Page 6 of 8
She read through his large collection of cook-books, and prepared the dishes on the most-thumbed pages. At dinner he was politeness itself, pulling out her chair and offering more wine and leading the conversation around to topics of the day. She said gently that she wished he would talk more about his feelings. He said that if she had his feelings, she wouldn't want to talk about them either. This intrigued her. She was now more in love with him and more curious than ever.
Well, she thought, I've tried everything else; it's the small door or nothing. Anyway, he gave me the key. She waited until he had gone to the office or wherever it was he went, and made straight for the small door. When she opened it, what should be inside but a dead child. A small dead child, with its eyes wide open.
It's mine, he said, coming up behind her. I gave birth to it. I warned you. Weren't you happy with me?
It looks like you, she said, not turning around, not knowing what else to say. She realized now that he was not sane in any known sense of the word, but she still hoped to talk her way out of it. She could feel the love seeping out of her. Her heart was dry ice.
It is me, he said sadly. Don't be afraid.
Where are we going? she said, because it was getting dark, and there was suddenly no floor.
Deeper, he said.
Those ones. Why do women like them? They have nothing to offer, none of the usual things. They have short attention spans, falling-apart clothes, old beat-up cars, if any. The cars break down, and they try to fix them, and don't succeed, and give up. They go on long walks from which they forget to return. They prefer weeds to flowers. They tell trivial fibs. They perform clumsy tricks with oranges and pieces of string, hoping desperately that someone will laugh. They don't put food on the table. They don't make money. Don't, can't, won't.
They offer nothing. They offer the great clean sweep of nothing, the unseen sky during a blizzard, the dark pause between moon and moon. They offer their poverty, an empty wooden bowl; the bowl of a beggar, whose gift is to ask. Look into it, look down deep, where potential coils like smoke, and you might hear anything. Nothing has yet been said.
They have bodies, however. Their bodies are unlike the bodies of other men. Their bodies are verbalized. Mouth, eye, hand, foot, they say. Their bodies have weight, and move over the ground, step by step, like yours. Like you they roll in the hot mud of the sunlight, like you they are amazed by morning, like you they can taste the wind, like you they sing. Love, they say, and at the time they always mean it, as you do also. They can say lust as well, and disgust; you wouldn't trust them otherwise. They say the worst things you have ever dreamed. They open locked doors. All this is given to them for nothing.
They have their angers. They have their despair, which washes over them like gray ink, blanking them out, leaving them immobile, in metal kitchen chairs, beside closed windows, looking out at the brick walls of deserted factories, for years and years. Yet nothing is with them; it keeps faith with them, and from it they bring back messages:
Hurt, they say, and suddenly their bodies hurt again, like real bodies. Death, they say, making the word sound like the backwash of a wave. Their bodies die, and waver, and turn to mist. And yet they can exist in two worlds at once: lost in the earth or eaten by flames, and here. In this room, when you re-say them, in their own words.
But why do women like them? Not like, I mean to say: adore. (Remember that despite everything, despite all I have told you, the rusted cars, the greasy wardrobes, the lack of breakfasts, the hopelessness, remain the same.)
Because if they can say their own bodies, they could say yours also. Because they could say skin as if it meant something, not only to them but to you. Because one night, when the snow is falling and the moon is blotted out, they could put their empty hands, their hands filled with poverty, their beggar's hands, on your body, and bless it, and tell you it is made of light.
AS A BAT
In my previous life I was a bat.
If you find previous lives amusing or unlikely, you are not a serious person. Consider: a great many people believe in them, and if sanity is a general consensus about the content of reality, who are you to disagree?
Consider also: previous lives have entered the world of commerce. Money can be made from them. You were Cleopatra, you were a Flemish duke, you were a Druid priestess, and money changes hands. If the stock market exists, so must previous lives.
In the previous-life market, there is not such a great demand for Peruvian ditch-diggers as there is for Cleopatra; or for Indian latrine-cleaners, or for 1952 housewives living in California split-levels. Similarly, not many of us choose to remember our lives as vultures, spiders, or rodents, but some of us do. The fortunate few. Conventional wisdom has it that reincarnation as an animal is a punishment for past sins, but perhaps it is a reward instead. At least a resting place. An interlude of grace.
Bats have a few things to put up with, but they do not inflict. When they kill, they kill without mercy, but without hate. They are immune from the curse of pity. They never gloat.
I have recurring nightmares.
In one of them, I am clinging to the ceiling of a summer cottage while a red-faced man in white shorts and a white V-necked T-shirt jumps up and down, hitting at me with a tennis racket. There are cedar rafters up here, and sticky flypapers attached with tacks, dangling like toxic seaweeds. I look down at the man's face, foreshortened and sweating, the eyes bulging and blue, the mouth emitting furious noise, rising up like a marine float, sinking again, rising as if on a swell of air.
The air itself is muggy, the sun is sinking; there will be a thunderstorm. A woman is shrieking, "My hair! My hair!" and someone else is calling, "Anthea! Bring the stepladder!" All I want is to get out through the hole in the screen, but that will take some concentration and it's hard in this din of voices, they interfere with my sonar. There is a smell of dirty bathmats--it's his breath, the breath that comes out from every pore, the breath of the monster. I will be lucky to get out of this alive.
In another nightmare I am winging my way--flittering, I suppose you'd call it--through the clean-washed demilight before dawn. This is a desert. The yuccas are in bloom, and I have been gorging myself on their juices and pollen. I'm heading to my home, to my home cave, where it will be cool during the burnout of day and there will be the sound of water trickling through limestone, coating the rock with a glistening hush, with the moistness of new mushrooms, and the other bats will chirp and rustle and doze until night unfurls again and makes the hot sky tender for us.
But when I reach the entrance to the cave, it is sealed over. It's blocked in. Who can have done this?
I vibrate my wings, sniffing blind as a dazzled moth over the hard surface. In a short time the sun will rise like a balloon on fire and I will be blasted with its glare, shriveled to a few small bones.
Whoever said that light was life and darkness nothing?
For some of us, the mythologies are different.
3. VAMPIRE FILMS
I became aware of the nature of my previous life gradually, not only through dreams but through scraps of memory, through hints, through odd moments of recognition.
There was my preference for the subtleties of dawn and dusk, as opposed to the vulgar blaring hour of high noon. There was my deja vu experience in the Carlsbad Caverns--surely I had been there before, long before, before they put in the pastel spotlights and the cute names for stalactites and the underground restaurant where you can combine claustrophobia and indigestion and then take the elevator to get back out.
There was also my dislike for headfuls of human hair, so like nets or the tendrils of poisonous jellyfish: I feared entanglements. No real bat would ever suck the blood of necks. The neck is too near the hair. Even the vampire bat will target a hairless extremity --by choice a toe, resembling as it does the teat of a cow.
Vampire films have always
seemed ludicrous to me, for this reason but also for the idiocy of their bats--huge rubbery bats, with red Christmas-light eyes and fangs like a saber-toothed tiger's, flown in on strings, their puppet wings flapped sluggishly like those of an overweight and degenerate bird. I screamed at these filmic moments, but not with fear; rather with outraged laughter, at the insult to bats.
O Dracula, unlikely hero! O flying leukemia, in your cloak like a living umbrella, a membrane of black leather which you unwind from within yourself and lift like a stripteaser's fan as you bend with emaciated lust over the neck, flawless and bland, of whatever woman is longing for obliteration, here and now in her best negligee. Why was it given to you by whoever stole your soul to transform yourself into bat and wolf, and only those? Why not a vampire chipmunk, a duck, a gerbil? Why not a vampire turtle? Now that would be a plot.
4. THE BAT AS DEADLY WEAPON
During the Second World War they did experiments with bats. Thousands of bats were to be released over German cities, at the hour of noon. Each was to have a small incendiary device strapped onto it, with a timer. The bats would have headed for darkness, as is their habit. They would have crawled into holes in walls, or secreted themselves under the eaves of houses, relieved to have found safety. At a preordained moment they would have exploded, and the cities would have gone up in flames.
That was the plan. Death by flaming bat. The bats too would have died, of course. Acceptable megadeaths.
The cities went up in flames anyway, but not with the aid of bats. The atom bomb had been invented, and the fiery bat was no longer thought necessary.
If the bats had been used after all, would there have been a war memorial to them? It isn't likely.
If you ask a human being what makes his flesh creep more, a bat or a bomb, he will say the bat. It is difficult to experience loathing for something merely metal, however ominous. We save these sensations for those with skin and flesh: a skin, a flesh, unlike our own.
Perhaps it isn't my life as a bat that was the interlude. Perhaps it is this life. Perhaps I have been sent into human form as if on a dangerous mission, to save and redeem my own folk. When I have gained a small success, or died in the attempt--for failure, in such a task and against such odds, is more likely--I will be born again, back into that other form, that other world where I truly belong.
More and more, I think of this event with longing. The quickness of heartbeat, the vivid plunge into the nectars of crepuscular flowers, hovering in the infrared of night; the dank lazy half-sleep of daytime, with bodies rounded and soft as furred plums clustering around me, the mothers licking the tiny amazed faces of the newborn; the swift love of what will come next, the anticipations of the tongue and of the infurled, corrugated and scrolled nose, nose like a dead leaf, nose like a radiator grille, nose of a denizen of Pluto.
And in the evening, the supersonic hymn of praise to our Creator, the Creator of bats, who appears to us in the form of a bat and who gave us all things: water and the liquid stone of caves, the woody refuge of attics, petals and fruit and juicy insects, and the beauty of slippery wings and sharp white canines and shining eyes.
What do we pray for? We pray for food as all do, and for health and for the increase of our kind; and for deliverance from evil, which cannot be explained by us, which is hair-headed and walks in the night with a single white unseeing eye, and stinks of half-digested meat, and has two legs.
Goddess of caves and grottoes: bless your children.
Here comes the future, rolling towards us like a meteorite, a satellite, a giant iron snowball, a two-ton truck in the wrong lane, careering downhill with broken brakes, and whose fault is it? No time to think about that. Blink and it's here.
How round, how firm, how fully packed is this future! How man-made! What wonders it contains, especially for those who can afford it! They are the elect, and by their fruits ye shall know them. Their fruits are strawberries and dwarf plums and grapes, things that can be grown beside the hydroponic vegetables and the toxin-absorbent ornamentals, in relatively little space. Space is at a premium, living space that is. All space that is not living space is considered dead.
Living space is under the stately pleasure dome, the work-and-leisure dome, the transparent bubble-dome that keeps out the deadly cosmic rays and the rain of sulfuric acid and the air which is no longer. No longer air, I mean. You can look out, of course: watch the sun, red at all times of day, rise across the raw rock and shifting sands, travel across the raw rock and shifting sands, set across the raw rock and shifting sands. The light effects are something.
But breathing is out of the question. That's a thing you have to do in here, and the richer you are, the better you do it. Penthouse costs a bundle; steerage is cramped, and believe me it stinks. Well, as they say, there's only so much to go around, and it wouldn't do if everyone got the same. No incentive then, to perform the necessary work, make the necessary sacrifices, inch your way up, to where the pale pink strawberries and the pale yellow carrots are believed, still, to grow.
What else is eaten? Well, there are no more hamburgers. Cows take up too much room. Chickens and rabbits are still cultivated, here and there; they breed quickly and they're small. Rats, of course, on the lower levels, if you can catch them. Think of the earth as an eighteenth-century ship, with stowaways but no destination.
And no fish, needless to say. None left in all that dirty water sloshing around in the oceans and through the remains of what used to be New York. If you're really loaded you can go diving there, for your vacation. Travel by airlock. Plunge into the romance of a bygone age. But it's an ill wind that blows nobody any good. No more street crime. Think of it as a plus.
Back to the topic of food, which will always be of interest. What will we have for dinner? Is it wall-to-wall bean sprouts? Apart from the pallid garnishes and the chicken-hearted hors d'oeuvres, what's the main protein?
Think of the earth as a nineteenth-century lifeboat, adrift in the open sea, with castaways but no rescuers. After a while you run out of food, you run out of water. You run out of everything but your fellow passengers.
Why be squeamish? Let's just say we've learned the hard way about waste. Or let's say we all make our little contribution to the general welfare, in the end.
It's done by computer. For every birth there must be a death. Everything's ground up, naturally. Nothing you might recognize, such as fingers. Think of the earth as a hard stone ball, scraped clean of life. There are benefits: no more mosquitoes, no bird poop on your car. The bright side is a survival tool. So look on it.
I'm being unnecessarily brutal, you say. Too blunt, too graphic. You want things to go on the way they are, five square meals a day, new plastic toys, the wheels of the economy oiled and spinning, payday as usual, the smoke going up the chimney just the same. You don't like this future.
You don't like this future? Switch it off. Order another. Return to sender.
Imagine a piece of bread. You don't have to imagine it, it's right here in the kitchen, on the breadboard, in its plastic bag, lying beside the bread knife. The bread knife is an old one you picked up at an auction; it has the word BREAD carved into the wooden handle. You open the bag, pull back the wrapper, cut yourself a slice. You put butter on it, then peanut butter, then honey, and you fold it over. Some of the honey runs out onto your fingers and you lick it off. It takes you about a minute to eat the bread. This bread happens to be brown, but there is also white bread, in the refrigerator, and a heel of rye you got last week, round as a full stomach then, now going moldy. Occasionally you make bread. You think of it as something relaxing to do with your hands.
Imagine a famine. Now imagine a piece of bread. Both of these things are real but you happen to be in the same room with only one of them. Put yourself into a different room, that's what the mind is for. You are now lying on a thin mattress in a hot room. The walls are made of dried eart
h and your sister, who is younger than you are, is in the room with you. She is starving, her belly is bloated, flies land on her eyes; you brush them off with your hand. You have a cloth too, filthy but damp, and you press it to her lips and forehead. The piece of bread is the bread you've been saving, for days it seems. You are as hungry as she is, but not yet as weak. How long does this take? When will someone come with more bread? You think of going out to see if you might find something that could be eaten, but outside the streets are infested with scavengers and the stink of corpses is everywhere.
Should you share the bread or give the whole piece to your sister? Should you eat the piece of bread yourself? After all, you have a better chance of living, you're stronger. How long does it take to decide?
Imagine a prison. There is something you know that you have not yet told. Those in control of the prison know that you know. So do those not in control. If you tell, thirty or forty or a hundred of your friends, your comrades, will be caught and will die. If you refuse to tell, tonight will be like last night. They always choose the night. You don't think about the night, however, but about the piece of bread they offered you. How long does it take? The piece of bread was brown and fresh and reminded you of sunlight falling across a wooden floor. It reminded you of a bowl, a yellow bowl that was once in your home. It held apples and pears; it stood on a table you can also remember. It's not the hunger or the pain that is killing you but the absence of the yellow bowl. If you could only hold the bowl in your hands, right here, you could withstand anything, you tell yourself. The bread they offered you is subversive, it's treacherous, it does not mean life.
There were once two sisters. One was rich and had no children, the other had five children and was a widow, so poor that she no longer had any food left. She went to her sister and asked her for a mouthful of bread. "My children are dying," she said. The rich sister said, "I do not have enough for myself," and drove her away from the door. Then the husband of the rich sister came home and wanted to cut himself a piece of bread; but when he made the first cut, out flowed red blood.