When she was eight years old, Megan Strehle conceived an unnatural passion for Tamas Preltz, a fifteen-year-old apprentice butcher in the town where her father took vegetables to the local farmers’ market. She would beg her father to bring her along when he loaded his Ford half-ton pickup with cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, summer squash, beans and brussels sprouts. Then she would run to Roohan’s Butcher Shop and stand at the end of the counter, shifting her weight from one foot to the other, till Tamas deigned to notice her. He could tell she was in love and, being a meaty stupid boy with a square red face, he took pleasure in being cruel to her. Sometimes he would pretend not to see her the whole day long. Sometimes he would entertain Roohan’s fat daughter Rachlin by tossing bits of sausage in the air, urging Megan to catch them like a dog. Megan said “arf, woof,” snapping at the flying sausage ends, revelling in the laughter, which she took as applause. She didn’t realize she was the butt of their jokes; she thought it was nice of Tamas and Rachlin Roohan to include her in their games. But one day her father caught them at it and attacked Tamas Preltz with a leg of lamb which had been hanging from a hook in the window. When he had beaten the boy to his knees, he went to Roohan and paid for the leg of lamb and spoke a quiet word and took his shamed daughter by the hand and led her away, weeping. Tamas Preltz was fired from the butcher shop. He packed his bag the next morning, gave notice to the Widow Hopkins and left for the next bigger town along the railway line when the noon commuter train came through.
This should have been the end of the story, but passions had been let loose, hearts wounded. Megan Strehle turned against her father, grew angry and remote, neglected her looks, which were not much to begin with, and plotted revenge and escape. She put pillows under her skirts and walked around on market days proclaiming her pregnancy, naming Tamas the father. She stood outside the window of Roohan’s Butcher Shop with her face against the glass till Rachlin appeared then shook her belly at the fat girl and barked like a dog. “Arf, woof.” She refused to help her father in the brussels sprouts patch, left the chicken coop open for a fox, ogled the hired man, who was toothless and nearly sixty, and wrote terrible love poetry, which she recited from the dormer roof on moonlit nights. Her father tried to win her back with chocolate almond candy, hair ribbons, and pre-teen fitness tapes, but when she was twelve, she hitched a ride with an itinerant computer repairman to the next bigger town and searched high and low for Tamas Preltz. No one could remember the boy. It was as if he had never existed. When the computer repairman, whose name was Evan Ravit, moved to the next even bigger town, she went with him. He taught her code and bought her chocolate almond candy and said that the universe was a symphony of binary numbers. They slept together like children, with their clothes on. Her parents believed she had been kidnapped and went on national television to beg for her safe return. Their pleas were so moving that they made several important talk shows and, briefly, had their own Christian reality TV series, before her father went into rehab and ran away with a famous country singer named Halley Ratliff who reminded him of his daughter. Evan and Megan watched her parents’ antics with embarrassment and glee. They changed their names to Mitch and Amanda Bunim, pretended to be brother and sister, later they pretended to be married, and even later, in their innocence, they thought they were married.
Meanwhile, Rachlin Roohan pined for Tamas though she was older than the boy by eleven years and had had no more encouragement than the occasional laugh over the idiot dog-girl Megan Strehle. When it became apparent that Tamas would never return, she stopped eating, began to lose weight, and read romance novels in the cold storage room, wearing her mother’s otter skin coat and her father’s deer-hunting boots. Soon, she was thin and quite beautiful but eccentric and fever-eyed. She went to the bar at the edge of town and slept with men she barely knew, still wearing her father’s hunting boots and the otter skin coat, with her hair flung wild on gray motel pillows in the sickly glow of neon lamps. Her father neglected his butcher shop in his despair over her behavior, turned to drink, beat his wife (the innocent in all this), held dark colloquy with the bull mastiff watch dog named Edmundo, and eventually hung himself on a meat hook in the cold storage room. Some time after the funeral, a fat man with thin hair and a speech impediment took photographs of Rachlin with his cell phone camera, photographs which spread around the world on the Internet in a matter of hours. Lonely men in Mumbai and San Diego, smitten with the sad beauty, naked except for her hunting boots, besmirched with semen, smiling enigmatically, wore themselves to nubbins in masturbatory frenzies. The night the photos first appeared on the web, a wave of suicides circled the globe. Legends swiftly attached themselves to Rachlin’s mysterious photographs. From Vladivostok to Buenos Aires, men set out in quest of her, despairing, in thrall to desire, abandoning jobs, wives, children, and elderly parents. One by one, they found her, knocking timidly or pugnaciously at her motel door at all hours, sometimes stumbling over one another on her welcome mat or waiting in line on a suite of folding chairs she kept on the parking pad. She slept with them all, hungry for something, she thought, which not one of them, though perhaps all of them, could supply. And one by one they slunk away, failed, empty, and still despairing. Then came a little epileptic former third grade art teacher from Nairobi, a man whose Swahili name meant “Field of Cows” in English. Field of Cows failed also to satisfy the mysterious Rachlin Roohan but refused to give in to despair, though he had much to despair of, only asking to be allowed to stay near her and crawl into her bed when she was alone and make her hot milk and bull’s blood toddies now and then. For her part, growing ever thinner and more beautiful on catnaps and a diet of bull’s blood toddies, Rachlin Roohan barely noticed Field of Cows. She spent her days reclining languidly against the dirty pillows between bouts of love-making, staring at the rainy parking lot beyond the motel window, weeping sometimes at the thought of her dead father, trying to remember what Tamas Preltz looked like, vaguely anxious that she could no longer picture the man she desired more than any other. Only when Field of Cows fell into one of his noisy fits would she stir herself to help him, shoving a dirty slipper between his teeth to keep him from biting his tongue, hugging his arms to his sides till the flailing subsided, whispering sweet endearments into his ear. Baby, baby, she would whisper. Baby, baby.
Tamas Preltz never reached the next bigger town along the railway line. The train stopped briefly on a siding for the West-bound freight. Three men, who had been drinking heavily in the bar car, stumbling back to their seats, suddenly conceived an immoderate passion of their own for this stupid, innocent-looking, blond butcher boy. They tied his hands and took turns with him in an unoccupied toilet, then tossed him off the train into a freshly-manured brussels sprouts patch beside the track. The three men, returning to their seats, grew rancorous and quarrelsome. They were guilt-stricken over the sudden access of outré passion which, till then, had been completely alien to them. One wanted to go back and make certain Tamas Preltz was dead. Another wanted to confess to the train conductor and send for an ambulance. And the third wanted to swear an oath of perpetual silence so that they could return to their wives, children, and jobs as though nothing had happened. Life is full of secrets, he said. Why should we be different from anyone else? In the years that followed, one of the men killed himself in despair by driving his car head-on into a moving van carrying furniture and personal effects of an immigrant mathematics professor named D’if Afghani and his thirteen children, one of whom had been accidentally packed with the family bedding and was later found uninjured amid the wreckage. The second man left his wife and moved to a large midwestern city where he opened a hobby shop catering to the shy, lonely boys and girls of the inner city. And the third became a prominent Christian conservative politician. Meanwhile, the night of the train incident, an aged, blind herd dog named Rusty discovered Tamas Preltz unconscious in the mud and urinated on him. After regaining consciousness the next day, Tamas followed Rusty home and slept in his dog house until discovered by a girl coming to feed her beloved pet one morning some days later. The girl would have screamed, but she was deaf and dumb, and her scream came out like the sound of wind in a pine thicket. In signs, Tamas explained what had happened to him. The girl wrung her hands and wept. She reached out and smoothed his dirty hair with her fingers. Transformed by misery and her tender, guileless pity, Tamas Preltz felt love for the first time and in that moment began to regret the way he had treated Megan Strehle. For his part, Rusty, the dog, was glad when Tamas moved in with the girl and her family because it had grown crowded in the dog house and Tamas ate all the table scraps. Tamas worked for the girl’s family, members of a vegan organic farming co-operative, and eventually married the girl whose name was Laurette Vitapotle. They had two children and adopted two others when Laurette proved incapable of bearing more babies. She had grown obese despite a diet of brussels sprouts, raw carrots, and hummus. But the fatter she grew, the more Tamas Preltz loved her. They would often embarrass other members of the co-op by making love in the field-rows or behind a hay-rick or beside an open window on moon-lit nights, their cries of joy setting off mysterious vibrations in the hearer, inspiring laughter, lust, and the desire for fat babies. But the co-op prospered, cheerful children gamboled in the vegetable patches, the brussels sprouts and cabbages won prizes at the state fair, and tour buses brought doting crowds of vegan initiates to browse in the fields where sometimes they caught a glimpse of Laurette and Tamas scampering naked or felt the pulse of their seismic love-making.
Years later, a grown woman with three children of her own, married to Evan Ravit who had made a fortune selling erotic cell phone ring tones over the Internet, Megan Strehle, known to everyone as Amanda Bunim, discovered her husband in bed with an office intern named Pesh Afghani, a beautiful brown girl with a mathematical turn of mind and a strange story about once having been locked for days in a family linen trunk. I’m in love with her, said Evan, now known as Mitch. I’ve never known love before this. That’s funny, said Megan. I’ll go tell the kids we made a mistake. She’s a brilliant programmer, he said, and she does the funky-funky dance with her bottom. Broken-hearted, Megan barricaded herself and the children in the east wing of the family house and sought a restraining order against her husband, although, in fact, he didn’t need any restraining. Indeed, he spent most of his time playing table tennis with Miss Afghani or chasing her around the bedroom. Their cries of delight depressed Megan Strehle. She couldn’t deny that Evan Ravit seemed happier than she had ever known him. And she remembered how he had picked her up on the road to the next bigger town all those years before, her belly lopsidedly swollen with a pillow, her tears running into an old sock she carried instead of a handkerchief, her heart bursting with love for a boy whose name she could no longer remember. (Her eldest son was, however, named Tamas, and she had long ago given up eating meat on account of some vaguely disagreeable memory associated with butcher shops.) Evan had offered her twelve-year-old self a ride out of kindness and empathy for her loneliness—he, too, was lonely, as only an itinerant computer repairman could be. She thought now that he was right, they had never properly been in love. And she realized she had always been lonely, even in Evan Ravit’s arms. She found a vegetarian online dating service called Hearts of Palm and met sixteen gentle, sensitive, candle-lit-dinner-and-long-walk-loving, whole earth, organic, environmentally conscious, horny men the first hour and settled on one named Darter who lived on iceberg lettuce, vegan turkey substitute, and generic brand diet colas. He ran ultra-marathons, had lost an eye and a foot in a war, talked incessantly into a wireless headset and said, upon meeting Megan, Babe, I’m moving you out of the holding pattern onto the incoming flight path. Who do you talk to on that headset? she asked him. No one, said Darter. I just wear this thing so I won’t be embarrassed talking to myself. Then Darter told her a sad story about how he had once seen the picture of a woman in hunting boots and an otter skin coat on an amateur porn site, how he couldn’t get her out of his head, how he gave up everything and spent thousands of dollars to track her down (somewhere he had a wife, a college-age child, and a toxin-laced but profitable electroplating shop), how he found her in a motel, attended by an ancient, diseased African, so thin she was almost translucent, how he made love to her and yet even in that moment of supreme triumph felt all the possibility of happiness drain away. Sometimes, he said, he returned to that desolate place and watched the men waiting to be entertained and then slipping away abashed, wounded, and lorn. He saw himself in every one. Megan thought he would do as an interim lover and invited him into her bed where she tried to do the funky-funky dance with her bottom. But they both felt they were only going through the motions, both yearning for something else, as though sacrificing to distant gods, but the gods never appeared.
Tamas Preltz had forgotten Rachlin Roohan when he caught his nine-year-old son Stalton Preltz, deaf and dumb like his mother, surfing pornographic sites on the Internet. The boy was staring at the dark, blurry image of a woman, naked except for a pair of hunting boots and an otter skin coat thrown back to reveal her nether hair and breasts. Father and son were transfixed, barely able to breathe and, when they finally shook themselves awake, their eyes met in a moment of shared understanding. Tamas forgot he was about to reprimand the boy. He gently pushed him away from the screen and took his place, still not recalling Rachlin Roohan specifically, only aware suddenly of something deeply buried and lost, the memory of a memory of an experience he had never had, of a woman he had never met, infinitely desirable, ineffably sad. He was disturbed presently by the sound of Stalton’s weeping. The boy’s eyes remained fixed on the screen, his hands tugging distractedly at the front of his soccer shorts as if pulling at some imaginary knot. The sight of his son suffering in the toils of a desire he had no way of understanding brought Tamas to his senses. The boy was trying to speak, his lips making a sound like wind in pine trees. Tamas switched off the computer and swept Stalton in arms, whispering, Shh, shh, my love, grasping the boy’s hands in order to stop their obscene pulling. He rushed out, found Laurette washing brussels sprouts for market, made signs to her to take the boy, then rushed out again, seeking solitude, his soul cracking under the weight of guilt and melancholy. When he emerged from the vegetable shed, another one of those vegan tour buses was just pulling into the driveway and he was forced to stand and greet, grinning insanely, his mind contaminated with the images of Rachlin Roohan and Stalton Preltz twisted together with memories of butcher shop cruelties and commuter train bathrooms. When Laurette found him, he was hiding behind a machine shed in a patch of pampas grass, staring at clouds that seemed to resemble lovers, sadly entwined, then drifted apart in tatters and faded to nothingness. She took him by the hand and wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of her coveralls. In signs, she told him she had put their son to bed, though she doubted he would sleep long. She knew, she said, that something terrible had happened, something to do with the past and desire and a hunger all men suffer. She did not judge Tamas for he had never betrayed her, had brought her nothing but happiness and love. But she remembered how she had found him, bleeding and broken and living with the dog. And she only knew now that he must take his son on a journey to the place of sorrows and find the thing they both desired and lose themselves or find themselves. Naturally, she had her preference. But that was for Tamas to decide, and, though he might never return his son to innocence, he might find a way to teach him to bear the burden, give him the father-law, and bring him back to her a man before his time. Her words terrified Tamas Preltz, the more so since he didn’t really understand them, only that he had to take Stalton away. The next morning they set off for the city where Tamas hired a private detective to find the Naked Madonna of the Internet as she had begun to be called. Tamas thought she would be difficult to track, lost somewhere in the electronic ether, but in fact everyone knew where she was. She had become another roadside attraction, a pop-culture icon. Talk shows buzzed with debate, support groups proliferated, preachers thundered from pulpits, public health officials pointed fingers, and politicians wrung their hands. Meanwhile young women all over the country had taken to wearing otter skin coats and hunting boots. The detective had even been to visit her, he said, and when Tamas looked into his sad eyes, he knew it must be true. He felt a shudder along his spine as though someone had walked over his grave. Something about the detective was familiar to Tamas—it turned out he had once been a prominent Christian conservative politician until he was caught soliciting young men in a train station restroom. You must have seen me on TV, the detective said. Say, don’t I know you from somewhere? he asked. But Tamas thought not. The next day he and Stalton drove to the little farming town where he had once worked as a butcher’s apprentice. On the outskirts, they found a frowsty motel where the “t” in the neon sign no longer shone and creepers grew over the windows. A lone bugzapper sizzled and spat in the twilight and waiting men smoked and jiggled their car keys nervously in their pockets and made anxious telegraphic conversation with their neighbours and hawkers sold french fries and soda and a local women’s vigilance committee had set up a permanent protest. Stalton asked what a “moel” was, and Tamas, feverish with excitement, was unable to answer. Someone came out of the door of Number Seven, a young man in a neat suit, with a wedding band on his finger. He seemed dazed, unaware of his surroundings, crestfallen, disappointed, and despairing. The motel unit door suddenly opened and a little black man in voluminous cargo shorts and an undershirt vest scampered out and handed the young man an expensive leather briefcase. The young man looked at the briefcase as though he did not recognize it. Then he walked through the parking lot and disappeared into the twilight. The word “shriven” came unbidden to Tamas Preltz’s mind and he thought how the young man seemed at once ascetic and corrupt, dignified yet shameless, wise and yet powerless to apply that wisdom. It made him shiver to see some truth there, he thought, no one really wanted to find. He waited two days with his son in that dismal, church-like parking lot, with its pews of waiting acolytes and its mystery of mysteries, holy of holies, watching the men enter and return—always the same look. Either they are better men or they will kill themselves, he thought on the second day. And then he thought of Stalton, who seemed somehow not there, twisting his hands in his lap, white as an egg. In vain, Tamas tried to hold the little boy’s hands, but Stalton would snatch them away with a squeal of impatience. At the end of the second day, weary and dirty, they were bidden through the door by the black attendant, now seen more clearly as elderly, yet wiry, slender and opaque, blacker than black. The light was dim, the room unkempt, filthy, smelling unspeakably of old rubber and vomit. Takeout food cartons littered the floor. Used condoms hung from the ceiling fixture. The bathroom gas tube flickered and buzzed, casting a sickly green glow. The woman lay drawn up against a stack of pillows at the head of the bed, her coat thrown open, one leg cocked to the side so that her dark triangle splayed open. Dried semen hung like salt or wisps of spider web on her thighs and belly. Her ribs seemed to poke through her skin. Her breasts seemed tiny, androgynous, all black nipples. She smoked a brown cigarette with a harsh blue smoke that wreathed the room, dug in her ear with a little finger and coughed and smiled enigmatically when she saw the boy and his father, then sucked on the cigarette till ashes fell on her chest and patted the bed and laughed mirthlessly with a sound like wind in pine trees. She barked something in Swahili and the African—we know him as Field of Cows—nudged Stalton forward into the yellow glow of an overhead light. The boy fidgeted, his face pale and pinched, his eyes glassy with fatigue and desire and terror; terror because he did not know what desire was or what he desired, only felt an inchoate and unappeasable need. But he recognized the woman from the Internet site and managed a lugubrious smile, then fainted into a pizza box. Tamas Preltz leapt forward. Rachlin Roohan gasped, staggered to her feet on the bed, covered herself with the otter skin coat. This is the one, she said. Not him! she hissed, as the African known as Field of Cows made for Stalton with a short thrusting spear native to his country. The other, she said. The one who brought the boy. And simultaneously Tamas Preltz remembered the voice and the face. He remembered the butcher’s fat daughter, her nervous laughter, and the dog girl Megan Strehle barking Arf, woof. Now through Stalton’s eyes, he saw the inhuman endlessness of desire, our inability to contain it, the dark tide on which we ride unwitting and unprepared, though even in that moment he wanted himself to touch Rachlin Roohan, mount her, and bury himself in her body. The universe suddenly seemed alien, death was everywhere, the colours all gray and black and shades of sickly green. Rachlin Roohan’s body was skeletal, her face a death’s head. He saw himself hung on a hook in a walk-in freezer and then crushed between that woman’s emaciated thighs, feeding off her poisonous breasts. One moment he had been happy, with a fat wife, and now the weight of the past, the weight of flesh and the fall, crushed his heart. He saw his son, innocent and trusting, now trammeled in a web of desire as ineluctable as Fate. He reached for the fallen boy—certain only that coming here had been another in a long line of mistakes leading to some unassimilable ending. But at that moment the African’s assegai slid between Tamas Preltz’s ribs and into his heart. He had only sufficient time to think the word “pity,” and touch Stalton’s hand as he subsided to the floor. Stalton, recovering from his swoon, recoiled from his father’s touch, staring at the Internet whore who, in truth, did not look like much wrapped up in her coat. He could not speak, but something came out. It sounded like Arf, woof.
Some time later, a one-eyed man with a limp descended from a tour bus, and then a woman Laurette knew but did not know. Stalton caught the sudden tension in his mother’s stance; he was washing brussels sprouts in a diluted food grade hydrogen peroxide solution under an awning in the open air. He looked just like his father, only younger, somewhat the way Tamas had looked when he was fifteen and worked at Roohan’s Butcher Shop. The woman from the bus went rigid at the sight of him, then grasped her friend’s hand (his good eye had a desperate cast, a sad glint of corruption that Stalton recognized instantly). Laurette had grown enormous, though her feet and hands remained dainty, her movements graceful and lithe, and her face as friendly and pretty as it had been the day she found Tamas Preltz in Rusty’s dog house. She welcomed the couple and gave them a special tour including the Tamas Preltz Memorial Industrial Salad Spinner and the Tamas Preltz Ultimate Frisbee Field and the Tamas Preltz Patented Breathable Plastic Bagging Plant. There were photographs of Tamas Preltz over every doorway: Tamas Preltz as a young man eating his first brussels sprouts with evident distaste, Tamas Preltz swimming naked in the irrigation pond with Laurette, Tamas Preltz with his famous one-ton pumpkin at the state fair, Tamas Preltz with his beloved children. Megan Strehle grew increasingly agitated as the day wore on. Finally, she could stand it no longer. She broke away from Darter and reached a beringed finger to one of the photographs and ran the finger around and around the contours of Tamas Preltz’s face. She tapped the picture with her nail and said, I knew him once long ago. I have looked for him all my life. Sorry, darling, she added, turning to Darter. It’s true. She had tears in her eyes and might have broken down completely except that Laurette Vitapotle embraced her suddenly, crushing her to her oceanic breasts. Megan said, I am Megan Strehle. He must have spoken of me. And Laurette Vitapotle said, gently, in signs, Yes, yes, of course. He spoke of you often. He whispered your name in his dreams. I was so jealous. They both knew that this was untrue but became fast friends in that moment. Meanwhile Stalton Preltz was not alone. Rachlin Roohan, disguised in a hairnet and dark glasses and co-op coveralls, worked at the washing tubs beside him. She had found her way to the farm to beg forgiveness, to try to make amends for all the trouble she had caused. The day she arrived, Laurette Vitapotle and Rachlin Roohan secluded themselves in a sorting shed. The murmur of their secret colloquy emanated from the shed until nightfall and then through the night. No one dared go near. Once there was a shriek, a low moan—whether it was Laurette’s voice or Rachlin’s, no one could tell. More than once there came the bubbling sound of crying, another time there was laughter, then more laughter near the end. In the morning, the two women emerged hand in hand, one hugely obese, a primordial Venus, the other skeletal, both in tears. Rachlin Roohan found a bed in the field hand barracks. And neither woman ever talked about that night except once Laurette said she had asked Rachlin if she had gotten what she wanted. And Rachlin Roohan had said, No, she had never known what she wanted and what she thought she wanted had only been a screen of error. But from the moment of her arrival, Stalton Preltz’s melancholy had begun to lift, as though seeing the real Rachlin Roohan dressed in ordinary clothes (aside from the hairnet and dark glasses), and not the Internet fantasy, somehow relieved his obsessions. One day, much later, he met a girl his own age and they fell in love and were married. Once in a while, she would dress up in an otterskin coat and hunting boots and their love-making would be tinged with sadness, though perhaps this is so of all love.
Field of Cows was arrested for Tamas Preltz’s murder which he confessed to unreservedly. Some alert police officer noticed that his passport had expired, and he was declared an Enemy Combatant and waterboarded until he confessed again. He was put on a black flight to an undisclosed East European country for further questioning where, under torture, he confessed yet again. Several intelligence agencies were determined to break him and find the truth, but he stuck to his story—he and he alone had killed Tamas Preltz with a Masai lion spear at a remote motel somewhere in America. One night, in an attempt to end it all, Field of Cows jumped from his turret cell window over a cliff and into a raging river at the bottom of a gorge. He was found more than half-dead the next day by a former Romanian state garlic farmer named Nicola Romanescu, nursed back to health and he lives there now, tending Nicola’s crops, an embittered and rancorous old man whom no one can understand for which reason he is considered mystical and wise by the locals. An investigation into his mysterious crimes and disappearance is ongoing on four continents and is considered a matter of national security in several world capitals.
When the tour bus left, Megan Strehle and her companion Darter stayed on. They liked the place. Some feeling remained of the joyous love-making, and there was a sense of shared humanity, something straight to the heart that came from having a connection with the past that was at once harsh and cruel and exciting. All the survivors remembered Tamas Preltz fondly. No one, they felt, was to blame for the disconcerting vagaries of life. All their hearts were good and true, they thought. Soon, a younger generation began to pair off (as has been indicated above) and sounds of love, peals of laughter, and whispers like the sound of wind in pine trees filled the summer nights anew.
Douglas Glover is one of Canada's finest writers. In 2006, Glover won the Writers' Trust of Canada Timothy Findley Award. In 2005, he was a finalist for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. In 2003, he won the Governor-General's Award for Fiction. He is the author of eight books of fiction and several books of essays, including The Enamoured Knight, his celebrated book on Don Quixote and the novel. He lives in upstate New York.