Two Stories from Garden of Sorrows

 

 

In researching the life of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam for one of the stories in my second book, Some- one Else, I came across the name of one of his wife’s friends, Anna Ivanovna Kuznechikaya. It’s an unusual name and I wondered for a time if it was in fact real. “Kuznechik” is the Russian word for grasshopper, and means, literally, “little smith”; grasshoppers, the language quaintly suggests, are just such tiny smiths, working away with hammer and anvil as their profession demands. It would be interesting, I thought, to take each man apart into his animals and then come to a thorough agreement with them. Because what an astonishing hierarchy there is among animals, and the truth is, as Elias Canetti has remarked, we see them according to how we stole their qualities.

To live in a place without its language exposes the animals of which each man is composed. Later, still re- searching the same book, I was sitting in a bar in St Petersburg in a frightful cacophony of barks and grunts and growls, and it was as if, like a man deaf to my own tongue, I could see what to those for whom the tongue was eloquent was invisible, the secret animal life of this still red and steaming-from-the-forge civilised world. With- out language it’s as if a film is removed from the eyes—the film applied on banishment from Paradise—and the whole of the social world appears suddenly in its true guise, clad like the Emperor in his new clothes.

That’s what I saw. And it made me think that rather than break a man up into his animals (which is the nat- ural origin of all fables), it might be interesting to write a new kind of fable in which the original impulse was reversed, in which each animal was broken up into its human qualities, the human it might become. To write reverse fables (a reversal entirely suited to the antipodean context of their composition), in which various Austra- lian animals are transformed into specific human types because of what they do. The very flux at the beginning of things, inchoate nature, the world in a state of formation; Australia: the garden and the inferno. New World stories—as I hope you’ll see—two of which follow here.

– J. H.

THE MAKING OF SORROW

Kaos had never harmed another creature. He was born with all the food he needed already in his stomach. But sometimes food is not enough. And nature is never happy with happiness. So Kaos was about to learn.

Like all the crocodiles who lurked in the ooze among the mangroves of the tidal estuaries, Kaos enjoyed the rare distinction of being able to live on both land and water. He was afraid of nothing: he had never known a crocodile to die, and was himself a hundred years old and almost ten metres in length. Occasionally, in the long wet, he would ferry dingoes across the swollen waters. Even ten of these dogs standing nose to tail could not cover his massive armour back. He would often be seen basking on the mud banks, his enormous fourth tooth protruding up beyond his closed mouth, a source of beauty, not of terror, perfect like carved ivory.

When the sun had heated his cold blood through to fire, Kaos would toboggan down the slippery river bank, his flattened tail plashing him out to the middle depths where he would submerge everything but his eyes and grizzled snout and float for hours, watching the sun pass through the sky and the animals who would smile and call to him as they came down to the water’s edge to drink and chat and cool off the day. Life, he thought, was enough to make you caw like a crow. If not for one small problem.

Every day, when the sun was nearing its zenith in the sky, and Kaos felt too drowsy to escape its heat, he would

lie with mouth agape, cooling as the heat outflowed. Then in a wailful choir swarms of small gnats whorled in the warm convections of the airy current and clustered sharply on his tongue, almost choking the poor crocodile who would cough and sneeze until his snout was clear and all the calm of his daily sunbath had vanished with his tormentors. He had tried for years to thwart these tiny torturers, he had even hung a cobweb from his teeth, but to no avail. He might as well trap the light.

Then one day a spurwinged plover alighted on a branch above the crocodile’s head and called to him in her voice that could wake the stones. “I’ve been watching you for weeks,” she called as softly as she could, the words sending rustles through the leaves. “I can help you.”

Kaos raised his enormous gaping snout towards the tiny bird and spluttered insects as he spoke. “How can you help me?” he asked ironically. “Look how big I am.”

The plover darted down from the tree. Before the crocodile could speak again, she was hopping about on his tongue, gobbling up midges and gnats with her sharp little beak and startling the rest into a mist of flight. Kaos began to quiver with delight. The tiny bird was tickling his tongue as she danced.

“Alright,” he gasped, struggling to keep his mouth from closing against his body’s shudder. “You’ve made your point. You can help me if you want.”

The tiny plover hopped out of the darkness of the crocodile’s mouth and smiled at him with contentment, her yellow wattles wobbling as she stilled. “You’ve got yourself a deal,” she said. “My only condition is that you must promise me never to close your mouth while I’m inside it. I have to see the sky.”

“You have your promise.” Kaos smiled. He couldn’t rid his mind of the pleasure the tiny bird had given him. The thought of lying undisturbed in the sunlight while the plover hopped about in his mouth, the sharp points of her claws endlessly pricking his tongue, was almost too much to bear.

For the next two weeks in the middle of each day the tiny bird would fly into the crocodile’s mouth and feed to her heart’s content while Kaos pressed himself tight against the warm earth and rubbed his stomach and sighed with lazy pleasure. If, occasionally, he tired of gaping and, forgetting himself, accidentally closed his jaws, the plover would remind her host of her presence by jabbing his bony palate with her spurwing. She had, after all, nothing to fear but the closing of the sky.

But, one fateful afternoon, jabbing Kaos with her spurwing, the bird tried to fly out before his mouth had fully opened and cut her breast against his tooth. She rebuked him noisily for the mishap but flew off unconcerned to her nest where she rested until the bleeding stopped. She didn’t look back to see the change that had come like night over the giant crocodile. For unknown to her, the daylight world had disappeared for Kaos. His head was whirling and his body shuddered uncontrollably. The taste of the plover’s blood upon his tongue had made the crocodile mad.

For the first time in a hundred years he began to eat. First the mud in which he wallowed, then rocks and sand and blades of grass and tiny shrubs and flowers, he mauled great chunks out of the trunks of trees with a ravenousness terrible to behold and a sound that chilled the blood, and he began to look at the other animals in a way that made their legs tremble. But nothing would satisfy this strange new desire, nothing would fill the emptiness he discovered in the taste of the small bird’s blood. He had to devour her, all of her, or he would die.

The next morning was unbearable. The sun seemed to take forever to climb the sky. Then he heard it, the shrill cry that announced the approach of his tiny friend. It was almost impossible, but the crocodile managed to behave exactly as he always did. He opened his mouth to gape. As the insects swept in between his teeth, so too did the bird. The hopping on his tongue no longer tickled the giant crocodile, but the pain it brought filled him with a longing so sharp it made him want to weep and pray that it would last forever. It lasted but a second. The terrible jaws locked like a jagged trap around the helpless little bird who spiked and spiked them with her spurs, more frenzied with every stab. The crocodile crashed into the river. Twisting again and again like a coil around his body, he drowned the poor bird and swallowed her whole. When he rose to the surface, exhausted and fulfilled, he was too delirious to notice the mad rush of animals who fled the river bank. Kaos had become a monster.

That night, when the tiny plover did not return to her nest, her mate flew to the river’s edge to discover what had happened. He listened to the terrified whisperings of brolgas and kangaroos, wombats and dingoes, dugong and shy barramundi, and learnt that his mate had been eaten by the gentlest creature of all, the giant crocodile. He refused to believe his ears. But as the night wore on he understood that his unhatched chicks would never see their mother. With great heaviness of heart, as if his sorrow were a rock that he had swallowed, he moved his leaden wings and flew back to his lonely nest where he warmed the three small eggs with his tears.

All through the night, even in his fitful sleep, he saw the eggs. But when he woke, the eggs he saw in his nest were not the eggs he’d seen in dream. He realised then that his heart would not rest again until he found those eggs of sleep.

For weeks he searched the nests of every creature he knew but no egg corresponded to those he’d seen in his sleep. When he had all but given up hope, he caught sight of the crocodile hiding in the estuarine murk, his eyes fixed on a wombat squelching unsuspectingly towards him. The plover was seized by a terrible desire to do something he knew not what, and in his frustration shrieked out a warning to the bumbling creature who lum- bered back to his burrow with the speed terror alone can bestow. Kaos looked up at the bird, whose wattles still burned iridescent with fear, and smiled, opening his giant mouth as he sank back into the ooze. Only then did the plover realise he hadn’t seen the eggs of the monster beneath him.

Everyone knew where the crocodile lived. It had been the most popular place on the river before he had tasted the blood of his friend. The spurwing found his eggs tucked away in their dank lair beneath the riverbank and the moment he saw them he knew what he had to do. For they were indeed the eggs of sleep. The sight of them brought the whole dream flooding back.

One by one he carried the eggs away and around them built a nest just like his own. His task completed, he called out to the lazy monster: “Hey, Kaos,” he shrilled. “Come over here, I’ve got something to show you.”

“What is it?” the crocodile asked, interested but also irritated at being disturbed. “This better be good. I’m getting hungry again.”

“How fortunate,” shrieked the tiny bird as he watched the giant shape rise and approach, its mouth gaping in a cavernous yawn. “What have you eaten today?”

Kaos had gorged on the flesh of every animal that had crossed his path in the three days since that first glorious taste of blood, but nothing had aroused in him the same ecstasy as his longing for the tiny bird and its ultimate satisfaction. He would eat, sometimes all day, and still feel empty. It troubled him. Because there was in this emptiness an intimation of dissatisfaction without end: that he might eat the whole earth and still feel the same. Yet he loved this empty feeling even so. His interest kindled as his shadow drowned the tiny bird. Maybe now he would find fulfilment at last.

“Everything,” he whispered menacingly, “except another bird like you.”

“Not so fast,” the plover darted and stammered as the crocodile’s jaws closed around the space that had just been him. “It’s not me you want to eat.” He hovered thrillingly above the glaucous snout. “It’s those eggs. They’re no good to me anymore. I want you to have them as a gift, to show there’s no hard feeling between us. Be my—”

Before the tiny bird had finished speaking the crocodile was at the eggs, his tail thrashing wildly in the awful frenzy of his feeding.

“Wait!” the plover shrieked, reeling with what he had done. He hadn’t expected to deceive the crocodile soeasily. It was a terrible sight. “Those aren’t my eggs, they’re yours.”

The final egg cracked open in the giant’s mouth and fell to the ground. Inside its shattered shell a tiny croco-

dile writhed in silence like a worm, but for a thread of sinew sliced neatly in two by the hapless jaws of its father, clamped shut now in shock, and the horror of disbelief. “What have you done to me?” Kaos wailed as the tiny bird flew off into the giant sky.

The crocodile began to weep, quietly at first, with large tears that seemed to take hours to form beneath his eyes, swelling like dew drops on his craggy snout and dimpling the earth as they fell, then wild and thunderous and full of rage, a tempest of tears that lashed the land and frothed and welled into an almighty flood devouring the armoured beast who sank beneath the torrent of himself and choked upon his grief.

Nothing is sheltered from fate.

As the waters subsided, frightened birds and animals peered down nervously from treetops and rock ledges to behold an upright form in robes of pitch, a tiny wattle of white at the throat, and shoes of glaucous leather, emerging from the mud.

Kaos had become the first man, and in his eye was a tear that would never dry.

THE ORIGIN OF EXILE

Alcestis loved flying. Without visible motion of her wings she could glide for hours on the currents of air that flowed above the southern seas. To begin with, she had no need to fly. After all, it was an effort to leave the ground. But it wasn’t a matter of need. She could have lived forever on her tiny water-locked home, drinking the rainwater pooled in rock dimples, and gorging endlessly on the great stains of squid which seemed to run like ink from the shallow weed. She could have done all this without having to fly a single hour. And it would have been much safer. But Alcestis wasn’t interested in safety, nor did she worry about death. All that concerned her was flight. She couldn’t get it out of her mind. Even when asleep she watched herself, a solitary bird, fluid above the grey-green water, drifting on a stream of air. And when she woke she had no choice but to join her image, which fell from the sky and sailed beneath her as she flew, like a bloodstain on the water’s murky surface, her shadow and her mate.

At first it was enough to circle like this all day, flowing but somehow never falling, as if the wind dissolved gravity. But as time passed her flights took her further from home, away over the sea, until one morning she just kept flying and flew for days, and would have soared like this forever, had not she spied another isle of rock, larger than her own, over which the air stopped and dropped her through the hole of its stillness. A fine rain was falling, falling in the way night falls, like a damp mist of darkening light. The sky the palest gray, mauve almost, the colour of veins beneath the flesh, thin cloud wrinkled by morning light within. From where she had landed Alcestis could see a larger landmass beyond the terracotta sea, while at her feet the rocks were covered with barnacled shells, steaming breath as if the watery soft-bodied creatures out of which they became had only just left, and in a blink the liquid sea itself might return, wisps of mist rising and seeping back into the air above the line of dawn-surfaced chestnut-covered hills that were her horizon. Alcestis the albatross had discovered the beauty of travel. From that moment she could no longer say which rock was her home, her life only real on the wings in between.

To Alcestis it was ideal, to fly for the sake of flying. But over time her migrations became more essential. In the beginning it was solely within herself. Whatever island she was on, she couldn’t chase the other from her mind nor rest until she felt its rocky skin cold and wet beneath her webbed feet once again, when the problem would reverse itself, and longing for the other pulled her up into the sky again. It was almost as if the islands knew this about themselves, had anticipated somehow in their very forms the way they would be seen by the albatross and thus were in themselves already comparisons, so powerful was the magnet of their push and pull. But gradually it grew to more than longing for a home. Alcestis fell in love, not with one bird but with two, on either side of the sea, and the problem was she loved them equally. Yet neither knew of the rival for his love and each believed Alcestis belonged to him alone.

One evening, landing on her larger home, her love for the mate she was about to see expanding with the distance she had flown, she was perturbed to find not an answering joy but a look of sadness on his tubular face. “What happened?” she asked, nuzzling his feathers with her beak and enfolding him in her wing.

“Nothing,” he recoiled, as if from the touch of a ghost. “How can you love me and stay away so long?”

“Is that it?” she sighed with relief. She had never been able to understand his jealousy but had learned how to lie well enough to quell it. “Is that all that’s worrying you? You know I wouldn’t go if I didn’t have to. But mother needs me, what can I do?”

“I’ll come with you, then.”

“No!” Alcestis barked with more urgency than she intended. It wasn’t just that she had another mate. She couldn’t bear the thought of flying with another. But how could she explain that to him? That she loved drifting above the open sea in solitude, with only her shadow stretched across the icy waves beneath. “You know that’s impossible. She thinks I care only for her. She’s old. Let her at least die happy. We’ve got a whole lifetime.”

“I know,” he said, the smile returning to his face. She had told him what he wanted to hear. The selfishness of her imagined mother was exactly his own. “It’s just so hard, that’s all. Every time you go, I think it’s the last.”

“What do I have to do?” she asked in mock dismay, her affection glowing warmly underneath.

“Well, there is one thing ... ” The thought had just come to him, but the more he considered it, the better it seemed. “I’d like to pluck your feathers.”

“What?”
‘Not all of them,’ he continued. “Just the black ones.”
“But why?” Alcestis asked, still hoping it was a joke.
“A memento ... to prove your love,” he lied. The other males in the colony had begun to ridicule him about

Alcestis, and not just her long absences. They were all white and looked upon her black wings as ugly. This was the perfect opportunity to make her more like him. “You said you’d do anything.”

“Is that really what you want?” She could see now that he was serious, and though his desire troubled her, it was still better than his endless complaints about their failure to produce any offspring of their own. He blamed her ceaseless flight.

“It will be a sign.”

And with that he began to strip greedily the short black feathers from her wings. He would have plucked them bare had Alcestis not cried “Enough!” and flapped madly off into the sky. It wasn’t the physical pain that upset her. She could cope with that. The loss of her feathers hurt her somewhere else. She couldn’t say exact- ly where, but it felt, with every quill ripped free, not that she had been made lighter, but that she had grown strangely earth-bound, as if he were nailing her to the rock. She had to break away. Her joy was so great when at last she found herself sailing the high currents of air she didn’t notice the imbalance in her wings. Ahead, mountains stretched away, their towering peaks an unearthly treasure of distance. Alcestis was flying, she was free, and that was enough. The feathers would grow back.

She realised that in flying there was something tidal, an ebb and flow, a simultaneous pull backwards and forwards, stretched out in time like the sea. But there was also something cleansing, a surge, only this time, a thing in air, she was both water and land, the point at which they meet, of two alien elements made for and from each other—time and space, past and future, and her, propelled by heart-fire a thousand feet in air, the bent horizon of them all. Up here, she thought, strangely still, it was the continents themselves that seemed in motion, held aloft like great balloons by the fire beneath, as if she had been looking down for a very long time, a geologic time, with a patience that knows eternity and is as cloud passing and the land beneath drifting in and out of view. Imagine, she thought, sitting still for such a time. Imagine such patience! Everything flowing in circles—air, crust, magnetic fields—and down there, the convection currents of those small foul hearts.

After many days, she saw at last the island of her birth and flushed at the prospect of seeing her first mate again. She had all but forgotten her experience across the sea as she landed cackling beside him, rubbing his beak with her own and dancing him round with the tips of her wings.

“What happened to you?” he cried in horror when he saw the stubbled patches of her beautiful wings.

“What do you mean?” Alcestis replied, overcome once again with that strange déjà vu, as if somehow the ques- tion this time was trying to fix her to the rock.

“Your wing,” he pointed with his own. “It’s awful.”

“Oh that,” she remembered finally, circling her mind frantically for a cause. “The sun ... I flew too close ... and they burned. Don’t worry, they’ll grow back in no time. You’re still happy to see me, aren’t you?”

“Yes,” he wavered, the word like a mask. “But that’s just my point, what I’ve been telling you all along. It’s too dangerous for you to fly so far. Why do you have to go?”

“Oh, that again, how many times do I have to say?” Alcestis laughed, happy he’d forgotten her damaged wing and returned to his usual refrain. “My father’s too old to fly back, you know that. The journey would kill him. I have to see him somehow. You don’t begrudge me that, do you?”

“No, of course not.” Though he did. “It’s just that I worry about you. Look what you’ve done to your wing. Ev- ery time you go, how do I know you won’t have an accident, how do I know it’s not the last? I’m coming with you.”

“No! I’ve told you how jealous he gets. I’m his only daughter. It won’t go on much longer, I promise.”
“But what about me?”
“Don’t worry,” Alcestis cooed, snuggling close. Until they behaved like little chicks, she was never certain she

had won. “What can I do to cheer you up?”
“Anything?” His eyes widened.
“Whatever you want.” As if she might grant all boundless wish.
He broke from the weight of his lover’s wings and looked at the birds around him. Alcestis was beautiful, he

knew that, but she had grown different, and the difference disturbed him. “I don’t want much,” his voice hesitant. “Just some feathers. Something to remember you by when you’re not here.”

“But why my feathers?” The fear again.
“Because they’re so beautiful.” It wasn’t a lie. “They’ll grow back, just like you said.”
Before she had time to protest he began to pluck, rapidly from her back and breast, but only removing the

white. And he would have stolen half her covering to get the proportions right had Alcestis not flapped madly into the air and escaped without a word. One side of her body was now almost completely bare and she could feel the cold as she flew. For the first time in her life the joy of flight had been tainted. It was only momentary, she soon recovered from her shivering and consoled herself with the thought that her feathers would grow back, but she couldn’t expel the taint completely. Still, she was flying. Compared to that, what else was there?

For the next few months Alcestis found the joy of her expectation crushed by the ineluctable jealousy of her mates. It was always the same. She would sight one of the rocky islands and land with great excitement to be met, not with equal excitement in return, but a smile that did little to hide the bitterness beneath. Then, always the same conversation, the same accusations, same promises in return, and the same end: the stripping of yet more of her feathers. Her body simply couldn’t keep up. One had cleared her enormous wings down to the tiny black flight feathers while the other, to keep her markings balanced, had even plucked her white tail bare. With each new visit she made it was harder to fly away. Not because the desire had died—if anything it was now even more acute—but it was simply becoming physically impossible. Yet there was nothing she could do. She had to be where she was not. She simply couldn’t stop.

“Don’t worry,” she whispered weakly. She could no longer tell her partners apart, their demands like their actions the same, and she had no idea to whom it was she made her final promise. “Of course I’ll be back. I’ll be back in a couple of days.”

Her body had given up the battle. There was no longer a single feather left on her raw and goosepimpled skin. She didn’t know to which home she was flying and it gave her too much pain to think. It took all her strength and concentration just to heave herself into the air. Whereas, fully-feathered, the currents had been like a moun- tain slope down which she slid, miraculously never losing height, now featherless, the air seemed full of holes through which she fell whenever she stopped flapping. Even the sky had turned against her, she thought. To fly she had to work like every other bird. The tips of her wings began to chill, even with the work. Featherless, so high above the clouds, it wasn’t long before tiny buds of ice blossomed on her stomach and back.

“It’s so cold,” she shivered. “Why didn’t I notice it before? It seemed the most beautiful place in the world ... ”

Her beak froze shut as the ice sealed like a glass cocoon around her. By the time she fell through the clouds she had become like a giant snowflake, almost impossible to see through the solid milky mist. As she reached the surface of the sea there wasn’t even a shadow to pierce. She sank to the rocky floor and came to rest, motionless as the days. Months, years passed. Utter tranquillity, yes and no unsplit, thought and silence woven together like a healed wound. Then the ice began to melt and break free of its stony roots and waft the warm currents upwards to the light. It drifted for days, melting faster now, current-carved, taking its human shape from the sea, the bird like a heart inside it now, which melting flapped its naked wings, and flapping gave the wanderer life.