Luke A. Thompson
So we hired this scarecrow. Yincent. My sister saw the ad in the Cambrian News and said ‘Is he for real?’ so I called him up to see. We met in the afternoon and in the evening I called him again to say the job was his. This was Sunday. I showed him the plot and we watched at the kitchen window so he could see the birds he was meant to scare. He took it all in, but I could see his hands shake. I said ‘Are you nervous?’ He said he had Essential Tremors and he probably drank too much, but the shaking helped his work. ‘Makes you look real,’ he said. Before dawn every morning I let the cat out, and I see Yincent setting up. I think it’s nice he’s there and I wave, and he waves.
The enormous orangutan approached Timmy Underhill, who stood transfixed in silent awe. When it had sat in the shade further away the size of the ape was hard to judge, but now less than two feet away it loomed over the six-year-old boy like a giant.
“Daddy! Look!” Timmy hissed in a whisper.
Martin looked. The squat creature sidled along the edge of its enclosure, its eyes to the ground. It walked slowly and clumsily on its haunches like a deformed, hirsute old man.
Martin hated zoos. He thought they were boring and squalid and filled with depressed narcoleptic animals that would like nothing more than to be set free. He recalled being dragged to several zoos as a child and forced to look in each and every cage and tank at the prostrate or bobbing organisms inside. But Timmy really seemed to enjoy himself. It was cheap entertainment, after all, Martin thought, and at least got the kid away from the television and computer.
It was an unseasonably warm day, and spring seemed to be in the air for the first time that year. Martin stood patiently behind his son as the ape continued along. Every few steps it stopped to pick up pieces of brown paper that littered the ground. After arriving at a new one it grasped it in its foot, and then passed it into its left hand to add to its collection. When the ground was clear, it moved on.
The orangutan made Martin nervous. Its deadened expression, its slow motions, its toes and lengthy fingers grasping slowly at the paper all bothered him deeply.
“What’s he doin’?” Timmy asked. Martin’s mind was on the chores he needed to get done that day, and the huge pile of unfinished work waiting for him in his cubicle Monday morning.
“Dad!” Timmy shouted.
“Hmm?” Martin said vaguely, with a wan smile on his face.
“What’s he doin’?” he repeated, pressing his finger against the smeared glass, greasy from human contact.
He’s bored, Martin thought. He’s not doing anything.
“Oh, I don’t know, he’s just collecting those pieces of paper.”
“Well…he’s got to do something, right?”
An odd expression crept across Timmy’s face, the unmistakable look of a child slowly and unconsciously realizing adults didn’t know the answers. Martin frowned.
“Listen monkey, didn’t you say you wanted to go visit the sun bears again?”
“Well, let’s go see what those boys are up to this time!” he said with all the enthusiasm he could muster.
“I want to be a zookeeper when I get older!” Timmy said excitedly when they were back in the car.
Good Lord, Martin thought. The only thing worse than being a prisoner in a zoo is being the one who has to clean up after them.
It was the third time they had gone to the zoo that month. But still, he had bought a yearly pass, and he was glad he was making his money back on it. The sun was already low in the sky, and he cursed himself for taking an extra half hour at the sun bear enclosure.
“You can be anything you want to be, monkey,” he said aloud, guiding the sedan onto the freeway out towards the endless expanse of suburbs. Martin wondered how much a zookeeper got paid, and how it compared to his own salary.
The last of the shallow snow had melted off during the heat of the day. Although Martin usually enjoyed outdoor work, his current task irked him, and the afternoon was waning fast. Trying to push out the thoughts of Monday Morning, he stepped around the soggy grass, stooping every few feet to pick up the pieces of garbage strewn everywhere.
In recent years, as the neighborhood filled up, the problem had gotten worse. Each spring, after months of plowing and strong winds, trash began to emerge like ancient frozen artifacts as the ice and snow receded. It was an arduous task, Martin thought, as he leaned down to pluck up a Styrofoam cup and cigarette butt from among the trampled blades of grass, but the lawn needed to be reseeded in several spots and now it would be ready for him. Alice hated seeing garbage all over their lawn too, and would start complaining about it that evening if he didn’t get it done. Besides, he thought, lugging the thirty-gallon bag alongside him, I need the exercise anyway.
Reaching the border between his lawn and the sidewalk, Martin stopped. Up and down the neighborhood other residents were out in their own yards with bags and scowls. Across the street, his neighbor John-or was it Jack?-blew clouds of trash out into the street with a growling leaf blower. Adjusting his earmuffs, he nodded slightly to Martin.
Out among the shiny line of cars, scraps of refuse tumbled about in the breeze. Alice didn’t mind how the street or the sidewalk looked as long as their lawn was clear. Martin thought about getting leaf blower and decided to ask Jack-Jake?-about the pricing on them one of these days.
A morbidly obese man with large blocky sunglasses stopped his electric scooter on the sidewalk near Martin. He respired heavily, as if exhausted from exertion. The visible portions of his skin were covered with painful looking rashes and boils. Martin averted his eyes downwards, and spotted a lollipop stick stuck in the soft earth between the lawn and the sidewalk. He reached down and plucked it up, tossing it quickly into his bag. The man spat onto the edge of the curb, pressed a switched on the scooter, and began once again to trundle down the cracked pavement.
Martin looked at the spot where he had been, and at the large globule of phlegm dripping into the gutter. Then, slowly, he turned, following along the edge of his property line, eyes to the ground looking for the next piece of trash.
Out in the Country
Swerving. If I die tonight, it will be senseless. This gives the possibility piquancy.
– Could drive these streets in my sleep.
Liam’s friend Clarissa, rich, has driven us to obtain further booze in the car given her by her parents. Nice girl, to some. Personally I think her peremptory, intellectually fourth-rate and selfish to the brink of psychopathy, but I am drunk here and must perform, biding my time. This experience is at least rather interesting, thrilling in a way unqualified by personal safety. She is fairly sexually attractive, and Liam thinks he may be in love with her. Hope he is not, as he deserves happiness that life with her would not bring, but how to tell him? Kindness here is cruelty, another black mark of cowardice against me. Quieting conscience, I enjoy the ride, taking another swig of white rum. Rum has the reputation of not making one drunk. Watching people being in love is interesting. Whoa!
– If you talk to me, Liam, I’m more likely to fucking crash. Just shut up!
Cannot think of anywhere I would prefer to be.
– Anyone want some rum?
– No thanks!
– Not right now, thanks.
– It’s your rum, you should have it.
She is rude. There is no point in speaking further. More rum. A donut. They fell down onto the floor when I leant forward a short while ago. Pain in my neck. There may have been a conversation I was having with the drug dealer. A nice man from Manchester, always a pleasant accent. Chris. Cannabis and brotherly advice from Chris. No, not brotherly. Thank fuck I never had a brother. Fucking hate heterosexual men. Chris is okay. They are all okay for now. While I must tolerate them.
We have parked. The Halls of Residence. Clarissa and Liam are first years. When I go to university, I hope I do not squander the opportunity as they have done.
Clarissa puts on an audiotape remembered from her childhood. It is an audiobook about a little frog travelling through the jungle, having adventures, I think. I can’t remember anymore. It is morning now, and I have just been sick on platform three.
Someone wants it to be put off. Liam I think, worthless, never wishing to allow himself to be humbled by art. It is not art but the wreckage of childhood, and should be honoured. She was happy then. By the standards of that numinous age, she will never be happy again. We are all fallen, my God. This is not swearing; it is a prayer. She obtained the frog tape again online. Ebay. The drug dealer liked it, I think. Chris liked it.
Clarissa’s phone rings.
– Yes. I thought – well, are you going to come down? No, I’m in the car-park. I was waiting. No. I was waiting for you to come down. Okay. I’m on my way.
The frog tape has already been put off. We have to get out.
Carrying the donuts, the cookies, the rum. We are going to wait in her room, as she tells us. Liam is crying. They are just pasteboard, these people. They have wasted their chance, and I am only passing through here, speaking with them for a time, but it is not my destiny for my name merely to be ranked with theirs at all. My proper place is eternity, quite clearly.
More rum. The swigs are becoming more difficult. Three-quarters down, though, what victory. No more.
– I’m not drinking any more.
– Have you drunk all of that?
– Yes. Yes I did.
– Admirable, though rather worrying.
This is after a silent period sitting on a hard seat, falling asleep upright. The drug dealer looks through Clarissa’s CDs at my behest, sees nothing decent there and bids us goodnight. Clarissa will not return now. She is fucking the man she was going up to see, Liam is certain. She does not really like him, apparently. What does she care? What would I care? A fuck is a fuck. But Liam is a hopeless romantic. If only I had more illusions, but what’d be the point? Still, with people who have loved you must be very careful, you must treat them very carefully lest they slip and shatter.
Anyway, it’s later. The light hits my eyes now as if thrown, with intent. This is highly possible. Interesting that the general public do not like to acknowledge a sick man. Must be how beggars feel. Each of these four people seems to avoid looking at me in a different way. Today is Wednesday, and I determined to myself that today I would go to church. Very well, I shall. A change of clothes, a sleep on the train. My life remains in transit, thanks be to God.
My mind is filled with Tarka. Tarka Tarka Tarka, I can hardly see the road, probably because I forgot my glasses but don’ t tell the kid in the back, I’m not sure she speaks English anyway, she’s far too naturally blonde.
Tarka at six weeks, six months and now six years, Tarka who can’t kick a football but is a raving City fan. Tarka whose slanting smile grips my dashboard and is surrounded by a tacky plastic frame. Tarka who I see on Saturdays and sometimes Tuesdays, if I’m permitted.
The name wasn’t my choice
The foreign kid smiles, chewing her plaits, she is foreign, she must be.
Melanie loved that otter, do you know the otter? In one of them old books, not anything I’ve heard
I shouldn’t smile so intensely, it’ll be taken for a leer, I know that’s what girls of that age think of men of my age. But I didn’t think of the name and I have to stress it to every single customer, fucking Tarka. He doesn’t have a nickname at school yet but I’m sure he’ll develop one. Tarka loves my cab, his legs splay angrily as I strap him in but he used to squeal happily as I drove along.
I can’t afford the cab anymore but I can’t give it up, he’d be destroyed, I take him to City games when I can, although I’ve always been a Rovers fan, it’s Melanie’s influence that, coming from a family of City fans, the poor boy.
He’s got that osteo imperfect thing, them brittle bones, you don’t get many boys with that one. Melanie won’t let me come to the consultancy appointments, she won’t even meet me when I pick him up, Mam goes to get him and I wait in the car as my boy’s wheeled out. He is gonna walk one day, he says that, play football ‘n that. He’s getting into that Wii thing, simulation and all that. He’s a great swimmer and all he is.
I stop talking as the engine stops, turn and smile at the poor girl who eyes the price and hands over a £50 note, which I can’t be bothered arguing about…cash is cash. She gets out with some sort of instrument case, must be in the orchestra, there’s some show at Colston Hall tonight and that’s where I’ve brought her.
It’s only 5pm on a Tuesday, I’ve got tickets to the Jungle Book at the Hippodrome for Tarka and one of his friends from school, it’s all arranged.
He saw it through the scope of his rifle. It seemed to be standing broadside. Most of the deer was concealed behind a thick bush, but he could still distinguish parts of its graceful body. The antlers, which he hadn’t clearly discerned, appeared to be blending with some of the branches.
Sweat dripped like oil from his chin. He was conscious of his breathing, of the sporadic sounds spoiling the silence around him. The wind grazed the treetops. Down at his level the undergrowth remained immobile. Here there was nearly perfect stagnancy. His muscles were stiff, his well-positioned arms ready. The tip of his right index finger pressed gently against the front of the trigger. This was life, he knew. This was what he lived for.
The bush shook slightly and he faltered, raised the muzzle a couple of inches. He cursed under his breath. Refocusing his enhanced vision, he noticed the deer’s nose, then its left-front leg. His eyes followed the contours of the limb up to an ideal opening in the foliage. It had to be now. He fired. The morning birds stirred and fled from their nests.
He lowered the weapon and gazed at the bush. The deer was no longer behind the dark green leaves. He climbed down from the stand and paced excitedly towards his target. Somehow he loved not being certain of the kill. Soon he arrived, and there it was, wholly at rest, a rivulet of blood streaming from the wound. He knelt by the body and placed the palm of his hand on the animal’s chest. He regretted the deer had no antlers. This was a doe, out of season. He closed his eyes and dropped his head, as if in prayer. Eventually he stood, admired his trophy one more time. He then looked about him to ensure discretion. He grabbed her hind legs, dragged deep into the trees, pausing at intervals to ease his burning muscles. Then he moved on.
The Treachery of Images
I had been looking for someone to change my mind, but instead, I found Aislin.
Fortune and fate had nothing to do with our meeting, I see that now, though at the time I came to believe in destiny, along with other articles of consolation. One can laugh at the myths we weave around those we love, and who love us in return…We can afford to laugh now, because we are older, wiser and have long spent the gold of our youth. It’s the only currency, the only certain truth we have left; bittersweet, inviolable experience.
So, in the beginning, I took everything I could from her, and made a legend from an ordinary, extraordinary girl. She must have thought me foolish, and indeed I was, but this is how men are – our curse and blessing is that we are condemned to create. And so, I created Aislin anew; I made her out of words.
Her ancestry matched mine, and where memory failed me, I bridged the chasm with the licence given to poets and other liars. She came from an ancient line of Irish princesses, I imagined, although now she was merely a model, a mannequin; the humour of this was lost on me. Of course, I can say that Aislin was beautiful, beautiful to me only, and her faults were charming, in the old sense of that word. Her imperfections were perfect, the kind of flaws that make the gods knowable to us, the faults I knew so well…because they were mine. Even the sheen of her drab copper hair appeared a new and unique colour, and my hands dared to trace the body I had shaped.
I posed her against a Scaean backdrop; I captured her in the briar wood, and cast her down beside sinners and reformed saints; I laid her to rest in a crystal coffin. When she played the late Ophelia to perfection, at once I knew – Aislin could only disappoint me, in life. And as she came to have an existence of her own, I saw myself in her eyes and in her every thought and deed; I began to suspect that she might be mad.
Oh, the dreams, the dread device of failing authors, the nightmares……but there is truth within them, for those with eyes to see. And I saw…
Aislin in darkness, darker than night, within the room where we made love, perched upon our wedding bed of rose petals and blood, ravenous for life, for death.
She had taken my face, and laughed aloud, flaunting the life she had stolen from me. My body was as clay; she had taken my place.
I wondered if she truly existed, beyond the forest of my mind: Esse est percipi. She had changed. The very aspect which seduced me made her an object of hate.
I finished her off. The words stopped and cut off her breath on the day I stood alongside her, before the mirror, and saw only myself reflected.
In time, I fashioned Aislin again, gave her a different name, a different voice, another life and death; I made her out of words.