Fiction by Gregory J. Wolos
“We are not men—we are T’ings; we are not
beasts—we are T’ings. You made us T’ings!”
—Bela Lugosi as Beast-Man
to Dr. Moreau, vivisectionist,
The Island of Lost Souls (1932)
“God’s shark and hummingbird are perfect, but
His platypus is an example of clumsy editing.”
—Raymond Walchuk, filmmaker
Summoned back to the U.S. after two years spent in the Brazilian rainforest
pretending to make a documentary, Carl Walchuk has been informed by the director
of the Jillian Spears Benton House, an upscale hospice facility, that his 57-year-old
mother is terminally ill. And expecting a baby.
“Breast cancer, caught very late. Your mother declined aggressive
treatments,” the pudding-faced administrator says. “She hasn’t very much time left.
She could have received hospice care at home, but she has chosen to stay with us.
Some of our guests find home a burden. Too full of expectations and memories—
feelings of responsibility. The pregnancy Christine wishes to tell you about herself.”
Carl’s mother reclines on the sofa in the living room, awaiting her son with the
temporary, unmendable air of a damaged bird. “Why are you wearing that purple
feather?” Her voice shakes. “And what are you going to do about the baby?”
Dark curls tumble to his shoulders, but Carl doesn’t display a feather of any
color. His mother’s morphine hallucination? During his time in the rainforest he
was rarely questioned, and he’s lost the habit of formulating answers.
“Hi, Mom.” He doesn’t ask his mother how she feels and gives her a hard
look—to assess her condition—and stoops to kiss her cheek. Through her puff
of grey hair, her scalp looks like the surface of the moon. Her eyes, wet and small,
stick to his.
“There’s a surrogate, of course. But I’m the mother and you’re the brother.
What did you expect?”
Carl doesn’t reply. He sits, careful not to disturb Christine’s slippered feet.
He doesn’t know what he’d expected. He hasn’t eaten a full meal in days. The
diet foisted on a transcontinental traveler has little overlap with the Pirahan fare of
roasted monkey and root porridge. They are alone in a replica of a suburban living
room, familiar, yet foreign to someone who’s been sleeping in a hut: two sofas, a
coffee table, a patterned carpet, heavy drapes, a large landscape painting—valley,
mountains, glimpse of a river, a village. Carl remembers sitting naked on his
sleeping mat of woven grass, young Click, his Pirahan lover, her name
unpronounceable, spooned in his lap. His chin rested on her shoulder, his open
journal on her knees, his arms under hers as he scribbled a February date. Up in
the U.S. it would be Presidents’ Week, which meant sales at the big box stores.
He pictured Click, in tight jeans and a leather jacket, pointy-toed heels, the sweep
of her hair sliced into a bob, her arm looped through his as they stood before
washer-dryers, espresso machines, racks of dresses, a wall of flat screen
televisions. Shortly, he would lose that journal. Its shredded pages probably line
the nest of an exotic bird high up in the forest canopy.
A husky attendant dressed in khaki trousers and a plaid, flannel shirt enters,
greets Christine with a nod and raises an eyebrow at Carl, a signal he can’t
interpret. Is he tiring his mother? Should he be doing or saying something he’s not?
The attendant leaves. The air has the singed taint of an electrical fire. Carl’s heart
“Don’t be squeamish,” Christine says. “I’m not the pigeon—the one that
showed you’d never be a scientist. Remember?”
Of course he remembers. One summer afternoon when he was seven he’d
been playing in the yard with a prosthetic limb—a severed leg, bloodied at the
knee. It wore a sneaker. The leg was a souvenir from the set of one of his
father’s films. Carl created scenarios around the limb: the rest of the body had
been devoured by cannibals, sharks, or Godzilla; it protruded from the mouths of
pretend caves, from under the garage door, from underneath the tractor mower.
When he came in for a drink, Christine was also taking a break—she ran her
online journal, MindGames, from her home office. MindGames would become
a small empire. She would sell it for millions. But eighteen years ago it was only
“the thing that kept Mom too busy to play.”
She was waiting for Carl in the kitchen. “Here,” she said, handing him a
lunch bag from the freezer. Something hard was in the bag, a bottle, he thought,
a drink that would stay iced for hours while he played outside. But what slid out
instead was a dead pigeon, blue-gray, sealed in plastic wrap. Its eyes were
frosted pearls. “You could look at it under your microscope,” Christine said.
“Bit by bit.” The frozen bird chilled his fingers. What did “bit by bit” mean? He
should break off parts like from a chocolate Easter rabbit? He imagined with
horror his bedroom desk strewn with chunks of downy feathers and strings of
muscle and tendon, bones like broken soda straws, pink clawed feet, all
softening, threatening to quiver with sudden life.
The vision still haunts him after nearly twenty years, and Carl retreats to
the rainforest: Click snuggled beside him in Andrew the anthropologist’s cabin.
The researcher held court, sipping the drink he’d plucked from his generator-
powered refrigerator. “Sexual relations with outsiders keep the bloodlines fresh,
negating the theory that the Pirahan’s linguistic peculiarities result from inbreeding.”
Click hooted and whistled, waving at Andrew’s soda bottle. “They hate Coke,”
Andrew said. “One sip, they spit it out. The carbonation hurts and it’s too sweet.
But they love cold. I give them bottles to hold, straight from the fridge, as a
reward for testing—when the cold leaves, they forget about them. I collect them
from wherever they’re dropped and put them back in the refrigerator. Powerful
magic.” He handed Click his bottle, and, her face so close it was a blur, she
touched Carl’s chin with its cool neck.
“You dropped the pigeon in the trash,” Christine says. “You were pale as
a ghost. Not a budding scientist.” That bird cast a spell on Carl’s playmate, the
bloody leg. The limb was suddenly too real, as grotesque as the bird, and he no
longer wanted anything to do with it. He hid it under a pile of newspapers in the
garage. He stopped visiting movie sets and saw less of his father. Had that
been Christine’s goal? “Creativity isn’t what your father thinks it is,” she’d said
once. “It’s not infinity. It’s ‘yes’ or ‘no.’”
“I was not a comfortable mother, but I was competent,” Christine
confesses with a trickster’s smile. Maybe all dying smiles looked like that. Her
eyes glitter. “MindGames was my baby. Then I sold it.” Carl doesn’t doubt
his mother has always loved him, but she’s done so without tenderness. And
this compressed history has overlooked his infancy, childhood, and adolescence.
Except for the pigeon story. “I was still menstruating—unusual at my age,”
Christine continues. “I was fertile. Your father froze his sperm, years ago, when
we were still married and you were just a toddler. He had a theory that the
world would run out of artistic geniuses. He talked about a creative black hole
in the universe. He called his sperm ‘the emergency reserve.’ I’d forgotten all
about it. Then we had our separate lives—sharing you, of course—and after
twenty years he disappeared from the deck of that ferry. And the sperm lab
contacted me because I was still listed as the beneficiary.” Christine touches
Carl’s hand, startling him. “I had eggs, sperm, and money. I was supposed to
live for thirty more years.”
Christine’s pink velour track jacket shifts. It’s possible she has shrugged.
Carl thinks of the robust, casual nakedness of the Pirahan women, some nursing
babies, then of his mother’s ravaged breasts. He almost lays his hand on a pink
pants leg, but he’s afraid to find it empty. The Piraha have no words for colors,
according to Andrew. Click might say the pink of Christine’s tracksuit
resembled “the flesh of a skinned monkey” if there was a skinned monkey nearby
to point at, or “that cloud over the setting sun” if such a cloud appeared at that
moment. He should have brought his mother flowers: “These roses are the color
of the blood that binds us.” Except he doesn’t see the blood.
“Opportunity presented itself,” Christine says with closed eyes.
“Motherhood no longer seemed like such an imposition.”
An imposition? The word bruises Carl: his mother thinks of him as a
failed experiment. “I wish I’d been better at science,” he apologizes. “I was a
good actor—remember? I grew out of it. I wasn’t cute anymore.” By middle
school he’d quit the career his father had encouraged, but Christine never
seemed to notice. “I’ve had quite a time in the rainforest,” he says, but his
mother isn’t listening.
“It’s not necessary that you meet the surrogate,” Christine says. “I’ve
only met her myself through proxy—on paper. She’s in excellent health, doesn’t
drink, never smoked. I’ve seen the ultrasound photographs. Your little brother
is thriving. There—now you know the sex.” Christine’s head dips to the side,
stopping at an awkward angle. “Due in one month, and I won’t be here.”
Minutes seem to pass. Has she fallen asleep? “My love child.” Her eyes pop
open. “Where were you?”
Carl is lost. Love child? She couldn’t mean him. He’s always assumed
his conception had been a last ditch attempt to save his parents’ marriage.
“I was in the rainforest making a documentary,” he says. But Carl had
lost his recording equipment almost immediately. It had simply disappeared,
swallowed by the forest. Who would have taken it? The Pirahans had shown
no interest in the cameras, the lights, or batteries. Andrew wanted the
documentary made. Embarrassed, Carl didn’t acknowledge the loss. Instead,
he followed the anthropologist, asking questions, taking notes in his journal.
Weeks grew into months; Andrew, either absorbed by his work, eccentric, or
addled, refused to notice that Carl hadn’t the means to record him. Then Carl
lost the journal, too. On a whim he began winding an invisible charades
camera whenever Andrew spoke, and the anthropologist seemed satisfied.
Click, ever present, mimicked Carl’s pantomime, cranking away on faith alone.
“They’re managing my pain,” Christine sighs. Carl doesn’t understand
hospice care. His mother seems exhausted. Will someone attend to her or
are they waiting for her to shrivel and drop from the vine of her own accord?
By comparison, his father’s end seemed anecdotal.
In the weeks before the sea swallowed him, Raymond, a pariah in the
film community after a string of catastrophic misjudgments, had hatched a new
scheme. “I’m going to remake The Island of Lost Souls—the old H.G. Wells
story about Dr. Moreau. It’s got to be a period thing—set back in the 1920s,
black and white—spooky, like the original. Moreau plays god on his island,
operating on animals over and over, trying to transform them into humans.
Carving animals into human beings. None of this cloning crap. Vivisections—
there’s your God-dreamer. Tear up the old to make the new. I’m going to
set up meetings.” There would be no meetings. There’d been no one left to
No one had witnessed his slip or jump from the deck of the express
ferry to Catalina Island, “the island of romance,” according to the old song.
Raymond had been seen on board, but never on the island. It took a month—
the month before Carl was to start film school—for authorities to account for
his disappearance by declaring him drowned.
“There are no such things as epiphanies in life,” Raymond had told Carl
the last time he saw him, “but we put them in our narratives anyway, even when
we’re telling our own histories. We lie to ourselves. We’re all complicit.
We’re all a bunch of epi-phonies. Especially us artists. We’re epi-faux-nies.
With an f-a-u-x.”
“That’s pretty epi-funny,” Carl said. “Why tell me unless you’re
expecting me to have one?”
And, after a second, Raymond had laughed and laughed. “I guess we
really want to believe in them, don’t we?” Carl saw tears in his father’s eyes,
and he was proud that he’d put them there. He decided the best answer was
silence. After a minute his father looked at him.
“That’s right,” Raymond said. “Perfect.”
Christine might be dozing. Her head still droops like a broken doll’s.
“There are no epiphanies,” Carl says, and her lids flutter.
“That’s your father,” she says. “No epiphanies. Of course there aren’t
any. But there’s always a sum. Things always add up.”
“The Piraha can’t count,” Carl says. “Not past two. After two it’s
‘many.’ If they were counting a pile of beans, they’d say, ‘One, two, many,’
and they’d be done.” It’s dawning on Carl that he’ll never see Click again—
can he feel his heart breaking? He remembers: Click’s head just beneath his
shoulder when he embraced her from behind; cupping her breasts in his palm;
the feel of her nipples on his fingertips; her fresh vegetable smell; her steady
gaze; and her earnest winding of the invisible movie camera. After a year of
unprotected intimacy, Click showed no signs of pregnancy—unless, Carl
worries, he’d left before she’d begun to show.
There is a terrible stench. Carl refuses to believe it emanates from his
mother. He looks around the room, at the doors, hoping for help. He touches
her leg, finally, and finds a rod of bone no thicker than a stick of chalk; the
slightest pressure will crush it into powder.
“You’re alone,” Christine says, stating the thought Carl has been shaping
Things add up, she’d said. “One, two, many,” Carl counts.
“One too many?” Christine whispers.
“There will be papers to sign,” Christine says, as if a signature is a
passport to parenthood. “Custody issues. Arrangements have been made.
For childcare. For accommodations. An account is already set up in your
name, and then everything passes to you and the child as soon as my will is
executed. Everything’s taken care of.”
A paper baby—documents and ultrasound photos—in a month. Why
isn’t Carl feeling the enormity of the moment? He pictures a string of paper
cut-out children, holding hands. His mother saw a purple feather, but Carl
sees his mother’s shrunken body, a reality impossible to doubt.
“Daddy,” Christine murmurs. Carl winces. She’s right—father, not
brother. She’s beaten him to the act of re-creating himself. It’s a weighty
role, and Carl takes a deep breath and assumes it like a crown—an
emergency coronation at a time of crisis. But really, is he any different from
a teenager whose girlfriend, her eyes swollen from crying, has just told him
she’s missed her period?
“To the Piraha, the people I’ve been living with, when someone goes
around a bend in the river, they say he’s ‘gone out of experience.’” Carl says.
“He doesn’t exist anymore. Not until he comes back, and he’s there to touch.”
Try as he might, he’d never been able to pronounce Click’s full name: the
dexterities of his lips, tongue, and throat had been forged for a different
language. The sounds are fading: Click. Tweet. Flap. If she missed him, if
her thoughts followed him around the bend in the river, she would be ruined,
no longer Pirahan. “Their women use one less phoneme than the men,” Carl
tells his mother, summarizing one of Andrew’s unrecorded lectures. “The
language women use lacks a sound. I don’t know which one—I never
learned to speak Pirahan. Imagine if American women didn’t have one of
our sounds. Like ‘g,’ say. Women wouldn’t be able to say ‘goodbye.’ Or
One morning, early, after several months in the rainforest, Carl followed
the hunters out of the village. They disappeared down a path—“out of
experience.” He was lost. He wandered through trees and creepers, inventing
trails where none existed—following flowers, buzzes of insects, mossy patches
at certain heights on the trunks of trees, all of them false clues. He flinched at
the cries of birds. There was a rustling in the brush, and a squat, panting dog
appeared, one he’d seen in the village. Its eyes and smooth hide matched the
eyes and skin of the Piraha—it was one of them, just a different incarnation.
Its gaze drifted over him as it hunched to shit, and Carl recognized the latrine
area just outside the village. Through the trees he made out huts and Andrew’s
cabin. Partly from nerves, partly from suggestion, like a yawn, Carl squatted
and relieved himself. He was just another version of the dog.
The husky attendant returns, this time pauses beside Christine, his hands
at his waist. “Nap time,” he says. Carl rises, wondering when the next domino
will fall, from where, with what weight and speed. Support, his mother has said.
He’s twenty-six. He’s out of the jungle. Has she given him a life or taken one
away? He tries to visualize a baby, and he sees himself cradling something—a
monkey stitched from socks. Its button eyes and broad mouth are surprised
and mocking. It squirms, and he clutches it tight to his chest.
Like a magician spinning in his cape, the attendant whisks Christine from
the sofa as he would a hollow prop and bears her from the room. Carl can see
only his mother’s dangling feet and her raised arm, a single finger pointing upward.
Gregory J. Wolos’s fiction has recently appeared or is forthcoming in
Storyglossia, elimae, Underground Voices, Prick of the Spindle, Gulf Stream,
Emprise Review, and other journals. In the last year his stories have earned
recognition in several competitions, including a Pushcart Prize nomination and first
place in the 2011 Gulf Stream Award contest. He lives and writes on the
northern bank of the Mohawk River in upstate New York. His website is located
“T’ings” is the last in a collection of linked stories, all accepted for
publication, about the family of an idiosyncratic filmmaker. The opening
story, “Son of Kong, How Do You Do?” examines the trials of the filmmaker
as he scouts out a tropical island for the site of his latest project—Son of
Kong, a remake of the classic sequel to King Kong. Subsequent stories have
focused on the filmmaker’s son and his ex-wife. The six stories I’ve
completed have been fun to write. In each I’ve gotten to invent projects
and films for my characters—and maybe I’ve come to understand the
creative impulse of Dr. Moreau, the vivisectionist referred to in the epigraph
to “T’ings”—an impulse that’s often messy and subversive. The characters
are flawed, but human, and struggle to negotiate their paths through the
taboos and technologies of modern American life. Although I’ve intended
“T’ings” as a concluding story, in some ways it seems like a beginning:
there’s a baby on the way, and its parent-brother’s life is unresolved. I’m
tempted to extend the collection into the next generation.
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Apple Valley Review:
A Journal of
Volume 6, Number 1
Copyright © 2011
by Leah Browning, Editor.
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in the Apple Valley
Review are retained by
the individual authors