The Founder Effect – no. 17

17.

 

Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with the line, ‘Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’

Well, Leo, I have proven the exception to the rule.

Floors 1, 2, 4, 5, and 8 are now completely vacated of neighbors (Monarchs and milkweed going up in no. 24 tonight). And no one in this city would move into any unit here if you paid them. The whole first floor—nos. 1, 2, and 3—are knee-high in soil and lichens. I picked up beetle snails and a pair of star nosed moles to put in there when I dropped off Antonia’s lunch this morning. They seem to love it.

She offered to bring back stacks of plastic modular tank extenders (for cost and space, they’re the most efficient solution, she says). In exchange for three lobsters, Beethoven has agreed to not complain until I can install the MTEs by sometime tonight.

As well as last night went with Antonia, we’re celebrating with a little sherry. Now that I’m 17, Chimpy today is calling me Jailbait.

Jailbait, pass me the lighter.

Jailbait, you want ice?

Haven’t you already seen this Antiques Roadshow episode, Jailbait?

He’s in a much better mood than he was last night. Having the chance to cook really does soothe him, and his amuse-bouche of ceviche de pulpo is undoubtedly fine by any standard. After the stunt Beethoven pulled—Antonia was a terrific sport about it, though—and the second she left, Chimpy was ready to kill it on the spot. At one point I thought I had him talked down, but when I turned, Chimpy made a sneaky dash for the aquatank and I had no choice but to physically restrain him.

The compromise was to spare Beethoven’s life. But it did cost the price of sixteen suckers worth of a single tentacle. Just one. And not even most of it. Chimpy made a very persuasive argument that Beethoven would never learn otherwise and in the end I had little choice but to agree. After all, Chimpy is an animal, and Beethoven is an animal, but I am not. So I deferred to his judgment.

I love the ghee finish on that tangerine brine, I say.

Chimpy leers at Beethoven as he signs, Can you tell how the ginger and garlic are just rubbed on? I just rubbed them on the tentacle? Without mashing them up into the marinade?

Mmmm, I say. So that’s it. It’s really tender. And subtle.

There’s nothing in the marinade but the juice.

Amazing, I say and stab the last piece. No salt?

Just in the ghee.

It’s exquisite.

Chimpy is surely being cruel, but I cannot deny the results. Beethoven has been limited to mealtime conversations, and by permission only. And again, the lobsters bought me a day of peace and quiet about the space, which I’m already taking care of.

Things are happening outside the flat in the hallway.

Everything goes red. Just as suddenly, the red ends.

In Mrs. Boerenpummel’s apartment, it sounds like a firework explodes.

Raat! Cleanup on aisle two.

Chimpy displays agitation.

What the hell was that?!

Raat! Five-O.

A small spout of water squirts up into the air from the geoduck shelter.

There’s a hatehiss coming from the other side of the apartment wall. A slam, a snap of breaking wood, followed by a number of stomping boots. I rush to the front door.

I look through the fisheye lens of the peephole. I hear what is left of Mrs. Boerenpummel’s door collapse, then speaking in the hallway, then the jingle of chains. Eight Gurkhas, in two-by-two formation, march by. Then Mrs. Boerenpummel shuffles past, shackled neck to feet. Then a Borinqueneer wearing the bars and pineapple of a Master Gunnery Sergeant. Last, ten Legionnaires with bayonets pointing up on their backs. They all tramp away.

I turn my head around. Sorry, Chimpy.

He signs, It’s cool, really. It ain’t a thing.

The Frenchman told me there might be an orangutan in the works before long. A female.

That’s what I’m talking about, Jailbait. I love Malaysian chicks.

Well I can’t promise you anything because, remember, if she does not reciprocate your affections then the point is moot, right, Mr. McPickles?

Something brushes against the door. I look through the peephole again and see the three armed men in berets I had seen on the street before. One of them bows.

A sealed envelope falls through the mail slot, landing on my foot.

I pick it up, look at both sides. I hand it to Chimpy. He skips over to the hallway closet, cracks it open, hurriedly stuffs the envelope inside (without letting the rest of the mail avalanche out onto the floor), and pushes, presses, works the door back shut.

 

Chimpy sprinkles some flakes into the fish tank.

I say, The Frenchman assured me that these three are also females. I wonder if Haffenreffer will go on to be male.

What do you mean?

She’s the mature one. When a group of clownfish are all females, the mature one usually will turn into a male.

Are you serious?

Indeed I am. It’s called protogyny. A lot of fish species do it.

Chimpy lights a cigarette and passes it to me, then lights his own. And then they mate?

That’s the point, yes.

No kidding.

Hundreds of fish species are protogynous. Including wrasses.

Chimpy blows a smoke ring through another smoke ring. The wrasses are asses.

Ah, yes, well, ha, that’s good.

You think what I did to Beethoven was too harsh.

No, I don’t know.

In a couple weeks it’ll be all grown back.

Yes, I know.

And it tasted great.

It was so, so good.

Thank you. Trust me when it comes to animals. I know how to deal with them.

Chimpy?

What is it?

I ask, Were you born in the wild?

He ashes his smoke. No I was not. Born in Brooklyn, raised in the Bronx.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 16

16.

 

The flat is immaculate. My master suite is crisp and bright in cotton, marble, and mahogany. Birds of Paradise in the vases, a hint of lemongrass in the air. Spiritmasks on the walls, furniture engineered and minimal. Perfection in tribal modernism.

The first room is Chimpy’s and Electra’s. Their bunkbeds are made, everything sorted just right. The legendary Mr. McPickles pulls a Zippo from a pocket on his crushed velvet smoking jacket to light a stick of patchouli.

Rascal’s room is trashed. I cannot say with confidence that the Billy goat is one of my favorite animals. He’s been starting to show signs of playing too rough with Eve, first at mealtimes, but now more recently it’s been whenever. And he’s a chewer. And a climber. I tether him and lock his door.

Electra is perched on the grandfather clock performing New Age spa sounds. She’s agreed to set the mood. My Wing Woman.

I’m hoping the emu egg will hatch tonight while Antonia is here.

It’s as if a red lens has fallen right over my pupils. Suddenly everything is tinted with a red light. Everything everywhere.

Iwan tmo respace, I hear in my mind.

Who wants more space? Who said that?

Everything is still red.

Iam nota fraid tokil lyou.

Not afraid to kill me? Did you hear that?

Raat! Hear what?

Chimpy signs, Hear what?

How could you not hear that?

The voice buzzes in my head, Ifyo udonot giveme mores pace, I willeat allof yo urani mals.

The red stops.

I look around. Everything is back to its natural color.

Beethoven suspends itself front-and-center in the aquatank. Our eyes meet.

You said that, didn’t you? I ask.

Beethoven stares me down, its tentacles gathering.

You’ll eat all of my animals if I don’t give you more space?

Everything goes red.

Doyouk now whothe wo man is?

Which woman?

Yo urgues tton ight.

Antonia?

Raat! She’ll be here! Don’t worry! He’s lost his marbles.

Eve sits alert at my feet, ears stiff, paying me mind. Ready to hunt. At my word.

The wo man isag oddess.

The red ends.

Electra’s wings beat violently. Raat! Who the hell are you?

I say, Electra, is it speaking to you now?

She croons, “The Lady in Redddddd…”

Electra, what is it saying?

Raat! Thanks but no thanks, partner.

She launches herself from the top of the grandfather clock, dips into the tight corner, flies right into her room.

Chimpy grunts, drums his chest, then straightens up. He has a far-away look in his eyes.

I ask, Have you heard it yet?

He stands perfectly still.

Is it speaking to you now? Does everything look red?

Chimpy waddles over to the aquatank, knocks on it three times, backs up and signs, If you ruin tonight for Raymundo and Antonia, that cleaver right over there hanging on the wall is the knife I’m going to use to chop you into bits and feed you to the platypuses. Gambino and Luchese. We call them The Syndicate. They will eat you whole. Even when you rot.

What did it say? I demand.

Chimpy freezes again.

What is it saying?

He signs, So, we have an understanding.

Who? What understanding?

I can hear Electra in her room mimicking the theme music from The Twilight Zone.

If you break that promise and don’t show respect, I swear on my life I will fry you. Don’t kid yourself. I will fry you alive to a crisp. We’ll all eat you. The goat, too. Ray will put out all the special sauces. Believe that.

What is it saying? I ask again.

It says it won’t interfere but it does need more space. It’s not mature. It’ll get way bigger soon.

Fine. It said Antonia was a goddess. What did it mean by that?

Chimpy signs, It means that she’s a goddess.

 

Buenas noches, Raymundo.

Welcome, come in. You are a vision.

O, Raymundo. Chew our saucewheat.

Please. Let me take your cape.

 

¿Cangrejos?

Basically. They’re called yabbies.

¿Y les gustan?

Oh, it’s their favorite thing to eat.

 

I’m sorry. It’s only that I just got it today and it’s super temperamental. I didn’t mean to sound critical of you.

She smirks kindly and shakes her head. Jude hidden.

 

¿Podemos ir a ver a las abejas?

Upstairs?

Sí, arriba upstairs.

I did get two beekeeper suits.

She gasps and applauds. ¡Que divertido fun!

I smile. I ask, How do you do that?

 

Chimpy returns with two pisco sours in stemmed glasses on a sterling silver tray. Antonia and I trade our empties for the refills.

She looks at Chimpy, taps her mouth, then beckons him. Thank you, darling.

 

Antonia has flipped off her shoes. She’s spread out comfortably on the sofa, playing with the red ribbon.

I’m in the loveseat. I begin to read from the book she gave me, The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery: “Here is an animal with venom like a snake, a beak like a parrot, and ink like an old-fashioned pen. It can weigh as much as a man and stretch as long as a car, yet it can pour its baggy, boneless body through an opening the size of an orange.”

Antonia grabs her mouth and gently squeals.

“It can change color and shape. It can taste with its skin.”

She sticks fingers in her ears, kicking the air, wincing as she giggles. ¡Dios Mio!

I continue, “Most fascinating of all, I had read that octopuses are smart. This bore out what scant experience I had already had; like many who visit octopuses in public aquariums, I’ve often had the feeling that the octopus I was watching was watching me back, with an interest as keen as my own.”

Playfully protecting herself, as if I were flinging atrocities, Antonia holds up crossed arms. She covers her eyes with the backs of her hands, the folds in her palms shaped into curved lines, like two perfect question marks.

Everything turns red.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 15

15.

 

I feel like the perfect paragraph. There’s at once a truth and a music to me now. The cadence of song. It’s in my stride and my posture, in my subjects and my predicates. It all feels very real to me.

So I don’t want to be reminded that it’s fiction.

It’s.

That this is fiction. This. That the sky isn’t right there above my head, that those birds in it aren’t trying to go somewhere, that its sapphire infinity is out of my grasp, is something that I couldn’t reach up to and touch if I wanted. I look around and there are all these buildings all over, those trees and their shadows, fire hydrants, trash cans, traffic lights, cables, the food carts, talking people walking, right and wrong ways of doing things that everyone’s keeping in mind whether they know it or not.

I do know, and damn well, that this is chapter 15. It doesn’t escape me. And I’ve still been meaning to have a word with the invisible hand that I also haven’t forgotten is pulling levers behind a curtain. But not now.

For the love of all things sacred, please. Not now. Just not now.

 

It helps that right over there on the sidewalk to my left are three tall men outfitted in boots, fatigues, gloves, berets, kneepads, Kevlar, Bluetooth, and SAWs guarding the west entrance on Electric Avenue. Not something you see every day.

Electra has flown up to the flat (Chimpy will open the window for her) so I’m focused on getting everything into the service elevator, which is a welcome reprieve from encountering fellow tenants. As of late they’ve taken to tossing food or drink in my face and I’d like to not get my bowtie ruined.

I’m also grateful that I’ve only been stung twice by the bees. It appears that they are way too engrossed in the business of growing babies to pay me much attention at all. I know for a fact that the Aptekars up in nos. 22 and 23 are all moved out so I figure I’ll set up the bees in one flat and put the moths in the other. Honeycomb won’t last an hour around Chimpy so I don’t have much choice. And that as well ought to take care of the last holdout on the top floor, which is prime real estate for an insect sanctuary.

I’ll have to put some thought into the roof, though. Clearly pigeons can roost on it but there’s room for a more robust habitat. Perhaps a condor, a few swallows, some palm trees. Or even a couple albatrosses. Or maybe even a mountain dragon if the Frenchman would stop being so pigheaded with me and so generally pessimistic and lazy. Electra and Chimpy now call him Jacques le Cock. Point being: I must increase my ambitions. I’m not getting any younger.

It takes me longer than I’d thought it would to get the doors to nos. 22 and 23 completely unhinged from their jambs but now that they’ve been unscrewed loose, what we have here is a proper foundation for an entomological ecosystem. The thermostats are set, water and foliage in suitable proportion and proximity, black light bulbs installed. The fire escape is crammed with flowerbeds, both windows to it half open, the rest with drapes drawn.

Wheeling the ecotanks and the octopus out of the service lift, I see Chimpy sitting on the stairwell sharing a cigarette with Mrs. Boerenpummel. He is wearing a hunting hat with one side pinned up; she dons a negligée exposing the cleavage and spider veins of her generous, ample, rotund form. Chimpy’s arm hangs over her shoulder, resting disinterestedly on her breast. She is nuzzled at his ribs, facing up to watch each pull he takes with a vicarious sensation of pleasure in her eyes and breathless smile.

She seems like she’s in another world.

Chimpy! I whisper as loudly as I can.

He passes the cigarette to Mrs. Boerenpummel. In her other hand is a counterfeit Chinoiserie bier stein full of mimosa.

He signs, How did it go?

It went splendidly, I reply hoarsely. But did you let Electra in?

In bunny slippers, Mrs. Boerenpummel crosses her legs. She puts the cigarette back to Chimpy’s lips for him.

He signs, No, I’ve just been taking a breather, kid.

I tell him sternly, Will you please quit it and get inside? I have all of this to set up and Electra’s probably been perched on the sill for an hour now.

Chimpy takes a double drag and plopfitzes his butt into Mrs. Boerenpummel’s mug. He claps her rump, whips her front with his hat, and knucklehops over and past me into the apartment.

 

The ecotanks are installed and filled. A drill, a mallet, and various screwdrivers and assorted other tools and bits lie strewn about the flat. I stand facing the aquatank, with Chimpy, Electra, Eve, the Billy goat (Rascal), the platypuses (Luchese & Gambino), the emu egg (any day now), and the geoduck clams (Tito, Jermaine, Marlon, Jackie, and Michael) lined up like a choir behind me.

I open a copy of a book. By Frank Norris.

I hold it in front of my face and read: “in his imagination, the galloping monster, the terror of steel and steam, with its single eye, cyclopean, red, shooting from horizon to horizon; but saw it now as the symbol of a vast power, huge, terrible, flinging the echo of its thunder over all the reaches of the valley, leaving blood and destruction in its path; the leviathan, with tentacles of steel clutching into the soil, the soulless force, the iron-hearted power, the monster, the colossus, the octopus.”

I lower the book and wait.

Inside the tank, a conch shell melts. Spreads along the floor as if it were lava. Erupts into a parachute. Fans out swirling limbs.

For the next 23 minutes, Electra performs the Appassionata, so we name it Beethoven.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 14

14.

 

After the first young woman showed me to her chair, took my coat, let me get comfortable, set down her toolkit and pouch of heated rocks, offered me a choice of Pinot Grigio or Merlot, inquired as to whether I was having a good day, pulled free and shook loose and snapped on a pair of latex gloves, confirmed for a second time what package I ordered and laughed at herself, smeared scented cream on the cuticles of my thumb and forefinger, chucked my hand as she hallucinated it transform into a tarantula, squealed a bloodcurdling wheezeshriek pedestrians outside must have heard, flinched violently, shuddered profoundly, felt the surge from her scalp down to her knees, broke out in hives staining her neck, panted fiercely out lips and cheeks that swellflapped like a mudskipper, backed up and knocked down a rival’s aluminum tray, made stainless steel utensils jingle on the floor like spent shell casings, peppered patrons’ shoes with the ricey ricochets of her prodigious vomit, and was steered through the slit in the velvet curtain by her panicked boss as he cupped her elbows, a second and far more seasoned woman was deployed to resume my Lavender Primrose Supreme Deluxe Total Relaxation Mani-Pedi. As a concession, I agreed to pay an extra 20% on both the service and the gratuity, which I offered without prompting because of how extraordinary the good mood I am in at this very moment is.

The replacement aesthetician, unlike the first, has a face as dispassionate as a limestone Buddha. Raised in thatch huts torched to cinders on the killing fields of overlapping wars, I have every confidence that she has witnessed far worse, is made up of true grit.

As she buffs my outermost toe, earning her extra pay, I tell her, I do think I have a chance. Her name is Antonia, by the way.

เธอน่ารักใช่มั้ย, she asks.

She is beautiful, I reply.

จากนั้นคุณกำลังทำสิ่งที่ถูกต้อง.

My confidence blushes. I correct my posture in the chair and say, I surely hope so.

I add, Do you really believe that?

 

The storefront door hasn’t quite finished closing when the salon erupts with gossigasps and ramblewhispers. Strolling down the sidewalk, I feel like a floating cloud. I am sure everyone who sees me can tell. The florist on Hitzë Road surely can tell, but perhaps it’s because of the six sunflowers I have him sleeve in six meters of ribbon.

Yesterday I had to park the Bronco on the street. The garage entrance was blocked off by no less than three moving trucks. Although Mondays are Antonia’s days off, I went to the pet shop anyway because of how breathless the Frenchman was when leaving his message on my answering machine.

And not without reason. A Billy goat, two platypuses, a tube of Luna moths, five geoduck clams, a near-ready emu egg, 100 yabbies, ten kilos of straw, a bin of high-concentrate brackish water tabs, and his largest top-of-the-line incubator set me back Q115,250. We had a brief, heated argument over my request for a culture of tardigrades (he convinced himself that I was being ludicrous) but when I presented my down payment in Omani rials, he found his calm and promised to look into it.

Today I’m back for an assortment of flora, the ecotanks, the beehive, and the octopus. The Frenchman has been talking about the octopus for a week, and this morning it finally arrived. Two men in navy windbreakers with the word CARABINIERI emblazoned across their backs pause traffic with stern looks so that I can maneuver the Bronco and hitched trailer into the spot by the pet shop entrance reserved for loading and unloading.

No longer content to be left at home each and every time I pursue new investments for my menagerie, Electra touches down on my shoulder, tucks in her wings, and claws a sharp grip of my tweed.

I pull the edges of my bowtie. Are the sunflowers too much? I ask.

Raat! Something with panache.

You got that right, sister.

This time, and to my delight, as soon as I enter the pet shop’s sliding glass doors, Antonia is right there to greet me.

She is dressed all in white. And smiling proudly as her eyes curtsy.

Hola, Raymundo.

Electra makes the sound of a cash register opening, softly enough for only me to hear.

I hold the bouquet at arm’s length. I say, I got these for you. I hope you like them.

Her chin drops, her mouth opens, her eyelids tighten. She accepts my gift as one would an ivory carving.

Estas flores son tan hermosas. Siempre me recuerdan a mi madre.

Electra whispers in my ear, Tell her tell her tell her.

She sighs. ¿Cómo sabías que los girasoles son mis favoritos?

Um, well, I didn’t. But they suit you.

Me encantan estos. Y la cinta es tan lujosa.

I clasp my hands and say, I’m so glad you like them.

She dips her head and says:

Soap her fit.

Electra whistles and cries, Wowwwww.

I tell Antonia, I’m sorry: What did you just say?

She swallows and repeats, Soap her fit.

Electra mutters to my neck, You kiss your mother with that mouth?

I roll her words in my mind. Soap her fit. So perfect.

And days ago: Hop on iced hay.

Have a nice day.

Electra commands again, Tell her.

It’s funny you say their your mother’s favorite; I spoke to my mother on the phone just the other day.

Antonia hugs the bouquet to her chest.

Me imagino que tu madre es encantadora.

Well, I think that she is.

Antonia coyly beams.

Bueno, Raymundo, yo también tengo algo para ti.

Out of nowhere she hands me a book skillfully tied in a red bow.

Electra tells me softly, Go for the jugular. Now.

Perhaps you’d like to, maybe, I don’t know, come over sometime. To see the animals. And to read this book with me.

Eyed lake, tube, heady mulch.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 13

13.

 

Trust me when I tell you that it will not be long before I have myself a badelynge of ducks and a dopping of goosanders and a doading of sheldrakes and a clattering of choughs and a volery of birds and a rabble of gnats and a sounder of boar and a haras of horses and a mews of capons and a rhumba of rattlesnakes and a coffle of asses and a clat of worms and a sord of mallards and a bew of partridges and a cete of badgers and a chine of polecats and a sute of bloodhounds and a grist of bees and a kline of cows and a knab of toads and a sedge of cranes and a dray of squirrels and a flange of baboons and a shoal of herring and a peep of chickens.

But that won’t be all. Oh no, that won’t be all at all.

I’ll have a pod of dolphins and a knot of frogs and a chain of bobolinks and a string of ponies and a leash of greyhounds and a yoke of oxen and a charm of hummingbirds and a watch of nightingales and a passel of opossums and a kit of pigeons and a barrel of monkeys and a nest of scorpions and a bed of clams and a bike of hornets and a train of jackdaws and a raft of auks and a barren of mules and a cloud of grasshoppers and a hill of ruffs and a covey of grouse and a pit of snakes and a bury of rabbits and an array of hedgehogs and a venue of vultures.

To this I will add a herd of walruses and a flock of lice and a crowd of porpoises and a band of coyotes and a cast of falcons and a troop of gorillas and a pack of wolves and a horde of gerbils and a mob of kangaroos and a gang of elk and a drove of bullocks and a tribe of goats and a caravan of camels and a bazaar of guillemots.

One might think that would be enough, that that would do it, but I’ll also add to my menagerie a rafter of turkeys and a rookery of albatrosses and a battery of barracudas and an armory of aardvarks and a tower of giraffes and a colony of chinchillas and a coalition of cheetahs and a convocation of eagles and a parliament of owls and a congress of salamanders and a congregation of alligators and a bank of swans and a company of widgeons and a business of ferrets and a fleet of mudhens and an army of caterpillars and a flight of butterflies and a leap of leopards and a wing of plovers and a romp of otters and a run of salmon and a pace of donkeys and a trip of dotterels and a flick of hares and a fling of dunlins and a wisp of snipe and a bite of midges and a gulp of swallows and a plump of wildfowl and a gam of whales and a lap of cod and a quiver of cobras and a fever of stingrays and a bloat of hippopotamuses and a shiver of sharks and a labor of moles and a sleuth of bears and a bask of crocodiles and a wake of buzzards and an ooze of amoebas and a cluster of antelopes and a fry of eels and a boil of hawks and a steam of minnows and a bellowing of bullfinches and a screech of gulls and a cackle of hyenas and a storytelling of ravens.

To my mind, as I am envisioning it, it goes without saying that they will need a bouquet of pheasants and a hedge of herons and a bale of sea turtles and a husk of jackrabbits, along with, of course, a scurry of squirrels and a fling of sandpipers and a spring of teals and a hurtle of sheep and a hover of trout and a drift of pigs and a mustering of storks and a clutter of spiders and a prickle of porcupines and a dazzle of zebras.

After collecting all this fauna, and get them I most surely will, I’ll continue on with a lounge of lizards and a coterie of prairie dogs and a harem of seals and a host of sparrows and a tiding of magpies and a family of sardines and a party of jays and a culture of bacteria and a gaze of raccoons and a mess of iguanas and a bevy of roebucks and a rout of snails and a smack of jellyfish and a swarm of rats and a wreck of seabirds and an ambush of tigers and a siege of bitterns and a plague of locusts and a scourge of mosquitoes and a murder of crows and a pride of lions.

I’ll complete this gallery of living beings with an ascension of larks and a mutation of thrushes and a generation of vipers and a turn of turtles and a fall of woodcocks and a descent of woodpeckers and a flamboyance of flamingoes and a richness of martens and an ostentation of peacocks and a deceit of lapwings and a skulk of foxes and a cowardice of curs and a mischief of mice and a troubling of goldfish and a confusion of guinea fowl and an embarrassment of pandas and an intrusion of cockroaches and a nuisance of cats and an obstinancy of buffalo and a stubbornness of rhinoceroses and a shrewdness of apes and an implausibility of gnus and a clamor of rooks and a murmuration of starlings and a pandemonium of parrots and an exaltation of skylarks and a pitying of turtledoves and a wisdom of wombats and a memory of elephants.

I have even asked the Frenchman to somehow look into the possibility of finding a fit specimen, or perhaps even two, upon which to found myself a weyr of dragons.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 12

12.

 

Olufẹ ọmọ mi.

Hello, Mother.

Kini aanu o jẹ lati gbọ ọ.

It is a mercy to hear you, too, Mother.

Mo fẹran rẹ.

And I love you.

I switch the phone from one hand to the other. I turn around, pull out the chair, and sit.

Chimpy is behaving strangely. His beer is standing on the kitchen counter, his cigarette is burning itself up in an ashtray. Now it is as if he has regressed to a primordial state, a natural state. He is behaving like a chimpanzee. Like a real chimpanzee. In the wild. He is squatting on his haunches, the way he was when I saw him for the first time. When I am not looking at him, he is staring at me; when I do look at him, he averts his gaze, looks off to one side or the other, glances over one shoulder or the other, as if he were scanning for danger. He is showing me respect and being vigilant. Aware. Dare I say protective.

It is not every day that one speaks to their mother both again and for the first time in the same moment. My memories of her are rising and they are brimming with affection and nostalgia and yet these sentences know this past is only inward upon a surface. The way a mirror tricks the eye into believing its depth, the emergence of my mother and my memories of her are like an infinite density producing an infinite force of gravity. And because of the laws that rule this condition—because of the greatness of Mother’s energy, and counterintuitive to common sense—the reality is that this unmatchable power is one-dimensional. It affects everything and exists no place. It would be a living death to understand that she is not real.

Still perched on top of the grandfather clock, Electra’s voice plays a tune. A duet of a rattle and a thumb piano that I loved when I was a child. It is a song I know. A song I know how to play.

I can hear that she is dressed in white.

Njẹ aye nṣe itọju ọ daradara, ọmọ mi?

I answer, At this very moment, yes, Mother, the world is. I have made new friends.

Ṣe awọn ọrẹ titun rẹ ran ọ lọwọ?

Eve sits by my feet, nudges her snout under my elbow. I scratch her throat, fondle her velvety lobes. I respond, Yes, they have helped me a great deal, Mother.

Mo dun gan Mo le rẹrin. Ore kan jẹ ọrẹ nikan ti wọn ba ran ọ lọwọ.

I smile wider than I have in everweeks. I say, Your laugh is music to my ears.

Then, I add, I miss you so.

Mo ṣoro fun ọ nikan nigbati o ko ba si ninu okan mi, ati pe eyi ko jẹ.

I miss you only when you are not in my heart, and that is never. This is what I was afraid of. I was struck by fear of surrender.

I have also met someone, I say. Someone who has helped me so, yes, I consider her, too, a friend.

Ṣugbọn o jẹ ju ọrẹ kan lọ.

I think she just might be. I’ve only just met her. But there is no doubt she has inspired me and I feel an inexplicable urge to value her, praise her, maybe even adore her. Something has welled up in me, Mother, because of her.

Bawo ni o ṣe n wo ọ?

She looks at me as if she feels the same way.

Nigbana ni gbogbo nkan ni o nilo lati mọ. Mo nireti pe ife ni nitoripe o yẹ lati wa nifẹ.

Thank you, Mother.

Ti o ba jẹ otitọ gidi, ṣe daju pe ki o pa oju rẹ lati ri I.

Electra cannot resist the entry to comic relief. She sings, “Turn around, / Every now and then I get a little bit lonely / And you’re never comin’ round…”

Chimpy drums his chest, bares his fangs, directs a raspy, threatening grunt her way.

Electra mimics the scratch of a needle pulled off a record and draws silent.

Mother giggles and sighs. I smile again, looking at the floor. Eve’s tail wags.

Mother says, Awọn ọrẹ rẹ wa pẹlu rẹ. Bawo ni iyanu.

Yes, they are all here.

Emi kii yoo pa ọ mọ lọwọ wọn. Ṣugbọn emi o pe lẹẹkansi laipe.

 

I hang up the phone.

Chimpy abandons his sentry posture, his expression loosens. He stands. He walks right at me, upright, waddling on his feet.

I say, What is it? What’s the matter? Are you alri—

He slides his leathery hands into each of mine, both at once, as gently as if he were touching a bird’s egg, or a newborn baby.

I begin to ask, But, what, why—

He lets go of one and lifts the other. With both of his, he caresses my hand, staring intently at it, as if staring into it, running his fingertips over my palm, the backs of my knuckles, over my nails, tracing the paths of my bones, seeing if the skin is real, inspecting. He turns my hand, his focus not wavering, taking it in, processing the information, imprinting not his brain but his mind. He is imprinting through his mind, through his self, into his heart. He does not let go as he turns his face away, a moment of that guardian instinct returning. He lets go and takes my other hand. He does the same to it, holding it like a dove with a broken wing, ready to look at it now, studying it, his face possessed with posterity.

We lock eyes.

I see his amber irises are set in pools.

He blinks. One after the other, two streams of tears roll down his cheeks.

His chest swells with a deep breath. He lets go of me.

He signs, If you spoke my language, yours would be the most beautiful voice in the world.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 11

11.

 

Antonia.

She is not a girl. I must not think of her as a girl. She most certainly does not have the presence of a girl. She does not have a girl’s way.

She has the way of a woman and the presence of a goddess.

Blend the two and what is left is a queen.

What you have is an oracle. A prophet. I doubt there has ever been a living being more comfortable in her own skin.

And yes, every living being has at one point been a she. Some of us were left in a bit longer, to brown the top so to speak, to have us bubble up the air pockets, to get the texture right and compliment the meal of life. But we all have a she inside.

Antonia is all she. A she as profound as 10,000 years. A she too deep to be marked by age.

Chimpy taps me on the shoulder. I adjust the rearview mirror to see him.

What is it? I ask.

One forearm above his head, he scratches his armpit. Then, he signs, She’s a tasty little piece. That guy’s a prick. Did you see how she was sweatin’ you? You should bang her. He makes an O.K. sign, pokes a finger through and slides it back and forth, still making the gesture even after he has turned his face away.

I readjust the mirror. There’s a scene of law enforcement vehicles, of barricades and twirling lights, by the east entrance to the city zoo on Alda Way, but traffic could be worse.

When the elevator door opens, Chimpy hops in first, springing himself off his knuckles.

I tell him, Remember: wait outside until I say it’s okay for you to come in.

Chimpy shakes a loose fist side to side as if coating a rod with lubricant.

The door opens on the second floor. It’s the Silvas of no. 4, the family in the flat directly downstairs. Husband, wife, teenage daughter, grade-school boy. The little one’s eyes light up, he grins purely. The other three are astonished and afraid. They all huddle in a corner.

Mrs. Silva turns to her husband and says, Se esse macaco passa a noite aqui, é isso. Eu tive isso. Eu não posso mais.

Staring straight up as if meant for God’s ears, Mr. Silva mumbles, Irreal.

Chimpy poorly dances in place his best version of a carioca: snatching the air hand-over-hand, feet pitter-pattering as if on hot coals. The boy snorts. His sister clutches his mouth.

Eve greets me at the door, trails me down the hallway, nostrils pulsing with questions.

Raat! Let me put on my face! Wait!

I hold up the bag for Electra to see. I got us a new friend, I say.

Raat! I didn’t know you knew anyone famous.

The clownfish falls into the tank with a *sploot*.

I ask, What do you mean.

“Heeeeeee don’t pay for nuthin’ not even a nickel / he don’t crack a smile but he’ll give you the giggles / he don’t eat bananas but he’s got a big ol’ — / Hooray! Mr. Chimpy McPickles!”

Electra’s tambourine, kazoo, whoopee cushion, and cowbell tell me that this is the well-known jingle of a show.

You’ve watched his program?

Who hasn’t?

I’ll show him in.

The moment I turn the knob, Chimpy pushes the door open. He ambles past me, here and there on all fours.

Raat! “Jinga-linga-ling! / Fat tail fling!”

He looks at me and signs, Who’s the fox?

Three feathers float to the bottom of her cage as Electra’s wings beat wildly. “…Hohhhhh! Sweet mystery of life, at last I have found yooouuu!”

He signs, Atta girl. Make it sing for me, Baby.

Raat! Grab yourself a cold one from the fridge.

Chimpy makes his way to the kitchen with no delay.

Simultaneously voicing a tuba and high-hat, Electra chants, “Crabs! crabs crabs crabs / Crabs! crabs crabs crabs / Carefully dab, pick off the scabs / Crabs! crabs craaaaabs!”

These are certainly, most certainly, not my own words issuing forth on my own behalf. This is no longer me making my way into the world by making my way into the word. 10,686 words into my existence and there can be no question that I have lost control of my discourse. This Song of Myself has, now, a life of its own. Lives of its own, it would appear.

Why is she in the cage? he signs.

Well, I, I figured she would be more comfortable in her own space. Besides, she hasn’t complained.

Let her out.

Electra, would you like me to let you out of the cage?

Raat! Yessss Sirrrr.

Why didn’t you say so before?

Raat! “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.”

I open the cage. Electra shuffles to the edge of her perch and dives through the aperture, spreading her wings, gliding through the room, soaring near the ceiling until she lands on top of the grandfather clock.

I feel as if I’m splitting. Like the end of a hair, like a molting moth.

I can feel my language doing the same. My words are splitmaking.

(Kenning, n., a periphrastic expression from medieval poetry that unites two words into one term to express a new meaning, e.g. hronrade ‘whale-road’ i.e. sea. Old Engl., from Old Norse, kenning ‘mark of recognition.’)

(Portmanteau, n., a word that blends the sounds and combines the meanings of two words, e.g. smog, brunch, motel, karaoke. From Mod. French, portmanteau ‘trunk’ via Lewis Carroll, 1872.)

A telephone rings. The antique one with the brass fittings and the rotary dial on the oak desk in the living room. Chimpy gallopalavants to it on hands and feet. Before I can protest, he lifts the receiver, puts it to his ear, and grunts, Who-hoo her-haa?!

Raat! Ungrateful children. You never visit your mother.

No. No. No. No.

Chimpy tosses the receiver onto the desk, it thudclacks loudly.

He signs, She says it’s your mom.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 10

10.

 

I am wearing different clothes, it is a different day. The new phrases inside of me feel like screws fixing broken bones. Electra has begun performing the intro to the television show The Six Million Dollar Man: every voice, ping, crackle of static to recorded perfection.

Raat! It looks good at NASA One — Uh, Roger — B.C.S. Arm switch is on — Okay, Victor — Lighting rods are armed. Switch is on. Here comes the throttle. Circuit breakers in —

I take my keys off the wall, grab my wallet.

We have separation — Roger — Inboard and outboards are on…I’m comin’ forward with the side stick — Looks good — Uh, Roger… —

The pile of mail has grown. Days’ worth now weeks’ worth.

…I’ve got a blow-out in Damper Three! — Get your pitch to zero — Pitch is out! I can’t hold altitude! — {*wrehhhp* *wrehhhp*} Correction, Alpha Hold is off. Turn selectors, Emergency! — {*wrehhhp* *wrehhhp*} Flight Com, I can’t hold it! She’s breaking up! She’s break — {*wrehhhp* *wrehhhp* *wrehhhp* *wrehhhp*}

(Bkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkkk)

I pull my coat from the back of the chair.

Raat! Steve Austin, Astronaut: a mann barely aliive…

I bend down and drum the top of Eve’s head with all dozen of my fingertips, as she likes it. She kisses me.

Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. We have the technology.

We have the capability to make the world’s first bionic man.

Steve Austin will be that man. Better than he was before:

…better…

…stronger…

…faster…

I unlatch the chain and tell Electra, I’ll be back as soon as I can.

The door slams on the denouement of her bongo and trombones.

Mr. Boerenpummel is waiting by the elevator, in a hat and overcoat, with a suitcase by his side. We ride the lift together in tense silence.

We exit on the garage level. In parking spot no. 7 is a classic Bronco. I chirp it and the locks pop. As I pull away, Mr. Boerenpummel’s Pinto cuts me off. His horn honks four times as he speeds ahead. I stick my fist out the window and hold up both middle fingers.

 

The pet shop is silent. I continue to the Frenchman’s office. No one attends to me. I push open the saloon doors.

The Frenchman is at his desk. With one hand he swipes a pile of cartridges off his calendar and they clatter into a drawer, which he slams shut. On sight, his scowl switches to a glow.

He dabs sweat off his face as he greets me. He has wonderful news. I interrupt to ask if the girl is here today but he talks over my question.

A special key ring is necessary. All three keys on it are needed to unlock a door I never noticed.

There’s a tall cage in the middle of the storage closet. We enter; the Frenchman taps on the light.

Inside the cage is an ape, jet black, facing away, squatting on its haunches.

Monsieur, je vous présente l’unique, le légendaire, Mr. Chimpy McPickles.

The ape turns his head around and aims a stare into my eyes as if he were Klaus Kinski in a monkey suit. He holds up a hand like a movie Indian about to say Howgh before sensuously stroking a small itch on his neck.

A second payment of R125,000 is needed to complete the transaction. I pass my valise to the Frenchmen and he counts the bills.

The ape makes a fist with his thumb pointing up, places it in his other palm, pulls both hands to his chest. He then turns his bottom hand over, makes a peace sign, tucks a finger in between, and yanks his hands apart.

Get me out of here.

I will, I tell him. I promise, I say.

He taps his bottom lip. Thank you.

Pardon me, I say to the Frenchman. I’ve lost sight of him. I push open the saloon doors again and he is there. I am almost sure that what I glimpsed him doing was stashing what appeared to be a rifle behind a file cabinet.

He brush-claps his hands twice as if to say, All done, a phony nonchalance. He sighs and asks, Avez-vous un moyen de transport adéquat pour le chimpanzé?

Indeed I do, I say.

He instructs me to bring the Bronco around to the loading dock at the rear of the store. He assures me that Mr. McPickles is quite fine riding in the backseat.

You have done me a tremendous favor, I tell the Frenchman. I assure you Chimpy is in very good hands.

Pas de problème, mon ami. La fille à l’intérieur tient un poisson pour vous. Gratuit.

My heart begins to throb. I feel it all the way up to my ears.

She is? I ask. She does?

Mais bien sûr.

Before I chirp the Bronco, Chimpy opens his window. He points to my chest pocket and taps two fingers to the side of his mouth. I light his cigarette and follow the Frenchman back in.

I turn down an aisle and there she is. She holds a plastic bag filled with water and a single clownfish.

She is smiling. Buenas tardes.

I am bewildered. I am shining. To speak takes effort. Hello, I say.

She has the face of a puma, the skin of a silk, the air of a swan. Her shawl is alpaca, her dress is peacock. Her panther hair is braided.

¿Cómo se llama usted?

My name?

My name.

What. is. my. name.

What is my name? What is my name! WHAT IS MY NA—

Rrrrrrraaaaaaayyyyyyymmmmmmmuuuuuuunnnnnndo.

¿Raymundo? ¿De veras?

Yes. That’s right. My name is Raymundo.

Me llamo Antonia. Es un placer.

The pleasure is mine.

I let her pass the bag to me. I say, I’m sorry I have to leave so quickly but I do have to get back home. For the animals.

Hands clenched against her torso as if they hurt, like a girl ready to receive communion, she looks up into my eyes and says:

Hop on iced hay.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 9

9.

I am about to leave.

And then, I am not.

I am not ready to leave. I should but I won’t.

The Frenchman is back behind the saloon doors and has taken a phone call, cackling obnoxiously like an invasive species, stupid and hidden and preying upon something I cannot see but know is rightfully mine.

She is no longer down the aisle. But she has left a wake. Invisible to all but me, I feel. A wake, a trail, a residue, an illusion, floating in the air like functions and formulas dissipating in the mind of a hapless genius.

I get to the end of the aisle and she is still gone. I look left, right, turn and walk to see the other aisles.

She is not by the cat food. She is not by the choke collars. She is not by the medicines.

But I feel she is near. Halfway across the store I hear the Frenchman again in his musty office, his heels on his desk, ensconced in his dimwitted pigpen of obsolete appliances and stacks of forms attempting fraud, outyelling the criminal at the other end of his call.

I wonder if she ever goes in there. My body is going numb. I have sprung a leak, my body’s walls sagging into me. I am collapsing into myself. I am running out.

She is not by the kennels. She is not by the register. She is not by the entrance.

I remember the groceries in my knapsack. I need to get home to feed Eve.

 

Eyes glistening, my head hits the pillow, nudging a sigh through my smile. In her cage out in the living room, Electra gracefully meanders through an adagio solo flirting with middle C. Eve stands in the hallway quietly licking her bowl clean of the tartare – steak, fish sauce, ear, Époisses – that I prepared with love.

Love. What a word, what a word.

Philia, storge, eros, agape. The book on my chest is The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis. The hand I hold it with has each finger tucked between a different pair of pages.

The girl. She is a vision, has become a vision.

This was the last thing I expected. It occurs to me that this must be a little bit like what it must have felt to be Saint Juan Diego Cuauhtlatoatzin. I can think of nothing else. I have a new purpose.

But how did this happen? This is all too soon.

This is not right.

These words are unfolding in a wrong way. Just like the bit about the philosophers of language, or that smug punning of manage, ménage, and menagerie. They didn’t come out right. They can’t be part of my terrain, my element. Trees have knots and knobs. But language, too?

She wore jeans and a t-shirt, ordinary hair, small as a child. Hardly the stuff of a vision.

This is not coming together the way it’s supposed to.

Is this how feeling happens? An urge bubbles up out of nowhere?

I’d call it intuition but there are other signs. Electra has grown silent, and there’s now a Bonsai on the ledge in the window alcove that wasn’t there before. Neither the tree nor the alcove.

She was dressed in white and blue. Her hair, black as velvet, black as a panther, a gilded aura on the edges like a panther, straight as a feather.

I have to go back.

There was nothing there. The first time I saw her, there was nothing. I was there for the Frenchman, for Eve.

At one of my fingertips sits the passage, “The especial glory of Affection is that it can unite those who most emphatically, even comically, are not; people who, if they had not found themselves put down by fate in the same household or community, would have had nothing to do with each other. If Affection grows out of this of course it often does not their eyes begin to open.”

But I hardly noticed her the first time. Is that Lewis’s point? Were she and I emphatically disunited? Comically disunited?

There is an invisible hand here in play.

I know it and I can feel it. There is a stack of mail on the side table now that wasn’t there before. It was on the table in the dining room before and I know I didn’t bring it in here with me.

Pure and regal, and delicate, a shock darker than country night.

I would say I’m strongly against this but somewhere inside me I’m not so sure. I’m not so sure that I’ve been against this very much at all. Or even a little, a portion.

After all, I paid the Frenchman to provide me with a creature, “shall we say, supremely challenging to obtain?”

After all, I told him, “Surprise me. Impress me.”

Could it be that when I said this, I meant something else? Something unsaid?

Could it be – what a frightening thought! – but could it be that I have thus far conjured enough of myself in these words to assert that I in fact have a subconscious? That my mind has a motivation beyond the periphery of reason? That inside of me there is a creature of its own being?

Or is it the invisible hand?

Beneath the covers, I am all words, tattered phrases, sentences waiting to be finished. But the part of me that shows is real, in the flesh, done. There is no going back.

Philia? Storge? Or perhaps the Chinese ai? In the Buddhist sense?

Of the book on my chest, I have already memorized one passage, one alone, learned completely on first sight as if I had written it myself: “Now Eros makes a man really want, not a woman, but one particular woman. In some mysterious but quite indisputable fashion the lover desires the Beloved herself, not the pleasure she can give.”

I could not stand if I tried. I have been smitten.

 

The Founder Effect – no. 8

8.

In three hundred forty five words I will be hated. In one hundred nine sentences I will become a criminal. In fifty five paragraphs I will fall in love.

Minutes, hours, days. I have run out of food and tobacco.

The moment I close the door to my flat, my next-door neighbor appears, as if she had been waiting. She is ruddy and blonde and hefty and wears a ponytail and an apron with a frilly trim and I dislike her.

Wat het jy gedoen? she calls to me, holding a rolling pin, a fatfold in her wrist, all of her but one of her feet visible in the threshold of no. 8.

Pardon?

Wat het jy gedoen? she barks again. Wat is al wat skree? Is daar iemand wat bly met jou?

I turn the key in the lock and respond, Ah, the noise. Yes indeed I do have someone staying with me.

Wie?

Half facing away, I answer, Her name is Electra.

She pats the rolling pin like a billy club. ‘N vriendin?

Girlfriend? Of a kind, I suppose.

She points the rolling pin at my chest. Is sy nou hier woon? Is dit hoekom jy die hondjie?

Shenanigans.

I reply, Yes, she does live here now, but the puppy came first. She did not make me get a puppy; she does not make me do anything. What she does do is make a lot of noise. A fact, really. I hope it’s not something you can’t live with.

She punches the rolling pin above her head like the hammer of Thor. Sy is te hard! Sê vir haar om stil te bly! Ek kan nie slaap nie! Ons kan nie dink! Jy vertel haar dat!

At this, I take my hand from my pocket and hold it out to her, twisting my wrist, fanning open my fingers, telling her, Electra can be as loud as she wants, and if you want to keep that stick of yours you’ll go back inside and mind your own business, Mrs. Boerenpummel.

(Boerenpummel, n., yokel. Afrikaans, from Dutch, boer ‘farmer’ and pummel ‘boor.’)

Her eyes nearly cross. Whoa! she whispers before slamming shut the door.

I leave. I travel, and considering this exchange, I wonder if I just did right by the rules of the Enchiridion.

I place peaches, bread, and milk into my basket to make pudding for dinner. Pistachios for Electra.

Está a xogar? the butcher asks.

No I’m not kidding.

Moe-lo? O bisté?

Yes, just put it through the grinder.

Cinco quilos de file mignon?

Yes. Has no one ever asked you to make dog food before?

As far as days go, even those of these bones, this one is trying. I fit my groceries in my knapsack with just enough room for a carton of cigarettes, and while I am eager to get back to avoiding people by returning home to keep company with Eve and Electra, I get a second thought.

I leave the grocery and turn, not the way I came.

I slip my cigarette butt into the receptacle before the glass doors open.

There’s something different about the pet shop. Changes have been made, little ones, touches. It seems a bit darker. A bit more crowded.

Then I notice a new banner hanging from the rafters. There’s a new standing display, too. ‘Free Neuterings.’

The Frenchman launches himself from an opening with saloon doors. He makes a grandiose gesture, as if releasing a dove into the air. Bonjour, bonjour, bonjour! Il est là! Ah, il est si bon de vous revoir, monsieur.

Oh. Yes, and you as well.

He practically reaches into my pocket to shake hands. Vous êtes de retour si tôt. Vous devez vraiment aimer ici, hein…?

I wouldn’t say I love it here, but I’m very happy with the puppy and the parrot.

L’oiseau? C’est bon?

Fantastic. Her name is Electra now.

Incroyable. The Frenchman drops his hands and poses like the Virgin Mary. Mais nous ne visons à satisfaire.

The girl enters from a side aisle. Buenos días señor.

The Frenchman flicks the air. Zou! Pas maintenant.

She shrinks away. My eyes follow.

The Frenchman puts his arm in mine, turns me, walks me, takes a secretive tone. His cheek is close to mine, as if his whispers issue from his ear. En tant que client particulier, vous devriez savoir que mes services peuvent être très vaste.

‘Extensive services.’ I grow nervous.

The Frenchman reaches his free hand in front of us and pans it patiently, dreamily, as one would if unveiling the horizon. Il ya des animaux de tous les coins du monde, belles, exotiques, et je peux vous les fournir si vous voulez. Tout animal à tous.

Looking down, I notice the limp, vague spirit of a goose step in his gait. He is talking business and it possesses his body, crown to toe.

I look up and see the girl down a different aisle. She is lingering, eavesdropping, doing a poor job of seeming busy. The Frenchman does not notice her. She twists some cans to make the labels face out.

I ask, Any animal at all?

He grins like a toad. Mais bien sûr.

I let myself fall into his trap. I ask, Even ones, shall we say, supremely challenging to obtain?

His head almost slides off his neck. Monsieur, le plus difficile la tâche, plus je suis ici pour vous servir.

The more I speak, the more I understand him. I grasp where this is going.

I slide my hand inside his vest, tuck a wad of bills into his pocket, and pat him on the chest.

I say, Surprise me. Impress me.

He lets go, faces me like a soldier at attention. Ce sera mon devoir.

I glance at the girl. She walks away, dragging her fingertips along the shelf, fighting the need to look me in the eyes, I am certain of it.

I say, Thank you. I’m sure that it will.