This half-installment comes on the occasion of THE2NDHAND Editor Jeb Gleason-Allured's November 2003 tour on the Perpetual Motion Roadshow, during which he will fling these suckers out with glee. There's a limited quantity available via the established routes (see below for deets), and Jeb will be in your town soon, we hope. Click here for details on the dates in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal, NYC, Cleveland, Cincinnati, and Chicago.
To order Installment 12.5, please send $1 to:
A long time before he was eaten The Sleeper's father was a magician, and her mother his assistant. He hadn't been a very good magician, evidently, because the first time he sawed his lovely assistant in half -- cleaving her cleanly, impossibly, at the tapered waist -- he wasn't able to put her back together again, a crime he had tried to atone for by proposing. What woman could refuse?
There was loneliness after that and pregnant pauses over meals and maybe vague expectations of some sort and then the sudden and ridiculous-looking mechanics of conception. It happened on an unmade bed, magician and assistant, the mournful juggling of torso and legs, the awkward coupling of a man with his new wife's estranged geography, the humid smell of it like overripe fruit.
When The Sleeper was zero, she was born.
Zero to ten was a small world crowded with two attractive but unhappy parents and one musty house in the enchanted forest, which was not a very nice forest because it was muddy and gave off the cheesy smell of deep rot. The Sleeper's father was too ashamed and frightened to practice magic, so he sustained his small family on a diet of mushrooms and tubers mined from the banks of the enchanted river. The Sleeper's mother -- the northern half -- spent her days slumped in a wheel chair staring out the filmy windows of the master bedroom. Her still-shapely hips and athletic legs, encased in tights for modesty's sake, were arranged on the sagging bed near the baby's crib where they patiently waited to be reunited with their torso.
Zero to ten and The Sleeper's mother never said a word about having been lopped in two, though she did wear the rigorous expression of a woman holding her breath. Her acrobatic silences were hard on The Sleeper's father who, like most bad magicians, craved blame, who felt lost and starved in its absence. I feel like a mouse in a teacup in an ocean, he once said. Though The Sleeper may have made this up or it might have been something a different person said in a dream. Anyway, she was never sure what it meant.
Zero to ten and her father's nest of brown hair went prematurely gray. His elegant handlebar mustache drooped across deeply lined jowls. The Sleeper, as she grew, was sure she detected some depletion in his stature. A foot. More, probably. Anyway, he was shrinking. And he seemed unable to look upon her severed mother, his eyes always softly focused on some piece of furniture or swath of tatty carpet. And she, The Sleeper, his daughter, beautiful and white-blond like her mother, but mercifully whole, wailed and wriggled whenever he tried to kiss or hold her, as if she could smell the incompetence on him. She could.
Zero to ten and The Sleeper grew angular and sullen like her parents. She began attending the grade school in town where she stood before a flag each day, where she learned to twirl her index finger around her ear when people were crazy, where she lost gloves and waited for bells and mingled with retards and gayrods.
Zero to ten and The Sleeper's father began pulling vanishing acts, seeping away into the damp, moldering forest for days at a time, without a word, doing who knows what. Not that it made much of an impression. The Sleeper's father had gradually achieved the inconsequential air of a pencil that has fallen between one's desk and the wall. His absence barely registered.
The Sleeper was put in charge of food. She would gather mushrooms on the way home from school, often picking a few tiny poisonous ones for herself because they tasted best. At night, she would lay in bed, mushroom venom sending oceans of cold through her, the treetops crick-cracking above the mossy roof. Sometimes the poison felt as if it were trying to fold her into a little ball. Other times it felt like talking to god.
The Sleeper's father would turn up intermittently, though these appearances may have been illusions conjured by the mushrooms. The man was increasingly frail, leaves in his hair, mud on the cuffs of his pants, under his nails, strange wounds and scratches on his ropy arms and neck. The Sleeper would often wake to find him kneeling beside her bed or stooped in the water-stained kitchen, staring into space as though into a fire.
Zero to ten and The Sleeper turned eight and got a birthday cake shaped like Pac Man and her father left for good, saying only that he was going to see a bear. The girl was unmoved by the finality of the man's disappearance. He had always been something of a specter to her, more a vague presence than a father. The Sleeper's mother, though, seemed consumed by his withdrawal. Her face was stricken, frozen. Her disembodied legs, on the other hand, seemed agitated. They crossed and uncrossed themselves on the bed all day long, sometimes kicking at The Sleeper if she passed close by.
There was no trace of her father's remains inside the cave -- only his battered wingtips, which looked as if they'd been kicked off, as he often did before taking a nap. She imagined him sleeping there, on the rocky floor. What must he have been dreaming of when the bear took the first bite?
The Sleeper returned home in a steady rain with her father's shoes, a small wad of torn, skunky clothes and a picture of herself from third grade dappled with his muddy fingerprints. The girl did not understand why the bear had done what it did and said so. Her mother, who lay next to her legs on the bed, whispered, Bears eat fathers every day. And you never hear about it on the news. It's just part of life. Her legs made a sudden pedaling motion in the air and the matter was closed.
The fox was effeminate and insincere, a combination The Sleeper found both intimidating and attractive. There was something predatory about his careful diction and handling of silverware. Whenever he set his too-close eyes on The Sleeper, she felt like the last piece of a delicious cake.
One night, crossing the enchanted river bridge on her way home from work, the fox darted out from behind a stone pylon. She didn't feel like running, but for appearances sake she did. The fox easily cornered her against a thorn bush. He was remarkably athletic, even with the missing bit of limb. You're beautiful when you think you're about to be masticated, the fox said. He bared his saw teeth in mock ferocity and then scrambled off on all threes into a stand of shrubs without looking back. The Sleeper followed him down a muddy embankment, past the fallen husks of trees to a hole in the ground.
The den was cramped, earthen, the ceiling so low The Sleeper had to squat. She blindly ran her hands over the cool, moist walls, which were threaded with roots. They shared a joint there in the damp dark. The Sleeper told the fox about high school, a blur of self-mutilation, pool parties and petty vandalism. He told her about the rabid cousin that had taken his foot. Then he peeled off her clothes. I thought all foxes were gay, The Sleeper confessed, squealing as he lapped her throat. The fox stopped to laugh, said he'd heard that a million times before. And then he was everywhere at once, the jet of his breath running down her neck, claws pleasantly painful on her hips and shoulders, his close, musky smell filling the den. The fox liked to bite, to be nipped back. He gurgled when The Sleeper pulled his silky tail. I don't know what's going to happen next, she said. I know what's going to happen next, the fox said.
After, they lay side by side in the dark, panting, nothing to say. The fox put his crippled foreleg over The Sleeper's shoulder. She cupped the soft knobby end to her chest and quickly tumbled into some dream she wouldn't remember.
Over the next few months, the fox made a sporting courtship of stalking and attacking. He would ambush The Sleeper along the enchanted forest trail or slip into her apartment before she arrived home and lurk under the bed or in some cabinet. It was fun and weird and embarrassing -- The Sleeper had never been with anyone so kinky. She couldn't imagine being with anyone else.
Still, she was intimidated. The fox had read all the Russian novelists. He listened to avant-garde jazz. He had sly fox friends that were graceful and cruel in ways she could never be. In short, The Sleeper felt too stupid, too bland, too nice for the fox. When she admitted this, he gave her his patronizing smile and said, My darling, you know full well we foxes eat with our eyes. The rest doesn't matter.
This did not make her feel better, because for all his reassurances, the fox could be mean. Even though The Sleeper freely admitted she knew nothing about music he would pick through her CD collection and huff so she could feel the gravity of his disappointment. He would grill her about past lovers and then ridicule them, their silly-sounding names, ridicule her for allowing such fools into her bed. On top of that he was a thief. He would often turn up, his kisses tasting of blood, chicken feathers matted in his fur. When she confronted him about it, she simply said, You're a thief. All lovers are thieves, the fox shot back, as if that settled anything.
But whenever she was about to leave him, to claw out his eyes, they would fuck like wounded, frightened animals and all would be forgotten. This absurd torture, The Sleeper realized, was something like love. The sadistic secret her mother had always swallowed bitterly, proudly.
One night, when they had been together for almost a year, after a feverish entanglement on the crumbly den floor, The Sleeper picked a loose strand of reddish fur from her tongue and whispered sweetly into the fox's tapered ear. I might love you, she said. I think. In the dark, the fox rolled over and nuzzled her long neck, his nose cold and soft. One day I will eat you, he said. Loving me won't stop that.
She tried to leave him, not that the fox ever made the slightest effort to stop her. He had an irresistible air of unconcern. Once, at a party, he had pointed out a beautiful woman draped over a couch. A woman with long, milky limbs, dark hair corkscrewing out around a wide, classical face. I once had some very athletic sex with that woman -- and then bit off her thumbs, said the fox, looking at The Sleeper the whole time to see what she would say. When she didn't say anything, he leaned in so close that his snout and her nose were touching. The difference between me and all the other creatures in the enchanted forest is that I don't give a fuck. She looked over at the woman's scarred hands folded neatly in her lap and knew the fox meant it.
For the brief periods she was able to stay away, The Sleeper was loved. By spiders and swollen earthworms. By a blackbird that brought her interesting scraps of paper, bits of string, yarn. She was loved by feral cats and whole hives of bees. She was loved by several tortoises, though it may have been the same tortoise over and over. She was loved by a stray parrot that had taken her to the museum in town where they'd taken turns peering through the periscope of a captured submarine, where they'd gotten Mold-o-ramas of plains Indians and internal organs. She was loved dearly by all of them. For her wintry complexion, for her kind and sour heart. She was loved for her nail biting, for her wariness of her own beauty, for her dog-eared copy of From the Mixed up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
Still, she always ended up back where she started, in the airless den or pinned to her own kitchen floor by the fox. She loved the inevitability of it, this thing between them with its own gravity, its own appetites. The Sleeper had dreams in which she was the fox's thumbless lover, in which her mother said, Daughters are eaten by foxes every day and you never hear about it on the news -- it's just part of life.
The longest time The Sleeper was apart from the fox was six months. She was almost twenty-one and still at the diner. People she'd gone to school with were being eaten almost every day. People who had gone off to college, people with lots of friends, people with careers, people who had grown fat, who had escaped to faraway cities. All kinds of people.
During this time she was seeing a giant moth. Every night, The Sleeper would leave her bedroom light on and he would come ticking against her window, frantic, determined. He was manic in bed. Aggressive, but melancholic. The Sleeper liked the insistent, bristly rasp of his abdomen against hers, though it burned. She liked the way his spotted wings wagged, leaving their powder all over her and the bed.
It was never serious between them, whatever it was. The relationship mostly felt like a maze they'd both blundered into. There was something aimless, but anxious about their being together. Hopeless. They stuck together for a few rigorous months, but in the end the moth's attentions became too severe and hysteric. Besides, The Sleeper couldn't really see herself settling down with a moth. And she was pretty sure she still loved the fox, whatever that meant.
One night she told the moth all these things. He didn't try to touch her as she spoke. And when she was finished he fluttered out the bedroom window with a single flourish of wings.
A few weeks after things ended, The Sleeper came home after work to find a note taped to her mailbox. By the time you read this, it read, I will have flown into a flame. She crumpled the note. She said, Love is stupid. She said, Love is just one endless disaster.
Love is the Loch Ness Monster, said her mother, over drinks a few nights later. They sat in a small tavern in town, passing a Tarreyton back and forth at the bar. Christmas lights hung in the rafters like a mini galaxy. Love is the Easter Bunny. Her mother was radiant; she'd recently started dating a kindly widower, a very talented magician, apparently, who had easily reunited her halves. The Sleeper's mother didn't love the very talented magician, but that didn't seem to be the point. They were together for simpler reasons. The Sleeper sulked. She felt guilty for not being happy for her mother, who was surprisingly tall. She knew it was wrong to take the woman's newfound wholeness as an affront. Still, she was hurt by it somehow. She couldn't help feeling it was somehow a betrayal of her father.
Over the second round, The Sleeper confessed about the fox, about his threats of consumption, that she still loved him. Her mother shrugged. Of course you'd love such a creature, she said, you're just like your father. For a moment it felt as if all the air had been sucked out of the room. Then The Sleeper said, I always blamed him for what he did to you. Her mother waved away the notion, rolled her eyes. I think he did it on purpose, The Sleeper said. I think he knew he wouldn't be able to put you back together. Her mother sighed: Take you apart, put you together -- men are just like that. The Sleeper stared up into the constellation of lights overhead. That day, she said, when you sent me to get Dad's things -- did you intend for the bear to eat me, too? Her mother crossed her arms on the bar, her eyes looking a little wet.
After a few more rounds The Sleeper walked her mother home. When they parted at the front door of the musty old house, her mother slurred, Love is Atlantis. Love is the yeti, the unicorn. The Sleeper stumbled away, down a path toward her place. It was cold and windy, the forest floor bandaged in moonlight. Up ahead she was pretty sure she saw the fox's tail peeking out from behind a craggy boulder that sat beside the leafy trail. She thought about turning around, about running. Instead she kept moving forward.