22. Tea for Three
Published 1934, Harem House Press, 128 pages
Gudrun hated her name, her mother, and bad art. She loved her house, a wild turkey called Murray who had decided to live out his sunset years in her garden, and Cold Palace Brand No. 1 Silver Needle Tea, which, by the time the rest of everything started up, had been off the shelves for sixteen years, its manufacturer bankrupt, its overseas contracts liquidated, and its remaining inventory burned to exquisite ash on the banks of the Min River in Fujian Province as a helpful illustration of the myriad benefits to be found in punctually presenting the correct money to the correct people. Gudrun had not stockpiled. Why should she? Her lifeblood had waited loyally for her in Mr. Abalone’s shop since the first time her mother dragged her into the village for a guilty relapse into cigarettes and beef jerky, stacked in delicate tins with white peonies embossed on the mirrored metal like aching frost. It always would wait for her. Cold Palace Brand No. 1 Silver Needle Tea was a fundamental element underlying the known universe. Until it didn’t, and it wasn’t, and then it was too late to do anything but curl her face into a ferocious, animal sneer when the black–eyed man behind the counter suggested Lipton instead, it’s all the same, you know, plants is plants.
Gudrun wanted a color television, to live forever, and to have a child. But she was about to turn forty and all of human civilization was about to end, so only one of those seemed vaguely realistic anymore.
21. The Sultan’s Wayward Daughter
Published 1949, Belladonna Classics, 157 pages
Gudrun’s mother was a professional politicians’ mistress, named Ruby, and long dead. Intraocular cancer. Practically, what that meant was that sometime between autumn and spring 1964, black nebulas burst open in Ruby’s eyes. Dark, glistening masses, inky veins snaking out over pupil and iris and white, milky star–muck filming over the last green smears of the world outside her own head. Gudrun stared into the abysses, asked how many fingers, brought whiskey, shut up about the doctor, for Christ’s sake. For awhile, Ruby wore sunglasses, and then the nebulas burrowed down into her skull and she didn’t need to wear anything anymore and that was that. Gudrun was old enough by a minute and a half to get the house, the red Studebaker, and a savings account full of the apologies of powerful men.
Ruby never planned to go into her particular line of work. She had wanted to be a travel writer when she grew up. But she was just desperately beautiful and congenitally unhappy and fluent in Hungarian. There never was any hope for her. Ruby met the state governor on the campaign trail and, two years later, when he was done with her, she couldn’t find a door that led back into the plainspoken universe of men who had never been inaugurated into anything. She circulated through a closed loop of hotels she could never review and men in dark sunglasses with no interest in the amenities of local beaches and redacted names on receipts she would never turn into a magazine for reimbursement. State senator (Virginia), two real senators (junior from Maine and senior from Minnesota), Secretaries of Agriculture, Energy, and Defense, and, she claimed, the Vice–President, though Gudrun never quite bought it. Their circumstances seemed right about Secretary of Agriculture level. If Mums had bagged the VP, the Studebaker would probably be new enough to start more mornings than not.
Minnesota was Gudrun’s father. That was how Ruby referred to them all, her erstwhile oligarch sweethearts. She wouldn’t let them keep their names once they’d taken what they wanted from her. Maine, Minnesota, Virginia. Aggie, Ennie, Deffy, Vice. And Minnesota was the one who managed to leave evidence. It wasn’t any mystery. Gudrun could turn on the television most days and see just exactly what she would look like if she were a boy, and surrounded by microphones. The senior senator from the Land of 10,000 Lakes was coming up in the world and fast.
The first and last thing Minnesota ever bothered to do for his daughter was strap on her name, her stupid, terrible German name that fell on your ear like a boot. A family name, without a family attached. Then, Gudrun, too, became redacted. Turned out Ruby’s specialized industry had an early retirement age. If enough kingmakers smuggle you in and out of the palace, the king gets to know your face. You can’t just stand adoringly in the crowd anymore. The camera sees. It wonders what you know. After the whole business in Dallas, most everybody in the palace cashed out and scattered like crows.
So, when Gudrun was twelve, Ruby packed them up and over and out, here, to Hawaii, and then further still, to a teak and tile house in the Ko’olau Range and some fuzzily demarcated acreage full of hibiscus and frigatebirds and sweet potatoes growing in the wet dirt. The village, which in Ruby’s personal glossary never had a name important enough to remember, was ten miles of mud cliff roads there and gone. A few feral pigs and chital deer saw their telltale faces. No one else. No one cared who they’d been before, or even who they were now. Sometimes it felt like they lived at the bottom of the world.
People on the bottom of the world mind their own business, mostly.
20. The Butler Did Me
Published 1960, Eros Inc, 98 pages
The house had been previously owned by one Jack Oskander, a vaguely successful coffee grower who lost it all, to the last bean, in the crash and sold his summer place (furnished) to the first disgraced Capitol Hill courtesan to walk through the jungle with cash in hand. Gudrun always thought Old Jack must have been a real cut–up, because he’d named the place Pemberley, and nothing in this angel–abandoned world looked less like Mr. Darcy’s grand and ancient estate than their four mildewed rooms on pylons over a thin rushing creek and clotted forest spitting passionfruits like black tumors into the eye of a pond sixty feet down the cliffside.
But Pemberley had beds and dishes and chairs and electricity—and books. The shelves crowded every wall like ladders to knowledge: hardboiled detective paperbacks gone soft with the humidity, an O.E.D, several academic volumes on Communist theory, a peppering of children’s fairy stories, and the Oskander Special Collection: a sprawling assemblage of erotica, utterly Catholic in interest, protagonists, and style, three books deep on some shelves, meticulously organized and catalogued with a corresponding index kept in Jack’s shockingly elegant penmanship and hidden in a rusty samovar between the Corrupted Virgins section and the Dominant Lesbians section, an exhibition of love and flesh and longing vast enough to keep even the Vice President hard to the end of his days.
19. Ravished by the Beast!
Published 1955, French Letter Books, 111 pages
The village cinema was a one–screen, apathetically air–conditioned popcorn cartel called the Uptown Grand (the village possessed neither an uptown, nor a downtown, nor sidetowns of any sort). On the day Gudrun, aged sixteen, ran away from home, it was showing The Curse of the Werewolf, starring Clifford Evans and Oliver Reed. She sat in the perfect dark with a cold strawberry pop clutched like a rosary between white knuckles, finally away, away from Pemberley, away from Ruby, away from her father’s face on the television, away from digging skinny sweet potatoes in the ground and thin, dribbly coconut milk (because you can’t trust the tap water, Guddy, how many times do we have to talk about this) and Jack Oskander’s Artists’ Models section with its sea of pale breasts and parted, moldy, waiting lips.
By the time the beautiful mute jailer’s daughter died giving birth to her cursed son in a badly–lit Spanish forest under the millionth shot of a portentous moon, Gudrun lay on the butter–streaked floor of the theater gasping for air. Hot, reeking tears poured from her swollen eyes. By the time Mrs. Kamēaloha got her safely back up the mountain, the girl’s face was covered in tiny silver pimples, like spores bursting open. Gudrun’s mother didn’t say a word. She just kissed her baby all over and poured about twenty bottles of mineral water into the bathtub to bubble her clean.
Having been told all her life that she was possessed of terrible sensitivities—to dairy, to tree nuts, to lavender, to wheat, to industrial dyes and perfumes, to all brown spices (cinnamon, cumin, allspice, garam masala, and so forth), to corn syrup and hydrogenated oils and cold air, to sodium laurel sulfate and shellfish and sunlight—it came as something of a surprise to Gudrun that her sole physical allergy was to bad art.
But bad art was everywhere. You couldn’t escape it. It wouldn’t leave you alone. Gudrun’s skin raised up in hives when the brass bristle of insincere three–chord pop music scraped static against her ears. Her throat swelled up in sight of garish, oversaturated advertisements emblazoned with ungraceful fonts. Laugh tracks induced instant vomiting.
This limited her options for natural conception. Her body could hardly survive the derivative, obvious, artless world anymore.
Gudrun only ever came down off the ridge for her tea, which Mr. Abalone would happily have tossed into the mango crates with her monthly delivery of toilet paper, soap, butter, spam, noodles, ketchup, and sugar, except that Gudrun never put it on the account. She made the pilgrimage for Cold Palace Brand No. 1. It was the actual least she could do. To prove she was still here. Still a person.
Then it all burned on the banks of the Min River and these days she couldn’t prove anything if you asked her to.
18. A Virgin in Chains
Published 1930, Fig Leaf Press, 161 pages
Jack Oskander’s personal library educated Gudrun as best it could, because Ruby couldn’t bear the thought of her going to school in the village. First, it was the paralyzing notion that someone might see her, might recognize her, might guess her father by the line of her nose, the color of her eyes. Then, it was just silly to waste all day in a classroom with idiots who would work all their lives just to add without using their fingers when Ruby could teach her anything she could even imagine—go on, honey, test Mumsy, ask me anything, I’ll know it, I shoulda gone on the quizzies, I’d have cleaned up.
Gudrun thought about it. She could have gone with: When are we going back to Baltimore? Or: Did my father love me even a little? Or: How do you say “If I have to stay in here with you every day I’ll murder you flat” in Hungarian? But she knew smartass was rarely the right play with Ruby, whose ass was forever the smartest in the room. So she shrugged, sipped her cup of Cold Palace Brand No. 1 Silver Needle Tea, and said flatly:
“What year did Manuel Komnenos ascend to the throne of the Byzantine Empire? What was the Black Pope of Avignon’s name? How many people died in Napoleon’s Russian campaign? Show me how to do a Riemann sum. How do you structure a villanelle?”
Not since Minnesota wired her the money for Pemberley had she seen Ruby’s face so full of blood and hate and shame and pride. Gudrun felt awful immediately. The tea went cold in her mouth.
“It’s okay, Mama,” she whispered. “I don’t want to go to school, anyway.”
17. Birthday Girl Surprise
Published 1958, Virago Books, 118 pages
There were two dates circled on Gudrun’s Surfin’ Cats! calendar. Both were in November, under a photo of a somewhat–alarmed looking Persian balanced precariously on a red and yellow board with half a coconut plopped on her head as a festive hat.
The first was Gudrun’s fortieth birthday. The other, one day later, simply said:
16. Love Robots from Planet XX
Published 1954, Harem House Press, 106 pages
Gudrun began working her way through Jack Oskander’s pornography collection before their suitcases were unpacked. She grabbed one off the shelf above the kitchen sink and read with one hand while stacking mugs with the other.
Chet Hardtree ran his strong hands over the smooth titanium curves of the Adoratron Mark 5. She was built like a luxury rocketship, sleek lines designed for low resistance and high–speed maneuvers. In the darkness of the Reproduction Chamber, the red globes of her tits glowed as her arousal drives whirred into hypermax.
“Full thrusters engaged, Commander Hardtree,” the Adoratron purred.
“What the fuck is that, Gudrun?” Ruby snapped. Her infamous velvet voice sliced up the air between them like claws.
But Ruby was on top her before she could stash Chet Hardtree and the Adoratron Mark 5 in her back jeans pocket. Those gorgeous blue eyes that once made senators swoon seared into her daughter, accusing, such a strange, dark shade of blue, like a lantern–fish’s deep–sea heart. Tears wavered in her dark lashes.
“Baby, baby,” Ruby whispered, sobs hitching somewhere behind her words, “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to yell. Don’t cry, I don’t want to shame you, preciousness. Mumsy’s not looking to scar you for life. It’s only… sweetie… you just can’t stack the blue mugs with the red ones! The warm colors and the cool colors have to stay separate, they have to, or else, or else… the balance will be upset… the balance of space and time and you and me and goodness and badness… baby, it’s so important, you have to learn… here, honey, see? They go left to right, like a spectrum. See?”
“I’ll learn, Mama,” Gudrun said softly, as her mother carefully re–arranged the universe, keeping ever her hands quarantined, left for reds and oranges and golds and bisques and pinks, right for blues and greens and blacks and purples and greys. And in between the two tottering ceramic columns of being and non–being, Ruby stacked three tins of Cold Palace Brand No. 1 Silver Needle Tea, a bulwark against contamination.
15. The Gardener Plants His Seed
Published 1927, Adonis Editions, 114 pages
Murray staked his claim in the Pemberley gardens ten years exactly after Ruby died. He wasn’t a local bird—the wild fowl running around the Ko’olau Range were skinny and skittish and rarely came up to Gudrun altitude. Murray was a splendid tall fat fellow with a proud bronze chest as iridescent as a peacock, a brilliant blue face and a throat as red as a Russian spy. Gudrun stumbled out in her long johns to check the rain barrels and the bean runners and whack a guava off her tree for breakfast and there he sat like a fancy lord between the eggplants and the red cabbage, mist dappling his chest like silver armor. He looked like he could hardly move under the weight of his finery.
The moment Murray saw Gudrun, love blossomed at Pemberley. He could move, and wonderfully. Murray puffed up his chest and sprang his thick fan of chocolate–colored tail feathers, his long neck flushed white, and he began to prance back and forth in front of her, dragging his grand speckled wings through the leek plants, telling her all he knew of turkey life. Not gobbling, as Gudrun thought all turkeys did and all they could do, but a barking, bellowing, drumming caw deep in his breast, a cry of desperate, loud, unlovely want that she recognized instantly, in her bones and her blood. If she had the anatomy for it, Gudrun would have made that sound at everyone she ever met. Please want me. Please know me. Please come with me and keep my eggs warm and secret and safe. Please don’t devour me. There is so little time left.
14. The Serpent in Eve’s Eden
Published 1933, Red Light Limiteds, 144 pages
Eventually, the truth came out of Ruby like an infected organ.
Gudrun couldn’t go to school because of the poisons, poisons everywhere, a toxicity so total that the two of them could only escape it by staying here, on the island, far away from the corrupted mainland. But that was not enough, not by half. The village was lost already. They had to make Pemberley a fortress, a haven, an outpost in a sea of infection. Up here, and only up here, they could stay safe. Didn’t Guddy see it was absurd and obscene to come all this way, then turn right around and send her from their cozy little bastion into the heart of miasma, into a swarm of germ–infested children and virulent teachers where Gudrun’s little body would be lashed with horrors? An invisible murderous horde waited down there: lead in the paint they use on pencils and plastic wrap and in water pipes and gasoline and lunch plates and gym walls, invisible radon gas seething from underground, fluoridated water to make the population docile, pesticides lacquering every scrap of food you didn’t grow yourself, bleach in the wheat and the milk, formaldehyde lathered on hormone–riddled hamburgers to make meat look fresh and injected in your arm to keep you fresh only then they called it vaccination, and the worst of it all, the radiation, radiation like a terrible golden rain everywhere, all the time, leftover from the bombs in Japan and the secret tests in the atolls, oozing from refrigerators and power lines and those new microwave ovens and planes overhead, from the radio waves pounding their heads constantly like the sea against the shore, and the sun, the broken, angry sun bleeding through holes in the sky no one could see but they’re there, Guddy, just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it can’t kill you. Only Pemberley was safe, hoisted up above the venomous earth, beneath a thatched and metal–less roof, far from the soup of contagion that was other people and convenience and basic technology.
Ruby grabbed her daughter’s hands as tight as steel screws. Her nails dug in.
“Listen to me, baby. I know. Aggie told me everything one night years ago. We lay in a giant bed in the St. Francis Hotel and looked out over the San Francisco lights, down the rainy streets toward the Convention where Ike and ol’ Dickie were shaking their jowls and dodging balloons and he cried in my arms, Guddy. He said in thirty years, there’ll be nothing living on this planet but brine shrimp. Even the cockroaches will go. Every continent will be buried under irradiated human bones like snow. They can’t stop it. It’s already happening. They just don’t want people to panic. Let them enjoy their last days. But I know. I know the truth. And it’s not gonna get me. I’m gonna stick it out till the end. I’m gonna see the snow.”
But she didn’t, because Ruby got cancer anyway, even though she never drank the tap water.
13. Punishing the Teacher’s Pet
Published 1940, French Letter Books, 150 pages
Ruby proved to be no help at all. Her knowledge was enormous but haphazard, picked up discount from many flea markets of the mind, and useless to a twelve–year–old girl, unless she needed to understand how Russians had infiltrated the Manhattan Project or the CIA experiments with psychedelic drugs and astral projection. Besides, they had to get the garden in. The sooner they could stop relying on commercial products, the better for both of them.
Gudrun took herself in hand. She slept with Jack’s O.E.D. under her head, the constant, dripping humidity having softened it to a serviceable pillow. She peeled quickly through the fairy tales and Communist philosophy, feeling strongly both that the witch in the candy hut was framed and that the tragedy of the commons was so much bullshit, lingered briefly on the detective novels before deciding that it was nearly always safe to say that whoever loved the dead most had killed them, and finally, plunged headfirst into the real meat of the Oskander library, afraid at any moment that Ruby would stop her and burn the lot for compost ash.
She didn’t, but after the first week settling in, Ruby forbade her daughter to read two books together whose titles did not begin with adjoining letters of the alphabet. This would upset the balance of causality, just as a misalignment of the mugs would upset the balance of heat and cold.
Gudrun ignored the rule completely, and many years later, would ask Murray if he thought that was why it all happened the way it did. Murray thought the chances were about 50/50.
12. Cleopatra’s Chamber of Forbidden Love
Published 1957, Blue Fairy Books, 188 pages
There are worse educations than Gudrun’s. Enough pornography gathered together in one place constitutes a complete history of the world.
She wedged herself into the snug space made by the triangle of Historical (Hetero), Historical (Homo), and Historical (Lesbian) sections, beginning with the incestuous passion of Egypt’s pharaohs and the flesh gardens of Babylon, then on to the lascivious sworn bands of Greece and the sweat–drenched bath houses of Rome, the perfumed harems and enticing eunuchs of Byzantium, the medieval world full of lusty wenches and protected princesses and tragic Jewesses and wicked Inquisitors, the Italian decadence of the Renaissance and the frantic, nihilistic love of the plague years, the dandies of the Restoration seizing their servants in unjust and unbridled lust, the restrained and suffocated libidos of the Regency, the sadism of French aristocrats on the eve of revolution, the starched Victorian bodies writhing in unmet needs, the love of lieutenants and enlisted men in the trenches of the first World War, on and on into the modern world of class war between the working class mechanic and the rich man’s wife, the international intrigue of the Soviet spy and the American virgin, the mathematical possibilities of wife swapping, the oppression of the black man and his white bride, the night nurses in secret love, the sailors who dare not give in to their longings, the heaving social unrest of such vast need, unspoken, unanswered, in a long unbroken chain down the endless ages of man.
11. A Bird in the Hand is Worth Two Bushes
Published 1962, Adonis Editions, 115 pages
Murray was born in Texas. He never said anything about it to Gudrun, but sometimes, in the autumn, he still dreamt of the dry, crisping sun on the Rio Grande, the smell of smokefires and thirsty weeds. Nothing was ever thirsty here.
Between 1961 and 1964, the United States Forestry Service rounded up four hundred turkeys from the deserts of central and southern Texas and released them on the Hawaiian Islands to encourage the development of a native population, and, presumably, the kind of curious but undeniable emotional attachment to eating turkey that afflicted the majority of Americans.
Murray didn’t know about any of that. He only knew that sometimes, when Gudrun started up the Studebaker engine, the sound of it made him tremble, made him remember, if dimly, a terrible silver bird, so much larger than himself, than any bird could ever be, so vast and loud and monstrous it could be nothing but God, God incarnated and migrating from the Great All–Twig Paradise Nest, God coming for him, taking him, Murray, an ordinary tom, nothing special at all, into its fearsome clanging belly of blessings and flying, flying like death, flying forever until he passed out cold from sheer, shivering religious terror.
When Murray awakened, God had left him, and everything smelled like rain.
10. The Scotsman and the Shepherdess
Published 1921, Galatea Books, 156 pages
Ruby’s rules lasted long after she died. But not forever. Gudrun did try. She knew how important it was to eat only what you could grow or kill yourself, to keep your body pure and free of toxins, to check monoxide and radon levels regularly, to never install a telephone no matter what anyone said, to trust in wholesome herbs and flowers instead of industrial poisons that only mask symptoms and lull you to complacency, to sleep with a Geiger counter and a gun close by in case of emergencies. Gudrun governed herself by these principles because Ruby couldn’t anymore.
“If we’re careful, baby, we can live forever,” Ruby told her with black nebulas screaming out of her eye sockets, seeping blood and pus like miracle tears spattering a statue of the Virgin. “Or at least until they burn out the earth from under us twenty years from now. Death was invented by corporations to ensure a constant stream of new customers. We don’t need death. We don’t need anything they want to sell us. We just need each other and a patch of good earth.”
“But Mama, you’re so sick…”
Ruby sopped up her disintegrating eyes with a cloth soaked in red clover oil and Cold Palace Brand No. 1 Silver Needle Tea. “I started too late, Guddy, that’s all. I sucked up all the poison the bad old world had on tap and asked for more because I didn’t know better. By the time I got right with the cosmos, I was already rotting. But I got you out in time. I did that.”
Gudrun sat back on her heels and watched her mother lying in her last bed. Maybe this was what happened to you if enough people threw you away. You just rotted to pieces at the bottom of the bin. Or maybe Ruby really was holding the entire starry universe together by the arrangement of her coffee mugs.
“And you cheat,” she whispered, barely able to squeak it out.
“Don’t be disrespectful,” Ruby sighed. She handed her daughter the washcloth to rinse and re–soak. Gudrun did it, but she didn’t stop talking. She hated herself for talking but she couldn’t undo it now.
“There’s a pack of menthol Tareytons under the rain barrel outside and there’s always a pack of Tareytons under there and you’ve got a bag of Oh Boy! Oberto Teriyaki Jerky in your underwear drawer and those have sodium nitrite in them and I’m pretty sure whiskey is, like, its whole own kind of poison, so you cheat, even though I have to have carob instead of chocolate and no friends.”
Ruby folded her hands in her lap like a little girl. Gudrun lay the fresh washcloth over her weeping eyes—real tears, now, turning the blood and pus and thready nameless black bile pale.
“I’m just a person, Guddy,” she whimpered softly. “Mumsy’s pretty weak, when you add me up.”
“It’s okay,” Gudrun answered, because it was the only answer.
“I order my whiskey special,” Ruby offered, as apology, defense, defiance. “Small batches, no factory processing. Made by real Scottish people.”
Published 1961, Blue Fairy Books, 156 pages
Gudrun was shaking the first time she changed her order with Mr. Abalone. She was twenty–four. She wanted to live forever. She wanted to be better than Ruby. She did. But she also remembered what hot dogs tasted like. And ketchup. And white sugar in her tea. They were part of a broken history that belonged to her but did not—dimly remembered hotels overflowing with room service, individually packaged sweeteners, creamers, condiments, convenience stores snuck to in the middle of the night, brown bag lunches left out in the sun.
And Ruby couldn’t stop her anymore.
Gudrun ate that first forbidden slice of fried spam with a cold, shining glob of red ketchup alone in the dark. She cried so hard her eyes burned and throbbed and all she could see on her plate was a swimming blackness.
8. The Sword of Lust
Published 1950, Harem House Press, 199 pages
Gudrun never had any kind of reaction to the Oskander Special Collection. No hives, no vomiting, no silver stains. For a long time, she didn’t understand it. You couldn’t say The Sin Pit or Confessions of a Rent Boy or The Butler Did Me were masterworks. They were certainly no better than The Curse of the Werewolf, which had, in the end, left her with a pale, watery scar on her forehead and down the hairline on the left side of her face. Jack’s dirty books were the definition of bad art. But she could curl up in the bathtub and listen to the rain and read The Sword of Lust over and over and feel nothing more than desire, despite its obvious failings:
Vuvula, Queen of the Night Demons, sat upon the Throne of Desire, her jeweled bodice glittering in the light of the thousand golden candelabras that hung from the rafters of the Sacred Hall. Nubile slave girls dressed only in rose petals combed her raven tresses and moaned in ecstasy. Her emerald eyes flashed haughtily at the interloper.
“Come forward, Sir Quicktongue, and kneel before me!” cried Vuvula, her breasts quivering with rage and secret yearning.
“Nay, my Lady,” answered Sir Quicktongue, Knight of the Hidden Flower. “I am bound by my sacred oath to kneel only before she who can reforge my shattered sword with her own bare hands. This is the curse and the riddle that drives me from town to town, bed to bed, through forest and swamp, over mountain and sea, and I may not rest until it is satisfied!”
The answer came to her many years later, after she had planted Ruby in the mountain earth like a sweet potato. Those books were just what they aspired to be, nothing more and nothing less. They achieved their ambitions and fulfilled their purpose. Against all stylistic, narrative, and technical odds, they performed the function of fiction and imitated a certain delicate reality perfectly. Not the reality of Ruby and Gudrun and Murray and the Secretary of Agriculture and the Uptown Grand cinema, but something better, a cohesive universe of total generosity, of events occurring in perfect order and quick succession, want expressed and immediately satisfied, all else besides want jettisoned, unnecessary, left far behind.
7. Does She Do It On the First Date?
Published 1961, Fig Leaf Press, 171 pages
Gudrun didn’t want a child for the reasons she presumed other people did. She didn’t want company because she couldn’t ever remember having any to begin with and she didn’t think babies were cute because they really fell pretty low in the hierarchy of adorable young animals and she didn’t need anyone to take care of her when she got old because she had Murray. She didn’t have any faith in future generations. She didn’t think her genes were anything special. She didn’t even think she’d be a particularly good mother, though she felt pretty confident she could best the local record without much effort.
Gudrun wanted a child because 57.9% of Jack Oskander’s books ended that way. You wouldn’t think so, but they did. Maybe Old Jack just liked those stories better than others. Maybe the ratio would hold even if you had the whole of the publishing world packed into a four–bedroom bungalow. A pregnancy, a return to a happy family after erotic adventuring, an orphan adopted, a runaway un–runnedaway. The statistics were overwhelming and undeniable. No other ending had those numbers, not weddings, not tragic death, not even simple orgasm and breakfast after. A child was the ending. The Platonic. The ideal. The good art.
The requirement of another person irritated Gudrun profoundly. There had never been anyone else but her and Ruby. The Adoratron Mark 5’s Reproduction Chamber seemed so much easier and more sensical. Why should she have to track down somebody and convince them she wasn’t weird, which she was, and let him, a total stranger who had once been one of those germ–infested children Ruby so feared, who couldn’t hold a candle to Chet Hardtree or Sir Quicktongue and probably had never so much as glanced at The Sword of Lust in the library, invade her body and infect her with his alien DNA? She couldn’t think how it could possibly happen. If a nice man took her out to dinner, all she’d be able to manage would be to order the soup and then bellow Murray’s broken–drum scream/belch mating cry in his face.
It happened once, of course. Everything does. Eventually. But there was no child.
Instead, Gudrun split in half a month before Snow Day.
6. The Sinner and the Nun
Published 1956, Harem House Press, 203 pages
Mr. Abalone died in March, 1976. His son took over the general store and Gudrun would probably never have known one way or the other except that a little while afterward, a tin of Cold Palace Brand No. 1 Silver Needle Tea turned up in her monthly delivery, snuggled in between the bag of sugar and the toilet paper. Gudrun screamed in joy. Six years down the hole in a tealess purgatory. Her scream echoed around the jungle hills. Murray fretted and pulled out a tail feather in his distress.
Inside the tin, with its etched peonies and elegant cursive logo lay a note:
I found a crate in the warehouse after Dad passed. I thought I remembered you like this stuff. Tea doesn’t go bad, does it?
Johnny Abalone was a ridiculous name, that much was clear. Not even the Oskander Collection would tolerate a hero with a name like that. Not even The Pearl Diver Dives for More, and that was easily the worst of the lot. Gudrun meant to make her tea last this time, horde it against the Silver Needle–less future. But she was weak, when you added her up. She drank it all in a day, cup after cup, until she was sick, and kept drinking anyway. She drank in a delirium of plenty, grabbing a new mug from the cabinet every time, so that none of them would feel left out. When she went to bed, the counter was a riot of crockery, red and blue and white and black scattered everywhere, with no pattern, like summer flowers. She’d fix it up in the morning. No problem. Gudrun’s sleeping stomach distended as if she’d conceived from fine leaves and hot water, but she wasn’t sorry.
Every month, a new tin arrived with a new note.
I drank some of this stuff. Figured if you like it so much, it must be something grand. Tastes like licking nickels to me, but I guess nothing tastes the same to two people at a time. Maybe the pipes are going. Can’t make good tea without clean water and the stuff out of the faucet looks a little yellow these days. I guess you’re on well water up there. I bet that’s nice.
I remember you came down to the shop that one time and I said you should just drink Lipton instead. That was stupid of me. I know how sometimes you just want what you want and fuck everything else. I know how sometimes what you want is gone and it feels like you’re not allowed to be as upset as you need to be about it.
Hey, do you have a generator up there? I hate to think of you stuck in the blackouts. Pretty bad this year, huh? Last longer and longer. I have a spare if you need it.
Do you take your tea with milk or lemon or sugar or what? The little white bits look like hair to me. Like an old man’s hair.
It’s pretty quiet in the shop these days. I think people liked Dad and got used to him but now it’s just me and it’s weird for them. They just want what they want, right? You could come and pick up your delivery and you wouldn’t see another soul. Except me. I wouldn’t say anything if you didn’t want me to.
If you need gas, you should probably come down and fill up sooner rather than later. It’s real pricey and the Chevron usually sells out by Tuesday afternoon. Then everybody has to wait all week for another tanker to refill the pumps. Come early, though. The line gets long as hell.
When I was a kid, I knew the guy who had your place before you. Funny dude. We used to have a whole magazine section but after he bugged out we dumped them and put the beer freezer in. Turns out he was keeping the whole rag rack going one–handed. He didn’t talk to anyone much. Just like you. Maybe that house takes your talk.
I like writing these notes. Do you like reading them? I could come visit sometimes, if you wanted. I don’t have to. But if you wanted.
And then one day when Johnny Abalone’s busted old truck came meandering and misfiring up the mountain, he didn’t just leave the wooden mango crates at the property line. He knocked on the door and suffered Murray’s cold, furious glare and when Gudrun answered, she wasn’t really surprised, except that Johnny Abalone was older than she thought. He had a little grey in his shaggy black hair and a bad leg with tiny shards of bullet still floating around in it like the white hairs in silver needle tea, bullets he took on another mountain very far away, which, even as he bled into the infinite forest filth, even so far away from Ko’olau and the beer freezer at the Abalone General Store, had smelled so much like home.
“Full thrusters engaged, Commander Hardtree,” Gudrun whispered.
With one enormous muscled arm, Sir Quicktongue seized the elven shieldmaiden Nymphoria round the waist and lifted her toward his hungry kiss, crushing her glorious breasts against his broad, smooth chest as his famous tongue sought hers.
The other hand he plunged into her golden curls, pulling brutally just to hear her gasp, a gasp that never failed to bring his throbbing member to full attention. She wrapped her powerful thighs around him, moaning his name into the smoky air of the battlefield.
“It is you,” he whispered in her perfect ear. “You alone, Nymphoria, can reforge my sword and make it new.”
“But I will not, Sir Knight,” answered the she–elf, her immortal eyes glittering cruelly.
Sir Quicktongue roared his fury into the sapphire sky. “Why? My god, woman, why?”
“Because I do not wish to,” came the elf–queen’s answer.
But it wasn’t that. It wasn’t any of that. It was very quiet and careful and the whole time Gudrun thought about Minnesota, the long flat plains and the thousands and thousands of lakes shining under a strange, cold moon.
5. Nympho Twins on the French Riviera
Published 1950, Blue Fairy Books, 177 pages
It happened in her sleep. The night throbbed with heat. A long black vein pulsed up the side of Gudrun’s body: a join, a wound, a fault line. From her heels to the cap of her skull. It swelled, wider and thicker and wider and thicker until it was a road, a chasm, a furrow, a black nebula expanding inside her, and then it was just empty space and there were two Gudruns lying on Ruby’s old king size bed. Neither of them woke. It was a gentler process than you might expect. They slept identically, hands clasped against their chests, bent inward like little dinosaur claws, until 7 in the morning, an hour past which Gudrun, in all her life, had never been able to sleep.
Gudrun opened her eyes and saw herself, naked, awake, watching. The other Gudrun looked exactly like her in every possible way. Haircut, palm lines, gold molar in her mouth, smallpox vaccination scar like a withered star on her skin, the pattern of bites on the edges of her fingernails.
“Is this because I drank the tap water?” Gudrun said, with an early morning gentleness and acceptance of all things in her voice. “I thought if I boiled the water it would be okay.”
But the other Gudrun didn’t say anything back.
“Is it because I left the mugs out that one time?” she whispered.
The other Gudrun blinked sleepily. She couldn’t answer. When she tried to imitate the very interesting way the original Gudrun moved her mouth and made sounds come out, she could only go slack and poke out her tongue a little, a pink, weak tongue slicked in saliva. She waved her hands in the in front of her face, amazed at the thick sunlight pouring between her fingers, at the dancing dust in the air, at the colors of Pemberley seeping all around the edges of those brand new hands dappled already with scars earned by forty years of good primate work: the N–shaped brand where Gudrun had burned herself on the toaster oven when she was four, the slightly bulging knuckles satisfyingly cracked for decades, the faded white ladder where she had cut herself just after they moved to Pemberley, just to control something, anything completely.
She couldn’t walk, either. Gudrun tried to coax her twin out of bed, but her muscles were as soft as warm mango, her bones delicate and elastic and unready for the slightest weight. The other Gudrun giggled and grabbed one of her clean red feet with one hand. Murray squawked from the garden. The new woman cringed in terror. She began to cry softly, a frightened, trembling, uncertain wail that made all the hair stand up on Gudrun’s skin and her nipples contract and her stomach clench. Slowly, Gudrun pulled herself into her arms and kissed her own hair until the little wails stopped. Her breasts began to ache with a heavy, dancing pain the color of the little stars that come up out of the dark when you press your fists against your eyes, but, having no experience to draw on, she could not put any name to the feeling of her milk coming in.
Gudrun got up, pulled on a pair of fuzzy mustard–colored socks, closed a blue robe over her tender breasts, and padded into the kitchen to put the kettle on. She dug a spoon out of the drawer and began to scoop out some passionfruits for breakfast. You didn’t have to chew passionfruit too much. Not if you took the seeds out. What else could she do? She took two bowls and two mugs out of the cupboard.
One red mug, one blue mug.
4. Innocence for Sale—Cheap!
Published 1944, Adonis Editions, 100 pages
A veteran of many years in the trenches of Ruby, the core of Gudrun was as adaptable as water. Besides, she only had a month to go before the end of everything, and parthenogenesis wasn’t something you could fight against. You could only take it in to your house and give it a place to sleep. A spot in the sun. A bowl of mashed passionfruit.
You can do anything for a month. Get used to anything. Get attached.
The new Gudrun laughed constantly, was hungry all the time, cried when startled as though the great tragedies of mankind had all landed on her at once, could rarely sleep through the night, and had a terror of the dark. Murray adored her. He slept crushed up against the door waiting for the morning when he might see her again.
The old Gudrun named the new one Pemberley. She had to name her something else. No one deserved Gudrun. But all she knew of naming people was that the name should be a family one, should come from a father who never existed in any concrete way, and Pemberley was the best she could build out of such requirements.
Pemberley loved for Gudrun to sing her Elvis songs until she fell asleep and smelled like hot lilacs when her hair was freshly washed. The bones of her skull had not quite fused together yet, and that smell came from the secret, silken place on the top of her head. Pemberley was just as tall and thin as Gudrun, far too big to rock her to sleep, but she tried anyway. She remembered how nice that felt when Ruby did it, a hundred million years ago. She sat out in the warm dark while the hibiscus bloomed and held herself, this great ungainly instant just–add–water person, to her breast. A thin, bitter milk that came from nowhere, except perhaps from the place in the cabinet between the red mugs and the blue mugs, the cold palace dividing the universe into two irreconcilable towers, drained out of herself, into herself, while both of them listened to the bats beat black against black. How had she done this thing? Was it the tins of spam she should never have eaten? The corn syrup in the ketchup? Lead in the Studebaker’s crumbling paint? The radiation from the atolls, from the sea, from the broken sky? Did it matter, with the end so near? Everything came apart at the end. Even Gudrun. That’s how you knew it was the end.
Two weeks before Snow Day, Gudrun stood at one end of the living room, in the Schoolgirls section of the Oskander Special Collection. Pemberley stood, wobbly and afraid, on the other end, in the Military and Other Uniforms section, unsure even of this new thing called standing, reaching out for Gudrun, for comfort, her hands opening and closing helplessly.
“Come on, Pem,” Gudrun said sweetly. “You can do it, baby.”
Murray trilled reassuringly. Pemberley whimpered, tottered, and finally took a tumbling step that was really more of a purposeful fall. Gudrun rushed forward to catch her and Pem collapsed laughing into her arms.
A week before Snow Day, Pemberley said her first word.
Gudrun was cooking soft porridge for their supper while Pemberley lay swaddled in a huge old quilt on the couch, propped up so she could see everything. Gudrun hummed Heartbreak Hotel and her humming broke into singing, unguarded and easy for once, her voice loud and bright in the close green humidity of the forest, the color, at last, strong and warm in her cheeks. She sipped Cold Palace Brand No. 1 Silver Needle Tea from a red mug between verses.
“Ruby!” shouted Pemberley suddenly.
Gudrun dropped the red mug. It shattered on the floor like a supernova.
3. Slumber Party Sweet Sixteen
Published 1962, Belladonna Classics, 119 pages
Johnny Abalone lived alone above his father’s store. He’d always meant to get somewhere in life, but somewhere ended up being right back where he started. He’d come around to being more or less okay with that. Old Jack Oskander once told him, as he bought another massive stack of dirty magazines: kid, nobody really gets anywhere in this life. Everybody just picks someplace to hunker down and barricade themselves in. Some of us just got better bricks than others.
And Johnny thought that was pretty much on the mark.
The envelope arrived with the afternoon mail run. He almost didn’t notice it in the small hurricane of invoices and junk ads. It just said Johnny on it. No address. But everyone knew who he was. It wouldn’t have been any puzzle, even for a new mailman, which Sam Frisk was not. Johnny Abalone pulled out an old, faded Christmas card. It had a snowman on it. Corn cob pipe and everything.
If you wanted to come and see me on Thursday, that would be fine. It’s my birthday. Here is $400. I think that’s enough for a color TV. If you could bring it when you come that would be as good as a present. Only you have to promise not to freak out if you see something that would be hard to explain if anyone asked you about it. But probably no one ever will.
I drink my tea straight. Silver needle doesn’t need anything extra.
P.S. Bring cake. Lots of frosting.
2. The Girl Next Door
Published 1950, Fig Leaf Press, 104 pages
Pemberley learned words quickly. After Ruby came Murray, water, potato, book, tea, want, moon. And others less predictable, less simple, less clear where she found them. Dirty. Formaldehyde. Fallout. Radon. Military industrial complex. Poison. Death.
Gudrun didn’t know what she expected. She supposed she ought to stop expecting entirely at this point. She had only just managed to adjust to the reality of having been cut in two like an orange. She didn’t much feel like dealing with this new problem. Because Pemberley was her in every way, just the same, by definition, by ontological necessity. But those hadn’t been Gudrun’s first words. She’d said Mama, like most children. Then hello, bottle, help, up, outside, kiss, and Minnesota.
Once, at night, while Pem snored softly next to her with her fists balled up under her chin, Gudrun wondered if, having been bisected so cleanly, she was missing something now. If she was no longer whole. If she was still 100% Gudrun and not diluted somehow, alloyed with some new substance. 90% Gudrun and 10% radon, fallout, formaldehyde, snow. Or 50% Gudrun, and 50% of her now lived in a completely unattached body that she could never glue back together with the rest, a new warm body put away gently on the other side of the cabinet from her old cool one, divided by spoons and sugar and the inevitable separateness of everything, sucking its thumb vigorously when it had bad dreams.
Pemberley never learned to say hello. She just said goodbye for everything. When she saw Gudrun first thing in the morning. Goodbye. When Murray came lumbering over the potato patch. Goodbye. When soft, black and white people came on the television to talk to her. Goodbye. When she wanted to tell Gudrun she loved her.
1. Snow Bunnies at the Sex Chalet
Published 1963, Red Light Limiteds, 122 pages
Johnny Abalone pulled up into the driveway just as the afternoon sun was throwing its weight around, battering red and gold against the mango trees, the brambles, the teak slats of Pemberley, the garden stakes, the fat wild turkey warming his big belly in the dirt, the rippling creek, and two Gudruns. True to his implicit promise, he did not freak out. She must have a twin, he supposed, though you wouldn’t think Ruby could hide another daughter all those years. But he did wonder which was his Gudrun. One wore a clean blue sundress, one wore a red one, but beyond that he could see no difference, except that the one in blue seemed oddly clumsy, and kept laughing at nothing and trying to eat butterflies like soap bubbles.
He unloaded the TV and the cake from his truck. The TV was a nice new walnut cabinet number. It had cost a lot more than $400, but Johnny didn’t mind. The cake was chocolate, because, he figured, everybody likes chocolate. Vanilla or red velvet was a risk, and he couldn’t afford risk just now. The cake said HAPPY BIRTHDAY GUDRUN in pretty turquoise icing with bright orange sugar flowers on it. He also brought beer and the grill from his back deck (no way Gudrun would have one) and a cooler full of burgers and individually–wrapped cheese slices. They stocked good sharp cheddar and brie and all that at the store, but Johnny always loved the undemanding, familiar taste of industrial cheese–like product and he was too old to go changing now.
“Hi Johnny,” the red Gudrun said. “I’m glad you came.”
“Goodbye!” chirped the blue Gudrun.
They installed the TV together and hauled the old black and white out into the garden. Red Gudrun pried off the cabinet top and filled it with dirt and rosemary and basil plants. Johnny hooked up his grill and fried them all a nice meal while the blue Gudrun stared at the new set, mesmerized. She flipped through all three channels and stopped on one where the President was talking, gazing earnestly out into America they way he always did, those movie star eyes always looking apologetic somehow, wistful, wishing things were other than they are.
“That’s where we come from, Pem,” the red Gudrun said. “That’s who we were supposed to be.”
The girls ate like animals, ripping into the red, dripping meat like they’d never tasted it before. Attacking the cake like it’d done them wrong. It was sort of pretty, when they did it.
Sir Quicktongue knelt before the simple peasant girl. Her red hair cascaded down over her bountiful breasts, past her round hips, nearly to the ground. He didn’t even know her name. The maiden held out his sword to him, whole again at last, in her bare, innocent hands. He burned for her, even as he could not meet her eyes.
Quoth the country rose: “Why do you kneel, Sir Knight?”
“My quest is ended, my lady. I am new–forged in the fires of love,” answered the weary warrior. He rose and took her in his arms, kissing her with all the passion and desperate need he had held back from Nymphoria and Vuvula and all the rest. But the maid only looked at him with sparkling, puzzled eyes.
“What is this ‘love’ you speak of?”
Sir Quicktongue smiled.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just a strange little custom we have in the country I come from. Have no fear. I will teach it to you.”
The stars began to come out, twinkling up out of the sky like ice cracking. The glow of the television lit the house from within, darkened only by Pemberley’s hands as she placed them on the screen, against the faces of all those strangers, and then her cheek, too, her eyelashes fluttering against the light. By the time anyone felt sleepy, it was past midnight.
Johnny Abalone drank his beer and stepped outside to join Gudrun in the garden. He thought about it for a long time, then circled her waist with his arm. She stiffened, but she didn’t push him away, so that was something.
“Your calendar says today’s a snow day,” he said softly. “I wouldn’t count on it.”
Gudrun turned her face toward his, clear and sharp and with that same wistful, apologizing gaze that had so often looked out at him and everyone else from the evening news. Johnny wondered how he’d never seen it before.
Behind them, the television cut out as quick as a knife. Pemberley screamed for her mother. She couldn’t ever be brave in the dark.
Far below, the lights in the valley vanished, one by one, the Uptown Grand Cinema and the Abalone General Store and the Post Office, the houses and the banks, the bakery and the schoolhouse, and when they had all gone, only a stillness like black nebulas remained.
“It’s nothing,” Gudrun whispered in the sudden, total silence. “Just something my mother used to say.”
© 2016 by Catherynne M. Valente