Mother says she won’t go out, not even to the food shop a mile away on the outskirt of the town, because she heard someone say once that a particular place is marked for each of us to die in, and any desire or necessity that calls for her going out she suspects traps set by the death itself. Apart from bouts of existential dreads, she is fine. This is why I am exiled out of the nice sleep into the windy morning, walking like a thief through the snaky, winding path both sides of which rows of thin, bare-stemmed trees stretch their limbs like they are the next thing to Jesus on earth. I would be pitying these martyrs, but for the wagtail hopping down in the middle of the road to pick a frozen worn and taking flight on spying me. And now I would rather pity the poor poet who prayed the nightingale be so familiar with his mad, monkish self that it goes about harbouring no fear of him.
For the life of me, I can’t understand what the matter is with these guys wanting to feed beasts and birds out of their hands. Now mother does the same, except for different reasons. This is why I am on the way to buy dog food, cat food, fish food, snail food, etc., etc. Otherwise who would like first thing in the morning to be under that sky frowning on you like you are the greatest sinner after Adam to walk the ground, and in the east the royal sun doing the holy rising and looking at you like I saw his grandparents die, and before that their own grandparents die, and before that their own grandparents die, and before that their own grandparents die. Of course, I may be mistaken and he only means why is that vermin up so early.
But things go on being what they are happening to be at the time, and your wishing them otherwise won’t make them otherwise. This is why mother whispers to me all the time, like there is someone else beside us in the house, ‘we should try to fit in, this is the only way.’ ‘there are other ways too, mother,’ I say and like a bear she clamps down on my mouth, looking over her shoulder at the house. The house is full of cracks, mouldering. The garden is covered in weed. Bushes have gone wild without pruning. Outside fields upon fields spread to where they yield to the distance line of the wood. She goes under it all, bent low, with a bowl of crumbs, looking askance at them. She sprinkles crumbs before ant holes, coaxes a cricket here, a cockroach there. ‘We shall get away with it’ she gives me complicit smiles.
‘Some of them are quite easy—leeches, frogs, cockroaches, geckoes, moles, dogs, fish, horses. You need to know the right way to handle them,’ she says. ‘We are not here for them, mother,’ I say. ‘But here we are, my lad’, and she scurries back into the shadows, having spotted a centipede hole or something like. It is useless, we don’t belong. Look at a cat, what does it think of you? You would rather be a mouse than a man. And what can you do except feel sorry you are not a rat? Nature AS the manifestation of All sacred, Infinite Being. Whoa. It should show you.
Oh, well. Here is the civilization. The asphalt is wet like it rained in the night, and people are out. Some of them are walking their dogs. I admit I have a thing for dogs. They seem to me the only creatures sympathetic to mankind in the whole universe. A dog looks at you like how being a human must not be very different from being a dog. It might be worse. Even watching you golfing down, it pities you like you would a dog, there he is, the poor man, with his poor bone!
The food shop is open and the girl behind the counter is giving me one of those gentle, slow smile that means, ‘Take this poor lad, it should make up for all the incoherence, meaninglessness of your existence.’ I am the first customer, so she invites me inside for coffee that I want badly. And I am duly grateful, and grinning like the stupid male I am. I know it would as easily be someone else sitting here, and grinning, like it would as easily be someone else, and not her. It gets me, this easy substitutability of objects. So it means really nothing: this grinning, cuddling, laughing. But here we are. I see myself being seen, and I see her seeing me seeing her.
It doesn’t alter the fact though that what I would like to see more than anything else right now is a new baby; the newer, the better. I will put my face up to it and laugh, a loud and clear laugh that will make my day. I am just filled with immense love of this baby, so much I am willing to offer my fucking ass to any kick that may come its fucking ass way. Perhaps I could teach it one or two tricks to survive this deuced world where it will go on loving things, and nothing ever loving back. Like father taught me before he committed suicide, though he would insist I say ‘before he extincted himself,’ but this is not here, nor there—because new babies are found in maternity wards in the hospitals, and not here in the food shop, or the road outside. The hospital is a mile away, and am feeling so lazy, just like Jonah inside the whale. Poor Jonah. He had to come out again in a world where things had stayed the same since before he was swallowed.
I am hungry and as the girl’s goodwill doesn’t extend to offering me breakfast, I shall do better to go back to the house. Besides, something just made me think of miracles. What are miracles—except the illusion of being recognized by nature as one of its own. Not all illusions, let me concede, and someone somewhere really connects. You see how peaceable a creature I am, conceding and babies and dogs and all.
Back again under the sky, the sun now up, and the trees looking as ridiculous. Something flits across the road into the bushes and there is a warm glow in my heart. How to account for this, except that it doesn’t mean anything, that it means less than other things. Beyond the gate at the left side is the father’s grave. Mother fears I will betray her like father. She tries to convince me of the futility of his act, and it appears like she is persuading herself of the opposite. She seeks to find some irrevocable, inexorable argument that will tilt her to the side. ‘How do we know if he is there in his tomb or not? What if it was worse there than here? ‘He is not there, mother. He is not anywhere,’ I tease. Then the look comes into his eyes, that speculative, fearful, Saint Anthony look of temptation. I pity her.
I know she needs me, for all her indifference. We talk to compare notes on life— life a pastiche of little notes pasted on a notebook of memory. Sometimes she stands at the door of my room where I sprawl reading books left by my father. She stares at me with wonderment; and the shadow of happiness flickering across her face is so elusive, most of the time I doubt if it was there. Then she rushes out to check on the tailorbird’s nest building progress.
But she mourns my lack of solidarity with her. ‘When I birthed you I thought we would be two against them.’
She worries whether the black cat caught the squirrel on the tree, the crows made a meal of a mole, or a rabbit was being chased by dogs. The whole house is run over with them. She knows all corners, down to a single spider silk egg sac, clay potter’s cells. Beehives dangle from branches. Hornets and wasps have nests everywhere. ‘Do they also suffer from existential crises?’ ‘How strangely that crow looks at the dove?’
Bats hang upside down from rafters, watching us. She is rather pleased with them. ‘They see us’, she says, excitedly. For her, this is the validation of our existence. We exist because a cauldron of bats sees us!
She has dark phases too. ‘They lurk everywhere, staring at us with hostility.’ ‘They are spying on us.’ Today is such a day. She darts out of the little jungle at the back and unburdens me off shopping bags. Bewildered, she points to where hidden by dense branches sit a pair of Rufous treepie. They are not the first birds of prey to be drawn to the living food in our derelict house.
‘They don’t know me, they ignore me,’ she moans.
This brief gobbledygook at least made up my mind on one thing. I should not follow father. The idea of her lonely self digging a grave for me is unbearable. Better to dig for one you love than make your love dig for you. I don’t contend the unreasonableness of the last sentences, but then I act by the same irrationality by which I exist.