"What's for lunch, Puella?"
In Latin, puella means "girl." It's a beautiful sounding name for someone who's altogether ugly. Born to wealthy Italian diplomats, Puella was the runt of the litter, nervous with features too small for her face and a dramatic overbite. And because she refused to have her teeth fixed she was eaten alive by her siblings and disdained by her parents. As a result, she developed a paralyzing apprehension about life and people. Eventually, she got a job caring for Anson in his disintegrating apartment, and there she remains to ensure his eggs are over-easy, his hamburgers well-done, his noodles al dente, and his puddings warm.
"Your favorite: chicken livers and bacon, mashed potatoes with sawdust gravy, buttered brussel sprouts, cheese biscuits, and ambrosia salad," Puella responds like a clock running down, first audible then not.
Shifting away from the table, Anson leverages his heft by tilting back on one of four chair legs. He painstakingly maneuvers his bulk until the chair comes round and his chins face the edge worn sofa. Rocking back and forth his massive ass comes off the seat and Anson stands little by little, bits of bread and bacon falling to the floor.
Gathering his center of gravity, Anson stretches his arms out to either side and walks toward the sofa. Floorboards groan. After a reeling pitch to one side, a quick step and arm adjustment, Puella's supporting shoulder steadies Anson. Finally he makes it upright, turns cautiously, and then falls into the sofa. Five days hence he will not have moved from this sinking spot.
"Yes you are," Puella nods.
"Did I already say that?" Anson asks.
". . . that I'm sweating?"
"No, you didn't say that. The apartment is warm."
"Too warm," Anson agrees pulling his shirt out from under his armpits.
Puella uses the dinner dishtowel to mop up the sweat on Anson's forehead. It looks like love but it's not. It's the quiet contract of two creatures who understand the benefits of coexistence. Consider the barnacle and the whale, the egret and the elephant, the plover and the hippo. In a word: symbiosis.
"I'm glad we never go outside" Anson comments offhandedly. "The world is full of mean people." Puella nods, but then she always nods. Anson nods in response to Puella's nodding until he nods off.
Puella is the kind of person who walks into a room and turns off the television, which she does now. Then she scans the riot of greasy dishes and decides to take a nap before cleaning them.
Earth's gravity pulls at Anson more than most, food is his escape. Like a prisoner who for years digs with his spoon, he's eating his way out. Sleep is how Anson closes the gap between meals. And when he sleeps, Anson dreams.
I'm a feather floating down, riding rivers of air. Conveyed on zephyrs towards the swelling ocean, slowly, I descend. The bell of a buoy clangs in the distance and I whisper, "I'm coming, I'm coming" with unmoving lips. In time I touch the cerulean waters and sink, my chains left floating on the heaving surface of the deep. My body becomes a chamber cocooned in blue and emptied of air. I and the ocean are amalgamating, a wet pressure making one. From hidden organs I call long and low, my need made vocal. This voluble summons is the lowest note of a great organ in the vast ocean cathedral—my whale song. In the distance where indigo becomes black, I see what my longing calls to, a blue whale. Surging currents bring me near and I am sucked in through its blow hole. Searching for its enormous heart, I crawl through the aorta, the sluggish lub, dub, lub, dub loud in my ears. There are rushes of blood and everything is close and warm. I push the fleshy flap of its ventricular valve aside and am swallowed into a hugging chamber of the cetaceous heart. Curling into a fetal position, I fall asleep listening to the lonely song of the blue whale. I ride to the bottom of the limitless ocean slumbering in the heart of a singing whale. Here is peace that surpasses understanding.
In time I touch the cerulean waters and sink, my chains left floating on the heaving surface of the deep. My body becomes a chamber cocooned in blue and emptied of air. I and the ocean are amalgamating, a wet pressure making one.
From hidden organs I call long and low, my need made vocal. This voluble summons is the lowest note of a great organ in the vast ocean cathedral—my whale song.
In the distance where indigo becomes black, I see what my longing calls to, a blue whale. Surging currents bring me near and I am sucked in through its blow hole. Searching for its enormous heart, I crawl through the aorta, the sluggish lub, dub, lub, dub loud in my ears. There are rushes of blood and everything is close and warm. I push the fleshy flap of its ventricular valve aside and am swallowed into a hugging chamber of the cetaceous heart. Curling into a fetal position, I fall asleep listening to the lonely song of the blue whale.
I ride to the bottom of the limitless ocean slumbering in the heart of a singing whale. Here is peace that surpasses understanding.
The only evidence that Anson slumbers in the heart of a whale twenty thousand leagues under the sea is his shuddering shoulders moving in rhythm to the beat of a heart not his own.
* * *
Puella grows herbs on the kitchen windowsill to understand life and death and also cooking. But she waters them too often causing the leaves to yellow and wilt. She remembers reading somewhere that singing helps plants to thrive, so she sings to the parsley, thyme, and the basil. Puella's convinced singing helps plants to thrive because something in her lifts too. "What's good for the basil is good for me" she says aloud.
"What?" shouts Anson from the sofa.
Anson is the kind of person who walks into a room and turns on the television, which he does now using the remote. Puella considers that this may be why the plants are dying: too many commercials. Maybe this is why Anson isn't thriving, she thinks. She resolves to sing more and to sing louder.
"Joy to the world."
"Are you singing?" Anson asks incredulous.
". . . all the boys and girls now. Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea . . . "
Anson asks sarcastically, "Are we having fish tonight?"
"and joy to you and me"
Anson repeats the last phrase opera-style, "Joy to you and me."
They laugh together good-naturedly for the first time since they've known each other.
"We should take our little act on the road" Anson suggests.
"We should moisturize your feet," Puella ripostes.
And with that, she grabs a tube of ulcer medication and a bottle of lotion, turns off the television, and then kneels in front of Anson. She pulls off his black socks and applies moisturizer to his calloused feet, careful to avoid the open sores. Then she dabs medicated ointment on each ulcer.
"My heels hurt, Puella."
"It's because they're cracked and dry, like elephant feet."
"My elephant feet hurt."
"I know. I know."
Puella rubs arches, heels, and toes while Anson quietly sings, "Jeremiah was a bullfrog. Was a good friend of mine. I never understood a single word he said but I helped him drinking his wine. Yes, he had some mighty fine wine.
"May I have a glass of wine, please?"
After dinner, Puella clears Anson's dishes while he sleeps sitting up on the sofa. She can tell that he's dreaming because of how he's twitching, so she hums another Three Dog Night tune hoping to comfort him.
The grasses are browning and the earth is deeply cracked. The Afrikaans sun bites my back and the broad flesh of my ears. I smell the heat in the brush, in the waxy weeds, and in the shimmering air. The blue above will not rain and finger sized lizards climb long stems to soak in the sun, waiting for something smaller to come close. I am ancient. I am wise. I have not forgotten how it all began. I remember Eden—it was the beginning of my journey, it will be the end. I was born in the river under the shadow of my mother. Now I lead herd. My tusks are long and my feet strong. The Afrikaans children call me Oliphant but I own a name no man knows—a secret sound throated low and a touch. I survive these days of wandering. I survive these sands. I have survived many last breaths and the spear. But the need in me for Eden is deep. I will not survive my need for Eden, my need for water. I am old and returning to the river. My bones yearn for the water—it has been this way since time began. The Oliphant returns to the place from whence it came. I return to the place from whence I came. And in the end, we each return to the dirt, the blue above, the river, Eden.
I am ancient. I am wise. I have not forgotten how it all began. I remember Eden—it was the beginning of my journey, it will be the end.
I was born in the river under the shadow of my mother. Now I lead herd. My tusks are long and my feet strong. The Afrikaans children call me Oliphant but I own a name no man knows—a secret sound throated low and a touch.
I survive these days of wandering. I survive these sands. I have survived many last breaths and the spear. But the need in me for Eden is deep. I will not survive my need for Eden, my need for water. I am old and returning to the river.
My bones yearn for the water—it has been this way since time began. The Oliphant returns to the place from whence it came. I return to the place from whence I came. And in the end, we each return to the dirt, the blue above, the river, Eden.
Anson wakes at three-o-clock in the morning and calls to Puella. She goes to him.
"I had a dream. I mean, I keep having these dreams—dreams of giant animals."
Puella sits by Anson patting his forearm.
"Just now I dreamt of an elephant. It was so real. I mean, it was like I was the elephant, and I was searching for water. It wasn't scary, just intense."
Anson furrows his brow and tilts his head trying to remember something.
"What is it?" Puella asks.
"I'm trying to remember what animal I dreamed about yester . . . oh, I remember. Yesterday I dreamt I was sleeping in the heart of a whale."
Puella pulls the edge of her robe over her bare knees and considers the full moon. It looks like a shimmering nickel under water.
"What?" Anson asks.
"Nothing. I was just thinking."
"I was remembering a dream I had when I was young."
"Hmm?" Anson nudges Puella to share the dream.
"I was thirteen or fourteen and had a recurring dream. I was a black bird trapped in a dollhouse. I remember the dollhouse vividly, even now: three floors. Green roof. Black and red wallpaper. I kept trying to get out through the windows but I couldn't fit. I beat my wings till they bled. I remember the blood blending in with the wallpaper. "
Anson had never heard Puella talk about such personal matters. Afraid to distract, he kept his body still and his breathing shallow.
"I don't remember how, but in time the roof was lifted and I escaped to discover I was freed into yet another dollhouse, only slightly bigger. Again I was trapped and again I beat my wings till they bled."
Puella offered Anson a weak smile. He couldn't tell if all the color had drained from her face or if the moonlight made her look pale. Either way the effect was the same, ghastly.
"I wrote about my dream in a journal and hid it between the mattresses of my bed. But my youngest sister found it and mocked me. She called me 'blackbird' till my entire family called me blackbird as well. Silly how such a little thing can cause such an enormous reaction in a child, isn't it? But I really hated that name.
"I chased my three sisters all over the house trying to retrieve my journal, but they wouldn't give it back to me. Running after them through the living room I tripped and fell, bashing my face on a coffee table. I almost knocked my eyeteeth completely out of my mouth. There was blood everywhere."
Puella's vulnerability makes Anson uncomfortable. He crooks each finger one by one, feeling the resistance in his knuckles. He studies finger fat while Puella drones on in a monotonous tone.
"My parents refused to take me to the emergency room. They said it was my fault and that I was old enough to deal with the consequences of my carelessness. When I was finally old enough to get my teeth fixed, I decided I wanted my family to have a physical reminder of how they damaged me. So I never had them fixed."
Puella notices that her bathrobe has fallen open revealing her legs. The moonlight makes them naked and white. She quickly pulls the edges together clutching them with her nervous fingers.
* * *
The doorbell rings. Puella walks into the hall and stands wiping her hands on a dishtowel. There's a foot stomp on the other side of the door and then a stony voice, "Puella?"
"What do you want, Hog?" Puella solicits.
"Got your mail. Open the damn door!"
Puella unlocks the door and pulls—it sticks. "Give it a heave" the gravelly voice grumps. The apartment has air conditioning but Anson won't allow Puella to turn it on so doors and windows stick. Hog pushes and Puella pulls until the door gives way; Puella's cheeks bloom with the effort. Pockmarked and surly Hog shoves a handful of mail at Puella.
"Turn your goddamn air conditioning on so least ways your door opens. You two gonna get stuck in this damn apartment one day and rot."
"Who is it Puella?" Anson yells over a television commercial.
Hog responds before Puella can, "Get off your fat ass and find out for yerself."
Anson turns up the volume on the television.
Hog is a wanna-be-writer who lives across the hall. He's never not worn anything but docksiders, dickeys, and baggy button-ups. His voice is stained with coffee and cigarettes and carries everywhere. Hog secretly believes he's Charles Bukowski.
"What's in the mail today?"
"None of your business Hog."
"It is if you don't take your goddamn mail out of the box."
"I know what else I know" Hog says and turns to leave.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
Hog pulls the swollen door into the warped frame without answering. He crosses the hall and slams the perfectly fitted door to of his air conditioned apartment. Once Puella hears Hog's across-the-hall classic rock begin to play, she flips through the mail looking for the super saver coupons.
Puella walks into the living room and turns off the television. Anson is eating a bowl of oatmeal and brown sugar.
"I need to start dinner, Anson. What do you want?"
There's hesitancy in Anson's eyes. He asks, "Where did you get the tattoo on your ankle?"
There's hesitancy on Puella's lips. "My, my college roommate."
"You mean you didn't go to . . . what are they called? Tattoo parlor. You didn't go to a tattoo parlor?"
"I've been thinking about it and I want you to tattoo the animals in my dreams on me."
"Oh no, Anson. No, oh God, no." Puella leans against a chair and then leaves the room abruptly. She goes and stands in the kitchen thinking about dinner and tattoos alternately.
Anson's greasy black hair tufts up in back and points to the ceiling as he slides on to his side, though he's not thinking about his hair. He's smiling because he knows he's won the tattoo battle before it's been fully fought. "We'll do it tomorrow after breakfast," Anson says using the remote to turn the television on.
At seven the next morning the alarm clock goes off—an announcer is reporting an unusually large number of firefly sightings yesterday evening in New York City. He's telling Puella that it was ninety-two degrees Fahrenheit with ninety percent humidity, although it didn't rain. Now he's interviewing an older gentleman who sounds like someone whose aftershave would smell good. Puella thinks how nice it would be to lean on an older gentleman who smells like Old Spice. The older gentleman is saying "there were at least thirty fireflies around my balcony, especially by my potted herb garden. They seem to prefer some cover." Puella says, "Don't we all."
Up and dressed, Puella is unsure of whether she actually slept or not. She feels she must have been kept awake thinking about tattooing Anson's dreams but frankly she's not sure. She shrugs. In the kitchen she piles lox on cream cheese on a bagel. "There's no point living in Queens if you don't eat lox and bagels" she thinks while she finishes cleaning the counter.
Puella walks into the living room and turns off the television Anson left on all night. It's Sunday morning and the house is quiet except for Anson's snoring, even the birds are silent in the heat. Safety pins, matches, alcohol, India ink, towel, bandages, a bowl of water, a dishrag, antibacterial soap, and lotion: Puella places the items in some mysterious order and then sits silent, sits in the silence.
Anson slowly wakes, a human sunrise, the eggshell color of his face becoming a thin shade of pink. The sun rises into the window. Anson's eyes adjust and he becomes aware of Puella sitting in the chair opposite the sofa, turning pages of a giant coffee table book of colorful paintings. She looks up and the sunshine makes a colorful painting of her face.
"Whale or elephant?"
"Breakfast. I want breakfast."
"I'll tattoo a whale or an elephant first and then I'll make breakfast. Which do you want first and where?"
Anson sits dumbly in the latticed light.
"The whale. On my arm."
"My right arm."
Puella's industrious hands shimmy here and there propping up a glossy image of a whale she found in a photography magazine. Her fingers fuss and then settle.
Puella pinches the safety pin between her forefinger and thumb and then sterilizes it burning it over the matchstick flame. Then she rubs the pin with isopropyl alcohol.
"This is going to sting a little" is the usual thing to say when you poke someone, but Puella doesn't say it. She simply dips the pin into the India ink and then pokes Anson.
"Ouch. That hurts."
"Yeah, it's going to hurt"
Puella dips the pin in the ink then pokes Anson. Dip and poke. Dip and poke. Dip and poke. Using a damp rag, Puella wipes away the excess ink. Anson talks nonstop while Puella pokes and pokes and pokes mild-eyed and silent. After hours pass, the room becomes quiet except for the sound of two sets of lungs inhaling and exhaling in response to one another. And hours after that, a blue whale materializes bloody and black on Anson's arm. Puella wraps the whale in white bandages.
* * *
Anson decided a long time ago that being fat wasn't so bad. You'd be surprised how much people will do for you when you adopt helplessness. The very thing people spend their life avoiding has for Anson become a means for gathering people to serve him. And isn't that just another kind of wealth? Why shave, bath, launder, shop, answer the door, tie shoes, empty trash, clip toenails, or wipe if someone else is willing to do it for you?
Anson thinks of himself as a wealthy man. Lounging on the sofa he cups his breasts, likening them to molten gold. He feels the flab around his middle and imagines himself a commodities broker buying shares of meatloaf, apple pie, artichoke hearts, oyster stuffing, sweet breads, eggrolls, lamb chops, carrot cake and so on—his wealth amasses.
"What's for lunch?"
She doesn't answer.
"Puella? What's for lunch?"
"Pizza, salad, and garlic knots."
"You know I don't like salad."
"The salad's for me."
Anson admires the whale on his arm and the elephant on his left leg with the same glazed look he has while surveying a cheesy casserole. He isn't salivating, however. He had no idea it would take so long to tattoo the two animals on his body. But today he's glad he did it even though the swelling and red bumps are irritating.
The elephant's trunk is lifted and the tusks point upward. It looks as if the pachyderm is calling to another elephant. The whale appears to be diving, his head pointed downward. Puella was able to work royal blue into the fins making it obviously a blue whale and not a humpback whale, a baleen whale, or any other kind of whale.
Puella comes into the living room with lunch. "Don't scratch. If it starts to itch, use the Hydrocortisone Cream I gave you."
"Are my tattoos supposed to be so red and itchy?"
"I'll look at them after lunch."
Anson uses the remote to turn on the television and he and Puella eat lunch while listening to a documentary about hippos. The British narrators are making hippopotami intriguing.
Male British Narrator: ". . . the third largest land mammal in the world."
Female British Narrator: "A hippo has webbed toes which splay out distributing its weight evenly, thereby supporting it on land. The grayish body has thick skin and is virtually hairless."
Male British Narrator: "The hippo does not have sweat or sebaceous glands, relying on water or mud to . . . "
Anson: "Why are all documentaries narrated by the British?"
Female British Narrator: ". . . secrete a viscous red fluid which . . . "
Puella: "The Brits have nothing better to do than watch hippos, I suppose."
Female British Narrator: ". . . and protect its skin from the sun. It is possibly a healing agent as well."
Male British Narrator: "The hippo's flat, paddle-like tail is used to spread excrement, which marks territory and indicates . . ."
Puella: "Turn it off Anson."
Puella: "Let me check your tattoos."
Anson: "I can't find the remote."
Puella goes to the television and turns it off just as the image of two humping hippos appears. Disappointment registers on Anson's face, Puella pretends not to notice.
Puella's hand hovers over the blue whale. "Your tattoos are hot."
"No, I mean they're feverish" she corrects.
"So, what does that mean?"
She checks the elephant and notices a murky yellow discharge emanating from the tat.
"Are you feeling alright Anson?"
"My muscles ache a little, I suppose, but I'm alright. It's hot in here."
Anson sees concern in Puella's eyes.
"Well, if your tattoos get infected, bacteria can get into your bloodstream and make its way to your heart."
"My tattoos aren't infected. Just get me some aspirin."
Puella carries their plates into the kitchen and returns with a glass of water and three palmed pills and then sits next to Anson. She becomes a dark curtain before a room of worry while he swallows dramatically. After, they sit brooding too long and eventually doze dreaming—Anson of copulating hippos and Puella the black of birds.
The door bangs. Puella jumps awake.
Hog is shouting, "What's a man got to do to get you shut-ins to open the door?" Puella pulls herself out of the slump of the sofa and quick steps to the door. In route, she notices the right side of her body is drenched and smells like the mildew-y water of a bouquet kept too long.
Puella unlocks the door and pulls while Hog pushes from the opposite side. The door gives way and Hog fills the frame, face plum-colored from exertion. He hands the mail to Puella and pushes into the apartment.
"For crissakes, Puella, I been banging on your door ten minutes."
"I was asleep."
"What's that smell?"
"It smells like that fat ass is rotting."
Hog walks to the couch and nudges Anson with his knee. Anson slowly opens his eyes and whines, "Jesus, Puella. Why'd you let this pig in here?"
Anson is soaked with perspiration and his stench flows from his body appallingly. Puella suddenly understands why her right side is saturated—Anson's perspiration. She feels a rummaging hand in her stomach as she turns to go to her room to change.
"Fat ass isn't looking so good, Puella" Hog yells from the living room.
"I'm fine" Anson says glaring at Hog through the black coffee bowl of his eye.
"That stench is coming from you, asshole. You need to go to a fucking hospital."
"Get out, Hog. Get out." Anson is yelling crazy with anger and trembling.
Puella returns to the living room dry.
"I'm going, but you need to get that tub of lard to a doctor, Puella"
"Leaving me is the least you can do" shouts Anson.
"I can't make him go, Hog."
"Please, Hog. Let me take care of this."
Hog helps Puella wedge the door closed.
"Promise me you won't let anyone in here again. I can't stand the idea of . . ."
"I promise. Don't worry, I promise."
There's a long quiet and then Anson asks, "What's for dinner?
* * *
The morning begins like a dull redo of the day before and the day before that and the day before that. The apartment is cotton-quiet and Puella remains in bed listening to the silence in the deepest way she knows how. "This," she thinks, "is what it must feel like in the womb. Or the grave." Puella closes her eyes and allows white tranquility to snow inside of her—eventually, she stirs stiffly as if shattering ice off her joints.
Pulling her robe around her, Puella opens the bedroom door and is assaulted by the stench of rotting meat. Haltingly, she walks into the living room and comes round to face the mountain of flesh that is Anson—his eyes are rolled back into the dark of his head. Sputum dries on his face and shirt front. Bleeding boils run the length of his tattooed leg and arm, an elephant and whale buckling and bubbling on his flesh. Pustules pop and ooze puss.
Puella understands: Anson is dead.
The onion of her heart peels quickly and Puella's eyes begin to tear from sorrow and the acrid smell of Anson's decomposing body. No matter what happens now, she cannot escape the inestimable regret that pulls her under a fathomless ocean of self-loathing. The drowning has already begun.
Puella catches her breath and tamps a hot tear. And in that space of time, she decides a final operatic act: a closing scene, a finale, a denouement.
Puella picks from the garbage the safety pins she used for Anson's tats and then goes into her bedroom shutting the door behind her. India ink, a bowl of water, a dishrag: Puella arranges the items on her bed. She sits on the edge of the mattress and exposes her inner thigh. She dips one of Anson's bloody safety pins in the India ink and then pokes the tender flesh where her nylons whisper when she walks. Dip and poke. Dip and poke. Dip and poke. In time, the shape of a black bird becomes visible. Bloody and red, it resembles the blackbird of her childhood dreams. Peulla's thigh is on fire but she leans back and wishes an older gentleman smelling of aftershave would hold her until she falls asleep.
Two days later, Hog breaks down the swollen door of the apartment. He stands by Puella's bed, nose hidden in the crook of his elbow to avoid the smell of rotting flesh. He leans over her fevered face and listens to Puella whisper the word "blackbird" over and over and over. Hog understands that Puella is delirious and dying.
Red birds, green birds, blue birds, yellow birds, blackbirds stain my skin—tattooed. Head to toe covered with birds of every color, ink spreading in the shape of wings. Birds live and breed and bleed and die and sing and flap and fly and copulate and nest and lay eggs and crap and migrate and perch and peck and everything on my flesh, in my skin. I begin to sing and the inky birds are coaxed off my flesh and out through my mouth. I am singing as much of this flock as I can, bird by bird by bird, as the art of my body becomes a body of art in flight. I am left white and silent.
I begin to sing and the inky birds are coaxed off my flesh and out through my mouth. I am singing as much of this flock as I can, bird by bird by bird, as the art of my body becomes a body of art in flight.
I am left white and silent.
Eric Bennett lives in New York with his wife and four children. He love trees without leaves and the silence between songs on a vinyl record.
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