Organized around rock and blues and jazz, the novel tells a love story, has Manichean elements, includes the devil as antagonist, settles in abandoned villas, wanders the country on patched up musical tours. The time: the last days of the agonizing Communist regime. The place: Romania, Bucharest mainly.
It seems that only her body stops you from dissolving in the room’s artificial night. Only her skin shining faintly keeps you from going beyond to cower in the piano. Her panting keeps you intact: she, more broken from reality than you, but more concrete, more living, deadhead. She stiffens, the telephone buzzes—leave it for God’s sake. You want the two of you to eternalize in this moment of terror. You don’t tell her. It would be stupid. All couples lie the same way. You have the image of billions of couplings in a landscape of clouds, paired beings filling the sky. She doesn’t want to tear herself away from the embrace: she beats your chest with her fists, she says: we don’t have the right to be so happy, we’ll pay, you’ll see!You’ll never die: she’s the squirrel and you are a quiet, lazy turtle. And you are a beast too, oh, brute chérie. Dispersing her magnificent hair, she tempts you onto the sheet. She gives herself to you. She’s yours only. She’s all little calves and freckles plus glasses and the philosophers borrowed one by one, Husserl and Sartre—we’re condemned to freedom, hell is the other, you are my purgatory, she admonishes you sweetly, not the purgative, you beast, I told you you’re a beast, and I even skipped a stitch in this pullover. She’s knitting your first pullover—as a couple that is—after your first year, the first night of love, in the din of the neighbors’ washing machine. It wasn’t even night time, an afternoon and an evening in a far-off neighborhood in a strange house, next to the image of the washing hung out to dry and the remembered smell of coffee and floor wax, the landscape of snowy November, your first snowfall together. There’s something less than a terrace. Holding each other, you go out on the threshold. The stove burns. Steam blooms on the windows. Silent snow, fragile snow falls slowly. A sad decomposed machinery somersaulting over the roofs. She keeps quiet, buried in your shoulder on that balcony used to store old crap—you villain, you should pull me on the sled. And it snows in the landscape of the outskirts, covers the telephone booths, bottles up the alleys, grows like a wonder on the sidewalks. The amblers of this ocean bottom swim silently, rarely move their brownpink fins, slowly upturn an exophthalmic eye. And snowfall comes down, buries auto bodies and chews them underneath. The streetlamps stay lit the whole winter. Safe, behind windows, you listen to your scratched records: she robots around the kitchen, you thrum the piano. She floats among pickle jars, she pricks a finger while sewing, she loses herself in the heap of utensils the solemn meat grinder, brick red, the pharmaceutically shiny stove, the pantry shelves, pans hung on the walls, jars of red pepper relish, ropes heavy with smoked meats. She has relatives in the provinces. The relatives have solid households. She’s the only student, an orphan, and loved. The two of you don’t go out of the house your whole student vacation, the first one. Only watching what goes outside, you dribble it away: you don’t get to pull her on the sled, you hardly go down for bread, Ness, cigarettes, vodka, and around the beginning of February three sacks of potatoes. For you it’s enough that she exists, that time no longer works by halves. She loves you: she’s affectionate, even cat-like. She watches television all evening: she likes it, she forgets you, you mustn’t interrupt the movie when she laughs—an alien laugh—or cries and you’re jealous of the star that wrings tears out of her—or she speaks uninterruptedly commenting on whatever the devil is going on with some character or other—she forgets you, swallowed by the livid cupping glass of the screen. You leave her in peace: you watch over her. You watch her out of the corner of your eye; someone could take her from you so easily, a stranger—voila! outside your dual story. After she jiggles the dial, she remembers you, oof. Sulky, she fries slices of bread dipped in egg yolk, she digs scraps of potted pork out of their lard, fixes teas. She wants to get back the hour when she forgot you…absorbed…you were reading “war and peace.” She doesn’t like the classics, Dostoyevsky and the rest, a little Chekhov, Gogol’s an ass—you’re a mastodon, sweetie, ready for the scrap heap; if we survive, if we survive in these landscapes with their odors, if we survive Sandu, if eh, what will happen if our love perishes, let’s kill ourselves while we’re happy. Bang, her serial imagination goes into overdrive: she sees herself described by an Elizabethan dramatist, immortalized in the pages of the newspapers and looked at for sure. She’s vain. She would have wanted to be a dancer, adored, surrounded by admirers—for the time being I’m happy with you, a wretch of a failed pianist who can hardly hold out from day to day playing choirmaster for the trade union chorus. She laughs, embraces you quickly so that you won’t manage to say anything, and personally, you don’t like it. You divine a threat, a secret thought. She would like you to immortalize her naked: she’s splendid when she throws her lingerie in the corners of the studio and refuses to put anything on for a whole day: when I’m a little old lady, I’ll wear the whole closet, even in the house—out of shame. You don’t confess to her, you would photograph her if you had a place to develop. Her body remains your secret without foreign glances. Sometimes she keeps quiet, absorbed by her courses, crams for exams: she would like to describe Hegel’s thought to you, the idea that tipitytapity strains itself into nature; it includes the social-making-history, and it returns refinding itself in its own reality—but you’re a dope, go back to your sick, lonely Schumann. In the evening, she tells you about grace, how it shows up in Pascal; on a sunny Sunday about Bacon’s idols: of the forum, the theater, the cave…passes without interruption to the thing-in-itself. Finicky, those cold, coherent Kantians make you sick. You listen to her, and she inspires you with a kind of pious awe. How many words one can say about nothing! Painfully, she remembers the absence of her father. Sometimes she tells you the story of the small provincial towns where she grew up. Her old lady’s men came first: innumerable scenes played out in front of her face. That made her sensitive. Sensitized, she has a need for love, protection. No one should mess with her feelings: she can’t live without love most of all. The absence of her real father torments her: she imagines his voice, his masculine gestures (she looks for all that from you, are you really like him?), she dreams of a little plaque on the apartment door that says an unamputated family lives here, that there’s somebody to defend you, that you don’t have to keep quiet when someone asks who’s little girl are you? Dad is dead. That’s his job since he got squashed by a truck on the highway.
There are long evenings. With quick movements she gathers her things from around the room. A frenzy of cleaning comes over her: she sends you away, sweeps, dusts, gets irritated. She can’t stand you anymore, throws the laundry in the tub, starts to wash, sings romantic ballads she heard at her ma’s. You’re one too many: you lower the cover of the upright piano, you withdraw into a corner—or better, disappear for cigarettes. Frenetic, she turns the house upside down: she changes the arrangement of things, orders you to beat the rug, buy kerosene for cleaning the floors, shave more often, talk politely with the neighbors, say hello—you put your head down and don’t see anyone. Take care of yourself, you pig. She changes the bedclothes, puts water on to boil, opens the windows wide until it gets cold, so cold that your teeth chatter in the middle of a dialog, and you burst out laughing, Pia first. Later, looking at the new arrangement, she says: I’ll cut out some new slip covers and drapes to match; we’ll have guests—we’re too poor for that now; I’d like us to have some clothes for at home that’ll rustle from being starched.. She interrupts herself to straighten a knickknack left askew on the night stand. .I’d like it to be noisy. People. Sometimes loneliness tires me. I tell myself, this is how I preserve you. Sandu, you don’t like people, you’re afraid of them. You hide in your music and screw the rest. I can’t. She gets all enthusiastic telling you about a sociological study she helped with: she’d run into some situations, extraordinary people—Professor Dionisie, a great guy. I was occupied for a whole semester. I never got bored. Then you showed up. What do you want out of my life? She hums him an out-of-date popular song.
We’ll travel, no?! with passports, it’ll be easier after a while, we’ll have money, we’ll rummage through consignment shops for rare objects. We’ll read the Classifieds together, the dead and wounded column: squashed dogs declared lost, identity cards ditto; the butterflies and snails column; the column for mushroom growers and people who collect watches and labels, the column for breakups and engagements: I meditate on hopscotch and temptation, I minutely describe the clouds and encyclopedias, I say nice stupid things to old ladies and gentlemen, I pay court to fat ladies, the maimed, I’m looking for a brilliant match. They’ll turn over the pages of almanacs carelessly—we’ll multiply!—they’re going to make babies—we won’t break up: it’s a crime to leave your children without parents. We both come from broken families, she explains, fussing about the room with the end of a pencil stuck in her teeth. We know what the absence of hearth-and-home means. Blablablabla—you don’t really listen. When she gets all didactic you fall asleep, lower your lids and take a nap. Rustling in the pale light of the lamp covered in newspapers, she imagines you’re following her while a difficult passage from Liszt travels through your bean—We’ll buy fresh flowers every morning, we’ll hire a German lady to take care of the house. I’ll give you sons, you wretch. We’ll buy an apartment in a quiet neighborhood. We won’t lack for oranges. Then the friends, the trips abroad. We’d live like real people, Sandu, always forgiving those who trespass against us. We’ll be good. We won’t quarrel for anything. She’d be launching a proclamation that way. You’d quietly nod your head, yeahyeah—do you hear me, you dummy?—You were saying yeah, uhum, let’s go to bed. It’s snowing hard outside: silky theater curtains fall over the landscape loaded with frozen wash on the line, several people wait for bottled gas, a bluish evening coming on, live skaters crossing the window to the left, the siphon shop—empty. What do you say, does God exist, you ask her? She giggles charmingly, presses C-flat with her finger, well, she pressed sol, then quickly re, I say no. Okay, but there’s something that sustains this world, don’t you feel? I have the feeling of a powerful, foreign presence in my immediate vicinity when I go out at night to get milk and I run into a dark coldness. If there weren’t…You’re talking nonsense: although he doesn’t exist, we’re still mortal, she says and lets the piano cover fall with a bang. Sandu gives a start. It’s more like a flinch. If we all have to croak full stop, let everything go to the hell, he tells her in a low voice. Let’s break the piano to smithereens. Look, we’ll throw it off the balcony. What a c’mon that would be! It snows; the windows rattle, frozen.—And what if this world is made by someone who’s laughing at us? He’ll drop us: he mixed up our lives, he helped us lift ourselves up, uplifted us—she went on talking rapidly with her eyes on the glass—and then he’ll feel sorry he did it, and he’ll destroy us. He’ll unleash me against you and you against me. We’re immune now, but the stupidity of the people around will overtake us. I’m scared, Sandu! There is something outside our selves, an eye that watches when we make love. No universal being. More like a clock that smashes the bones of anyone who tries to wind it. Love defies, and a thing like that’ll cost you.
Never mind how I got it. Maybe I helped pay my way through college working part time as a museum guard. Lifted it one night from a case. Or I attended an underground auction where, for a price, such objects can be had. Or, vacationing in Colorado, I stumbled on it hiking; subsequently had it discreetly authenticated. Forget the issue of provenance. I’m going to confess to enough as it stands.
For months after I first obtained it, the curio simply lay on my dresser. A joke. An extravagance – a thirty-inch long coprolite. A graybrown fossilized dinosaur excrement. A conversation piece. To get me started talking to myself; no one else enters my bedroom. I’m between boyfriends. In fact, haven’t had a date in a decade.
But one evening, after a hard day pounding grammar into the skulls of nitwits, its use came to me. I once, like all high school English instructors, wrote poetry; still am capable of the feat. Thus the morning after my revelation, I etched with a nail file along the surface of the relic:
“A hundred fifty million years ago
Some brontosaurus felt the need to go.
Then time did bake to stone unleavened dough.
Till now, tonight, won’t you be my dildo?”
Best way is – as they say on the street – up the butt. Sheathing the monolith in the more conventional orifice yields not only less pleasure, but the fantasies lack in intensity.
Sucking the specimen also revs the idea motor. Until you have tasted in technicolor the dung of an extinct thunder lizard, or felt one defecate into your own bottom, you have not truly escaped, not even for an instant, the crushing hallucination that is daily life.
Oddly, after about a month of constant use, the coprolite suddenly conceived. Nothing showed. The wrinkled rock didn’t one day begin to bulge. But I felt something kick. Could sense it inside me. Prod it with my tongue.
One night, when I held the cylinder jammed past my tonsils, the kicking triggered a coughing fit. Fortunately the initial spasm expelled the fossil, else I might have choked to death.
I fretted over this development for days. My brow knitted tighter than usual, as I lectured Freshmen on the oubliette of dangling participles, the rack of parallel construction, the thumbscrews of punctuation, double negative hell, circumlocution torture.
I pathologically fear pregnancy. Got my tubes tied at eighteen. My mother, giving birth to me, had died in agony. Doctors warned I was genetically predisposed to the identical fate. Another reason I favor masturbation over intercourse – to make doubly sure. And here now my dildo was preggers?
But – I finally realized by the end of the week – no use crying over spilled milk. Friday night I ascended to my penthouse apartment. Turned down the lights. Treated myself to a shot of Lavoris. Kicked off the pumps. Found on the radio some soft Beethoven. Sprawled in my favorite easy chair. Waited for the answer to come.
(I never drink. But do secretly sometimes imbibe mouthwash. So in case anyone should smell my breath, I’d merely reek of the chemistry that passes in our society for cleanliness.)
The wait not at all long. I was hardly through with my third shot when into my brain – as the gargantuan vacuum cleaner of a jetliner roared overhead – the solution spurted: Subincision.
I’d need a hammer and chisel to do the job right. But maybe I could improvise… I’d had another lousy day. Was at any rate looking forward to a lengthy session with Dino the Terrible.
Rose to my stocking feet. Wandered into the kitchen. Set the oven on low. Padded into the bedroom. Pulled Dino off the dresser. Carried him back through the parlor. Tossed him into the wall model Hotpoint. I always make it a point to warm the rock a good half-hour, before getting down to brass tacks.
First I settled on a pair of scissors; to do for a chisel. Hammer? Hit upon the dictionary. Then couldn’t wait. Yanked twenty minutes premature the prehistoric novelty. Layed it on a potholder at the edge of the counter top. Positioned the point of the scissors where I had discerned the kicking – about two inches below the fat end.
I pounded with the Webster’s – smacked repeatedly the scissors clutched in my left fist. Bit my tongue raw, concentrating all my might into gouging a shallow, inch-long gully into the sandstone.
I tasted copper, salt. Suspicion of auto-cannibalism materialized.
I worked the blade at an angle. Steadied the coprolite against my elbow. Tapped rapidly with 50,000 words of English, slowly deepening the groove.
The harder I worked, the more cannibalism nagged. Just couldn’t bring myself to swallow the leakage from my selfbit tongue. Hence found myself spitting blood into the subincision.
Not much – half a teaspoon. But sufficient to pool nicely. Which meant an end to gouging, as I did not wish to spray the counter with blood.
I replaced the dictionary on the book shelf beside the easy chair out in the parlor. Returned the scissors to my dresser drawer. Shuffled back into the kitch to figure what to do with the makeover dildo. By now it was far too cool to insert; but I worried the blood might scald or curdle if oven treatment recommenced. Gazing down at the inch by quarter-inch puddle… that’s when I saw it wiggle.
I knew I’d felt life! Now it was rising to the surface. I used a fingernail to lift the mystery from the blood.
Switched on the fluorescent over the sink. Settled the creature on a shred of waxpaper. Rolled it gently, to clear off the blood. Examined the tiny cylindrical body through the magnifying glass on a Swiss army knife I had a few years back confiscated from a rowdy Sophomore.
A maggot. Flesh the pallor of a nonagenarian; hue identical to the mother rock. Even wrinkled somewhat like the coprolite, which bore the imprint of Mesozoic bowel.
The larva wriggled – with the heartwrenching urgency of a newborn – back toward the blood. I could almost hear the satisfied suckle, as it fastened onto the nourishment. I named the miracle, on the spot, Dative.
I’d been teaching the dative to my Seniors. The extinct inflection that only vestigially clings to our beloved English. As when the British say, “Give it me.” The me here acts like the dative case; not at all the accusative, as we usually categorize me.
Our language now admits but two cases: nominative and accusative. Even these tend toward one single all-inclusive case, as witness the who/whom controversy; whom swirling down the commode, as English forgets its own accusative.
I sighed, squinting through the dimesized lens at little Dative. Language is so alive – itself ever wriggling, swallowing mother’s blood, straining blindly toward metamorphosis. Small wonder mathematicians find it impossible to pin this instar to their formulae.
That night I stayed up till two, observing hungry Dative feed. When I awoke late Saturday morning, I hurried into the kitchen for a look. The larva, sure enough, had exhausted the supply of blood. I heard him, in my imagination, whimper and wail, as he writhed vertically from the waxpaper.
I sat down to coffee and Pop Tarts to ponder the crisis. The first sip of Taster’s Choice no sooner trickled down my throat than the idea materialized.
I jumped up. Greased the coprolite with Crisco. Gingerly repositioned Dative in the birth groove. Removed my pyjama bottoms. Lay back flat on the floor. Raised knees. Introduced rock into rectum.
I waited several minutes, to make sure Dative would have time to wriggle off the cool, unsensual sandstone. Then carefully withdrew the coprolite. Looked to make sure the maggot no longer on it.
Stepped into the bathroom. Washed rock in sink; left it atop toilet tank to dry. Returned to my breakfast with a pleasant little smile.
I ate a second, even a third helping. I was now a surrogate mom. I wanted myself completely full of dung – to assure the babe a well-stocked larder.
About six weeks later, around eleven in the morning of a Tuesday, I sat on the edge of my desk lecturing Class on pronoun agreement. I admonished they eschew use of a plural possessive when the antecedent is singular. I asked for anyone who understood to raise their hand.
One poor dear did. When called upon to explain my position in his own words, he parroted, “A pronoun must agree with its antecedent.”
I reiterated my trick question. This time, however, in the midst of enunciating I shifted position (due to an itch in the region of my anus); albeit without altering facial expression.
My deadpan elicited from the Sophomores puzzled looks, two huh?’s, one what? one you just said that! (The recrossing of my legs did little to deter the itch).
“What I’m getting at,” I hopped off the desk, paced around the room, “is the misusage exhibited in the typical statement: Everyone needs to put on their coat. My question: Will anyone who understands please raise their hand? employs this very solecism.”
Albert the bulky football player spoke up, “Last week my dad hadda replace the solecism in his pickup!”
While Class guffawed at this idiocy, I surreptitiously scratched the back of my skirt. “Very good, Albert,” I muttered. “Perhaps someday you’ll be smart enough to write for the newspapers.”
The hubbub subsided. Eventually my prize student Mabel raised a hand. She is the only African-American among my Sophomores. A fluke. The average in other classes is three-point-nine. I gave her the floor.
Mabel stated she saw what I meant, that we should say his hand, or put on his coat. “But can’t you see, Ms. Atkins? – it’s sexist. While the use of their is only fair. Because their doesn’t have sex.”
I consider Mabel my Great White Hope; even though she’s Black. She’s sharp. Clear headed. How pleasant to have a female the brain of the class! I was about to accuse her – teasingly – of lethargy – too slothful to utter the correct her or his…
When I plopped back onto the desk. Hiked skirt to hips. Convulsively spread legs wide…
“Their does too!” Albert scoffed, obviously not yet having remarked my predicament. “How can you be sure their doesn’t have sex? Everybody does it somehow.”
“Sure!” another male voice sneered. “I bet their gets lots!”
I struggled to brace myself. Something awful was about to exit my body. I knocked off the desk two texts, a stack of graded papers, my pen… now everyone’s attention was caught.
The entire class drew a breath.
“You’re right, Mabel!” I gasped. “The language… our tongue… before our eyes morphs!”
“Miss Atkins!” Maria screamed from the front row. “What’s that coming out of your panties?”
I couldn’t see – fighting for air, eyes bulged at the ceiling. It felt as though my anus were passing a hubbard squash. I lay within a hair of coma. Kept myself conscious concentrating on the extrusion ripping off my knickers.
The room filled with screams. One of them probably mine. On the pop of passing out, glimpsing light (at the end of the tunnel) fail, the thought surfaced: how do I know the sex of Dative? Is this perhaps Dativa? Better: Genetiva?
My colon heaved one last behemoth contraction… and I knew the thing was out. Light eked back into consciousness. I felt my sphincter shut slow as an unoiled elevator door.
I wheezed, gasped. Gathered my wits, my strength. Propped self up on elbows to assess situation; see how best to act professionally in the midst of this mess.
Dative, Genetiva – whatever their name – had perched on little Maria Trujillo’s desk. Maria was nowhere in sight. Perhaps crushed against the wall by the bodies of all thirty students, who had fled in an instant to the back of the room; where they now stood pressed against each other like shrink-wrapped sardines.
The nine-pound fly licked her obsidian legs (I had decided on Genetiva), scrubbed behind golfball-sized ruby eyes. I contemplated – entranced – her glory. A scientific Act of God!
The slow baking, then the basting in my sundry orifices, must have awakened a hundred-fifty-million year old maggot – somehow preserved inside the brontosaurus dung. And now behold a fly worthy to share the air with pterodactyl!
Dactylic hexameter flashed – the prosody I would employ to commemorate her birth. For an instant I dreamed of eternity – a lost species reborn.
What followed yet hangs in dispute. The record shows that Albert Hogan stepped forward. Drew a smut magazine from his pocket. Then swatted to death on Maria’s desktop an impressively large horsefly.
In actuality, Albert – wielding the coprolite – approached Genetiva, busied with cleansing her afterbirth. How he came into possession of the colacal bludgeon is difficult to apprehend. Were I a mystic, I would suggest bilocation; that it reposed at once on my dresser and in the assassin’s fist. Likelier is it that Albert burgled my apartment that morning; stole the treasure, planning to sell it on the black market, or perhaps use it illegally to his advantage on the playing field. Or Albert owned his own coprolite. Just how widespread are dinosaur cruts? They did, lest we forget, have well over 100 million years in which to poop.
His first blows clipped her wings – transparent pennants fluttered to the floor. Then, as she lowered legs in preparation for flight now impossible, he brought the coprolite down on the exposed velvet of her black thorax.
The exoskeleton ruptured. Again and again he smashed the flesh of this diachronic traveler who had awakened for less than a minute to the mercies of Humanity. Her battered corpse obscured the desk. Scarlet insect ichor spattered the floor, the walls, the ceiling.
Eighteen syllables I emitted: DAH-dih-dit – effigy of a dactyl. DAH-dih-dit – D in Morse. DAH-dih-dit – a hex of feet. DAH-dih-dit – meter hung on a finger. DAH-dih-dit – my index stabbed at Albert the Hun, the hungry Master of Hallucination to whom language subjects us all. DAH-dih-dit – since which instant I have stood mute.
The brats – even my fair Mabel – betrayed me. Perjured themselves. Claimed to have witnessed buzz into the room a horsefly, that at once flew up my skirt.
They swore I myself had snatched off the undergarment in question. That I’d stunk of feces for weeks, and it was a miracle no fly had earlier discovered the banquet.
On the basis of evidence evidently planted in my apartment, the court labeled me a chronic coprophiliac subject to episodes of acute encopresis. The coprolite itself they seem never to have found. Further indication Albert did indeed purloin the Jurassic Tickler.
I have been given this typewriter, this stack of blank paper; even an eraser. Locked inside this cubicle. I know what is expected. Since I will not talk (struck dumb by the slaughter of my babe)… OK, there they are. The events. The truth. The facts. How everyone came to put on their coat.”
Noted Romanian novelist Stelian Tanase wrote Dark Bodies with bugs in the phone and Securitate outside the door. Translation by Jean Harris.