was a crime, and he hadn’t said anything about Elvis to her either. They talked on the phone once a week, and often Rafel and the little dog would gaze at each other tenderly as the conversation grew more and more difficult. He had never barked: his ancestors had had to live on the margins of the law, always on the alert for the Communist police, and he and most of his kind had inherited their silent predisposition.
“Getting a dog and losing your girlfriend is an odd combination,” Rafel had said more than once as he walked Elvis and sensed some girl’s eyes fixed on his pet. The instantaneous affection women were capable of feeling for the little Russian dog could easily segue into long dialogues that started with some anecdote about the animal and soon shifted into more personal waters. Rafel had taken down a few cell phone numbers, but he’d never called any of them. He would list them with his dog’s name in front so he wouldn’t forget the link they shared. When he’d accumulated half a dozen, he deleted them, embarrassed: if he ever got back together with Nikki, the list could be problematic.
Up to that point, Elvis had been his constant, unrivaled companion. Rafel had gotten used to sleeping with him, and the last thing he saw before he went to sleep was that pair of bright, solicitous eyes, which gazed at him with devotion until he drifted off and were often already open when he got up.
“Good morning, Elvis,” he would say.
The dog would give him a rough lick on the cheek and start wagging his tail.
If his grandmother had ever gotten over her aversion toward animals, she could have had a wonderful companion in a dog like Elvis, and maybe that would have delayed her move to the home. Rafel imagined a dog running excitedly through the apartment, brightening the morbid grayness of the rooms or eating off a little plate with its name—which would be something unimaginative like Spot or Blackie—or even sitting on her lap, wrapped in a blanket, while she enjoyed one of the not-terribly-demanding TV programs she watched religiously.
“They say the king went elephant hunting in Africa and got hurt. It seems he was with that woman,” she would’ve said to the dog, scratching its head with one of her long, indestructible fingernails. “If I were the queen, I’d put a stop to that fast.”
When Rafel went to the home and spent some time with his grandmother, he couldn’t help inventing less terrible final chapters for her life. Since he’d had Elvis, he imagined a placid old age beside a doting pet. Before, when he was still with Nikki, he had—in his mind—sent his grandmother on a Mediterranean cruise, and there she’d met an old widower like herself, needing company. They had fallen in love on the voyage, and once back in Barcelona they kept seeing each other until the man—a former insurance salesman, hard-working and reliable—suggested they move in together. Grandma left her apartment on the margins of the city and set herself up in his second home in the Maresme, which the man had scarcely visited since his wife’s death.
Rafel found the home depressing, and the stories that grew inside him helped him isolate himself from those surroundings while his grandmother let herself be abducted by the TV. It was true that she was very well looked after—she was fine there, maybe even better than in her apartment—but three or four years back there would have been no way she could have adapted to that place. Her perception had atrophied, and she wasn’t as demanding now. That’s what her grandson told himself. He wouldn’t have lasted long in that common room, surrounded by senile old folks who wiled away the time staring at a fixed-yet-vague point on the wall. He also didn’t have the stomach to play a game of dominoes with someone whose dentures might suddenly fall out on the table, much less sharing a meal with a resident afflicted by some strange mental illness that made him shout out random words every time a nurse brought a spoonful of food to his mouth. “Sunday!” “Tortoise!” “Lily pad!”
On the one hand, visiting his grandmother upset him; on the other, when he left there he had more desire to live than ever. He had to get over Nikki leaving him somehow, and he would either go out to dinner with friends or put in extra time at the dog salon, trying to save up enough money to take a trip to Australia. One Monday, when he’d decided to go to the movies on his own, he ran into a woman he’d gone to high school with, and after the film they went for a beer. Laura had been working at a pharmaceutical lab until recently. The company had just been absorbed by a French multinational that had decided to sell off its Spanish office.
“I could go work near Paris, but I don’t have much faith in them; in a few months’ time they might close the other factory,” she divulged later with a vodka tonic in front of her.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t,” said Rafel. He knew nothing about the pharmaceutical sector, yet he felt obligated to murmur words of reassurance.
“Can you imagine a year from now, when I’m all set up in Paris, they tell me that to keep my job I have to move to the Czech Republic? And then a year after that they send me to Beijing?”
Laura couldn’t imagine herself settling down and raising kids in the Chinese capital. But to have children she’d have to find a partner first. After hearing that last comment, Rafel stared at his whisky and Coke for a few seconds before finally giving her a brief account of what had happened with Nikki. They’d seen each other for the first time at one of the fruit stalls at the market five years back and struck up a conversation not long after that one day while waiting at the pharmacy. Rafel already had the dog salon and didn’t make any secret of his job, despite the expression he’d seen on other girls’ faces when he told them what he did for a living. He and Nikki had hooked up quickly and started living together six months after they’d met. She changed jobs a lot. He sheared dogs, mostly poodles and fox terriers.
“Probably not a very ambitious life, I admit, but we were happy.”
Last summer they’d visited Munich. Nikki fell in love with an engagement ring and let him know, first with a sweet look and later with flattering words, swathed in sincere romantic sentiment. The shop was very close to the hostel they were staying at. Every time they passed it, she would look at the ring, which sparkled with modern elegance amid all the other rings, necklaces, and earrings. Rafel understood that it was time to make a decision, and one evening when Nikki had fallen asleep after an exhausting visit to the castle of King Ludwig II of Bavaria, he tiptoed out of the room, went down to the shop, and bought the ring that, once he’d presented it to her after a fancy meal out, was meant to be the prelude to their wedding.
“It didn’t work out the way I pictured it.”
“What happened?” Laura picked up her vodka tonic and waited for Rafel to answer. Then she put it back down on the table without taking a sip.
“Doesn’t matter. Now she lives in Klagenfurt, Austria. She says she needs some time.”
That night went on till late. They had another cocktail while they exhausted the virtues of the movie they’d seen that evening. Emboldened by the alcohol and the film’s tale of adultery set in a remote house in the jungles of Mozambique, Rafel and Laura ended up sleeping in the same bed together after seven minutes of sex, observed by the accepting eyes of Elvis, who hadn’t barked even during the most ardent moments.
At four in the morning, Rafel was awakened by Laura’s screams.
“I killed somebody once before in another nightmare,” she said when she woke up.
Rafel, who’d just realized he was naked, got dressed while Laura was in the bathroom. He couldn’t find his underpants anywhere, so he grabbed some fresh ones from the drawer and pulled them on quickly before his former high-school classmate came back into the room.
“Are you okay?” he asked her.
Still without a stitch of clothes on—she had a more athletic body than Nikki—Laura said yeah and tried to explain the nightmare to him. There was a Jehovah’s Witness, a nosy neighbor, and two cops, who started hassling her first in the entryway of her building and then, without any transition, they were pointing out the large bloodstain covering a good part of the rug in her dining-room.
“I’d hidden the corpse from the last nightmare, but nobody knew where, not even me. I had to wait for the policemen, the Jehovah’s Witness, and the neighbor lady to leave so I could find it, but I couldn’t convince them to go, and one of the cops grabbed me by the hair and said that my trial would be starting the next day.”
Rafel listened in silence to the story, sitting on the bed, illuminated by the whitish light from the night-table. When Laura had finished, she asked if he had any pajamas, and Rafel lent her some. Elvis came into the bedroom and started to wag his tail.
“No, Elvis, not today,” he said when the dog approached the bedside.
“What a cute dog.”
“He usually sleeps with me, but he can’t just now.”
“If you want I can leave,” said Laura, winking.
They put the dog out and got naked again as they kissed with a hint of aggressiveness. The next morning, Rafel went crazy trying to find the underpants he’d lost the night before but had no luck. He even rummaged through his former high-school classmate’s bag, convinced for a few moments that he had a sex maniac in his shower. He didn’t find them there either.
As soon as she’d left he turned the room upside down, to no avail. He only heard tiny Elvis occasionally barking a complaint as he watched him from one corner of the bedroom with his ears alert and his little nose pointing up at the ceiling.
A few weeks later, Nikki called and announced to her ex-boyfriend that she was coming home at the end of the month. The news stopped him in his tracks. That was only ten days away. All of a sudden, Nikki’s time out in Austria seemed short to him. If she was leaving Klagenfurt, that meant she was giving up, that the other life wasn’t possible. And, most importantly, she’d accepted that Rafel was her path. He expressed it in those same words that evening to Laura when they were both naked on the sofa.
“So we’ll have to call it quits, right?” she asked. Then she sighed loudly and buried her face in the cushions.
Rafel was about to apologize, but he stopped himself before he said a word. He tried to swallow the indecipherable silence of the dining-room with his eyes closed. If he opened them he wouldn’t be able to ignore Laura’s tears and Elvis’s expectant gaze.
When she’d left, Rafel looked at the little dog woefully. He’d already made a decision: he would have to get rid of him before Nikki came back.
The man at the pet shop made things simple for him. He found a new owner in three days. That was one of the most complicated weeks in Rafel’s life. He never imagined that separating from Elvis would be so hard for him. He’d almost picked up the phone and called it off half a dozen times, but at the last minute he’d resisted, convinced that if he were capable of making that sacrifice for Nikki (even though she didn’t know the dog existed) they would never have problems again.
The day he said goodbye to his pet, Rafel called the dog salon and told his partner that he was in bed with a fever. He needed to cry all day long. When he went back to work, every dog reminded him of Elvis. He almost lost it when he had to groom Mrs. Roig’s Pekinese. Diminutive and obliging, the little creature licked his hands when he lifted him up onto the table where he would shear him, trembling and holding back tears.
That same night, Rafel dreamed that Elvis was back in the apartment. He was barking to get him out of bed, and he obliged, still half asleep, adjusting his pajamas. After kissing his feet, the dog stuck his nose into the rift between the headboard and the floor and pulled out the underpants he’d lost that first night with Laura.
“Good boy!” shouted Rafel as he grabbed them. After licking one of his fingers, the dog started rifling around in the slit again and pulled out a sock that Rafel didn’t remember having lost. He rescued another one before offering up a crumpled piece of paper covered in drool where Rafel could read the first three or four ingredients on a shopping list.
“You’re finding a lot of stuff down there, huh? Good boy!” he said, rubbing his head while the little dog struggled to yank something else out.
Elvis pulled out a little blue box and placed it at the feet of his master, whose eyes were wide and mouth agape. Inside was the engagement ring that Rafel had lost shortly after returning from Munich, while he was still searching for the right time to have the fancy dinner that would precede its ceremonious presentation and, if everything went well, their engagement. He had spent two weeks hunting frantically behind Nikki’s back. He couldn’t find it. Eventually he’d thrown in the towel, telling himself that he’d take some Monday or Tuesday off and hop on a plane, buy the ring again, and return home with the booty. That extra effort would mean that the wedding would happen for sure, he was convinced. Nikki had left for Klagenfurt before he was able to act out his redemptive gesture.
In the dream, Rafel didn’t open up the little blue box until Elvis nodded, as if giving him permission to continue. When he did, the ring gleamed with Nikki’s modern elegance.
“Will you marry me?” he said.
He woke up repeating the phrase. Rafel hastily flicked on the light and, before raising the blind, before even going to the bathroom, he took the bed apart piece by piece. In a corner obscured by dust were the underpants and the little blue box. The upstairs neighbor didn’t mind the victory cry—sharp and hyperbolic—that came up through the bowels of his apartment.
The first thing Nikki saw the day she came home was the little blue box on top of the dining-room table beside a bouquet of red roses and a piece of paper on which he’d written: “I love you.” She ran out of the apartment when she saw what was inside. Rafel wasn’t expecting such a euphoric reaction. As he groomed a drowsy Afghan at the salon he heard the commotion at the entrance. He didn’t even have time to put the shears down onto the tray. Nikki threw her arms around him, and as she kissed his face—the gesture was slightly canine—she said that she loved him, too, and wanted to marry him.
They had a small celebration after the civil ceremony. Both sets of parents were there, Nikki’s brother, six of her friends and five of his, and their dates—if they had one—plus his partner at the dog salon, Alejandro, and his grandmother, who’d been allowed to leave the home as long as she was with a careworker, who got drunk before the cake was served while the old woman glared at her. During one trip to the bathroom, Rafel saw that he had a new message on his phone. It said: “Congratulations. Laura.” He deleted it as soon as he’d read it and then felt bad because he didn’t have his former high-school classmate’s number saved in his contacts. He would look like a jackass, but there was no going back: the damage was done. He washed his hands and went back to the large dining-hall of the Navarran restaurant where they were throwing the reception.
Since he hadn’t been able to save up enough to go to Australia, Rafel suggested another, less flashy, honeymoon destination. But in the end both sets of parents chipped in generously to make their dream come true. They bought tickets for Adelaide, planning to drive from there to Brisbane. Then from there to Sydney, passing through Canberra and Melbourne before taking a boat to Tasmania. Once they’d seen the island, they’d return to Sydney and fly from there to Jakarta, where they would spend one night before catching a flight to Istanbul then changing planes for Barcelona.
After cutting the cake and making their final photogenic kiss, Rafel’s grandmother gestured for him to come over and asked him not to go on the trip.
“I have a premonition,” she warned him. “I think something bad is going to happen. Some disaster.”
Rafel planted a kiss on her forehead and promised her that in a month he’d be back with a little plastic kangaroo souvenir she could put on top of the TV to watch over her, even when she was sleeping.
“I don’t need anything anymore, dear.”
He took her hand and gave her another kiss on the forehead. The last one ever.
With a leg–tossing military marching step (toes in, heels out, knees to the side, pelvis down), Stasik the mosquito wended his way home. He had asked the veterinarian, Akop the condor, to bandage the spot where the bedbug Mstislav bit him, since the bite throbbed so much that he couldn’t walk at all otherwise.
Naturally, Stasik the mosquito dreamed of a hot meal.
However, as he walked up to his house he heard the muffled cry of his mosquito wife Tomka (“That’s it, hold on, just a sec, just one more second, wait just a minute”) and the raspy reply: “I can’t.”
Stasik froze for a moment, but then he went into his house and saw Tomka pulling out Zoya the hyena’s beard, hair by hair (cosmetic facial cleansing).
On the issue of a hot meal, Tomka said in a rush, “Go to the swamp.”
“Go to the swamp” meant going to the swamp, picking, squashing, washing, cleaning, cutting, pouring, turning on, putting on, stirring and so on, and the food would only be ready in forty minutes, and it would probably be burnt and leave sand between his teeth.
Thanks for nothing.
Sighing bitterly while his wife shouted and Zoya the hyena growled in the background, Stasik got out the precious bottle from Auntie Lida the beetle, what they called “the bottle of last resort,” and drank down a dose of what was left.
He forgot about everything but Alla the pig’s swaying miniskirt.
Stasik wept and sang his favorite song: “Back there, where the sea of lights…” and swiftly flew out of his house towards the pigsty, forgetting all about his wounds.
When Tomka the mosquito was tucking her fee into her boot and Zoya the hyena was looking at her smooth face with tears of joy, Stasik was flying around Alla the pig, who was lying comfortably without any miniskirt, and asking her questions in his high chirping voice: a) had she consorted with the bedbug Mstislav recently; and b) did she know that Mstislav had a nasty disease —tooth decay — that would require a bandage and frequent changes of dressing for a very long time?
But it fell on deaf ears, since Stasik wasn’t Alla the pig’s only guest. There was a big gang there already – the grown children of Domna Ivanovna the fly, for instance, who had already helped themselves generously and were barnstorming like they were on fire to the sound of their own inner rock n’ roll; and Afanasy the spider, who was giving a class in macramé in the corner, organized especially for the gathering.
The party was hopping, but Stasik the mosquito was lonely.
With a fidgety military marching step, knees out and pelvis down, but now even hungrier, he showed up at home ready for a fight. But instead he smelled the marvelous scent of a hot meal.
Tomka had cooked dinner, set the table and was waiting for him in her apron, like Penelope.
Stasik just about burst into tears.
In February 2001 we found exactly what we were looking for: a wooden house in the suburbs of Miami with large windows overlooking a canal with green water that flowed into the Atlantic. We considered ourselves lucky. It was a house at a good price in a peaceful spot far from the city. We didn’t have neighbors, except for the cats. We didn’t have bugs either. We painted it yellow, just like the metal mailbox we placed beside the front walk, and we replaced the glass in all the windows: some were broken; others just scratched. The wiring and the pipes were in perfect condition as were the hardwood floors; actually the place needed very little work. I polished and varnished the secondhand furniture we’d bought, made the curtains and valances and embroidered the pillows. We lived there about seven months until Philip’s death.
My Philip, it all happened so fast. Still, when I think back on it, I can see the sharpness of the cuts, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh. It all comes back to me with startling vividness.
I wasn’t happy but my days back then were calm.
My husband left early in the mornings and I spent hours sitting on the porch watching the cats with a book open on my lap. They wandered around indifferently with their feet always muddy from the swampy terrain. Maybe it’s a silly way to describe it, but I thought of them as little men strolling in the sunshine. Their curiosity and laziness entertained me. There were about seven of them (sometimes fewer) and I always took care of them.
When we moved in, I planted flowers in the ground and tried to grow a small vegetable garden, but nothing would take root in that wet clay soil. Everything immediately turned to rot in our small plot on the Florida peninsula. Our garden was a muddy and infertile uterus with a yellow metal mailbox full of flyers and coupons. Skittles: taste the rainbow. Only $0.99 with this coupon. Valid until 04.01.2001.
“No wonder it was so affordable, Jaime,” I said lifting a bag of topsoil: I was determined to fill our garden with plants, even if I had to put them in pots. “I mean, if you compare it to other houses in the area, the price was really good.”
Jaime was the owner of the shop. He was Cuban, with golden skin and long hair, still attractive at almost sixty. He liked to introduce himself by saying he’d escaped the heart of the fucking devil to live in the ass of his succubus.
“Now I know why, Jaime; no one wanted to live in that spot, with that ground that’s pure clay.”
My words might’ve sounded like a complaint but they weren’t. I just talked out of desire to converse with someone.
“Listen, put up a hammock and a wrought iron patio set,” he suggested. “Then you’ll see how much better and more cheerful. The garden I mean.”
I smiled weakly.
“And get a few citronella torches for the evenings.”
“We don’t have mosquitoes.”
“Damn, we’ve got all the bugs here, the mosquitos and those kids.”
Jaime and I spoke in Spanish, except when he said something vulgar. He only said curse words or insults in English. It was his way of distancing himself from what he felt didn’t fit his character or social position. He considered himself a gentleman, even when he shouted and ranted about Fidel and my shameless compatriot, El Che.
“It’s just that when I get started about the Cuban Revolution… Excuse my temper but I’m from Cienfuegos, Miss.”
“I’m from Cienfuegos” was his excuse, monolithic, unwavering. I have to look up the history of Cienfuegos to understand what this man is talking about, I told myself.
Jaime, the cats, and a group of teenagers—a fixture in the store parking lot—were the only living beings in the landscape of my days. There were seven cats; nine or ten teenagers. I’d made out two females in the group of animals; in the group of teenagers there was only one. I named the cats: Nevermore, who was all black, and Gondoliere, who had striped fur. I also remember Phileas Fogg, a perfect English gentleman who always waited patiently for the bowl of milk, and Franky “Frankenstein,” the oldest of them all. He had a cleft lip and arthritis. And, of course, Philip. My Philip. I never learned the names of even one of the boys. I didn’t know the name of the girl either: a bleached blonde with big eyes that always stared at me. Her stare was almost a battle cry. I know it’s not easy to understand what I’m saying. But I can’t, I could never have explained the girl better. They, on the other hand, the boys, were—or at least I thought at the time—easier to read. They looked just like the troubled teens in the movies: dirty, ripped jeans, T-shirts, sneakers, and baseball caps, terrible smell; always chewing gum and drinking beer at all hours. They got around on motorcycles; the one I thought was the leader had an impeccable Harley Davidson that glittered under the midday sun. I had a red Focus with beige leather seats which I drove to Jaime’s shop. It was the first automatic car I’d ever had. I liked being able to drive to Jaime’s without thinking too much, listening to country music. I felt as American as anyone; even more so as I loaded the car with the brown paper sacks full of things I’d bought for us and the cats. The car had a white license plate, LUK 620, with “Florida, a sunny state” inscribed in green letters. This is only partially true because in the south of Florida it rains a lot. In fact, that Monday morning the National Weather Service had issued an emergency alert about an approaching tropical storm that had the potential to turn into a hurricane.
Out of fear of the hurricane I went to the store and bought a week’s worth of provisions. While Jaime scanned the bar codes of all the items, I estimated I’d need at least three trips to get it all to the trunk of my car. The Cuban man worked alone, he was in a terrible mood, and he wouldn’t have wanted to help me anyway. I handed him my credit card.
“I once offered to pay those fucking kids to help with my customers’ purchases,” Jaime pulled the bags out from under the cash register. “But do you think trash like that has any desire to work, Miss?”
I’d told him a dozen times that I was married and I’d reminded him of my name another twenty times. But Jaime continued stubbornly with his “Miss.”
“Assholes, that’s what they are; the girl is the worst one of all, Miss.”
I wouldn’t correct him again. Not that Monday morning or ever. I was also in a terrible mood. My husband was going to be out of town the whole week. A business convention in las Vegas for him and a hurricane in the south of the sunny Florida peninsula for me.
“Couldn’t they hold it in Tampa or Orlando?” I’d asked him that morning.
“Headquarters makes the decision.”
My husband gave me a kiss, loaded his suitcase into the trunk of his car and left. That was it. He’d go straight from the office to the airport. A week in Nevada and me in the yellow house with the cats, an unopened book on the porch and the stuff I’d have to get from Jaime’s shop. And hear all about Castro and, about my compatriot, El Che. Exile, the sad Cuban exiled in Miami, Miss. Every time, as if he were the only Latin American exile in all of the United States. Every single time I went to his store, whether it was for fertilizer or cat food, it was the same. I had the impression that Jaime talked—a lot and badly—about the Cuban Revolution and, of course, about the teenagers, in order to hide something. All this that Monday morning as he rang up my purchase.
They’re criminals in training. I must’ve been crazy the day I tried to hire one of them, because . . .” He bit his lip and looked out the window: one of the kids was walking toward the store. “That’ll be thirty-five dollars, Miss.”
He then repeated not only the Miss but also the price, even though I’d already paid. I bagged my items without saying anything else. I could feel the boy’s stare on the back of my neck, Jaime’s suspicious silence. I took a couple of bags to my car.
“Hey, Miss; look what you forgot here.” I’d left a can of tuna and a can of hake for my little men next to the cash register. “You’re kind of distracted today. Be careful, because that’s not good.”
I went back home to feed my cats.
I’d done the shopping, I’d put everything away. I’d filled two bowls with milk and another two with cat food. Everything was done and it was only eleven o’clock on Monday morning.
I sat with the closed book on my lap. I didn’t have any plans, except to lie on the sofa and watch, after dinner, a documentary about hunting or fishing on the Wild Life Channel.
But the rain came ahead of schedule. The forecast had predicted the tropical storm would make landfall sometime after five in the evening; it started to rain around noon. All afternoon water crashed above, around, and up against our wooden house. There was something strange and intimate in the sound, almost a groan, as if the wood were remembering the forest from which it had come. The TV wasn’t working. It turned on but cable and cell phone service were out. Our yellow metal mailbox had also been knocked down by the wind sometime that afternoon, and dozens of flyers lay in the mud. Taste the rainbow and all that. What further destruction would the storm cause? Nothing worried me more than the cats—I don’t think I even thought of my husband’s flight to Las Vegas that was scheduled for around midnight. Where had my poor babies taken refuge? And my Philip? He was the fattest and smartest. His yellowish fur, his bluish eyes, and his theatrical personality had reminded me immediately of Philip Seymour Hoffman. Where were you that night, my Philip? Where did they find you? When we moved in, I wanted to bring him to live in the house with us. I bought a basket and embroidered a yellow pillow with his initials—PSH—but my husband said no, cats outside. Philip never lived with us. I thought about my Philip and about Nevermore and Gondoliere on that stormy night, and also about the two female cats that I’d never named, but mostly I thought about Philip.
The monotony of the rain made night come soon.
Gusts of wind blew invisibly through the darkness. For me it all seemed real and unreal at the same time. As if my head had been covered in a veil and through the tulle I could hear the raindrops and wind. So this was a tropical storm, I thought from my bed with a book—always the same one—unopened on my lap. The air around me whispered like a bunch of elderly ladies saying horrible things to each other. I thought all this without really understanding why. And outside, the wind, at eighty miles an hour, caused even the blood in my veins to accelerate.
Around ten at night it seemed like the storm was calming down. The wind blew weakly, a sound like playing cards being thrown in the air. Or maybe not. Maybe it was just my imagination somehow strangely linked to my husband, to his convention in Las Vegas—a whole week away from home talking sales strategies for fiberglass used to build slot machines and gaming tables. I got up and went to the kitchen to make myself a cup of hot tea. Outside everything was dark and darkness was everything until a bolt of lightning—like a long shiny fang gleaming in the mouth of the night—lit up the monotony of rain hitting mud. I opened the kitchen window a crack. The air carried the salty smell of the sea, of wet grass, hibiscus flowers. The air brought in life, stirred up and crushed into large refreshing gusts.
And then I saw them.
First just her. She’d picked up our yellow metal mailbox off the ground and she had it in her hand, like someone holding a scepter. She was walking toward the porch dressed in white. Her feet and the bottom of her dress were muddy. She looked like a priestess ready to carry out some ritual sacrifice. Also like a crazed queen. Then he appeared behind her. It was a new boy and he wore a huge backpack. I’d never seen him in Jaime’s parking lot. He was decidedly different from the others. Not only because he didn’t look like he’d stepped out of the same bad-boy movie, but because there was something in the way he walked, in the way he wore the backpack, that softened him. He, without a doubt, didn’t match the casting call for the crazy, dirty, bad guy. Finally, bringing up the ranks, were the rest—the grimy ones from the parking lot, with their baseball caps and their stench. They broke into two groups and posted themselves on either side of my house, in front of the kitchen windows. To look on dumbly in silence.
I quickly closed the window.
In an instant, I checked that all the windows and doors were locked. I turned off the lights. I ran to my room. My cell phone still didn’t have service. If I could’ve just made it to the car and fled. I was contemplating escaping out the back window when she said:
“We know you’re there, Miss.”
Fear pumped through my body like blood. I didn’t respond. I stayed still for a few seconds until she spoke again.
“The thing is, this house is ours. Isn’t it?”
The “isn’t it” wasn’t for me but for the boy with the backpack and the rest of the boys; at least, that’s what I think now. I went back to the kitchen and looked for the biggest knife we had. Then I remembered—they’d said it in a documentary about skinning prey on the Wild Life Channel—that a smaller and sharper knife can be more effective and is, without a doubt, easier to handle. I changed weapons.
Silence again. The only sound was my heavy breathing.
It wasn’t raining anymore, the dim starlight allowed me to make out the boys on both sides of the house in front of my windows: their white faces, their mouths hanging open, their noses pressed against the glass. Their breath fogging up the windows. Their wet puppy dog eyes. I wondered how much of the inside of the house they could see from that outside darkness. And then, the unexpected blow that made the glass of the kitchen window shatter.
The Crazed Queen, framed in my yellow wooden window. The water had made her mascara run and her eyes were even bigger and more deathlike. Her long hair was loose and her bangs were tucked behind her ears.
She gathered up her dress like a southern belle as she climbed through the window into my house, as if it had always been hers. Behind her came the new guy, her faithful choirboy with the mountain-climbing backpack.
I grabbed the big knife I’d previously discarded. Now I had two knives and I was barricaded behind a chair. It was obvious, although in the moment I refused to think about it, that if they all decided to come in and attack me there was no knife or barricade that would stop them. I wished more than ever, me who’d always been a gentle lamb, for a pistol.
Everything happened so fast.
But when I think about it now, I can still see the sharpness of the cut, the blood, the rubberiness of the exposed flesh, the entrails slipping from their membranes, the spindly bones. It all creeps back to my memory. Also the car lights, the screams. I always end up vomiting or with my stomach in knots at the memory of that night. My nerves are shot whenever I think about Miami, about those kids, about my husband, about everything that happened.
Now inside the house, the girl turned on the lights. She knew where the switches were; she could get around my house with her eyes closed. Without saying a word, the new boy opened his backpack. He took out: two large knives, a pair of disposable gloves, two trash bags, a hook like the ones butchers use to hang sides of beef in the freezer. And, inside a third bag, Philip. He set everything out neatly on the table. I thought that the cat was dead. I would’ve covered my mouth—I mean to say that’s the impulse I had—but I had my hands full with the knives. Anyway Philip wasn’t dead. He was drugged, I suppose, like the rest of those idiot kids. The half-open mouths of the cat and the kids with their noses pressed against my windows breathed almost in unison. Why didn’t they all come into the house together? Why did they stay outside? How many times had they repeated that identical ceremony? She, the Crazed Queen, inside with the initiate, and the rest, outside, watching the scene with their bovine eyes.
“Put the hook through his foot and hang him from that rail,” the girl ordered. From her accent, I could tell she was from the South.
I wanted to shout: “don’t do it,” but the words didn’t come to my mouth. I only took a few steps holding the knives out in front of me, like some armed sleepwalker. I didn’t dare do more than that, I wouldn’t have been able to do more than that. The Crazed Queen decided to preempt any possible surprises. She gave the sign to the boys outside and, a few seconds later, they were all inside the house.
“Put down the knives, Miss, and we’ll have a peaceful night.”
Two of the boys took me by the wrists and a third took the knives away.
“That’s better. Isn’t it, Miss?” the girl said (she called me “Miss” too, how ridiculous).
She petted met. Her hands were rough and cold; they smelled like rain, but her breath smelled of alcohol and cigarettes.
I wanted to insult her or spit in her face. I couldn’t do that either.
“Now, let’s do our thing; get to work,” she ordered the new boy. “We don’t want to be here all night. Do we, boys?”
The new one’s hands trembled a little. Could I count on him? Would he repent at the last minute? Did my Philip have any chance of getting away? The new one’s hands shook even more now. They were normal hands. Not fat or skinny, not bald or hairy. But you could tell—it was obvious—that they were soft hands, like a student’s, unaccustomed to manual labor. How much did Philp weigh? Around seven or eight kilos, maybe ten—he’d gained weight recently. For the new kid he seemed to weigh more than a deer. He didn’t dare to pick him up. Wounding or killing—an animal or a man, it’s the same—with your own hands isn’t the same as doing it with a gunshot, like those somber hunters on the Wild Life Channel. Now I know: the flesh tries to resist, it fights you. Muscles are strong and flexible. He had to find a way to insert a hook in the live furry flesh of the cat. Avoiding the bone, find the muscle under the fur. The blond fur of my Philip.
It wasn’t such an easy job.
Philip fought upside down, as much as the effects of the drug would allow him to, as the new boy battled his fear and disgust. I must’ve struggled against the boys who held me, because later, when everything was over, I noticed that I had bruises on my wrists. The new one, after several tries, through suppressed gagging, and Philip’s whimpering, managed to puncture the cat’s flesh. His left thigh. Philip hung by a leg and a thread of blood slowly stained his fur. Like an inverted Spanish flag: yellow, red, yellow.
The worst part wasn’t the helplessness. The worst part wasn’t being in an isolated house with some deranged teens who, who knows why, were practicing some initiation right using my favorite cat. The worst part was the uncertainty, the fear of knowing I was at the mercy of the Crazed Queen and who knows what drugs and how much alcohol she had in her bloodstream. Why did they want me to witness it? Why, out of all the places in the world, did they have to choose my house? Is that what Jaime knew, that my house had been these kids’ permanent base of operations? So many questions came to me and none of them had answers.
The Crazed Queen ordered the new one to lick a little of the blood that dripped from the animal. She even put her finger in the cat’s wound and brought it to her mouth. She painted her lips with the blood. Then she twirled several times, rolled her eyes back in her head and all the foul-smelling boys cheered for her with a strange chant and applause.
I’ll never know what other trials the complete initiation ceremony entailed.
Deep down, I was certain that the new one wouldn’t pass them all. I sensed it because his eyes didn’t have that wet gleam I saw in the eyes of the rest of her minions, nor did they have the fury of the Crazed Queen. I wanted to believe that, despite his desperate need to belong, he still had a spark of good in his eyes. The new one was the only one of the group that was capable of hesitation—out of fear, disgust, or whatever reason—and hesitation is what helps us conserve a glimmer of humanity. No, the new one would not pass the trials. I confirmed my suspicions when I saw that he was the first to run away.
The headlights of a car shone into the kitchen.
It was my husband coming home. He’d left his ID. Leaving behind his ID was his unconscious way of leaving behind his identity. He hadn’t been who he said he was for a long time now. Obviously, he wasn’t going on a business trip; obviously, he wasn’t going alone. The only truth was that he was going to Las Vegas for a week and that without his ID he couldn’t start the trip. And he came back home with her—bleached blonde, with big eyes, almost an aged replica of the Crazed Queen—seated brazenly in the passenger’s seat of his car. I don’t know why life sometimes plays this game of funhouse mirrors. But none of that pertains to this story. Or almost. The only thing that matters here is that the headlights were enough to scare them away. They all fled quickly, they scattered like nighttime birds at the first light of day; and the new one was first to go. All that was left behind was Philip, half-dead in our kitchen, and the backpack.
I unhooked Philip’s leg and put him on our table. There was nothing left of his theatricality, of the vivacity in his bluish eyes. His entire body was bloody. He didn’t even have the strength to whimper, poor thing. My husband came into the house with murky eyes and his feet covered in mud. What could we say to each other that we didn’t both already know?
I picked up the knife, the small sharp one like they recommended in the hunting documentary. My husband didn’t get the chance to ask any questions. Not who the kids were that he’s surely seen running away, not what they were doing there, not what had happened to the cat. He couldn’t even ask about the damn backpack as he tripped over it. I took two steps forward and he took four steps back. Without uttering a single word and without taking my eyes off his and with a single swipe, I cut the cat’s stomach wide open. I did it with such force that I also scratched the wood of the table.
In addition to the guts and blood, three wet fetuses with squinted eyes fell out. Philip wasn’t who I thought he was either. No one is.
My husband held back a gag. Then he collapsed onto a chair. The woman who was waiting for him in the car honked the horn two times. Somehow, she’d stopped mattering. It was like the cat’s blood had hypnotized us: it continued dripping from the wound to the edge of the table and from there to the floor. How many minutes would it take for Philip to become a flattened hide? How long did it take for the cat and her fetuses to lose their lives? I looked at my bloody hands and at the knife—it wasn’t raining anymore, I don’t know what smells the wind was carrying, or how many trees or plants the storm had pulled up by the roots. The blonde kept honking the horn rhythmically and with increasing urgency. My marriage was the exact opposite of what I thought it was. And I thought to myself that the only thing fertile and alive in that house had been destroyed by my own hands.
There was a woman who was beautiful, who started with all the advantages, yet she had no luck. She married for love, and the love turned to dust. She had bonny children, yet she felt they had been thrust upon her, and she could not love them. They looked at her coldly, as if they were finding fault with her. And hurriedly she felt she must cover up some fault in herself. Yet what it was that she must cover up she never knew. Nevertheless, when her children were present, she always felt the centre of her heart go hard. This troubled her, and in her manner she was all the more gentle and anxious for her children, as if she loved them very much. Only she herself knew that at the centre of her heart was a hard little place that could not feel love, no, not for anybody. Everybody else said of her: “She is such a good mother. She adores her children.” Only she herself, and her children themselves, knew it was not so. They read it in each other’s eyes.
There were a boy and two little girls. They lived in a pleasant house, with a garden, and they had discreet servants, and felt themselves superior to anyone in the neighbourhood.
Although they lived in style, they felt always an anxiety in the house. There was never enough money. The mother had a small income, and the father had a small income, but not nearly enough for the social position which they had to keep up. The father went into town to some office. But though he had good prospects, these prospects never materialised. There was always the grinding sense of the shortage of money, though the style was always kept up.
At last the mother said: “I will see if I can’t make something.” But she did not know where to begin. She racked her brains, and tried this thing and the other, but could not find anything successful. The failure made deep lines come into her face. Her children were growing up, they would have to go to school. There must be more money, there must be more money. The father, who was always very handsome and expensive in his tastes, seemed as if he never would be able to do anything worth doing. And the mother, who had a great belief in herself, did not succeed any better, and her tastes were just as expensive.
And so the house came to be haunted by the unspoken phrase: There must be more money! There must be more money! The children could hear it all the time though nobody said it aloud. They heard it at Christmas, when the expensive and splendid toys filled the nursery. Behind the shining modern rocking-horse, behind the smart doll’s house, a voice would start whispering: “There must be more money! There must be more money!” And the children would stop playing, to listen for a moment. They would look into each other’s eyes, to see if they had all heard. And each one saw in the eyes of the other two that they too had heard. “There must be more money! There must be more money!”
It came whispering from the springs of the still-swaying rocking-horse, and even the horse, bending his wooden, champing head, heard it. The big doll, sitting so pink and smirking in her new pram, could hear it quite plainly, and seemed to be smirking all the more self-consciously because of it. The foolish puppy, too, that took the place of the teddy-bear, he was looking so extraordinarily foolish for no other reason but that he heard the secret whisper all over the house: “There must be more money!”
Yet nobody ever said it aloud. The whisper was everywhere, and therefore no one spoke it. Just as no one ever says: “We are breathing!” in spite of the fact that breath is coming and going all the time.
“Mother,” said the boy Paul one day, “why don’t we keep a car of our own? Why do we always use uncle’s, or else a taxi?”
“Because we’re the poor members of the family,” said the mother.
“But why are we, mother?”
“Well – I suppose,” she said slowly and bitterly, “it’s because your father has no luck.”
The boy was silent for some time.
“Is luck money, mother?” he asked, rather timidly.
“No, Paul. Not quite. It’s what causes you to have money.”
“Oh!” said Paul vaguely. “I thought when Uncle Oscar said filthy lucker, it meant money.”
“Filthy lucre does mean money,” said the mother. “But it’s lucre, not luck.”
“Oh!” said the boy. “Then what is luck, mother?”
“It’s what causes you to have money. If you’re lucky you have money. That’s why it’s better to be born lucky than rich. If you’re rich, you may lose your money. But if you’re lucky, you will always get more money.”
“Oh! Will you? And is father not lucky?”
“Very unlucky, I should say,” she said bitterly.
The boy watched her with unsure eyes.
“Why?” he asked.
“I don’t know. Nobody ever knows why one person is lucky and another unlucky.”
“Don’t they? Nobody at all? Does nobody know?”
“Perhaps God. But He never tells.”
“He ought to, then. And are’nt you lucky either, mother?”
“I can’t be, it I married an unlucky husband.”
“But by yourself, aren’t you?”
“I used to think I was, before I married. Now I think I am very unlucky indeed.”
“Well – never mind! Perhaps I’m not really,” she said.
The child looked at her to see if she meant it. But he saw, by the lines of her mouth, that she was only trying to hide something from him.
“Well, anyhow,” he said stoutly, “I’m a lucky person.”
“Why?” said his mother, with a sudden laugh.
He stared at her. He didn’t even know why he had said it.
“God told me,” he asserted, brazening it out.
“I hope He did, dear!”, she said, again with a laugh, but rather bitter.
“He did, mother!”
“Excellent!” said the mother, using one of her husband’s exclamations.
The boy saw she did not believe him; or rather, that she paid no attention to his assertion. This angered him somewhere, and made him want to compel her attention.
He went off by himself, vaguely, in a childish way, seeking for the clue to ‘luck’. Absorbed, taking no heed of other people, he went about with a sort of stealth, seeking inwardly for luck. He wanted luck, he wanted it, he wanted it. When the two girls were playing dolls in the nursery, he would sit on his big rocking-horse, charging madly into space, with a frenzy that made the little girls peer at him uneasily. Wildly the horse careered, the waving dark hair of the boy tossed, his eyes had a strange glare in them. The little girls dared not speak to him.
When he had ridden to the end of his mad little journey, he climbed down and stood in front of his rocking-horse, staring fixedly into its lowered face. Its red mouth was slightly open, its big eye was wide and glassy-bright.
“Now!” he would silently command the snorting steed. “Now take me to where there is luck! Now take me!”
And he would slash the horse on the neck with the little whip he had asked Uncle Oscar for. He knew the horse could take him to where there was luck, if only he forced it. So he would mount again and start on his furious ride, hoping at last to get there.
“You’ll break your horse, Paul!” said the nurse.
“He’s always riding like that! I wish he’d leave off!” said his elder sister Joan.
But he only glared down on them in silence. Nurse gave him up. She could make nothing of him. Anyhow, he was growing beyond her.
One day his mother and his Uncle Oscar came in when he was on one of his furious rides. He did not speak to them.
“Hallo, you young jockey! Riding a winner?” said his uncle.
“Aren’t you growing too big for a rocking-horse? You’re not a very little boy any longer, you know,” said his mother.
But Paul only gave a blue glare from his big, rather close-set eyes. He would speak to nobody when he was in full tilt. His mother watched him with an anxious expression on her face.
At last he suddenly stopped forcing his horse into the mechanical gallop and slid down.
“Well, I got there!” he announced fiercely, his blue eyes still flaring, and his sturdy long legs straddling apart.
“Where did you get to?” asked his mother.
“Where I wanted to go,” he flared back at her.
“That’s right, son!” said Uncle Oscar. “Don’t you stop till you get there. What’s the horse’s name?”
“He doesn’t have a name,” said the boy.
“Get’s on without all right?” asked the uncle.
“Well, he has different names. He was called Sansovino last week.”
“Sansovino, eh? Won the Ascot. How did you know this name?”
“He always talks about horse-races with Bassett,” said Joan.
The uncle was delighted to find that his small nephew was posted with all the racing news. Bassett, the young gardener, who had been wounded in the left foot in the war and had got his present job through Oscar Cresswell, whose batman he had been, was a perfect blade of the ‘turf’. He lived in the racing events, and the small boy lived with him.
Oscar Cresswell got it all from Bassett.
“Master Paul comes and asks me, so I can’t do more than tell him, sir,” said Bassett, his face terribly serious, as if he were speaking of religious matters.
“And does he ever put anything on a horse he fancies?”
“Well – I don’t want to give him away – he’s a young sport, a fine sport, sir. Would you mind asking him himself? He sort of takes a pleasure in it, and perhaps he’d feel I was giving him away, sir, if you don’t mind.
Bassett was serious as a church.
The uncle went back to his nephew and took him off for a ride in the car.
“Say, Paul, old man, do you ever put anything on a horse?” the uncle asked.
The boy watched the handsome man closely.
“Why, do you think I oughtn’t to?” he parried.
“Not a bit of it! I thought perhaps you might give me a tip for the Lincoln.”
The car sped on into the country, going down to Uncle Oscar’s place in Hampshire.
“Honour bright?” said the nephew.
“Honour bright, son!” said the uncle.
“Well, then, Daffodil.”
“Daffodil! I doubt it, sonny. What about Mirza?”
“I only know the winner,” said the boy. “That’s Daffodil.”
There was a pause. Daffodil was an obscure horse comparatively.
“You won’t let it go any further, will you? I promised Bassett.”
“Bassett be damned, old man! What’s he got to do with it?”
“We’re partners. We’ve been partners from the first. Uncle, he lent me my first five shillings, which I lost. I promised him, honour bright, it was only between me and him; only you gave me that ten-shilling note I started winning with, so I thought you were lucky. You won’t let it go any further, will you?”
The boy gazed at his uncle from those big, hot, blue eyes, set rather close together. The uncle stirred and laughed uneasily.
“Right you are, son! I’ll keep your tip private. How much are you putting on him?”
“All except twenty pounds,” said the boy. “I keep that in reserve.”
The uncle thought it a good joke.
“You keep twenty pounds in reserve, do you, you young romancer? What are you betting, then?”
“I’m betting three hundred,” said the boy gravely. “But it’s between you and me, Uncle Oscar! Honour bright?”
“It’s between you and me all right, you young Nat Gould,” he said, laughing. “But where’s your three hundred?”
“Bassett keeps it for me. We’re partner’s.”
“You are, are you! And what is Bassett putting on Daffodil?”
“He won’t go quite as high as I do, I expect. Perhaps he’ll go a hundred and fifty.”
“What, pennies?” laughed the uncle.
“Pounds,” said the child, with a surprised look at his uncle. “Bassett keeps a bigger reserve than I do.”
Between wonder and amusement Uncle Oscar was silent. He pursued the matter no further, but he determined to take his nephew with him to the Lincoln races.
“Now, son,” he said, “I’m putting twenty on Mirza, and I’ll put five on for you on any horse you fancy. What’s your pick?”
“No, not the fiver on Daffodil!”
“I should if it was my own fiver,” said the child.
“Good! Good! Right you are! A fiver for me and a fiver for you on Daffodil.”
The child had never been to a race-meeting before, and his eyes were blue fire. He pursed his mouth tight and watched. A Frenchman just in front had put his money on Lancelot. Wild with excitement, he flayed his arms up and down, yelling “Lancelot!, Lancelot!” in his French accent.
Daffodil came in first, Lancelot second, Mirza third. The child, flushed and with eyes blazing, was curiously serene. His uncle brought him four five-pound notes, four to one.
“What am I to do with these?” he cried, waving them before the boys eyes.
“I suppose we’ll talk to Bassett,” said the boy. “I expect I have fifteen hundred now; and twenty in reserve; and this twenty.”
His uncle studied him for some moments.
“Look here, son!” he said. “You’re not serious about Bassett and that fifteen hundred, are you?”
“Yes, I am. But it’s between you and me, uncle. Honour bright?”
“Honour bright all right, son! But I must talk to Bassett.”
“If you’d like to be a partner, uncle, with Bassett and me, we could all be partners. Only, you’d have to promise, honour bright, uncle, not to let it go beyond us three. Bassett and I are lucky, and you must be lucky, because it was your ten shillings I started winning with …”
Uncle Oscar took both Bassett and Paul into Richmond Park for an afternoon, and there they talked.
“It’s like this, you see, sir,” Bassett said. “Master Paul would get me talking about racing events, spinning yarns, you know, sir. And he was always keen on knowing if I’d made or if I’d lost. It’s about a year since, now, that I put five shillings on Blush of Dawn for him: and we lost. Then the luck turned, with that ten shillings he had from you: that we put on Singhalese. And since that time, it’s been pretty steady, all things considering. What do you say, Master Paul?”
“We’re all right when we’re sure,” said Paul. “It’s when we’re not quite sure that we go down.”
“Oh, but we’re careful then,” said Bassett.
“But when are you sure?” smiled Uncle Oscar.
“It’s Master Paul, sir,” said Bassett in a secret, religious voice. “It’s as if he had it from heaven. Like Daffodil, now, for the Lincoln. That was as sure as eggs.”
“Did you put anything on Daffodil?” asked Oscar Cresswell.
“Yes, sir, I made my bit.”
“And my nephew?”
Bassett was obstinately silent, looking at Paul.
“I made twelve hundred, didn’t I, Bassett? I told uncle I was putting three hundred on Daffodil.”
“That’s right,” said Bassett, nodding.
“But where’s the money?” asked the uncle.
“I keep it safe locked up, sir. Master Paul he can have it any minute he likes to ask for it.”
“What, fifteen hundred pounds?”
“And twenty! And forty, that is, with the twenty he made on the course.”
“It’s amazing!” said the uncle.
“If Master Paul offers you to be partners, sir, I would, if I were you: if you’ll excuse me,” said Bassett.
Oscar Cresswell thought about it.
“I’ll see the money,” he said.
They drove home again, and, sure enough, Bassett came round to the garden-house with fifteen hundred pounds in notes. The twenty pounds reserve was left with Joe Glee, in the Turf Commission deposit.
“You see, it’s all right, uncle, when I’m sure! Then we go strong, for all we’re worth, don’t we, Bassett?”
“We do that, Master Paul.”
“And when are you sure?” said the uncle, laughing.
“Oh, well, sometimes I’m absolutely sure, like about Daffodil,” said the boy; “and sometimes I have an idea; and sometimes I haven’t even an idea, have I, Bassett? Then we’re careful, because we mostly go down.”
“You do, do you! And when you’re sure, like about Daffodil, what makes you sure, sonny?”
“Oh, well, I don’t know,” said the boy uneasily. “I’m sure, you know, uncle; that’s all.”
“It’s as if he had it from heaven, sir,” Bassett reiterated.
“I should say so!” said the uncle.
But he became a partner. And when the Leger was coming on Paul was ‘sure’ about Lively Spark, which was a quite inconsiderable horse. The boy insisted on putting a thousand on the horse, Bassett went for five hundred, and Oscar Cresswell two hundred. Lively Spark came in first, and the betting had been ten to one against him. Paul had made ten thousand.
“You see,” he said. “I was absolutely sure of him.”
Even Oscar Cresswell had cleared two thousand.
“Look here, son,” he said, “this sort of thing makes me nervous.”
“It needn’t, uncle! Perhaps I shan’t be sure again for a long time.”
“But what are you going to do with your money?” asked the uncle.
“Of course,” said the boy, “I started it for mother. She said she had no luck, because father is unlucky, so I thought if I was lucky, it might stop whispering.”
“What might stop whispering?”
“Our house. I hate our house for whispering.”
“What does it whisper?”
“Why – why” – the boy fidgeted – “why, I don’t know. But it’s always short of money, you know, uncle.”
“I know it, son, I know it.”
“You know people send mother writs, don’t you, uncle?”
“I’m afraid I do,” said the uncle.
“And then the house whispers, like people laughing at you behind your back. It’s awful, that is! I thought if I was lucky -“
“You might stop it,” added the uncle.
The boy watched him with big blue eyes, that had an uncanny cold fire in them, and he said never a word.
“Well, then!” said the uncle. “What are we doing?”
“I shouldn’t like mother to know I was lucky,” said the boy.
“Why not, son?”
“She’d stop me.”
“I don’t think she would.”
“Oh!” – and the boy writhed in an odd way – “I don’t want her to know, uncle.”
“All right, son! We’ll manage it without her knowing.”
They managed it very easily. Paul, at the other’s suggestion, handed over five thousand pounds to his uncle, who deposited it with the family lawyer, who was then to inform Paul’s mother that a relative had put five thousand pounds into his hands, which sum was to be paid out a thousand pounds at a time, on the mother’s birthday, for the next five years.
“So she’ll have a birthday present of a thousand pounds for five successive years,” said Uncle Oscar. “I hope it won’t make it all the harder for her later.”
Paul’s mother had her birthday in November. The house had been ‘whispering’ worse than ever lately, and, even in spite of his luck, Paul could not bear up against it. He was very anxious to see the effect of the birthday letter, telling his mother about the thousand pounds.
When there were no visitors, Paul now took his meals with his parents, as he was beyond the nursery control. His mother went into town nearly every day. She had discovered that she had an odd knack of sketching furs and dress materials, so she worked secretly in the studio of a friend who was the chief ‘artist’ for the leading drapers. She drew the figures of ladies in furs and ladies in silk and sequins for the newspaper advertisements. This young woman artist earned several thousand pounds a year, but Paul’s mother only made several hundreds, and she was again dissatisfied. She so wanted to be first in something, and she did not succeed, even in making sketches for drapery advertisements.
She was down to breakfast on the morning of her birthday. Paul watched her face as she read her letters. He knew the lawyer’s letter. As his mother read it, her face hardened and became more expressionless. Then a cold, determined look came on her mouth. She hid the letter under the pile of others, and said not a word about it.
“Didn’t you have anything nice in the post for your birthday, mother?” said Paul.
“Quite moderately nice,” she said, her voice cold and hard and absent.
She went away to town without saying more.
But in the afternoon Uncle Oscar appeared. He said Paul’s mother had had a long interview with the lawyer, asking if the whole five thousand could not be advanced at once, as she was in debt.
“What do you think, uncle?” said the boy.
“I leave it to you, son.”
“Oh, let her have it, then! We can get some more with the other,” said the boy.
“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush, laddie!” said Uncle Oscar.
“But I’m sure to know for the Grand National; or the Lincolnshire; or else the Derby. I’m sure to know for one of them,” said Paul.
So Uncle Oscar signed the agreement, and Paul’s mother touched the whole five thousand. Then something very curious happened. The voices in the house suddenly went mad, like a chorus of frogs on a spring evening. There were certain new furnishings, and Paul had a tutor. He was really going to Eton, his father’s school, in the following autumn. There were flowers in the winter, and a blossoming of the luxury Paul’s mother had been used to. And yet the voices in the house, behind the sprays of mimosa and almond-blossom, and from under the piles of iridescent cushions, simply trilled and screamed in a sort of ecstasy: “There must be more money! Oh-h-h; there must be more money. Oh, now, now-w! Now-w-w – there must be more money! – more than ever! More than ever!”
It frightened Paul terribly. He studied away at his Latin and Greek with his tutor. But his intense hours were spent with Bassett. The Grand National had gone by: he had not ‘known’, and had lost a hundred pounds. Summer was at hand. He was in agony for the Lincoln. But even for the Lincoln he didn’t ‘know’, and he lost fifty pounds. He became wild-eyed and strange, as if something were going to explode in him.
“Let it alone, son! Don’t you bother about it!” urged Uncle Oscar. But it was as if the boy couldn’t really hear what his uncle was saying.
“I’ve got to know for the Derby! I’ve got to know for the Derby!” the child reiterated, his big blue eyes blazing with a sort of madness.
His mother noticed how overwrought he was.
“You’d better go to the seaside. Wouldn’t you like to go now to the seaside, instead of waiting? I think you’d better,” she said, looking down at him anxiously, her heart curiously heavy because of him.
But the child lifted his uncanny blue eyes.
“I couldn’t possibly go before the Derby, mother!” he said. “I couldn’t possibly!”
“Why not?” she said, her voice becoming heavy when she was opposed. “Why not? You can still go from the seaside to see the Derby with your Uncle Oscar, if that that’s what you wish. No need for you to wait here. Besides, I think you care too much about these races. It’s a bad sign. My family has been a gambling family, and you won’t know till you grow up how much damage it has done. But it has done damage. I shall have to send Bassett away, and ask Uncle Oscar not to talk racing to you, unless you promise to be reasonable about it: go away to the seaside and forget it. You’re all nerves!”
“I’ll do what you like, mother, so long as you don’t send me away till after the Derby,” the boy said.
“Send you away from where? Just from this house?”
“Yes,” he said, gazing at her.
“Why, you curious child, what makes you care about this house so much, suddenly? I never knew you loved it.”
He gazed at her without speaking. He had a secret within a secret, something he had not divulged, even to Bassett or to his Uncle Oscar.
But his mother, after standing undecided and a little bit sullen for some moments, said: “Very well, then! Don’t go to the seaside till after the Derby, if you don’t wish it. But promise me you won’t think so much about horse-racing and events as you call them!”
“Oh no,” said the boy casually. “I won’t think much about them, mother. You needn’t worry. I wouldn’t worry, mother, if I were you.”
“If you were me and I were you,” said his mother, “I wonder what we should do!”
“But you know you needn’t worry, mother, don’t you?” the boy repeated.
“I should be awfully glad to know it,” she said wearily.
“Oh, well, you can, you know. I mean, you ought to know you needn’t worry,” he insisted.
“Ought I? Then I’ll see about it,” she said.
Paul’s secret of secrets was his wooden horse, that which had no name. Since he was emancipated from a nurse and a nursery-governess, he had had his rocking-horse removed to his own bedroom at the top of the house.
“Surely you’re too big for a rocking-horse!” his mother had remonstrated.
“Well, you see, mother, till I can have a real horse, I like to have some sort of animal about,” had been his quaint answer.
“Do you feel he keeps you company?” she laughed.
“Oh yes! He’s very good, he always keeps me company, when I’m there,” said Paul.
So the horse, rather shabby, stood in an arrested prance in the boy’s bedroom.
The Derby was drawing near, and the boy grew more and more tense. He hardly heard what was spoken to him, he was very frail, and his eyes were really uncanny. His mother had sudden strange seizures of uneasiness about him. Sometimes, for half an hour, she would feel a sudden anxiety about him that was almost anguish. She wanted to rush to him at once, and know he was safe.
Two nights before the Derby, she was at a big party in town, when one of her rushes of anxiety about her boy, her first-born, gripped her heart till she could hardly speak. She fought with the feeling, might and main, for she believed in common sense. But it was too strong. She had to leave the dance and go downstairs to telephone to the country. The children’s nursery-governess was terribly surprised and startled at being rung up in the night.
“Are the children all right, Miss Wilmot?”
“Oh yes, they are quite all right.”
“Master Paul? Is he all right?”
“He went to bed as right as a trivet. Shall I run up and look at him?”
“No,” said Paul’s mother reluctantly. “No! Don’t trouble. It’s all right. Don’t sit up. We shall be home fairly soon.” She did not want her son’s privacy intruded upon.
“Very good,” said the governess.
It was about one o’clock when Paul’s mother and father drove up to their house. All was still. Paul’s mother went to her room and slipped off her white fur cloak. She had told her maid not to wait up for her. She heard her husband downstairs, mixing a whisky and soda.
And then, because of the strange anxiety at her heart, she stole upstairs to her son’s room. Noiselessly she went along the upper corridor. Was there a faint noise? What was it?
She stood, with arrested muscles, outside his door, listening. There was a strange, heavy, and yet not loud noise. Her heart stood still. It was a soundless noise, yet rushing and powerful. Something huge, in violent, hushed motion. What was it? What in God’s name was it? She ought to know. She felt that she knew the noise. She knew what it was.
Yet she could not place it. She couldn’t say what it was. And on and on it went, like a madness.
Softly, frozen with anxiety and fear, she turned the door-handle.
The room was dark. Yet in the space near the window, she heard and saw something plunging to and fro. She gazed in fear and amazement.
Then suddenly she switched on the light, and saw her son, in his green pyjamas, madly surging on the rocking-horse. The blaze of light suddenly lit him up, as he urged the wooden horse, and lit her up, as she stood, blonde, in her dress of pale green and crystal, in the doorway.
“Paul!” she cried. “Whatever are you doing?”
“It’s Malabar!” he screamed in a powerful, strange voice. “It’s Malabar!”
His eyes blazed at her for one strange and senseless second, as he ceased urging his wooden horse. Then he fell with a crash to the ground, and she, all her tormented motherhood flooding upon her, rushed to gather him up.
But he was unconscious, and unconscious he remained, with some brain-fever. He talked and tossed, and his mother sat stonily by his side.
“Malabar! It’s Malabar! Bassett, Bassett, I know! It’s Malabar!”
So the child cried, trying to get up and urge the rocking-horse that gave him his inspiration.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” asked the heart-frozen mother.
“I don’t know,” said the father stonily.
“What does he mean by Malabar?” she asked her brother Oscar.
“It’s one of the horses running for the Derby,” was the answer.
And, in spite of himself, Oscar Cresswell spoke to Bassett, and himself put a thousand on Malabar: at fourteen to one.
The third day of the illness was critical: they were waiting for a change. The boy, with his rather long, curly hair, was tossing ceaselessly on the pillow. He neither slept nor regained consciousness, and his eyes were like blue stones. His mother sat, feeling her heart had gone, turned actually into a stone.
In the evening Oscar Cresswell did not come, but Bassett sent a message, saying could he come up for one moment, just one moment? Paul’s mother was very angry at the intrusion, but on second thoughts she agreed. The boy was the same. Perhaps Bassett might bring him to consciousness.
The gardener, a shortish fellow with a little brown moustache and sharp little brown eyes, tiptoed into the room, touched his imaginary cap to Paul’s mother, and stole to the bedside, staring with glittering, smallish eyes at the tossing, dying child.
“Master Paul!” he whispered. “Master Paul! Malabar came in first all right, a clean win. I did as you told me. You’ve made over seventy thousand pounds, you have; you’ve got over eighty thousand. Malabar came in all right, Master Paul.”
“Malabar! Malabar! Did I say Malabar, mother? Did I say Malabar? Do you think I’m lucky, mother? I knew Malabar, didn’t I? Over eighty thousand pounds! I call that lucky, don’t you, mother? Over eighty thousand pounds! I knew, didn’t I know I knew? Malabar came in all right. If I ride my horse till I’m sure, then I tell you, Bassett, you can go as high as you like. Did you go for all you were worth, Bassett?”
“I went a thousand on it, Master Paul.”
“I never told you, mother, that if I can ride my horse, and get there, then I’m absolutely sure – oh, absolutely! Mother, did I ever tell you? I am lucky!”
“No, you never did,” said his mother.
But the boy died in the night.
And even as he lay dead, his mother heard her brother’s voice saying to her, “My God, Hester, you’re eighty-odd thousand to the good, and a poor devil of a son to the bad. But, poor devil, poor devil, he’s best gone out of a life where he rides his rocking-horse to find a winner.”
“To whom shall I tell my grief?”
The twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off… His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.
It is a long time since Iona and his nag have budged. They came out of the yard before dinnertime and not a single fare yet. But now the shades of evening are falling on the town. The pale light of the street lamps changes to a vivid color, and the bustle of the street grows noisier.
“Sledge to Vyborgskaya!” Iona hears. “Sledge!”
Iona starts, and through his snow-plastered eyelashes sees an officer in a military overcoat with a hood over his head.
“To Vyborgskaya,” repeats the officer. “Are you asleep? To Vyborgskaya!”
In token of assent Iona gives a tug at the reins which sends cakes of snow flying from the horse’s back and shoulders. The officer gets into the sledge. The sledge-driver clicks to the horse, cranes his neck like a swan, rises in his seat, and more from habit than necessity brandishes his whip. The mare cranes her neck, too, crooks her stick-like legs, and hesitatingly sets of…
“Where are you shoving, you devil?” Iona immediately hears shouts from the dark mass shifting to and fro before him. “Where the devil are you going? Keep to the r-right!”
“You don’t know how to drive! Keep to the right,” says the officer angrily.
A coachman driving a carriage swears at him; a pedestrian crossing the road and brushing the horse’s nose with his shoulder looks at him angrily and shakes the snow off his sleeve. Iona fidgets on the box as though he were sitting on thorns, jerks his elbows, and turns his eyes about like one possessed as though he did not know where he was or why he was there.
“What rascals they all are!” says the officer jocosely. “They are simply doing their best to run up against you or fall under the horse’s feet. They must be doing it on purpose.”
Iona looks as his fare and moves his lips… Apparently he means to say something, but nothing comes but a sniff.
“What?” inquires the officer.
Iona gives a wry smile, and straining his throat, brings out huskily: “My son… er… my son died this week, sir.”
“H’m! What did he die of?”
Iona turns his whole body round to his fare, and says:
“Who can tell! It must have been from fever… He lay three days in the hospital and then he died… God’s will.”
“Turn round, you devil!” comes out of the darkness. “Have you gone cracked, you old dog? Look where you are going!”
“Drive on! drive on!…” says the officer. “We shan’t get there till to-morrow going on like this. Hurry up!”
The sledge-driver cranes his neck again, rises in his seat, and with heavy grace swings his whip. Several times he looks round at the officer, but the latter keeps his eyes shut and is apparently disinclined to listen. Putting his fare down at Vyborgskaya, Iona stops by a restaurant, and again sits huddled up on the box… Again the wet snow paints him and his horse white. One hour passes, and then another…
Three young men, two tall and thin, one short and hunchbacked, come up, railing at each other and loudly stamping on the pavement with their goloshes.
“Cabby, to the Police Bridge!” the hunchback cries in a cracked voice. “The three of us,… twenty kopecks!”
Iona tugs at the reins and clicks to his horse. Twenty kopecks is not a fair price, but he has no thoughts for that. Whether it is a rouble or whether it is five kopecks does not matter to him now so long as he has a fare… The three young men, shoving each other and using bad language, go up to the sledge, and all three try to sit down at once. The question remains to be settled: Which are to sit down and which one is to stand? After a long altercation, ill-temper, and abuse, they come to the conclusion that the hunchback must stand because he is the shortest.
“Well, drive on,” says the hunchback in his cracked voice, settling himself and breathing down Iona’s neck. “Cut along! What a cap you’ve got, my friend! You wouldn’t find a worse one in all Petersburg…”
“He-he!… he-he!…” laughs Iona. “It’s nothing to boast of!”
“Well, then, nothing to boast of, drive on! Are you going to drive like this all the way? Eh? Shall I give you one in the neck?”
“My head aches,” says one of the tall ones. “At the Dukmasovs’ yesterday Vaska and I drank four bottles of brandy between us.”
“I can’t make out why you talk such stuff,” says the other tall one angrily. “You lie like a brute.”
“Strike me dead, it’s the truth!…”
“It’s about as true as that a louse coughs.”
“He-he!” grins Iona. “Me-er-ry gentlemen!”
“Tfoo! the devil take you!” cries the hunchback indignantly. “Will you get on, you old plague, or won’t you? Is that the way to drive? Give her one with the whip. Hang it all, give it to her well.”
Iona feels behind his back the jolting person and quivering voice of the hunchback. He hears abuse addressed to him, he sees people, and the feeling of loneliness begins little by little to be less heavy on his heart. The hunchback swears at him, till he chokes over some elaborately whimsical string of epithets and is overpowered by his cough. His tall companions begin talking of a certain Nadyezhda Petrovna. Iona looks round at them. Waiting till there is a brief pause, he looks round once more and says:
“This week… er… my… er… son died!”
“We shall all die,…” says the hunchback with a sigh, wiping his lips after coughing. “Come, drive on! drive on! My friends, I simply cannot stand crawling like this! When will he get us there?”
“Well, you give him a little encouragement… one in the neck!”
“Do you hear, you old plague? I’ll make you smart. If one stands on ceremony with fellows like you one may as well walk. Do you hear, you old dragon? Or don’t you care a hang what we say?”
And Iona hears rather than feels a slap on the back of his neck.
“He-he!…” he laughs. “Merry gentlemen… God give you health!”
“Cabman, are you married?” asks one of the tall ones.
“I? He he! Me-er-ry gentlemen. The only wife for me now is the damp earth… He-ho-ho!… The grave that is!… Here my son’s dead and I am alive… It’s a strange thing, death has come in at the wrong door… Instead of coming for me it went for my son…”
And Iona turns round to tell them how his son died, but at that point the hunchback gives a faint sigh and announces that, thank God! they have arrived at last. After taking his twenty kopecks, Iona gazes for a long while after the revelers, who disappear into a dark entry. Again he is alone and again there is silence for him… The misery which has been for a brief space eased comes back again and tears his heart more cruelly than ever. With a look of anxiety and suffering Iona’s eyes stray restlessly among the crowds moving to and fro on both sides of the street: can he not find among those thousands someone who will listen to him? But the crowds flit by heedless of him and his misery… His misery is immense, beyond all bounds. If Iona’s heart were to burst and his misery to flow out, it would flood the whole world, it seems, but yet it is not seen. It has found a hiding-place in such an insignificant shell that one would not have found it with a candle by daylight…
Iona sees a house-porter with a parcel and makes up his mind to address him.
“What time will it be, friend?” he asks.
“Going on for ten… Why have you stopped here? Drive on!”
Iona drives a few paces away, bends himself double, and gives himself up to his misery. He feels it is no good to appeal to people. But before five minutes have passed he draws himself up, shakes his head as though he feels a sharp pain, and tugs at the reins… He can bear it no longer.
“Back to the yard!” he thinks. “To the yard!”
And his little mare, as though she knew his thoughts, falls to trotting. An hour and a half later Iona is sitting by a big dirty stove. On the stove, on the floor, and on the benches are people snoring. The air is full of smells and stuffiness. Iona looks at the sleeping figures, scratches himself, and regrets that he has come home so early…
“I have not earned enough to pay for the oats, even,” he thinks. “That’s why I am so miserable. A man who knows how to do his work,… who has had enough to eat, and whose horse has had enough to eat, is always at ease…”
In one of the corners a young cabman gets up, clears his throat sleepily, and makes for the water-bucket.
“Want a drink?” Iona asks him.
“May it do you good… But my son is dead, mate… Do you hear? This week in the hospital… It’s a queer business…”
Iona looks to see the effect produced by his words, but he sees nothing. The young man has covered his head over and is already asleep. The old man sighs and scratches himself… Just as the young man had been thirsty for water, he thirsts for speech. His son will soon have been dead a week, and he has not really talked to anybody yet… He wants to talk of it properly, with deliberation… He wants to tell how his son was taken ill, how he suffered, what he said before he died, how he died… He wants to describe the funeral, and how he went to the hospital to get his son’s clothes. He still has his daughter Anisya in the country… And he wants to talk about her too… Yes, he has plenty to talk about now. His listener ought to sigh and exclaim and lament… It would be even better to talk to women. Though they are silly creatures, they blubber at the first word.
“Let’s go out and have a look at the mare,” Iona thinks. “There is always time for sleep… You’ll have sleep enough, no fear…”
He puts on his coat and goes into the stables where his mare is standing. He thinks about oats, about hay, about the weather… He cannot think about his son when he is alone… To talk about him with someone is possible, but to think of him and picture him is insufferable anguish…
“Are you munching?” Iona asks his mare, seeing her shining eyes. “There, munch away, munch away… Since we have not earned enough for oats, we will eat hay… Yes,… I have grown too old to drive… My son ought to be driving, not I… He was a real cabman… He ought to have lived…”
Iona is silent for a while, and then he goes on:
“That’s how it is, old girl… Kuzma Ionitch is gone… He said good-by to me… He went and died for no reason… Now, suppose you had a little colt, and you were own mother to that little colt. … And all at once that same little colt went and died… You’d be sorry, wouldn’t you?…”
The little mare munches, listens, and breathes on her master’s hands. Iona is carried away and tells her all about it.
The incident with my wife occurred during an excursion into the jungle. It was an overwhelmingly green afternoon, the kind of thing you boast about to your guests. (“The sun that evening was incredible, wasn’t it? We were terrified.”) Nonetheless, our canoe continued to slide impassively upriver. I checked my pocket watch every minute. It’s a habit.
“Boys, look at those ants eating a native on the shore there!”
“Yes, Daddy, we see them,” my boys answered.
Where we were going, I don’t really know, but I had promised myself a pleasant afternoon with Loretta and my two chubby sons. The four of us all together, listening to the screeching of the mandrills in the undergrowth, perhaps allowing ourselves to be a little scared (a small, manageable knot in the stomach) when night fell and we hadn’t yet made camp. Around dusk, my favourite time of day, we might well have seen a pair of fiery pupils stalking us in the darkness from behind the tree-line. We could have made a fire. We could have enjoyed the experience as a family.
“Do you like beasts, honey? Are you having a good time?” I asked my wife innocently as I stroked her knee in suggestive circles.
But Loretta didn’t answer. Sitting on the side of the canoe, she was staring intensely, with real desire, at the river, her thoughts far away. That was fine by me; even a wife needs her space every now and again. I didn’t give it a second thought.
Later I said, “Look, a tribe of head-hunters is waving to us. Be polite, boys. Clasp your hands together on three.”
That was more or less it. Nothing out of the ordinary. I do remember, however, that as the canoe went on, hugging the shore, we heard whole trees shaking, as though something huge were stomping along the path beside us and occasionally getting stuck in the foliage. My sons were complaining heartily about the tuxedos I had made them wear, but I have to say that their elegant, straight-backed, ambassadorial bearing, copious sweating and swatting at the mosquitoes buzzing about their necks was the very embodiment of the world where one walks on two feet and drinks Dry Martinis but leaves the olive glistening and untouched. I now know that I was right. I remember that shortly before Loretta stood up to say something my fattest son asked me if they could jump into the water and swim over to the caimans. My two sons may be fat, but they have dangerous ideas.
“Daddy, can we jump into the water to kiss those lovely crocodiles?” he asked, making an abandoned reptile face.
“No, you can’t.”
“Please, Daddy, please!” they shouted together.
“I said no. Look at the jungle. It’s magnificent.”
It was then that I saw Loretta stir in her elegant way. I watched as she stood up, struggling to keep her balance in the canoe, and adjusted her red hair and the neckline of her white dress. Then she fixed us with a wild, bereft glare.
“I can’t stand you,” she declared.
“What was that, honey?” I asked.
“I can’t stand you. I can’t bear another minute with you. I want a life.”
And then Loretta dived sleekly into the water and started to swim upriver. On such occasions it is perfectly possible to master one’s sense of panic. One might easily, for example, feel like banging one’s head against the wall until one’s skull is soundly crushed. Not me. At that moment I was thinking about everything I didn’t know about her. Simply put, I didn’t know that she could swim. On other outings to, I don’t know, the seaside or that ghostly pool our neighbours have in Baltimore, Loretta had never expressed any interest in swimming. She ate black olives and entertained herself with pictures of washing machines, but she never once suggested a swim. I watched incredulously as she cut through the river at a great pace, like an Olympic champion, rising and falling with indomitable freedom until we lost sight of her in the distance.
“You’ll catch a cold, honey,” I shouted absurdly, thinking that she would come back.
Only a couple more things worth mentioning happened on that afternoon excursion. I confess that I felt confused and depressed. My pocket watch had stopped for no obvious reason (which is bad enough), and the trees continued to shake as we went along. We started to find Loretta’s clothes floating downstream. Pieces of her white dress, which we quickly stowed in the bow. Her final messages to her family. I thought that at any moment we’d find a stream of blood floating down the river, some sign that Loretta had been devoured or that she herself had taken a chunk out of some river animal’s neck. I thought that at least then my sons and I would be able to touch Loretta’s sweet blood in the water and smell her one last time. That would have been nice. It would have been a sign of acceptance. But nothing like that happened, and soon enough I smacked right into the rock of reality. Another mass of yellow trees shook violently. I caught my breath as I saw a fifteen-metre-high primate push a boulder out of its way, stamp a couple of rotten tree trunks into smithereens and walk off towards the horizon with my wife – I’m pretty sure it was her because she was naked – cradled tenderly in its fist. Loretta was giving him orders and pointing at something out of sight. Well, the giant ape seemed, if not happy, then at least compliant.
“A monkey, a monkey!” My sons shouted. They didn’t understand what was going on. “We need to show it to Mummy. A monkey!”
I had to tell them to shut up. I leaned towards them, looked them straight in the eyes (with the seriousness with which someone once looked at me) and adjusted their bow-ties. Then I adjusted my own. I felt obliged to speak to them in a loud, clear voice.
“Dignity, my sons. Above all, one must be dignified.” I could feel the desolation growing within me as I spoke. “On my signal, the three of us shall raise our hands to the horizon. We’re going to pretend – concentrate hard now – that we’re holding Dry Martinis. The sun and the jungle must be reflected in the glass. It’s all we have left.”
An hour later we paddled the canoe to the shore. It was the first time we had ever been alone in the jungle or the world. I wondered how I could possibly explain to my sons what had happened. And also whether Loretta was in an ancient cave somewhere, sitting astride the primate’s palm in the darkness, making rules about their future living arrangements. I don’t remember why we hadn’t yet made a fire, but I told my boys that they were free to do what they liked.
“Go on, go and hunt us something big. That’ll keep you entertained for a while, and you can give Daddy some time to himself.”
“Great!” they shouted. “Can we skin it?”
“You may,” I replied. “But don’t make too much noise.”
They loosened their bow-ties with relief, and their eyes lit up (for a moment they reminded me of jungle beasts themselves), then they set off into the jungle without further ado. Once they had got far enough away I made a fire from a supply of dry wood we kept in the canoe. After a few minutes the green, skeletal flames were leaping in front of me, and I found myself staring into the fire with a sadness I’d never known before. I even considered jumping into it and doing away with myself. I was thus entranced when suddenly I heard a rustling in the bushes.
“Boys,” I whispered. “Enough playing with carnivorous beasts. Come back.”
There was a roar in the distance; it was soft and crystalline, swarming over the branches, the trail and the bluish rocks and boulders. A roar so huge and yet so familiar that for a moment I was scared and picked up a sharpened stick to stand guard. My legs were shaking so much that I could barely keep myself upright. I soon realized that it wasn’t the ape. Certainly not. It was Loretta roaring into the blue night from some unknown location.
The terrifying roar grew louder.
A few hours later, before my sons came back to me and we went to sleep clinging to each other, I stupidly decided to sign one of the trees. I took out my knife and, trembling, carved my name and that of my wife. Then I locked the names close together in a heart, and, underneath, with my head bowed so no one could see the tears in my eyes, I wrote a date that wasn’t and never would be any different from any other.
Paul Espeseth, who was no longer taking the antidepressant Celexa, braced himself for a cataclysm at SeaWorld. He wondered only what form cataclysm would take. Espeseth had tried to veto this trip, making his case to his wife with a paraphrase of a cable-television exposé of the ocean theme park, one that neither he nor his wife had seen. Instead, his wife had performed judo on his argument, saying, “The girls should see these things they love before they vanish from the earth entirely.”
So here he was. The first step, it seemed, involved flamingos. After he had hustled his four-year-old twins through the turnstiles and past the souvenirs, the stuffed-animal versions of the species they’d come to confront in fleshly actuality, his family followed the park’s contours and were met with the birds. Their red-black cipher heads bobbed on pink, tight-feathered stalks, floating above the heads of a crowd of fresh entrants.
“Wait your turn, girls,” his wife said. Yet, seeing that no turns were being taken, Espeseth led Chloe and Deirdre by the hands and together they jostled forward into the mob to find a vantage on the birds. His wife stayed back, tending the double stroller draped with their junk. Closer, Espeseth saw that the birds were trapped on an island, a neat-mowed mound of grass ringed with a small fence and signs saying “Please Do Not Feed.”
“Can you see them?” he stage-whispered down at the girls, as if the clump of exotic birds were something wild spotted in the distance, a flock that could bolt and depart. Really, they’d had some crucial feather clipped, rendering them flightless, the equivalent of crippling an opponent in a fight by slicing his Achilles tendon. The birds had no prospect of retreat from the barrage of screaming families pushing their youngest near enough for a cell-phone pic.
“I’m scared,” Deirdre said.
“They’re scared, too,” he told her. As am I. The flamingos were the first thing for which nothing could have prepared him. Having already watched with his girls a hundred YouTube videos of orcas, having already scissored magazine pictures of orcas and cuddled his children to sleep in beds full of stuffed orcas, Paul Espeseth had hardened his soul in readiness for orcas—their muscular poignancy, their mute drama, the chance that they might in full view and to a soundtrack of inspirational music disarticulate one of their neoprene-suited trainers at the elbow or the neck. But the designers of the park had outsmarted him, softened him up with flamingos, like a casual round of cigarette burns to the rib cage, preceding a waterboarding.
The girls found their boldness and pushed up to the front, then relented, and were supplanted in turn by other eager, deprived children, presenting their faces in what he imagined was for the birds a wave of florid psychosis. In the context of their species, these flamingos were like space voyagers, those who’d return with tales beyond telling. Except that they’d never return. You might as well have immersed the birds in a bathysphere and introduced them to the orcas, or dosed their food with lysergic acid.
“Let’s go,” he said, tugging the twins away. Their morsel hands had begun to sweat in his, or he’d begun to sweat onto them. “There’s a lot . . . else.”
“Orca show!” both girls yelped. It was what they’d come for.
“The show starts at eleven,” he told them. “We’ve got a little time. And there’s stuff on the way. Sharks.” He’d gathered the implications of the map at a glance: short of parachuting in, you couldn’t get to Shamu Stadium without first passing other enticements. He steered for sharks and giant tortoises, if only as a gambit for skirting the Sesame Street Bay of Play, and a roller coaster called Manta. He had standards. SeaWorld should keep the promise of its name: close encounters with fathoms-deep fauna, not birds, not Elmo, not Princess Leia or Cap’n Crunch. He hardly felt in command of his family’s progress here, as they curved on the pathways. He felt squeezed into grooves of expertly predicted responses and behavior, of expenditures of sweat and hilarity and currency from his wallet and also his soul. He was as helpless as a pinball coursing in a tabletop machine. Not one of those simple and friendly, gently decaying machines he’d known in Minneapolis arcades in the seventies, either, but a raging, pulsing nineties-type of pinball machine, half a dozen neon paddles slapping at his brain.
It seemed too much to hope for another Legoland miracle. Two months earlier, Espeseth and his wife and their twin daughters had gone south to visit Legoland. Legoland had been tolerable. Legoland had had variations, textures, edges. It featured some bad zones, including, outstandingly, the bogus municipality called Fun Town, but others were O.K., better than O.K., like the clutch of restaurants on Castle Hill. There, while the twins got their picture taken with the Queen, and jousted on Lego horses riveted to a train track, he’d been able to sneak off to Castle Ice Cream and obtain a double espresso. That had been something. Hidden with his espresso in a shady quadrant of the castle courtyard, he’d silently toasted his daughters as they’d one after the other rounded the rail. Though he supposed he had Legoland to blame: its tolerability had led him too easily into agreeing to SeaWorld, which even on Celexa, he now saw, would have been another prospect entirely.
His shrink, Irving Renker, had given him a warning about the effects of leaching Celexa from his brain. Espeseth had at the time of the conversation been free of the medicine for just two days. He was quitting under Renker’s guidance, such as it was. “Prepare yourself,” Renker told him. “You might see bums and pickpockets.”
“See in the sense of hallucinate?”
“No,” Renker said. “You won’t hallucinate. I mean see in the sense of notice. You may disproportionately notice bums and pickpockets. Creeps. Perverts. Even amputees.”
Irving Renker was a Jewish New Yorker who’d crawled out of his archetype like a lobster from its shell, still conforming to that shell’s remorseless shape but wandering around fresh, tender, and amazed. Renker advocated physical exercise, and could be seen navigating the crests of Santa Barbara’s hills on his bicycle, wearing a helmet and shades as well as an office-ready sweater, blue slacks, and leather-soled shoes. Espeseth had never seen him in the flats, let alone near the beach. He suspected that Renker’s wife did all their grocery shopping. Renker’s office was in an in-law apartment nestled in the scrubby hills behind the psychiatrist’s home, itself raised on stilts to meet the angle of the terrain. Renker’s front-window drapes were always drawn, thwarting curious eyes. Was there a secret intellectual-Jew hovel there, with book-lined shelves, Sigmundian fetish masks, funky, unfumigatable Persian carpets? No way to know. The consultation room was bland: framed abstract watercolors, beige upholstery, brass clock.
Renker’s conversation included, along with the phrases “Keep it simple” and “Don’t overthink,” terms like “black folks,” “Oriental,” “gypped,” and “bum.” Once, as Espeseth reminisced at length about sitting with his three brothers in the front seat of his father’s pickup truck on a fishing expedition, Renker had murmured, “Yes, yes, that’s known as ‘riding Mexican.’ ”
Espeseth never confronted or corrected his shrink. Instead, he’d gently offer examples of appropriate speech, in this case by replying, “Does this mean that the Celexa was, what, making me blind to homeless people? Or more likely to get robbed?”
“It’s a question of emphasis,” Renker said. “You may tend to notice scumbags, to the detriment of those standing to the right and the left of them. I don’t want to suggest you’ll become paranoid, but you may also project scumbaggery onto ordinary people.” That his shrink believed in “ordinary people” was a bad sign if Espeseth dwelled on it; he tried not to. It was what Renker said next that he couldn’t shake off. “In withdrawal from Celexa some patients have described a kind of atmosphere of rot or corruption or peril creeping around the edges of the everyday world, a thing no one but they can identify. A colleague of mine labelled this ‘grub-in-meat syndrome.’ Better to be prepared than have it sneak up on you.”
No one, not shrink Renker, not Espeseth’s wife, certainly not the twins, no human listener outside the containment zone of his skull, knew that Paul Espeseth had renamed himself Pending Vegan. His secret name was a symptom, if it should be considered a symptom, that had overtaken him months before he quit the Celexa. Could it be a side effect? He’d hoped it would abate when he went off the drug. No such luck. Pending Vegan wasn’t completely sorry. His new name was a mortification, yes, but he clung to it, for it also held some promise of an exalted life, one just beyond reach.
How had his researches begun? Espeseth, when that had been his only name, had checked out of Santa Barbara’s public library a popular account of the world’s collapse into unsustainability under the weight of its human population. He’d gone from that to reading several famous polemics against the cruelty of farms and slaughterhouses. Next, a book called “Fear of the Animal Planet,” which detailed acts of beastly revenge upon human civilization. It was then that Espeseth felt himself becoming Pending Vegan. A knowledge had been born inside him, the development of which only inertia and embarrassment and conformity could slow. Fortunately or unfortunately, Pending Vegan was rich in these delaying properties.
The great obstacle would be in explaining his decision to his daughters. Pending
Vegan admired Chloe’s and Deirdre’s negotiation between their native animal-love and the pleasures of meat-eating. It struck him as a hard-won sophistication, something like F. Scott Fitzgerald’s capacity to keep two opposed ideas in mind at the same time. The girls’ early rites of passage seemed to consist mainly of such paradox-absorbing efforts. That, for instance, Mommy and Daddy fought but loved each other. That human beings were miraculous and shyness ought to be overcome, yet also that they should violently distrust the too eager stranger as a probable monster. That an hour of television or the iPad should be judged an intoxicating surfeit, while parents binged on screens at every opportunity. Pending Vegan routinely spent three hours sitting on the couch, watching his football team lose. The Vikings, talisman of his ancestral roots. Yet, unlike the Redskins and the Chiefs, they never had their name and logo criticized as racist. No one felt sorry for white people, which might explain his fascination with Jews, who seemed to have it both ways. Had Irving Renker been eavesdropping on Pending Vegan’s thoughts, he would have chortled. Quit drifting.
Civilizing children was pretty much all about inducing cognitive dissonance. His daughters’ balancing of their desire both to cuddle and to devour mammals was their ticket for entry to the human pageant. If Pending Vegan admitted to them that he now believed it wrong to eat animals—even while he still craved the tang of smoky steaks and salt-greasy bacon—he’d lower himself, in their eyes, to a state of childlike moral absolutism. Or perhaps it would be in his own eyes? He’d been Pending now for six months. Some otherworldly future inquisitor, most likely a pearly-gates sentinel with the head of a piglet or a calf, would hold him accountable for this delay, a thing comparable to the period when the Allies had learned of the existence of the death camps yet checked their moral outrage against military-tactical considerations. Nothing had changed in his eating habits or other behaviors. He hadn’t distributed pamphlets or obtained a bumper sticker. Nothing had changed, except that he had awarded himself a secret name.
Boiling in shame, he led his family into the shark-observation area, trudging onto a moving walkway behind other families and their strollers. Another piece of coercive architecture, the passage tunnelled beneath the sharks’ tanks, illuminating the creatures from below, the better to consider their white bellies and jack-o’-lantern grimaces. It struck him now that the park’s design was somehow alimentary. You were being engulfed, digested, shit out.
“I’m scared,” Deirdre said.
“But I’m not,” Chloe said.
Pending Vegan didn’t presume to speak for the sharks. He pointed instead at the glimmer ahead, as the moving walkway ground them out of the darkness.
“Daddy?” Chloe said.
“Are dolphins and killer whales really people’s pets that went back into the sea?”
“Not pets,” Pending Vegan said. “Wild animals. Like pigs.” He shuddered at the proliferating confusion: the girls knew pigs as farm animals. Just that morning he’d been surreptitiously reading a blog named The Call of the Feral. The classes of the subjugated: Pet, Domesticated, Feral, Wild . . .
“Why can’t we have a pet?” Chloe asked.
Pending Vegan’s wife turned to him. He avoided her eyes, but felt them anyway.
“Your father doesn’t like pets,” his wife said.
“Almost time for the eleven-o’clock show!” he said, desperate to change the subject. And so they slugged out of the shark gallery’s gullet into daylight.
All of SeaWorld was squirming.
Grub-in-meat syndrome, the suggestion that Renker had unhelpfully planted, was itself a grub squirming in the meat of Pending Vegan’s mind.
They’d had a Jack Russell terrier, a neutered two-year-old male named Maurice that they’d adopted from a shelter, a total freaking maniac whom his wife had adored and he—well, Pending Vegan had also adored the dog, though it had been like living with a puzzle he couldn’t solve. Maurice moved at bewildering speeds, leaped vertically like an illegal firework, demanded everything, and invaded all their most intimate spaces. And then—and this, the reason that any mention of pets on the part of the girls chastened him, and the reason that his wife’s gaze froze his blood—when Pending Vegan had seen the dog’s behavior around his pregnant wife, he’d banished Maurice from their lives. The dog had been too attentive, too obsessed with her pregnancy, curling itself along her stomach at night as if hatching the twins with its own heat. Maurice had begun snapping at Pending Vegan when he approached his own marital bed. In the third trimester, he’d taken the dog back to the shelter, and though this was barely forgivable, perhaps not forgivable at all, after the babies came Maurice was never mentioned again.
The girls had no way of knowing they’d been womb-cuddled by Maurice, unless their mother one day told them. Chloe and Deirdre instead stanched their mammalian craving with Pixar creatures. Driving here, they’d been attention-glued to video screens mounted on the backs of their parents’ headrests. This spared them the sameness of I-5, its repetitious suburban exits, noise-barrier walls, and dead yellowed hills. Near San Diego, a road sign showed a silhouette of a fleeing Mexican family, like moose or deer, not to be hit in their illegal flight across the freeway’s five lanes. Pending Vegan felt blessed to be excused from explaining it.
Family life, a cataclysm of solitudes.
As a boy he’d endured back-seat travel without the help of movies. Instead he’d directed his gaze out the family station wagon’s windows, past a zillion miles of the Chippewa National Forest, the U.P., and southern portions of Ontario and Manitoba. As a ten-year-old, in his ecology phase, he’d invented a time-killing game, known, like his new name, only to himself. In this fantasy, Espeseth’s parents’ car featured a long invisible knife, like the wing of a plane, which could extend or retract from the side of the station wagon according to his mental instructions. He and his parents were only pretending to be nobodies, the sole Protestant family from the suburb nicknamed St. Jewish Park. In truth, they were emissaries from another world, sent to reclaim the landscape from the intrusions of the human species. He alone was orchestrating the blade, which shot out to lop off each electrical pole and road sign, and retracted to spare as many trees as possible in the effort. Houses, and other cars, it sliced through mercilessly. His fantasy even included an alibi-providing element of delay, which explained both his not getting to see the glorious destruction he’d wreaked and why no human authority was able to locate and neutralize the mysterious force that tore through his surroundings: the sliced objects fell apart five minutes after his family’s car passed by. By this method, the earth would be returned to the flora and fauna.
Lately the image of the invisible blade had returned to Pending Vegan. It would come at the sight of some architectural abomination, or a roadside blighted with billboards. SeaWorld, however, was impervious to the fantasy. Had he begun slicing up this labyrinth of discord, he’d merely murder the creatures trapped within it. By the logic of his childhood fantasy the blade would free the tortoises and the sharks and the porpoises from their tanks, to pour out and die gasping in sunlight on the concrete walkways.
Once inside Shamu Stadium, contra Renker, Pending Vegan noticed no bums and pickpockets. In Shamu Stadium he noticed furloughed military. The soldiers between rotations, out for a day trip with their families, their unfamiliar young children and stoical neglected wives, to see the killer whales. They were knowable by their short haircuts and bicep tattoos, by the wary swivel of their thickened necks. In their upright stolidity it was as though various civilian bodies had all been poured into the same unforgiving mold. Ethnicities reduced to traces in the soldiers were more tangible in the wives and children—in Renkerian terms, mostly black folks, Mexicans, and Orientals. Maybe even a scattering of Gypsies? How to know? Simplify, simplify.
Perhaps it was the servicemen who would provide the calamity that Pending Vegan’s nervous system shrieked for. He envisioned helicopter footage, yellow tape, SWAT teams milling beside inconsolable families. The stadium was a Mayan temple, one waiting for some sacrifice in the blue pool below. Yet, trapped here with five thousand others, Pending Vegan felt for the moment stilled in his crisis. If his voyage through SeaWorld’s tubes and tunnels was a sort of peristalsis, he’d reached its multi-chambered stomach.
And, after the insipid triumphalist overture of music and video and prancing androgynous spandex, when the orcas finally entered the arena and began their leaping, SeaWorld was overwritten by their absolute and devastating presence. By their act of stitching two realms together, sky and water, merely for the delight of a stadium full of children—children who, in response, leaped, too, and vibrated in their seats, and gurgled incoherently, practically speaking in tongues. Other kids, older and more intrepid than his own, raced down to the plastic barrier to be splashed, to stand with their arms flapping. The killer whales, with their Emmett Kelly eyes, were God’s glorious lethal clowns. Their plush muscular bodies were the most unashamed things Pending Vegan had ever seen. Like panda bears redesigned by Albert Speer. Always with the Holocaust references, Renker once said. Why don’t you leave that to us?
The twins sat between him and his wife, holding hands, their eyes wide, their incorruptible appetites overwhelmed.
“Deirdre’s scared,” Chloe said.
“No, I’m not,” Deirdre said. She spoke dreamily, not taking her eyes from the pool. Pending Vegan ached to enclose the girls in some kind of protective partition extending from his damaged soul. But the girls were not enclosable, as the stadium was not enclosable, as the world was not. They were all open to the sky, to whatever rays leaked down through the flayed atmosphere. The girls were open to the sky and to killer whales leaping through their undefended hearts. And, anyhow, Pending Vegan had no protective partition extending from his soul. Such a thing was as imaginary as the retractable blade extending from his parents’ station wagon.
What would the killer whales mean to the girls when they eventually learned the facts of the case? The injuries of the world stacked up everywhere, patiently waiting for his daughters’ attention. One day they’d find all the documentaries and Web sites on their own. You may be prone to notice your children, Renker should have warned him.
“Yes, we’re all white, but we’re post-racial white.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the twins, a mystery: Pending Vegan’s wife. She with whom he’d once practically merged. Then, as if he’d bumped into her and knocked off two pieces, the twins had appeared. In the past year, she’d become opaque, as though deliberately to spare him. Her human outline now contained what Pending Vegan had named, in conversation with Renker, “the cloud of unknowing.” She’d ushered him into the Celexa odyssey, and abided with him through it, but what now? Was her long-deferred judgment about to fall?
Emerging from Shamu Stadium, Pending Vegan felt he could withstand his wife’s judgment, as he could withstand SeaWorld, as SeaWorld could withstand itself. Neither the veterans nor the orcas nor he had wigged out and chomped or bayonetted anyone. If the orca show was the climax, the test, oughtn’t they depart? He yearned for the petty solaces of the motel, his family sorted onto twin doubles, with room-service club sandwiches, more pay-per-view Disney.
“So,” he said, clapping his hands together. “Find the parking lot?”
“These are all-day tickets,” his wife said. “Rebecca’s mom told us not to miss out on the pet show.”
“I’m hungry,” he said.
“The pet show, the pet show!” the girls chanted.
“There’s food here,” his wife said crisply. “And we drove here and paid for all-day entry. The girls have waited months.” This time Pending Vegan’s wife found his eyes before he could avert, and he was enveloped in the Cloud of Unknowing.
The next pet show began at one, so they parked their stroller in a shady spot and Pending Vegan went looking for something edible. He found a pizzeria, but the wait for a table was impossible, and he couldn’t imagine pushing into its dark interior even to order something to take away. Outside the restaurant, however, a man grilled turkey legs at a stand. The drumsticks looked oddly primal—this wasn’t Medieval Times, after all!—but the odor of the seared meat set Pending Vegan to slavering.
See food, eat food.
Sea World, Eat World.
The instant he made the purchase he regretted it. The drumsticks were meat waste, discarded by some factory farm in preference for the breast product. SeaWorld might as well be selling horse’s hooves, or pickled cow eyeballs. Still, he walked it back to the stroller, feeling like Fred Flintstone. Under his wife’s incredulous gaze he tore shreds off the huge cartilaginous drumstick to feed to the girls, like a mother bird to nested fledglings. The crackling greasy skin came off whole and, once removed, was too revolting to do anything with other than discard. The girls washed the meat down with orange juice. Paper napkins stuck and tore on their faces and fingers.
With fifteen minutes still to spare, they diverted to the bat-ray petting tank. As with the flamingos, Pending Vegan had to jostle the twins to the front for their chance to immerse their hands in the shallow, waist-high tank and let the blunt, rubbery rays slip beneath them. The girls gasped at the sensation. This might be what it would feel like to touch a killer whale. Here might be the true connection at last, the thing they’d really come for, and for a moment again the barriers all vanished for Pending Vegan, the turkey eyeballs forgotten, the piped-in music turned to something transporting, as if from the distant spheres.
For some reason the tank full of eloquent rays also housed a horny, knuckle-faced sturgeon. A sign warned those petting the rays not to try to touch the sturgeon. Pending Vegan, in his rapture, tried to touch it. The fish’s furrowed brow seemed to want his consolation. The sturgeon in response snapped its jaws up at him where he stood amid so many merry children, his own and others. Pending Vegan jerked backward in fear. The sturgeon continued on its course, grub within the meat of the ray tank.
“Did you see that?” he asked his daughters and anyone else who might bear witness.
“See what?” Chloe said.
“The sturgeon! It practically barked at me!”
“Daddy,” Chloe said affectionately.
The pet show had a stadium of its own, a smaller arena, basically a set of bleachers mounted before a stage featuring ladders, windows, obstacle courses, and giant plastic sculptures of a milk bottle and a bright-red sneaker. Unlike the seats in Shamu Stadium, those here were sparsely filled, and Pending Vegan and his wife and children found places in the third row. After only a moment the show began. In a sort of pre-credit sequence, a stream of dogs and house cats coursed out of various trapdoors over the AstroTurf stage, followed by a pig, an ostrich, and a string of ducklings, to the tune of “Who Let the Dogs Out?” The dogs jumped on a seesaw and flipped miniature plastic burgers at a fake stove. The cats climbed a rope. The twins were enthralled. One of the dogs pulled a lever to release a rolled-up banner that read, in nails-on-chalkboard font, the show’s title: “Pets Rule!”
“That’s a classic example of Hitler’s Big Lie technique right there, wouldn’t you say?” Pending Vegan said.
“What is?” his wife said.
“‘Pets Rule!’ They don’t. They just… don’t. I hate it here.”
“We’re complicit with a well-recognized nightmare.”
“I’ve never seen any criticism of the pet show.”
That’s because everyone’s too busy scrubbing their brains of aesthetic and moral calamity, he wished to say. After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Instead he said, “That sturgeon back there almost took my finger off.”
“Too late, I think.”
“What, for the fish to eat my finger?”
“No, I mean too late for you and the fish to get on ‘60 Minutes,’ since this place already had its media moment.”
An m.c. in a baseball costume and a headset microphone emerged and began introducing the pet show. Some failed actor, Pending Vegan supposed. His headshot having landed on SeaWorld’s human-resources desk, the kid was fated to deliver this obnoxious script five times daily. He described the Pet Olympics, in which the trained dogs would compete, then gave the star performers’ names as each appeared, beckoning to the children in the crowd to clap and squeal at each shameless antic.
“All our dogs are rescue animals,” he explained. “They train for up to three years before making their début in ‘Pets Rule!,’ and you’re very lucky, because we have a ‘Pets Rule!’ rookie débuting today, a great little guy named Bingo. When I bring him on I want you to appreciate that he’s going in front of a crowd for the first time, so I hope you’ll give Bingo your love, give him your warmest reception—”
Bingo was a Jack Russell terrier. He seemed, at first, ready for prime time, flipping over twice, then operating with his jaw a bright-red wrench on an outsized fire hydrant, resulting in a burst of water that sprayed over a bystander piglet and into the faces of the first-row spectators, who screamed in pleasure. He stood on his hind legs, grinning widely, to gobble a discreet reward from the palm of the m.c. Then the new dog bounded from the stage, scrambled over the first two rows of seats, and into Pending Vegan’s arms. There Bingo begin frantically licking and nibbling Pending Vegan’s chin and lips, with tiny sharp nips mixed in behind the swirling tongue.
“Bingo!” the m.c. called from the stage. The wet piglet wandered off erratically, but chortling music continued to pour from the speakers, lending an atmosphere of hilarity. The dog now applied itself furiously to Pending Vegan’s nostrils. Whether this was part of the show or not Pending Vegan was undecided. Chloe and Deirdre responded with delight, reaching to fondle the dog that pressed their father back in his seat. His wife touched the dog, too, and Pending Vegan felt her arm graze his stomach, the first time in months. Others in their row shrank slightly away.
It was their former animal, rescued once and abandoned, rescued a second time and trained, now restored to them. Bingo was Maurice, Pending Vegan understood. Like him, the dog had two names. It had recognized Pending Vegan immediately, and leaped from the stage to apologize for having abandoned their family, the man and the woman and the twin girls who were now on the outside of the wife’s body instead of the inside, where Maurice had last known them. The dog had come to honor the alpha in his former pack. With his animal cunning Maurice perceived that Pending Vegan was off the drug now. Unless that was insane. It was insane. The ostrich had ducked from behind a curtain and goose-stepped to the lip of the stage, obviously off cue. The pet show was in tatters. An ostrich was not a pet.
Pending Vegan’s crimes had a life of their own, yet the dog would, in its automatic way, offer absolution, especially given hands smeared with turkey juice. Pending Vegan’s crimes screamed to the infinite horizon. Quit globalizing, said the Irving Renker in Pending Vegan’s head, as the terrier’s frantic tongue drilled into the webbing between his fingers.
*This story was taken from: Lucky Alan. Copyright © 2015 by Jonathan Lethem.
On one of the upper branches of the Congo river lived an ancient and aristocratic family of hippopotamuses, which boasted a pedigree dating back beyond the days of Noah—beyond the existence of mankind—far into the dim ages when the world was new.
They had always lived upon the banks of this same river, so that every curve and sweep of its waters, every pit and shallow of its bed, every rock and stump and wallow upon its bank was as familiar to them as their own mothers. And they are living there yet, I suppose.
Not long ago the queen of this tribe of hippopotamuses had a child which she named Keo, because it was so fat and round. Still, that you may not be misled, I will say that in the hippopotamus language “Keo,” properly translated, means “fat and lazy” instead of fat and round. However, no one called the queen’s attention to this error, because her tusks were monstrous long and sharp, and she thought Keo the sweetest baby in the world.
He was, indeed, all right for a hippopotamus. He rolled and played in the soft mud of the river bank, and waddled inland to nibble the leaves of the wild cabbage that grew there, and was happy and contented from morning till night. And he was the jolliest hippopotamus that ancient family had ever known. His little red eyes were forever twinkling with fun, and he laughed his merry laugh on all occasions, whether there was anything to laugh at or not.
Therefore the black people who dwelt in that region called him “Ippi”—the jolly one, although they dared not come anigh him on account of his fierce mother, and his equally fierce uncles and aunts and cousins, who lived in a vast colony upon the river bank.
And while these black people, who lived in little villages scattered among the trees, dared not openly attack the royal family of hippopotamuses, they were amazingly fond of eating hippopotamus meat whenever they could get it. This was no secret to the hippopotamuses. And, again, when the blacks managed to catch these animals alive, they had a trick of riding them through the jungles as if they were horses, thus reducing them to a condition of slavery.
Therefore, having these things in mind, whenever the tribe of hippopotamuses smelled the oily odor of black people they were accustomed to charge upon them furiously, and if by chance they overtook one of the enemy they would rip him with their sharp tusks or stamp him into the earth with their huge feet.
It was continual warfare between the hippopotamuses and the black people.
Gouie lived in one of the little villages of the blacks. He was the son of the chief’s brother and grandson of the village sorcerer, the latter being an aged man known as the “the boneless wonder,” because he could twist himself into as many coils as a serpent and had no bones to hinder his bending his flesh into any position. This made him walk in a wabbly fashion, but the black people had great respect for him.
Gouie’s hut was made of branches of trees stuck together with mud, and his clothing consisted of a grass mat tied around his middle. But his relationship to the chief and the sorcerer gave him a certain dignity, and he was much addicted to solitary thought. Perhaps it was natural that these thoughts frequently turned upon his enemies, the hippopotamuses, and that he should consider many ways of capturing them.
Finally he completed his plans, and set about digging a great pit in the ground, midway between two sharp curves of the river. When the pit was finished he covered it over with small branches of trees, and strewed earth upon them, smoothing the surface so artfully that no one would suspect there was a big hole underneath. Then Gouie laughed softly to himself and went home to supper.
That evening the queen said to Keo, who was growing to be a fine child for his age:
“I wish you’d run across the bend and ask your Uncle Nikki to come here. I have found a strange plant, and want him to tell me if it is good to eat.”
The jolly one laughed heartily as he started upon his errand, for he felt as important as a boy does when he is sent for the first time to the corner grocery to buy a yeast cake.
“Guk-uk-uk-uk! guk-uk-uk-uk!” was the way he laughed; and if you think a hippopotamus does not laugh this way you have but to listen to one and you will find I am right.
He crawled out of the mud where he was wallowing and tramped away through the bushes, and the last his mother heard as she lay half in and half out of the water was his musical “guk-uk-uk-uk!” dying away in the distance.
Keo was in such a happy mood that he scarcely noticed where he stepped, so he was much surprised when, in the middle of a laugh, the ground gave way beneath him, and he fell to the bottom of Gouie’s deep pit. He was not badly hurt, but had bumped his nose severely as he went down; so he stopped laughing and began to think how he should get out again. Then he found the walls were higher than his head, and that he was a prisoner.
So he laughed a little at his own misfortune, and the laughter soothed him to sleep, so that he snored all through the night until daylight came.
When Gouie peered over the edge of the pit next morning he exclaimed:
“Why, ’tis Ippi—the Jolly One!”
Keo recognized the scent of a black man and tried to raise his head high enough to bite him. Seeing which Gouie spoke in the hippopotamus language, which he had learned from his grandfather, the sorcerer.
“Have peace, little one; you are my captive.”
“Yes; I will have a piece of your leg, if I can reach it,” retorted Keo; and then he laughed at his own joke: “Guk-uk-uk-uk!”
But Gouie, being a thoughtful black man, went away without further talk, and did not return until the following morning. When he again leaned over the pit Keo was so weak from hunger that he could hardly laugh at all.
“Do you give up?” asked Gouie, “or do you still wish to fight?”
“What will happen if I give up?” inquired Keo.
The black man scratched his woolly head in perplexity.
“It is hard to say, Ippi. You are too young to work, and if I kill you for food I shall lose your tusks, which are not yet grown. Why, O Jolly One, did you fall into my hole? I wanted to catch your mother or one of your uncles.”
“Guk-uk-uk-uk!” laughed Keo. “You must let me go, after all, black man; for I am of no use to you!”
“That I will not do,” declared Gouie; “unless,” he added, as an afterthought, “you will make a bargain with me.”
“Let me hear about the bargain, black one, for I am hungry,” said Keo.
“I will let your go if you swear by the tusks of your grandfather that you will return to me in a year and a day and become my prisoner again.”
The youthful hippopotamus paused to think, for he knew it was a solemn thing to swear by the tusks of his grandfather; but he was exceedingly hungry, and a year and a day seemed a long time off; so he said, with another careless laugh:
“Very well; if you will now let me go I swear by the tusks of my grandfather to return to you in a year and a day and become your prisoner.”
Gouie was much pleased, for he knew that in a year and a day Keo would be almost full grown. So he began digging away one end of the pit and filling it up with the earth until he had made an incline which would allow the hippopotamus to climb out.
Keo was so pleased when he found himself upon the surface of the earth again that he indulged in a merry fit of laughter, after which he said:
“Good-by, Gouie; in a year and a day you will see me again.”
Then he waddled away toward the river to see his mother and get his breakfast, and Gouie returned to his village.
During the months that followed, as the black man lay in his hut or hunted in the forest, he heard at times the faraway “Guk-uk-uk-uk!” of the laughing hippopotamus. But he only smiled to himself and thought: “A year and a day will soon pass away!”
Now when Keo returned to his mother safe and well every member of his tribe was filled with joy, for the Jolly One was a general favorite. But when he told them that in a year and a day he must again become the slave of the black man, they began to wail and weep, and so many were their tears that the river rose several inches.
Of course Keo only laughed at their sorrow; but a great meeting of the tribe was called and the matter discussed seriously.
“Having sworn by the tusks of his grandfather,” said Uncle Nikki, “he must keep his promise. But it is our duty to try in some way to rescue him from death or a life of slavery.”
To this all agreed, but no one could think of any method of saving Keo from his fate. So months passed away, during which all the royal hippopotamuses were sad and gloomy except the Jolly One himself.
Finally but a week of freedom remained to Keo, and his mother, the queen, became so nervous and worried that another meeting of the tribe was called. By this time the laughing hippopotamus had grown to enormous size, and measured nearly fifteen feet long and six feet high, while his sharp tusks were whiter and harder than those of an elephant.
“Unless something is done to save my child,” said the mother, “I shall die of grief.”
Then some of her relations began to make foolish suggestions; but presently Uncle Nep, a wise and very big hippopotamus, said:
“We must go to Glinkomok and implore his aid.”
Then all were silent, for it was a bold thing to face the mighty Glinkomok. But the mother’s love was equal to any heroism.
“I will myself go to him, if Uncle Nep will accompany me,” she said, quickly.
Uncle Nep thoughtfully patted the soft mud with his fore foot and wagged his short tail leisurely from side to side.
“We have always been obedient to Glinkomok, and shown him great respect,” said he. “Therefore I fear no danger in facing him. I will go with you.”
All the others snorted approval, being very glad they were not called upon to go themselves.
So the queen and Uncle Nep, with Keo swimming between them, set out upon their journey. They swam up the river all that day and all the next, until they came at sundown to a high, rocky wall, beneath which was the cave where the might Glinkomok dwelt.
This fearful creature was part beast, part man, part fowl and part fish. It had lived since the world began. Through years of wisdom it had become part sorcerer, part wizard, part magician and part fairy. Mankind knew it not, but the ancient beasts knew and feared it.
The three hippopotamuses paused before the cave, with their front feet upon the bank and their bodies in the water, and called in chorus a greeting to Glinkomok. Instantly thereafter the mouth of the cave darkened and the creature glided silently toward them.
The hippopotamuses were afraid to look upon it, and bowed their heads between their legs.
“We come, O Glinkomok, to implore your mercy and friendly assistance!” began Uncle Nep; and then he told the story of Keo’s capture, and how he had promised to return to the black man.
“He must keep his promise,” said the creature, in a voice that sounded like a sigh.
The mother hippopotamus groaned aloud.
“But I will prepare him to overcome the black man, and to regain his liberty,” continued Glinkomok.
“Lift your right paw,” commanded Glinkomok. Keo obeyed, and the creature touched it with its long, hairy tongue. Then it held four skinny hands over Keo’s bowed head and mumbled some words in a language unknown to man or beast or fowl or fish. After this it spoke again in hippopotamese:
“Your skin has now become so tough that no man can hurt you. Your strength is greater than that of ten elephants. Your foot is so swift that you can distance the wind. Your wit is sharper than the bulthorn. Let the man fear, but drive fear from your own breast forever; for of all your race you are the mightiest!”
Then the terrible Glinkomok leaned over, and Keo felt its fiery breath scorch him as it whispered some further instructions in his ear. The next moment it glided back into its cave, followed by the loud thanks of the three hippopotamuses, who slid into the water and immediately began their journey home.
The mother’s heart was full of joy; Uncle Nep shivered once or twice as he remembered a glimpse he had caught of Glinkomok; but Keo was as jolly as possible, and, not content to swim with his dignified elders, he dived under their bodies, raced all around them and laughed merrily every inch of the way home.
Then all the tribe held high jinks and praised the mighty Glinkomok for befriending their queen’s son. And when the day came for the Jolly One to give himself up to the black man they all kissed him good-by without a single fear for his safety.
Keo went away in good spirits, and they could hear his laughing “guk-uk-uk-uk!” long after he was lost in sight in the jungle.
Gouie had counted the days and knew when to expect Keo; but he was astonished at the monstrous size to which his captive had grown, and congratulated himself on the wise bargain he had made. And Keo was so fat that Gouie determined to eat him—that is, all of him he possibly could, and the remainder of the carcass he would trade off to his fellow villagers.
So he took a knife and tried to stick it into the hippopotamus, but the skin was so tough the knife was blunted against it. Then he tried other means; but Keo remained unhurt.
And now indeed the Jolly One laughed his most gleeful laugh, till all the forest echoed the “guk-uk-uk-uk-uk!” And Gouie decided not to kill him, since that was impossible, but to use him for a beast of burden. He mounted upon Keo’s back and commanded him to march. So Keo trotted briskly through the village, his little eyes twinkling with merriment.
The other blacks were delighted with Gouie’s captive, and begged permission to ride upon the Jolly One’s back. So Gouie bargained with them for bracelets and shell necklaces and little gold ornaments, until he had acquired quite a heap of trinkets. Then a dozen black men climbed upon Keo’s back to enjoy a ride, and the one nearest his nose cried out:
And Keo ran. Swift as the wind he strode, away from the village, through the forest and straight up the river bank. The black men howled with fear; the Jolly One roared with laughter; and on, on, on they rushed!
Then before them, on the opposite side of the river, appeared the black mouth of Glinkomok’s cave. Keo dashed into the water, dived to the bottom and left the black people struggling to swim out. But Glinkomok had heard the laughter of Keo and knew what to do. When the Jolly One rose to the surface and blew the water from his throat there was no black man to be seen.
Keo returned alone to the village, and Gouie asked, with surprise:
“Where are my brothers:”
“I do not know,” answered Keo. “I took them far away, and they remained where I left them.”
Gouie would have asked more questions then, but another crowd of black men impatiently waited to ride on the back of the laughing hippopotamus. So they paid the price and climbed to their seats, after which the foremost said:
And Keo ran as before and carried them to the mouth of Glinkomok’s cave, and returned alone.
But now Gouie became anxious to know the fate of his fellows, for he was the only black man left in his village. So he mounted the hippopotamus and cried:
Keo laughed his jolly “guk-uk-uk-uk!” and ran with the speed of the wind. But this time he made straight for the river bank where his own tribe lived, and when he reached it he waded into the river, dived to the bottom and left Gouie floating in the middle of the stream.
The black man began swimming toward the right bank, but there he saw Uncle Nep and half the royal tribe waiting to stamp him into the soft mud. So he turned toward the left bank, and there stood the queen mother and Uncle Nikki, red-eyed and angry, waiting to tear him with their tusks.
Then Gouie uttered loud screams of terror, and, spying the Jolly One, who swam near him, he cried:
“Save me, Keo! Save me, and I will release you from slavery!”
“That is not enough,” laughed Keo.
“I will serve you all my life!” screamed Gouie; “I will do everything you bid me!”
“Will you return to me in a year and a day and become my captive, if I allow you to escape?” asked Keo.
“I will! I will! I will!” cried Gouie.
“Swear it by the bones of your grandfather!” commanded Keo, remembering that black men have no tusks to swear by.
And Gouie swore it by the bones of his grandfather.
Then Keo swam to the black one, who clambered upon his back again. In this fashion they came to the bank, where Keo told his mother and all the tribe of the bargain he had made with Gouie, who was to return in a year and a day and become his slave.
Therefore the black man was permitted to depart in peace, and once more the Jolly One lived with his own people and was happy.
When a year and a day had passed Keo began watching for the return of Gouie; but he did not come, then or ever afterwards.
For the black man had made a bundle of his bracelets and shell necklaces and little gold ornaments and had traveled many miles into another country, where the ancient and royal tribe of hippopotamuses was unknown. And he set up for a great chief, because of his riches, and people bowed down before him.
By day he was proud and swaggering. But at night he tumbled and tossed upon his bed and could not sleep. His conscience troubled him.
For he had sworn by the bones of his grandfather; and his grandfather had no bones.
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