A PERSONAL MATTER





KENZABURO OË was born in 1935, in Ose village in Shikoku, Western Japan.  His
first stories were published in 1957, while he was still a student.  In 1958 he
won the coveted Akutagawa prize for his novella The Catch.  His first novel was
published in 1958—Pluck the Flowers, Gun the Kids.  In 1959 the publication of a
novel, Our Age, brought the critics down on Oë’s head: they deplored the dark
pessimism of the book at a time supposed to be the new, bright epoch in modern
Japanese history.  During the anti-security riots in 1960, Oë traveled to Peking,
representing young Japanese writers and there met with Mao.

In 1961, he traveled in Russia and Western Europe, meeting with Sartre in Paris
and writing a series of essays about youth in the West.  In 1962 he published the
novel Screams; in 1963, The Perverts, and a book memorializing Hiroshima called
simply, Hiroshima Notes.  In 1964, Oë published two novels, Adventures in Daily
Life and A Personal Matter, for which he won the Shinchosha Literary Prize.  In
the summer of 1965 he participated in the Kissinger International Seminar at
Harvard.  Oë’s novel Football in the First Year of Mannen, completed in 1967, won
the Tanizaki Prize.



Books by Kenzaburō Ōe

published by Grove Press

Somersault

Rouse Up O Young Men of the New Age!

A Personal Matter

The Crazy Iris and Other Stories

Hiroshima Notes

Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids

A Quiet Life

Teach Us to Outgrow Our Madness





A PERSONAL MATTER




by Kenzaburo Oë



Translated from the Japanese by John Nathan





Copyright © 1969 by Grove Press, Inc.



All rights reserved.  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any
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would like to obtain permission to include the work in an anthology, should send
their inquiries to Grove/Atlantic, Inc., 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003.



Originally published as Kojinteki Na Taiken, copyright © Kenzaburo

Oë, 1964, by Shinchosa, Tokyo, Japan



Published simultaneously in Canada

Printed in the United States of America



Library of Congress Catalog Card Number 68-22007

eBook ISBN-13: 978-0-8021-9544-9



Grove Press

841 Broadway

New York, NY 10003





This translation is for “Pooh”





Translator’s Note




THERE is a tradition in Japan: no one takes a writer seriously while he is still
in school.  Perhaps the only exception has been Kenzaburo Oë.  In 1958, a student
in French Literature at Tokyo University, Oë won the Akutagawa Prize for a novella
called The Catch (about a ten-year-old Japanese boy who is betrayed by a Negro
pilot who has been shot down over his village), and was proclaimed the most
promising writer to have appeared since Yukio Mishima.

Last year, to mark his first decade as a writer, Oë’s collected works were
published—two volumes of essays, primarily political (Oë is an uncompromising
spokesman for the New Left of Japan), dozens of short stories, and eight novels,
of which the most recent is A Personal Matter.  Oë’s industry is dazzling.  But
even more remarkable is his popularity, which has continued to climb: to date, the
Complete Works, in six volumes, has sold nine hundred thousand copies.  The key to
Oë’s popularity is his sensitivity to the very special predicament of the postwar
generation; he is as important as he is because he has provided that generation
with a hero of its own.

On the day the Emperor announced the Surrender in August 1945, Oë was a
ten-year-old boy living in a mountain village.  Here is how he recalls the event:

“The adults sat around their radios and cried.  The children gathered outside in
the dusty road and whispered their bewilderment.  We were most confused and
disappointed by the fact that the Emperor had spoken in a human voice, no
different from any adult’s.  None of us understood what he was saying, but we all
had heard his voice.  One of my friends could even imitate it cleverly.  Laughing,
we surrounded him—a twelve-year-old in grimy shorts who spoke with the Emperor’s
voice.  A minute later we felt afraid.  We looked at one another; no one spoke.
How could we believe that an august presence of such awful power had become an
ordinary human being on a designated summer day?”

Small wonder that Oë and his generation were bewildered.  Throughout the war, a
part of each day in every Japanese school was devoted to a terrible litany.  The
Ethics teacher would call the boys to the front of the class and demand of them
one by one what they would do if the Emperor commanded them to die.  Shaking with
fright, the child would answer: “I would die, Sir, I would rip open my belly and
die.” Students passed the Imperial portrait with their eyes to the ground, afraid
their eyeballs would explode if they looked His Imperial Majesty in the face.  And
Kenzaburo Oë had a recurring dream in which the Emperor swooped out of the sky
like a bird, his body covered with white feathers.

The emblematic hero of Oë’s novels, in each book a little older and more sensible
of his distress, has been deprived of his ethical inheritance.  The values that
regulated life in the world he knew as a child, however fatally, were blown to
smithereens at the end of the war.  The crater that remained is a gaping crater
still, despite imported filler like Democracy.  It is the emptiness and enervation
of life in such a world, the frightening absence of continuity, which drive Oë’s
hero beyond the frontiers of respectability into the wilderness of sex and
violence and political fanaticism.  Like Huckleberry Finn—Oë’s favorite book!—he
is impelled again and again to “light out for the territory.” He is an adventurer
in quest of peril, which seems to be the only solution to the deadly void back
home.  More often than not he finds what he is looking for, and it destroys him.

A word about the language of A Personal Matter.  Oë’s style has been the subject
of much controversy in Japan.  It treads a thin line between artful rebellion and
mere unruliness.  That is its excitement and the reason why it is so very
difficult to translate.  Oë consciously interferes with the tendency to vagueness
which is considered inherent in the Japanese language.  He violates its natural
rhythms; he pushes the meanings of words to their furthest acceptable limits.  In
short, he is in the process of evolving a language all his own, a language which
can accommodate the virulence of his imagination.  There are critics in Japan who
take offense.  They cry that Oë’s prose “reeks of butter,” which is a way of
saying that he has alloyed the purity of Japanese with constructions from Western
languages.  It is true that Oë’s style assaults traditional notions of what the
genius of the language is.  But that is to be expected: his entire stance is an
assault on traditional values.  The protagonist of his fiction is seeking his
identity in a perilous wilderness, and it is fitting that his language should be
just what it is—wild, unresolved, but never less than vital.

March, 1968





1




BIRD, gazing down at the map of Africa that reposed in the showcase with the
haughty elegance of a wild deer, stifled a short sigh.  The salesgirls paid no
attention, their arms and necks goosepimpled where the uniform blouses exposed
them.  Evening was deepening, and the fever of early summer, like the temperature
of a dead giant, had dropped completely from the covering air.  People moved as if
groping in the dimness of the subconscious for the memory of midday warmth that
lingered faintly in the skin: people heaved ambiguous sighs.  June—half-past six:
by now not a man in the city was sweating.  But Bird’s wife lay naked on a rubber
mat, tightly shutting her eyes like a shot pheasant falling out of the sky, and
while she moaned her pain and anxiety and expectation, her body was oozing globes
of sweat.

Shuddering, Bird peered at the details of the map.  The ocean surrounding Africa
was inked in the teary blue of a winter sky at dawn.  Longitudes and latitudes
were not the mechanical lines of a compass: the bold strokes evoked the artist’s
unsteadiness and caprice.  The continent itself resembled the skull of a man who
had hung his head.  With doleful, downcast eyes, a man with a huge head was gazing
at Australia, land of the koala, the platypus, and the kangaroo.  The miniature
Africa indicating population distribution in a lower corner of the map was like a
dead head beginning to decompose; another, veined with transportation routes, was
a skinned head with the capillaries painfully exposed.  Both these little Africas
suggested unnatural death, raw and violent.

“Shall I take the atlas out of the case?”

“No, don’t bother,” Bird said.  “I’m looking for the Michelin road maps of West
Africa and Central and South Africa.” The girl bent over a drawer full of Michelin
maps and began to rummage busily.  “Series number 182 and 185,” Bird instructed,
evidently an old Africa hand.

The map Bird had been sighing over was a page in a ponderous, leather-bound atlas
intended to decorate a coffee table.  A few weeks ago he had priced the atlas, and
he knew it would cost him five months’ salary at the cram-school where he taught.
If he included the money he could pick up as a part-time interpreter, he might
manage in three months.  But Bird had himself and his wife to support, and now the
existence on its way into life that minute.  Bird was the head of a family!

The salesgirl selected two of the red paperbound maps and placed them on the
counter.  Her hands were small and soiled, the meagerness of her fingers recalled
chameleon legs clinging to a shrub.  Bird’s eye fell on the Michelin trademark
beneath her fingers: the toadlike rubber man rolling a tire down the road made him
feel the maps were a silly purchase.  But these were maps he would put to an
important use.

“Why is the atlas open to the Africa page?” Bird asked wistfully.  The salesgirl,
somehow wary, didn’t answer.  Why was it always open to the Africa page?  Did the
manager suppose the map of Africa was the most beautiful page in the book?  But
Africa was in a process of dizzying change that would quickly outdate any map.
And since the corrosion that began with Africa would eat away the entire volume,
opening the book to the Africa page amounted to advertising the obsoleteness of
the rest.  What you needed was a map that could never be outdated because
political configurations were settled.  Would you choose America, then?  North
America, that is?

Bird interrupted himself to pay for the maps, then moved down the aisle to the
stairs, passing with lowered eyes between a potted tree and a corpulent bronze
nude.  The nude’s bronze belly was smeared with oil from frustrated palms: it
glistened wetly like a dog’s nose.  As a student, Bird himself used to run his
fingers across this belly as he passed; today he couldn’t find the courage even to
look the statue in the face.  Bird had glimpsed the doctor and the nurses
scrubbing their arms with disinfectant next to the table where his wife had been
lying naked.  The doctor’s arms were matted with hair.

Bird carefully slipped his maps into his jacket pocket and pressed them against
his side as he pushed past the crowded magazine counter and headed for the door.
These were the first maps he had purchased for actual use in Africa.  Uneasily he
wondered if the day would ever come when he actually set foot on African soil and
gazed through dark sunglasses at the African sky.  Or was he losing, this very
minute, once and for all, any chance he might have had of setting out for Africa?
Was he being forced to say good-by, in spite of himself, to the single and final
occasion of dazzling tension in his youth?  And what if I am?  There’s not a thing
in hell I can do about it!

Bird angrily pushed through the door and stepped into the early summer evening
street.  The sidewalk seemed bound in fog: it was the filthiness of the air and
the fading evening light.  Bird paused to gaze at himself in the wide, darkly
shadowed display window.  He was aging with the speed of a short-distance runner.
Bird, twenty-seven years and four months old.  He had been nicknamed “Bird” when
he was fifteen, and he had been Bird ever since: the figure awkwardly afloat like
a drowned corpse in the inky lake of window glass still resembled a bird.  He was
small and thin.  His friends had begun to put on weight the minute they graduated
from college and took a job—even those who stayed lean had fattened up when they
got married; but Bird, except for the slight paunch on his belly, remained as
skinny as ever.  He slouched forward when he walked and bunched his shoulders
around his neck; his posture was the same when he was standing still.  Like an
emaciated old man who once had been an athlete.

It wasn’t only that his hunched shoulders were like folded wings, his features in
general were birdlike.  His tan, sleek nose thrust out of his face like a beak and
hooked sharply toward the ground.  His eyes gleamed with a hard, dull light the
color of glue and almost never displayed emotion, except occasionally to shutter
open as though in mild surprise.  His thin, hard lips were always stretched
tightly across his teeth; the lines from his high cheekbones to his chin described
a sharply pointed V. And hair licking at the sky like ruddy tongues of flame.
This was a fair description of Bird at fifteen: nothing had changed at twenty.
How long would he continue to look like a bird?  No choice but living with the
same face and posture from fifteen to sixty-five, was he that kind of person?
Then the image he was observing in the window glass was a composite of his entire
life.  Bird shuddered, seized with disgust so palpable it made him want to vomit.
What a revelation: exhausted, with a horde of children, old, senile Bird.  …

Suddenly a woman with a definitely peculiar quality rose out of the dim lake in
the window and slowly moved toward Bird.  She was a large woman with broad
shoulders, so tall that her face topped the reflection of Bird’s head in the
glass.  Feeling as though a monster were stalking him from behind, Bird finally
wheeled around.  The woman stopped in front of him and peered into his face
gravely.  Bird stared back.  A second later, he saw the hard, pointed urgency in
her eyes washing away in the waters of mournful indifference.  Though she may not
have known its precise nature, the woman had been on the verge of discovering a
bond of mutual interest, and had realized abruptly that Bird was not an
appropriate partner in the bond.  In the same moment, Bird perceived the
abnormality in her face which, with its frame of curly, overabundant hair,
reminded him of a Fra Angelico angel: he noticed in particular the blond hairs
which a razor had missed on her upper lip.  The hairs had breached a wall of thick
make-up and they were quivering as though distressed.

“Hey!” said the large woman in a resounding male voice.  The greeting conveyed
consternation at her own rash mistake.  It was a charming thing to say.

“Hey!” Bird hurried his face into a smile and returned the greeting in the
somewhat hoarse, squawky voice that was another of his birdlike attributes.

The transvestite executed a half-turn on his high heels and walked slowly down the
street.  For a minute Bird watched him go, then walked away in the other
direction.  He cut through a narrow alley and cautiously, warily started across a
wide street fretted with trolley tracks.  Even the hysterical caution which now
and then seized Bird with the violence of a spasm evoked a puny bird half-crazed
with fear—the nickname was a perfect fit.

That queen saw me watching my reflection in the window as if I were waiting for
someone, and he mistook me for a pervert.  A humiliating mistake, but inasmuch as
the queen had recognized her error the minute Bird had turned around, Bird’s honor
had been redeemed.  Now he was enjoying the humor of the confrontation.  Hey!—no
greeting could have been better suited to the occasion; the queen must have had a
good head on his shoulders.

Bird felt a surge of affection for the young man masquerading as a large woman.
Would he succeed in turning up a pervert tonight and making him a pigeon?  Maybe I
should have found the courage to go with him myself.

Bird was still imagining what might have happened had he gone off with the young
man to some crazy corner of the city, when he gained the opposite sidewalk and
turned into a crowded street of cheap bars and restaurants.  We would probably lie
around naked, as close as brothers, and talk.  I’d be naked too so he wouldn’t
feel any awkwardness.  I might tell him my wife was having a baby tonight, and
maybe I’d confess that I’ve wanted to go to Africa for years, and that my dream of
dreams has been to write a chronicle of my adventures when I got back called Sky
Over Africa.  I might even say that going off to Africa alone would become
impossible if I got locked up in the cage of a family when the baby came (I’ve
been in the cage ever since my marriage but until now the door has always seemed
open; the baby on its way into the world may clang that door shut).  I’d talk
about all kinds of things, and the queen would take pains to pick up the seeds of
everything that’s threatening me, one by one he’d gather them in, and certainly he
would understand.  Because a youth who tries so hard to be faithful to the warp in
himself that he ends up searching the street in drag for perverts, a young man
like that must have eyes and ears and a heart exquisitely sensitive to the fear
that roots in the backlands of the subconscious.

Tomorrow morning we might have shaved together while we listened to the news on
the radio, sharing a soap dish.  That queen was young but his beard seemed heavy
and … Bird cut the chain of fantasy and smiled.  Spending a night together might
be going too far, but at least he should have invited the young man for a drink.
Bird was on a street lined with cheap, cozy bars: the crowd sweeping him along was
full of drunks.  His throat was dry and he wanted a drink, even if he had to have
it alone.  Pivoting his head swiftly on his long, lean neck, he inspected the bars
on both sides of the street.  In fact, he had no intention of stopping in any of
them.  Bird could imagine how his mother-in-law would react if he arrived at the
bedside of his wife and newborn child, reeking of whisky.  He didn’t want his
parents-in-law to see him in the grip of alcohol: not again.

Bird’s father-in-law lectured at a small private college now, but he had been the
chairman of the English department at Bird’s university until he had retired.  It
was thanks not so much to good luck as to his father-in-law’s good will that Bird
had managed at his age to get a teaching job at a cram-school.  He loved the old
man, and he was in awe of him.  Bird had never encountered an elder with quite his
father-in-law’s largesse; he didn’t want to disappoint him all over again.

Bird married in May when he was twenty-five, and that first summer he stayed drunk
for four weeks straight.  He suddenly began to drift on a sea of alcohol, a
besotted Robinson Crusoe.  Neglecting all his obligations as a graduate student,
his job, his studies, discarding everything without a thought, Bird sat all day
long and until late every night in the darkened kitchen of his apartment,
listening to records and drinking whisky.  It seemed to him now, looking back on
those terrible days, that with the exception of listening to music and drinking
and immersing in harsh, drunken sleep, he hadn’t engaged in a single living human
activity.  Four weeks later Bird had revived from an agonizing seven-hundred-hour
drunk to discover in himself, wretchedly sober, the desolation of a city ravaged
by the fires of war.  He was like a mental incompetent with only the slightest
chance of recovery, but he had to tame all over again not only the wilderness
inside himself, but the wilderness of his relations to the world outside.  He
withdrew from graduate school and asked his father-in-law to find him a teaching
position.  Now, two years later, he was waiting for his wife to have their first
child.  Let him appear at the hospital having sullied his blood with the poisons
of alcohol once again and his mother-in-law would flee as if the hounds of hell
were at her heels, dragging her daughter and grandchild with her.

Bird himself was wary of the craving, occult but deeply rooted, that he still had
for alcohol.  Often since those four weeks in whisky hell he had asked himself why
he had stayed drunk for seven hundred hours, and never had he arrived at a
conclusive answer.  So long as his descent into the abyss of whisky remained a
riddle, there was a constant danger he might suddenly return.

In one of the books about Africa he read so avidly, Bird had come across this
passage: “The drunken revels which explorers invariably remark are still common in
the African village today.  This suggests that life in this beautiful country is
still lacking something fundamental.  Basic dissatisfactions are still driving the
African villagers to despair and self-abandon.” Rereading the passage, which
referred to the tiny villages in the Sudan, Bird realized he had been avoiding a
consideration of the lacks and dissatisfactions that were lurking in his own life.
But they existed, he was certain, so he was careful to deny himself alcohol.

Bird emerged in the square at the back of the honky-tonk district, where the
clamor and motion seemed to focus.  The clock of lightbulbs on the theater in the
center of the square was flashing SEVEN PM—time to ask about his wife.  Bird had
been telephoning his mother-in-law at the hospital every hour since three that
afternoon.  He glanced around the square.  Plenty of public telephones, but all
were occupied.  The thought, not so much of his wife in labor as of his
mother-in-law’s nerves as she hovered over the telephone reserved for in-patients,
irritated him.  From the moment she had arrived at the hospital with her daughter,
the woman had been obsessed with the idea that the staff was trying to humiliate
her.  If only some other patient’s relative were on the phone.  … Lugubriously
hopeful, Bird retraced his steps, glancing into bars and coffee houses, Chinese
noodle shops, cutlet restaurants, and shoestores.  He could always step inside
somewhere and phone.  But he wanted to avoid a bar if he could, and he had eaten
dinner already.  Why not buy a powder to settle his stomach?

Bird was looking for a drugstore when an outlandish establishment on a corner
stopped him short.  On a giant billboard suspended above the door, a cowboy
crouched with a pistol flaming.  Bird read the legend that flowered on the head of
the Indian pinned beneath the cowboy’s spurs: GUN CORNER.  Inside, beneath paper
flags of the United Nations and strips of spiraling green and yellow crepe paper,
a crowd much younger than Bird was milling around the many-colored, box-shaped
games that filled the store from front to back.  Bird, ascertaining through the
glass doors rimmed with red and indigo tape that a public telephone was installed
in a corner at the rear, stepped into the Gun Corner, passed a Coke machine and a
juke box howling rock-n-roll already out of vogue, and started across the muddy
wooden floor.  It was instantly as if skyrockets were bursting in his ears.  Bird
toiled across the room as though he were walking in a maze, past pinball machines,
dart games, and a miniature forest alive with deer and rabbits and monstrous green
toads that moved on a conveyor belt; as Bird passed, a high-school boy bagged a
frog under the admiring eyes of his girlfriends and five points clicked into the
window on the side of the game.  He finally reached the telephone.  Dropping a
coin into the phone, he dialed the hospital number from memory.  In one ear he
heard the distant ringing of the phone, the blare of rock-n-roll filled the other,
and a noise like ten thousand scuttling crabs: the high teens, rapt over their
automated toys, were scuffling the wooden floor with the soft-as-glove-leather
soles of their Italian shoes.  What would his mother-in-law think of this din?
Maybe he should say something about the noise when he excused himself for calling
late.

The phone rang four times before his mother-in-law’s voice, like his wife’s made
somewhat younger, answered; Bird immediately asked about his wife, without
apologizing for anything.

“Nothing yet.  It just won’t come; that child is suffering to death and the baby
just won’t come!”

Wordless, Bird stared for an instant at the numberless antholes in the ebonite
receiver.  The surface, like a night sky vaulted with black stars, clouded and
cleared with each breath he took.

“I’ll call back at eight,” he said a minute later, then hung up the phone, and
sighed.

A drive-a-car game was installed beside the phone, and a boy who looked like a
Filipino was seated behind the wheel.  Beneath a miniature E-type Jaguar mounted
on a cylinder in the center of the board, a painted belt of country scenery
revolved continuously, making the car appear to speed forever down a marvelous
suburban highway.  As the road wound on, obstacles constantly materialized to
menace the little car: sheep, cows, girls with children in tow.  The player’s job
was to avoid collisions by cutting the wheel and swiveling the car atop its
cylinder.  The Filipino was hunched over the wheel in a fury of concentration,
deep creases in his short, swarthy brow.  On and on he drove, biting his thin lips
shut with keen eyeteeth and spraying the air with sibilant saliva, as if convinced
that finally the belt would cease to revolve and bring the E-type Jaguar to its
destination.  But the road unfurled obstacles in front of the little car
unendingly.  Now and then, when the belt began to slow down, the Filipino would
plunge a hand into his pants pocket, grope out a coin, and insert it in the metal
eye of the machine.  Bird paused where he stood obliquely behind the boy, and
watched the game for a while.  Soon a sensation of unbearable fatigue crept into
his feet.  Bird hurried toward the back exit, stepping as though the floor were
scorching metal plate.  At the back of the gallery, he encountered a pair of truly
bizarre machines.

The game on the right was surrounded by a gang of youngsters in identical silk
jackets embroidered with gold-and-silver brocade dragons, the Hong Kong souvenir
variety designed for American tourists.  They were producing loud, unfamiliar
noises that sounded like heavy impacts.  Bird approached the game on the left,
because for the moment it was unguarded.  It was a medieval instrument of torture,
an Iron Maiden—twentieth-century model.  A beautiful, life-sized maiden of steel
with mechanical red-and-black stripes was protecting her bare chest with stoutly
crossed arms.  The player attempted to pull her arms away from her chest for a
glimpse of her hidden metal breasts; his grip and pull appeared as numbers in the
windows which were the maiden’s eyes.  Above her head was a chronological table of
average grip and pull.

Bird inserted a coin in the slot between the maiden’s lips.  Then he set about
forcing her arms away from her breasts.  The steel arms resisted stubbornly: Bird
pulled harder.  Gradually his face was drawn in to her iron chest.  Since her face
was painted in what was unmistakably an expression of anguish, Bird had the
feeling he was raping the girl.  He strained until every muscle in his body began
to ache.  Suddenly there was a rumbling in her chest as a gear turned, and
numbered plaques, the color of watery blood, clicked into her hollow eyes.  Bird
went limp, panting, and checked his score against the table of averages.  It was
unclear what the units represented, but Bird had scored 70 points for grip and 75
points for pull.  In the column on the table beneath 27, Bird found GRIP:
110—PULL: 110.  He scanned the table in disbelief and discovered that his score
was average for a man of forty.  Forty!—the shock dropped straight to his stomach
and he brought up a belch.  Twenty-seven years and four months old and no more
grip nor pull than a man of forty: Bird!  But how could it be?  On top of
everything, he could tell that the tingling in his shoulders and sides would
develop into an obstinate muscle ache.  Determined to redeem his honor, Bird
approached the game on the right.  He realized with surprise that he was now in
deadly earnest about this game of testing strength.

With the alertness of wild animals whose territory is being invaded, the boys in
dragon jackets froze as Bird moved in, and enveloped him with challenging looks.
Rattled, but with a fair semblance of carelessness, Bird inspected the machine at
the center of their circle.  In construction it resembled a gallows in a Western
movie, except that a kind of Slavic cavalry helmet was suspended from the spot
where a hapless outlaw should have hung.  The helmet only partly concealed a
sandbag covered in black buckskin.  When a coin was inserted in the hole that
glared like a cyclops’ eye from the center of the helmet, the player could lower
the sandbag and the indicator needle reset itself at zero.  There was a cartoon of
Robot Mouse in the center of the indicator: he was screaming, his yellow mouth
open wide, C’mon Killer!  Let’s Measure Your Punch!

When Bird merely eyed the game and made no move in its direction, one of the
dragon-jackets stepped forward as if to demonstrate, dropped a coin into the
helmet, and pulled the sandbag down.  Self-consciously but confident, the youth
dropped back a step and, hurling his entire body forward as in a dance, walloped
the sandbag.  A heavy thud: the rattle of the chain as it crashed against the
inside of the helmet.  The needle leaped past the numbers on the gauge and
quivered meaninglessly.  The gang exploded in laughter.  The punch had exceeded
the capacity of the gauge: the paralyzed mechanism would not reset.  The
triumphant dragon-jacket aimed a light kick at the sandbag, this time from a
karate crouch, and the indicator needle dropped to 500 while the sandbag crawled
back into the helmet slowly like an exhausted hermit crab.  Again the gang
roared.

An unaccountable passion seized Bird.  Careful not to wrinkle the maps, he took
off his jacket and laid it on a bingo table.  Then he dropped into the helmet one
of the coins from a pocketful he was carrying for phone calls to the hospital.
The boys were watching every move.  Bird lowered the sandbag, took one step back,
and put up his fists.  After he had been expelled from high school, in the days
when he was studying for the examination that had qualified him to go to college,
Bird had brawled almost every week with other delinquents in his provincial city.
He had been feared, and he had been surrounded always be younger admirers.  Bird
had faith in the power of his punch.  And his form would be orthodox, he wouldn’t
take that kind of ungainly leap.  Bird shifted his weight to the balls of his
feet, took one light step forward, and smashed the sandbag with a right jab.  Had
his punch surpassed the limit of 2500 and made a cripple of the gauge?  Like hell
it had—the needle stood at 300!  Doubled over, with his punching fist against his
chest, Bird stared for an instant at the gauge in stupefaction.  Then hot blood
climbed into his face.  Behind him the boys in dragon jackets were silent and
still.  But certainly their attention was concentrated on Bird and on the gauge;
the appearance of a man with a punch so numerically meager must have struck them
dumb.

Bird, moving as though unaware the gang existed, returned to the helmet, inserted
another coin, and pulled the sandbag down.  This was no time to worry about
correct form: he threw the weight of his entire body behind the punch.  His right
arm went numb from the elbow to the wrist and the needle stood at a mere 500.

Stooping quickly, Bird picked up his jacket and put it on, facing the bingo table.
Then he turned back to the teen-agers, who were observing him in silence.  Bird
tried for an experienced smile, full of understanding and surprise, for the young
champ from the former champion long retired.  But the boys merely stared at him
with blank, hardened faces, as though they were watching a dog.  Bird turned
crimson all the way behind his ears, hung his head, and hurried out of the
gallery.  A great guffawing erupted behind him, full of obviously affected glee.

Dizzy with childish shame, Bird cut across the square and plunged down a dark side
street: he had lost the courage to drift with a crowd full of strangers.  Whores
were positioned along the street, but the rage in Bird’s face discouraged them
from calling out.  Bird turned into an alley where not even whores were lurking,
and suddenly he was stopped by a high embankment.  He knew by the smell of green
leaves in the darkness that summer grass was thick on the slope.  On top of the
embankment was a train track.  Bird peered up and down the track to see whether a
train was coming and discovered nothing in the dark.  He looked up at the black
ink of the sky.  The reddish mist hovering above the ground was a reflection of
the neon lights in the square.  A sudden drop of rain wet Bird’s upturned
cheek—the grass had been so fragrant because it had been about to rain.  Bird
lowered his head and, as though for lack of anything else to do, furtively
urinated.  Before he had finished, he heard chaotic footsteps approaching from
behind.  By the time he turned around, he was surrounded by the boys in dragon
jackets.

With the faint light at their backs, the boys were in heavy shadow, and Bird
couldn’t make out their expressions.  But he remembered their denial of him,
thoroughly brutal, that had lurked in their blankness at the Gun Corner.  The gang
had sighted an existence too feeble, and savage instincts had been roused.
Trembling with the need of a violent child to torment a weak playmate, they had
raced in pursuit of the pitiful lamb with a punch of 500.  Bird was afraid:
frantically he searched for a way out.  To reach the bright square he would have
to rush directly into the gang and break their circle at its strongest point.  But
with Bird’s strength—the grip and pull of a forty-year-old!—that was out of the
question: they would easily force him back.  To his right was a short alley that
dead-ended at a board fence.  The narrow alley to his left, between the embankment
and a high, wire fence around a factory yard, emerged far on the other side at a
busy street.  Bird had a chance if he could cover that hundred or so yards without
being caught.  Resolved, Bird made as if to race for the dead end on his right,
wheeled and then charged to the left.  But the enemy was expert at this kind of
ruse, just as Bird at twenty had been an expert in his own night city.  Unfooled,
the gang had shifted to the left and regrouped even while Bird was feinting to the
right.  Bird straightened, and as he hurled himself toward the alley on the left
he collided with the black silhouette of a body bent backward like a bow, the same
attack the youth had used on the sandbag.  No time or room to dodge, Bird took the
full force of the worst knock-out punch of his life and fell back onto the
embankment.  Groaning, he spat saliva and blood.  The teen-agers laughed shrilly,
as they had laughed when they had paralyzed the punching machine.  Then they
peered down at Bird silently, enclosing him in an even tighter semicircle.  The
gang was waiting.

It occurred to Bird that the maps must be getting creased between his body and the
ground.  And his own child was being born: the thought danced with new poignancy
to the frontlines of consciousness.  A sudden rage took him, and rough despair.
Until now, out of terror and bewilderment, Bird had been contriving only to
escape.  But he had no intention of running now.  If I don’t fight now, I’ll not
only lose the chance to go to Africa forever, my baby will be born into the world
solely to lead the worst possible life—it was like the voice of inspiration, and
Bird believed.

Raindrops pelted his torn lips.  He shook his head, groaned, and slowly rose.  The
half-circle of teen-agers dropped back invitingly.  Then the burliest of the bunch
took one confident step forward.  Bird let his arms dangle and thrust out his
chin, affecting the limp befuddlement of a carnival doll.  Taking careful aim, the
boy in the jacket lifted one leg high and arched backward like a pitcher going
into his windup, then cocked his right arm back as far as it would go and launched
forward for the kill.  Bird ducked, lowered his head, and drove like a ferocious
bull into his attacker’s belly.  The boy screamed, gagged on vomiting bile, and
crumpled silently.  Bird jerked his head up and confronted the others.  The joy of
battle had reawakened in him; it had been years since he had felt it.  Bird and
the dragon-jackets watched one another without moving, appraising the formidable
enemy.  Time passed.

Abruptly, one of the boys shouted to the others: “C’mon, let’s go!  We don’t want
to fight this guy.  He’s too fucking old!”

The boys relaxed immediately.  Leaving Bird on his guard, they lifted their
unconscious comrade and moved away toward the square.  Bird was left alone in the
rain.  A ticklish sense of comedy rose into his throat, and for a minute he
laughed silently.  There was blood on his jacket, but if he walked in the rain for
a while, no one would be able to tell it from water.  Bird felt a kind of
preliminary peace.  Naturally, his chin hurt where the punch had landed, and his
arms and back ached; so did his eyes.  But he was in high spirits for the first
time since his wife’s labor had begun.  Bird limped down the alley between the
embankment and the factory lot.  Soon an old-fashioned steam engine spewing fiery
cinders came chugging down the track.  Passing over Bird’s head, the train was a
colossal black rhinoceros galloping across an inky sky.

Out on the avenue, as he waited for a cab, Bird probed for a broken tooth with his
tongue and spat it into the street.





2




BENEATH the mud- and blood- and bile-streaked map of West Africa thumbtacked to
the wall, curled up in a ball like a threatened sow bug, Bird lay sleeping.  He
was in their bedroom, his and his wife’s.  The baby’s white bassinet, still
wrapped in its vinyl hood, crouched like a huge insect between the two beds.  Bird
was dreaming, groaning in protest against the dawn chill.

He is standing on a plateau on the western bank of Lake Chad, east of Nigeria.
What can he be waiting for in such a place?  Suddenly he is sighted by a giant
phacochoere.  The vicious beast charges, churning sand.  But that’s all right!
Bird has come to Africa for adventure, encounters with new tribes and with the
perils of death, for a glimpse beyond the horizon of quiescent and chronically
frustrated everyday life.  But he has no weapon to fight the phacochoere.  I’ve
arrived in Africa unequipped and with no training, he thinks, and fear prods him.
Meanwhile the phacochoere is bearing down.  Bird remembers the switchblade he used
to sew inside his pants cuff when he was a delinquent in a provincial city.  But
he threw those pants away a long time ago.  Funny he can’t remember the Japanese
word for phacochoere.  Phacochoere!  He hears the group that has abandoned him and
fled to a safety zone shouting: Watch out!  Run!  It’s a Phacochoere!  The enraged
animal is already at the clump of low brush a few yards away: Bird hasn’t a chance
of escaping.  Then, to the north, he discovers an area protected by an oblique
blue line.  It must be steel wire; if he can get behind it he may be safe; the
people who left him behind are shouting from there.  Bird begins to run.  Too
late!  the phacochoere is almost on him.  I’ve come to Africa unequipped and with
no training; I cannot escape.  Bird despairs, but fear drives him on.  Numberless
eyes of the safe people behind the oblique blue line watch Bird racing toward
them.  The phacochoere’s abominable teeth close sharply, firmly, on Bird’s ankle.
…

The phone was ringing.  Bird woke up.  Dawn, and raining still.  Bird hit the damp
floor in his bare feet and hopped to the phone like a rabbit.  He lifted the
receiver and a man’s voice asked his name without a word of greeting and said,
“Please come to the hospital right away.  The baby is abnormal; the doctor will
explain.”

Instantly, Bird was stranded.  He longed to backtrack to that Nigerian plateau to
lick up the dregs of his dream, no matter that it was an evil, sea urchin of a
dream, thinly planted with the spines of fear.  But he checked himself and, in a
voice so objective it might have issued from a stranger with a cast-iron heart,
said: “Is the mother all right?” Bird had a feeling he had heard himself asking
the same question a thousand times in the same voice.

“Your wife is fine.  Please come as quickly as you can.”

Bird scuttled back to the bedroom, like a crab making for a ledge.  He shut his
eyes tight and tried to submerge in the warmth of his bed, as if by denying
reality he could instantly banish it.  But nothing changed.  Bird shook his head
in resignation, and picked up his shirt and pants from the side of the bed where
he had thrown them.  The pain in his body when he bent over recalled the battle
the night before.  His strength had been equal to the fight, and how proud it had
made him!  He tried to recapture that feeling of pride, but of course he couldn’t.
Buttoning his shirt, Bird looked up at the map of West Africa.  The plateau in his
dream was at a place called Deifa.  There was a drawing of a charging wart hog
just above it—wart hog!  A phacochoere was a wart hog.  And the oblique azure line
on the map signified a game reserve.  So he wouldn’t have been safe even if he had
reached the slanting fence in his dream.

Bird shook his head again, squirmed into his jacket as he left the bedroom, and
tiptoed down the stairs.  The old woman who was his landlady lived on the first
floor: if she woke up and came into the hall, Bird would have to answer questions
honed on the whetstone of her curiosity and good will.  But what could he say?  So
far he had heard only the declaration on the phone: the baby is abnormal!  But it
was probably as bad as it could be.  Bird groped for his shoes on the earth floor
in the vestibule, unlocked the front door as quietly as he could, and stepped into
the dawn.

The bicycle was lying on its side on the gravel under a hedge.  Bird righted it
and wiped the tenacious rain off the rotting leather seat with his jacket sleeve.
Before the seat was dry, Bird leaped astride and, scattering gravel like an angry
horse, pumped past the hedges into the paved street.  In an instant his buttocks
were chilled and clammy.  And it was raining again; the wind drove the rain
straight into his face.  He kept his eyes wide open, watching for potholes in the
street: rain pellets struck his eyeballs.  At a broader, brighter street, Bird
turned left.  Now the wind was whipping the rain into his right side and the going
was easier.  Bird leaned into the wind to balance the bike.  The speeding tires
churned the sheet of water on the asphalt street and scattered it like fine mist.
As Bird watched the water ripple away from the tires with his body tilted sharply
into the wind, he began to feel dizzy.  He looked up: no one on the dawn street as
far as he could see.  The ginkgo trees that hemmed the street were thick and dark
with leaves and each of those countless leaves was swollen with the water it had
drunk.  Black trunks supporting deep oceans of green.  If those oceans all at once
collapsed, Bird and his bike would be drowned in a raw-green-smelling flood.  Bird
felt threatened by the trees.  High above him, the leaves massed on the topmost
branches were moaning in the wind.  Bird looked up through the trees at the
narrowed eastern sky.  Blackish-gray all over, with a faint hint of the sun’s pink
seeping through at the back.  A mean sky that seemed ashamed, roughly violated by
clouds like galloping shaggy dogs.  A trio of magpies arrowed in front of Bird as
brazen as alley cats and nearly toppled him.  He saw the silver drops of water
bunched like lice on their light-blue tails.  Bird noticed that he was startled
easily now, and that his eyes and ears and sense of smell had become acutely
sensitive.  It occurred to him vaguely that this was a bad omen: the same things
had happened during those weeks he had stayed drunk.

Lowering his head, Bird raised himself on the pedals and picked up speed.  The
feeling of futile flight in his dream returned.  But he raced on.  His shoulder
snapped a slender ginkgo branch and the splintered end sprang back and cut his
ear.  Even so, Bird didn’t slow up.  Raindrops that whined like bullets grazed his
throbbing ear.  Bird skidded to a stop at the hospital entrance with a squeal of
brakes that might have been his own scream.  He was soaking wet: shivering.  As he
shook the water off, he had the feeling he had sped down a long, unthinkably long,
road.

Bird paused in front of the examination room to catch his breath, then peered
inside and addressed the indistinct faces waiting for him in the dimness.

“I’m the father,” he said hoarsely, wondering why they were sitting in a darkened
room.  Then he noticed his mother-in-law, her face half-buried in her kimono
sleeve as though she were trying not to vomit.  Bird sat down in the chair next to
her and felt his clothes stick fast to his back and rear.  He shivered, not
violently as in the driveway, but with the helplessness of a weakened chick.  His
eyes were adjusting to the darkness in the room: now he discovered a tribunal of
three doctors watching in careful silence as he settled himself in the chair.
Like the national flag in a courtroom, the colored anatomy chart on the wall
behind them was a banner symbolic of their private law.

“I’m the father,” Bird repeated irritably.  It was clear from his voice that he
felt threatened.

“Yes, all right,” the doctor in the middle replied somewhat defensively, as if he
had detected a note of attack in Bird’s voice.  (He was the hospital Director;
Bird had seen him scrubbing his hands at his wife’s side.) Bird looked at the
Director, waiting for him to speak.  Instead of beginning an explanation, he took
a pipe from his wrinkled surgeon’s gown and filled it with tobacco.  He was a
short, barrel of a man, obese to an extreme that gave him an air of dolorous
pomposity.  The soiled gown was open at his chest, which was as hairy as a camel’s
back; not only his upper lip and cheeks but even the fatty crop that sagged to his
throat was stubbled with beard.  The Director had not had time to shave this
morning: he had been fighting for the baby’s life since yesterday afternoon.  Bird
was grateful, of course, but something suspicious about this hairy, middle-aged
doctor prevented him from letting down his guard.  As if, deep beneath that
hirsute skin, something potentially lethal was trying to rear its bushy head and
was being forcibly restrained.

The Director at last returned the pipe from his thick lips to his bowl of a hand
and, abruptly meeting Bird’s stare with his own: “Would you like to see the goods
first?” His voice was too loud for the small room.

“Is the baby dead?” Bird asked, coughing.  For a minute the Director looked
suspicious of Bird for having assumed the baby’s death, but he erased that
impression with an ambiguous smile.

“Certainly not,” he said.  “The infant’s movements are vigorous and its voice
strong.”

Bird heard his mother-in-law sigh deeply, gravely—it was like a broad hint.
Either the woman was exhausted or she was signaling to Bird the approximate depth
of the swamp of calamity he and his wife were mired in.  One or the other.

“Well then, would you like to see the goods?”

The young doctor on the Director’s right stood up.  He was a tall man, thin, with
eyes that somehow violated the horizontal symmetry of his face.  One eye was
agitated and timid-looking; the other was serene.  Bird had started to rise with
the doctor and had slumped back into his chair before he noticed that the
beautiful eye was made of glass.

“Could you explain first, please?” Bird sounded increasingly threatened: the
revulsion he had felt at the Director’s choice of words—the goods!—was still
caught in the mesh of his mind.

“That might be better: when you first see it, it’s quite a surprise.  Even I was
surprised when it came out.” Unexpectedly, the Director’s thick eyelids reddened
and he burst into a childish giggle.  Bird had sensed a suspicious presence
lurking beneath that hairy skin, and now he knew that it was this giggle, this
giggle that had revealed itself first in the guise of a vague smile.  Bird glared
at the giggling doctor in rage before he realized the man was laughing from
embarrassment.  He had extracted from between the legs of another man’s wife a
species of monster beyond classification.  A monster with a cat’s head, maybe, and
a body as swollen as a balloon?  Whatever the creature was, the Director was
ashamed of himself for having delivered it, and so was giggling.  His performance,
far from befitting the professional dignity of an experienced obstetrician and
hospital director, had belonged in a slapstick comedy: a quack doctor routine.
The man had been startled and distracted; now he was suffering from shame.

Without moving, Bird waited for the Director to recover from his laughing jag.  A
monster.  But what kind?  “The goods,” the Director had said, and Bird had heard
“monster”; the briars twined around the word had torn the membranes in his thorax.
In introducing himself, he had said, “I’m the father,” and the doctors had winced.
Because something else entirely must have echoed in their ears—I’m the monster’s
father.

The Director quickly mastered himself and regained his mournful dignity.  But the
pink flush remained on his eyelids and cheeks.  Bird looked away, fighting an
urgent eddy of anger and fear inside, and said, “What kind of condition is it that
it’s so surprising?”

“You mean appearance, how it looks?  There appear to be two heads!  You know a
piece by Josef Wagner called ‘Under the Double Eagle’?  Anyway, it’s quite a
shock.” The Director nearly began to giggle again, but he checked himself just in
time.

“Something like the Siamese twins, then?” Bird timidly asked.

“Not at all: there only appear to be two heads.  Do you want to see the goods?”

“Medically speaking—” Bird faltered.

“Brain hernia, we call it.  The brain is protruding from a fault in the skull.  I
founded this clinic when I got married, and this is the first case I’ve seen.
Extremely rare.  I can tell you I was surprised!”

Brain hernia—Bird groped for an image, anything, and drew a blank.  “Is there any
hope that this kind of brain-hernia baby will develop normally?” he said in a
daze.

“Develop normally!” The Director’s voice rose as though in anger.  “We’re speaking
of a brain hernia!  You might cut open the skull and force the brain back, but
even then you’d be lucky to get some kind of vegetable human being.  Precisely
what do you mean by ‘normally’?” The Director shook his head at the young doctors
on either side of him as though dismayed by Bird’s lack of common sense.  The
doctor with the glass eye quickly nodded his agreement, and so did the other, a
taciturn man wrapped from his high forehead to his throat in the same
expressionless, sallow skin.  Both turned stern eyes on Bird—professors
disapproving of a student for a poor performance in an oral exam.

“Will the baby die right away?” Bird said.

“Not right away, no.  Tomorrow perhaps, or it may hold out even longer.  It’s an
extremely vigorous infant,” the Director observed clinically.  “Now then, what do
you intend to do?”

Disgracefully bewildered, like a punch-drunk pigmy, Bird was silent.  What in hell
could he do?  First the man drives you down a blind alley, then he asks what you
intend to do.  Like a malicious chess player.  What should he do?  Fall to pieces?
Wail?

“If you wish, I can have the baby transferred to the hospital at the National
University—if you wish!” The offer sounded like a puzzle with a built-in trap.
Bird, straining to see beyond the suspicious mist and failing to discover a single
clue, was left merely with a futile wariness: “If there are no alternatives—”

“None,” the Director said.  “But you will have the satisfaction of knowing you
have done everything possible.”

“Couldn’t we just leave the child here?”

Bird as well as the three doctors gawked at the originator of the abrupt question.
Bird’s mother-in-law sat quite still, the world’s most forlorn ventriloquist.  The
Director inspected her like an appraiser determining a price.  When he spoke, it
was ugly, he was protecting himself so obviously: “That’s impossible!  This is a
case of brain hernia, don’t forget.  Quite impossible!” The woman listened without
budging, her mouth still buried in her kimono sleeve.

“Then we’ll move it to the other hospital,” Bird declared.  The Director leaped at
Bird’s decision and he began at once to display a dazzling spectrum of
administrative talents.  When his two subordinates had left the room under orders
to contact the university hospital and make arrangements for an ambulance, the
Director filled his pipe again and said with a look of relief, as though he had
disposed of a heavy, questionable burden: “I’ll have one of our people ride along
in the ambulance, so you can be assured we’ll get the infant there safely.”

“Thank you very much.”

“It would be best if our new grandmother stayed here with her daughter.  Why don’t
you go home and change into some dry clothes?  The ambulance won’t be ready for
half an hour.”

“I’ll do that,” Bird said.  The Director sidled up to him and whispered, too
familiarly, as if he were beginning a dirty joke, “Of course, you can forbid them
to operate if you choose to.”

Poor wretched little baby!  Bird thought.

The first person my baby meets in the real world has to be this hairy porkchops of
a little man.

But Bird was still dazed: his feelings of anger and grief, the minute they had
crystallized, shattered.

Bird and his mother-in-law and the Director walked in a little group as far as the
reception desk, silently, avoiding one another’s faces.  At the entrance, Bird
turned around to say good-by.  His mother-in-law returned his gaze with eyes so
like his wife’s they might have been sisters, and she was trying to say something.
Bird waited.  But the woman only stared at him in silence, her dark eyes
contracting until they were empty of expression.  Bird could feel her
embarrassment, and it was specific, as though she were standing naked on a public
street.  But what could be making her so uncomfortable as to deaden her eyes and
even the skin on her face?  Bird looked away himself before the woman could lower
her gaze, and said to the Director: “Is it a boy or a girl?” The question took the
Director off his guard, and he leaked that funny giggle again.  Sounding like a
young intern: “Let’s see now, I can’t quite remember, but I have a feeling I saw
one, sure I did—a penis!”

Bird went out to the driveway alone.  It wasn’t raining and the wind had died: the
clouds sailing the sky were bright, dry.  A brilliant morning had broken from the
dawn’s cocoon of semidarkness, and the air had a good, first-days-of-summer smell
that slackened every muscle in Bird’s body.  A night softness had lingered in the
hospital, and now the morning light, reflecting off the wet pavement and off the
leafy trees, stabbed like icicles at Bird’s pampered eyes.  Laboring into this
light on his bike was like being poised on the edge of a diving board; Bird felt
severed from the certainty of the ground, isolated.  And he was as numb as stone,
a weak insect on a scorpion’s sting.

You can race this bicycle to a strange land and soak in whisky for a hundred
days—Bird heard the voice of a dubious revelation.  And as he wobbled down the
street, awash in the morning light, he waited for the voice to speak again.  But
there was only silence.  Lethargically, like a sloth on the move, Bird began to
pedal.  …

Bird was bending forward in the breakfast nook for the clean underwear on top of
the TV when he saw his arm and realized that he was naked.  Swiftly, as though he
were pursuing a fleeing mouse with his eyes, he glanced down at his genitals: the
heat of shame scorched him.  Bird hurried into his underwear and put on his slacks
and a shirt.  Even now he was a link in the chain of shame that connected his
mother-in-law and the Director.  Peril-ridden and fragile, the imperfect human
body, what a shameful thing it was!  Trembling, Bird fled the apartment with his
eyes on the floor, fled down the stairs, fled through the hall, straddled his
bicycle and fled everything behind him.  He would have liked to flee his own body.
Speeding away on a bike, he felt he was escaping himself more effectively than he
could on foot, if only a little.

As Bird turned into the hospital driveway, a man in white hurried down the steps
with what looked like a hay basket and pushed his way through the crowd to the
open tail of an ambulance.  The soft, weak part of Bird that wanted to escape
tried to apprehend the scene as though it were occurring at a vast remove and had
nothing to do with Bird, simply an early morning stroller.  But Bird could only
advance, struggling like a mole burrowing into an imaginary mud wall through the
heavy, viscid resistance that impeded him.

Bird got off his bike and was locking a chain around the front tire when a voice
bit into him from behind, terrifying in its disapproval: “You can’t leave that
bike here!” Bird turned and looked up into the hairy Director’s reproving eyes.
Hoisting the bike onto his shoulder, he walked into the shrubbery with it.
Raindrops clustered on fatsia leaves showered his neck and ran down his back.
Ordinarily his temper was quick, but he didn’t even click his tongue in
irritation.  Whatever happened to him now seemed part of an inevitable design
which he must accept without protest.

Bird emerged from the bushes with his shoes covered with mud; the Director
appeared to regret a little having been so abrupt.  Encircling Bird with one
short, pudgy arm, he led him toward the ambulance and said emphatically, as though
he were disclosing a marvelous secret: “It was a boy!  I knew I’d seen a penis!”

The one-eyed doctor and an anesthetist were sitting in the ambulance with the
basket and an oxygen cylinder between them.  The anesthetist’s back hid the
contents of the basket.  But the faint hissing noise of oxygen bubbling through
water in a flask communicated like a signal from a secret transmitter.  Bird
lowered himself onto the bench opposite theirs—insecurely perched—there was a
canvas stretcher on top of the bench.  Shifting his rear uncomfortably, he glanced
through the ambulance window and—shuddered.  From every window on the second floor
and even from the balcony, just out of bed most likely, their freshly washed faces
gleaming whitely in the morning sun, pregnant women were peering down at Bird.
All of them wore flimsy nylon nightgowns, either red or shades of blue, and those
on the balcony in particular, with the nightgowns billowing about their ankles,
were like a host of angels dancing on the air.  Bird read anxiety in their faces,
and expectation, even glee; he lowered his eyes.  The siren began to wail, and the
ambulance lurched forward.  Bird planted his feet on the floor to keep from
slipping off the bench and thought: That siren!  Until now, a siren had always
been a moving object: it approached from a distance, hurtled by, moved away.  Now
a siren was attached to Bird like a disease he carried in his body: this siren
would never recede.

“Everything’s fine,” said the doctor with the glass eye, turning around to Bird.
There was authority in his attitude, mild but evident, and its heat threatened to
melt Bird like a piece of candy.

“Thank you,” he mumbled.  His passivity erased the shadow of hesitation from the
doctor’s good eye.  He took a firm grip on his authority, and thrust it out in
front of him: “This is a rare case, all right; it’s a first for me, too.” The
doctor nodded to himself, then nimbly crossed the lurching ambulance and sat down
at Bird’s side.  He didn’t seem to notice how uncomfortable the stretcher made the
bench.

“Are you a brain specialist?” Bird asked.

“Oh no, I’m an obstetrician.” The doctor didn’t have to make the correction: his
authority was already beyond injury by a misapprehension so minor.  “There are no
brain men at our hospital.  But the symptoms are perfectly clear: it’s a brain
hernia, all right.  Of course, we would know more if we had tapped some spinal
fluid from that lump protruding from the skull.  The trouble with that is you
might just prick the brain itself and then you’d be in trouble.  That’s why we’re
taking the baby to the other hospital without touching him.  As I said, I’m in
obstetrics, but I consider myself fortunate to have run across a case of brain
hernia—I hope to be present at the autopsy.  You will consent to an autopsy, won’t
you?  It may distress you to talk about autopsies at this point, but, well, look
at it this way!  Progress in medicine is cumulative, isn’t it.  I mean, the
autopsy we perform on your child may give us just what we need to save the next
baby with a brain hernia.  Besides, if I may be frank, I think the baby would be
better off dead, and so would you and your wife.  Some people have a funny way of
being optimistic about this kind of case, but it seems to me the quicker the
infant dies, the better for all concerned.  I don’t know, maybe it’s the
difference in generations.  I was born in 1935.  How about you?”

“Somewhere around there,” Bird said, unable to convert quickly into the Western
calendar.  “I wonder if it’s suffering.”

“What, our generation?”

“The baby!”

“That depends on what you mean by suffering.  I mean, the baby can’t see or hear
or smell, right?  And I bet the nerves that signal pain aren’t functioning,
either.  It’s like the Director said, you remember—a kind of vegetable.  In your
opinion, does a vegetable suffer?”

Does a vegetable suffer, in my opinion?  Bird wondered silently.  Have I ever
considered that a cabbage being munched by a goat was in pain?

“Do you think a vegetable baby can suffer?” the doctor repeated eagerly, pressing
with confidence for an answer.

Bird meekly shook his head: as if to say the problem exceeded his flushed brain’s
capacity for judgment.  And there was a time when he never would have submitted to
a person he had just met, at least not without feeling some resistance.  …

“The oxygen isn’t feeding well,” the anesthetist reported.  The doctor stood up
and turned to check the rubber tube; Bird had his first look at his son.

An ugly baby with a pinched, tiny, red face covered with wrinkles and blotchy with
fat.  Its eyes were clamped shut like the shells of a bivalve, rubber tubes led
into its nostrils; its mouth was wrenched open in a soundless scream that exposed
the pearly-pink membrane inside.  Bird found himself rising half off the bench,
stretching for a look at the baby’s bandaged head.  Beneath the bandage, the skull
was buried under a mound of bloody cotton; but there was no hiding the presence
there of something large and abnormal.

Bird looked away, and sat down.  Pressing his face to the window glass, he watched
the city recede.  People in the street, alarmed by the siren, stared at the
ambulance with curiosity and an unaccountable expectation plainly written on their
faces—just as that host of pregnant angels had stared.  They gave the impression
of unnaturally halted motion, like film caught in a projector.  They were
glimpsing an infinitesimal crack in the flat surface of everyday life and the
sight filled them with innocent awe.

My son has bandages on his head and so did Apollinaire when he was wounded on the
field of battle.  On a dark and lonely battlefield I have never seen, my son was
wounded like Apollinaire and now he is screaming soundlessly.  …

Bird began to cry.  Head in bandages, like Apollinaire: the image simplified his
feelings instantly and directed them.  He could feel himself turning into a
sentimental jelly, yet he felt himself being sanctioned and justified: he even
discovered a sweetness in his tears.

Like Apollinaire, my son was wounded on a dark and lonely battlefield that I have
never seen, and he has arrived with his head in bandages.  I’ll have to bury him
like a soldier who died at war.

Bird continued to cry.





3




BIRD was sitting on the stairs in front of the intensive care ward, gripping his
thighs with grimy hands in a battle with the fatigue that had been hounding him
since his tears had dried, when the one-eyed doctor emerged from the ward looking
thwarted.  Bird stood up and the doctor said: “This hospital is so goddamned
bureaucratic, not even the nurses will listen to a word you say.” A startling
change had come over the man since their ride together in the ambulance: his voice
was troubled.  “I have a letter of introduction from our Director to a professor
of medicine here—they’re distant relatives!—and I can’t even find out where he
is!”

Now Bird understood the doctor’s sudden dejection.  Here in this ward everyone was
treated like an infant: the young man with the glass eye had begun to doubt his
own dignity.

“And the baby?” Bird said, surprised at the commiseration in his voice.

“The baby?  Oh yes, we’ll know just where we stand when the brain surgeon has
finished his examination.  If the infant lasts that long.  If he doesn’t last, the
autopsy will tell the full story.  I doubt that the infant can hold out for more
than a day—you might drop in here around three tomorrow afternoon.  But let me
warn you: this hospital is really bureaucratic—even the nurses!”

As though he were determined to accept no more questions from Bird, the doctor
rolled both his eyes toward the ceiling, good and glass alike, and walked away.
Bird followed him like a washerwoman, holding the baby’s empty basket against his
side.  At the passageway that led to the main wing, they were joined by the
ambulance driver and the anesthetist.  These firemen seemed to notice right away
that the doctor’s earlier joviality had deserted him.  Not that they retained any
dazzle themselves: while they had been racing their ambulance through the heart of
the city as though it were a truck careening across an open field, shrilling the
siren pretentiously and jumping traffic lights that bound the law-abiding citizen,
a certain dignity had swelled their stoic uniforms.  But now even that was gone.
From the back, Bird noticed, the two firemen were alike as identical twins.  No
longer young, they were of medium height and build and both were balding in the
same way.

“You need oxygen on the first job of the day, you need it all day long,” one said
with feeling.

“Yes, you’ve always said that,” the other as feelingly replied.

This little exchange the one-eyed doctor ignored.  Bird, though not much moved,
understood that the men were nourishing each other’s gloom, but when he turned to
the fireman in charge of oxygen and nodded sympathetically, the man stiffened as
though he had been asked a question, and with a nervous, grunted “huh?” forced
Bird to speak.  Disconcerted, Bird said: “I was wondering about the ambulance—can
you use your siren to run traffic lights on the way back, too?”

“On the way back?” Like the fire department’s most talented singing twins, the
firemen repeated the question in unison, exchanged a look, their faces flushing
drunkenly, and snorted a laugh which dilated the wings of their noses.  Bird was
both angry at the silliness of his question and at the firemen’s response.  And
his anger was connected by a slender pipe to a tank of huge, dark rage compressed
inside him.  A rage he had no way of releasing had been building inside him under
increasing pressure since dawn.

But the firemen seemed to wither now, as if they regretted having laughed
imprudently at an unfortunate young father; their obvious distress closed a valve
in the tapline to Bird’s fury.  He even felt a twinge of remorse.  Who had asked
that silly, anticlimactic question in the first place?  And hadn’t the question
seeped from a fault which had opened in his own brain, pickled in the vinegar of
his grief and lack of sleep?

Bird looked into the baby’s hamper under his arm.  Now it was like an empty hole
which had been dug unnecessarily.  Only a folded blanket remained in the hamper,
and some absorbent cotton and a roll of gauze.  The blood on the cotton and the
gauze, though still a vivid red, already failed to evoke an image of the baby
lying there with its head in bandages, inhaling oxygen a little at a time from the
rubber tubes inside its nose.  Bird couldn’t even recall accurately the
grotesqueness of the baby’s head, or the shimmering membrane of fat that gloved
its fiery skin.  Even now, the baby was receding from him at full speed.  Bird
felt a mixture of guilty relief and bottomless fear.  He thought: Soon I’ll forget
all about the baby, a life that appeared out of infinite darkness, hovered for
nine months in a fetal state, tasted a few hours of cruel discomfort, and
descended once again into darkness, final and infinite.  I wouldn’t be surprised
if I forgot about the baby right away.  And when it’s time for me to die I may
remember, and, remembering, if the agony and fear of death increase for me, I will
have fulfilled a small part of my obligation as a father.

Bird and the others reached the front entrance of the main wing.  The firemen ran
for the parking lot.  Since theirs was a profession that involved them in
emergencies all the time, running around breathlessly must have represented the
normal attitude toward life.  Off they dashed across the glistening concrete
square, arms flailing, as if a hungry devil were snapping at their behinds.
Meanwhile, the one-eyed doctor telephoned his hospital from a phone booth and
asked for the Director.  He explained the situation in a very few words: almost no
new developments to report.  Bird’s mother-in-law came to the phone: “It’s your
wife’s mother,” said the doctor, turning.  “Do you want to speak?”

Hell no!  Bird wanted to shout.  Since those frequent telephone conversations the
night before, the sound of his mother-in-law’s voice reaching him over the
telephone line, like the helpless droning of a mosquito, had hounded Bird like an
obsession.  Bird set the baby’s basket on the concrete floor and took the receiver
glumly.

“The brain specialist hasn’t made his examination yet.  I have to come back
tomorrow afternoon.”

“But what’s the point of it all; I mean, what can you hope to accomplish?” Bird’s
mother-in-law cross-examined him in the tone of voice he had hoped most to be
spared, as if she held him directly responsible.

“The point is that the baby happens to be alive at the moment,” Bird said, and
waited with a premonition of disgust for the woman to speak again.  But she was
silent; from the other end of the line came only a faint sound of troubled
breathing.

“I’ll be right over and explain,” Bird said, and he started to hang up.

“Hello?  Please don’t come back here,” his mother-in-law added hurriedly.  “That
child thinks you’ve taken the baby to a heart clinic.  If you come now she’ll be
suspicious.  It would be more natural if you came in a day or so, when she’s
calmer, and said that the baby had died of a weak heart.  You can always get in
touch with me by telephone.”

Bird agreed.  “I’ll go right over to the college and explain what’s happened,” he
was saying, when he heard the hard click of the connection being broken
arbitrarily at the other end of the line.  So his own voice had filled the
listener with disgust, too.  Bird put the receiver back and picked up the baby’s
basket.  The one-eyed doctor was already in the ambulance.  Bird, instead of
climbing in after him, set the basket on the canvas stretcher.

“Thanks for everything.  I think I’ll go alone.”

“You’re going home alone?” the doctor said.

“Yes,” Bird replied, meaning “I’m going out alone.” He had to report the
circumstances of the birth to his father-in-law, but after that he would have some
free time.  And a visit to the professor, compared to returning to his wife and
mother-in-law, held a promise of pure therapy.

The doctor closed the door from the inside and the ambulance moved away silently,
observing the speed limit, like a former monster now powerless and deprived of
voice.  Through the same window from which, an hour earlier, weeping, he had gazed
at pedestrians in the street, Bird saw the doctor and one of the firemen lurch
forward toward the driver.  He knew they were going to gossip about him and his
baby, and it didn’t bother him.  From the telephone conversation with the old
woman had come an unexpected furlough, time to himself to be spent alone and as he
liked—the thought pumped strong, fresh blood into his head.

Bird started across the hospital square, wide and long as a soccer field.
Halfway, he turned around and looked up at the building where he had just
abandoned his first child, a baby on the brink of death.  A gigantic building,
with an overbearing presence, like a fort.  Glistening in the sunlight of early
summer, it made the baby who was faintly screaming in one of its obscure corners
seem meaner than a grain of sand.

What if I do come back tomorrow, I might get lost in the labyrinth of this modern
fort and wander in bewilderment; I might never find my dying or maybe already dead
baby.  The notion carried Bird one step away from his misfortune.  He strode
through the front gate and hurried down the street.

Forenoon: the most exhilarating hour of an early summer day.  And a breeze that
recalled elementary school excursions quickened the worms of tingling pleasure on
Bird’s cheeks and earlobes, flushed from lack of sleep.  The nerve cells in his
skin, the farther they were from conscious restraint, the more thirstily they
drank the sweetness of the season and the hour.  Soon a sense of liberation rose
to the surface of his consciousness.

Before I go to see my father-in-law, I’ll wash up and get a shave!  Bird marched
into the first barbershop he found.  And the middle-aged barber led him to a chair
as though he were an ordinary customer.  The barber had not discerned any
indications of misfortune.  Bird, by transforming himself into the person the
barber perceived, was able to escape his sadness and his apprehension.  He closed
his eyes.  A hot, heavy towel that smelled of disinfectant steamed his cheeks and
jaw.  Years ago, he had seen a comic skit about a barbershop: the barber’s young
apprentice has a hellishly hot towel, too hot to cool in his hands or even hold,
so he slaps it down as it is on the customer’s face.  Ever since, Bird laughed
whenever his face was covered with a towel.  He could feel himself smiling even
now.  That was going too far!  Bird shuddered, shattering the smile, and began
thinking about the baby.  In the smile on his face, he had discovered proof of his
own guilt.

The death of a vegetable baby—Bird examined his son’s calamity from the angle that
stabbed deepest.  The death of a vegetable baby with only vegetable functions was
not accompanied by suffering.  Fine, but what did death mean to a baby like that?
Or, for that matter, life?  The bud of an existence appeared on a plain of
nothingness that stretched for zillions of years and there it grew for nine
months.  Of course, there was no consciousness in a fetus, it simply curled in a
ball and existed, filling utterly a warm, dark, mucous world.  Then, perilously,
into the external world.  It was cold there, and hard, scratchy, dry and fiercely
bright.  The outside world was not so confined that the baby could fill it by
himself: he must live with countless strangers.  But, for a baby like a vegetable,
that stay in the external world would be nothing more than a few hours of occult
suffering he couldn’t account for.  Then the suffocating instant, and once again,
on that plain of nothingness zillions of years long, the fine sand of nothingness
itself.  What if there was a last judgment!  Under what category of the Dead could
you subpoena, prosecute, and sentence a baby with only vegetable functions who
died no sooner than he was born?  Only a few hours on this earth, and spent in
crying, tongue fluttering in his stretched, pearly-red mouth, wouldn’t any judge
consider that insufficient evidence?  Insufficient fucking evidence!  Bird gasped
in fear that had deepened until now it was profound.  I might be called as a
witness and I wouldn’t be able to identify my own son unless I got a clue from the
lump on his head.  Bird felt a sharp pain in his upper lip.

“Sit still, please!  I nicked you,” the barber hissed, resting his razor on the
bridge of Bird’s nose and peering into his face.  Bird touched his upper lip with
the tip of his finger.  He stared at the blood, and he felt a pang of nausea.
Bird’s blood was type A and so was his wife’s.  The quart of blood circulating in
the body of his dying baby was probably type A, too.  Bird put his hand back under
the linen and closed his eyes again.  The barber slowly, hesitatingly shaved
around the cut on his upper lip, then scythed his cheeks and jaw with rough haste,
as if to retrieve lost time.

“You’ll want a shampoo?”

“No, that’s all right.”

“There’s lots of dirt and grass in your hair,” the barber objected.

“I know, I fell down last night.” Stepping out of the barber chair, Bird glanced
at his face in a mirror that glistened like a noon beach.  His hair was definitely
matted, crackly as dry straw, but his face from his high cheekbones to his jaw was
as bright and as fresh a pink as the belly of a rainbow trout.  If only a strong
light were shining in those glue-colored eyes, if the taut eyelids were relaxed
and the thin lips weren’t twitching, this would be a conspicuously younger and
livelier Bird than the portrait reflected in the store window last night.

Stopping at a barbershop had been a good idea: Bird was satisfied.  If nothing
else, he had introduced one positive element to a psychological balance which had
been tipped to negative since dawn.  A glance at the blood that had dried under
his nose like a triangular mole, and Bird left the barbershop.  By the time he got
to the college, the glow the razor had left on his cheeks would probably have
faded.  But he would have scraped away with his nail the mole of dried blood by
then: no danger of impressing his father-in-law as a sad and ludicrous hangdog.
Searching the street for a bus stop, Bird remembered the extra money he was
carrying in his pocket and hailed a passing cab.

Bird stepped out of the cab into a crowd of students swarming through the main
gate on their way to lunch: five minutes past twelve.  On the campus, he stopped a
big fellow and asked directions to the English department.  Surprisingly, the
student beamed a smile and singsonged, nostalgically, “It’s certainly been a long
time, sensei!” Bird was horrified.  “I was in your class at the cram-school.  None
of the government schools worked out, so I had my old man donate some money here
and got in, you know, through the back door.”

“So you’re a student here now,” Bird said with relief, remembering who the student
was.  Though not unhandsome, the boy had saucer eyes and a bulbous nose that
recalled the illustrations of German peasants in Grimm’s Fairy Tales.

“It sounds as if cram-school wasn’t much help to you,” Bird said.

“Not at all, sensei!  Study is never a waste.  You may not remember a single thing
but, you know, study is study!”

Bird suspected he was being ridiculed and he glowered at the boy.  But the student
was trying with his whole large body to demonstrate his good will.  Even in a
class of one hundred, Bird vividly recalled, this one had been a conspicuous
dullard.  And precisely for that reason he was able to report simply and jovially
to Bird that he had entered a second-rate private college through the back door,
and to express gratitude for classes that had availed him nothing.  Any of the
ninety-nine other students would have tried to avoid their cram-school
instructor.

“With our tuition as high as it is, it’s a relief to hear you say that.”

“Oh, it was worth every penny.  Will you be teaching here from now on?”

Bird shook his head.

“Oh.  …” The student tactfully expanded the conversation: “Let me take you to the
English department; it’s this way.  But seriously, sensei, the studying I did at
cram-school didn’t go to waste.  It’s all in my head someplace, taking root sort
of; and someday it will come in handy.  It’s just a matter of waiting for the time
to come—isn’t that pretty much what studying is in the final analysis, sensei?”

Bird, following this optimistic and somehow didactic former student, cut across a
walk bordered by trees in full blossom and came to the front of a red-ochre brick
building.  “The English department is on the third floor at the back.  I was so
happy to get in here, I explored the campus until I know it like the palm of my
hand,” the boy said proudly, and flashed a grin so eloquently self-derisive that
Bird doubted his own eyes.

“I sound pretty simple, don’t I!”

“Not at all; not so simple.”

“It’s awfully nice of you to say so.  Well then, I’ll be seeing you around,
sensei.  And take care of yourself: you’re looking a little pale!”

Climbing the stairs, Bird thought: That guy will manage his adult life with a
thousand times more cunning than I manage mine; at least he won’t go around having
babies die on him with brain hernias.  But what an oddly unique moralist he had
had in his class!

Bird peered around the door into the English department office and located his
father-in-law.  On a small balcony that extended from a far corner of the room,
the professor was slumped in an oak rocking chair, gazing at the partly open
skylight.  The office had the feeling of a conference room, far larger and
brighter than the English offices at the university from which Bird had graduated.
Bird’s father-in-law often said (he told the story wryly, like a favorite joke on
himself) that the treatment he received at this private college, including
facilities such as the rocking chair, was incomparably better than what he had
been used to at the National University: Bird could see there was more to the
story than a joke.  If the sun got any stronger, though, the rocking chair would
have to be moved back or the balcony shaded with an awning, one or the other.

At a large table near the door, three young teaching assistants, oil gleaming on
their ruddy faces, were having a cup of coffee, apparently after lunch.  All three
of them Bird knew by sight: honor students who had been a class ahead of him at
college.  But for the incident with the whisky and Bird’s withdrawal from graduate
school, he certainly would have found himself in pursuit of their careers.

Bird knocked at the open door, stepped into the room, and greeted his three
seniors.  Then he crossed the room to the balcony; his father-in-law twisted
around to watch him as he approached, his head thrown back, balancing himself on
the rocking chair.  The assistants watched too, with identical smiles of no
special significance.  It was true that they considered Bird a phenomenon of some
rarity, but at the same time he was an outsider and therefore not an object of
serious concern.  That funny, peculiar character who went on a long binge for no
reason in the world and finally dropped out of graduate school—something like
that.

“Professor!” Bird said out of habit established before he had married the old
man’s daughter.  His father-in-law swung himself and the chair around to face him,
the wooden rockers squeaking on the floor, and waved Bird into a swivel chair with
long arm rests.

“Was the baby born?” he asked.

“Yes, the baby was born—” Bird winced to hear his voice shrivel into a timid peep,
and he closed his mouth.  Then, compelling himself to say it all in one breath:
“The baby has a brain hernia and the doctor says he’ll die sometime tomorrow or
the day after, the mother is fine!”

The taffy-colored skin of the professor’s large, leonine face quietly turned
vermilion.  Even the sagging bags on his lower eyelids colored brightly, as though
blood were seeping through.  Bird felt the color rising to his own face.  He
realized all over again how alone and helpless he had been since dawn.

“Brain hernia.  Did you see the baby?”

Bird detected a hidden intimation of his wife’s voice even in the professor’s thin
hoarseness, and, if anything, it made him miss her.

“Yes, I did.  His head was in bandages, like Apollinaire.”

“Like Apollinaire … his head in bandages.” The professor tried the words on his
own tongue as if he were pondering the punch line of a little joke.  When he
spoke, it was not so much to Bird as to the three assistants: “In this age of ours
it’s hard to say with certainty that having lived was better than not having been
born in the first place.” The three young men laughed with restraint, but audibly:
Bird turned and stared at them.  They stared back, and the composure in their eyes
meant they were not the least surprised that a queer fellow like Bird had met with
a freak accident.  Resentful, Bird looked down at his muddy shoes.  “I’ll call you
when it’s all over,” he said.

The professor, rocking his chair almost imperceptibly, said nothing.  It occurred
to Bird that his father-in-law might be feeling a little disgusted with the
satisfaction the rocking chair gave him ordinarily.

Bird was silent, too.  He felt he had said everything he had to say.  Would he be
able to conclude on such a clear and simple note when it came time to let his wife
in on the secret?  Not a chance.  There would be tears, questions by the
truckload, a sense of the futility of fast talk, an aching throat, and a flushed
head: finally a rope of screaming nerves would fetter Mr. and Mrs.  Bird.

“I’d better be getting back; there are still papers to be signed at the hospital,”
Bird said at last.

“It was good of you to come over.” The professor showed no sign of getting out of
his rocking chair.  Bird, feeling lucky not to have been asked to stay longer,
stood up.  “There’s a bottle of whisky in that desk,” the professor said.  “Take
it along.”

Bird stiffened, and he could feel the three assistants tense.  They must have
known as well as his father-in-law about that long, disastrous drunk; now he
sensed their eyes beginning to track the development of the incident.  Bird,
hesitating, recalled a line from the English textbook he was reading with his
students; a young American was speaking angrily: Are you kidding me?  Are you
looking for a fight?

Nevertheless, Bird bent forward, opened the top of the professor’s desk, and
lifted out the bottle of Johnnie Walker with both hands.  He was crimson even to
his eyeballs, yet he felt a twisted, feverish joy.  Ask a man to trample a
crucifix and make him prove he’s not a Christian: well, they wouldn’t see him
hesitate.

“Thank you,” Bird said.  The three assistants relaxed.  The professor was working
his chair slowly around to its original position, his head erect, his face still
slack and scarlet.  Bird glanced at the younger men, swiftly bowed, and left the
room.

Down the stairs and into the stone courtyard, Bird kept a prudent grip on the
whisky bottle, as though it were a hand grenade.  The rest of the day was his to
spend as he liked by himself—the thought merged in his mind with an image of the
Johnnie Walker and foamed into a promise of ecstasy and peril.

Tomorrow, or the day after, or maybe after a week’s reprieve, when my wife has
learned about the wretched baby’s death, the two of us are going to be locked up
in a dungeon of cruel neurosis.  Accordingly—Bird argued with the bubbly voice of
apprehension inside himself—I have a perfect right to today’s bottle of whisky and
liberating time.  Quietly the bubble collapsed.  Fine!  Let’s get down to
drinking.  First Bird thought of going back to his apartment and drinking in his
study, but clearly that was a bad idea.  If he returned, the old landlady and his
friends might besiege him, by telephone if not in person, with detailed questions
about the birth; besides, whenever he looked into the bedroom, the baby’s white
enamel bassinet would tear his nerves like a gnashing shark.  Shaking his head
roughly, Bird drove the notion from his mind.  Why not hole up in a cheap hotel
where only strangers stayed?  But Bird pictured himself getting drunk in a locked
hotel room and he felt afraid.  Bird gazed enviously at the jolly Scotsman in the
red cutaway striding across the Johnnie Walker label.  Where was he going in such
a hurry?  All of a sudden, Bird remembered an old girlfriend.  Winter and summer
alike, during the day she was always sprawled in her darkened bedroom, pondering
something extremely metaphysical while she chain-smoked Players until an
artificial fog hung over her bed.  She never left the house until after dusk.

Bird stopped to wait for a cab just outside the college gates.  Through the large
window in the coffee shop across the street he could see his former student
sitting at a table with some friends.  The student noticed Bird at once and began
like an affectionate puppy to send sincere, ungainly signals.  His friends, too,
regarded Bird with vague, blunted curiosity.  How would he explain Bird to his
friends!  As an English instructor who had drunk himself out of graduate school, a
man in the grip of an unexplainable passion, or maybe a crazy fear?

The student smiled at him tenaciously until he was in the taxicab.  Bird realized
as he drove away that he felt as if he had just received charity.  And from a boy
who in all his time at the cram-school had never learned to distinguish English
gerunds from present participles, a former student with a brain no bigger than a
cat’s!

Bird’s friend lived on one of the city’s many hills, in a quarter ringed by
temples and cemeteries.  The girl lived alone in a tiny house at the end of an
alley.  Bird had met her at a class mixer in October of his freshman year.  When
it was her turn to stand and introduce herself, she had challenged the class to
guess the source of her unusual name: Himiko—fire-sighting-child.  Bird had
answered, correctly, that the name was taken from the Chronicles of the ancient
province of Higo—The Emperor commanded his oarsmen, saying: There in the distance
a signal fire burns; make for it straightaway.  After that, Bird and the girl
Himiko from the island of Kyushu had become friends.

There were very few girls at Bird’s university, only a handful in the liberal arts
who had come to Tokyo from the provinces; and all of those, as far as Bird knew,
had undergone a transmutation into peculiar and unclassifiable monsters shortly
after they had graduated.  A certain percentage of their body cells slowly
overdeveloped, clustered and knotted until the girls were moving sluggishly and
looking dull and melancholic.  In the end, they became fatally unfit for everyday,
postgraduate life.  If they got married, they were divorced; if they went to work,
they were fired; and those who did nothing but travel met with ludicrous and
gruesome auto accidents.  Himiko, shortly after graduation, had married a graduate
student, and she hadn’t been divorced.  Worse, a year after the marriage, her
husband had committed suicide.  Himiko’s father-in-law had made her a present of
the house the couple had been living in, and he still provided her every month
with money for living expenses.  He hoped that Himiko would remarry, but at
present she devoted her days to contemplation and cruised the city in a sports car
every night.

Bird had heard open rumors that Himiko was a sexual adventuress who had broken out
of conventional orbit.  Even rumors that related her husband’s suicide to her
deviate tastes.  Bird had slept with the girl just once, but both of them had been
terribly drunk and he wasn’t even certain coitus had been achieved.  That was long
before Himiko’s unfortunate marriage, and though she had been driven by keen
desire and had pursued her pleasure actively, Himiko had been nothing more in
those days than an inexperienced college girl.

Bird got out of the cab at the entrance to the alley where Himiko lived.  Quickly,
he calculated the money remaining in his wallet; he shouldn’t have any trouble
getting an advance on this month’s salary after class tomorrow.

Bird twisted the bottle of Johnnie Walker into his jacket pocket and hurried down
the alley, covering the neck of the bottle with his hand.  Since the neighborhood
knew all about Himiko’s eccentric life, it was impossible not to suspect that
visitors were observed discreetly from windows here and there.

Bird pushed the buzzer in the vestibule.  There was no response.  He rattled the
door a few times and softly called Himiko’s name.  This was just a formality.
Bird walked around toward the back of the house and saw that a dusty, secondhand
MG was parked beneath Himiko’s bedroom window.  With its empty seats exposed, the
scarlet MG seemed to have been abandoned here for a long time.  But it was proof
that Himiko was at home.  Bird propped a muddy shoe on the badly dented bumper and
brought his weight to bear.  The MG rocked gently, like a boat.  Bird called
Himiko’s name again, looking up at the curtained bedroom window.  Inside the room,
the curtains were lifted slightly where they met and a single eye looked down at
Bird through the narrow peephole.  Bird stopped rocking the MG and smiled: he
could always behave freely and naturally in front of this girl.

“Hey!  Bird—” Her voice impeded by the curtain and by the window glass, sounded
like a feeble, silly sigh.

Bird knew he had discovered the ideal spot for beginning a bottle of Johnnie
Walker in the middle of the day.  Feeling as though he had entered just one more
plus on the psychological balance sheet for the day, he walked back to the front
of the house.





4




I HOPE you weren’t asleep,” Bird said as Himiko opened the door for him.

“Asleep?  At this hour?” the girl teased.  Himiko held up one hand against the
midday sun but it didn’t help; the light at Bird’s back descended roughly on her
neck and shoulders, bare where her violet terrycloth bathrobe fell away.  Himiko’s
grandfather was a Kyushu fisherman who had taken as a wife, abducted really, a
Russian girl from Vladivostok.  That explained the whiteness of Himiko’s skin; you
could see the web of capillary vessels just beneath the surface.  In the way she
moved, too, was something to suggest the confusion of the immigrant who is never
quite at ease in his new country.

Wincing in the rush of light, Himiko stepped back into the shadow of the open door
with the ruffled haste of a mother hen.  She was in that meager stage of womanhood
between the vulnerable beauty of a young girl, which she had lost, and the mature
woman’s fullness still to come.  Himiko was probably the type of woman who would
have to spend a particularly long time in this tenuous state.

Quickly, in order to protect his friend from the revealing light, Bird stepped
inside and closed the door.  For an instant the cramped space of the vestibule
felt like the inside of a hooded cage.  Bird blinked rapidly while he took off his
shoes, trying to accustom his eyes to the dimness.  Himiko hovered in the darkness
behind him, watching.

“I hate to disturb people when they’re sleeping,” Bird offered.

“You’re so timid today, Bird.  Anyway, I wasn’t asleep; if I nap during the day I
can never get to sleep at night.  I was thinking about the pluralistic universe.”

Pluralistic universe?  Good enough, Bird thought, we can discuss it over whisky.
Glancing around him like a hunting dog nosing for a spoor, Bird followed Himiko
inside.  In the living room it might have been evening, and the gloom was dark and
stagnant like a bed of straw for sick livestock.  Bird squinted down at the old
but sturdy rattan chair he always sat in and carefully lowered himself into it
after removing some magazines.  Until Himiko had showered and dressed and put on
some make-up, she wouldn’t turn on the lights, much less open the curtains.
Company had to wait patiently in the dark.  During his last visit here a year ago,
Bird had stepped on a glass and had cut the base of his big toe.  Recalling the
pain and the panic, he shivered.

It was hard to decide where to put the bottle of whisky: an elaborate confusion of
books and magazines, empty boxes and bottles, shells, knives, scissors, withered
flowers collected in winter woods, insect specimens, and old and new letters
covered not only the entire floor and the table, but even the low bookcase along
the window, the record player, and the television set.  Bird hesitated, then
shuffled a small space on the floor with his feet and wedged the bottle of Johnnie
Walker between his ankles.  Watching from the door, Himiko said as though in
greeting, “I still haven’t learned to be neat.  Bird, was it like this the last
time you were here?”

“Damn right it was; I cut my big toe!”

“Of course, the floor around the chair there was all bloody, wasn’t it,” Himiko
reminisced.  “It’s been ages, Bird.  But everything’s the same around here.  How
about you?”

“As matter of fact, I had a kind of accident.”

“Accident?”

Bird hesitated; he hadn’t planned to start right in with all his troubles.  “We
had a child but it died right away,” he simplified.

“No!  Really?  The same thing happened to friends of mine—two friends!  That makes
three people I know.  Don’t you think fallout in the rain has something to do with
it?”

Bird tried comparing his child who seemed to have two heads with pictures he had
seen of mutations caused by radioactivity.  But he had only to think to himself
about the baby’s abnormality and a sense of extremely personal shame hotly rose
into his throat.  How could he discuss the misfortune with other people; it was
inherent in himself!  He had the feeling this would never be a problem he could
share with the rest of mankind.

“In my son’s case, it was apparently just an accident.”

“What an awful experience for you, Bird,” Himiko said, and she looked at him
quietly with an expression in her eyes that seemed to cloud her lids with ink.

Bird didn’t trouble himself with the message in Himiko’s eyes; instead, he lifted
the bottle of Johnnie Walker.  “I wanted somewhere to drink and I knew you
wouldn’t mind even if it was the middle of the day.  Have a drink with me?”

Bird sensed himself wheedling the girl, like any brazen young gigolo.  But that
was the way men whom Himiko knew generally behaved toward her.  The man she had
married, more openly than Bird or any of her other friends, had played up to her
as though he were a younger brother.  And suddenly one morning he had hanged
himself.

“I can see the baby’s death is still close to you, Bird.  You haven’t recovered
yet.  Well, I’m not going to ask you anything more about it.”

“That would probably be best.  There’s almost nothing to tell anyway.”

“Shall we have a drink?”

“Good.”

“I want to take a shower, but you start.  Bird!  There are glasses and a pitcher
in the kitchen.”

Himiko disappeared into the bedroom and Bird stood up.  The kitchen and the
bathroom shared the twisted space at the end of the hall that amounted to the tail
of the little house.  Bird jumped over a cat crouching on the floor, the bathrobe
and underclothes Himiko had just thrown off, and went into the kitchen.  On his
way back with a pitcher of water, glasses and cups he had washed himself, two in
each pocket, he happened to glance past the open glass door and saw Himiko
showering at the back of the bathroom, where it was even darker than the hall.
With her left hand upheld as if to check the black water pouring out of the
darkness above her head and her right hand resting on her belly, Himiko was
looking down over her right shoulder at her buttocks and slightly arched right
calf.  Bird saw back and buttocks and legs, and the sight filled him with a
disgust he couldn’t repress; his flesh turned to goosepimples.  Bird rose on his
toes as if to flee a darkness alive with ghosts: and then he was running,
trembling, past the bedroom and back to the familiar rattan chair.  He had
conquered it once, he couldn’t say when, and now it had reawakened in him: the
juvenile’s disgust, anxiety ridden, for the naked body.  Bird sensed that the
octopus of disgust would extend its tentacles even when he turned to his wife, who
now lay in a hospital bed thinking about the baby who had gone with its father to
another hospital because of a defective heart.  But would the feeling last for a
long time?  Would it grow acute?

Bird broke the seal on the bottle with his fingernail and poured himself a drink.
His arm was still shaking: the glass chattered at the bottle like an angry rat.
Bird scowled thornily, a hermetic old man, and hurled the whisky down his throat.
God, it burned!  Coughing shook him and his eyes teared.  But the arrow of red-hot
pleasure pierced his belly instantly, and the shuddering stopped.  Bird brought up
a child’s belch redolent of wild strawberries, wiped his wet lips with the back of
his hand, and filled his glass again, this time with a steady hand.  How many
thousands of hours had he been avoiding this stuff?  Harboring something like a
grudge against no one he could name, Bird emptied his second glass busily, like a
titmouse pecking at millet seeds.  His throat didn’t burn this time, he didn’t
cough, and tears didn’t come to his eyes.  Bird lifted the bottle of Johnnie
Walker and studied the picture on the label.  He sighed rapturously, and drank a
third glass.

By the time Himiko came back, Bird was beginning to get drunk.  As Himiko’s body
entered the room disgust lifted its head, but its function was impaired by the
poisons in the alcohol.  Besides, the black, one-piece dress Himiko had put on
diminished the threat of the flesh it covered: like a mass of shaggy hair, it made
her look like a laughable cartoon bear.  When Himiko had combed her hair she
turned on the lights.  Bird cleared a space on the table, set up a glass and a cup
for Himiko and poured her whisky and a glass of water.  Himiko sat down in a
large, carved, wooden chair, managing her skirt with extreme care so that no more
than necessary of her freshly washed skin was exposed.  Bird was grateful.  He was
gradually overcoming his disgust, but that didn’t mean he had uprooted it.

“Here we are,” Bird said, and drained his glass.

“Here we are!” Himiko pouted her lower lip like an orangutan sampling a flavor,
and took a tiny sip of whisky.

They sat there, quietly lacing the air with hot, whisky breath, and for the first
time looked each other in the eye.  Fresh from her shower, Himiko wasn’t ugly; the
woman who had shrunk from the sunlight might have been this girl’s mother.  Bird
was pleased.  Moments of regeneration as striking as this could still occur at
Himiko’s age.  “I thought of a poem when I was in the shower.  Do you remember
this?” Himiko whispered one line of an English poem as though it were a spell.
Bird listened, and asked her to recite it again.

“ ‘Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’ “

“But you can’t murder all the babies in their cradles,” Bird said.  “Who is the
poet?”

“William Blake.  You remember, I wrote my thesis on him.”

“Of course, you were working on Blake.” Bird turned his head and discovered the
Blake reproduction hanging on the wall that adjoined the bedroom.  He had seen the
painting often but he had never looked at it carefully.  Now he noticed how
bizarre it was.  A public square walled in by buildings in the style of the Middle
East.  In the distance rose a pair of stylized pyramids: it must have been Egypt.
The thin light of dawn suffused the scene—or was it dusk?  Sprawled in the square
like a fish with a ripped belly was the dead body of a young man.  Next to him his
distraught mother, surrounded by a group of old men with lanterns and women
cradling infants.  But the scene was dominated by the giant presence overhead,
swooping across the square with arms outspread.  Was it human?  The beautifully
muscled body was covered with scales.  The eyes were full of an ominous dolor and
were fanatically bitter; the mouth was a hollow in the face so deep it swallowed
up the nose—a salamander’s mouth.  Was it a devil?  a god?  The creature appeared
to be soaring upward, reaching for the turbulence of the night sky even while it
burned in the flames of its own scales.

“What’s he doing?  Are those supposed to be scales or is he wearing a coat of mail
like the knights in the Middle Ages?”

“I think they’re scales,” Himiko said.  “In the color plate they were green and
they looked much scalier.  He’s the Plague!  Doing his best to destroy the oldest
sons of Egypt!”

Bird didn’t know much about the Bible; perhaps it was a scene from Exodus.
Whatever, the creature’s eyes and mouth were virulently grotesque.  Grief, fear,
astonishment, fatigue, loneliness—even a hint of laughter boiled limitlessly from
its coal-black eyes and salamander mouth.

“Isn’t he a groove!” Himiko said.

“You like the man with the scales?”

“Sure I do.  And I like to imagine how I’d feel if I were the spirit of the Plague
myself.”

“Probably so badly your eyes and mouth would start looking like his.” Bird glanced
at Himiko’s mouth.

“It’s frightening, isn’t it?  Whenever I have a frightening experience, I think
how much worse it would be if I were frightening someone else—that way I get
psychological compensation.  Do you think you’ve made anyone else as afraid as
you’ve ever been in your life?”

“I wonder.  I’d have to think about it.”

“It’s probably not the sort of thing you can think about; you have to know.”

“Then I guess I’ve never really frightened another person.”

“I’m sure you haven’t—not yet.  But don’t you suppose it’s an experience you’ll
have sooner or later?” Himiko’s tone was reserved, nonetheless prophetic.

“I suppose murdering a baby in its cradle would terrify yourself and everyone
else, too.” Bird poured himself and Himiko a drink, emptied his own glass in a
swallow and filled it again.  Himiko wasn’t drinking at such a fast clip.

“Are you holding back?” Bird said.

“Because I’ll be driving later.  Have I ever given you a ride, Bird?”

“I don’t think so.  We’ll have to go one of these days.”

“Come over any night and I’ll take you.  It’s dangerous in the day because there’s
too much traffic; my reflexes are much faster when it’s dark.”

“Is that why you shut yourself up all day long and think?  You lead a real
philosopher’s life—a philosopher who races around in a red MG after dark—not bad.
What’s this pluralistic universe?”

Bird watched with mild satisfaction as delight tightened Himiko’s face.  This was
restitution for the rudeness of his sudden visit and for all the drinking he
planned to do: not that many people besides himself would lend an attentive ear to
Himiko’s reveries.

“Right now you and I are sitting and talking together in a room that’s a part of
what we call the real world,” Himiko began.  Bird settled down to listen,
carefully balancing a fresh drink on his palm.  “Well it just so happens that you
and I exist in altogether different forms in countless other universes, too.  Now!
We can both remember times in the past when the chances of living or dying were
fifty-fifty.  For example, when I was a child, I got typhoid fever and almost
died.  And I still remember perfectly well the moment when I reached a crossroads;
I could have descended into death or climbed the slope to recovery.  Naturally,
the Himiko sitting with you in this room chose the road to recovery.  But in that
same instant, another Himiko chose death!  And a universe of people with brief
memories of the Himiko who died went into motion around my young corpse all
inflamed with typhoid rash.  Do you see, Bird?  Every time you stand at a
crossroads of life and death, you have two universes in front of you; one loses
all relation to you because you die, the other maintains its relation to you
because you survive in it.  Just as you would take off your clothes, you abandon
the universe in which you only exist as a corpse and move on to the universe in
which you are still alive.  In other words, various universes emerge around each
of us the way tree limbs and leaves branch away from the trunk.

“This kind of universal cell division occurred when my husband committed suicide,
too.  I was left behind in the universe where he died, but in another universe on
the other side, where he continues to live without committing suicide, another
Himiko is living with him.  The world a man leaves behind him when he dies, say at
a very young age, and the world in which he escapes death, continue to live—the
worlds that contain us are constantly multiplying.  That’s all I mean by the
pluralistic universe.

“And you know something, Bird?  You don’t have to feel so sad about your baby’s
death.  Because another universe has diverged from the baby, and in the world
developing in that universe the baby is growing healthy and strong this very
minute.  In that world you’re a young father drunk on happiness and I’m feeling
groovy because I’ve just heard the good news and we’re drinking a toast together.
Bird?  Do you understand?”

The smile on Bird’s face was peaceful.  The alcohol had spread to the remotest
capillary in his body and it was taking its full effect: pressure had been
equalized between the pink darkness inside him and the world outside.  Not that
the feeling would last long, as Bird well knew.

“Bird, you may not understand fully but do you get at least the general idea?
There must have been moments in your twenty-seven years when you stood at a
dubious junction of life and death.  Well, at each of those moments you survived
in one universe and left your own corpse behind in another.  Bird?  You must
remember a few of those moments.”

“I do, as a matter of fact.  Are you saying I left my own corpse behind on each of
those occasions and escaped alive into this universe?”

“Exactly.”

Could she be right?  Bird wondered sleepily.  Had another Bird remained behind as
a corpse at each of those critical moments?  And was there an assortment of dead
Birds in myriad other universes, a frail and timid schoolboy, and a high-school
student with a simple mind but a much stronger body than his own?  Then which of
those many dead was the most desirable Bird?  One thing was certain: not himself,
not the Bird in this universe.

“Then is there a final death when your death in this world is your death in all
the others, too?”

“There must be: otherwise, you’d have to live to infinity in at least one
universe.  I’d say you probably die your final death of old age when you’re over
ninety.  So we all live on in one universe or another until we die of old age in
our final universe—that sounds fair, doesn’t it, Bird?”

Sudden comprehension forced Bird to interrupt: “You’re still tormenting yourself
about your husband’s suicide, aren’t you?  And you’ve conceived this whole
philosophical swindle in order to rob death of its finality.”

“Say what you want, my role since he left me behind in this universe has been to
wonder constantly why he died.  …” The gray skin around Himiko’s weakening eyes
colored with ugly swiftness.  “… now that’s an unpleasant role but I’ve stepped
into it, I’m not shirking my responsibilities, at least not in this universe.”

“Please don’t think I’m criticizing you, Himiko, because I’m not.  I just don’t
like to see you fooling yourself.  …” Bird smiled, trying to dilute the poison in
his words, yet he persisted.  “You’re trying to make something relative out of the
irrevocability of your husband’s death by assuming another universe where he is
still alive.  But you can’t make the absoluteness of death relative, no matter
what psychological tricks you use.”

“Maybe you’re right, Bird … can I have another glass of whisky, please.” Himiko’s
voice was dry, empty of interest.  Bird filled both their glasses and prayed that
Himiko would drink away her memory of his spontaneous criticism and continue again
tomorrow to dream about her pluralistic universe.  Like a time-traveler visiting a
world ten thousand years in the past, Bird was terrified of being responsible for
any mishap in the world of present time.  The feeling had been growing in him
slowly since he had learned that his baby was a freak.  Now he wanted to drop out
of this world for a while, as a man drops out of a poker game when he has a bad
run of cards.

In silence Bird and Himiko exchanged magnanimous smiles and drank their whisky
purposefully, like beetles sucking sap.  The noises from the summer afternoon
street sounded to Bird like signals from a vast distance, unheeded signals.  Bird
shifted in his chair and yawned, shedding one tear as meaningless as saliva.  He
filled his glass again and drank down the whisky in a swallow—to ensure that his
descent from the world would be smooth.  …

“Bird?”

Bird started, spilling whisky on his lap, and opened his eyes; he could feel
himself in the second stage of drunkenness.

“What?”

“That buckskin coat you got from your uncle—whatever happened to it?” Himiko moved
her tongue slowly, working at accurate pronunciation.  Her face, like a large
tomato, was round and very red.

“That’s a good question; I used to wear it in my first year at school.”

“Bird!  You still had it in the winter of your sophomore year—”

Winter—the word splashed into the pool of Bird’s whisky-weakened memory.

“That’s right—I spread it on the wet ground in that lumberyard the night we made
it together.  The next morning it was caked with mud and wood shavings.  I could
never wear it again: the cleaners wouldn’t take buckskin coats in those days.  I
think I rolled it up in a closet and later I must have thrown it away.”

As he spoke, Bird remembered that dark night in the middle of winter and the
incident that seemed already in the distant past.  It was their sophomore year at
college.  Bird and Himiko had been drinking together, and they were very drunk.
Bird walked Himiko home; he grabbed her in the darkness in the lumberyard behind
her boarding house.  They faced each other in the cold, shivering, and their
caresses were simple until Bird’s hand, as though by accident, touched Himiko’s
vagina.  Agitated, Bird pressed Himiko against some lumber that was stacked
against a board fence and labored to insert himself in her.  Himiko did her best
to help but she gave up at last and softly laughed.  Though both of them were in a
frenzy, the embrace was still in the domain of play.  Nonetheless, when he
realized he would not be able to insert his penis as long as they were standing,
Bird felt humiliatedby circumstance, which made him dogged.  He spread his
buckskin coat on the ground and lay Himiko down on top of it—laughing still.
Himiko was a tall girl: her head and her legs below the knee rested on the bare
ground.  After a while the laughing stopped and Bird supposed she was approaching
orgasm.  But a little later he inquired, and Himiko replied that she was merely
cold.  Bird interrupted their lovemaking.

“I was a real savage in those days,” Bird said reflectively, like an
octogenarian.

“I was a savage, too.”

“I wonder why we never tried again somewhere else.”

“What happened in the lumberyard seemed so accidental, I had a feeling the next
morning that it could never be repeated.”

“It was extraordinary, all right.  An incident.  Almost a rape,” Bird said
uncomfortably.

“Almost?  It was rape,” Himiko corrected.

“But was there really no pleasure at all for you?  I mean, you were nowhere near
coming?” Bird sounded resentful.

“What did you expect—after all, that was my first time.”

Bird stared at Himiko in amazement.  She wasn’t, he knew, a person to tell that
variety of lie or joke.  He was dumbfounded, and then a sense of ridiculousness a
hair’s breadth away from fear drove a short laugh past his lips.  The laughter
infected Himiko, too.

“Life is full of wonder,” Bird said, turning a fierce red that wasn’t entirely the
whisky’s fault.

“Bird, don’t sound so crushed.  The fact that I had never had sex before can only
have been significant for me, if it had any meaning at all—it had nothing to do
with you.”

Bird filled a cup instead of a glass and drank the whisky down in a single breath.
He wanted to remember the incident in the lumberyard more accurately.  It was true
that his penis had been repelled again and again by something hard and stretched
like a drawn lip.  But he had assumed that the cold had simply shriveled Himiko.
Then what about the bloodstains on the bottom of his shirt the next morning?  Why
hadn’t that made him suspect?  he wondered: and like a whim, desire seized him.
Bird bit his lips closed as if he were fighting pain, and gripped his whisky cup.
At the very center of his body a tumor of knotted pain and apprehension was
engendered, unmistakably desire itself.  Desire that resembled the pain and
anxiety that seize a patient behind the ribs in a cardiac attack.  What Bird felt
now was not that meek desire, hardly a mole on the slack face of daily life, the
polar opposite of the African dream that glinted high in the skies of his mind,
that was demeaned once or twice a week even while it was eliminated when he dug
into his wife, not that homey desire which sank in the mud of lugubrious fatigue
with one lewd, listless grunt.  This was desire that could not be assuaged by a
thousand repetitions of the act, not a ticket you relinquished after one trip
around on the toy train.  Desire you could satisfy once and never again, perilous
desire that made you wonder uneasily when the sating moment came if Death weren’t
stealing up behind your naked, sweating back.  This was desire Bird might have
satisfied late one winter night in a lumberyard if he had known for certain that
he was raping a virgin.

Bird willed his throbbing, whisky-heated eyes to dart a weasel glance at Himiko.
His brain ballooned, pulsing with blood.  Cigarette smoke circled the room like a
school of trapped sardines: Himiko seemed adrift on a sea of mist.  She was
watching Bird, her face in a funny, rapt, too simple smile, but her eyes were
perceiving nothing.  Himiko was lost in a whisky dream and her body seemed softer
and rounder all over, particularly her red, fervid face.  If only, Bird thought
ruefully, I could repeat that winter night rape scene with Himiko.  But he knew
there wasn’t a chance.  What if they did make it again sometime, their intercourse
would evoke the ravaged sparrow of a penis Bird had glimpsed this morning when he
dressed and would evoke his wife’s distended genitals sluggishly contracting after
the agony of childbirth.  Sex for Bird and Himiko would be linked to the dying
baby, linked to all of mankind’s miseries, to the wretchedness so loathsome that
people unafflicted pretended not to see it, an attitude they called humanism.  The
sublimation of desire?  This was scrapping it entirely.  Bird gulped his whisky
and his tepid insides shuddered.  If he wanted to re-create in all its marvelous
tension the sexual moment he had ruined that winter night, he would probably have
no choice but to strangle the girl to death.  The voice flapped out of the nest of
desire inside him: Butcher her and fuck the corpse!  But Bird knew he would never
undertake that kind of adventure in his present state.  I’m just feeling wistful
and deprived because I learned Himiko was a virgin.  Bird was disdainful of his
own confusion and he tried to repudiate that part of himself.  But the sea urchin
of disquiet and black-hot desire would not swim away.  If you can’t slaughter her
and rape the corpse, find something that can evoke a situation just as taut and
volatile!  But Bird was helpless; he could only stand in wonderment before his
ignorance of peril and perversion.  Bird drained his cup like a basketball player
taking a drink of water after he has been ordered off the court for too many
errors: peevishly, with self-disdain and evident distaste.  The whisky had lost
its bite now, and its bouquet; it wasn’t even bitter anymore.

“Bird—do you always gulp your whisky by the glassful?  As if it were tea?  I can’t
even drink tea that fast if it’s still hot.”

“Always, it’s always this way, when I drink,” Bird mumbled.

“Even when you’re with your wife?”

“Why?”

“You couldn’t possibly satisfy a woman when you’ve been drinking that way.  What’s
more important, I doubt that you could bring it off yourself, no matter how hard
you tried.  You’d end up with a whacky heart like a prostrate distance swimmer—and
leave an alcohol slick like a rainbow next to the woman’s head!”

“Are you thinking of going to bed with me now?”

“I wouldn’t sleep with you when you’ve had this much to drink; it would be
meaningless for both of us.”

Bird worked a finger through a hole inside his pocket and explored something warm
and soft: a silly, drowsing mouse.  And withered, in perfect opposition to the sea
urchin flaming in his chest.

“Nothing doing there, is there, Bird!” Confidently, Himiko challenged the slight
movement.

“I may not be able to come myself but I can certainly carry on like a Chinese
Monkey and boost you over the wall!”

“It’s not that simple, you know—for me to have an orgasm.  Bird, you don’t seem to
remember very clearly what happened when we lay on the ground in that lumberyard.
There’s no reason why you should.  But for me, that was an initiation rite.  It
was a cold, squalid rite, ridiculous and pathetic, too.  Since then I’ve been
running a longdistance race and it’s been a battle all the way, Bird!”

“Did I make you frigid?”

“If you mean the ordinary orgasm, I discovered that for myself right away.  I had
help from some of the guys in my class, almost before the mud under my nails from
the lumberyard had dried.  But ever since then I’ve been chasing a better orgasm,
and then one better still—like climbing a flight of stairs!”

“And that’s all you’ve done since you graduated from college?”

“Since before I graduated.  I can see now that’s been my real work since I was a
student.”

“You must be plenty sick of it.”

“No, that’s not true, Bird.  One of these days I’ll prove it to you—unless you
want your only sexual memory of me to be that incident in the lumberyard.  Bird?”

“And I’ll teach you what I’ve picked up during my own long-distance race,” Bird
said.  “Let’s stop pecking at each other with our beaks like a pair of frustrated
chicks; let’s go to bed!”

“You’ve had too much to drink, Bird.”

“You think a penis is the only organ that has anything to do with sex?  I’d say
that’s pretty crude for an explorer in search of the supreme orgasm.”

“Would you use fingers, then?  Or lips?  Or maybe some organ too freaky to
believe, like an appendix?  Sorry, that’s not for me; it’s too much like
masturbation.”

“You’re certainly frank,” Bird winced.

“Besides, Bird, you’re not really looking for anything sexual today.  You look to
me as if sex would disgust you.  Let’s say we did go to bed together, you’d have
all you could do to crumple between my legs and vomit.  Your disgust would
overwhelm you, and you’d smear my belly with brown whisky and yellow bile.  You
would, Bird!  That happened to me once and it was awful.”

“I guess we do learn from experience sometimes; your observations are correct,”
Bird said dejectedly.

“There’s no hurry,” Himiko consoled.

“No.  No hurry.  Seems like a hell of a long time since I was in a situation where
I had to hurry.  I was always in a hurry when I was a kid.  I wonder why.”

“Maybe because one has so little time as a child.  I mean, you grow up so fast.”

“I grew up fast, all right.  And now I’m old enough to be a father.  Only I wasn’t
adequately prepared as a father so I couldn’t come up with a proper child.  You
think I’ll ever become the father of a normal child?  I have no confidence.”

“No one is confident about that kind of thing, Bird.  When your next baby has
turned out to be perfectly healthy then you’ll know for certain that you’re a
normal father.  And you’ll feel confident in retrospect.”

“You’ve really become wise about life.” Bird was heartened.  “Himiko, I’d like to
ask you—” The sleep anemone was engulfing him in waves and Bird knew he wouldn’t
be able to resist for more than a minute.  He peered at the empty glass wavering
in his field of vision and shook his head, wondering whether to have another
drink; finally he conceded that his body could not accept another drop of whisky.
The glass slipped through his fingers, struck his lap, and rolled onto the floor.

“Himiko, I’d like to ask you one more thing,” Bird said, trying a little weight on
his legs to see if he could stand, “—what kind of world after death do you go to
when you die as an infant?”

“If there is such a world, it must be very simple, Bird.  But can’t you believe in
my pluralistic universe?  Your baby will live to the ripe old age of ninety in his
final universe!”

“Ah yes,” Bird said.  “Well.  I’m going to sleep.  Himiko!  Is it night yet?
Would you take a peek through the curtains, please.”

“It’s the middle of the day, Bird.  If you want to sleep, you can use my bed; I’ll
be going out as soon as it’s dark.”

“You’d abandon a pitiful friend for a red sports car?”

“When a pitiful friend is drunk, the best thing to do is to leave him alone.
Otherwise we might both regret it later.”

“Absolutely right!  You have a hold on all the best of mankind’s wisdom.  So you
drive around in that MG all night?  Until dawn?”

“Sometimes, Bird.  I have rounds to make—like a sandman looking for children who
can’t sleep!”

When Bird finally hoisted himself out of the rattan chair, limp and heavy as
another man’s body, he wrapped an arm around Himiko’s sturdy shoulders and headed
for the bedroom.  A funny dwarf was dancing around inside the fiery sun that was
his head, scattering powdered light like the fairy he had seen in Peter Pan.  Bird
laughed, tickled by the hallucination.  As he collapsed on the bed, he managed one
grateful exclamation: “Himiko!  You’re like a kind great-aunt!”

Bird slept.  Across the twilight square in his dream a scaly man moved with dark,
sad eyes and a terrifying gash of a salamander mouth: but soon he was enfolded in
the eddying, reddish-black dusk.  The sound of a sports car pulling away; deep,
comprehensive sleep.

Twice during the night Bird woke up, and neither time was Himiko there.  He was
awakened by restrained but persistent voices calling from outside the window:
“Himiko!  Himiko!”

In the first voice there was still an adolescent ring.  The next time Bird opened
his eyes, he heard the voice of a middle-aged man.  He got out of bed, lifted the
curtains where they met just as Himiko had done to look at him, and peered down at
the night visitor.  In the pale moonlight Bird saw a small gentleman in a linen
tuxedo that looked too tight, as though it had shrunk; his round, eggish head
lifted to the window, the little man was calling Himiko’s name with a clouded
expression that seemed to be a compound of embarrassment and mild self-disgust.
Bird dropped the curtains and went into the next room to get the whisky bottle.
In one swallow he drank what remained, burrowed back into his girlfriend’s bed,
and instantly fell asleep.





5




AGAIN and again the moaning invaded his sleep until, reluctantly, Bird woke up.
At first he thought he was moaning himself; indeed, as he opened his eyes, the
numberless devils spawning in his belly pierced his innards with their tiny arrows
and forced a moan from his own lips.  But now he heard again a moan that wasn’t
coming from himself.  Gingerly, without disturbing the position of his body, Bird
lifted his head only and looked down at the side of the bed.  Himiko was asleep on
the bare floor, wedged between the bed and the television set.  And she was
moaning like a strong animal, transmitting moans as if they were signals from the
world of her dream.  The signals indicated fear.

Through the dim mesh of air in the room Bird watched Himiko’s young, round, ashen
face stiffen as though in pain and go stupidly slack.  The blanket had slipped to
her waist; Bird scrutinized her chest and sides.  Her breasts were perfect
hemispheres but they drooped unnaturally to either side, avoiding one another.
The region between her breasts was broad and flat and somehow stolid.  Bird sensed
a familiarity with this immature chest: he must have seen it in the lumberyard
that winter night.  But Himiko’s sides and the swell of her belly, almost hidden
under the blanket, did not evoke nostalgia.  There was a suggestion there of the
fat which age was beginning to plant in her body.  And that hint of flabbiness was
a part of Himiko’s new life; it had nothing to do with Bird.  The fatty roots
beneath her skin would probably spread like fire and transform completely the
shape of her body.  Her breasts, too, would lose the little youth and freshness
they retained.

Himiko again moaned and her eyes shuttered open as though she had been startled.
Bird pretended to be asleep.  When a minute later he opened his eyes, Himiko was
asleep again.  Now she lay still as a mummy, wrapped to her throat in the
blankets, sleeping a silent, expressionless insect’s sleep.  She must have managed
to reach an agreement with the ogres in her dream.  Bird closed his eyes in relief
and turned back to his threatening blackmailer of a stomach.  Suddenly his stomach
inflated until it filled his body and crowded the entire world of his
consciousness.  Fragments of thought tried to penetrate to the center of his mind:
when did Himiko get back?—had the baby been carried to the dissection table with
its head in bandages like Apollinaire?—would he make it through class today
without accident?—but one by one they were repulsed by the pressure his stomach
applied.  Bird knew he would vomit any minute and fear chilled the skin on his
face.

What will she think of me if I filthy this bed with vomit?  When I was good and
drunk I took her virginity in what amounted to a rape, outdoors, in the middle of
winter, and I didn’t even realize what I was doing!  Years later, when I spend the
night in her room, I get drunk all over and wake up ready to spill my guts.  How
lousy can you be!  Bird brought up in quick succession ten reeking burps and sat
upright in bed, groaning with the pain in his head.  The first step away from the
bed was fraught with difficulty but finally Bird was on his way to the bathroom.
He discovered to his surprise that he was wearing only his underwear.

When Bird closed the ill-fitting glass door and found himself secluded in the
bathroom, he tasted the joy of an unanticipated possibility: he might just succeed
in emptying his stomach without being caught by Himiko.  If he could vomit as
delicately as a grasshopper …

Kneeling, Bird rested his elbows on the modern toilet bowl, lowered his head, and
waited in an attitude of pious prayer for the tension in his stomach to explode.
His face had been thoroughly chilled, but now it was flushed with an unnatural
heat, and then abruptly numb and icy again.  Peering into it from this position,
the toilet was like a large, white throat, the more so because of the clear water
in the narrowed bottom of the bowl.

The first wave of nausea hit.  Bird barked, his neck stiffened, and his belly
heaved.  Smarting water filled his nose and tears dribbled down his cheeks to the
bits of vomited food that stuck to his upper lip.  Again Bird gagged and weakly
vomited up what remained in his esophagus.  Yellow sparks whirled in his head—time
for a short reprieve.  Straightening like a plumber who has just finished up a
job, Bird wiped his face with toilet paper and loudly blew his nose.  Ah, he
sighed.  But it wasn’t over yet; not a chance.  Once Bird was sick to his stomach
he threw up at least twice; it was always the same.  And he couldn’t rely the
second time on the muscles in his stomach; the second time he had to force the
spasm by twisting a finger in the slime of his throat.  Bird sighed again in
anticipation of the agony, and lowered his head.  The inside of the toilet bowl,
filthy now, was desolating.  Bird closed his eyes in an excess of disgust, groped
above his head, and pulled the chain.  A flood of water roared and a small
whirlwind coolly grazed his forehead.  When he opened his eyes, the large white
throat gaped at him again pristinely.  Bird thrust a finger into his own red and
paltry throat, and forced himself to vomit.  Groans and meaningless tears, the
yellow sparks inside his head, membranes smarting in his nose.  Finishing, he
wiped his soiled fingers and mouth and his tear-streaked cheeks and slumped
against the toilet bowl.  Would this amount at least to partial restitution for
the baby’s suffering?  Bird wondered, and then he blushed at his own impudence.
If any suffering was fruitless it was the agony of a hangover; what he suffered
now could not expiate suffering of any other kind.

You can’t let yourself feel consoled by this phony restitution, not even for as
long as a flickering in your brain—Bird admonished himself in the manner of a
moralist.  Yet his relief after the vomiting and the relative silence of the
demons in his belly, albeit that could not last long, made for the first tolerable
minutes Bird had spent since opening his eyes.  He had a class to teach today, and
there would be forms to complete at the hospital for the baby who was probably
dead by now.  Bird would contact his mother-in-law about the baby’s death and he
would have to discuss with her when to inform his wife.  It was a hell of a
schedule.  And here I am in my girlfriend’s bathroom, slumped against the toilet
in a daze with my strength all puked away.  It was preposterous!  And yet Bird was
not afraid; in fact, the present half-hour of helplessness and utter
irresponsibility tasted sweetly of self-salvation.  Crumpled on the floor as he
was, aware only of the smarting in his nose and throat, Bird was a kind of brother
to the baby on the verge of death.  My only saving grace is that I don’t bawl the
way a baby does.  Not that my behavior isn’t ten times as disgraceful.  …

Had it been possible, Bird would have elected to hurl himself into the toilet as
he pulled the chain and thus be flushed with a roar of water down into a sewery
hell.  Instead he spat once, moved away from the toilet reluctantly, and opened
the glass door.  At that moment he had forgotten about Himiko somehow, but as soon
as he placed one bare foot in the bedroom he knew that she was wide awake and had
pictured to herself the little drama in the toilet and the peculiar silence that
had followed.  The girl lay on the floor as before, but Bird could see in the fine
powder of light sifting through a crack where the curtains met that her eyes,
while darkly shadowed from corner to corner, were open wide.  He had no choice but
to scurry around her feet like a mouse, heading for his shirt and pants at the
foot of the bed.  Meanwhile, Himiko would probably stare with eyes opaque as open
camera lenses at his flaccid belly and sinewy thighs.

“Did you hear me vomiting like a dog in there?” Bird asked in a timid voice.

“Like a dog?  You don’t often hear a dog with such terrific volume,” Himiko said
in a voice still fogged with sleep, gazing at Bird as if to inspect him, her quiet
eyes wide.

“This was a St. Bernard as big as a cow,” Bird said in disappointment.

“It sounded bad—are you through?”

“Yes, for now.” Bird wobbled toward the bed, trampling Himiko’s legs so badly on
the way that she cried out in protest, and finally managed to reach his pants.
“But I’m sure I’ll be sick again sometime this morning; it always happens that
way.  I haven’t been drinking for a while, and hangovers have stayed away from me,
so this may be the worst one of my life.  Now that I think about it, it was trying
to polish off a hangover with a little hair of the dog that started me circling in
endless alcoholic orbit.” Bird tried for a droll effect by exaggerating the
mournfulness in his voice, but he ended on a bitter, introspective note.

“Why not try the same again?”

“I can’t afford to be drunk today.”

“Lemon juice will perk you up; there are some lemons in the kitchen.”

Bird peered into the kitchen obediently.  In the sink, stabbed by a ray of light
right out of the Flemish school that cut into the kitchen through a pane of
frosted glass, a dozen pell-mell lemons glistened with such rawness that the
nerves of Bird’s weakened stomach quaked at the sight of them.

“Do you always buy so many lemons?” Having struggled frantically into his pants
and buttoned his shirt up to the neck, Bird was in possession of himself again.

“It depends, Bird,” Himiko replied with terrific indifference, as if she were
trying to impress on Bird the boredom of his question.  Bird, rattled again, “When
did you get back, anyway?  Did you drive around in that MG until dawn?” Instead of
answering, Himiko merely stared at him mockingly, so Bird hurried to add, as if
the report were crucial: “Two friends of yours came around in the middle of the
night.  One seemed to be just a boy and the other was a middle-aged gentleman with
a head like an egg; I got a look at him from behind the curtain.  But I didn’t say
hello.”

“Say hello?  Naturally, you didn’t have to,” said Himiko, unmoved.  Bird took his
wristwatch out of his jacket pocket and checked the time—nine o’clock.  His class
began at ten.  A cram-school instructor brave enough to stay home without
notifying the office or to show up late for a class would have to be quite a man.
Bird was neither so dauntless nor so dim of wit.  He tied his necktie by feel.

“I’ve been to bed with each of them a few times and they think that gives them the
right to come over here in the middle of the night.  The young one is a freaky
type; he’s not specially interested in just the two of us sleeping together; his
dream is to be around when I’m in bed with someone else so that he can help out.
He always waits until somebody is with me here and then he comes around.  Even
though he’s fantastically jealous!”

“Have you given him the chance he’s looking for?”

“Certainly not!” Himiko snapped.  “That boy has a thing for adults like you; if
you ever got together he’d do everything he could to please you.  Bird, I bet
you’ve had that kind of service lots of times before.  Weren’t there boys below
you in college who worshiped you?  And there must be students in your classes who
are particularly devoted.  I’ve always thought of you as a hero figure for kids in
that kind of sub-culture.”

Bird shook his head in denial and went into the kitchen.  He realized as the soles
of his feet touched the chilly wooden floor that he had not put on his socks, and
wasn’t that going to be a chore!  If he put pressure on his stomach when he bent
over to look for his socks he might throw up again.  Bird winced.  But it felt
good to tread the floor in bare feet, and grasping a lemon with wet fingers while
water from the tap pummeled his hands was pleasurable too, if only mildly.  Bird
selected a large lemon, cut it in half, and squeezed the juice into his mouth.  A
sensation of recovery he remembered well dropped cold and tingly with lemon juice
from his throat toward his tyrannized stomach.  Bird returned to the bedroom and
began looking for his socks, carefully holding himself straight up.

“That lemon really seems to have done the job,” he said to Himiko gratefully.

“You may vomit again but this time it’ll taste of lemon; it might be nice.”

“Thanks a lot for the encouragement.” Bird watched the contentment the juice had
brought him scatter like mist before a wind.

“What are you looking for?  You look like a bear hunting a crab.”

“My socks,” Bird murmured; his bare feet struck him as ridiculous.

“In your shoes, so you can put them on together when you leave.”

Bird looked down at Himiko doubtfully as she lay on the floor in her blanket and
supposed this was the custom here whenever one of her lovers bundled into bed.
She probably took the precaution so that her friends could flee the house in their
bare feet with their shoes in hand if a bigger and wilder lover should appear.

“I’d better be going,” Bird said.  “I have two classes this morning.  Thanks a lot
for last night and this morning.”

“Will you come again?  Bird, it’s possible we may need each other.”

If suddenly a mute had screamed, Bird would not have been more astonished.  Himiko
was looking up at him with her thick eyelids lowered and her brow creased.

“Maybe you’re right.  Maybe we do need each other.”

Like an explorer tramping marsh country, Bird made his way in trepidation over
thorny stems and scratchy bits of wire through the darkness of the living room;
and when finally he bent forward in the vestibule, he hurried into his socks and
shoes, afraid that nausea might set in.

“So long,” Bird called.  “Sleep well!” Himiko was silent as a stone.

Bird stepped outside.  A summer morning filled with light as sharp as vinegar.  As
Bird passed the scarlet MG, he noticed the key in the ignition switch.  One of
these days a thief would make off with the car with no trouble at all.  The
thought saddened him.  Himiko!  How could such a diligent, careful, and astute
co-ed have been transformed into this flawed personality?  The girl had married
only to have her young husband kill himself, and now, after the catharsis of
racing her car far into the night, she saw dreams that made her moan in terror.

Bird started to take the key out of the switch.  But if he returned to the room
where his friend lay in the darkness, frowning in silence with her eyes shut
tight, getting back outside again promised to be difficult.  Bird let go of the
key, and looked around; there were no car thieves lurking in the vicinity, he
consoled himself, at least not at the moment.  On the ground next to one of the
spoke wheels was a cigar butt.  That little man with an egg for a head must have
dropped it there last night.  The group looking after Himiko on more intimate
terms than Bird was certain to be large in number.

Bird shook his head roughly and took a few deep breaths, trying to defend himself
against the crawfish of his hangover, armored in a host of threats.  But he was
unable to rid himself of a bludgeoned feeling, and he stepped out of the
glistening alley with his head bowed.

Nonetheless, Bird cunningly managed to hold up all the way to and through the
school gate.  There was the street, the platform, then the train.  Worst was the
train, but Bird survived the vibrations and the odor of other bodies despite his
parched throat.  Of all the passengers in the car, Bird alone was sweating, as if
full summer had rushed in to occupy the square yard around him only.  People who
brushed bodies with him all turned back to stare suspiciously.  Bird could only
cringe and, like a pig that had glutted a crate of lemons, exhale citric breath.
His eyes restlessly roamed the car, searching for a spot to which he could dash in
case of an urgent need to vomit.

When he finally arrived at the school gate without having been sick to his
stomach, Bird felt like an old soldier exhausted by a long retreat from battle.
But the worst was still to come.  The enemy had circled and lay in wait ahead.

Bird took a reader and a chalk box out of his locker.  He glanced at the Concise
Oxford Dictionary on top of the shelf, but today it looked too heavy to carry all
the way to class.  And there were several students in his class whose knowledge of
idioms and rules of grammar far exceeded his own.  If he encountered a word he had
never seen, or a difficult phrase, he would only have to call on one of them.  The
heads of Bird’s students were so crammed with knowledge of details they were as
complicated as hyper-evolved clams: the minute they tried to perceive a problem
integrally, the mechanism tangled in itself and stalled.  It was accordingly
Bird’s job to integrate and summarize the entire meaning of a passage.  Yet he was
in constant doubt close to an incombustible fixation about whether his classes
were of any use when it came to college entrance examinations.

Hoping to avoid his department chairman, a personable, keen-eyed University of
Michigan graduate who had risen, it was clear, from the foreign student elite,
Bird stepped outside through a rear exit, avoiding the elevator in the teachers’
lounge, and started up the spiral stairs that clung like ivy to the outside wall.
Not daring to look down at the prospect unfolding below him gradually, barely
enduring the swaying of the stairs like the motion of a rolling ship produced by
students pounding past him: pale, panting, belching with a groan every step or two
of the way.  So slowly did Bird climb that students overtaking him, dismayed for
an instant by their own speed, stopped short and peered into his face, hesitated,
then raced on again, shaking the iron stairs.  Bird sighed, his head swimming, and
clung to the iron railing.  …

What a relief to reach the top of the stairs!  and then someone called his name
and Bird’s uneasiness returned.  It was a friend who was helping sponsor a Slavic
languages study group that Bird had formed with some other interpreters.  But
since Bird had all he could do at the moment playing cat-and-mouse with his
hangover, meeting someone he had not expected struck him as a terrific nuisance.
He closed himself like a shellfish under attack.

“Hey—Bird!” his friend called: the nickname was still valid in any situation, for
all categories of friend.  “I’ve been calling since last night but I couldn’t get
you.  So I thought I’d come over—”

“Oh?” said Bird, unsociably.

“Have you heard the news about Mr. Delchef?”

“News?” Bird repeated, feeling vaguely apprehensive.  Mr. Delchef was an attaché
in the legation from a small socialist state in the Balkans and the study group’s
instructor.

“Apparently he’s moved in with a Japanese girl and won’t go back to the legation.
They say it’s been a week.  The legation wants to keep things in the family and
bring Mr. Delchef back themselves, but they’ve only been here a little while and,
well, they’re short of people.  The girl lives in the slummiest part of Shinjuku,
it’s like a maze in there; there just isn’t anyone at the legation who gets around
well enough to search for strays in a neighborhood like that.  That’s where we
come in: the legation has asked the study group to help out.  Of course, we’re
partly responsible for the whole thing anyway—”

“Responsible?”

“Mr.  Delchef met her at that bar we took him to after a meeting, you know, the
Pullman Car.” Bird’s friend snickered.  “Don’t you remember that small, peculiar,
pasty-faced girl?”

Bird recalled her right away, a small, peculiar, pasty-faced girl.  “But she
didn’t speak English or any Slavic language and Mr. Delchef’s Japanese is no good
at all—how do they get along?”

“That’s the hell of it; how do you suppose they spent a whole week, clammed up, or
what?” The friend seemed embarrassed by his own innuendo.

“What will happen if Mr. Delchef doesn’t go back to the legation?  Will that make
him a defector or something?”

“You can bet it will!”

“He’s really asking for trouble, Mr. Delchef—” Bird said glumly.

“We’d like to call a meeting of the study group and think it over.  Are you free
tonight?”

“Tonight?—” Bird was nonplused.  “—I—can’t make it tonight.”

“But you were closer than any of us to Mr. Delchef.  If we decide to send an envoy
from the study group, we were hoping you’d agree to go—”

“An envoy—anyway, I couldn’t possibly make it tonight,” Bird said.  Then he forced
himself to add: “We had a child but there was something wrong and he’s either dead
already or dying right now.”

“God!” Bird’s friend exclamed, wincing.  Above their heads the bell began to
ring.

“That’s awful, really awful.  Listen, we’ll manage without you tonight.  And try
not to let it get the best of you—is your wife all right?”

“Fine, thank you.”

“When we decide what to do about Mr. Delchef, I’ll get in touch.  God, you look
run down—take care of yourself—”

“Thank you.”

Bird, watching his friend flounce down the spiral stairs in reckless haste, as
though he were running away, was angry with himself for having kept silent about
his hangover.  Bird went into his classroom.  And just for a second he was
confronting one hundred fly-head faces.  Then he lowered his gaze as though
reflexively; wary of lifting his head again and looking his students in the face,
and holding the reader and the chalk box in front of his chest like weapons of
self-defense, he stepped up to the lectern.

Classtime!  Bird opened the reader at the bookmark to the passage at which he had
stopped the week before, without any notion of what it was.  He began to read
aloud, and he realized right away that it was a paragraph from Hemingway.  The
reader was a large collection of short passages from modern American literature,
chosen by the department chairman because he happened to like them and because
each was mined with grammatical traps.  Hemingway!  Bird was encouraged.  He liked
Hemingway, especially The Green Hills of Africa.  The passage in the reader was
from The Sun Also Rises, a scene near the end when the hero goes for a swim in the
ocean.  The narrator swims out beyond the breakers, taking a dunking now and then,
and when he reaches the offing where the water is calm, he turns over on his back
and floats.  All he can see is sky, and beneath him he feels the rise of the swell
and the fall.  …

In the depths of his body, Bird felt the beginning of an irrepressible and certain
crisis.  His throat went utterly dry; his tongue swelled in his mouth like a
foreign body.  Bird submerged in the amniotic fluid of fear.  But he continued to
read aloud, glancing like a sick weasel, craftily and feebly, at the door.  Could
he make it in time if he charged in that direction?  But how much better to ride
the crisis out without having to make a run for it.  Hoping to take his mind off
his stomach, Bird tried to place the paragraph he was reading in context.  The
hero lay around on the beach and went in for another swim.  When he returned to
the hotel, a telegram was waiting from his mistress, who had run off with a young
bullfighter.  Bird tried to remember the telegram: COULD YOU COME HOTEL MONTANA
MADRID AM RATHER IN TROUBLE BRETT.

Yes, that sounded right: and he had remembered it easily.  It’s a good omen, of
all the telegrams I’ve ever read, this was the most appealing.  I should be able
to overcome the nausea—more a prayer than a thought.  Bird continued to
reconstruct: the hero dives into the ocean with his eyes open and sees something
green oozing along the bottom.  If that appears in this passage, I’ll make it
through without throwing up.  It’s a magic spell.  Bird went on: “I” came out of
the water, returned to the hotel, and picked up his telegram.  It was just as Bird
had remembered it: COULD YOU COME HOTEL MONTANA MADRID AM RATHER IN TROUBLE
BRETT.

But the hero had left the beach, and not a word about swimming underwater with his
eyes open.  Bird was surprised; had he been thinking of another Hemingway novel?
Or was the scene from an altogether different writer?  Doubt broke the spell and
Bird lost his voice.  A web of bone-dry cracks opened in his throat and his tongue
swelled until it tried to burst from his lips.  Facing one hundred fly-heads, Bird
lifted his eyes and smiled.  Five seconds of ridiculous, desperate silence.  Then
Bird crumpled to his knees, spread his fingers like a toad on the muddy wooden
floor, and with a groan began to vomit.  Bird vomited like a retching cat, his
neck thrust stiffly from his shoulders.  And his guts were being twisted and wrung
dry: he looked like a puny demon writhing beneath the foot of an enormous Deva
king.  Bird had hoped at least to achieve a little humor in his vomiting style,
but his actual performance was anything but funny.  One thing, as the vomit
submerged the base of his tongue and ran back down his throat, just as Himiko had
predicted, it had a definite taste of lemons.  The violet that blooms from the
dungeon wall, Bird told himself, trying to regain his composure.  But such
psychological wiles crumbled like pie crust in the face of spasms that now struck
with the force of a full gale: a thundrous groan wrenched Bird’s mouth open and
his body stiffened.  From both sides of his head a blackness swiftly grew like
blinders on a horse and darkly narrowed his field of vision.  Bird longed to
burrow into a still darker, still deeper place, and from there to leap away into
another universe!

A second later, Bird found himself in the same universe.  With tears wetting both
sides of his nose, he gazed mournfully down into the puddle of his own vomit.  A
pale, red-ochre puddle, scattered with vivid yellow lemon lees.  Seen from a
low-flying plane at a desolate and withered time of year, the plains of Africa
might hue to these same colors: lurking in the shadow of those lemon dregs were
hippo and anteaters and wild mountain goats.  Strap on a parachute, grip your
rifle, and leap out and down in grasshopper haste.

The nausea had subsided.  Bird brushed at his mouth with a muddy, bile-fouled hand
and then stood up.

“Due to circumstances, I’d like to dismiss class early today,” he said in a voice
like a dying gasp.  The class appeared convinced; Bird moved to pick up his reader
and the box of chalk.  All of a sudden, one of the fly-heads leaped up and began
to shout.  The boy’s pink lips fluttered, and his round, effeminate, peasant’s
face turned a vibrant red, but as he muffled his words inside his mouth and tended
to stutter besides, it wasn’t easy to understand what he was asserting.
Gradually, all became quite clear.  From the beginning, the boy had been
criticizing the unsuitability of Bird’s attitude as an instructor, but when he saw
that Bird’s only response was to display an air of perplexity, he had become a
hostile devil of attack.  Endlessly he harangued about the high cost of the
tuition, the briefness of the time remaining until college entrance exams, the
students’ faith in the cram-school, and their sense of outrage now that their
expectations had been betrayed.  Gradually, as wine turns to vinegar, Bird’s
consternation turned to fear, aureoles of fear spread around his eyes like deep
rings: he felt himself turning into a frightened monocle monkey.  Before long, his
attacker’s indignation would infect the other ninety-nine fly-heads: Bird would be
surrounded by one hundred furious college rejects and not a chance of breaking
free.  It was brought home to him again how little he understood the students he
had been instructing week after week.  An inscrutable enemy one hundred strong had
brought him to bay, and he discovered that successive waves of nausea had washed
his strength onto the beach.

The accuser’s agitation mounted until he was on the verge of tears.  But Bird
couldn’t have answered the young man even if he tried: after the vomiting his
throat was as dry as straw, secreting not one drop of saliva.  The most he felt he
could manage was one eminently birdlike cry.  Ah, he moaned, soundlessly, what
should I do?  This kind of awful pitfall is always lurking in my life, waiting for
me to tumble in.  And this is different from the kind of crisis I was supposed to
encounter in my life as an adventurer in Africa.  Even if I did fall into this pit
I couldn’t pass out or die a violent death.  I could only stare blankly at the
walls of the trap forever.  I’m the one who’d like to send a telegram, AM RATHER
IN TROUBLE—but addressed to whom?

It was then a youth with a quick-witted look stood up from his seat in a middle
row and said quietly, untheatrically, “Knock it off, will you—stop complaining!”

The mirage of hard, thorny feeling that was beginning to mount throughout the
classroom instantly disappeared.  Amused excitement welled in its place and the
class raised its voice in laughter.  Time to act!  Bird put the reader on top of
the chalk box and walked over to the door.  He was stepping out of the room when
he heard shouting again and turned around; the student who had persisted in
attacking him was down on all fours, just as Bird had been when he was sick, and
he was sniffing the pool of Bird’s vomit.  “This stinks of whisky!” the boy
screamed.  “You’ve got a hangover, you bastard!  I’m going to the Principal with a
darektapeel and getting your ass fired!”

A darektapeel?  Bird wondered, and as he comprehended—Ah!—a direct appeal!—that
delightful young man stood up again and said in gloomy tones that brought new
laughter from the class, “You shouldn’t lap that stuff up; it’ll make you puke.”

Liberated from his sprawling prosecutor, Bird climbed down the spiral stairs.
Maybe, just as Himiko said, there really was a band of young vigilantes ready to
ride to his assistance when he blundered into trouble.  For the two or three
minutes it took him to climb down the spiral stairs, though from time to time he
scowled at the sourness of vomit lingering on his tongue or at the back of his
throat—for those few minutes, Bird was happy.





6




AT the junction of corridors that led to the pediatrics office and the intensive
care ward, Bird halted in indecision.  A young patient approaching in a wheelchair
swerved, glowering, to let him pass.  Where his two feet should have been, the
patient rested a large, old-fashioned radio.  Nor were his feet to be seen in any
other place.  Abashed, Bird pressed himself against the wall.  Once again the
patient looked at him threateningly, as if Bird represented all men who carried
their bodies through life on two feet; then he shot down the corridor at amazing
speed.  Watching him go, Bird sighed.  Assuming his baby was still alive, he
should proceed straight to the ward.  But if the baby was dead, he would have to
present himself at the pediatrics office to make arrangements for an autopsy and
cremation.  It was a gamble.  Bird began to walk toward the office.  He had placed
his bet on the baby’s death, he installed the fact prominently in his
consciousness.  Now he was the baby’s true enemy, the first enemy in its life, the
worst.  If life was eternal and if there was a god who judged, Bird thought, then
he would be found guilty.  But his guilt now, like the grief that had assailed him
in the ambulance when he had compared the baby to Apollinaire with his head in
bandages, tasted primarily of honey.

His step quickening steadily, as if he were on his way to meet a lover, Bird
hurried in quest of a voice that would announce his baby’s death.  When he
received the news, he would make the necessary arrangements (arranging for the
autopsy would be easy because the hospital would be eager to cooperate; probably
the cremation would be a nuisance).  Today I’ll mourn the baby alone, tomorrow
I’ll report our misfortune to my wife.  The baby died of a head wound and now he
has become a bond of flesh between us—I’ll say something like that.  We’ll manage
to restore our family life to normal.  And then, all over again, the same
dissatisfactions, the same desires unrealized, Africa the same vast distance away.
…

With his head atilt, Bird peered into the low reception window, gave his name to
the nurse who stared back at him from behind the glass, and explained the
situation as it had stood a day ago when the baby had been brought in.

“Oh yes, you want to see that baby with the brain hernia,” the nurse said
cheerfully, her face relaxing into a smile.  She was a woman in her forties, with
a scattering of black hairs growing around her lips.  “You should go directly to
the intensive care ward.  Do you know where it is?”

“Yes, I do,” Bird said in a hoarse, wasted voice.  “Does that mean the baby is
still alive?”

“Why of course he’s alive!  He’s taking his milk very nicely and his arms and legs
are good and strong.  Congratulations!”

“But it is a brain hernia—”

“That’s right, brain hernia,” the nurse smiled, ignoring Bird’s hesitation.  “Is
this your first child?”

Bird merely nodded, then hurried back down the corridor toward the intensive care
ward.  So he had lost the bet.  How much would he have to pay?  Bird encountered
the patient in the wheelchair again at a turn in the corridor, but this time he
marched straight ahead without so much as a sidelong glance and the cripple had to
wheel himself frantically out of the way just before the collision.  Far from
being intimidated by the other, Bird wasn’t even conscious of the patient’s
affliction.  What if the man had no feet: Bird was as empty inside as an unloaded
warehouse.  At the pit of his stomach and deep inside his head, the hangover still
sang a lingering, venomous song.  Breathing raggedly, his breath fetid, Bird
hurried down the corridor.  The passageway that connected the main wing and the
wards arched upward like a suspension bridge, aggravating Bird’s sense of
unbalance.  And the corridor through the wards, hemmed on both sides by sickroom
doors, was like a dark culvert extending toward a feeble, distant light.  His face
the color of ash, Bird gradually quickened his step until he was almost running.

The door to the intensive care ward, like the entrance to a freezer, was of rugged
tin sheeting.  Bird gave his name to the nurse standing just inside the door as if
he were whispering something shameful.  He was in the grip again of the
embarrassment he had felt about himself for having a body and flesh when he had
first learned yesterday of the baby’s abnormality.  The nurse ushered Bird inside
officiously.  While she was closing the door behind him, Bird glanced into an oval
mirror that was hanging on a pillar just inside the room and saw oil and sweat
glistening from forehead to nose, lips parted with ragged breathing, clouded eyes
that clearly were turned in upon themselves: it was the face of a pervert.  Jolted
by sudden disgust, Bird looked away quickly, but already his face had engraved its
impression behind his eyes.  A presentiment like a solemn promise grazed his
flushed head: from now on I’ll suffer often from the memory of this face.

“Can you tell me which is yours?” Standing at Bird’s side, the nurse spoke as if
she were addressing the father of the hospital’s healthiest and most beautiful
baby.  But she wasn’t smiling, she didn’t even seem sympathetic; Bird decided this
must be the standard intensive care ward quiz.  Not only the nurse who had asked
the question but two young nurses who were rinsing baby bottles beneath a huge
water heater on the far wall, and the older nurse measuring powdered milk next to
them, and the doctor studying file cards at a cramped desk against the smudgy
poster-cluttered wall, and the doctor on this side of him, conversing with a
stubby little man who seemed, like Bird, to be the father of one of the seeds of
calamity gathered here—everybody in the room stopped what he was doing and turned
in expectant silence to look at Bird.

Bird’s eye swept the babies’ room on the other side of the wide, plated-glass
partition.  His conscious sense of the doctors’ and nurses’ presence in the ward
instantly dropped away.  Like a puma with fierce, dry eyes searching the plain for
feeble prey from the top of a termite mound, Bird surveyed the babies behind the
glass.

The ward was flooded with light that was harsh in its opulence.  Here it was no
longer the beginning of summer, it was summer itself: the reflection of the light
was scorching Bird’s brow.  Twenty infant beds and five incubators that recalled
electric organs.  The incubator babies appeared only as blurred shapes, as though
mist enshrouded them.  But the babies in the beds were too naked and exposed.  The
poison of the glaring light had withered all of them; they were like a herd of the
world’s most docile cattle.  Some were moving their arms and legs slightly, but
even on these the diapers and white cotton nightshirts looked as heavy as lead
diving suits.  They gave the impression, all of them, of shackled people.  There
were a few whose wrists were even secured to the bed (what if it was to prevent
them from scratching their own tender skins) or whose ankles were lashed down with
strips of gauze (what if it was to protect the wounds made during a blood
transfusion), and these infants were the more like wee, feeble prisoners.  The
babies’ silence was uniform.  Was the plate glass shutting out their voices?  Bird
wondered.  No, like doleful turtles with no appetite, they all had their mouths
closed.  Bird’s eyes raced over the babies’ heads.  He had already forgotten his
son’s face, but his baby was marked unmistakably.  How had the hospital director
put it, “Appearance?  there seem to be two heads!  I once heard a thing by Wagner
called ‘Under the Double Eagle’—” The bastard must have been a classical music
buff.

But Bird couldn’t find a baby with the proper head.  Again and again he glanced
irritably up and down the row of beds.  Suddenly, without any cue, the infants all
opened their calf’s liver mouths and began to bawl and squirm.  Bird flinched.
Then he turned back to the nurse as if to ask “what happened?” But the nurse
wasn’t paying any attention to the screaming babies and neither was anyone else in
the room; they were all watching Bird, silently and with deep interest, still
playing the game: “Have you guessed?  He’s in an incubator.  Now, which incubator
do you suppose is your baby’s home?”

Obediently, as if he were peering into an aquarium tank that was murky with
plankton and slime, Bird bent his knees and squinted into the nearest incubator.
What he discovered inside was a baby as small as a plucked chicken, with queerly
chapped, blotchy skin.  The infant was naked, a vinyl bag enclosed his pupa of a
penis, and his umbilical cord was wrapped in gauze.  Like the dwarfs in
illustrated books of fairy tales, he returned Bird’s gaze with a look of ancient
prudence on his face, as if he, too, were participating in the nurses’ game.
Though obviously he was not Bird’s baby, this quiet, old-mannish preemie,
unprotestingly wasting away, inspired Bird with a feeling akin to friendship for a
fellow adult.  Bird straightened up, looking away with effort from the baby’s
moist, placid eyes, and turned back to the nurses resolutely, as if to say that he
would play no more games.  The angles and the play of light made it impossible to
see into the other incubators.

“Haven’t you figured it out yet?  It’s the incubator way at the back, against the
window.  I’ll wheel it over so you can see the baby from here.”

For an instant, Bird was furious.  Then he understood that the game had been a
kind of initiation into the intensive care ward, for at this final cue from the
nurse, the other doctors and nurses had shifted their concern back to their own
work and conversations.

Bird gazed forbearingly at the incubator the nurse had indicated.  He had been
under her influence ever since he had entered the ward, gradually losing his
resentment and his need to resist.  He was now feeble and unprotesting himself; he
might have been bound with strips of gauze even like the infants who had begun to
cry in a baffling demonstration of accord.  Bird exhaled a long, hot breath, wiped
his damp hands on the seat of his pants, then with his hand wiped the sweat from
his brow and eyes and cheeks.  He turned his fists in his eyes and blackish flames
leaped; the sensation was of falling headlong into an abyss: Bird reeled.  …

When Bird opened his eyes, the nurse, like someone walking in a mirror, was
already on the other side of the glass partition and wheeling the incubator toward
him.  Bird braced himself, stiffening, and clenched his fists.  Then he saw his
baby.  Its head was no longer in bandages like the wounded Apollinaire.  Unlike
any of the other infants in the ward, the baby’s complexion was as red as a boiled
shrimp and abnormally lustrous; his face glistened as if it were covered with scar
tissue from a newly healed burn.  The way its eyes were shut, Bird thought, the
baby seemed to be enduring a fierce discomfort.  And certainly that discomfort was
due to the lump that jutted, there was no denying it, like another red head from
the back of his skull.  It must have felt heavy, bothersome, like an anchor lashed
to the baby’s head.  That long, tapered head!  It sledge-hammered the stakes of
shock into Bird more brutally than the lump itself and induced a nausea altogether
different from the queasiness of a hangover, a terrific nausea that affected
Bird’s existence fundamentally.  To the nurse observing his reactions from behind
the incubator, Bird nodded.  As if to say “I’ve had enough!” or to acknowledge
submission to a thing he could not understand.  Wouldn’t the baby grow up with its
lump and continue to grow?  The baby was no longer on the verge of death; no
longer would the sweet, easy tears of mourning melt it away as if it were a simple
jelly.  The baby continued to live, and it was oppressing Bird, even beginning to
attack him.  Swaddled in skin as red as shrimp which gleamed with the luster of
scar tissue, the baby was beginning ferociously to live, dragging its anchor of a
heavy lump.  A vegetable existence?  Maybe so; a deadly cactus.

The nurse nodded as though satisfied by what she saw in Bird’s face, and wheeled
the incubator back to the window.  A squall of infant screaming again blew up,
shaking the room beyond the glass partition where light boiled as in a furnace.
Bird slumped and hung his head.  The screaming loaded his drooping head as
gunpowder loads a flintlock.  He wished there were a tiny bed or an incubator for
himself: an incubator would be best, filled with water vapor that hung like mist,
and Bird would lie there breathing through gills like a silly amphibian.

“You should complete the hospitalization forms right away,” the nurse said,
returning to his side.  “We ask you to leave thirty thousand yen security.”

Bird nodded.

“The baby takes his milk nicely and his arms and legs are lively.”

Why the hell should he drink milk and why exercise?  Bird almost asked
reproachfully—and checked himself.  The querulousness that was becoming a new
habit disgusted him.

“If you’ll just wait here I’ll get the pediatrician in charge.”

Bird was left alone, and ignored.  Nurses carrying diapers and trays of bottles
jostled him with their extended elbows but no one so much as glanced at his face.
And it was Bird who whispered the apologies.  Meanwhile, the ward on this side of
the glass partition was dominated by the loud voice of the little man who seemed
to be challenging one of the doctors.

“How can you be sure there’s no liver?  And how could a thing like that happen?
I’ve heard the explanation about a hundred times but it still doesn’t make sense.
I mean, is that stuff about the baby not having any liver true?  Is it, doctor?”

Bird managed to wedge himself into a spot where he wasn’t in the way of the
bustling nurses and stood there drooping like a willow and looking down at his
sweaty hands.  They were like wet leather gloves.  Bird recalled the hands his
baby had been holding up behind its ears.  They were large hands like his own,
with long fingers.  Bird hid his hands in his pants pockets.  Then he looked at
the little man in his late fifties who was developing a pertinacious logic in
conversation with the doctor.  He was wearing a pair of brown knickers and a sport
shirt with the top button open and the sleeves rolled up.  The shirt was too large
for his slight frame, which was meagerly fleshed with something like dried meat.
His bare arms and neck were burned as black as leather, appallingly sinewed; it
was a quality of skin and muscle found in manual laborers who suffer from chronic
fatigue because they are not robust.  The man’s kinky hair clung to the saucer-top
of his large head like a lewd, oily cap, his forehead was too broad and his eyes
were dull, the smallness of his lips and jaw upset the balance of his face.  He
evidently worked with his hands, but he was not a mere laborer.  More likely he
had to help out with the heavy work while abrading his power of thought and his
nerves with the responsibility of a small business.  The man’s leather belt was as
wide as an obi, but it was easily counterpoised by the exaggerated alligator
watchband armoring the wrist he was waving in the doctor’s face, a good eight
inches above his own.  The doctor’s language and manner were precisely those of a
minor official, and the little man appeared to be trying frantically to turn the
argument to his advantage by blowing down the other’s suspect authority with the
wind of sheer bravado.  But from time to time he turned to glance behind him at
the nurses and Bird, and in his eyes was a kind of defeatism, as though he
acknowledged a decline from which he would never manage to recover.  A strange
little man.

“We don’t know how it happened, you’d have to call it an accident, I suppose.  But
the fact is that your child has no liver.  The stool is white, isn’t it!  Pure
white!  Have you ever seen another baby with a stool like that?” the doctor said
loftily, trying to move the little man’s challenge out of the way with the toe of
one shoe.

“I’ve seen baby chicks leave white droppings.  And most chickens have livers,
right?  Like fried chicken liver and eggs?  Most chickens have livers but there
are still baby chicks whose droppings are white sometimes!”

“I’m aware of that, but we’re not talking about baby chickens—this is a human
baby.”

“But is that really so unusual, a baby with a white stole?”

“A white stole?” the doctor interrupted angrily.  “A baby with a white stole would
be very unusual, yes.  Do you suppose you mean a white stool?”

“That’s right, a white stool.  All babies without livers have white stools.  I
understand that, but does that mean automatically that all babies with white
stools have no liver, does it, doctor?”

“I’ve already explained that at least a hundred times!” The doctor’s outraged
voice sounded like a scream of grief.  He meant to laugh at the little man, but
the large face behind his thick, horn-rimmed glasses was contorted in spite of
himself and his lips were trembling.

“Could I hear it just once more, doctor?” The little man’s voice was calm now, and
gentle.  “Him not having any liver is no laughing matter for my son or me either.
I mean, it’s a serious problem, right, doctor?”

In the end the doctor gave in, sat the little man down next to his desk, took out
a medical card, and began to explain.  Now the doctor’s voice and occasionally the
voice of the little man edged with a note of doubt ferried between the two men
with an intentness that excluded Bird.  He was trying to eavesdrop, head cocked in
their direction, when a doctor about his own age bucked through the door and moved
briskly into the ward to a spot directly behind him.

“Is the relative of the baby with the brain hernia here?” the doctor called in a
high thin voice like the piping of a tin flute.

“Yes,” Bird said, turning around.  “I’m the father—”

The doctor inspected Bird with eyes that made him think of a turtle.  And it
didn’t stop with the eyes; his boxy chin and sagging, wrinkled throat recalled a
turtle too—a brutal snapping turtle.  But in his eyes, which had a whitish east
because the pupils were hardly more than expressionless dots, there was also a
hint of something uncomplicated and benign.

“Is this your first child?” the doctor said, continuing to examine Bird
suspiciously.  “You must have been wild.”

“Yes—”

“No developments worth mentioning so far today.  We’ll have somebody from brain
surgery examine the child in the next four or five days; our Assistant Director is
tops in the field, you know.  Of course, the baby will have to get stronger before
they can operate or there wouldn’t be any point to it.  We’re terribly crowded at
brain surgery here so naturally the surgeons try to avoid pointless wastes of
time.”

“Then—there will be an operation?”

“If the infant gets strong enough to withstand surgery, yes,” the doctor said,
misinterpreting Bird’s hesitation.

“Is there any possibility that the baby will grow up normally if he’s operated on?
At the hospital where he was born yesterday they said the most we could hope for
even with surgery was a kind of vegetable existence.”

“A vegetable—I don’t know if I’d put it that way.  …“The doctor, without a direct
reply to Bird’s question, lapsed into silence.  Bird watched his face, waiting for
him to speak again.  And suddenly he felt himself being seized by a disgraceful
desire.  It had quickened in the darkness of his mind like a clot of black slugs
when he had learned at the reception window that his baby was still alive, and
gradually had made clear to him its meaning as it propagated with horrid vigor.
Bird again dredged the question up to the surface of his conscious mind: how can
we spend the rest of our lives, my wife and I, with a monster baby riding on our
backs?  Somehow I must get away from the monster baby.  If I don’t, ah, what will
become of my trip to Africa?  In a fervor of self-defense, as if he were being
stalked through the glass partition by the monster baby in an incubator, Bird
braced himself for battle.  At the same time he blushed and began to sweat,
ashamed of the tapeworm of egotism that had attached itself to him.  One ear was
deafened by the roar of blood hurtling through it and his eyes gradually reddened
as though walloped by a massive, invisible fist.  The sensation of shame fanned
the red fire in his face and tears seeped into his eyes—ah, Bird longed, if only I
could spare myself the burden of a monstrous vegetable baby.  But voice his
thoughts in an appeal to the doctor he could not do, the burden of his shame was
too heavy.  Despairing, his face as red as a tomato, Bird hung his head.

“You don’t want the baby to have an operation and recover, partially recover
anyway?”

Bird shivered: he felt as if a knowing finger had just stroked the ugliest part of
his body and the most sensitive to pleasure, like the fleshy pleats in his
scrotum.  His face turning scarlet, Bird made his appeal in a voice so mean he
couldn’t bear to hear it himself:

“Even with surgery, if the chances are very slight … that he’ll grow up a normal
baby.  …”

Bird sensed that he had taken the first step down the slope of contemptibility.
The chances were he would run down the slope at full tilt, his contemptibility
would snowball even as he watched it.  Bird shuddered again, aware of the
ineluctability of it.  Yet now, as before, his feverish, misted eyes were
imploring the doctor.

“I suppose you realize I can’t take any direct steps to end the baby’s life!” The
doctor haughtily returned Bird’s gaze, a glint of disgust in his eyes.

“Of course not—” Bird said hurriedly, very much as if he had heard something
highly irregular.  Then he realized that the doctor had not been taken in by his
deviousness.  That made it a double humiliation, and Bird, in his resentment,
didn’t try to vindicate himself.

“It’s true that you’re a young father—what, about my age?” Slowly turning his
turtle head, the doctor glanced at the other members of the staff on this side of
the glass partition.  Bird suspected the doctor was trying to mock him, and he was
terror-stricken.  If he tries to make a game of me, he whispered at the back of
his throat with empty bravado, his head swimming, I’ll kill him!  But the doctor
intended to conspire in Bird’s disgraceful plot.  In a hushed voice that no one
else in the ward could hear, he said:

“Let’s try regulating the baby’s milk.  We can even give him a sugar-water
substitute.  We’ll see how he does on that for a while, but if he still doesn’t
seem to be weakening, we’ll have no choice but to operate.”

“Thank you,” Bird said with a dubious sigh.

“Don’t mention it.” The doctor’s tone of voice made Bird wonder again if he wasn’t
being ridiculed.  Soothingly then, as at a bedside, “Drop around in four or five
days.  You can’t expect a significant change right away and there’s no point
getting all worked up and rushing things,” he declared, and, like a frog gulping
down a fly, snapped his mouth shut.

Bird averted his eyes from the doctor and, bowing, headed for the door.  The
nurse’s voice caught up with him before he could get out:

“As soon as possible, please, the hospitalization forms!”

Bird hurried down the gloomy corridor as if he were fleeing the scene of a crime.
It was hot.  He realized now for the first time that the ward had been air
conditioned, his first air conditioning of the summer.  Bird wiped furtively at
tears that were hot with shame.  But the inside of his head was hotter than the
air around him and hotter than his tears; shivering, he moved down the corridor
with the uncertain step of a convalescent.  As he passed the open window of the
sick ward, crying still, patients like soiled animals supine or sitting up in bed
watched him go with wooden faces.  The fit of tears had subsided when he reached
an area where the corridor was lined with private rooms, but the sensation of
shame had become a kernel lodged like glaucoma behind his eyes.  And not only
behind his eyes, it was hardening in all the many depths of his body.  The
sensation of shame: a cancer.  Bird was aware of the foreign body, but he could
not consider it; his brain was burned out, extinguished.  One of the sickrooms was
open.  A slight, young, completely naked girl was standing just inside as if to
bar the door.  In bluish shadow, her body seemed less then fully developed.
Hugging the meager protuberances that were her breasts with her left hand, as
though in pity, the girl dropped her right hand to stroke her flat belly and pluck
her pubic hair; then, challenging Bird with eyes that glittered, she inched her
feet apart until her legs were spread and sank a gentle and once again pitying
finger into the golden cilia around her vagina, sharply silhouetted for an instant
in the light from the window behind her.  Bird, though he was moved to compassion
not unlike love for the girl, walked past the open door without giving the
nymphomaniac time to reach her lonely climax.  The sensation of shame was too
intense for him to sustain concern for any existence but his own.

As Bird emerged at the passageway that led to the main wing of the hospital, the
little logician with the leather belt and the alligator watchband caught up with
him.  He fell into step alongside Bird with the same overbearing defiance he had
demonstrated in the ward, bouncing off the balls of his feet in an attempt to
cover the difference in their heights.  When he began to talk, looking up into
Bird’s face, it was in the booming voice of a man who has made up his mind.  Bird
listened in silence.

“You’ve got to give them a battle, you know, fight!  fight!  fight!” he said.
“It’s a fight with the hospital, especially the doctors!  Well, I really let them
have it today, you must have heard me.”

Bird nodded, remembering the little man’s “white stole.” Bluffing wildly to gain
the advantage in his fight with the hospital, he had lost a round to Mrs.
Malaprop.

“My boy hasn’t got a liver, you see, so I’ve got to fight and keep fighting or
they might just cut him up alive.  No, that’s the God’s truth!  You want things to
go right in a big hospital, you’ve got to get in a mood to fight first thing!  It
doesn’t do any good to behave nice and quiet and try to get them to like you.  I
mean, you take a patient that’s dying, he’s quieter than a year-old corpse.  But
us relatives of the patient can’t afford to be so nice.  Fight!  let me tell you,
it’s a fight.  Like a few days ago I told them right out, if the baby hasn’t got a
liver then you go ahead and make him one!  You’ve got to know some tactics if you
want to fight, so I’ve been reading up.  And I told them, I said babies with no
rectum have been fitted out with artificial rectums so you ought to be able to
figure out an artificial liver.  Besides, I said, you take a liver, it’s got a lot
more class than an ordinary asshole!”

They were at the main entrance to the hospital.  Bird sensed that the little man
was trying to make him laugh, but of course he wasn’t in a laughing mood.  “Will
the baby recover by the fall?” he asked in place of an apology for his long face.

“Recover?  Fat chance: my son has no liver!  I’m just fighting all two thousand
employees in this great big hospital.”

The hint of unique grief and of the dignity of the weak in the little man’s reply
was enough to shock Bird.  Refusing an offer of a lift to the station in his
three-wheel truck, Bird walked out to the bus stop alone.  He thought about the
thirty thousand yen he would have to pay the hospital.  He had already decided
where he would get the money; and for just the instant needed for the decision,
the sensation of shame was displaced by a despairing rage at no one in particular,
that made Bird tremble.  He had just slightly more than thirty thousand yen in the
bank, but it was money he had deposited as the beginning of a reserve fund for his
trip to Africa.  For the present, that thirty thousand odd yen was hardly more
than a marker indicating a frame of mind.  But even the marker was now about to be
removed.  Now, except for two road maps.  Bird was left with nothing that related
directly to a trip to Africa.  Sweat gushed from all the skin on his body, and
Bird felt a damp, ugly chill on his lips and ears and fingertips.  He took his
place at the end of the line at the bus stop, and, in a voice like the droning of
a mosquito, swore: “Africa?  What a fucking laugh!” The old man directly in front
of Bird started to turn around, decided against it, and slowly straightened his
large, bald head.  Everyone had been beaten senseless by the summer that had
consumed the city prematurely.

Bird, too, closed his eyes feebly and, shivering with a chill, sweated.  Soon he
could smell his body beginning to exude an unpleasant odor.  The bus didn’t come;
it was hot.  Folding in the shame and all the rage eddying in Bird’s head, a
reddish darkness spread.  And then a sprout of sexual desire pushed up through the
darkness and grew before Bird’s eyes like a young rubber tree.  His eyes closed
still, Bird groped for his trousers and felt his erected penis through the cloth.
He felt wretched, base, rueful; he longed for the ultimate in antisocial sex.  The
kind of coitus that would strip and hold up to the light the shame that was
worming into him.  Bird left the line and looked for a taxi with eyes brutalized
by the light, seeing the square as though in a negative, with blacks and whites
reversed.  He intended to return to Himiko’s room, where the light of day was shut
out.  If she turns me down, he thought irritably, as if to whip himself, I’ll beat
her unconscious and fuck her then.





7




YOU know, Bird, you’re always in the worst condition when you try to get me into
bed with you.” Himiko sighed.  “Right now you’re about the least attractive Bird
I’ve ever seen.”

Bird was obstinately silent.

“But I’ll sleep with you just the same.  I haven’t been fastidious about morality
since my husband committed suicide; besides, even if you intend to have the most
disgusting kind of sex with me, I’m sure I’ll discover something genuine in no
matter what we do.”

Genuine—authentic, true, real, pure, natural, sincere, earnest; the English
instructor at a cram-school arranged the translation words inside his head.  And
in his present state, Bird thought, none of those meanings came even near to
applying to him.

“Bird, you get into bed first; I want to wash.”

Slowly Bird took off his sweaty clothes and lay back on top of the worn blanket.
Propping his head on both fists he squinted down at the paunch around his belly
and at his whitish, insufficiently erected penis.  Himiko, with the glass door to
the bathroom wide open, lowered herself backwards onto the toilet, opened her
thighs wide and doused her genitals with water from a large pitcher which she held
in one hand.  Bird watched her from the bed for a while and supposed that this was
wisdom obtained from sexual relations with foreign men.  Then he returned to
gazing quietly down at his own belly and penis, and waited.

“Bird …” Himiko called as she vigorously rubbed herself dry with a large towel;
the water had splashed all the way to her chest.“… there’s a danger of pregnancy
today; have you come prepared?”

“No, I haven’t.”

Pregnancy!  The flaming thorns on the word pierced Bird to the softest quick and a
low, grieved moan escaped him.  The thorns burrowed all the way into his vital
organs and continued to burn there.

“Then we’ll have to think of something, Bird.” Himiko lowered the pitcher to the
floor with a noise like a pistol report, and came back to Bird’s side rubbing her
body with the bath towel.  With one hand, Bird clenched his wilted penis in
embarrassment.

“I lost it all of a sudden,” he said.  “Himiko!  I’m no good at all now.”
Breathing strongly, healthily, Himiko peered down at Bird and continued to dry her
sides and her chest between her breasts.  She appeared to be speculating on the
meaning hidden in Bird’s words.  The smell of her body roused acute memories of
college summers and Bird caught his breath: skin toasting in the sun.  Himiko
wrinkled her nose like a spaniel puppy and laughed a simple, dry laugh.  Bird went
scarlet.

“You just think you’re no good,” Himiko said carelessly and dropping the towel
around her feet, she moved to cover Bird’s body with her own, her small breasts
thrusting like fangs.  Bird, like a child, fell captive to the self-defense
instinct; still clutching his penis with one hand, he drove his other arm straight
at Himiko’s belly.  His hand sinking into her soft flesh made his skin crawl.

“It was your shouting ‘pregnancy’ just now that did it,” he said in hurried
justification.

“I did not shout,” Himiko objected with a look of outrage.

“It hit me awfully hard.  Pregnancy is the one word I just can’t take!”

Himiko covered her breasts and abdomen with her arms, probably because Bird was
doggedly concealing his penis.  Like the wrestlers of antiquity who wrestled in
the nude, they first defended their most vulnerable parts with their bare hands
and then stood their ground, eyeing each other warily.

“What’s wrong, Bird?” Himiko said without anger.  Gradually she had realized the
gravity of the situation.

“I thought about pregnancy and—fell apart.”

Himiko brought her legs together and sat down next to Bird’s thigh.  Bird twisted
away on the narrow bed to make more room for her.  Himiko, lowering the arm that
still covered her breasts, gently touched the hand that Bird still clenched around
his penis.

“Bird, I can make you hard enough,” she said quietly but with conviction.  “A lot
of time has passed since that lumberyard.”

Bird submerged in a feeling of dark, clammy helplessness, and endured the ticklish
play of Himiko’s fingers on his hand.  Would he be able to present his own case
convincingly?  He had his doubts.  But he had to explain, to leap the wall of his
predicament.

“It’s not a question of technique,” he said, turning his eyes away from the
earnest, sorrowful aspect of Himiko’s breasts.  “The problem is fear.”

“Fear?” Himiko appeared to be turning over the word in her mind in hope of
discovering the bud of a joke.

“I’m afraid of the dark recesses where that grotesque baby was created,” Bird said
in an attempt at explanation in a joking vein, which, failing, sank him even
deeper into gloom.  “When I saw the baby with his head wrapped in bandages, I
thought of Apollinaire.  It sounds sentimental, but I felt as if the baby had been
wounded in the head on a battlefield, like Apollinaire.  My baby got hit in
solitary battle inside a dark, sealed hole I’ve never seen.  …” As he spoke, Bird
recalled the sweet, redeemable tears he had shed in the ambulance—but the tears of
shame I wept in the hospital corridor today are already beyond redemption.  “...
I can’t send my weakling penis onto that battleground!”

“But isn’t that confined to you and your wife?  I mean, isn’t it a fear you ought
to experience when she first approaches you about sex after she’s recovered?”

“Assuming we ever make it again—” Bird faltered, already oppressed by a moment of
consternation still weeks away, “—I know I’ll feel as if I’m having incest with my
baby son on top of this fear of mine.  Now wouldn’t that make even a steel penis
go limp?”

“Poor Bird!  If I gave you enough time, you’d count off a hundred and one
complexes in defense of your own impotence.”

Satisfied with her little joke, Himiko lay face down in the narrow space alongside
Bird’s body.  Bird, trying to make himself even smaller on the bed as it sagged
like a hammock under the added weight, listened in mortal terror to the sound of
Himiko’s restrained breathing next to his ear.  If she had already plugged in the
coil of desire he would be obliged to do something for her.  But burrow his baby
mole of a fragile penis into the dark, closed culvert beyond those dank and
unaccountable folds—that he could not do.  Himiko’s earlobe brushed Bird’s temple
hotly.  Though she lay in limp silence, her body seemed to be under attack by a
million gadflies of desire.  Bird considered easing her need a little at a time
with his fingers, or lips, or tongue.  But she had gone on record the night before
as having the same distaste for that as masturbation.  If he brought it up again
and was refused in the same words, both of them would feel as if they had cruelly
spurned each other.  It occurred to Bird that something might be managed if Himiko
only had a little of the sadist in her.  He would try anything, so long as it
didn’t involve the hole from which calamity had welled.  She could beat or kick or
stomp him and he would bear it quietly; he wouldn’t even hesitate to drink her
urine.  For the first time in his life, Bird now discovered the masochist in
himself.  And since this was after he had mired in a bottomless swamp of shame, he
even felt attracted in a self-abusive way to these new, and trifling, disgraces.
It was just in this fashion, he supposed, that one inclined toward masochism.  But
why not say himself and be frank about it!  Not so many years from now, as a
forty-year-old masochist, Bird might remember this day as the anniversary of his
conversion to the cult.  Bird pursued a fixation: that his degeneracy was self,
and no place other, centered.

“Bird?”

“Yes?” Bird said in resignation; so the attack had begun at last!

“You’ve got to destroy the sexual taboos that you’ve created for yourself.
Otherwise, your sexual world will warp terribly!”

“I know.  I was just thinking about masochism,” Bird said.  Contemptibly enough,
he expected Himiko to leap at the fly he had cast and to extend a base probe of
her own with a wistful reply that she, on her part, had thought often about
sadism.  Bird lacked even the reckless honesty of the aspiring pervert.  Clearly
the poisons of shame had brought him to a debased extreme.

But when Himiko spoke after what seemed a puzzled silence, it was not to pursue
Bird’s riddle:

“If you’re going to conquer your fear, Bird, you’ll have to isolate it by defining
its object precisely.”

Uncertain for the moment of what Himiko intended, Bird was silent.

“Is your fear limited to the vagina and the womb?  Or are you afraid of everything
female, of my entire existence as a woman, for example?”

Bird thought for a minute.  “Of the vagina and the womb, I suppose.  Since you
personally have nothing to do with my misfortune, the only reason I can’t face you
when you’re naked has to be that you’re armed with a vagina and a womb!”

“In that case, wouldn’t you simply have to eliminate the vagina and the womb?”
Himiko said with careful impartiality.  “If you can confine your fear to the
vagina and the womb, then the enemy you have to fight lives only in that realm.
Bird!  What are the attributes of the vagina and the womb that frighten you?”

“It’s the kind of thing I was talking about.  I have this feeling there’s what
you’d call another universe back in there.  It’s dark, it’s infinite, it’s teeming
with everything antihuman: a grotesque universe.  And I’m afraid that if I entered
it, I’d get trapped in the time system of another dimension and wouldn’t be able
to return—my fear has certain resemblances to an astronaut’s fantastic
acrophobia!”

Bird had sensed that Himiko’s logic was leading to something that would aggravate
his sense of shame, and he was hiding behind a screen of language because he
wanted to avoid whatever it might be.  But Himiko wasn’t to be put off: “Do you
suppose you wouldn’t be particularly afraid of the female body if the vagina and
womb were excluded from it?”

Bird hesitated.  Then he said, blushing, “It’s not terribly important but, well,
the breasts—”

“What you’re saying is that you wouldn’t have to be afraid if you approached me
from behind.”

“But—”

“Bird!” Himiko would accept no more protests.  “I always think of you as the type
of man younger men tend to idolize.  Haven’t you ever been to bed with one of
those younger brothers?”

The plan Himiko outlined was more than sufficient to overcome Bird’s own
fastidiousness about sexual morality.  Bird was stunned.  Never mind how it would
be for me, he thought, released for just an instant from preoccupation with
himself.  Himiko would have to endure considerable pain, probably her body would
tear and she would bleed: we both might be smeared in filth!  But suddenly,
twisted into his disgust like a length of rope, Bird felt a new desire welling.

“Won’t you feel humiliated afterward?” Bird whispered in a voice hoarse with
desire: this was a final demonstration of reluctance.

“I didn’t feel humiliated even when I got covered in blood and mud and wood
shavings in the middle of a winter night in that lumberyard.”

“But I wonder,” Bird said, “will there be any pleasure in it for you?”

“At the moment I’m only interested in doing something for you, Bird,” Himiko said.
Then she added with unbounded gentleness, as if to make certain Bird wouldn’t have
to feel awkward, “Besides, as I said before, I can discover what I’d call
something genuine in any imaginable brand of sex.”

Bird was silent.  Without moving on the bed, he watched Himiko select something
from the city of little jars on her dresser, walk into the bathroom, take out of a
drawer a large clean towel.  The tides of anxiety rose slowly, trying to submerge
him.  Bird sat up abruptly, lifted the whisky bottle from the side of the bed
where it had rolled, and swigged from the bottle.  He recalled how, at the bus
stop in front of the hospital under the noonday sun, he had longed for the most
malefic sex, a fuck rife with ignominy.  And now it was possible.  Bird took
another swallow of the whisky and fell back on the bed.  Now his penis was keen
and hard, pulsing hotly.  Himiko avoided his eyes as she returned to the bed, a
mournful, leaden expression on her face.  Was she also in the grip of some
extraordinary desire?  With satisfaction Bird felt a smile spread from his lips to
his cheeks.  I’ve leaped the highest wall first, I should be able to clear all the
hurdles of shame now, like a track man in infinite time.

“Bird, there’s nothing to be so uneasy about,” Himiko said, detecting indications
contrary to Bird’s perception of himself.  “Chances are it’ll be nothing at all.”

… in the beginning he was solicitous of Himiko.  But as failure followed on
failure he began to feel that the small ludicrous noises and the peculiar odor
were a kind of mockery, and his resentment gradually deprived him of all feeling
but an egotistical engrossment in himself.  Before long, Bird had forgotten
Himiko, and the moment he felt himself succeed he grew hectically intent.
Fragments of thought—hate floppy breasts and harsh animal genitals, desire lonely
orgasm all to myself, avoid woman’s eyes peering up into your face—burst like
shining shrapnel across Bird’s mind: this was the prelude to pleasure.  To worry
about the woman’s orgasm as you screwed, registering in your mind the
responsibility for her after she was pregnant, was to do battle with your
shuddering rear in order to put shackles around your own neck.  Bird raised a
war-cry at the back of his flaming head: I’m trampling a woman now in the most
ignominious way!  I’m capable of all that’s meanest and most vile, I’m shame
itself, the hot mass my penis is rending now is really me, he raged, and was
smitten by an orgasm of such intensity that it made his head swim.

Bird convulsed with pleasure, and each convulsion drove a cry of agony from
Himiko.  Only half conscious, Bird listened to her screams.  Abruptly, as if
hatred had grown too much for him, he bit into Himiko’s neck where it joined her
shoulder.  Again she screamed.  Opening his eyes, Bird saw a drop of blood
trickling past her ashen earlobe toward her cheek.  He groaned once more.

Bird sensed the horror of what he had done only after the orgasm had passed, and
he felt turned to stone.  He wondered if the humanity could be restored to their
relationship after coition this inhuman.  He lay on his stomach like a rock,
breathing raggedly, and wished he could extinguish himself.  But Himiko was good
enough to whisper in a gentle voice rich with everyday peace:

“Come into the bathroom without touching yourself; I’ll finish up for you.”

With amazement came succor and liberation.  Himiko handled him as if he were a
paralyzed invalid while he looked away with a flaming face.  Surprise gradually
sank into Bird and settled.  There was no doubting that he was in the hands of a
sexual expert.  In what fashion had his girlfriend traversed the long road since
that night in the middle of winter?  Bird requited Himiko’s attentions only by
bathing with disinfectant the wounds his own teeth had inflicted on her shoulder.
He bathed the three scattered bites clumsily, like a timid child.  Relieved, he
watched the color quietly returning to Himiko’s cheeks and eyelids.

The sheets freshly changed, Bird and his friend again lay side by side on the bed.
Their breathing now was regular.  Himiko’s silence distressed Bird, but he was
reassurred by her quiet breathing and by the calmness of her eyes as she stared up
into the dimness.  Besides, Bird was immersed himself in a deep feeling of peace,
far from any inclination to psychological excavation.  He was savoring
gratefulness.  Not so much confined to Himiko alone as gratefulness for the peace
he had discovered, though certainly it could not last long, at the vortex of the
maelstrom whirling around him with its vicious traps.  Of course the ring of shame
enclosing him was expanding even now: a symbol of his shame was already enshrined
in a distant hospital ward.  But Bird was reclining in a warm tub of peace.  He
noticed then that an internal obstacle, overcome, had passed away.

“Shall we try again, the regular way?” Bird said.  “I don’t think I’m afraid
anymore.”

“Thank you, Bird.  Why don’t you take some sleeping pills if you need them, and
then let’s sleep until tonight.  If you’re still free of your fear when you wake
up—”

Bird agreed; he felt he wouldn’t need sleeping pills in his present state.

“You’re a comfort to me,” he said simply.

“I mean to be.  I bet you haven’t been comforted once since all this began.  And
that’s not good, Bird.  At a time like this you must be careful to have someone
comfort you almost more than you need at least once.  Otherwise you’ll find
yourself helpless when the time comes to summon up your courage and break away
from chaos.”

“Courage?” Bird said without considering what Himiko might mean.  “When am I going
to have to call on courage?”

“Oh you will, Bird, lots of times from now on,” Himiko said carelessly, yet with
unsmiling authority in her voice.

Bird found himself looking at Himiko as an old and tested warrior in the campaigns
of daily life, with incomparably more experience than himself.  Not only was she a
sexual expert, her competence extended to a myriad other aspects of life in this
real world.  Bird acknowledged to himself that he was coming under Himiko’s
influence: it was thanks to help from her that he had just overcome one of his
fears.  Had he ever felt so uncomplicated talking with a woman after intercourse?
He didn’t think so.  After sex, even sex with his wife, Bird had always fallen
captive to feelings of self-pity and disgust.  He mentioned this to Himiko,
without mentioning his wife.

“Self-pity?  disgust?  Bird, then you couldn’t have been sexually mature.  And the
women you slept with probably felt self-pity and disgust, too.  I bet it was never
completely satisfying, was it, Bird?”

Bird was envious; jealous, too.  That youth and the little dandy like an egg ogre
who had called Himiko from outside her window in the middle of the night must both
have had, he felt certain, completely satisfying intercourse with her.  As Bird
lay in petulant silence, Himiko said, carelessly again, though clearly she was
displeased: “There’s nothing as arrogant and shitty as having sex with somebody
and then feeling sorry for yourself.  Bird, even disgust is better than that!”

“You’re right.  But the kind of people who feel sorry for themselves after sex
don’t ordinarily have help from an expert like you, and they’ve lost all their
confidence.”

Bird felt as if he were reclining on a psychiatrist’s couch, and when he had
emptied himself of unabashed and self-indulgent talk, he began drifting off to
sleep, wondering how a young man married to this woman of gold could have
committed suicide.  Into the dulled emptiness the sleep virus had created in his
head, a notion climbed: might Himiko not be making her amends to her dead husband
by tolerating Bird and those other two?  He had hanged himself in this very room,
stepping off this bed, precisely as naked as Bird was now.  Summoned that day by a
phone call from Himiko, Bird had freed the dead boy’s neck from the noose thrown
over the rafters and had helped lower him to the floor, like a butcher in a
freezer lowering a side of slaughtered beef from a frosted hook.  In the pale
dream just below the surface of sleep, Bird saw himself and the dead youth as one.
With the part of himself that was awake he could feel Himiko’s hands sponging him
dry, while in his dream he apprehended the movement of her trembling hands on his
own body as she purified the dead boy.  I am the dead boy, Bird thought, and the
summer about to get under way will be easy to endure, because a dead boy’s body is
icy as a winter tree!  Trembling then as he struggled toward the surface of his
dream, Bird whispered but I won’t commit suicide!  and sank into the darkness of a
deeper sleep.

… Bird’s waking dream was harsh, the reverse face of the innocent dream that had
ushered him into sleep, a thing armored in burrs that inspired anguish.  Sleep for
Bird was a funnel which he entered through the wide and easy entrance and had to
leave by the narrow exit.  Inflating like a blimp, his body was slowly traversing
the dimness of infinite space.  He has been subpoenaed by the tribunal beyond the
darkness, and he is pondering a means of blinding them to his responsibility for
the baby’s death.  Ultimately, he knows he will not be able to dupe the jurors,
but he feels at the same time that he would like to make an appeal—those people in
the hospital did it!  Is there nothing I can do to escape punishment?  But his
suffering grows only more ignoble as he continues to drift, a puny zeppelin.

Bird woke up.  Not a muscle that wasn’t stiff and aching, as though he had been
lying in the lair of a creature whose body was constructed differently from his
own.  He felt as though his body were wrapped in layers of plaster cast.  Where
the hell could I be—at a crucial time like this!  he whispered, thrusting only the
antlers of wariness through a vague fog.  At a crucial time like this, when he was
fighting hand to hand with a baby like a monster!  Bird recalled his conversation
with the doctor in the ward, and the sensations of peril gave way to those of
shame.  Not that peril had vanished; it was encysted behind the sensations of
shame.  Where the hell am I—at a crucial time like this!

Bird raised his voice a little and could hear that it was pickled in the vinegars
of fear.  He shook his head as though in spasm and—groping for a clue to the
nature of the trap of darkness he was caught in—shuddered.

He was naked as a baby, defenseless, and, to make it worse, someone just as naked
was curled against him asleep.  His wife?  Was he sleeping naked with his wife and
hadn’t told her yet the secret of the grotesque baby she had just borne?  Ah, it
couldn’t be!  Fearfully Bird put out his hand and touched the naked woman’s head.
As he slid his other hand down her naked shoulder to her side (the body was large,
opulent, with animal softness, qualities opposite to those of his wife’s body),
the naked woman slowly but steadily twined her body around him.  Awareness
sharpened to clarity, and Bird, as he discovered his lover Himiko, discovered
desire as well, desire which no longer stigmatized the attributes of womanhood.
Ignoring the pain in his arms and shoulders, Bird embraced Himiko like a bear
hugging an enemy.  Her body, still fast asleep, was large and heavy.  Bird slowly
tightened his grip until the girl was pressed against his chest and belly with her
head hanging limply backward above his shoulders.  Bird peered into her upturned
face; rising whitely out of the darkness, it seemed painfully young.  Suddenly
Himiko woke up, smiled at Bird, and with a slight movement of her head touched him
with hot, dry lips.  Without changing the position of their bodies, they drifted
smoothly into intercourse.

“Bird, can you hold out while I make it?” Himiko’s voice was still asleep.  She
must have prepared against the danger of pregnancy, for now she had taken the
first irreversible step toward her own pleasure.

“Certainly I can hold out,” Bird replied manfully, tensing, a navigator just
informed that a storm was on its way.  He performed warily, determined that
restraint should not be swept away from the movements of his own body.  He hoped
to make amends now for his pitiful performance in the lumberyard.

“Bird!” Himiko raised a piteous scream that suited the childish face straining
upward through the darkness.  Like a soldier accompanying a comrade in arms to
private battle, Bird stood by in stoic self-restraint while Himiko wrested from
their coition the genuine something that was all her own.  For a very long time
after the sexual moment, Himiko’s whole body trembled.  Then she grew delicate,
helpless, soft in an infinitely feminine way, and finally, releasing a muffled
sigh like a baby animal with a full belly, fell fast asleep just where she lay.
Bird felt like a rooster watching over a chick.  Smelling the healthy odor of
sweat that rose from the head half-hidden beneath his chest, he lay perfectly
still, supporting his weight on his elbows lest he oppress the girl beneath him.
He was still terrifically aroused, but he didn’t want to interrupt Himiko’s
natural sleep.  Bird had banished the curse on everything feminine that had
occupied his brain a few hours ago, and, though she was more womanly than ever, he
was able to accept Himiko completely.  His astute sexual partner sensed this: soon
Bird heard her breathing grow regular and knew that she was fast asleep.  But when
he tried carefully to withdraw from the girl, he felt something on his penis like
the grip of a warm, gentle hand.  Himiko was experimenting with a slight retaining
action while she slept.  Bird tasted mild but wholly sexual satisfaction.  He
smiled happily and immediately fell asleep.

Once again sleep was like a funnel.  Bird entered the sea of sleep with a smile,
but on his way back to the shores of reality he was seized by a stifling,
claustrophobic dream.  He fled from the dream crying.  When he opened his eyes,
Himiko was awake, too, peering anxiously at his tears.





8




AS Bird started up the stairs toward his wife’s hospital room, his shoes in one
hand and a bag of grapefruit under his arm, the young doctor with the glass eye
started down.  They met halfway.  The one-eyed doctor halted several steps above
Bird and launched his voice downward in what felt to Bird like high imperiousness.
In fact, he said merely, “How is everything?”

“He’s alive,” Bird said.

“And, what about surgery?”

“They’re afraid the baby will weaken and die before they can operate,” Bird said,
feeling his upturned face blush.

“Well, that’s probably for the best!”

Bird’s color deepened noticeably and a twitch appeared at the corners of his
mouth.  His reaction made the doctor blush, too.

“Your wife hasn’t been told about the baby’s brain,” he said, speaking into the
air above Bird’s head.  “She thinks there’s a defective organ.  Of course, the
brain is an organ, there’s no getting around that, so it’s not a lie.  You try
lying your way out of a tight spot and you only have to lie all over again when
the truth gets out.  You know what I mean?”

“Yes,” Bird said.

“Well then, don’t hesitate to let me know if there’s anything I can do.” Bird and
the doctor bowed decorously and passed each other on the stairs with faces
averted.  Well, that’s probably for the best!  the doctor had said.  To weaken and
die before they could operate.  That meant escaping the burden of a vegetable
baby, and without fouling your own hands with its murder.  All you had to do was
wait for the baby to weaken and die hygienically in a modern hospital ward.  Nor
was it impossible to forget about it while you waited: that would be Bird’s job.
Well, that’s probably for the best!  The sensation of deep and dark shame renewed
itself in Bird and he could feel his body stiffen.  Like the expectant mothers and
the women who had just given birth who passed him in their many-colored rayon
nightgowns, like those who carried in their bodies a large, squirming mass, and
those who had not quite escaped the memory and habit of it, Bird took short,
careful steps.  He was pregnant himself, in the womb of his brain, with a large
squirming mass that was the sensation of shame.  For no real reason, the women in
the corridor eyed him haughtily as they passed, and under each glance Bird meekly
lowered his head.  These were the women who had watched him leave the hospital in
an ambulance with his grotesque baby, that same host of pregnant angels.  For a
minute he was certain they knew what had happened to his son since then.  And
perhaps, like ventriloquists, they were murmuring at the back of their throats Ah!
if it’s that baby you mean, he’s been installed on an efficient conveyer system in
an infant slaughterhouse and is weakening to death this very minute—well, that’s
probably for the best!

A squalling of many infants beset Bird like a whirlwind.  His eye wildly wheeling
fell on the rows of cradles in the infant ward.  Bird fled down the corridor at a
near run: he had a feeling several of the infants had stared back.

In front of the door to his wife’s room, Bird carefully sniffed his hands and arms
and shoulders, even his chest.  There was no telling how it might complicate his
predicament if his wife, waiting for him in her sickbed with her sense of smell
honed to keenness, should scent out Himiko’s fragrance on his body.  Bird turned
around, as if to make certain of an escape route: paused all along the dim
corridor, young women in their nightgowns were peering at him through the dimness.
Bird considered scowling back but he merely shook his head weakly and turned his
back, then gave a timid knock at the door.  He was performing the role of the
young husband who has been visited by sudden misfortune.

When Bird stepped into the room his mother-in-law was standing with her back to
the lush greenery in the window, and his wife was staring in his direction,
lifting her head like a weasel beyond the mound of blanket that covered her spread
thighs.  Both wore startled looks in the greenly tinged, fecund light.  In moments
of surprise and sadness, Bird observed, the blood bond between these two women was
manifest in all their features and even the slightest gesture.

“I didn’t mean to startle you, I knocked, but lightly—”

“Ah, Bird,” his wife sighed, fixing him with wasted eyes that now were filling
rapidly with tears.  With her face clean of make-up and the pigment darkly evident
on the surface of her skin, she had the firm, boyish look of the tennis player she
had been when Bird had met her several years ago.  Exposed to her gaze as he was,
Bird felt horribly vulnerable; when he had put the bag of grapefruit down on the
blanket, he stooped as if to conceal himself and deposited his shoes beneath the
bed.  If only, he wished ruefully, he could talk from the floor, crawling around
like a crab.  Out of the question: Bird straightened up, forcing himself to
smile.

“Hey,” he sang, working to keep his voice light, “is the pain all gone now?”

“It still hurts periodically.  And every so often there’s a contraction like a
spasm.  Even when I’m not in pain somehow I don’t feel right, and the minute I
laugh it hurts.”

“That’s miserable.”

“It is.  Bird, what’s wrong with the baby?”

“What’s wrong?  That doctor with the glass eye must have explained, didn’t he?” As
he spoke, trying to keep the song in his voice, Bird looked quickly in his
mother-in-law’s direction, like a boxer with no confidence darting a glance behind
him at his trainer.  Beyond his wife’s head in the narrow space between the bed
and the window, his mother-in-law was transmitting secret signals frantically.
Bird couldn’t catch the nuances, only that he was being commanded to say nothing
to his wife, that much was clear.

“If they would just tell me what was wrong,” his wife said in a voice as lonely as
it was withdrawn.  Bird knew that the dark demons of doubt had driven her a
hundred times to whisper these same words in this same helpless tone.

“There’s a defective organ somewhere, the doctor won’t talk about the details.
They’re probably still testing.  Another thing, those university hospitals are
bureaucratic as hell!” Bird could smell the stench of his lie even as he told it.

“I just know it must be his heart if they have to make so many tests.  But why
should my baby have a bad heart?” The dismay in his wife’s voice made Bird feel
again like scuttling around on the floor.  Instead, he spoke harshly, affecting
the tone of voice of a peevish teen-ager: “Since there are experts on the case why
don’t we leave the diagnosing to them!  All the speculation in the world isn’t
going to do us one damn bit of good!”

An unconfident Bird turned a guilty eye back to the bed and saw that his wife had
tightly shut her eyes.  He looked down at her face and wondered uneasily if a
sense of everyday balance would be restored to it; the flesh of the eyelids was
wasted, the wings of the nose were swollen, and the lips seemed large out of all
proportion.  His wife lay motionless, with her eyes closed; she seemed to be
falling asleep.  All of a sudden a whole river of tears spilled from beneath her
closed lids.  “Just as the baby was born I heard the nurse cry ‘Oh!’ So I
suspected that something must have been wrong.  But then I heard the Director
laughing happily, or I thought I did, it got so I couldn’t tell what was real and
what was a dream—when I came to, the baby had already been taken away in an
ambulance.” She spoke with her eyes closed.

That hairy Director son of a bitch!  Anger clogged Bird’s throat.  He had made
such an uproar with his giggling that a patient under anesthesia had heard him; if
he has a habit of doing that when he’s astonished, I’ll lie for him in the dark
with a lead pipe and make the cocksucker laugh his head off!  But Bird’s rage was
that of a child’s, limited to a moment.  He knew he would never grip a club of any
kind, never lie in wait in any darkness.  He had to acknowledge that he had lost
the self-esteem essential to rebuking someone else.

“I brought you some grapefruit,” Bird said in a voice that asked forgiveness.

“Grapefruit!  Why?” his wife challenged.  Bird realized his mistake immediately.

“Damn!  I forgot you always hated the smell of grapefruit,” he said, stumbling
into self-disgust.  “But why would I have gone out of my way to buy grapefruit of
all things?”

“Probably because you weren’t really thinking of me or the baby, either.  Bird, do
you ever think seriously of anyone but yourself?  Didn’t we even argue about
grapefruit when we were planning the menu at the wedding dinner?  Really, Bird,
how could you have forgotten?”

Bird shook his head in impotence.  Then he fled from the hysteria that was
gradually tightening his wife’s eyes and turned to stare at his mother-in-law,
still transmitting signals from the cramped niche between the bed and the wall.
His eyes implored her for help.

“I was trying to buy some fruit and I had this feeling that grapefruit meant
something special to us.  So I bought some, without even thinking what it was that
made them special.  What shall I do with them?”

Bird had gone to the fruit store with Himiko, and there was no doubting that her
presence had cast its shadow on the something special he had felt.  From now on,
Bird thought, Himiko’s shadow would be falling heavily on the details of his
life.

“You must have known I can’t be in the same room with even one grapefruit; the
smell irritates me terribly,” Bird’s wife gave chase.  Bird wondered
apprehensively if she hadn’t detected Himiko’s shadow already.

“Why don’t you take the whole bag down to the nurses’ office?” As his
mother-in-law spoke, she flashed Bird a new signal.  The light filtering through
the lush greenery in the window at her back ringed her deeply sunken eyes and the
spatulate sides of her soaring nose with a quivering, greenish halo.  Bird finally
understood: this radium spook of a mother-in-law was trying to tell him that she
would be waiting in the corridor when he returned from the nurses’ office.

“I’ll be right back,” he said.  “Is the office downstairs?”

“Next to the clinic waiting room,” she said with a long look at Bird.

Bird stepped into the dusky corridor with the bag of grapefruit under his arm.
Even as he walked along, the fruit began discharging its bouquet; it seemed to
infuse his face and chest with particles of fragrance.  Bird reflected that the
smell of grapefruit could actually provoke an attack in some asthmatics.  Bird
thought about his wife lying peevishly abed and that woman with green halos in the
hollows of her eyes, flagging signals like the poses in a Kabuki dance.  And what
about himself, toying with the relationship between asthma and grapefruit!  It was
all an act, a bad play, only the baby with the lump on its head was for real: only
the baby gradually wasting away on a diet of sugar-water instead of milk.  But why
sugar the water?  It was one thing to deprive the baby of milk, but to flavor the
substitute in any way, didn’t that make the whole nasty business more like a
contemptible trick?

Bird presented the bag of grapefruit to some off-duty nurses and started to
introduce himself; suddenly, as if the stuttering that had afflicted him as a
schoolboy had returned, he found himself unable to get out a single word.
Rattled, he bowed in silence and hurried away.  Behind him the nurses’ bright
laughter rose.  It’s all an act, phony, why did everything have to be so unreal?
Scowling, his breath coming hard, Bird climbed the steps three at a time and
passed the infants’ ward warily, afraid he might carelessly glance inside.

In front of a service kitchen for the use of relatives and companions of the
patients, a kettle in one hand, Bird’s mother-in-law was standing proudly erect.
Bird, approaching, saw around the woman’s eyes instead of a halo of light sifted
through green leaves an emptiness so wretched it made him shudder.  Then he
noticed that her erectness had nothing to do with pride: exhaustion and despair
had robbed her body of its natural suppleness.

They kept the conversation simple, one eye on the door to Bird’s wife’s room
fifteen feet away.  When Bird’s mother-in-law confirmed that the baby was not
dead, she said, reproachfully, “Can’t you arrange for things to be taken care of
right away?  If that child ever sees the baby, she’ll go mad!”

Bird, threatened, was silent.

“If only there was a doctor in the family,” the woman said with a lonely sigh.

We’re a pack of vermin, Bird thought, a loathsome league of self-defenders.
Nonetheless he delivered his report, his voice hushed, wary of the patients who
might be crouching like mute crickets behind the closed doors that lined the
corridor, their ears aflame with curiosity: “The baby’s milk is being decreased
and he’s getting a sugar-water substitute.  The doctor in charge said we should be
seeing results in a few days.”

As he finished, Bird saw the miasma that had enveloped his mother-in-law vanish
utterly.  Already the kettle of water seemed a weight too heavy for her arm.  She
nodded slowly and, in a thin, helpless voice, as if she wanted badly to go to
sleep, “Oh, I see.  Yes, I see.  When this is all over, we’ll keep the baby’s
sickness a secret between us.”

“Yes,” Bird promised, without mentioning that he had spoken to his father-in-law
already.

“Otherwise, my little girl will never agree to have another child, Bird.”

Bird nodded; but his almost physical revulsion for the woman merely heightened.
His mother-in-law went into the kitchen now, and Bird returned to his wife’s room
alone.  But wouldn’t she see through a ruse this simple?  It was all playacting,
and every character in this particular play was a dissembler.

Bird knew by the face his wife turned to him as he stepped into the room that the
hysteria about the grapefruit was forgotten.  He sat down on the edge of the bed.
“You’re all worn down,” his wife said, extending abruptly an affectionate hand and
touching Bird’s cheek.

“I am—”

“You’ve begun to look like a sewer rat that wants to scurry into a hole.” The slap
caught him unawares.  “Is that so?” he said with a bitterness on his tongue, “like
a sewer rat?”

“Mother is afraid you’ll start drinking again, that special way you have, no
limits, night and day—”

Bird recalled the sensations of protracted drunkenness, the flushed head and the
parched throat, belly aching, body of lead, the fingers numb and the brain
whisky-logged and slack.  Weeks of life as a cave dweller enclosed in whisky
walls.

“If you did start drinking again you’d end up dead drunk and no good to anybody
just when our baby really needed you.  You would, Bird.”

“I’ll never drink that way again,” Bird said.  It was true that the tiger of a
ferocious hangover had sunk its teeth in him, but he had torn himself away without
recourse to more liquor.  But how would it have been if Himiko hadn’t helped?
Would he have begun once again to drift on that dark and agonizing sea tens of
hours wide?  He wasn’t sure, and not being able to mention Himiko made it
difficult to convince his wife of his power to resist the whisky lure.

“I very much want you to be all right, Bird.  I think sometimes that, when a
really crucial moment comes, you’ll either be drunk or in the grip of some crazy
dream and just float up into the sky like a real bird.”

“Married all this time and you still have doubts like that about your own
husband?” Bird spoke playfully, but his wife did not fall into his saccharine
trap; far from it, she rocked him on his heels with this:

“You know, you often dream about leaving for Africa and shout things in Swahili!
I’ve kept quiet about it all this time, but I’ve known you have no real desire to
lead a quiet, respectable life with your wife and child.  Bird?”

Bird stared in silence at the soiled, wasted hand his wife was resting on his
knee.  Then, like a child weakly protesting a scolding though he recognizes that
he has misbehaved, “You say I shout in Swahili; what do I say?”

“I don’t remember, Bird.  I’ve always been half-asleep myself; besides, I don’t
know Swahili.”

“Then what makes you so sure it was Swahili?”

“Words that sound that much like the screaming of beasts couldn’t come from a
civilized language.”

In silence, Bird reflected sadly on his wife’s misconception of the nature of
Swahili.

“When mother told me two days ago and then again last night that you were staying
at the other hospital, I suspected you’d gotten drunk or run away somewhere.  I
really had my doubts, Bird.”

“I was much too upset to think about anything like that.”

“But look how you’re blushing!”

“Because I’m mad,” Bird said roughly.  “Why would I run away?  With the baby just
born and everything—”

“But, when I told you I was pregnant, didn’t the ants of paranoia swarm all over
you?  Did you really want a child, Bird?”

“Anyway, all that can wait until after the baby has recovered—that’s all that
matters now,” Bird said, breaking for easier ground.

“It is all that matters, Bird.  And whether or not the baby recovers depends on
the hospital you chose and on your efforts.  I can’t get out of bed, I haven’t
even been told where the sickness is nesting in my baby’s body.  I can only depend
on you, Bird.”

“That’s fine; depend on me.”

“I was trying to decide whether I could rely on you to take care of the baby and I
began to think I didn’t know you all that well.  Bird, are you the kind of person
who’ll take the responsibility for the baby even at a sacrifice to yourself?” his
wife asked.  “Are you the responsible, brave type?”

If he had ever been to war, Bird had thought often, he would have been able to say
definitely whether he was a brave type.  This had occurred to him before fights
and before his entrance examinations, even before his marriage.  And always he had
regretted not having a definite answer.  Even his longing to test himself in the
wilds of Africa which opposed the ordinary was excited by his feeling that he
might discover in the process his own private war.  But at the moment Bird had a
feeling he knew without having to consider war or travel to Africa that he was not
to be relied on: a craven type.

Irritated by his silence, Bird’s wife clenched into a fist the hand she was
resting on his leg.  Bird started to cover her hand with his own and hesitated: it
appeared to simmer with such hostility that it would be hot to the touch.

“Bird, I wonder if you’re not the type of person who abandons someone weak when
that person needs you most—the way you abandoned that friend of yours,” Bird’s
wife opened her timid eyes wide as if to study Bird’s reaction, “… Kikuhiko?”

Kikuhiko!  Bird thought.  A friend from his days as a tough kid in a provincial
city, younger than himself, Kikuhiko had tagged along wherever Bird had gone.  One
day, in a neighboring town, they had had a bizarre experience together.  Accepting
a job hunting down a madman who had escaped from a mental hospital, they had
roamed the city on bicycles all night long.  Whereas Kikuhiko soon grew bored with
the job, began to clown, and finally lost the bicycle he had borrowed from the
hospital, Bird’s fascination only increased as he listened to the townspeople
discussing the madman, and he kept up his ardent search all through the night.
The lunatic was convinced that the real world was Hell, and he was terrified of
dogs, which he took to be devils in disguise.  At dawn, the hospital’s German
shepherd pack was to be loosed on the man’s trail, and everyone agreed that he
would die of fright if the animals brought him to bay.  Bird therefore searched
until dawn without a moment’s rest.  When Kikuhiko began to insist that they give
up the hunt and return to their own city, Bird, in his anger, shamed the younger
boy.  He told Kikuhiko he knew of his affair with an American homosexual in the
CIA.  On his way home on the last train of the night Kikuhiko sighted Bird, still
bicycling through the night in his eager search for the madman.  Leaning out of
the train window, he shouted, in a voice that had begun to cry, “—Bird, I was
afraid!”

But Bird abandoned his poor friend and continued the search.  In the end he
succeeded only in discovering the madman hanging by the neck on a hill in the
middle of the town, but the experience marked a transition in his life.  That
morning, riding next to the driver in the three-wheel truck that was carrying the
madman’s body, Bird had a premonition that he was soon to say good-by to the life
of a delinquent; the following spring, he entered a university in Tokyo.  The
Korean war was on, and Bird had been frightened by rumors that young men on the
loose in provincial cities were being conscripted into the police corps and
shipped off to Korea.  But what had happened to Kikuhiko after Bird had abandoned
him that night?  It was as if the puny ghost of an old friend had floated up from
the darkness of his past and said hello to him.

“But what made you feel like attacking me with past history like Kikuhiko?  I’d
forgotten I’d even told you that story.”

“If we had a boy, I was thinking of naming him Kikuhiko,” his wife said.

Naming him!  If that grotesque baby ever got hold of a thing like a name!  Bird
winced.

“If you abandoned our baby, I think I’d probably divorce you, Bird,” his wife
said, unmistakably a line she had rehearsed in bed, her legs raised in front of
her, gazing at the greenery that filled the window.

“Divorce?  We wouldn’t get divorced.”

“Maybe not, but we’d argue about it for a long time, Bird.” And in the end, Bird
thought, when it had been determined that he was a craven type not to be relied
on, he would be turned out to live the rest of his melancholy life as a man unfit
to be a husband.  Right now, in that overbright hospital ward, that baby is
weakening and about to die.  And I’m just waiting for it to happen.  But my wife
is staking the future of our married life on whether I take sufficient
responsibility for the baby’s recovery—I’m playing a game I’ve already lost.
Still, for the present, Bird could only perform his duty.  “The baby’s just not
going to die,” he said with many-faceted chagrin.

Just then his mother-in-law came in with the tea.  Since she was trying not to
telegraph their grim exchange in the corridor, and since Bird’s wife was
determined to conceal from her mother the enmity between herself and Bird, their
little conversation over tea was comprised, for the first time, of ordinary talk.
Bird even attempted some dry humor with an account of the baby without a liver and
the little man who was its father.

Just to make certain, Bird looked back at the hospital windows and verified that
all of them were masked behind trees in lush leaf before he approached the scarlet
sports car.  Himiko was fast asleep, wedged under the steering wheel as if she
were bundled into a sleeping bag, her head on the low seat.  As Bird bent forward
to shake her awake, he began to feel as if he had escaped encirclement by
strangers and had returned to his true family.  Guiltily, he looked back at the
branches rustling high at the top of the ginkgo trees.  “Hi, Bird!” Himiko greeted
him from the MG like an American co-ed, then wiggled out from under the steering
wheel and opened the door for him.  Bird got in quickly.

“Would you mind going to my apartment first?  We can stop at the bank on the way
to the other hospital.”

Himiko pulled out of the driveway and immediately accelerated with a roar of
exhaust.  Bird, thrown off balance, told Himiko the way to the house with his back
still pinned against the seat.

“You sure you’re awake?  Or do you think you’re flying down a highway in a
dream?”

“Of course I’m awake, Bird!  I dreamed I was making it with you.”

“Is that all you ever think about?” Bird asked in simple surprise.

“Yes, after a trip like last night.  It doesn’t happen that way often, and even
with you that same tension isn’t going to last forever.  Bird, wouldn’t it be
great to know just what you had to do to make the days of marvelous lays go on and
on!  Before we know it, even you and I won’t be able to stifle the yawns when we
confront each other’s nakedness.”

But we’ve only just begun!—Bird started to say, but with Himiko’s frantic hand on
the wheel, the MG was already churning the gravel in Bird’s driveway and then
nosing deeply into the garden.

“I’ll be down in five minutes; and try to stay awake this time.  You can’t dream
much of a lay in five minutes!”

Upstairs in the bedroom, Bird threw together a few things he would need right away
for a stay at Himiko’s house.  He packed with his back to the baby’s bassinet: it
looked like a small, white coffin.  Last of all he packed a novel written in
English by an African writer.  Then he took down his Africa maps from the wall
and, folding them carefully, thrust them into his jacket pocket.

“Are those road maps?” Himiko asked as her keen eye lighted on Bird’s pocket.
They were under way again, driving to the bank.

“They certainly are; maps you can really use.”

“Then I’ll see if I can find a shortcut to the baby’s hospital while you’re at the
bank.”

“That would be a good trick: these are maps of Africa,” Bird said, “the first real
road maps I’ve ever owned.”

“May the day come when you’ll be able to use them,” Himiko said with a touch of
mockery.

Leaving Himiko wedged beneath the steering wheel and beginning to drop off to
sleep, Bird went in to arrange for the baby’s hospitalization.  But the baby’s
lack of a name created a problem.  Bird answered endless questions for the girl at
the reception window and finally had to protest: “My infant son is dying.  For all
I know he may be dead already.  Now would you mind telling me why I am obliged to
give him a name?” he said stiffly.

Miserably rattled, the girl yielded.  It was then that Bird sensed, for no special
reason, that the baby’s death had been accomplished.  He even inquired about
making arrangements for the autopsy and cremation.

But the doctor who met Bird at the intensive care ward disabused him instantly:
“Where do you come off waiting so impatiently for your son to die?
Hospitalization here isn’t that high, you know!  And you must have health
insurance.  Anyway, it’s true that your son is weakening, but he’s still very much
alive.  So why don’t you relax a little and start behaving like a father?  How
about it!”

Bird wrote Himiko’s number on a page of his memo book and asked the doctor to
phone him if anything decisive happened.  Since he could feel everybody in the
ward reacting to him as something loathsome, he went straight back to the car,
without even pausing to peer into the incubator at his son.  No less than Himiko,
who had been asleep in the open car, Bird was drenched in sweat after his run
through the sun and shadow of the hospital square.  Trailing exhaust fumes and an
animal odor of perspiration, they roared off to sprawl naked in the hot afternoon
while they waited for the telephone call that would announce the baby’s death.

All that afternoon, their attention was on the telephone.  Bird stayed behind even
when it was time to shop for dinner, afraid the phone might ring while he was out.
After dinner, they listened to a popular Russian pianist on the radio, but with
the volume way down, nerves screaming still for the phone to ring.  Bird finally
fell asleep.  But he kept waking up to the ringing of a phantom bell in his dream
and walking over to the phone to check.  More than once the boundaries of the
dream extended to lifting the receiver and hearing the doctor’s voice report the
baby’s death.  Waking yet another time in the middle of the night, Bird felt the
suspense of a condemned murderer during a temporary stay of execution.  And he
discovered encouragement of unexpected depth and intensity in the fact that he was
spending the night with Himiko and not alone.  Not once since becoming an adult
had he so needed another person.  This was the first time.





9




NEXT morning, Bird drove Himiko’s car to school.  Parked in the schoolyard full of
students, the scarlet MG smelled vaguely of scandal, something that didn’t worry
Bird until he had put the keys into his pocket.  He sensed that lacunas had formed
in each of the pleats of his consciousness since the trouble with the baby had
begun.

Bird pushed through the crowd of students milling around the car with his face in
a scowl.  In the teachers’ room, he was informed by his department chairman, a
little man who wore his loud jacket askew in the manner of a nisei, that the
Principal wanted to see him.  But the report merely burrowed into the corroded
portion of his consciousness and left Bird undisturbed.

“Bird, you are really quelque-chose, toi,” the chairman said pleasantly, as though
in jest, even while he inspected Bird with keen eyes.  “I don’t know if you’re
brave or just brazen, but you’re certainly plenty bold!”

Naturally, Bird couldn’t help wincing as he entered the large lecture room where
his students were waiting for him.  But this was a group from a different class;
most of them wouldn’t know about yesterday’s dishonorable incident.  Bird
encouraged himself with the thought.  During the lesson he did notice a few
students who evidently knew, but they were from city high schools, cosmopolitan
and frivolous; to them, Bird’s accident was merely ludicrous and just a bit
heroic.  When their eyes met his own, they even flashed teasing, affectionate
smiles.  Bird of course ignored them.

When Bird left the classroom, a young man was waiting for him at the top of the
spiral stairs.  It was his defender from the day before, the student who had
protected him from the violence of that rancorous class.  Not only had the student
cut his own class in some other room, he had been waiting for Bird directly in the
sun.  Beads of sweat glistened on the sides of his nose, and his blue denims were
smirched with mud from the step he had been sitting on.

“Hi!”

“Hi!” Bird returned the greeting.

“I bet the Principal called you in.  That horse’s ass really did go to him with a
story, he even had a photograph of that vomit, took it with a miniature camera!”
The student smirked, exposing large, well-cared-for teeth.

Bird smiled too.  Could his accuser have carried a miniature camera around with
him all the time, in hopes of catching Bird in a weak moment and then taking the
case to court?

“He told the Principal you came to class with a hangover, but five or six of us
want to testify that you had food poisoning instead.  We thought it would be a
good idea to get together with you first and, you know, get our stories straight,”
the boy said craftily, a smug conspirator.

“I did have a hangover, so it’s you fellows who are wrong.  I’m guilty as accused
by that puritan.” Bird slipped past the student and started down the stairs.

“But sensei!” the boy persevered, climbing down the stairs after Bird, “you’ll be
fired if you confess to that.  The Principal is the head of his local chapter of
the Prohibition League, for God’s sake!”

“You’re joking!”

“So why not let it go as food poisoning?  It’s just the season for it—you could
say the pay here is so bad you finally took a bite of something—old.”

“A hangover isn’t something I feel I have to cheat about.  And I don’t want you to
lie for me.”

“Humm!” was what the boy was brash enough to say.

“Sensei, where will you be going when you leave here?”

Bird decided to ignore the student.  He didn’t feel up to involving himself in any
new plots.  He discovered that he had become extraordinarily diffident; it had to
do with those faults in his consciousness.

“You probably don’t need a job at a cram-school, anyway.  The Principal is going
to feel pretty silly when he has to fire an instructor who drives a red MG. Hah!”

Bird walked straight away from the student’s delighted laughter and went into the
teachers’ room.  He was putting away the old chalk box and the reader in his
locker when he discovered an envelope addressed to him.  It was a note from the
friend who sponsored the study group; the others must have decided at their
special meeting what to do about Mr. Delchef.  Bird had torn open the envelope and
was about to read the note when he remembered from his student days a funny
superstition about probability—when you were faced with two errands at the same
time and didn’t know what either held in store, one would always be pregnant with
good fortune if the other turned out calamitously—and stuffed the letter into his
pocket unread.  If his meeting with the Principal went very badly, he would have a
valid reason for expecting the best of the letter in his pocket.

One look at the Principal’s face as he looked up from his desk told Bird that this
meeting would be pregnant with disaster.  He resigned himself; at least he would
try to spend whatever time the interview took as pleasantly as he could.

“We have a little mess on our hands here, Bird.  To tell the truth, it’s awkward
for me, too.” The Principal sounded like the keen tycoon in a film about a
business empire, at once pragmatic and austere.  Still in his mid-thirties, this
man had transformed an ordinary tutoring service into this full-blown preparatory
school with its large and integrated curriculum, and now he was plotting to
establish a junior college.  His bulky head was shaved clean and he wore
custom-made glasses—two oval lenses suspended from a thick, straight frame—which
accented the irregularities of his face.  In the guilty eyes behind the bluff and
bluster of his glasses, however, was something that never failed to move Bird to
mild affection for the man.

“I know what you’re referring to.  And I was at fault.”

“The student who complained is a regular contributor to the school magazine—an
unpleasant lad.  It could be troublesome if he made a fuss.  …”

“Yes, of course.  I’d better resign right away,” Bird quickly said, taking the
lead himself in order to lighten the Principal’s burden.  The Principal snorted
through his nose with unnecessary vigor and put on a look of mournful outrage.

“Naturally, the professor will be upset.  …” he said, a request that Bird explain
the situation to his father-in-law himself.

Bird nodded.  He sensed that he would begin to get irritated if he didn’t leave
the office right away.

“One more thing, Bird.  It seems that some of the students are insisting you had
food poisoning and are threatening that tattletale.  He claims that you’re putting
them up to it.  That can’t be right, can it?”

Bird lost his smile and shook his head.  “Well, then, I don’t want to take any
more of your time,” he said.

“I’m sorry about all this, Bird,” the Principal said in a voice richened with
sincerity.  The eyes swelling behind the oval lenses darkened with feeling.  “I’ve
always liked you, you’ve got character!  Was that really a hangover you had?”

“Yes.  A hangover,” Bird said, and he left the room.  Instead of returning to the
teachers’ room, Bird decided to cut through the custodian’s room and across the
courtyard to the car.  Now he felt melancholy defiance rising darkly in himself,
as if he had been unjustly humiliated.

“Sensei, are you leaving us?  Be awful sorry to see you go,” the janitor
volunteered.  So news of the incident had spread.  Bird was popular in the
custodian’s room.

“I’ll be around to bother you for the rest of this term,” he said, thinking
dismally that he was not worthy of the expression on the old man’s wrinkled face.

Bird’s irrepressible ally was sitting on the door of the MG, scowling like an
adult in the heat and glare of the sun.  Bird’s unexpected exit from the back door
of the custodian’s room took him by surprise and he scrambled to his feet.  Bird
climbed into the car.

“How did it go?  Did you tell him it was food poisoning and stick up for your
rights?”

“I told you, I had a hangover.”

“Great!  That’s just great!” the boy jeered as though in disgust.  “You know
you’re fired!”

Bird put the key in the switch and started the motor.  Instantly his legs were
bathed in sweat; it was like stepping into a steam bath.  Even the steering wheel
was so baking hot that Bird’s fingers recoiled with a snap.

“Son of a bitch!” he swore.

The student laughed, delighted.  “What are you going to do when they fire you?
Sensei!”

What do I intend to do when they fire me?  And bills still to be paid at two
hospitals!  Bird thought.  But his head was frying in the sun and would not give
birth to a single viable plan, only ooze rivers of perspiration.  With vague
uneasiness, Bird discovered he was once again in the grip of diffidence.

“Why don’t you become a guide?  Then you wouldn’t have to worry about making a few
lousy yen at a flunk-out school; you could squeeze those dollars out of foreign
tourists!”

“You know where there’s a guide service?” Bird asked with interest.

“I’ll find out—where can I reach you?”

“Maybe we could get together after class next week.”

“Leave it to me!” the student shouted with excitement.

Cautiously, Bird drove the sports car out into the street.  He had wanted to get
rid of the student so he could read the letter in his pocket.  But he discovered
as he accelerated that he was feeling grateful to the boy.  If the student hadn’t
put him in a joking mood as he drove away in a grimy sports car from a job he had
just lost—how wretched he would have felt!  It was certain; he was destined to be
helped out of impossible situations by a band of younger brothers.  Bird
remembered that he needed gas and drove into a station.  After a minute’s thought
he asked for high test, then from his pocket took the letter which, according to
that student superstition, was guaranteed to be entirely captivating news.

Mr. Delchef had ignored an appeal from the legation and was still living in
Shinjuku with a young delinquent.  He was not disillusioned politically with his
own country, not planning spy activity or hoping to defect.  He was simply unable
to take leave of this particular Japanese girl.  Naturally, the legation was most
afraid that the Delchef incident might be used politically.  If certain Western
governments used their influence to launch a propaganda campaign based on Mr.
Delchef’s life as a recluse, the repercussions were certain to be widely felt.
Accordingly, Mr. Delchef’s government was anxious to get him back to the legation
as quickly as possible so that he could be sent home, but enlisting the
cooperation of the Japanese police would only publicize the incident.  If, on the
other hand, the legation itself attempted to use force, Mr. Delchef, who had
fought with the resistance during the war, was certain to put up a terrific fight
and the police would become involved after all.  With nowhere else to turn, the
legation finally had requested the members of the Slavic languages study group to
try as quietly as possible to persuade Mr. Delchef of his folly.  On Saturday
afternoon, at one o’clock, there was to be another meeting in the restaurant
across the street from the university Bird and the others had graduated from.
Since Bird was closest to Mr. Delchef, his friend wrote, everyone was particularly
anxious that he attend.

Saturday, the day after tomorrow: yes, he would go!  The pump jockey, like a bee
suffusing the air around its body with the fragrance of honey, was wrapped in a
caustic gasoline haze.  Bird paid him and pulled away from the gas stand with a
roar of exhaust.  Assuming the telephone call announcing the baby’s death wouldn’t
come today, or tomorrow, or even the day after tomorrow, acquiring an outside
errand to occupy the irritating hours of the reprieve was certainly a stroke of
good luck.  It had been a good letter after all.

Bird stopped at a grocery store on the way home and bought some beer and canned
salmon.  Parking in front of the house, he walked up to the front door and found
it locked.  Could Himiko have gone out?  An arbitrary rage seized Bird, he could
almost hear the telephone jangling for long, unheeded minutes.  But when he walked
around to the side of the house and called up at the bedroom window just to make
sure, Himiko’s eye peeped reassuringly from between the curtains.  Bird sighed
and, sweating heavily, walked back to the front door.

“Any word from the hospital?” he asked, his face still taut.

“Nothing, Bird.”

It felt to Bird as if he had squandered energy along a huge perimeter by climbing
into a scarlet sports car and circling Tokyo on a summer day.  He found himself
caught in the claws of a formidable lobster of fatigue, as if word of the baby’s
death would have invested the day’s activity with meaning and fixed it in its
proper place.  Bird said gruffly: “Why do you keep the door locked even in the
daytime?”

“I guess I’m scared.  I have this feeling a disgusting goblin of misfortune is
waiting for me just outside.”

“A goblin after you?” Bird sounded puzzled.  “It doesn’t look to me as if you’re
in the least danger of any misfortune right now.”

“It hasn’t been that long since my husband killed himself.  Bird, aren’t you
trying to say in your amazing arrogance that you’re the only one around who has to
watch out for goblins of misfortune?”

It was a terrific wallop.  And Bird escaped the knock-down only because Himiko
turned her back on him and hurried back into the bedroom without following through
with a second punch.

With his eye on Himiko’s naked shoulders glistening with fat in front of him, Bird
struggled through the heavy, tepid air in the dim living room, and was stepping
into the bedroom when dismay brought him to a halt.  A large girl about Himiko’s
age, no longer young, was lounging on the bed beneath the haze of tobacco smoke
that hung over the room like a gaseous cloud, her arms and shoulders bared.

“It’s been a hell of a long time, Bird,” the girl drawled a hoarse greeting.

“Hey!” Bird said, not yet the master of his confusion.

“I didn’t want to wait for the phone call all alone so I asked her over, Bird.”

“You didn’t have to work at the station today?” Bird asked.  This was another of
Bird’s classmates, from the English department.  For two years after she had
graduated, the girl had done nothing but amuse herself; like most of the girls
from Bird’s college, she had turned down every offer of a job because she
considered them all beneath her talent.  Finally, after two years of idleness, she
had become a producer at a third-rate radio station with only a local broadcasting
range.

“All my shows are after midnight, Bird.  You must have heard that vomity
whispering that sounds as if the girls are screwing the whole radio audience with
their throat,” the producer said with syrup in her voice.  Bird recalled the
assorted scandals in which she had involved the radio station that had so
gallantly employed her.  And he could remember perfectly well the disgust he had
for her in their student days, when she had been not only a big girl but fat as
well, with something he could never quite put his finger on around her eyes and
nose that reminded him of a badger.  “Can we do something about all this smoke?”
Bird said with reserve, depositing the beer and canned salmon on the TV set.

Himiko went to open the ventilator in the kitchen.  But her friend, without
troubling herself about Bird’s smarting eyes, lit a new cigarette with unsightly
fingers with silver-polished nails.  In the light of the silver Dunhill’s orange
flame, Bird saw, despite her hair hanging over her face, the sharp creases in the
girl’s brow and the tiny spasms rippling her darkly veined eyelids.  Something was
gnawing at the girl: Bird grew wary.

“Don’t either of you girls mind the heat?”

“God, I do, I’m just about to faint,” Himiko’s friend said gloomily.  “But it is
unpleasant if the air is swirling around in a room when you’re having a good talk
with a close friend.”

While Himiko moved briskly around the kitchen, wedging the beer into spaces
between the ice trays, dusting the tins of canned food, and inspecting the labels,
her producer friend watched disapprovingly from the bed.  This dog will probably
spread the hot news about us with terrific zest, Bird thought; I wouldn’t be
surprised if it got on the air late one night.

Himiko had thumbtacked Bird’s map to the bedroom wall.  Even the African novel he
had concealed in his bag was sprawled on the floor like a dead rat.  Himiko must
have been reading it in bed when her girlfriend arrived.  So she had thrown the
book on the floor, gone out to unlock the door, and then left it lying there.
Bird was peeved: his African treasures were being treated so carelessly, it had to
be a bad sign.  I suppose I won’t see the sky over Africa as long as I live.  And
no more talk about putting money away for the trip, I just lost the job I needed
to keep alive from day to day.

“I got fired today,” Bird said to Himiko.  “The summer program, too—everything.”

“No!  But what happened, Bird?”

Bird was obliged to talk about the hangover, the vomiting, the indefatigable
puritan’s assault, and gradually the story turned into a dank, unpleasant thing.
Bird sickened, wound up quickly.

“And you could have defended yourself in front of the Principal!  If some of the
students were willing to say it was food poisoning, there wouldn’t have been a
thing wrong with letting them back you up!  Bird, how could you have consented so
easily to being fired!”

That’s a point, why did I accept being fired so easily?  For the first time, Bird
felt an attachment to the instructor’s chair he had just lost.  That wasn’t the
kind of job you just threw away half-jokingly.  And what kind of report could he
make to his father-in-law?  Would he be able to confess that he had drunk himself
unconscious on the day his abnormal baby had been born, and then behaved so
miserably the next morning because of his hangover that he had lost his job?  And
on the Johnnie Walker the professor had made him a present of …

“There wasn’t a single thing left in the world that I could justifiably assert my
right to, it was that kind of feeling.  Besides, I was so anxious to cut short
that interview with the Principal, I just agreed to everything; it was reckless as
hell.”

“Bird,” the girl producer broke in, “are you saying that you feel as if you’ve
lost all your rights in the world because you’re just sitting around waiting for
your own baby to die?”

So Himiko had told her girlfriend the whole nasty story!

“Something like that,” Bird said, annoyed at both Himiko’s indiscretion and the
girl producer’s forwardness.  It was easy even now to imagine himself in the
middle of a scandal widely known.

“It’s the people who have begun to feel they have no more rights in the real world
who commit suicide.  Bird, please don’t commit suicide,” Himiko said.

“What’s all this about suicide!” said Bird, at heart threatened.

“It was right after he began feeling that way that my husband killed himself.  If
you hung yourself in this same bedroom—Bird, I’d be sure I was a witch.”

“I’ve never even considered suicide,” Bird declared.

“But your father was a suicide, wasn’t he?”

“How did you know that?”

“You told me about it the night my husband killed himself, trying to console me.
You wanted me to believe that suicide was the kind of ordinary thing that happens
every day.”

“I must have been all upset myself,” Bird said limply.

“You even told me that story about your father beating you before he killed
himself.”

“What story is that?” the girl producer asked, her curiosity igniting.

But Bird remained morosely silent, so Himiko told the story as she had heard it.

One day Bird had approached his father with this question; he was six years old:
Father, where was I a hundred years before I was born?  Where will I be a hundred
years after I’m dead?  Father, what will happen to me when I die?  Without a word,
his young father had punched him in the mouth, broke two of his teeth and bloodied
his face, and Bird forgot his fear of death.  Three months later, his father had
put a bullet through his head with a German army pistol from World War I.

“If my baby dies of undernourishment,” Bird said, remembering his father, “at
least I’ll have one thing less to be afraid of.  Because I wouldn’t know what to
do if my child asked me that same question when he got to be six.  I couldn’t
punch my own child in the mouth hard enough to make him forget his fear of death.
Not even temporarily.”

“Just don’t commit suicide, Bird, all right?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Bird said, turning away from Himiko’s swollen, bloodshot
eyes his own eyes that felt as if they were beginning to show disorder.

The girl producer turned to Bird as if she had been waiting for Himiko’s silence,
“Bird, isn’t this waiting around for your baby to weaken on sugar-water in a
distant hospital the worst state you could be in?  Full of self-deception,
uncertain, anxious!  And isn’t that why you’re so run down?  It’s not just you,
either, even Himiko has lost weight.”

“But I can’t just yank him home and kill him,” Bird protested.

“At least that way you wouldn’t be deceiving yourself, you’d have to admit that
you were dirtying your own hands.  Bird, it’s too late now to escape the villain
in yourself, but you had to become a villain because you wanted to protect your
little scene at home from an abnormal baby, so there’s even an egotistical logic
to it.  But what you’re doing is leaving the bloody work to some doctor in a
hospital while you mope around playing the gentle victim of sudden misfortune, as
if you were really a very good man, and that’s what’s bad for your mental health!
You must know as well as I do, Bird, that you’re deceiving yourself!”

“Deceiving myself?  Sure, if I were trying to convince myself that my hands were
clean while I wait impatiently for my baby to die when I’m not around, certainly
that would be dishonest,” Bird said in denial.  “But I know perfectly well that
I’ll be responsible for the baby’s death.”

“I wonder about that, Bird,” the woman producer said in utter disbelief.  “I’m
afraid you’ll find yourself in all kinds of trouble the minute the baby dies,
that’s the penalty you’ll pay for having deceived yourself.  And it’s then that
Himiko will really have to keep a sharp eye on Bird to see he doesn’t kill
himself.  Of course, by then he’ll probably be back with his long-suffering
wife.”

“My wife says she’d want to think about a divorce if I neglected the baby and it
died.”

“Once a person has been poisoned by self-deception, he can’t make decisions about
himself as neatly as all that,” Himiko said, elaborating her friend’s terrific
prophecy.  “You won’t get a divorce, Bird.  You’ll justify yourself like crazy,
and try to salvage your married life by confusing the real issues.  A decision
like divorce is way beyond you now, Bird, the poison has gone to work.  And you
know how the story ends?  Not even your own wife will trust you absolutely, and
one day you’ll discover for yourself that your entire private life is in the
shadow of deception and in the end you’ll destroy yourself.  Bird, the first signs
of self-destruction have appeared already!”

“But that’s a blind alley!  Leave it to you to paint the most hopeless future you
can think of.” Bird lunged at jocularity but his large, heavy classmate was
perverse enough to parry him: “Right now, it’s too clear that you are up a blind
alley, Bird.”

“But the fact that an abnormal baby was born to my wife was a simple accident;
neither of us is responsible.  And I’m neither such a tough villain that I can
wring the baby’s neck nor a tough enough angel to mobilize all the doctors and try
to keep him alive somehow no matter how hopeless a baby he may be.  So all I can
do is leave him at a university hospital and make certain that he’ll weaken and
die naturally.  When it’s all over if I get sick on self-deception like a sewer
rat that scurries down a blind alley after swallowing rat poison, well, there’s
nothing I can do about it.”

“That’s where you’re wrong, Bird.  You should have become either a tough villain
or a tough angel, one or the other.”

Bird caught just a whiff of alcohol stealing into the sweet sourness of the air.
He looked at the girl producer’s large face and even in the dimness saw that it
was flushed and twitching, as though from facial neuritis.

“You’re drunk, aren’t you; I just realized—”

“That doesn’t mean you escape unscathed from everything I’ve said up to now,” the
girl declared triumphantly, and, publicly expelling her hot, whisky breath,
“however you may deny it, Bird, the problem of the dregs of self-deception after
the baby’s death just isn’t apparent to you now.  Can you deny that your biggest
worry at the moment is that your freaky baby may grow like a weed and not die at
all?”

Bird’s heart constricted: the sweat began to pour.  For a long time he sat in
silence, feeling like a beaten dog.  Then he stood up without a word and went to
get some beer from the refrigerator.  A frosty part where it had lain against the
ice tray and the rest of the bottle warm—Bird instantly lost his thirst for beer.
Still, he took the bottle and three glasses back to the bedroom with him.
Himiko’s friend was in the living room, with the light on, fixing her hair and
make-up and putting on her dress.  Bird turned his back on the living room and
filled a glass for himself and one for Himiko with beer that clouded to a dirty
brown.

“We’re having a beer,” Himiko called in to her friend.

“None for me; I have to go to the station.”

“But it’s still so early,” Himiko said coquettishly.

“I’m sure you don’t need me now that Bird is here,” the girl said, as if to trap
Bird in a net of suggestion.  Then, directly to Bird: “I’m fairy godmother to all
the girls who graduated with me.  They all need a fairy godmother, need me,
because they don’t know what they want yet.  And whenever it looks as if someone
is about to have some difficulty I turn up and lend her strength.  Bird, try not
to drag Himiko too deeply into your private family problems?  Not that I don’t
sympathize personally—”

When Himiko had left with her friend to see her to a cab, Bird dumped the rest of
the tepid beer into the sink and took a cold shower.  He recalled as the water
pelted him an elementary school excursion when he had been caught in an icy
downpour after having dropped behind and lost his way.  The overwhelming
loneliness, and the mortifying sense of helplessness.  At the moment, like a
soft-shell crab that had just shed its shell, he yielded instantly under attack by
even the puniest enemy.  He was in the worst condition ever, Bird thought.  That
he had managed to offer considerable resistance in his fight with the teen-age
gang that night now seemed like such an impossible miracle that he was afraid all
over again.

Vaguely aroused after his shower, Bird lay down naked on the bed.  The smell of
the outsider had disappeared; once again the house gave off its distinctive odor
of oldness.  This was Himiko’s lair.  She had to rub the odor of her body into all
its corners and thereby certify her territory or she could not escape anxiety,
like a small, timid animal.  Bird was already so used to the odor of the house
that he mistook it sometimes for the odor of his own body.  What could be keeping
Himiko?  Bird had washed the old sweat away in the shower and now his skin was
beading again.  He moved sluggishly to the kitchen and tried another bottle of the
slightly chilled beer.

When Himiko finally returned an hour later she found Bird disgruntled.

“She was jealous,” she said in defense of her friend.

“Jealous?”

“Would you believe, she’s the most pathetic member of our little group.  Every so
often one of us girls will go to bed with her to make her feel a little better.
And she’s convinced herself that that makes her our fairy godmother.”

Bird’s moral mechanism had been broken since he had abandoned his baby in the
hospital; Himiko’s relationship with her producer friend didn’t shock him
particularly.

“Maybe she was speaking out of jealousy,” he said, “but that doesn’t mean I got
away from everything she said unscathed.”





10




THEY were watching the midnight news, Bird in bed on his stomach, lifting only his
head like a baby sea urchin, Himiko hugging her knees on the floor.  The heat of
day had departed and like primeval cave dwellers they were enjoying the cool air
in nakedness.  Since they had turned the volume way down with the telephone bell
in mind, the only sound in the room was a voice as faint as the buzzing of a bee’s
wings.  But what Bird heard was not a human voice endowed with meaning and mood,
nor was he distinguishing meaningful shapes in the flickering shadows on the
screen.  From the external world he was letting in nothing to project its image on
the screen of his consciousness.  He was simply waiting, like a radio set equipped
with a receiver only, for a signal from the distance which he wasn’t even certain
would be transmitted.  Until now the signal had not arrived and the waiting
receiver, Bird, was temporarily out of order.  Himiko abruptly put down the book
on her lap, My Life in the Bush of Ghosts, by the African writer Amos Tutuola,
and, leaning forward, turned up the volume on the television set.  Even then, Bird
received no clear impression of the picture his eyes were watching or the voice
his ears heard.  He merely continued to wait, gazing vacantly at the screen.  A
minute later Himiko extended one arm, her knees and the other hand on the floor,
and turned the set off.  The mercury dot blazed, receded instantly, extinguished
itself—a pure abstraction of the shape of death.  Bird gasped, my baby may have
died just now!  he had felt.  From morning until this late hour of the night he
had been waiting for word by phone; save for lunching on some bread and ham and
beer and entering Himiko repeatedly, he had done nothing, not even looked at his
maps or read his African novel (Himiko, as though Bird’s African fever had
infected her, was enthralled by the maps and the book), thought about nothing but
the baby’s death.  Clearly, Bird was in the midst of a regression.

Himiko turned around on the floor and spoke to Bird, a fervid glitter in her eye.

“What?” he frowned, unable to read her meaning.

“I say this may be the beginning of the atomic war that will mean the end of the
world!”

“What makes you say that?” Bird said, surprised.  “You have a way of saying things
out of the blue sometimes.”

“Out of the blue?” It was Himiko’s turn to be surprised.  “But wasn’t the news
just now a shock to you, too?”

“What news was that?  I wasn’t paying attention, it was something else that
startled me.”

Himiko stared at Bird reproachfully, but she seemed to realize at once that he was
neither having fun with her nor aghast at what he had heard.  The glitter of
excitement in her eyes dulled.

“Get a hold of yourself, Bird!”

“What news?”

“Khrushchev resumed nuclear testing; apparently they exploded a bomb that makes
the hydrogen bombs up to now look like firecrackers.”

“Oh, is that it,” Bird said.

“You don’t seem impressed.”

“I guess I’m not—”

“How strange!”

It was strange, Bird felt now for the first time, that the Soviet resumption of
nuclear testing had not in the least impressed him.  But he didn’t think he could
be surprised even by word that a third World War had erupted with a nuclear bang.
…

“I don’t know why, I honestly didn’t feel anything,” Bird said.

“Are you completely indifferent to politics these days?”

Bird had to think in silence a minute.  “I’m not as sensitive to the international
situation as I was when we were students; remember I used to go with you and your
husband to all those protest rallies?  But the one thing I have been concerned
about all along is atomic weapons.  Like the only political action our study group
ever took was to demonstrate against nuclear warfare.  So I should have been
shocked by the news about Khrushchev, and yet I was watching all the time and
didn’t feel a thing.”

“Bird—” Himiko faltered.

“It feels as if my nervous system is only sensitive to the problem of the baby and
can’t be stimulated by anything else,” a vague anxiety impelled Bird to say.

“That’s just it, Bird.  All day today, for fifteen hours, you’ve talked of nothing
but whether or not the baby is dead yet.”

“It’s true his phantom is in control of my head; it’s like being submerged in a
pool of the baby’s image.”

“Bird, that’s not normal.  If the baby should take a long time weakening and it
went on this way for, say, one hundred days, you’d go mad.  You would, Bird!”

Bird glowered at Himiko.  As if the echo of her words might bestow on the baby
weakening on sugar-water and thinned milk the same energy that Popeye found in a
can of spinach.  Ah, one hundred days!  Twenty-four hundred hours!

“Bird!  If you let the baby’s phantom possess you this way, I don’t think you’ll
be able to escape from it even after the baby is dead.” Himiko quoted in English
from Macbeth: “ ‘These deeds must not be thought after these ways,’ Bird, ‘so it
will make us mad.’ ”

“But I can’t help thinking about the baby now, and it may be the same after he’s
dead.  There’s nothing I can do about that.  And you may be right, for all I know
the worst part will come after the baby’s death.”

“But it’s not too late to call the hospital and arrange for him to get whole
milk—”

“That’s no good,” Bird interrupted in a voice as plaintive and agitated as a
scream.  “And you’d know it was no good if you saw that lump on its head!”

Himiko peered at Bird and shook her head gloomily at what she saw.  They avoided
each other’s eyes.  Presently Himiko turned off the light and burrowed into the
bed alongside Bird.  It was cool enough now for two people to lie together on one
cramped bed without oppressing each other.  For a time they lay in silence,
perfectly still.  Then Himiko wrapped herself around Bird’s body, moving with a
clumsiness that was surprising in one ordinarily so expert.  Bird felt a dry tuft
of pubic hair against his outer thigh.  Loathing grazed him unexpectedly, and
passed.  He wished that Himiko would stop moving her limbs and slip away into her
own feminine sleep.  At the same time he was poignantly hopeful that she would
remain awake until he was asleep himself.  Minutes passed.  Each sensed and tried
not to show he knew that the other was wide awake.  At last Himiko said, as
abruptly as a badger who could endure playing dead no longer, “You dreamed about
the baby last night, didn’t you?” Her voice was curiously shrill.

“Yes, I did.  Why?”

“What kind of dream?”

“It was a missile base on the moon, and the baby’s bassinet was all alone on those
fantastically desolate rocks.  That’s all.  A simple dream.”

“You curled up like an infant and clenched your fists and started bawling in your
sleep.  Waagh!  Waagh!  Your face was all mouth.”

“That’s a horror story, it’s not normal!” Bird said as though in rage, drowning in
the hot springs of his shame.

“I was afraid.  I thought you might go on that way and not come back to normal.”

Bird was silent, his cheeks flaming in the darkness.  And Himiko lay as still as
stone.

“Bird—if this weren’t a problem limited just to you personally, I mean if it was
something that concerned me, too, that I could share with you, then I’d be able to
encourage you so much better—” Himiko’s tone was subdued, as if she regretted
having mentioned Bird’s moaning in his sleep.

“You’re right about this being limited to me, it’s entirely a personal matter.
But with some personal experiences that lead you way into a cave all by yourself,
you must eventually come to a side tunnel or something that opens on a truth that
concerns not just yourself but everyone.  And with that kind of experience at
least the individual is rewarded for his suffering.  Like Tom Sawyer!  He had to
suffer in a pitch-black cave, but at the same time he found his way out into the
light he also found a bag of gold!  But what I’m experiencing personally now is
like digging a vertical mine shaft in isolation; it goes straight down to a
hopeless depth and never opens on anybody else’s world.  So I can sweat and suffer
in that same dark cave and my personal experience won’t result in so much as a
fragment of significance for anybody else.  Hole-digging is all I’m doing, futile,
shameful hole-digging; my Tom Sawyer is at the bottom of a desperately deep mine
shaft and I wouldn’t be surprised if he went mad!”

“In my experience there is no such thing as absolutely futile suffering.  Bird,
right after my husband killed himself I went to bed, unprotected, with a man who
might have been sick and I developed a syphilis phobia.  I suffered with that fear
for an awfully long time, and while I was suffering it seemed to me that no
neurosis could be as barren and unproductive as mine.  But you know, after I
recovered, I had gained something after all.  Ever since then, I can make it with
almost anything, no matter how lethal it might be, and I never worry about
syphilis for very long!”

Himiko related her story as if it were a droll confession; she even finished with
a titter of laughter.  What did it matter that her own gaiety was counterfeit,
Bird sensed the girl making an effort to cheer him up.  Still, he permitted
himself a cynical flourish: “In other words, the next time my wife has an abnormal
child I won’t have to suffer for very long.”

“That isn’t what I meant at all,” Himiko said dejectedly.  “Bird, if only you
could convert this experience from a vertical shaft type to a cave experience with
an exit tunnel—”

“I don’t think that’s possible.”

The conversation was at an end.  “I’m going to get a beer and some sleeping
pills,” Himiko said at last.  “I guess you’ll need some too?”

Of course Bird needed some too, but it wouldn’t do to miss the telephone when it
rang.  “None for me,” he said in a voice that sharpened with an excess of longing.
“I hate waking up in the morning with the taste of sleeping pills in my mouth.”
None for me would have sufficed.  But the extra words were necessary to extinguish
the demand for beer and sleeping pills that was flaming in his throat.

“Really?” Himiko said callously as she washed the tablets down with half a glass
of beer.  “Now that you mention it, it’s like the taste of a broken tooth.”

Long after Himiko had fallen asleep Bird lay awake at her side, his body rigid
from shoulders to belly as though he had been stricken with elephantiasis.  Having
to lie in bed with another felt like a sacrifice of his own body so great as to be
unjust.  Bird tried to recall what it had been like during the first year of his
marriage, when he and his wife had slept in the same bed, but with so little
success it might have been a mistake of memory.  Bird finally resolved to sleep on
the floor, but as he tried to sit up Himiko moaned savagely in her sleep and
twined herself around his body, gnashing her teeth.  Bird felt again a scratchy
tuft of pubic hair against his outer thigh.  From the darkness beyond Himiko’s
partly opened lips blew a rusty metallic odor.

With no room to move, despairing at the pain mounting in his body, Bird lay
hopelessly awake.  Before long, a suffocating suspicion took hold of him.  Might
not the doctor and those nurses be feeding the baby ten quarts of rich milk an
hour?  Bird could see the baby gulping condensed milk, two red mouths open in two
red heads.  The millet seeds of fever were sowed in every furrow of his body.
Bird’s shame lightened, and weight was added to the pan on the other side of the
scales, his victimized sense of being harmed by a grotesque baby: the
psychological balance weighing Bird’s reprieve tipped.  Bird sweated, tormented by
an egotistical anxiety.  He no longer saw anything, not even the furniture rising
out of the darkness, nor heard any sound, not even the rumble of passing trucks;
he was now a life form aware only of the prickliness of the heat on its skin and
the sweat welling from within its own body.  Lying perfectly still, Bird continued
to ooze the green-smelling liquid, like a garden slug dusted with a grub killer.

I know the doctor and those nurses are feeding my baby ten quarts of rich milk an
hour.  …

It would be morning soon, but even then Bird wouldn’t be able to tell Himiko about
this disgraceful paranoia: it was the very paranoia the girl producer had
predicted in belittling him.  He might not speak to Himiko, but very likely he
would go over to the ward and reconnoiter when the agony of waiting for the call
became too great to bear.  The sky dawned and the telephone had not rung.  Then
dawn passed, morning light began to creep between the curtains, and Bird was still
immersed to his neck in a tar vat of anxiety, sleepless, sweating, none but a
phantom bell ringing in his ears.

In disgruntled silence, their shoulders rubbing, Bird and the doctor peered
through the glass partition as if to examine an octopus in a water tank.  Bird’s
baby had come out of the incubator and was lying alone on a regular bed.  He might
just have come from surgery to correct a harelip, there was nothing covert to
suggest that special measures were being taken.  Bright red as a boiled shrimp, he
didn’t look to Bird like a creature weakened to the point of death.  He was even
somewhat bigger than before.  And the lump on his head seemed to have developed.
His head tipped sharply back in order to balance the weight of the lump, the baby
was rubbing furiously behind its ears with the undersides of its thumbs, trying to
scratch the lump perhaps, with shriveled hands that wouldn’t reach.  Its eyes were
closed so tightly that half its face was wrinkled.

“Do you suppose the lump itches?”

“What’s that?” the doctor said, and, comprehending, “I don’t really know.  But the
skin on the underside of the lump is so inflamed it’s ready to split; it could
very well be itching.  We injected some antibiotic in there once, but now that
we’ve stopped all that the lump is liable to split any time.  If it does burst,
the baby will probably develop breathing difficulty.”

Bird stared at the doctor and started to open his mouth but swallowed in silence
instead.  He wanted to verify that the doctor had not forgotten that he, the
father, desired this baby’s death.  Otherwise, he would be trampled once again
beneath the hoofs of a suspicion like last night’s.  But all he could do was
swallow.

“The crisis should come today or tomorrow,” the doctor said.  Bird peered at the
baby rubbing its head as before with its large, red hands held up above its ears.
The baby’s ears were identical to Bird’s, rolled in against its head.  “I
appreciate all you’re doing,” Bird said in a whisper, as if he were afraid the
baby would hear.  Then he quickly bowed to the doctor, his cheeks on fire, and
hurried out of the ward.

The minute the door closed Bird regretted not having made clear his desire to the
doctor once again.  He put his hands behind his ears as he walked along the
corridor and began to rub his head just below the hairline with the fleshy pads of
his thumbs.  Gradually he arched backward, as if a heavy weight were attached to
his head.  He stopped short a minute later when he realized he was imitating the
baby’s gestures, and glanced around him nervously.  At the corner of the corridor,
standing in front of a drinking fountain, two women from the maternity ward were
staring blankly in his direction.  Feeling his stomach heave, Bird turned toward
the main wing and broke into a run.

Bird’s friend spotted him from the restaurant as he slowly drove by looking for a
parking place, and he came out into the street.  When Bird finally managed to
park, he looked at his watch.  Thirty minutes late.  His friend’s face as he
approached was moldy with impatience.

“The car belongs to a friend,” Bird said in embarrassed justification of the MG.
“Sorry I’m late.  Is everybody here?”

“Just you and me.  The others went to that protest rally at Hibiya Park.”

“Oh, that,” Bird said.  He remembered knowing at breakfast that Himiko was reading
about the Soviet bomb in the paper and not feeling the least involved himself.
Right now my primary worry is personal, a grotesque baby, I’ve turned my back on
the real world.  It’s all right for those others to participate in global destiny
with their protest rallies: a baby with a lump on its head doesn’t have its teeth
in them.

“None of the others want to get involved with Mr. Delchef, that’s why they went
down to the park.” His friend glanced at Bird irritably, as if he disapproved of
Bird’s simple acceptance of the others’ absence.  “A few thousand people
protesting on the mall in Hibiya Park isn’t going to get anyone in trouble with
Mr. Khrushchev personally!”

Bird considered each member of the study group.  There was no denying that deep
involvement with Mr. Delchef now could lead to trouble for all of them.  Several
were employed by first-rate export houses, others were with the Foreign Office or
taught at universities.  In the event that the newspapers picked up the Delchef
incident and treated it as a scandal, their situation was certain to be awkward if
their superiors should discover that they were associated with the man in any way.
Not one of them was as free as Bird, instructor at a cram-school and soon to be
fired.

“What are we going to do?” Bird prompted his friend.

“There’s nothing we can do.  It seems to me our only choice is to refuse the
legation’s request for help.”

“You’ve decided you don’t want to get involved with Mr. Delchef either?” Bird
asked merely out of interest with no ulterior motives, yet his friend’s eyes
reddened suddenly and he glowered at Bird, as if he had been insulted.  Bird
realized with surprise that he had been expected to approve at once of turning
down the legation’s request.

“But look at this from Mr. Delchef’s point of view,” Bird objected quietly.  His
friend submerged in peevish silence.  “Allowing us to persuade him to come back
may be his last chance.  Didn’t they say they’d have to go to the police if we
failed?  Knowing that, I don’t see how we can refuse with a clear conscience!”

“If Mr. Delchef let himself be persuaded by us, fine, great!  But if it didn’t go
well and this developed into a scandal, we’d find ourselves in the middle of an
international incident!” Avoiding Bird’s face, the friend spoke with his eyes on
the gutted sheep’s belly that was the driver’s seat of the MG. “It just doesn’t
seem wise to me to mess with Mr. Delchef while all this is going on.”

Bird could feel his friend imploring him to agree without further argument; the
plea was so naked it was sad.  But awesome words like scandal and international
incident failed entirely to impress him.  Even now he was over his head in the
scandal of the bizarre baby, and the domestic incident created by the baby had a
firmer and more poignant hold on the scruff of his neck than any international
incident could ever have.  Bird was free of the fear of all the pitfalls he
supposed must be concealed around Mr. Delchef’s person.  And he noticed now for
the first time since the trouble with the baby had begun that the breadth of his
life from day to day permitted him a far larger than ordinary margin of action.
He was even amused by the irony.

“If you decide to turn down the legation appeal as a group, I’d like to meet Mr.
Delchef on my own.  I was close to him, and even if the incident does come out in
the open and I get involved in a scandal, well, it isn’t going to bother me
particularly.”

Bird was looking for something that would occupy him today and tomorrow, the new
period of reprieve the doctor’s words had granted him.  Besides, he honestly
wanted a look at Mr. Delchef’s life as a recluse.

The instant Bird accepted, his friend turned to gold, so swift was the alchemy
that Bird on his part was a little embarrassed: “If you feel that’s what you want
to do, go ahead!  I can’t think of anything better,” the friend said with feverish
conviction.  “To tell the truth, I was hoping you’d agree to take the job on.  The
others got cold feet the minute they heard the news about Mr. Delchef, but you
were as composed and detached as could be.  Bird, I admired you for that!”

Bird smiled blandly, not wishing to offend his suddenly loquacious friend.  At the
moment, as long as the baby was not involved, his capacity for calm detachment was
infinite.  But that was no reason, he thought bitterly, for the rest of Tokyo’s
millions without the shackles of a grotesque baby around their necks to feel
envious of him.

“I’ll tell you what, I’ll treat you to lunch,” the friend proposed eagerly.
“Let’s have a beer first.”

Bird nodded, and they walked back to the restaurant together.  They were seated
across a table and had called for beer when Bird’s elated friend said: “Bird, did
you have that habit of rubbing behind your ears with your thumbs when we were in
school together?”

As he edged into the narrow alley that opened like a crack between a Korean
restaurant and a bar, Bird wondered if there wasn’t another exit hidden in this
labyrinth.  According to the map his friend had drawn for him, he had just entered
a blind alley by the only entrance.  The cul-de-sac was shaped like a stomach, a
stomach with an obstruction in the duodenum.  How could a man leading a fugitive
life bury himself in a place as closed in as this and not feel anxious about it?
Had Mr. Delchef felt so hounded that no other spot would have done as a hideaway?
Chances were, he wasn’t hiding in this alley anymore.  Bird cheered himself with
the thought, and then he had come to the tenement house at the end of the alley.
He stopped at the entrance to what might have been a secret trail to a mountain
fortress, and wiped the sweat off his face.  The alley itself seemed shady enough,
but Bird saw when he looked up at the sky that the fierce sunlight of summer noon
covered it like a white-hot platinum net.  His face still uplifted to the glitter
of the sky, Bird closed his eyes and rubbed his itching head with his thumbs.
Suddenly he let his arms fall as if they had been struck down, and snapped his
head upright; in the distance, a girl had raised her voice in a lunatic scream.

With his shoes in one hand, Bird climbed a few stairs that were gritty with dirt
and went into the building.  The left side of the hallway was lined with
prison-like doors.  The right side was a blank wall, heavily scrawled on.  Bird
moved toward the back, checking the numbers on the doors.  He could sense people
behind each of the doors, yet all of them were closed.  Then what did the tenants
in this building do about escaping the heat?  Was Himiko the forerunner of a tribe
propagating wildly all over the city which shut itself up in locked rooms even in
the middle of the day?  Bird got all the way to the end of the hall and discovered
a flight of steep, narrow stairs hidden away like an inside pocket.  Then he
happened to look behind him: a large woman was planted in the entranceway, peering
in his direction.  She was in heavy shadow and so was the hall, for her back shut
out the light from the street.

“What do you want back there?” the woman called, moving as though to shoo a dog
away.

“I’ve just come to visit a foreign friend of mine,” Bird replied in a quaking
voice.

“American?”

“He’s living with a young Japanese girl.”

“Ah, why didn’t you say so!  The American is the first room on the second floor.”
With that, the large woman nimbly vanished.  Assuming “the American” was Mr.
Delchef, it was clear that he had won a place in the giantess’s affections.  Bird
was still doubtful as he climbed the unfinished wooden stairs.  But then he
executed a turn on the particularly narrow landing and there in front of him, his
arms extended in welcome though his eyes were puzzled, Mr. Delchef stood.  Bird
felt a surge of joy: Mr. Delchef was the only tenant in the building with the
wholesome good sense to leave his door open as a measure against the heat.

Bird propped his shoes against the wall in the hallway and then shook hands with
Mr. Delchef, who was beaming at him from just inside the door.  Like a marathon
runner, he wore only a pair of blue shorts and an undershirt; his red hair was
cropped short but he sported a bushy and expectably reddish mustache.  Bird could
find nothing to indicate that the man in front of him was a fugitive—except his
stupendous body odor, worthy of a hulking bear of a man though Mr. Delchef was
slight of build.  Probably he hadn’t found the opportunity to take a bath since
secluding himself here.

When they had exchanged greetings in mutually meager English, Mr. Delchef
explained that his girlfriend had just left to have her hair set.  Then he invited
Bird inside, but Bird pointed to the tatami mat floor and declined with the excuse
that his feet were dirty.  He wanted to say what he had to say standing in the
hall.  He was afraid of being stuck in Mr. Delchef’s room.

Bird could see that the apartment was empty of furniture.  A single window was
open in the back, but it was obstructed by a severe wooden fence less than a foot
away.  It was probable that other private lives were being unfurled on the far
side of the fence, better not observed from Mr. Delchef’s window.

“Mr.  Delchef, your legation wants you to go back quickly,” Bird said, plunging
headlong into his mission.

“I will not go back; my girlfriend wants me to stay with her,” Mr. Delchef smiled.
The poverty and crudeness of their English made the dialogue seem a game.  It also
permitted them a harsh frankness.

“I shall be the last messenger.  After me someone from the legation will come, or
maybe the Japanese police even.”

“I think the police will not do anything.  Please remember, I am still a
diplomat.”

“Perhaps not.  But if the people from the legation come and take you away you must
be sent back to your own country.”

“Yes, I am prepared.  Since I have caused trouble, I must be assigned to a less
important post or I must lose my job as a diplomat.”

“Therefore, Mr. Delchef, before it becomes a scandal it would be better to return
to the legation.”

“I will not return.  My girlfriend wants me to stay,” Mr. Delchef said with a
broad smile.

“Then it is not for political reasons?  You are hiding away here simply because of
sentimental attachment to your girlfriend?”

“Yes, precisely.”

“Mr.  Delchef, you are a strange man.”

“Strange, why?”

“But your friend cannot speak English, can she?”

“We understand each other always in silence.”

A bulb of intolerable sadness was gradually sprouting in Bird.

“Well, I shall make my report now and the people from the legation will come right
away to take you back.”

“Since I will be taken against my will there is nothing I can do.  I think my
friend will understand.”

Bird weakly shook his head in admission of defeat.  Sweat sparkled in the fine
copper hair around Mr. Delchef’s mustache.  Then Bird noticed that brilliant beads
of sweat were trembling in the hair all over Mr. Delchef’s body.

“I shall tell them how you feel,” Bird said, and stopped to pick up his shoes.

“Bird, was your baby born?”

“Yes, but the baby is not normal and now I am waiting for it to die.” Bird
couldn’t have explained the impulse to confess.  “The baby has a brain hernia, the
condition is so terrible that the baby appears to have two heads.”

“Why do you wait for the baby to die when it needs an operation?” Mr. Delchef’s
smile vanished and a look of manly courage fiercened the lines of his face.

“There is not one chance in one hundred that the baby would grow up normally even
after surgery,” Bird said in consternation.

“Kafka, you know, wrote in a letter to his father, the only thing a parent can do
for a child is to welcome it when it arrives.  And are you rejecting your baby
instead?  Can we excuse the egotism that rejects another life because a man is a
father?”

Bird was silent, his cheeks and eyes feverish with the violent blushing that had
become a new habit.  No longer was Mr. Delchef an eccentric foreigner with a red
mustache who maintained a humorous presence of mind though his predicament was
severe.  Bird felt as if he had been downed by a bullet of criticism from an
unexpected sniper.  He gathered himself to protest at whatever the cost and
suddenly hung his head, sensing he had nothing to say to Mr. Delchef.

“Ah, the poor little thing!” Mr. Delchef said in a whisper.  Bird looked up,
shuddering, and realized the foreigner was talking not about his baby but about
him.  Silently he waited for the moment when Mr. Delchef would set him free.

When Bird was finally able to say good-by, Mr. Delchef presented him with a small
English dictionary of his native language.  Bird asked his friend to autograph the
book.  Mr. Delchef wrote a single word in a Balkan language, signed his name
beneath it and then explained: “In my country, this means hope.”

At the narrowest part of the alley, Bird awkwardly crossed paths with a small
Japanese girl.  Smelling the scent of freshly set hair and seeing the unhealthy
whiteness of her neck as the girl squeezed past him with her head lowered, Bird
stopped himself from speaking to her.  Bird emerged in the dizzying light and ran
for the car like a fugitive, sweat cascading down his body.  At this hottest hour
of the day, he was the only man in the city on the run.





11




SUNDAY morning, Bird woke up to find the bedroom brimming with unexpected light
and fresh air: the window was wide open, a breeze was making a lightful sweep of
the room and blowing into the hall.  From the living room came the drone of a
vacuum cleaner.  Accustomed to the dimness of the house, Bird was embarrassed in
all this light by his own body beneath the covers.  Hastily, before Himiko could
storm in and tease him in his nakedness, he put on his pants and shirt and went
out to the living room.

“Good morning, Bird!” Himiko said brightly.  Her head turbaned in a towel, she was
wielding the vacuum cleaner as though it were a pole with which she wanted to
crush a scampering mouse.  The flushed face she turned to Bird had regained its
look of youth.  “My father-in-law came over; he’s taking a walk while I finish
cleaning.”

“I’d better leave.”

“Why must you run away, Bird?” Himiko said resentfully.

“I feel like a recluse these days; it just seems queer to meet someone new when
you’re living in a hideaway.”

“My father-in-law knows that men often stay the night here and it’s never bothered
him specially.  But I think he would be disturbed if one of my friends seemed to
rush away like a fugitive the minute he got here.” Himiko’s face was still hard.

“O.K.  Then I’d better shave.” Bird went back to the bedroom.  Himiko’s show of
resentment had been a shock.  Bird reflected that he had been clinging doggedly to
himself from the minute he had moved into his friend’s house, aware of Himiko as a
single cell only in the organism of his consciousness.  How could he have been so
certain of such absolute rights!  He had become a chrysalis of personal
misfortune, seeing only the inner walls of the cocoon, never doubting for an
instant the chrysalis’s prerogatives.  …

Bird finished shaving and glanced into the fogged mirror at the pale, grave face
of a chrysalis of personal misfortune.  He noticed that his own face looked
wizened, not, he had a feeling, simply because he had lost weight.

“Ever since I barged in on you I’ve been acting mostly like an egomaniac,” Bird
volunteered when he returned to the living room.  “I’d even started to feel as if
that was the only way to behave.”

“Are you apologizing?” Himiko teased.  Her face again was utter softness.

“I’ve been sleeping in your bed and eating the food you cooked for me, even making
you wear my own tether.  I have no right to any of this, and yet I’ve felt
perfectly at home here.”

“Bird, are you going to leave?” Himiko said uneasily.

Bird stared at the girl and was stricken by something like a sense of destiny:
never again would he cross paths with a person suited so perfectly to himself.
The taste of regret was harsh on his tongue.

“Even if you do leave eventually, stay for a while, will you, Bird?”

In the bedroom again, Bird lay down on his back and closed his eyes, clasping his
hands behind his head.  He wanted a minute alone with his gratitude.

Later the three of them sat around the table in the restored living room
discussing the leaders of the new African states and the grammar of Swahili.
Himiko took down the map of Africa from the bedroom wall and spread it on the
table to show her father-in-law.

“Why don’t you and Himi take a trip to Africa?” the older man proposed abruptly.
“If you sold this house and property you’d have all the money you needed.”

“That’s not such a bad idea—” Himiko glanced at Bird as if to test him.  “You
could forget your unhappiness about the baby, Bird.  And I could forget my
husband’s suicide.”

“Exactly, and that’s so important!” Himiko’s father-in-law declared.  “Why don’t
the two of you just pack up and leave for Africa?”

So rudely was he rocked by this proposal that Bird submitted to panic
unprotestingly.  “I couldn’t do that, I just couldn’t,” he said with a feckless
sigh.

“Why not?” Himiko challenged.

“It’s too slick, that’s why, just happening to forget in the course of traveling
around Africa that your baby’s life has ebbed away.  I … ,” Bird stuttered,
blushing, “… I just couldn’t do it!”

“Bird is an extremely moral young man,” Himiko said derisively.

Bird’s blush deepened and he arranged his face in a look of reproach.  In fact he
was thinking he would have melted like a cube of bouillon under boiling water if
her father-in-law had suggested undertaking a trip to Africa with the moral
objective of rescuing Himiko from the phantom of her husband, how eagerly would he
then have released himself to that journey into sweet deception!  Bird was
terrified the older man might make the suggestion in just such a way, at the same
time he longed to hear the words: in his loathsome needfulness he felt like
concealing himself in a dark hole.  An instant later Bird saw in Himiko’s eyes the
white flicker of awakening.

“Bird will be going back to his wife in a week or so.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize—” her father-in-law said.  “I only suggested the trip
because this is the first time I’ve seen Himi so alive since my son died.  I hope
you’re not angry.”

Bird looked at Himiko’s father-in-law in puzzlement.  His head was short, and
utterly bald, and it wasn’t clear where it stopped, because the sunburned skin on
the back of his skull grew in a piece to his neck and from there to his shoulders.
A head that recalled a sea lion, and two slightly clouded, tranquil eyes.  Bird
looked for some clue to the man’s nature and came up with nothing at all.  So he
maintained his wary silence and smiled a vague smile, laboring to conceal the
disgraceful disappointment gradually climbling from his chest to clog his throat.

Late that night, in slothful positions that minimized the burden on their bodies,
Bird and Himiko fucked in the humid darkness for an uninterrupted hour.  Like
copulating animals, they were silent to the end.  Again and again Himiko soared
into orgasm, with brief intervals at the beginning and then after increasingly
languorous pauses; Bird each time recalled the sensation of flying a model
airplane on the evening playground at his elementary school.  Himiko swooped
around the axis of his body in ever widening circles, trembling and groaning her
way through the sky of her orgasms like a model airplane laboring under the burden
of a heavy motor.  Then she would descend yet again to the landing ground where
Bird waited, and the period of silent, dogged repetition would revive.  Sex for
them was rooted now in sensations of daily quietude and order; Bird felt as if he
had been fucking the girl for more than a hundred years.  Her genitals were simple
now, and certain, lurking there were not the buds of even the most insubstantial
fears.  No longer a somehow inscrutable thing, Himiko’s vagina was simplicity
itself, a pouch of soft, synthetic resin from which no ghostly hag could possibly
emerge to harry Bird.  He felt profoundly at peace, because Himiko explicitly and
without qualification limited the object of their sex to pleasure.  Bird
remembered how it was with his wife, their timidity and the unflagging sense of
peril.  Even now, after years of marriage, they foundered on the same gloomy
psychological shoals every time they made love.  Bird’s long, clumsy arms and legs
would prod his wife’s body, withered and rigid in its battle to overcome disgust,
and she invariably would receive the impression that he had meant to strike her.
Angry then, she would rail at Bird, even try to strike him back.  Ultimately, the
alternatives were always the same: he could become involved in a piddling quarrel,
withdraw from his wife’s body and continue far into the night the sparring that
made the antlers of aroused desire glitter, or he could finish in agitated haste
with a wretched feeling of receiving charity.  Bird had pinned his hopes for a
revolution in their sex life on the birth of the child and what would follow.  …

Since Himiko repeatedly compressed Bird’s penis like a milking hand as she circled
her private skies, Bird might have chosen her most ardent orgasm as the moment for
his own.  But fear of the long night that would follow coitus continually drove
him back.  Dumbly Bird dreamed of the most saccharine sleep of all, achieved
midway on the gentle slope toward orgasm.

But Himiko continued to fly, dropping groundward in smooth descent and suddenly
dancing back into the sky like a kite caught in an upward draft.  It was on yet
another of these false landings that Bird, carefully restraining himself, heard
the telephone ring.  He tried to rise, but Himiko clasped her soaking arms around
his back.  “Go ahead, Bird,” she said a minute later, relaxing her grip.  Bird
leaped for the phone still ringing in the living room.  A young man’s voice asked
for the father of the infant in the intensive care ward at the university
hospital.  Bird, stiffening, answered in a voice like the whine of a mosquito.  It
was an intern calling with a message from the doctor in charge of the case.

“I’m sorry it’s so late but we’ve had our hands full over here,” the voice from
the distance said.  “I’m to ask you to come to brain surgery at eleven o’clock
tomorrow morning, it’s the Assistant Director’s office.  The doctor would have
called you himself but he was exhausted.  We had our hands full over here until
late!”

Bird took a deep breath and thought: the baby died, the Assistant Director is
going to do the autopsy.

“I understand.  I’ll be there at eleven.  Thank you.”

The baby weakened and died!  Bird told himself again as he put the receiver back.
But what kind of visit had death paid the baby that the doctor had worn himself
out?  Bird tasted the bitterness of bile rising from his belly.  Something
colossal and terrific was glaring at him out of the darkness right in front of his
eyes.  Like an entomologist trapped in a cave alive with scorpions, Bird
gingerfooted back to the bed, trembling from head to toe.  The bed, a safe lair:
in silence Bird continued to shiver.  Then, as if to burrow more satisfactorily
into the depths of the lair, he tried to enter Himiko’s body.  Impetuously
repeating failure and only partially erected, Bird was guided by Himiko’s fingers
and, eventually, secured.  Quickly his agitation coaxed from her the frenzied
motion of the moment when partners share a climax and desist—Bird awkwardly
recoiled and, abruptly, emptied in masturbative isolation.  Aware of the hammering
at the back of his chest as pain, Bird collapsed at Himiko’s side and believed for
no reason he could name that he would die one day of a heart attack.

“Bird, you really can be horrid,” Himiko said, not so much reproachfully as in
lament, peering at Bird’s face through the darkness quizzically.

“Ah, I’m sorry.”

“The baby?”

“Yes, but apparently not before he gave them a hell of a time,” Bird said,
terrified all over again.

“What was that about the Assistant Director’s office?”

“They want me there in the morning.”

“You should take some sleeping pills with whisky and go to sleep, you don’t have
to wait for a telephone call anymore.” Himiko’s voice was infinitely gentle.

When Himiko had turned on the bedside lamp and gone into the kitchen, Bird shut
his eyes against the light, covered them furthermore with one hand on top of the
other, and tried to consider the single, sharply pointed kernel that was lodged in
his vacant brain—why had the dying baby kept the doctor moving until so late at
night?  But Bird immediatly encountered a notion that roiled the fear in him and
he drew back with arrow swiftness.  Opening his eyes just a crack, he took from
Himiko’s hand a glass one-third full of whisky and far more than the prescribed
number of sleeping tablets, choked them down in a single breath, and closed his
eyes again.

“That was my share too,” Himiko said.

“Ah, I’m sorry,” Bird repeated stupidly.

“Bird?” Himiko lay down on the bed at a somehow formal distance from Bird’s side.

“Yes?”

“I’ll tell you a story until the whisky and pills take effect—an episode from that
African novel.  Did you read the chapter about the pirate demons?”

Bird shook his head in the dark.

“When a woman conceives, the pirate demons elect one of their own kind to sneak
into the woman’s house.  During the night, this demon representative chases out
the real fetus and climbs into the womb himself.  And then on the day of the birth
the demon is born in the guise of the innocent fetus.  …”

Bird listened in silence.  Before long, such a baby invariably fell ill.  When the
mother made offerings in hopes of curing her child, the pirate demons secretly
deposited them in a secret cache.  Never were these babies known to recover.  When
the baby died and it was time for the burial, the demon resumed its true form,
and, escaping from the graveyard, returned to the lair of the pirate demons with
all the offerings from the secret cache.

“… apparently the bewitched fetus is born as a beautiful baby so it can capture
the mother’s heart and she won’t hesitate to offer everything she has.  The
Africans call these babies ‘children born into the world to die,’ but isn’t it
wonderful to imagine how beautiful they must be, even pigmy babies!”

Probably Bird would tell the story to his wife.  And since our baby was born to
die if any baby was, she’ll imagine him as a terrifically beautiful baby; I may
even correct my own memory.  And that will be the hugest deception of my whole
life.  My grotesque baby died with no correction of his ugly double head, my baby
is a grotesque baby with two heads for all of infinite time after death.  And if
there is a giant presence which imposes order on that infinite time, the baby with
the double head must be visible to him, and the baby’s father, too.  His stomach
churning, Bird plummeted into sleep like a plane falling out of the sky, sleep in
a can hermetically sealed against the light of any dream.  Still, in the final
glinting reflection of consciousness, Bird heard his fairy godmother whisper once
again: “Bird, you really can be horrid!” Bird arched backward as if a weight were
hanging from his head and, trying to rub behind his ears with the pads of his
thumbs, rammed his elbow into Himiko’s mouth.  Her eyes tearing from the pain,
Himiko peered through the darkness at the unnaturally contracted figure of her
sleeping friend.  Himiko wondered if Bird hadn’t misinterpreted the phone call
from the hospital.  The baby hadn’t died at all; wasn’t it that he had been
returned to regular milk feedings and the road to recovery?  And didn’t they want
Bird at the hospital to discuss the baby’s operation?  The friend sleeping at her
side with his body doubled up uncomfortably like an orangutan in a cage and the
stink of whisky flaming on his breath seemed to Himiko at once ridiculous and
pitiful.  But this sleep would serve as a brief respite before tomorrow morning’s
furor.  Himiko got out of bed and tugged at Bird’s arms and legs; he was as heavy
as a giant under a magic spell, yet his body offered no resistance.  When Bird lay
stretched full length on the bed so that he could sleep more comfortably, Himiko
wrapped herself in a sheet in the manner of a Greek sage and went into the living
room.  She intended to study the maps of Africa until the sun came up.

Suddenly aware of his mistake, Bird flushed angrily as though he had been cruelly
ridiculed.  He had just entered the Assistant Director’s office and had found them
waiting for him there, several young doctors including the pediatrician in charge
of his baby’s case and an elderly professor with an air of benign
authority—realizing his mistake, Bird had come to a dumb halt just inside the
door.  Now he sat down in a yellow leather chair in the center of the doctor’s
circle.  He felt like a convict who had been dragged back to the guards’ quarters
after bungling a clumsily planned escape from the prison of the grotesque baby.
And what about these guards!  Hadn’t they conspired to lay a trap for him with
that ambiguous phone call the night before in order to enjoy his flight and
failure from the height of their lookout tower?

When Bird remained silent, the pediatrician introduced him: “This gentleman is the
infant’s father.” Then he smiled as though in embarrassment and withdrew to an
observer’s corner.  The professor of brain surgery must have said something on his
rounds about the baby’s undernourishment, and the young doctor had probably
betrayed him.  Damn him to hell!  Bird thought, glaring at the young doctor.

“I examined your child yesterday and again today; I think we’ll be able to operate
if he gets a little stronger,” the brain surgeon said.

Stand your ground!  Bird commanded his brain before panic could overwhelm him; you
must resist these bastards, protect yourself from that monstrosity.  Bird had been
on the run from the moment he had realized his sanguine mistake and now he could
think of nothing but turning back from time to time to defend himself in flight.
I must forbid them to operate, otherwise the baby will march into my world like an
occupying army.

“Is there any chance the baby will grow up normally if you operate?” Bird asked
mechanically.

“I can’t say anything definite yet.”

Bird fiercely narrowed his eyes, as if to say he was not the man to be made a fool
of.  In the field of his brain there appeared a flaming circle of shame’s hottest
fire.  Like a circus tiger, Bird steeled himself for the leap that would carry him
through the ring.

“Which is the stronger possibility, that the baby will grow up normally or not?”

“I can’t give you a definite answer to that either, not until we operate.”

Without even blushing, Bird cleared the fiery ring of shame: “Then I think I’d
rather you didn’t operate.”

All of the doctors stared at Bird and seemed to catch their breath.  Bird felt
capable of even the most shameless assertions at the top of his voice.  A good
thing he didn’t exercise this audacious freedom, for the brain surgeon was quick
to indicate that Bird had made himself clear.

“Will you take the infant with you, then?” he said brusquely, his anger evident.

“Yes, I will.” Bird spoke quickly, too.

“Don’t let me keep you waiting.” The most appealing doctor Bird had encountered in
this hospital laid bare the disgust he felt for him.

Bird stood up and the doctors rose with him.  The bell at the end of the match, he
thought, I’ve fended the monster baby off.

“Are you really going to take the baby away?” the young pediatrician asked
hesitantly as they stepped into the hall.

“I’ll come back for him this afternoon.”

“Don’t forget to bring something for the infant to wear.” The doctor flicked his
eyes off Bird’s face and moved off down the corridor.

Bird hurried out to the square in front of the hospital.  It was probably the
overcast sky; both Himiko in her sunglasses and the scarlet sports car had an
ugly, faded look.  “It was all a mistake, the laugh’s on me,” Bird sneered, his
face contorting.

“I was afraid of that.”

“Why?” Bird’s voice was savage.

“No special reason, Bird …” Himiko meekly faltered.

“I decided to take the baby home.”

“Where, to the other hospital?  Back to your apartment?”

Instantly Bird submerged in consternation.  He hadn’t even considered what he
might do later, he had merely desperately resisted the doctors in this hospital
who wanted to try their hand at surgery and then saddle him for the rest of his
life with a baby whose head was mostly cave.  The other hospital would never
accept again “the goods” it had managed to get rid of once; and if he took the
baby back to his apartment he would have to contend with the landlady’s benevolent
curiosity.  Suppose he continued in his own bedroom the lethal diet therapy which
the hospital had administered until a day ago, the baby with the double head would
scream its hunger to the whole neighborhood and have the local dogpack howling
with it.  And suppose the baby died after a few days of that clamor, what doctor
in the world would make out a death certificate?  Bird pictured himself being
arrested on charges of infanticide and the gruesome stories in the press.

“You’re right, I can’t take the baby anywhere.” Bird slumped, expelling sour
breath.

“If you have no plan at all in mind, Bird—”

“Well?”

“I was wondering how it would be to leave things up to a doctor I know.  I’m sure
he’d lend a hand to someone who didn’t want his baby—I met him when I needed an
abortion.”

Once again Bird knew the panic of a craven foot soldier intent on defending
himself after his platoon had been decimated by the monster baby’s attack; paling,
he cleared another ring of fire: “I’m willing if the doctor will agree.”

“Naturally—asking the doctor to help us—will mean that we …” there was an abnormal
lassitude in Himiko’s voice, “… are dirtying our own hands with the baby’s
murder—”

“Not our hands.  Mine!  I’ll be dirtying my hands with the baby’s murder.” At
least he had liberated himself from one deception, Bird thought.  Not that it
brought him any joy, it was like descending a stairway into a dungeon, just one
step.

“Our hands, Bird—you’ll see—would you mind—driving?”

Bird realized that the drawl in Himiko’s speech was a result of her extreme
tension.  Walking around the front of the car, he climbed into the driver’s seat.
He saw in the rear-view mirror that Himiko’s face was ashen and splotched, as if a
whitish powder had been dabbed around her lips.  His own face must have looked
equally abject.  Bird tried to spit out of the car but his mouth was bone dry and
he achieved only a futile little noise like the tisking of a tongue.  He
catapulted the car into the street with a rudeness learned from Himiko.

“Bird, the doctor I have in mind, he’s that middle-aged man with a head like an
egg who was calling outside the window the first night you stayed at the house.
You remember him?”

“I remember,” Bird said, thinking it had seemed possible at one time that he might
live out his entire life without any contact with such a man.

“When we’ve phoned him we can figure out what we’ll need to pick up the baby.”

“The doctor told me not to forget to bring clothes.”

“We can stop off at your apartment; you must know where the clothes are put
away.”

“I think we’d better not!” With a vividness that overwhelmed him, Bird recalled
scenes of daily zealous preparation for the baby.  Now he felt rejected by all the
baby paraphernalia, the white bassinet, the ivory-white baby dresser with handles
shaped to look like apples, everything.

“I can’t take clothes for the baby out of there—”

“No, I guess not, your wife would never forgive you if she knew you were using the
baby’s things for this purpose.”

There’s that, too, Bird thought.  But he wouldn’t have to take anything out of the
apartment; all his wife would have to know never to forgive him was that the baby
died shortly after being moved from this hospital to another.  Now that this
decision had been made it would no longer be possible to prolong their married
life by enveloping his wife in vague doubts.  That was beyond his power now, no
matter what kind of anguished battle he waged against the internal itchiness of
deception.  Bird hit into another reality coated with the sugars of fraud.

As the car approached a broad intersection—one of the large freeways that circled
the giant city—they were stopped by a traffic light.  Bird glanced impatiently in
the direction he wanted to turn.  The cloud-heavy sky hovered just above the
ground.  A wind blew up, pregnant with rain, and hissed high through the branches
of the dusty trees along the street.  Changing to green, the light stood out
sharply against the cloudy sky; it made Bird feel he was being drawn into it
bodily.  That he was being protected by the same traffic signal as people who had
never considered murder in their entire lives, pestered his sense of justice.

“Where do you want to phone from?” he said, feeling like a criminal on the run.

“From the nearest grocery store.  Then we can get some sausage and have a little
lunch.”

“All right,” Bird said submissively, despite the unpleasant resistance he could
feel originating in his stomach.  “But do you think this friend of yours will
agree to help?”

“That humpty-dumpty head of his makes him look benign, but he’s done some really
awful things.  For example…” Himiko lapsed unnaturally into silence and licked her
lips with the snaking tip of her tongue.  So the little man had perpetrated such
horrors that Himiko lacked the courage to report them!  Bird felt nauseous again,
a lunch of sausages was out of the question.  Truly.

“When we’ve phoned,” Bird said, “we should buy something for the baby to wear
instead of worrying about sausage, and a bassinet, too.  I guess a department
store would be quickest.  Not that I’m crazy about having to shop for baby
clothes.”

“I’ll get what we need, Bird, you can wait in the car.”

“Just after she got pregnant I went shopping with my wife, it was lousy with
mothers-to-be and screaming babies, there was something animal about the
atmosphere in there.”

Bird glanced at Himiko and saw the color draining from her face; she must have
felt nauseated, too.  The two of them drove on, pale and silent.  When Bird
finally spoke, it was out of a need to abuse himself:

“When the baby is dead and my wife has recovered I imagine we’ll get a divorce.
Then I’ll really be a free man now that I’ve been fired and all, and that’s surely
what I’ve been dreaming about for years.  Funny, I’m not particularly happy about
it.”

The wind was stronger now and blowing from Bird toward Himiko, so that she had to
raise her voice above it.  When she spoke it was nearly a shout: “Bird, when you
do become a free man, can’t we sell the house the way my father-in-law suggested
and go to Africa together?”

Africa actually in sight!  But it was only a desolate, insipid Africa that Bird
was able to picture now.  This was the first time since he had conceived his
passion for it as a boy that Africa had lost its radiance inside him.  A free man
halted desolately in the gray Sahara.  He had murdered an infant on the island
hovering like a dragonfly at one hundred forty degrees east longitude.  Then he
had fled here, wandered all of Africa and failed to trap a single shrewmouse let
alone a savage wart hog.  Now he stood dumbly in the Sahara.

“Africa?” Bird said woodenly.

“You’re just a little withdrawn now, Bird, like a snail inside its shell.  But
you’ll get back your passion the minute you set foot on African soil.”

Bird was silent.

“Bird, I’ve become fascinated with your maps.  I want you to get divorced so we
can travel to Africa together and use them as real road maps.  Last night I
studied them for hours after you went to sleep and I guess I caught the fever,
too.  And now your freedom has become essential to me, Bird, I need you as a free
man.  You wouldn’t agree when I said we’d be dirtying our hands but you were
wrong, Bird, really you were.  Our hands.  Bird, we’ll go to Africa together,
won’t we!”

As if he were bringing up painful phlegm, “If that’s what you want,” Bird said.

“At first our relationship was only sexual, I was a sexual refuge from your
anxiety and from your shame.  But last night I realized that a passion for Africa
was developing in me, too.  And that means a new bond between us, Bird, now we
have a map of Africa for a go-between.  We’ve leaped from a merely sexual lowland
to much higher ground, something I’d hoped would happen all along, and now I
honestly feel it, Bird, the same passion!  That’s why I’m introducing you to my
doctor friend and dirtying my own hands along with yours!”

A web of cracks seemed to open in the low windshield as a white rain as fine as
mist spattered the glass.  The same instant, Bird and Himiko felt rain on their
brows and in their eyes.  The sky darkened in all directions as if dusk had
suddenly arrived and a waspish whirlwind rose.  “Is there a roof you can put on
this car?” Bird said like a mournful idiot.  “Otherwise, the baby will get all
wet.”





12




BY the time Bird had finished putting up the convertible’s black hood the wind
careening around the alley like a frightened chicken was smelling of sausage and
burned garlic.  Fry thinly sliced garlic in butter, add sausage and just enough
water to steam: it was a dish Mr. Delchef had taught him.  Bird wondered what had
happened to Mr. Delchef.  By now he had probably been taken away from that small,
pallid Japanese girl and returned to his legation.  Had he attempted violent
resistance in their lair at the end of the blind alley?  Had his girlfriend
screamed in Japanese as incomprehensible to Mr. Delchef himself as to the legation
people who had come to take him back?  Finally, their only choice must have been
to submit.

Bird gazed at the sports car.  With the black hood on top of its scarlet body, the
car looked like the torn flesh of a wound and scabs around it.  Disgust stirred in
Bird.  The sky was dark, the air damp and swollen; a wind was clamoring.  Rain
would suffuse the air like mist and then a gust of wind would whirl it away into
the distance and as suddenly it would return.  Bird looked up at the trees
billowing above the rooftops in their opulence of leaf and saw that the squalling
rain had washed them to a somber yet truly vivid green.  It was a green that
transported him, as the traffic light had done at the highway intersection.
Perhaps, he mused, he would see this kind of vibrant green when he lay on his
deathbed.  Bird felt as if he were about to be led to his own death at the hands
of a shady abortionist.  Not the baby.

The basket and baby clothes waited on the steps in front of the house.  Bird
gathered them up and stuffed them into the space behind the driver’s seat.
Underwear and socks, a woolen top and pants, even a tiny cap: these were the
things Himiko had taken so much time to select.  Bird had been kept waiting a full
hour; he had even begun to wonder if Himiko hadn’t deserted him.  He couldn’t
understand why she had lavished such care on choosing clothes for a baby soon to
die: a woman’s sensibilities were always queer.

“Bird, lunch is ready,” Himiko called from the bedroom window.

Bird found Himiko standing in the kitchen eating sausage.  He peered into the
frying pan and then pulled back, repulsed by the odor of garlic.  Turning to
Himiko, who was watching him curiously, he weakly shook his head.  “If you have no
appetite why don’t you take a shower?” The suggestion reeked of garlic.

“I think I will,” Bird said with relief: sweat had caked the dust on his body.

Bird circumspectly bunched his shoulders as he showered.  A hot shower aroused him
ordinarily, but now he experienced only a painful hammering of his heart.  Bird
shut his eyes tight in the warm rain of the shower, arched his head backward,
consciously this time, and tried rubbing behind his ears with the undersides of
his thumbs.  A minute later, Himiko leaped to his side in the shower with her hair
in a vinyl shower cap patterned with something like watermelons and began to
scratch at her body with a bar of soap, so Bird stopped playing the game and left
the bathroom.  It was as he was drying himself, he heard the thud of something
large and heavy hitting the ground outside.  When he went to the bedroom window,
he saw the scarlet sports car listing critically, like a ship about to sink.  The
right front tire was missing!  Bird hurried into his clothes without bothering to
dry his back and went out to inspect the car.  He was aware of footsteps
retreating down the alley, but he stopped to examine the damage instead of giving
a chase.  There was no trace of the tire, and the right headlight was shattered:
someone had jacked up the MG, removed the tire, then stood on the fender and
tilted the car so roughly to the ground that the shock had shattered the
headlight.  Under the car the jack lay like a broken arm.

“Somebody stole a tire,” Bird shouted to Himiko, still in the shower.  “And one of
the headlights is busted.  I hope you have a spare!”

“In the back of the shed.”

“But who would steal one tire?”

“Remember the boy at the window that night, hardly more than a child?  Well,
that’s him being mean.  He’s hiding somewhere near with the tire and I bet he’s
watching us,” Himiko shouted back as if nothing had happened.  “If we pretend not
to be the least bit upset and make a grand exit out of here, I bet we can make him
cry in his hiding place, he’ll be so mortified.  Let’s try it.”

“That’s fine if the car will run.  I’ll see if I can get that spare on.”

Bird changed the tire, getting mud and grease all over his hands.  The work made
him sweatier than he had been before his shower.  When he had finished he started
the engine cautiously: nothing in particular seemed wrong.  They might be a little
late but certainly it would all be over before dusk, they wouldn’t need the
headlights.  Bird felt like another shower but Himiko was ready to leave; besides,
he was so exasperated now that even the briefest delay would have been
intolerable.  They left as they were.  As they drove out of the alley, someone
behind them threw pebbles at the car.

“You come too!” Bird entreated when Himiko made no move to get out of the car.
Together they hurried down the long corridor toward the intensive care ward, Bird
clasping the basket, Himiko the baby’s clothes.  Bird was aware of a special
tension today, an aloofness in all the patients who passed them in the corridor.
It was the influence of the rain whipping in on the rude wind and abruptly
withdrawing as though pursued, and of the dull thunder in the distance.  As Bird
walked down the corridor with the basket in his arms, he searched for words with
which to broach safely to the nurses the matter of the baby’s withdrawal from the
hospital; gradually his consternation grew.  But when he reached the ward it was
known that he would take the baby with him.  Bird was relieved.  Even so, he
maintained a wooden face and kept his eyes on the floor, responding as briefly as
possible to procedural questions only.  Bird was afraid of leaving the curious
young nurses an opening to ask why he was taking the baby away without an
operation or just where he intended to take him.

“If you’ll just take this card to the office and make the necessary payments,” the
nurse said.  “Meanwhile I’ll call the doctor in charge.”

Bird took the large card; it was a lewd pink.

“I brought some clothes for the baby—”

“We’ll need them, of course; I’ll take them now.” As she spoke, the nurse’s eyes
unveiled her sharp disapproval.  Bird handed over all the baby’s clothes at once;
the nurse inspected them one by one and thrust back at him only the cap.  Bird
rolled it up sheepishly and stuffed it into his pocket.  Then he peevishly turned
to Himiko, who hadn’t noticed.

“What?”

“Nothing.  I have to go to the office for a minute.”

“I’ll come too,” Himiko said hurriedly, as though afraid of being abandoned.
Throughout the negotiations with the nurses, the two of them had been standing
with their bodies wrenched around in such a way that the infants on the other side
of the glass partition could not possibly enter their field of vision.

When the girl at the reception window had taken the pink card, she asked for
Bird’s seal and said: “I see you’re leaving us—congratulations!”

Bird, neither affirming nor denying, nodded.

“And what name have you given your child?” the girl continued.

“We … haven’t decided yet.”

“At present the baby is registered simply as your first-born son, it would be a
big help if we could have a name for our records.”

A name!  thought Bird.  Now, as in his wife’s hospital room, the idea was
profoundly disturbing.  Provide the monster with a name and from that instant it
would seem more human, probably it would begin asserting itself in a human way.
The difference between death while the monster was nameless and death after Bird
had given it a name would mean a difference to Bird in the nature of the
creature’s very existence.

“Even a temporary name you’re not certain about will do,” the girl said
pleasantly, though her voice betrayed her stubbornness.

“It can’t hurt to name him, Bird,” Himiko broke in impatiently.

“I’ll call him Kikuhiko,” Bird said, remembering his wife’s words, then he showed
the girl the characters to use.

The account settled, Bird got back nearly all the money he had left as security.
The baby had consumed only diluted milk and sugar-water, and since even
antibiotics had been withheld, its stay at the hospital had been economical beyond
compare.

Bird and Himiko walked back down the corridor toward the intensive care ward.

“This is money I took out of savings for a trip to Africa in the first place.  And
the minute I decide to murder the baby and go to Africa with you, it’s back in my
pocket again—” Bird spoke out of a tangle of feelings, not certain what he really
wanted to say.

“Then we should actually use the money in Africa,” Himiko said easily.  Then:
“Bird, that name, Kikuhiko—I know a gay bar called Kikuhiko, written with those
same characters.  The mama’s name is Kikuhiko.”

“How old a guy is he?”

“It’s hard to tell with faggots like that, four, maybe five years younger than
you.”

“I bet he’s the same Kikuhiko I knew years ago.  During the Occupation he had an
affair with an American cultural officer and then he ran away to Tokyo.”

“What a coincidence!  Bird, why don’t we go over there after!”

After, Bird thought, after abandoning the baby with a shady abortionist!

Bird recalled abandoning his young friend Kikuhiko late one night in a provincial
city.  And now the baby he was about to abandon was also to be called Kikuhiko.
So devious traps surrounded even the act of naming.  For an instant Bird
considered going back and correcting the name, but this intention was corroded
instantly in the acid of enervation.  Bird was left only with a need to inflict
pain upon himself.  “Let’s drink away the night at the gay bar Kikuhiko,” he said.
“It will be a wake.”

Bird’s baby—Kikuhiko had been carried around to this side of the glass partition
and he was lying in his basket in the wooly baby clothes Himiko had chosen for
him.  Next to the basket the pediatrician in charge was waiting self-consciously
for Bird.  Bird and Himiko faced the doctor across the basket.  Bird could feel
the shock Himiko received when she looked down and saw the baby.  It was a size
larger now, its eyes open like deep creases in its crimson skin and staring at
them, sidelong.  Even the lump on the baby’s head seemed to have grown
considerably.  It was redder than its face, lustrous, tumescent.  Now that its
eyes were open, the baby had the shriveled, ancient look of the hermits in the
Southern Scrolls, but it definitely lacked a human quality, probably because the
frontal portion of its head that ought to have counterpoised the lump was still
severely pinched.  The baby was oscillating its tightly clenched fists, as if it
wanted to flee its basket.

“It doesn’t look like you, Bird,” Himiko whispered in a rasping, ugly voice.

“It doesn’t look like anybody; it doesn’t even look human!”

“I wouldn’t say that—” the pediatrician offered in feeble reproof.

Bird glanced quickly at the babies beyond the glass partition.  At the moment all
of them were writhing in their beds, uniformly agitated.  Bird suspected they were
gossiping about their comrades who had been taken away.  Whatever happened to that
piddling pocket-monkey of an incubator baby with the meditative eyes?  And the
fighting father of the baby without a liver, was he here to start another argument
in his brown knickers and wide leather belt?

“Are you all checked out at the office?” the nurse asked.

“All finished.”

“Then you may do as you like!”

“You’re sure you won’t reconsider?” The pediatrician sounded troubled.

“Quite sure,” Bird adamantly said.  “Thanks for everything.”

“Don’t thank me—I’ve done nothing.”

“Well then, good-by.”

The doctor flushed around his eyes and, as if he regretted having raised his voice
just now, said in a voice as soft as Bird’s: “Good-by, take care of yourself.”

As Bird stepped out of the ward, the patients loitering in the corridor turned as
if at a signal and advanced toward the baby.  Bird, glowering, marched straight
down the corridor with his elbows cocked, hunching protectively over the basket.
Himiko hurried after him.  Dismayed by the fury in Bird’s face, the convalescents
moved to the sides of the dim corridor, suspicious still, but, probably on the
baby’s account, smiling.

“Bird,” said Himiko, turning to look behind her, “that doctor or one of the nurses
might notify the police.”

“Like hell they will,” Bird said savagely.  “Don’t forget they nad a crack at
killing the baby themselves, with watered milk and sugar-water!”

They were approaching the main entrance and what looked to Bird like a seething
crowd of out-patients; to defend the baby from their mammoth curiosity with
nothing but his own two elbows this time, seemed a pure impossibility.  Bird felt
like a lone player running with a rugby ball at a goal defended by the entire
enemy team.  He hesitated, and, remembering, “There’s a cap in my pants pocket.
Would you get it out and cover the back of his head?”

Bird watched Himiko’s arm tremble as she did his bidding.  Together then they
hurled themselves at the strangers who sidled toward them with brash smiles.
“What a darling baby, like an angel!” one middle-aged lady crooned, and though
Bird felt like the butt of a horrid joke he didn’t falter or even lift his head
until he had broken free of the crowd.

Outside it was raining again, yet another of the day’s downpours.  Himiko’s car
backed through the rain with the fleetness of a water skimmer to where Bird waited
with the basket.  Bird handed the basket to Himiko, then climbed into the car
himself and took it back.  In order to secure it on his lap, Bird had to hold
himself rigidly erect, statue of an Egyptian king.

“All set?”

“Ah.”

The car leaped forward as at the start of a race.  Bird struck his ear against the
metal brace of the roof and caught his breath in pain.

“What time is it, Bird?”

Bird, supporting the basket with his right arm only, looked at his wristwatch.
The hands stood at a nonsensical hour; the watch had stopped.  Bird had been
wearing the watch out of habit but he hadn’t looked at the time in days, much less
set or wound the watch.  He felt as if he had been living outside the zone of time
which regulated the placid lives of those who were not afflicted with a grotesque
baby.

“My watch has stopped,” he said.

Himiko pushed a button on the car radio.  A news broadcast: the announcer was
commenting on the repercussions of the Soviet resumption of nuclear testing.  The
Japan Anti-Nuclear Warfare League had come out in support of the Soviet test.
There was factional strife within the League, however, and a strong possibility
that the next world conference on the abolishment of nuclear weapons would founder
in a hopeless bog of disagreement.  A tape was played, Hiroshima victims
challenging the League’s proclamation.  Could there really be such a thing as a
clean atomic weapon?  What if the tests were being conducted by Soviet scientists
in the wastelands of Siberia, could there really be such a thing as a hydrogen
bomb that was not harmful to man or beast?

Himiko changed the station.  Popular music, a tango—not that Bird could
distinguish between one tango and another.  This one was interminable: Himiko
finally switched the radio off.  They had failed to come up with a time signal.

“Bird, it looks like the ANWL has copped out on the issue of Soviet tests,” Himiko
said with no particular interest in her voice.

“It seems that way,” Bird said.

In a world shared by all those others, time was passing, mankind’s one and only
time, and a destiny apprehended the world over as one and the same destiny was
taking evil shape.  Bird, on the other hand, was answerable only to the baby in
the basket on his lap, to the monster who governed his personal destiny.

“Bird, do you suppose there are people who want an atomic war, not because they
stand to benefit from the manufacture of nuclear weapons economically, say, or
politically, but simply because that’s what they want?  I mean, just as most
people believe for no particular reason that this planet should be perpetuated and
hope that it will be, there must be black-hearted people who believe, for no
reason they could name, that mankind should be annihilated.  In northern Europe
there’s a little animal like a rat, it’s called a lemming, and sometimes these
lemmings commit mass suicide.  I just wonder if somewhere on this earth there
aren’t lemming-people.  Bird?”

“Lemming-people with black hearts?  The UN would have to get right to work on a
program for tracking them down.”

Bird, though he played along, felt no desire to march in the crusade against the
lemming-people with black hearts.  In fact, he was aware of a black-hearted
lemming presence whispering through himself.

“Hot, isn’t it,” Himiko said, as if to suggest by her brusque changing of the
subject that their conversation so far had not much interested her.

“Yes, it’s hot all right.”

Heat from the engine continued to vibrate upward from the thin metal plate of the
floor, and since the canvas hood sealed the car shut they began gradually to feel
as if they were trapped inside a hothouse.  But clearly the wind would blow in the
rain if they detached a corner of the hood.  Bird examined the latches wistfully;
it was a particularly old-fashioned hood.

“There’s nothing you can do, Bird.” Himiko had detected his despair.  “Let’s stop
every once in a while and open the door.”

Bird saw a rain-soaked sparrow lying dead in the road just ahead of the car.
Himiko saw it, too.  The car bore down on the dead bird, and, as it sank out of
sight, sharply swerved and dropped one tire into a pothole which lay hidden under
muddy yellow water.  Bird rapped both hands against the dashboard, but he didn’t
loosen his grip on the baby’s basket.  Sadly Bird thought: by the time we get to
the abortionist’s clinic I’ll be covered with bruises.

“Sorry, Bird,” Himiko said.  She must have taken a blow, too, it was a voice set
against pain.  They both avoided mentioning the dead sparrow.

“It’s nothing serious.” Settling the basket on his lap again, Bird looked down at
the baby for the first time since he had climbed into the car.  The baby’s face
was burning a steadily angrier red, but whether it was breathing wasn’t clear.
Suffocation!  Bird was driven by panic to shake the basket.  Abruptly, opening its
mouth wide as if to sink its teeth into Bird’s fingers, the baby began to cry in a
voice too loud to be believed.

Waaaaaaaaaagh-uh.  … waaaaaaaaaagh-uh.  … waaaaaaaaaagh-uh.  … on and on the baby
screamed and delicately convulsed while tear after large, transparent tear seeped
from tightly closed eyes like inch-long shreds of thread.  As Bird recovered from
his panic, he moved to cover with his palm the screaming baby’s rosy lips and
barely checked himself in time as a new panic welled.  Iiiiiiiiiigh-uh.  …
iiiiiiiiiigh-uh … the baby continued to bawl.  … Yaaaaaaaaa-uh.  …
yaaaaaaaaagh-uh.  … fluttering the cap with the pattern of baby goats that covered
the lump on its head.

“You always feel that a baby’s cry is full of meaning,” Himiko said, raising her
voice above the baby’s.  “For all we know, it may contain all the meaning of all
of man’s words.”

Still the baby wailed: waaaaaaaaaagh-uh.  … yaaaaaaaaaaaagh-uh.  …
aaaaaaaaaaaagh-uh.  … waagh … waagh … waagh … waagh.  … yaiiiiiiiiiigh-uh.  …

“It’s a lucky thing we don’t have the ability to understand,” Bird said uneasily.

The car sped on, carrying with it the baby’s screams.  It was like a load of five
thousand shrilling crickets, or again as if Bird and Himiko had burrowed into the
body of a single cricket and were stridulating with it.  Soon the heat trapped in
the car and the baby’s crying became unbearable; Himiko pulled over and they
opened both doors.  The damp, hot air inside the car roared out like a feverish
invalid’s belch; cold, wet air gushed in and with it, the rain.  Bird and Himiko
had been bathed in sweat, now they shivered with a chill.  A little rain even
stole into the basket on Bird’s lap, the water clinging to the baby’s flaming
cheeks in drops much smaller than tears.  Now the baby’s crying was
fitful——aagh-uh—aagh-uh—aagh-uh—and every so often a spasm of coughing would shake
its body.  The coughing was clearly abnormal: Bird wondered if the baby hadn’t
developed a respiratory disease.  By tilting the basket away from the door he
finally managed to shield it from the rain.

“Bird, it’s dangerous to expose a baby suddenly to cold air like this when he’s
been living in an incubator—he could even catch pneumonia!”

“I know,” Bird said, his fatigue heavy and deep-rooted.

“I can’t think what to do.”

“What the hell are you supposed to do to make a baby stop crying at a time like
this?” Never before had Bird felt so utterly inexperienced.

“I’ve seen them given a breast to suck lots of times—” Himiko paused as though in
horror, then she quickly added, “We should have brought some milk along, Bird.”

“Watered milk?  Or maybe sugar-water?” It was the fatigue that dredged up the
cynic in him.

“Let me just run into a drugstore.  They might have one of those toys, what do you
call them?  you know, they’re shaped like nipples?”

And Himiko dashed out into the rain.  Bird, rocking the baby’s basket uncertainly,
watched his lover hurry away in her flat shoes.  No Japanese woman her age was
better educated than Himiko, but that education was rotting on the pantry shelf;
nor was she as knowledgeable about daily life as even the most ordinary of women.
Probably she would never have children of her own.  Bird remembered Himiko as she
had been in their first year at college, the liveliest of a group of freshman
girls, and he felt pity for the Himiko who was now flopping through a mud puddle
like a clumsy dog.  Who in the whole world would have foreseen this future for
that co-ed so full of youth and pedantry and confidence?  Several long-distance
moving vans rumbled by like a herd of rhinoceros, shaking the car and Bird and the
baby with it.  Bird thought he could hear a call in the rumbling of the trucks,
urgent though its meaning was unclear.  It had to be an illusion, but for a futile
minute he listened hard.

Himiko leaned into the rainy gusts of wind as she labored back to the car, her
face so publicly in a scowl that she might have been fuming alone in the dark.
She wasn’t running anymore: Bird read in all of her ample body an ugly fatigue to
match his own.  But when Himiko reached the car she said happily, raising her
voice above the baby’s, who was crying as before, “They call these sucking toys
pacifiers, it just slipped my mind for a minute—here, I bought two kinds.”

Rummaging the word “pacifier” out of the storeroom of distant memory seemed to
have given Himiko back her confidence.  But the yellow rubber objects resting in
her open hand like enlarged, winged maple seeds looked like troublesome implements
for a newborn baby to manage.

“The one with the blue stuff inside is for teething, that’s for older infants.
But this squooshy one should be just what the doctor ordered.” As she spoke,
Himiko placed the pacifier in the screaming baby’s pink mouth.

Why did you have to buy one for teething?  Bird started to ask.  Then he saw that
the baby wasn’t even responding to the pacifier intended for infants.  The only
indication it was aware of the gadget inserted in its mouth was a slight working
of its face, as if the baby was trying to expel the pacifier with its tongue.

“It doesn’t seem to work; I guess he’s too young,” Himiko said miserably after
experimenting for a minute.  Her confidence again was gone.

Bird withheld criticism.

“But I don’t know any other way to quiet a baby down.”

“Then we’ll have to go on this way—let’s get started.” Bird closed the door on his
side.

“The clock in the drugstore just now said four o’clock.  I think we can get to the
clinic by five.” Himiko started the engine, an ugly look on her face.  She too was
heading for the north pole of disgruntlement.

“He can’t possibly cry for a whole hour,” Bird said.

Five-thirty: the baby had cried itself to sleep but they had not yet reached their
destination.  For a full fifty minutes now they had been making a grand tour
around the same hollow.  They had driven up and down hills, crossed a winding,
muddy river any number of times, blundered down blind alleys, emerged again and
again on the wrong side of one of the steep slopes that rose out of the valley to
the north and south.  Himiko remembered having driven right to the entrance of the
clinic, and when the car climbed to the top of a rise she was even able to locate
its general vicinity.  But then they would descend into the crowded hollow with
its maze of narrow streets and it would become impossible to say with certainty
even which direction they were heading.  When they finally turned into a street
Himiko thought she remembered, it was only to encounter a small truck which
refused absolutely to yield the way.  They had to back up a hundred yards, and
when they had let the truck pass and tried to go back, they found that they had
turned a different corner.  The street at the next corner was one way: return was
impossible.

Bird was silent throughout, and so was Himiko.  They were both so irritated that
they lacked the confidence to say anything for fear of hurting each other.  Even a
remark as innocent as I’m sure we’ve already passed this corner twice seemed
dangerously likely to open a jagged crack between them.  And there was the police
box they kept driving by.  An officer was certain to be sitting just inside the
entrance to the ramshackle wooden structure, and each time they whispered by they
grew a little more afraid of attracting his attention.  Asking the policeman
directions to the clinic was out of the question; they were unwilling even to
check the address with any of the local delivery boys.  A sports car carrying a
baby with a lump on its head was looking for a clinic with a questionable
reputation—such a rumor was certain to cause trouble.  In fact, the doctor had
gone as far as to caution Himiko on the phone not to make any stops in the
neighborhood, not even for cigarettes.  And so they continued what began to seem
like an endless tour of the vicinity.  And gradually, paranoia took hold of Bird:
probably they would drive around all night and never reach the clinic they were
looking for; probably a clinic for murdering babies never existed in the first
place.  Nor was paranoia Bird’s only problem, there was a tenacious sleepiness.
What if he fell asleep and the baby’s basket slid off his lap?  If the skin on the
baby’s lump were really the dura mater that enclosed the brain, it would rupture
instantly.  The baby would submerge in the muddy water seeping through the
floorboards between the gear shift and the brake, then he would develop breathing
difficulty and gasp his life away—but that was much too horrible a death.  Bird
labored to stay awake.  Even so he sank for an instant into the shadows of
unconsciousness and was called back by Himiko’s tense voice pleading: “For God’s
sake, Bird, stay awake!”

The basket was slipping off Bird’s lap.  Shuddering, he gripped it with both
hands.

“Bird, I’m sleepy too.  I have this scary feeling I might run into something.”

Even now the dusky aura of evening was dancing down into the hollow.  The wind had
died, but the rain had continued here and changed at some point to mist which
narrowly closed the field of vision.  Himiko switched on the headlights and only
one lamp lighted: her childish lover’s spite had begun to take effect.  As the car
again approached the twin ginkgo trees in front of the police box, an officer who
might have been a young farmer ambled into the street and waved them to a stop.

It was a pale, bedraggled, and thoroughly suspicious state that Bird and Himiko
were exposed to the policeman’s gaze, as, stooping, he peered into the car.

“Driver’s license please!” The cop sounded like the world’s most jaded policeman.
In fact he was about the age of Bird’s students at the cram-school, but he knew
perfectly well that he was intimidating them and he was enjoying it.  “I could see
you had only one good light, you know, the first time you drove by.  And I looked
the other way.  But when you keep coming around the way you have, well, you’re
just begging to get stopped.  And now you cruise up as big as life with just that
one light on—you can’t get away with that.  It reflects on our authority.”

“Naturally,” Himiko said, with no inflection whatsoever.

“That a baby in there or what?” Himiko’s attitude appeared to have offended the
officer.  “Maybe I better ask you to leave the car here and carry the baby.”

The baby’s face was now grotesquely red, its breath coming in ragged rasps through
its open mouth and both its nostrils.  For an instant Bird forgot the police
officer peering into the car to wonder if the baby had come down with pneumonia.
Fearfully he pressed his hand against the baby’s brow.  The sensation of heat was
piercing, of an entirely different quality from that of human body temperature.
Bird involuntarily cried out.

“What?” said the startled cop in a voice appropriate to his age.

“The baby is sick,” Himiko said.  “So we decided to bring him in the car even
though we noticed the headlight was broken.” Whatever Himiko was plotting involved
taking advantage of the policeman’s consternation.  “But then we lost the way and
now we don’t know what to do.”

“Where do you want to go?  What’s the doctor’s name?”

Hesitating, Himiko finally told the policeman the name of the clinic.  The officer
informed her that she would find it at the end of the little street just to the
left of where they were parked.  Then he said, anxious to demonstrate that he was
no soft-hearted pushover of a cop: “But since it’s so close it won’t hurt you to
get out and walk, maybe I’d better ask you to do that.”

Himiko hysterically extended one long arm and plucked the woolen cap from the
baby’s head.  It was the decisive blow to the young policeman.

“If he’s moved at all he must be shaken as little as possible.”

Himiko had pursued the enemy and overwhelmed him.  Glumly, as though he regretted
having taken it, the policeman returned her driver’s license.  “See that you take
the car in to be repaired as soon as you drop the baby off,” he said stupidly, his
eyes still fixed to the lump on the baby’s head.  “But—that’s really awful!  Is
that what you call brain fever?”

Bird and Himiko turned down the street the officer had indicated.  By the time
they had parked in front of the clinic, Himiko was composed enough to say: “He
didn’t take down my license number or name or anything—what a dumb-ass cop!”

The clinic seemed to be built of plasterboard; they carried the baby’s basket into
the vestibule.  There was no sign of nurses, or patients either; it was the man
with the egg-shaped head who appeared the minute Himiko called.  And this time he
wasn’t wearing a linen tuxedo but a stained, terrifying smock.

Ignoring Bird completely, he chided Himiko in a gentle voice, peering all the
while into the baby’s basket as though he were buying mackerel from a fish
peddler:

“You’re late, Himi.  I was beginning to think you were having a little joke with
me.”

It was Bird’s overwhelming impression that the clinic vestibule was ruinous: he
felt menaced to the quick.

“We had some trouble getting here,” Himiko said coolly.

“I was afraid you might have done something dreadful on the way.  There are
radicals, you know, once they’ve decided to take the step they don’t see any
distinction between letting a baby weaken and die and strangling it to death—oh,
dear,” the doctor exclaimed, lifting the baby’s basket, “as if he wasn’t in enough
trouble already, this poor little fella is coming down with pneumonia.” As before,
the doctor’s voice was gentle.





13




LEAVING the sports car at a garage, they set out in a cab for the gay bar Himiko
knew.  They were exhausted, anguished with a need to sleep, but their mouths were
dry with an occult excitement that made them uneasy about returning all by
themselves to that gloomy house.

They stopped the cab in front of a clumsy imitation of a gas lantern with the word
KIKUHIKO in blue paint written on the glass globe.  Bird pushed open a door held
together tenuously with a few boards of unequal length and stepped into a room as
crude and narrow as a shed for livestock; there was only a short counter and,
against the opposite wall, two sets of outlandishly high-backed chairs.  The bar
was empty except for the smallish man standing in a far corner behind the counter
who now confronted the two intruders.  He was of a curious rotundity, with lips
like a young girl’s and misted sheep-eyes which were warily inspecting but by no
means rejecting them.  Bird stood where he was, just inside the door, and returned
his gaze.  Gradually, a memento of his young friend Kikuhiko permeated the
membrane of the ambiguous smile on the man’s face.

“Would you believe, it’s Himi, and looking a sight!” The man spoke through pursed
lips, his eyes still on Bird.  “I know this one; it’s been ages now, but didn’t
they used to call him Bird?”

“We might as well sit down,” Himiko said.  She appeared to be discovering only an
atmosphere of anticlimax in the drama of this reunion.  Not that Kikuhiko was
exciting any very poignant emotion in Bird.  He was fatigued utterly, he was
sleepy: he felt certain nothing in the world remained that could interest him
vitally.  Bird found himself sitting down a little apart from Himiko.

“What do they call this one now, Himi?”

“Bird.”

“You can’t mean it.  Still?  It’s been seven years.” Kikuhiko moved over to Bird.
“What are you drinking, Bird?”

“Whisky, please.  Straight.”

“And Himi?”

“The same for me.”

“You both have that tired look and it’s still so early in the night!”

“Well, it has nothing to do with sex—we spent half the day driving around in
circles.”

Bird reached for the glass of whisky that had been poured for him and, feeling
something tighten in his chest, hesitated.  Kikuhiko—he can’t be more than
twenty-two yet he looks like a more formidable adult than I; on the other hand, he
seems to have retained a lot of what he was at fifteen—Kikuhiko, like an amphibian
at home in two ages.

Kikuhiko was drinking straight whisky, too.  He poured himself another drink, and
one for Himiko, who had emptied her first glass in a swallow.  Bird found himself
watching Kikuhiko and Kikuhiko glanced repeatedly at Bird, the nerves of his body
arching like the back of a threatened cat.  At last he turned directly to Bird and
said: “Bird, do you remember me?”

“Of course,” said Bird.  Strange, he was more conscious of talking to the
proprietor of a gay bar (this was his first time) than to a sometime friend whom
he hadn’t seen in years.

“It’s been ages, hasn’t it, Bird.  Ever since that day we went over to the next
town and saw a G.I.  looking out of a train window with the bottom half of his
face shot off.”

“What’s all this about a G.I.?” Himiko said.  Kikuhiko told her, his eyes
impudently roaming Bird.

“It was during the Korean war and these gorgeous soldier boys who’d been all
wounded in the field were being shipped back to bases in Japan.  Whole trainloads
of them and we saw one of those trains one day.  Bird, do you suppose they were
passing through our district all the time?”

“Not all the time, no.”

“You used to hear stories about slave dealers catching Japanese high-school boys
and selling them as soldiers, there were even rumors that the government was going
to ship us off to Korea—I was terrified in those days.”

Of course!  Kikuhiko had been horribly afraid.  The night they had quarreled and
separated, he had shouted “Bird, I was afraid!” Bird thought about his baby and
decided it was still incapable of fear.  He felt relieved, a suspect, brittle
relief.  “Those rumors were certainly meaningless,” he said, trying to veer his
consciousness from the baby.

“You say, but I did all kinds of nasty things on account of rumors like that.
Which reminds me, Bird.  Did you have any trouble catching that madman we were
chasing?”

“He was dead when I found him, he’d hung himself on Castle Hill—I knocked myself
out for nothing.” The taste of an old regret returned sourly to the tip of Bird’s
tongue.  “We found him at dawn, the dogs and I. Talk about something being
meaningless!”

“I wouldn’t say that.  You kept up the chase until dawn and I dropped out and ran
in the middle of the night and our lives have been completely different ever
since.  You stopped mixing with me and my kind and went to a college in Tokyo,
didn’t you?  But I’ve been like falling steadily ever since that night and look at
me now—tucked away nice and comfy in this nelly little bar.  Bird, if you hadn’t…
gone on alone that night, I might be in a very different groove now.”

“If Bird hadn’t abandoned you that night, you wouldn’t have become a homosexual?”
Himiko audaciously asked.

Rattled, Bird had to look away.

“A homosexual is someone who has chosen to let himself love a person of the same
sex: and I made that decision myself.  So the responsibility is all my own.”
Kikuhiko’s voice was quiet.

“I can see you’ve read the existentialists,” Himiko said.

“When you run a bar for faggots, you have to know where all kinds of things are
at!” As though it were part of the song of his profession, Kikuhiko sang the line.
Then he turned to Bird and said, in his normal voice, “I’m sure you’ve been on the
rise all the time I’ve been falling.  What are you doing now, Bird?”

“I’ve been teaching at a cram-school, but it turns out that I’m fired as of the
summer vacation—‘on the rise’ isn’t quite how I’d put it,” Bird said.  “And that
isn’t all; it’s been one weird hassle after another.”

“Now that you mention it, the Bird I knew at twenty was never this droopy-woopy.
It’s as if something has got you awfully scared and you’re trying to run away from
it—” This was a shrewd and observant Kikuhiko, no longer the simple fairy Bird had
known: his friend’s life of apostasy and descent could not have been easy or
uninvolved.

“You’re right,” Bird admitted.  “I’m all used up.  I’m afraid.  I’m trying to run
away.”

“When he was twenty this one was immune to fear, I never saw him frightened of
anything,” Kikuhiko said to Himiko.  Then he turned back to Bird, and,
provokingly: “But tonight you seem extra sensitive to fear; it’s like you’re so
afraid you don’t have the foggiest notion where your head is at!”

“I’m not twenty anymore,” Bird said.

Kikuhiko’s face froze over with icy indifference.  “The old gray mare just ain’t
what she used to be,” he said, and moved abruptly to Himiko’s side.

A minute later two of them began a game of dice and Bird was given his freedom.
Relieved, he lifted his glass of whisky.  After a blank of seven years it had
taken him and his friend just seven minutes of conversation to eliminate
everything worthy of their mutual curiosity.  I’m not twenty anymore!  And of all
my possessions at the age of twenty, the only thing I’ve managed not to lose is my
childish nickname—Bird gulped down his first whisky of what had been a long day.
Seconds later, something substantial and giant stirred sluggishly inside him.  The
whisky he had just poured into his stomach Bird effortlessly puked.  Kikuhiko
swiftly wiped the counter clean and set up a glass of water; Bird only stared
dumbly into space.  What was he trying to protect from that monster of a baby that
he must run so hard and so shamelessly?  What was it in himself he was so frantic
to defend?  The answer was horrifying—nothing!  Zero!

Bird eased out of the bucket chair and slowly lowered his feet to the floor.  To
Himiko, questioning him with eyes slackened by fatigue and sudden drunkenness, he
said: “I’ve decided to take the baby back to the university hospital and let them
operate.  I’ve stopped rushing at every exit door.”

“What are you talking about?” Himiko said suspiciously.  “Bird!  What’s happened
to you!  What kind of a time is this to start talking about an operation!”

“Ever since the morning my baby was born I’ve been running away,” Bird said with
certainty.

“But you’re having that baby murdered right this minute, dirtying your hands and
mine.  How can you call that running away?  Besides, we’re leaving for Africa
together!”

“I left the baby with that abortionist and then I ran away, I fled here,” Bird
said obstinately.  “I’ve been running the whole time, running and running, and I
pictured Africa as the land at the end of all flight, the final spot, the
terminal—you know, you’re running away, too.  You’re just another cabaret girl
running off with an embezzler.”

“I’m participating, Bird, dirtying my own hands along with yours.  Don’t you say
I’m running away!” Himiko’s shout echoed in the caves of her hysteria.

“Have you forgotten that you drove the car into a pothole today rather than run
over a dead sparrow?  Is that what a person does just before he cuts a baby’s
throat?”

Himiko’s large face flushed, swelling, then darkened with fury and a presentiment
of despair.  She glared at Bird, shuddering in vexation: she was trying to fault
him and couldn’t find her voice.

“If I want to confront this monster honestly instead of running away from it, I
have only two alternatives: I can strangle the baby to death with my own hands or
I can accept him and bring him up.  I’ve understood that from the beginning but I
haven’t had the courage to accept it—”

“But Bird,” Himiko interrupted, waving her fingers threateningly, “that baby is
coming down with pneumonia!  If you tried to take him back to the hospital he’d
die in the car on the way.  Then where would you be?  They’d arrest you, that’s
where!”

“If that happened, it would mean that I’d killed the baby with my own two hands.
And I’d deserve whatever I got.  I guess I’d be able to take the responsibility.”

Bird spoke clamly.  He felt that he was now evading deception’s final trap, and he
was restoring his faith in himself.

Himiko glowered at Bird with tears collecting in her eyes; she appeared to be
groping frantically for a new psychological attack, and when at last a strategy
occurred, she leaped at it: “Let’s say you let them operate and saved the baby’s
life, what would you have then, Bird?  You told me yourself that your son would
never be more than a vegetable!  Don’t you see, it’s not only that you’d be
creating misery for yourself, you’d be nurturing a life that meant absolutely
nothing to this world!  Do you suppose that would be for the baby’s good?  Do you,
Bird?”

“It’s for my own good.  It’s so I can stop being a man who’s always running away,”
Bird said.

But Himiko still refused to understand.  She stared distrustfully at Bird,
challenging him still, and then she labored to smile despite the tears welling in
her eyes and mockingly said: “So you’re going to manhandle a baby with the
faculties of a vegetable into staying alive—Bird!  is that part of your new
humanism?”

“All I want is to stop being a man who continually runs away from
responsibility.”

“But … Bird …” Himiko sobbed, “… what about our promise to go to Africa together?
What about our promise?”

“For God’s sake Himi, get ahold of yourself!  Once Bird here begins worrying about
himself, he won’t hear you no matter how loud you cry.”

Bird saw something akin to raw hatred glitter in Kikuhiko’s clouded eyes.  But his
former friend’s command to Himiko was the cue she had been waiting for: once again
she became the Himiko who had welcomed Bird several days before when he had
arrived so forlornly at her door with his bottle of Johnnie Walker, a girl no
longer young, infinitely generous: tender, placid Himiko.

“That’s all right, Bird.  You don’t have to come.  I’ll sell the house and
property and go to Africa anyway.  I’ll take that boy who stole the tire along for
company.  Now that I think about it, I’ve been pretty horrid to him.” The
tearfulness remained, but there was no mistaking that Himiko had ridden the storm
of her hysteria.

“Miss Himi will be all right now,” Kikuhiko prompted.

“Thank you,” Bird said simply, meaning it, no more to one than to the other.

“Bird, you are going to have to endure all kinds of pain,” Himiko said.  It was
meant as encouragement.  “So long, Bird.  Take care of yourself!”

Bird nodded, and left the bar.

The taxi raced down the wet streets at horrendous speed.  If I die in an accident
now before I save the baby, my whole twenty-seven years of life will have meant
exactly nothing.  Bird was stricken with a sense of fear more profound than any he
had ever known.

It was the end of autumn.  When Bird came downstairs after saying good-by to the
surgeon, his parents-in-law greeted him with a smile in front of the intensive
care ward; his wife stood between them with the baby in her arms.

“Congratulations, Bird,” his father-in-law called.  “He looks like you, you
know.”

“In a way,” Bird said with reserve.  A week after the operation the baby had
looked almost human; the following week it had begun to resemble Bird.  “That
fault in the baby’s skull was only a few millimeters across and it seems to be
closing now.  I can show you when we get home, I borrowed the X rays.  It turns
out the brain wasn’t protruding from the skull; so it wasn’t a brain hernia after
all, just a benign tumor.  There were apparently two hard kernels as white as
ping-pong balls in that lump they cut away.”

“This is one family that has a lot to be grateful for.” The professor had been
waiting for a lull in the rush of Bird’s talk.

“Bird gave so much of his own blood for all those transfusions during the
operation, he came out looking as pale as a princess after a date with Dracula.” A
rare attempt at humor from Bird’s exuberant mother-in-law.  “Seriously, Bird, you
were as courageous and untiring as a young lion.”

Frightened by the sudden change in environment, the baby lay in shriveled and
unmoving silence, observing the adults out of eyes which must still have been
nearly sightless.  Since the women stopped repeatedly to cluck and coo over the
baby, Bird and the professor gradually drew ahead as they talked.  “This time you
really met your problem head on,” the professor said.

“As a matter of fact, I kept trying to run away.  And I almost did.  But it seems
that reality compels you to live properly when you live in the real world.  I
mean, even if you intend to get yourself caught in a trap of deception, you find
somewhere along the line that your only choice is to avoid it.” Bird was surprised
at the muted resentment in his voice.  “That’s what I’ve found, anyway.”

“But it is possible to live in the real world in quite a different way, Bird.
There are people who leap-frog from one deception to another until the day they
die.”

Through half-closed eyes Bird saw again the freighter bound for Zanzibar that had
sailed a few days before with Himiko on board.  He pictured himself, having killed
the baby, standing at her side in place of that boyish man—a sufficiently enticing
prospect of Hell.  And perhaps just such a reality was being played out in one of
Himiko’s universes.  Bird opened his eyes, turning back to the problems in the
universe in which he had chosen to remain.  “There is a possibility that the
baby’s development will be normal,” he said, “but there’s an equal danger that
he’ll grow up with an extremely low I.Q.  That means I’m going to have to put away
as much as I can for his future as well as our own.  Naturally, I’m not going to
ask you to help me find another job, not after the mess I made of the one I had.
I’ve decided to forget about a career in college teaching—I’m thinking of becoming
a guide for foreign tourists.  A dream of mine has always been to go to Africa and
hire a native guide, so I’ll just be reversing the fantasy: I’ll be the native
guide, for the foreigners who come to Japan.”

The professor started to say something in reply when they both had to step aside
for a youth with his arm in an exaggerated sling who was being hurried down the
corridor by a gang of his friends.  The boys swept by, ignoring Bird and his
father-in-law.  They all wore soiled, shabby jackets which already looked too
light for the chilliness of the season.  Bird saw the dragons emblazoned on their
backs and realized that this was the gang he had battled that night in early
summer when his baby was being born.

“I know those boys, but for some reason they didn’t pay any attention to me,” he
said.

“In a few weeks’ time you’ve become almost another person; that probably explains
it.”

“Do you suppose?”

“You’ve changed.” The professor’s voice was warm with a relative’s affection.  “A
childish nickname like Bird doesn’t suit you anymore.”

Bird waited for the women to catch up and peered down at his son in the cradle of
his wife’s arms.  He wanted to try reflecting his face in the baby’s pupils.  The
mirror of the baby’s eyes was a deep, lucid gray and it did begin to reflect an
image, but one so excessively fine that Bird couldn’t confirm his new face.  As
soon as he got home he would take a look in the mirror.  Then he would try the
Balkan dictionary that Mr. Delchef had presented him before his legation had
shipped him home.  On the inside cover, Mr. Delchef had written the word for hope.
Bird intended to look up forbearance.