The day ends with a call from her insufferable brother. Insufferable when he calls, carping endlessly on about a portfolio of problems that anyone not living in the culture capital of the world would be grateful to have—Quaker schools and alternate-side parking and something actually called “mansion tax”—and even worse during those stretches of absolute radio silence in which it’s obvious that he could take or leave the family altogether. He launches straight into his feud with Hunter Wagoner, the latest middle-aged white Southern writer whose Moment has proved slightly more extensive and sparkly than her brother’s own Moment, but for the first time in more than 10 years of this unvarying, soul-killing rite of auto-pietà she cuts him off.
“I feel the same way, Maddy. Believe me. The thing is, though, that’s exactly what Hunter——” “I could recite all the stuff you’re about to tell me down to the tiniest, most piddling detail. I’m even pretty sure about the order.” “All right. Sure. I just——” “I know that his book got on the cover of the TBR and yours didn’t, even though his was just a story collection, and I know that everyone raves about the humor in his writing in spite of the fact that he’s not actually funny, and I know that you once heard him hitting on a grad student at a party by telling her about the year he spent reading nothing but the New Testament, and I know that it worked. Can we skip to the part where I tell you that you have a better ear?”
A long silence. Change being registered.
“I was calling to ask about your new meds, actually. That’s why I called. You’re right about Wagoner. Fuck that guy up the ass.”
She says nothing to that.
“Maddy? You there?”
“I’m not on any new meds.”
He actually laughs. “There’s probably some new term for them now, like Best Life Enablers, but you obviously know——”
“I’m not taking the Paxil anymore. I’m not taking the Zoloft. I’m just not taking them.”
A more profound silence. Corroded gears turning.
“I was talking to Dad today, which is maybe another reason I called. He seemed kind of concerned.”
“I know it’s a cliché to say you never call,” she tells him. “Or that you only call when you want something from me.”
“You’re right, Mads. That is a cliché.”
“But you never call.”
“How can you say that? Here we are——”
“Or you only call when you want something from me.”
“I’m sorry, Maddy. I’m sorry. Okay? I love you very much. I love you and I’m worried about you. Are you yawning?”
“I love you too, Teddy.”
“It’s just—you’re not always the easiest person to talk to, you know? And I’m not the easiest person.”
“Somewhere on this planet is the easiest person to talk to,” she finds herself saying. “But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t live in Vicksburg.”
“I’m going to go ahead and guess one of the tea-producing countries,” says Teddy. “The betel-nut-chewing countries. Sri Lanka, maybe. Or Bangladesh.”
“Okay,” she says. “Okay. Bangladesh.”
They’ve found common ground again, and she’s grateful for that, because it means that she can end the conversation. She hangs up the phone, an ancient gray rotary, then crosses the kitchen to the jack and disconnects it.
She exhales slowly, feeling her shoulders go slack, standing motionless and barefoot in the middle of the room. She can hear the fridge buzzing. She feels surprised, as she often has before, by how much the sound soothes her. The buzzing grows fiercer, then settles, like a sleeping dog’s breathing. She tries to remember the last time Teddy asked her about her own writing. Her Royal ML 100 Standard Electric is sitting where it always sits, on the ell at the end of the counter, but today there’s actually a sheet of paper in it: a bright new sheet of yellow bond legal paper, eight and a half by 14. Legal paper is less intimidating, for some reason, although the opposite ought to be true.
She opens a beer and sits down at the counter.
The novel she’ll write if she ever writes again, if she manages to have two thoughts that fit coherently together, will be set in a world of such near-perfect equivalence to ours that it will take the reader half the book to guess that something isn’t right. The difference will make itself known in the most subtle of ways, largely through dialogue: slight quirks of the vernacular, as though the characters were speaking English as a second language. The marsh a woman’s house looks out on is referred to as “a dampness,” her car seems to run without fuel or electricity, and she tells her husband to hurry “because I don’t have all the tea in China.” The woman in question is called Madrigal, a common name in this alternate universe, and she works four days a week—as Maddy does herself—making cold calls for a collection agency out of Vicksburg, Mississippi.
Certain lives must still, on rare occasions, come to grief. Otherwise: no story.
One evening Madrigal is driving home along the dampness in her blue cold-fusion hatchback, admiring the play of sunlight on the water, when a rush of emotion—an almost physical sensation, as if the wind were picking up—compels her to veer from what the navigation system cautions her, with condescending equanimity, to be the shortest distance home. The car comes hoveringly to rest against a wind-tossed bank of cattails. She leans forward, clutching the steering cone in panic, trying to make sense of what is happening to her. How many times, Madrigal asks herself, has she passed this particular bend in the road, this extraordinary, heartbreaking spot with its high bank of thatch? Was it always so excruciatingly scenic, so radiant with hidden meaning? And what has made her stop the car today? Then, through a break in the cattails, Madrigal sees it. She has no words for what she’s seeing, no adequate points of comparison. She knows only that this is the answer, the key to the riddle, the reason she stopped. It rides low in the water, an oblong gray something, and when it dips its neck beneath the surface it might almost be mistaken for the back of some great snake or eel—but that’s wrong again, it’s nothing like either, it’s simply that she has no frame of reference. A fish or a snake would have scales of some kind, would move quickly, would appear to have weight. This creature seems weightless. It’s covered in what looks to be fabric, perhaps a kind of fur. Something under the water is propelling it forward, smoothly and unhurriedly, but from where she sits she sees no limbs at all. She presses her forehead to the windshield, afraid to roll down the window, afraid to fog the glass by letting out a breath. The creature moves in fussy, aimless circles, indifferent to the idling car, and when its neck and foreparts catch the sun, Madrigal sees that her eyes have misled her: It’s dark blue and ivory and rufous and silver. Its seemingly unbroken skin is in fact made up of overlapping segments, too many to count, fitted so precisely together that they appear a continuous whole. The creature does have scales, then—scales that catch and hold and even warp the light. Madrigal wipes at her eyes with her sleeve. She wants to push the door quietly open, to step into the damp brown grass in her bare feet, to wade into that tepid, reeking water.
She’s just kicked off her work flats when a second creature glides into view, slighter and more darkly patterned than the first. A feeling close to envy overcomes her. She opens the door, more abruptly than she’d intended, and in that instant the event occurs that marks her.
The pair gave a cry just before they took flight—a choked-sounding warble, nothing at all like music. Madrigal struggles to describe the sound to her husband, does her best to imitate it in the comfort of their den, and although he’s attentive and not the least annoyed it’s obvious to her that he’s baffled. Her husband tells her he’s never seen her so frustrated, so angry, and he’s absolutely right. She stands in a kind of boxer’s stance between him and the TV, blocking his view of the flatscreen, shivering and weeping at the sight of him staring blandly up at her. It takes all her self-control to keep from kicking him in his well-intentioned pancake of a face. That same night she sits down at her husband’s outmoded desktop PC and starts searching. She’s always been terrible at using search engines—the first keywords she enters are WATER + NO ARMS + DAMPNESS—but within 15 minutes she’s found it. ANIMAL + WATER + LONG NECK + CHESTNUT FRONT + AIRBORNE. The creatures she saw flying were a pair of red-necked grebes. So rare is this animal in the world she inhabits, and so perfect her exurban ignorance, that Madrigal learns the Linnaean classification of the red-necked grebe, Podiceps rubricollis, before she grasps that it’s a kind of bird. The term itself is palely familiar—she remembers, now, a set of illustrations in an old clothbound book of her father’s—but the only flying creatures she’s encountered in her 37 years (most of them, admittedly, spent avoiding the outdoors) have been gnats. And houseflies, she corrects herself. And yellow jackets. Nothing like those two gray shapes dispensing with the earth. She spends all night reading, clicking on link after link, progressing from grebe to waterfowl to avifauna to the minutiae of “bird topography,” the grouping of feather types on the wing, primaries secondaries coverts scapulars mantle, and outward from there to molt cycles and distribution patterns and the past century’s catastrophic cycles of extinction—feeling queasy by then, as if she’s been watching pornography—and occasionally letting her forehead come to rest against the screen. Before dawn she happens on the field journals of a continental ornithologist, written sometime during the Second Global War, and on a whim decides that this is where her nightlong search will end. She prints a handful of pages and curls up on the sofa in the kitchen-living-dining module and starts to read. The ornithologist, whose name is Benedikt Weisshaupt, is midway through an expedition to the Bosavi rain forest of Papua New Guinea in the first entry Madrigal reads. He seems to be in flight from something: from fascism, perhaps, or military service, or some more personal disgrace. He’s come to this particular swath of trackless, parasite-infested jungle in search of a heretofore-unidentified species of bowerbird, known in the Bosavi language as “He-Who-Waits,” endemic to the slopes of a nearby volcano.
“Does intense longing always lead one to extremes?”
Weisshaupt is moving tortuously up the west face of the mountain now, hacking a path through the jungle with one of the cheap steel axes he bought in Port Moresby and griping about the pandanus trees in his way, the rain-slick clay under his feet, with the one man the elders have seen fit to give him: Iguakallalianakup’a, a.k.a. “Ginger,” the grinning youth who caused him so much bother. The forest to every side is riotous with birdsong, all manner of cries and shrieks and gurgles, nearly all of which he can’t identify. Ginger’s response whenever Weisshaupt asks him, however, is always one of two answers: simply “animal” or “He-Who-Waits.” “‘What call was that now, Ginger? And don’t say He-Who-Waits. That was no bowerbird.’“ ‘Yes, Weisshaupt. That was animal.’ “‘What kind of animal, damn you? Just any kind?’ “‘No, Weisshaupt. Not any kind of animal.’
“‘Well then, what kind was it?’
A vine ejects a “vicious, scalding resin” onto the back of Weisshaupt’s neck at this moment, and another torrent of abuse ensues, at the end of which we find him shivering in his tent high on the north rim of the crater, fighting to finish the day’s journal entry in spite of a burgeoning fever. He manages, with the aid of a steady stream of profanity, to note down the rough outline of a talk he’s just had with Ginger: a conversation which has radically changed his understanding of the boy, of the forest and—most of all—of the song that still surrounds him.
“I had asked Ginger, for the hundredth time, to cease his constant, tuneless whistling, and for the hundredth time he’d grinningly refused. I told him he was competing with the birdsong around us, and he laughed more merrily than he had since we’d set out. I lost my temper yet again, cursing him in my frustration, and he took me gently by the wrist, as one might the smallest child, and explained to me that the instant he stopped whistling, we’d be lost.
“‘What on earth do you mean, Ginger? Are you a blind cave-fish, perhaps? Are you a bat?’
“‘No, Weisshaupt,’ he said, suddenly solemn. ‘I’m a learner of the country. I’m a drawer of the map.’
“‘I see,’ I said archly. ‘A cartographer, are you?’
“He asked me to repeat the word, then broke into his maddening smile again. ‘Yes, Weisshaupt. Exactly so. I’m a cartographer.’
“It was then, over the next thousand vertical meters of unforgiving terrain, that I began to comprehend. I began, slowly and reluctantly, to grasp the bewildering fact that Bosavi songs are vocalized mappings of the rain forest, that they are sung from a bird’s point of view and that I must understand their melodies as paths of flight along forest waterways; to discover where we are, in other words, I have only to lift my feet, and flap my arms, and slowly leave the surface of the earth.
“‘Who is He-Who-Waits, Ginger? Is he a bird at all?’
“‘Yes, Weisshaupt. He is of course a bird. And so are you.’”
In his heart, the Redeemer prefers the reporters, the hatchet men, the hacks—if only because they’ve made their bias clear.
I think it’s useful to go farther back than the obvious totalitarian models, Jeri, and take a look at advances in selective breeding made during the British Agricultural Revolution. [laughter] Mr. Wells, are you suggesting—— I’m just pointing out that He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named’s obsession with control of our borders, and with ethnic demographics in general, isn’t too different from a 17th century sheep breeder’s take on the care of the herd. [laughter] These are dangerous times, Mr. Wells. As a journalist—— Journalist and memoirist.
As a journalist and memoirist, apologies, are you sure you want to be making assertions of this nature on the air?
I’m just drawing a parallel, Jeri. If you take a closer look at statements he’s made in the past calendar year, on the record, especially with regard to his own flesh and blood——
The Redeemer stares down at his delicate hands. He begins each day thick-boned and massive, as heroic in scale as that statue of the Italian in the roundabout outside his tower, and crawls into bed at night no bigger than a sparrow. He sees himself as a bird in the wee hours, a flightless bird—a kakapo, perhaps, or a kiwi—with flexible, aerated bones. The self-satisfied voice is still talking, still sneering, still characterizing him in the nastiest possible terms.
Listen, Jeri. I’m not crazy enough to come right out and say it. But anyone with two or three functional fingers, you know, and access to a personal computer——
The Redeemer listens for the man’s name, his full name, and fixes it in his memory. No sooner has he done so, however, than it begins to drift. An occupational hazard. He writes the name down in blue ink on the back of his hand, over other names, faded but still faintly visible.
The pundits, useful up to a point—if only as stooges, as straw men, as figures of fun—have become a liability. On this point all are in agreement, especially those who pose a threat themselves. The secretary of the exchequer, for example, with his mincing smile and high, Semitic forehead. Or the minister of war, the one with the unpronounceable name, whose staff has been leaking classified documents faster than a five-year-old can wet the bed. In his heart, the Redeemer prefers the reporters, the hatchet men, the whingers, the hacks—even, on his darkest days, the protesters—if only because they’ve made their bias clear. But this one. This smug little squeaker. This one gets under his skin.
“Am I the three-legged horse, Teddy? Or am I more like the one who made the bet?”
The clock on his flatscreen reads 0345 when he rises from his recliner, distinctly larger than life now, sits down at his PC and starts to write. The first order of business is to send a missive to his 18 million followers, farmers and housewives and roofers and attorneys and debt-collection agents and corrections officers and poets and pastors and dental technicians, who take comfort in his late-night pensamientos. He no longer feels angry, but indignation is what they’ve come to expect from him, and the squeaker’s case will serve as well as any. Decadent sniveling (alcoholic?) propagandist @WellsTeddy was ungenerous to me on Who-Listens-to-the-Radio-Anymore tonight. Give sister a call, @WellsTeddy. Maybe she’ll answer. The writer sees the post and calls his sister. He wants to make the call, to hear her voice, before the weight of what has happened hits him. It’s been a month since their last conversation, possibly more. She’s been doing better—she’s finally found a regimen that works for her, some intricate combination of exercise and meds and “mindfulness” that depresses him even to think about—but he got a message from their father just that morning, urging him to check in. He’s thinking about the tightness in his father’s voice when his sister picks up. “Maddy!” “Jesus, Teddy. Why does every word out of your mouth have an exclamation point after it?”
He’s always been morbidly attuned to his big sister’s moods, and today he can tell instantly, after less than a sentence, that she hasn’t seen or heard about the post. Her voice has the damp, leaden tone that it’s had for the better part of the last decade, but its dullness is a comfort to him now. His mind floods with relief. Then he realizes he has no idea what to say next.
“I came across a quote today that made me think of you.”
A long pause. “Okay.”
“‘We spend our lives betting on three-legged horses with beautiful names.’”
“I don’t know why, Maddy. I didn’t write the damn thing. It’s by Bohumil Hrabal, the famous Czech——”
“I know who Bohumil Hrabal is. That’s not what I’m asking. I want to know why it made you think of me.”
“I thought you might like it,” he stammers. “No particular——”
“Am I the three-legged horse, Teddy? Or am I more like the one who made the bet?”
It’s going wrong so quickly. He’s forgotten how to talk to her, how to wriggle his way through her defenses, how to find the hairline fissures in the wall. He used to be able to slip effortlessly into the sibling frequency, to change her mood as easily as he could gauge it. In his desperation he now finds himself falling back into his well-established role: the pampered, entitled, narcissistic author, whinging over half-imagined slights. He does his Hunter Wagoner routine.
“Guess who won a ‘genius grant’ today. Just take a guess.”
He hears, or imagines that he hears, his sister break into a grin. “Shit, Teddy bear. I can’t even imagine.”
“The poet laureate of Methedrine, Alabama. The hillbilly Hemingway. The mouth-breathing Melville.”
She laughs at his Wagoner jokes—she always has. It’s a way to make contact, to draw her out by making himself contemptible. A sick exchange, he sometimes thinks, but an exchange just the same. Tonight, as so often before, it seems to do the trick. Then suddenly she’s telling him she’s stopped her medication.
“I’m sorry, Maddy. I’m sorry, okay? I love you very much. I love you and I’m worried about you. Are you yawning?”
An endless-seeming pause. “I love you too, Teddy.”
“It’s just, you’re not the easiest person to talk to, you know? And I’m not the easiest person.”
“Somewhere on this planet is the easiest person to talk to.” She sighs. “But I’m pretty sure he doesn’t live in Vicksburg.”
A surge of love and gratitude runs through him. “I’m going to go ahead and guess one of the tea-producing countries,” he finds himself saying. “The betel-nut-chewing countries. Sri Lanka, maybe. Or Bangladesh.”
“Okay,” she murmurs, and suddenly he’s riding with his sister in the back seat of a Volkswagen Passat, five years old, maybe six, staring up at her in hopeless admiration, making a study of her every word and gesture. She the eagle, he the sparrow. No one else in all the world.
“Okay,” she says a second time, more clearly. “Bangladesh.”
He hears the dull click as she hangs up the phone—the clunky gray rotary she still insists on using—and leans back carefully in his ergonomic chair. He pictures his sister standing mutely in the kitchen, lost in thought, half-listening to the hum of the refrigerator. After a time her eyes regain their focus, coming to rest on the kitchen counter, then—shyly, reluctantly—on the typewriter at its far end. It’s usually empty, it’s always empty, but he imagines a sheet of paper in it now. The paper is textured, substantial. She takes a beer out of the fridge and opens it. She takes a slow sip. He pictures her crossing the room to the counter, staring into space for a moment, then starting to write.
From the September/October 2018 Playboy.