They called the child the companion. We will raise him as we would have ourselves, they agreed, but they were young, and stayed up late at night preparing the nursery and sharing their worries. What if the companion is ugly? I will grow thin and wrinkled, said the mother. I will not shave, the father said. What if he is blind? We will cover our eyes and learn guitar. What if he grows bitter with age and blames us for his imperfections? We will erase his birthday from the records. We will adopt the same imperfections, so that he will not see his own. When the companion was born, he was jaundiced and small. If he only lives a year, said the mother, it is meant to be, and she brooded with the husband by the cradle. When he grew strong and pale, the father said, You must work for your blessings, and so they took him home.
Each morning they rubbed him down with solvent and talc and put him in a harness by the window. The durability of the companion’s skin was their concern. A companion must absorb through the soul, not the skin, said the mother. He had a thin face and warm gray eyes. They were concerned for the companion’s eyesight. Details are grounds for judgment, said the father, taking off his glasses. And he must be strong. They built a vivarium to bathe the companion in sunlight and nurture his growth. They agreed on everything. They were very happy.
The companion was a quiet baby. And when he did cry, they fed him a spoon of salt. He will never feel thirst, they said, and he never did. Tolerance is a virtue, they confessed, and felt shame. And he will never feel shame, they vowed. They allowed the companion everything he asked for.
The boy was fond of crocheted gloves and a small screwdriver with a glassy yellow handle that he called the gimlet. He called his mother the matron, and his father he called Paul or Solomon, depending.
The shade was pulled down in increments throughout the morning, one inch per hour until noon, and then pulled up until sundown, at which time the shade was pulled down again. The parents never corrected the companion’s mistakes. If at eleven in the morning the companion pulled the shade a quarter inch too low, they did not pull it up but compensated by pulling the shade down three-quarters of an inch at twelve.
At night while the companion was asleep, the parents exchanged notes. Paul tallied the companion’s diet and exercise. One saltine with paste, one cup of tea with condensed milk, two segments of an orange, spat out, two pieces of toast dipped in syrup, and so forth. The matron noted that the companion had begun to bore holes in the windowsill with his gimlet. The companion has hidden a stash of feathers in the vivarium. He has stopped asking for a glass of water before bed, she said. His new favorite food is yellow mustard, she noted. Then we will give him the option of brown mustard, said Solomon, and so things were decided.
Every Tuesday and Friday the matron escorted the companion to the woodpile to play. Mondays and Wednesdays, Paul, who was more athletic than his wife, played wrestle-and-squat with the companion on the back lawn. Sundays and Thursdays there were no excursions except to bring in the mail before lunch or spend half an hour without supervision in a room specified by the companion himself. All activities were based on the companion’s desires, and schedules conformed to his suggestions. If, one day, the companion preferred to scotch-tape his fingers to the kitchen table and jiggle his wrist instead of petting the animals in the vivarium, he was allowed. If the companion chose to spend the entire day at the woodpile arranging logs in order of mossiness, or weight, he was allowed. Whatever he chose to do, his parents made a note of it, and did not pass judgment.
On the days the companion allowed himself time apart from his parents, he usually chose to spend it in the vivarium. He viewed his animals as expressions of weakness. The gerbils he named paperteeth, for anxiety. The turtles were I and II, for their fear of originality. The goat was altar, for the way it looked when it slept on its knees. Once he undertook the project of introducing a certain gerbil into a glass case of mice, he developed a keen interest in methods of attack. There was the swoop-under-and-flip attack, the hind-leg-walk-and-drop-on attack, the chin-to-chest-head-tuck-and-butt-into attack. His favorite attack was the move-forward-jab-move-back, because it could be repeated enough times to exhaust the weaker opponent, which seemed the honest thing to do. He did not judge their weaknesses but learned instead from the ways they compensated. He mixed the macaws with the pheasants, the turtles with the horned toads, etc. . . . But soon after, the animals began to get along without the slightest show of discomfort. This the companion saw as defiance, and he grew tired of observing their habits.
He concentrated now on the variations between their food pellets. He thought if only he could invent the perfect pellet, his parents could take more time for leisure, not having to feed each animal in turn. The happiness of his parents was his concern above all. Every week he mashed two pellets together with the rounded end of a ladle and a brick and smashed the mixture with water in a small bowl so that it made a pulp. The pulp he fashioned into small cubes and set up on a sheet of wax paper to dry. If he was hungry in the vivarium, he could eat a cube. He was very ambitious.
Lessons in the annex were open forums for discussion on the topic of the companion’s choice. In the annex, the matron was Leticia, Solomon was Jonathan, and the companion was called Rudy. Their talks usually revolved around historical events, methods of travel, and vegetation. What is early jungle earth? asked the companion. I see it as popping hot mud, said Leticia. I see it as misty green pastures, said Jon.
Who was the first president of the United States?
Who flew the first jet airplane?
The Ringling Brothers.
Whose shade is cooler, a beechwood’s or a fir’s? They all agreed a beechwood’s shade is cooler. They loved the outdoors, and took walks together after the lessons through the wood, sometimes walking as far as the road that went to town, but they seldom walked so far.
When the companion had grown tall enough to reach the shelves in the kitchen, he began to express a yearning to educate his parents about the way he saw the world. He composed logic tests in the morning and administered them after lunch.
1 . YOKE SLEEP LOVE DESERT.
2 . BANE SALVATION DESERT SLEEP.
3 . LOVE SLEEP OCEAN MOTHER-OF-PEARL.
ANSWER: NONE OF THE ABOVE
And the companion began preparing the meals so that his parents could sit in the armchairs in the living room and do as they liked. Usually the matron sketched the view from the window or sat listening to records, or rearranged the pictures on the wall depending on a system of chronology or whim. The father looked through books. His favorite was a picture book of railroads. He had a fascination for machinery, and imagined himself an inventor of sorts. Often he cried out, A hoe that is also a pitchfork! This habit of crying out peeved the matron. Temper, temper, she told herself, and regarded this sacrifice as a function of her love for her companion, and she was comforted.
Meals were prepared haphazardly at first, with bitter lemon sauces and lukewarm custards of which the companion was ashamed. The parents were careful to comment on the artistry of the cuisine, describing it as challenging and brave. As time went on the companion perfected certain dishes, and repeated them in lieu of inventing doubtful stews or casseroles. There was The Angry Hunter, a spread of carrot mash, tender slabs of veal, and wilted greens; A Warm Afternoon, chicken soup with rice; and Melancholy, cauliflower soaked in brine, sided with lentils in a beef broth. The companion’s palate was not suited for sour fruit, whereas Paul was fond of oranges. Misunderstandings like this were not taken to heart. More pressing discomforts, however, were addressed with haste in weekly meetings in the den.
I have noticed that you have been using my razor. Lately the books in the reading room have become arranged according to spine width. Why?
Paul and I want to tell you that we will be taking a trip, the matron said one day.You will not be left alone. Susan will come in the mornings and leave before dinner. We will be back a week from Monday. We will miss you every minute.
The companion was now as tall as his father. He went to bed when he chose to and only adhered to the schedule of his childhood when he felt he had no purpose. He looked forward to time alone. He wrote a list of projects to finish before his parents’ return, and he had them purchase materials before they left.
I will need a water pump and a shovel.
I will need a dozen two-gallon glass jars. If these are hard to get, two-gallon plastic jars will do, as long as they’re clear plastic, and not textured or cloudy.
And I need heavyweight nylon rope, and a pulley wheel, and some cedar planks.
The companion was in the reading room working on plans for a moat when his parents came to say good-bye. Good-bye, he said, hardly looking up from his book. What are you reading, my love?
The companion waited for an hour in the reading room after his parents left. The evening was overcast but warm, and he went bare-armed into the backyard. He surveyed the woods and made up his mind to go for a walk and find a spot for his moat. He sat a while on a bench in the yard and considered how he would divide his time while his parents were gone.
Much like his father, the companion was an inventor. He had recently completed a series of timesaving devices, such as the soap-suspender and the fruit-pitter. His moat would serve two purposes. The first purpose was the purpose of communication. Notes on little rafts made out of cardboard and wax paper would be carried from the northernmost point of the moat’s axis by way of a current. The current was to be produced by a transportable, man-operated fan engine that the companion would keep with him whenever he was out of voice range of his parents. He would build a second fan engine that would be a permanent fixture outside the back door of the house, so that his parents could send him messages in a likewise manner while he was out.
The companion imagined the notes he would write to his parents.
I found a strange growth on an unidentifiable conifer.
As I was tapping a maple for syrup, I realized that my hands speak a language between themselves, in which I am yet uneducated.
The second purpose of the moat was one of limitation. The moat would be dug in ring formation, as a limiting device for the nonaquatic, smaller animals of the vivarium, such as the gerbils and the hood mice. He would set the rodents free within the confines of the moat one day after the moat was complete and filled.They would not traverse the moat, he hypothesized, because he could not traverse the river. The river ran east to west several miles deep into the wood. The companion had never learned to swim.
Tonight I will build a prototype, he decided, and went back into the house to begin.
He collected supplies from the kitchen, namely one circular serving dish, a gravy boat full of water, two drinking straws, one can of ground coffee, a cup of alfalfa, three toothpicks, and a roll of wax paper. He lit a candle in the reading room and set his materials out on the floor.
He liked to work by candlelight. He found the flame easy on his eyes. As he worked, he focused on his hands, on the pinch between his fingers when he clutched a sprout, on the grab of his palm as he spread the coffee in the dish. This is a log, he told himself , holding a toothpick up to his eye. This is earth. This is water. He worked steadily for an hour but found his eyes distracted by the reflection of the flame’s flicker in the window. Each time he breathed, the flame was altered, and it showed in the glass. It was night now, and dark in the house. The companion was suddenly aware of his circumstance. He was alone. He waited until he had complete presence of mind, then he took up the candle in his hands and went through the house turning on all the lights.
He began in the basement. He flipped the light switch at the basement door and went down the stairs. His germination program was at work in the main room. He switched on the fluorescents, and the light in the laundry room, and the one in the pantry. He did not switch on the light in his father’s workshop, however, out of respect for the man’s privacy. He observed the progenation of his seeds. No progress, he decided, and went back up the stairs.
There were many lights to turn on in the kitchen. First the three overheads— over the working area, over the kitchen table, and in the closet. There were three lamps placed at locations at which one might read from a book— one by the stove, one under the cabinets, one on the counter next to the fridge. The over-the-counter lights he also switched on, and checked that the stove and the oven were turned off. Light is a safe heat, he observed, and drank a glass of milk.
The living room was a complicated room. There were six electric candlelights on the walls, four table lamps, two on the mantelpiece and two on small stands on either side of the couch. The two standing lamps he adjusted to dim. The clip-on lamp on the piano he left off, because the heat could melt the glue under the felt pads under the keys, he imagined.
The sunroom he left off, out of an aversion to hypocrisy.
The reading room he left off as well, not wanting to face the windows again, which had so unnerved him earlier.
The lights in the front hall he turned on, and the lights up the stairs. On the second floor, he paused a w’hile thinking of whose bedroom to turn on first.
He decided on his own, and then rested on his bed a while. His room was a perfect square, with bookshelves all around and a rolltop desk in the corner. His bed he had arranged on a diagonal from the upper-left to lower-right sides of the room. This he did for purposes of wakefulness, for he had discovered that the sun would hit his face at such an hour, and so he moved his bed accordingly. Daylight saving times affected the slant by only slight degrees. He usually slept soundly.
His bedspread was a patchwork quilt made entirely out of gray burlap. He had chosen the fabric after reading a book on the potato famine, and felt it appropriate for his dreamworld, which mostly consisted of visitations to animal habitats and factories. His walls were bare save for several photographs— two of landscapes of southern France and one of a cross-section of the great redwood that his parents had felled the year of his birth. The photographs were gifts, and when he was younger he used to look at them for inspiration. Now that he was older, though, he spent more time looking through technical manuals and anatomy charts. He thought that if he could understand the discrepancies between the human and the insect nervous systems he would be able to live underground for all eternity. But this was a far-off project. First he would explore the willingness of rodents to drown. His moat would provide the means to this exploration. He pondered his moat again for a while.
When he began to feel restless, he went into his parents’ chamber. He had visited the room many times before, not at length, but enough to have acquired a sense of his parents’ sleeping and dressing arrangements. His matron slept north-south on the left side of the bed. Solomon slept south-north on the right. The nightstands were positioned accordingly. On the matron’s night table was a lamp with a simple blue shade, an encyclopedia volume K—L, a magnifying glass, and a vase full of dried flowers. On Paul’s, a wooden spoon, a spool of twine, and two pink rubber balls. He gathered from this collection that his father was still at work on his mission to invent the perfect toy. The companion picked up the balls and juggled a while, then replaced them as he had found them, exactly.
Garments were kept in two cedar chests, under the window and in the unlocked closet. The matron arranged her wardrobe by color, his father by weight. Dirty garments were deposited in a wicker hamper next to the closet door. The closet was a walk-in, well kept and straightforward.The precision of his parents’ habitat was comforting in its familiarity, but he longed for something more. He grew tired of his environs, and sat on his father’s side of the bed. The walls were lined with pictures of the wood in a linear chronology. Like any timeline, these photographs dealt with progress, but within a system of season. Fall, winter, spring, and summer, taller and shadier by the year. What was hidden by the shade was illuminated by its preceding photo. It occurred to the companion that his parents had a keen interest in methods of progress. They had often commended him when he came to them with a revelation.
I can only speak for myself.
There is a great expanse of space between the ground and the heavens.
The companion’s physical progression was an evolution in which he was actively engaged. He looked at himself in the full-length mirror. He could see within the boundaries of his body his former boundaries, his small self grown into something grown. But what was this something? he asked himself. Will I grow forever?
The question lingered in his thoughts as he once again surveyed the room. It seemed strange that his parents, two richly alive people, could live in such simplicity. He had been avoiding the prospect of the locked closet.
The locked closet is locked for a good reason, because my parents are good, and so they wouldn’t lock it wrong.
But if my parents are good, what could they want to keep locked away? If they are good, and if all hidden things are bad, how is this possible?
My parents have raised me as they have seen fit.
My parents have raised me and now I shall do as I see fit.
He decided to do as he saw fit. He knew that his parents would keep the key in a place easily accessible and unpretentious. He looked in his mother’s jewelry box. His mother seldom wore jewelry, usually round glass bead necklaces, or pins in her sweaters. The key was not there. There was a collection of twenty-two tiny boxes next to her jewelry box on top of her bureau, each labeled within a two-year period. Inside each box, a single baby tooth, polished, in a bed of cotton. Still no key. In a hatbox he found swatches of his own hair tied with kitchen string in plastic baggies, dated and separated with tissue.
His father’s desk was in mild disarray. Papers with plans for log formations and various procedural diagrams for gardening and irrigation were laid out haphazardly in folders and binders about the desk. In the top drawer, pens and pencils, the latter all sharpened to a fine point. In the second drawer, files of official-type documents, logs of order receipts, and several ledgers of numbers. The companion sat in his father’s swivel chair and perused one of the files. It was a recent chart of his growth rate— time vs. height, time vs. width, time vs. fluency, agility and ambition. This worried him a bit. He decided the graphs were for medical purposes, and he put the file away. The last drawer was empty save for a stapler, hole punch, and, underneath a tub of paste, a folded envelope. Inside he found the key.
He took a pad of paper and a pen from his father’s desk and went to unlock the closet. He planned on making a list of the contents of the closet so that he could return in a year’s time and gauge what had been added, what removed. He felt, after seeing that his growth was under such scrutiny, and after deciding that he was now his parents’ equal, that he too would scrutinize. He turned the key and opened the door.
This is no closet, he thought. He now stood at the doorway of a large den. He had never known that such a den existed. The room had no windows, no wallpaper, and no carpet. Large tables were arranged in a line down the center of the room, all covered with papers and rulers and pens and dirty cups and plates. Along the walls were shelves, all full of manila envelopes, labeled either Martha or John, with subtitles, such as “Martha; Cutlets and Chops” and “Martha; Catalogue of Wrinkles.” He pulled out one file from “John; Trinity of Limbs,” and looked through the first entry.
“Day One: my head, as a limb, is singular, but its dimensions are threefold. Dimension One: the shortness o f my hair allows for a duality of surfaces, i.e ., front and back. Second Dimension: the plurality o f my features is twofold. Until now I have neglected the reflection o f my face in the mirror. I have not one, but two, faces, each with its own set of dueted eyes, cheeks, etc. : the actual, and the perceived. Dimension Three: an internal dimension, whose characteristics I quibble with on a daily basis. To be short, the spirit lodged inside my brain.”
Martha; Scent of Tresses.
“Hair washed in plain water: the fresh smell o f moss, the familiar smell o f plain hair, lemon rind. Hair washed in vinegar: vinegar. Hair washed in water mixed with baking soda: sunlight, and steel.”
John; Companion’s Bruises. “Number One: penny-sized bruise on the ankle after a self-motivated attempt to stick leg through posts of the banister. Two: one-inch by three-inch bruise on lumbar spine, comings-about unknown and uncommunicated.”
And so on. The companion read on with interest.This was an unexpected leap into his parents’ lives. That his parents lived their private lives respectively he had known. That his parents had so finely documented his own life, he had perhaps been suspicious. To such an extent as this, however, he had had no idea. First words, biannual portraits of his face, hands, and feet taken while he was sleeping, photos of toys he had rejected in infancy, minutes of parents’ discussion of his progress, drawings and notes he had made of them, all catalogued, dated, and commented upon.
Schedules he had followed.
Questions he had asked.
Dreams he had told them.
Projects he had undertaken.
Books he had read.
Meals he had prepared.
Births and deaths of the vivarium animals.
Wins and losses in games and exercises.
A schedule of his parents’ accomplishments. This last log he read with heightened scrutiny, copying as he read.
After the companion has expressed a willingness to forge his own way through time and space, begin to lessen involvement in his daily exercises and habitudes. In such a while as the companion has been convinced o f his own aptitude, cease all suggestions and criticisms. Obey his own suggestions and accept his criticisms as truths. Then leave quickly, without a grand good-bye.
The companion replaces the file and exits the den. His task is at hand, he thinks. My moat, he thinks, and goes to the shed to retrieve a shovel and a bucket. The night is cold and windless. The stars are spotlights on his hands as he digs. He digs from the back door to the wood, shoveling deep into the earth until the clay. He digs from the wood to the back door. Back and forth to the kitchen he fills the bucket with water. But the water does not hold. The water just seeps back into the earth. He puts his hands into the mud, searching for what is hidden in the mud, if there is anything hidden in the mud. But there is nothing there to grab hold of, no rock or root or bone. He wipes his hands on his knees, and sits in the trench, waiting.