Four Short Storiesby Kenneth Bernard
Yesterday, esteemed colleague was ending his long labors and preparing to put himself out to green pastures. And we, his collaborators over the years, were joining with him in celebration. We plied him with food, drink, music, and thoughtful gift, and we were all a-smile. But, quite suddenly, when I tried to relax my smile, I could not, for it had become fixed, a look of pain. To avoid embarrassment, I looked out a window. And there, in the near and mid-distance, I saw the scene that awaited.
The grounds swept smoothly down to the shore. And there, an oarless, rudderless boat awaited. Laughingly we escorted esteemed colleague to the boat and with small jokes pushed him into the currents, waving and smiling the while. The boat at first seemed not to make headway, but soon esteemed colleague became smaller, his features pale and indistinct, as the boat zigged and zagged toward the further shore, which was the continent of death.
In its center was a Quickway, on which some few bent figures moved speedily to the buzzing interior. Some luxury vessels, on which a lucky few had booked passage, crested the waves easily, their occupants lolling at the rails with food and drink. But as the currents were treacherous, few boats, large or small, anchored at the foot of the Quickway. Some glided uneventfully to a sandy cove. Others were wrecked on rocks or shoals, and passengers scampered ashore as best they could. Some unlucky ones hit a steaming Arafura shore and were forced to brave sharp pestilence in the sucking mud.
But no part of the shore was free from danger. Although most arrivals immediately set forth for the interior, often leaving baggage behind, some few camped on the beach, oblivious of the crocodiles, scorpions, and snakes nearby. There they made model airplanes, planted seeds, prayed, sought partners for cards, or took out pen and pad. Even as they played or worked, worms crawled into their ears and laid eggs or oozed poisons. Occasionally an eye was plucked out in a sudden swoop or some reptilian creature darted into someone’s rectum and fixed itself there with bloated spiky skin. From the dense interior, above the buzz, came screeches of larger creatures, whence the others had departed. Some few bodies were rolled up on the beach and contentiously consumed. The Quickway loomed in the distance but seemed unreachable.
One gaudy ship, full of fools, sailed unimpeded to the interior, its members feasting and rejoicing at the imminence of the realm of death, that lush land of the secret knowledge of all things. Their shrieks rang through the night, and as they madly danced and ripped off their clothes they shouted to the campers and trudgers – “We are eating our cancers! We are bleating our virgins! Kneel to the King of Worms!” We who have never lived in true cities, with their labyrinthine ways and their palimpsest depths upon depths– what ashes we have built on! What faces we have never seen! What lives we have never lived!
Gradually I felt my mouth loosen. I was able to abandon my smile and gain control over myself. Was no one else looking out the window, I wondered. What madness was afoot? I turned to speak to someone. And faced a sea of smiling masks. I looked out the window again. The former scene was gone. All was serene. But within, the rictus faces remained, rouged and smiling. Their arms were extended. In each hand was a glass. They were toasting me. Slowly I, too, smiled.
On Chickadees and Neck-Snapping
I have always admired the chickadee, especially in the late fall, when the mornings are crisp and frost whitens the landscape. They are unobtrusive and quick as they filter through the barren shrubbery, feeding on dwindling seeds, puffed against the wind, uttering a soft dee-dee-dee. So I was delighted recently to read in a daily newspaper that experiments have shown that the chickadee, forced in the fall to expand its territory and create secret depositories of seed to weather the crueller months to come, has a parallel development of brain to aid its memory of such deposits. Its brain, no doubt itself of seed size, swells each year along the ventricular wall of its hippocampus region, “just at the time,” as the scientist notes, “when the birds are confronting profound changes in their landscape, their social milieu and their memory requirements.” How wonderfully that is put. And how wonderful that such a featherweight brain can be put to such good use. Of course, in spring and summer, when the feeding is good, the chickadee sloughs off its neuronal advantage for better and simpler flight. Just enough baggage for the trip at hand. And of course, as is so often the case with other creatures, there is food for thought here. For example, the very phrase, “profound changes in their landscape, their social milieu and their memory requirements,” calls out for analogy and explication. But not, perhaps right now, in these troubled times. Reading further, I learned of another interesting matter. These revelations were possible because a number of wild chickadees, seventy-four, to be exact, were banded and injected with a radioactive tracer compound to infiltrate dividing brain cells, and then set free. Some weeks later, after a time of autumnal tribulation, forty-two were recaptured, They, and a comparable group of chickadees kept in an outdoor aviary, amply fed, and similarly treated, were then killed and their brains sliced thinly to compare evidence of the tracer compound. The wild chickadees won, hands down. Their brains were more developed in one sector of the hippocampal region. So exciting was this discovery, particularly because of the problems of memory impairment in rodents, monkeys, and humans, that further studies are contemplated with birds who do not store seeds or birds of evergreen woodlots, who do not change their (internal) appearance greatly each fall, “to see,” again as the scientist notes, “if brain growth is meatiest in those who are neediest.” Despite a note of humor here, I await anxiously the revelations of pine siskins, cardinals, and their ilk. And of course, I see again the urgency of human analogy and explication. But that, as I say, is for another time –and perhaps for another commentator. My concerns at the moment are different, and perhaps peculiar. Let me list a few:
1. Who kills the chickadees, and how? What is she thinking or feeling? Does she, for example, feel grateful to each chickadee for its contribution to the advancement of human knowledge? Is there anything sacred in the procedure? Is there sadness? (How much does a chickadee weigh?) What happens to their bodies? For example, are they thrown in with the general trash, like chicken bones and plastic wrappers? Are they burned? Care, of course should be taken so that other creatures do not ingest the tracer compound of the discarded birds.
2. It is likely, I think, that the chickadees are killed by another injection –but of what, and where? How quickly does it act, and what is the bird’s awareness, if any, of it? That is, what is its brain activity in this matter? –Or perhaps they are gassed, en masse, in a small chamber created for this purpose. Picking up each chickadee by hand to inject is time-consuming. One might, for example, feel the urge to say, “Goodbye, old feathered friend. It was a job well done.” It may be that one simply wrings the neck between thumb and forefinger, a snap not heard. At any rate, whatever the method, there will be, for these chickadees, no more flitting through the bushes, softly sounding in the chill air, each seed a triumph of discovery. A few chickadees less, yes, but major increment to our knowledge.
2A. A footnote. There is no mention of gender or age, how many males and females and of what ages. Presumably these are of no consequence, have no bearing on the matter. Is there anything else that has no bearing on the matter? What is the matter here?
3. The slicing of a chickadee’s brain–surely a provocative phrase. No mere hand is equal to that task. Another brain has conceived a machine whose sole end is the creation of tissue-thin slices for the purpose of micro-observation. What brain is that, and who is it does its bidding, fashioning so wondrous an instrument? And others. This, properly speaking, should also be a footnote, but to what?
4. The thirty-two chickadees who were not recaptured –what of them? Since they live a span of twelve years or so, they are all out there, in the dwindling wood lots, their brains imprinted with the thymidine tracer compound. Are they recognized by other chickadees as special? Are they avoided? Do they think, at some level of their tiny brains, that they have escaped two destinies, one in and one out of the laboratory, and need not hide their seeds? Who is studying them, and what might be learned? I suppose here, too, there are analogies and explications. Might not our own brains, for example, be similarly imprinted? Might not we, too, at least some few of us, be decontextualized escapees, pondering always whether or not to hide our seed, so to speak? Perhaps not. Perhaps we have already served, met a destiny, and our freedom is but a moment between finger and thumb. The world progresses, and we must be glad of that.
5. The ancient writer Thoreau once wrote, in a notebook, I think:
Hops near to me.
What odd epiphany did he feel, what joy? Did he guess the chickadee’s hippocampal reach? Certainly he knew the chickadee’s fluff against the wind. He knew the desperate search and survival. No doubt he felt privileged to be so near, even when so far. But I think our scientist must also feel privileged, to have used the chickadee so well. There is always sadness in progress. It is the nature of life. Sacrifices must be made. It takes courage. Who would not be a neck-snapper to help the world? Perhaps even Thoreau.
6. The aviary chickadees. Except for their one injection, how wonderful life must have seemed. True, their territory was limited, but there was no shortage of seed; they were well fed. Did they retain their instinct to store? What a happy game it must have seemed, to steal each other’s seeds. When they came up against the wire mesh that contained their perfect world, what did they see, what was their urge, what inkling or premonition scratched their brain?
It is a fact that I watch the chickadees more carefully now. Actually, I watch a lot of things more carefully now. I am interested in how the world is constituted. I find, though, that my speech is oddly impeded and I do not relate well to people. I have, for example, an alarming tendency to see their necks as twisted. I want to laugh. I do laugh. “Why, hello, there. What color is your brain today?” Snap. “What a beautiful necklace you are wearing.” Snap. “Have you noticed it’s getting chilly?” Snap. Obviously I am not in a good mode. Perhaps someone will take me in.
I read somewhere of a young Japanese woman who killed herself because she made wind at her wedding. Recently I have had occasion to make regular visits to an old age home. You may wonder what the connection is. Well, maybe none. But I shall try to explain myself. First of all, I was not entirely unprepared for these visits. I have been in hospitals from time to time, and there are many parallels; the smells, for example. But whereas in a hospital the frail bodies are moving either towards health or dissolution, as a rule, in an old age home they have often achieved a truce with mortality, a small plateau of stabilization. And there is a certain ongoingness, a dogged and professional injection of lifelike routines and pleasures. One experience in particular struck me, and it had a particular and interesting reverberation that yielded knowledge, but I’m not sure of what. The wing of the home I visited was for people of moderate but not extreme incapacity. That is, they were able in some fashion to propel themselves short distances in their wheelchairs but not entirely able to dress themselves or accomplish their toilet functions unaided. Their eating skills, however, although unorthodox, inventive, and unappetizing, were usually retained. This wing was also devoted to females.
Now, although this home has organized a variety of functions, from the library and craft workshop to concerts, dances, and lectures, a good many of the ladies naturally prefer not to leave their corridor, so enervating is self-propulsion. And, further, to be dependent on the exigencies and philo-sophy of the modern help available for more distant propulsions is often not only an affront to their flickering dignity, but, in some hygienic situations, an embarrassment as well. Thus, visitors, who are welcome most of the day (which begins late and ends early because of the arduous grooming and early bedtimes), are treated to the spectacle of long rows of elderly ladies in wheelchairs outside their rooms. Naturally one is scrutinized as one walks along, but not by all. A reasonable number are non compos. Others wile away the time in unsweet sleep. And a few show sharp, almost predatory, comprehension of such details as are before them, like myself. One invariably gets to know some of them and their stories, the toothless ex-skating champion, for example, the former inmate of Auschwitz, the triple widow, but one does not promote conversations.
My particular experience concerns one whose mind had wandered permanently. She was not a whiner or screamer, nor was she given to irrational or vitriolic commentary. There was a blankness to her lopsided face that was not alleviated by a small but steady drool that aides sometimes wiped in passing. I should explain here that the dress code in the home is necessarily lax and that although several of the ladies dress carefully, wear jewelry and perfume, do not allow their hair to be conveniently cropped, and apply make-up, however badly, many others wear garments and bangles that seem to have come to hand only moments before. And although most of the ladies start the day neatly, one of the consequences of their infirmities and the busyness of the staff is that as the day progresses, so too does their sartorial disarray. In other words, jewelry and buttons pop, hair falls loose, dresses ride up and twist, damp spots appear, sweaters fall off shoulders. One result is that some of the women are exposed in ways which in former days would have caused acute embarrassment and immediate reconstruction. Thus it happened that one day, as I walked my familiar gauntlet (When would they claim me?), I saw about four inches of flabby, sickly flesh above the knees of my drooling old lady. To say that I experienced some strange frisson would not be entirely accurate. Let me say, simply, that I was uncomfortable and that I looked away. But not before I was aware that she had registered, intelligibly, what I had seen. That was the thing: intelligibly. It was the first –and I might add only– time that I had seen intelligent response to life on her face. At least so I thought. And when I glanced again, she was waiting, with a sly wet smile on her lopsided face. With what memories I dared not think. And who knows what expenditure of energy it cost her. I did not look at her when I left, nor did I look on future occasions (She died shortly after, bless her) except at oblique angles that were beyond her mobility to notice.
Now I do not think that I would have recorded this episode except as one of life’s awkward moments had I not another experience soon after in an entirely different setting. There had been a late winter snow, then some melting of it, then a hard freeze. One morning, as I was exiting the elevator of the building in which I live, I saw a young Latin woman with a male friend waiting outside to be buzzed in. Thinking to save them time, I held the elevator door. She was dressed, if not fashionably, with taste and intelligence, except for her high, thin-heeled shoes, which streamlined her body but did not suit the weather at all. She clicked across the lobby with a flushed happy smile. It was obvious she was amply content with her femaleness, her beauty, and the aura of sexuality she projected. And then, more than halfway to the elevator, her heel touched a sliver of slush from another tenant, her foot bent at the ankle, her leg shot out from her dress, her body contorted awkwardly, she uttered some inchoate curse, and for a brief moment her appearance was ungraceful and cronish, but not, I must say, unattractive. (Beautiful women always seem more attainable in distress.) She recovered before actually falling. Her smile was gone. She limped. She was disconcerted, almost to tears, partly at the brutal unexpectedness of it, but more at the sudden lack of control and the untoward spectacle she knew we were treated to. “Are you hurt?” I asked. “Are you alright?” Her companion, smiling foolishly (he was in for trouble, I think), was now holding the elevator door. She said nothing to me. I wish I could say she frowned. But she did not. She looked at me, momentarily, with deep instinctive anger and dislike. I understood, of course. Although I was merely an innocent (and caring) bystander at an event too quick for intervention, I had seen something ugly. And she did not like appearing ugly. True, her spine was not broken, she would be beautiful again, but with less confidence. For the mantel had slipped, and something more than just a fall had yawned before her: for just a split second she had been perfectly terrified. That also I had seen.
That was it. I have not seen her since. If I do, her look, I am sure, will let me know she remembers. I don’t expect to be her friend, but if it even seemed likely, the scene we shared would be a handicap. For I had seen something it was not intended I (nor she) should see, and I would remind her always of that something she didn’t want to know, that something she managed otherwise not to know. Somehow she, the Japanese bride, and old slobbermouth are connected in my mind, with the last being somewhat the wiser. And I being the more mutilated in all of it. My only mitigation is that I can wonder what my young beauty with the clicking heels will think should she ever make her wheelchair. And whether she will think back and wonder why, perhaps, she did not simply laugh and say, with considerable relief, “God, how awful!”
Rover And I
“Language is the instrument of Empire.” Antonio de Nebrija to Queen Isabella, 1492
I am, in many ways, at my best when I talk to my dog. In his language. The worst thing I ever did for him was name him Rover, and so to give him forever a piratical cast. But I hope I have since redeemed myself with my thousand and one woofs. And most certainly, Rover has long since crossed the continental divide in his conquest of me. Of course, to some friends I myself seem to have crossed a continental divide. But, as I might in another life have said, “Much madness is of finer weave than we, so continent, perceive.” Rover would have liked that, as I some emanation of his former selves. In fact, when we commune, there is always drift, and I am never sure what depths we might be plumbing. Sometimes a playful clamp of teeth on hand and soulful look provokes a heavy pause in me. We gaze in truce, velleities precarious on an edge. Such moments have their thrill because so much is loosened and I can sense empires of no language yet. So Rover drools and curls to easy sleep, and I my headlines take to cipher lesser conquests.
How simple seems an Everest, with its grammar of rope and piton, clamp and rare breath, or even current Ruritanian maul. We speakee any lingo in pursuit, but never still enough to plumb our simple dumb existence. What words to curl like Rover with barely a tic. Rover, of course, will be a last exposure, domesticated as he is. The rest we will destroy, vanishing one by one the vistas we might use to see our paltry creature, plunging ignominiously. “With this language I thee claim.” Eventually we shall claim a void and make it ours, live with wondrous vacancy, uttering uncluttered nothings.
Appalling as is Rover’s smell, I breathe it in to stand my hair on end, to feel my weakness to an ant, or ant hill even. No ode I chant can spoil that reek, no declamation of achievement. When Rover yawns, my knees are rubber, and I can even think that he’s amused. For Rover’s smelling too. His language is a chemistry older than mine, and he will sleep with no sense of glory over me. I give him food, and sometimes am companion to his vast tolerance. He has sniffed me out and made me better than I ought to be. But that better has no currency except degrees of fool. When I bark, it should be only proudly at some terrain I’ve won, never from a sense of loss and looking, circumscription, and eyes looking through bars. To all the world, Rover I call my mutt. But Rover and I –we know differently.
Bernard is a playwright and the author of two previous works of fiction.