It was raining in Ubania too, though Gladys couldn’t tell, imprisoned as she was in an underground cave. She was in the UTI, the Ubanian Terror Institute, in the capital city of Through. She could see no things, and hear two things. One was a slow dripping carefully designed to drive her insane. The other was the snoring of her cavemate. In the sixth hour of this sonic pairing, she began to personify the sounds, believing that they were speaking to each other, fighting with each other, reconciling with each other. In the fifteenth hour, they had blended and become one sound. In the thirty-second hour, she could no longer hear that sound.
Who sleeps for thirty-two hours? she wondered, and said “Wake up!” but of course it fell on deaf ears because if you can’t hear yourself no one else can hear you, and if you hear no one else you can’t hear yourself, and that’s just true and we all know it.
Gladys was alone so long she no longer remembered what it was to be with. Parts of her sealed over again, wax on an envelope. But it was an aloneness without shame, since there was no one to see it, or at least since she was allowed to believe that she was the only one left, the only one ever, and the only task in life, in the life of the universe, had something to do with her mind. That if she had the right thought, an egg would crack open, and out of it would come a beautiful white bird-horse which she would ride right into the yellow yolk of the sun which would burn around her and through her and as her forever.
She tried to have the thought. She thought, “Peace.” But that wasn’t it. She thought, “Love.” She thought of John and wished him well, wished him even a better life than her own. She thought of Albert, the child born to die growing within her. But she knew she was doing it wrong. It was too expected to wish for the ones you love, even if you also hate them. So she tried to imagine someone she did not love, but it was impossible, because as soon as she imagined them, she loved them. Then she thought maybe it was not people, but animals. Then, maybe a desk. To love a desk. A cluttered desk. A clean desk. She began to cry, thinking about a desk, the very word poked around her entrails, doing something to her.
The smoothness of the word and its form made her think next of lake. John was a lake, and she was a lake, because he had made her one. Can you love a lake? Beyond wanting the lake to be pristine, beyond tree-hugging. Can you love a lake? How do you hold a lake’s hand?
She thought of the joke John liked. Two men looking at a lake: “That’s a lot of water.” “Yeah, and that’s just the top of it!”
To love the top of the thing was simple, if for nothing else than the reflection. To love perhaps even the bottom, the way the mud shocked your toes, posed no threat. But to love the whole inner body of the body of water, huge and invisible until you submerge in it; to love the part that could kill you, without a chance of it loving you back; to love never being able to hold the entirety of it at once; to love a thing without color or sound, only the taste if you let it in, different from drinking, and realize, this is not me, this is not of me, this is not the same as me, this will never be me, this was here first, this is here after, this is hereafter–
Unless the lake dries up.
In school Gladys was taught, as we all were, of the legendary Lake Bifrost, which the residents of Fingerbone, Wisconsin were surprised to find one morning had vanished from the outskirts of their town. The case remained open for exactly fifty-three hours, at which point Moreland Buxbee, a distant cousin of Fingerbonian Gertrude Fishkill, called (collect, as usual) from Yellowhair, New Hampshire, to relay the news that a lake had opened up there some two days prior. Out of the blue, as they say.
Being tied up at the mill as Moreland was you know he had only that morning had a chance to visit the wonder, and as he breathed in the newly brackish air, he detected, on the breeze, a soft lavender soap smell which evoked cousin Gert, and especially the summer walk they had taken during a family reunion some decades gone now, when Gert had pertly allowed herself to be kissed. Alas, that had not been meant to be. Though it was pretty to think so.
Only three residents of Fingerbone made the trek to Yellowhair to pay their last respects to the departed lake. Gertrude Fishkill was not in their number, which included
1. Sir Robert Brownhaven (the title was self-bestowed, but not begrudged by the town, which was grateful for his general gallantry while delivering mail),
2. Edie Wishington, for whom this was the first and last time she set foot outside of the ten mile radius God had thought to born her in, and
3. Edgar Lee Husbands, the young poet who went to the lake solely to drown in it, and who among historians is widely regarded to be the only one who truly loved it for what it was.
It was the same lake, Gladys thought, no matter where it opened. Which meant really a lake was no different from any other lake, connected as they were under the earth, and that further there was no difference to the rivers and the brooks and the seas and oceans, the same water, if we could only scrape back the asphalt and dirt and seagull shit that keeps them locked in their manmade borders.
It seemed to her now, as she conjured the face of Edgar Lee before her, seen so many times in her seventh grade history book, that the trick of existence was not a thought at all, but a way of seeing, of perceiving the single lake which is the lake of all things.
There was a sudden explosion, high above, which shook the cave like giant’s steps. And then, fire.
It was a torch.
“Gladys?” The accent betrayed Jean before the light did. He looked and sounded frazzled, a decidedly un-French condition.
“What was that?”
“In order for me to answer that, there is much you must know. Listen close; there is not much time. Gladys, you are a thinking person. Did you not ever wonder why you never heard that Ubania was the cradle of civilization until I told you it was?”
“Well I haven’t heard a lot of things. Like why Holland and the Netherlands are two names for the same place.”
“That is a complicated issue.”
“So it isn’t true, about Ubania?”
“Oh it’s true. Absolument. They found cave paintings here, right where you stand, nearly twice as old as any others on record. But all of the evidence of this place being the genesis of humanity was deliberately destroyed by an international panel of scientists.”
“Because of what they found here. Voila.” He illuminated a cave painting with his torch. Throughout the story he told, he showed her more and more paintings which depicted the tale.
“In the beginning the Ubanians were as confused as the rest of us as to where they had come from and why they were here. They tried diving deeper and deeper into the water, to see if perhaps they could get in touch with what had made them. Meanwhile on land they lived a peaceful and cooperative life, each according to his needs and abilities. Finally one day there was a young champion named Dardareefellavillagepeople, and he was able to dive deeper than anyone before. That’s when he encountered the Giant Squid.
“He knew the squid was an ancient creature that must have many answers, so he wrestled with it to bring it to land. It was a tiresome struggle between two evenly matched foes, but finally Dardareefellavillagepeople brought the Giant Squid to the delta where the river meets the sea.
“‘Now you will answer to me, Giant Squid,’ he said. ‘Where did we come from and why are we here?'”
“And the Squid said, well, something complicated in Ubanian which means fuck me I don’t know! And the hero said, ‘Oh,’ and felt a terrible flatness in his heart. So the squid took pity and said, ‘Look. All I can tell you is this. Man is mortal, which means his days are numbered. It’s going to feel to you like there aren’t enough of them. And so as you age a struggle will emerge among you to try and enjoy those few days as well as you possibly can. This will lead to bloodshed.’
“And the Giant Squid blessed him with a prophetic vision. Dardareefellavillagepeople saw heaps of bodies churned under by the tractor of history. He saw a vast inequality widening like a growing chasm between the haves and havenots. In short, he saw the future, and he was afraid. The Squid returned to the waters and Dardareefellavillagepeople warned his people of everything he had learned.
“They all agreed that this was a serious matter. They debated for many hours until the sun came out, suddenly. It was then that the decision was reached. The people would live on in cooperation and shared success. Everyone would have the same life. To ensure this, the knowledge of the fate of man would be painted onto these walls and told to children as a bedtime story. This way they were scared straight into socialism. Then, once a generation of Ubanians had lived the best parts of life and no longer took real joy in anything, in other words at the age of thirty-eight and a quarter, they would make the trek here, remind themselves of the potential horrible future, and to avoid it, they would simultaneously shoot themselves in the face.”
Jean paused here for effect. Gladys said nothing.
“Unfortunately, one year a man named Gramalkintyaxlrose accidentally survived the gunshot, but damaged the part of his brain that promotes empathy. He emerged from the cave and assumed control of all Ubania. He used force to enslave the majority of the population in back-breaking labor in order to prop up the luxurious lives of his family and friends. He lived to be one hundred and four and passed on all his wealth to his eldest son. The rest, comme on dit, is the history of this sorry species homo sapiens.”
There was another explosion.
“Are they blowing themselves up up there?” Gladys asked.
“No. They have stopped doing that. You stopped them. Through acknowledging the value of the man you fell on and crushed to death, you have inspired them.”
“Oh. Well, good for me I guess.”
“But bad for them. The new slogan which they chant is ‘kawamidinglefootbiggiebiggiebiggie.’ That means, ‘You’re nobody till somebody kills you.’ And so they are killing each other because they believe it is a great act of recognition. At least, they did that for the first day. On the second day, they started to do things worse than killing.”
“What’s worse than killing?”
A third explosion, the loudest, rocked the cave and awakened the snoring cavemate. She made a sound of displeasure. Gladys went to her, but the woman spoke no English. So Jean translated as best he could, though he had never deigned to really learn the Ubanian tongue.
“She is here because of what happened to her,” he explained. “Usually the Ubanian Terror Institute is not used for criminals, but for the criminized, as a dark place to go and sleep and forget about the terrible things.”
“What happened to her?”
Jean asked and the woman spoke. “Ah, she goes too quickly,” he said. “Something something husband. Something something set on fire. Something something soldiers. Something something baby. Something something bayonet.”
“…neerytarayraymichaeljackson,” the woman said, finishing.
“That doesn’t sound good.”
“No, Gladys. That is the worst. But that is what Ubanians do when they aren’t suicidal. They find the worst and they force each other into it. They do things to children, and make children do things to their own parents which you cannot fathom. You should not fathom. There is nothing to which they will not stoop. What we are faced with here is a race peering into the heart of its own darkness, and unable to stop themselves falling in. That is why we must act.”
He produced a vial, glowing with some bluish solution.
“In its desire to know the origin of life, the exiled French monarchy sponsored many different projects, one of which mapped the entire human genome. We gave to the public only the official version we wanted you to know. The private genome was much more detailed. Gladys. We found the gay gene.”
“The gay gene. The gene that turns you gay. And then we isolated it. And then we turned it into a chemical weapon.” He waved the vial in her face. “All we need to do is introduce this to the water supply and the Ubanians will turn gay and thus die out after a generation. Tabula rasa. We can start again here, a new people, in a real garden of Eden.”
He touched her belly. She gasped.
“I am the heir of the king who was the sun. And you…l’etat c’est toi, cherie. It’s you who understands love and hate and all the difficulties and sufferings therein. It’s you who perceives the lake of all things. It’s you who has within you the capacity to raise a wise and noble race. We can do it. Together.”
“First, I don’t know how you know about the lake because I only now just figured that out, and anyway I can’t see it all the time sometimes it’s too fuzzy or I forget about it completely. Second, I tend to not trust anyone who wants to build a new race. I guess that’s just me being prejudiced but what can I say.”
Another explosion. Two stalactites fell, one right on top of the cavemate, who smiled and said “Oh thank God” and died.
“We must leave this place.”
Jean and Gladys ran through the cave and crawled through the tunnels and made it out of the Ubanian Terror Institute. The rain extinguished his torch, so he used the gay gene as a lantern. “Come,” he said, “we must go to the river and drop this in.”
“Jean, I want you to know that I only use the word I’m about to use rarely, and carefully. But you are crazy. I have to find the Saints.”
Find them she did, or most of them.
“They ate Grigio,” Bosco told her.
“Somebody ate that scrawny fleabag?” Agatha said.
“Hang on,” she said. “Let’s not rush to judgment. Maybe a coyote or something ate Grigio. I mean how can you know?
“There was a picture of Sissy Spacek on his carcass with a sign that said ‘We ate Grigio.'”
“Okay, well. Assumption confirmed then. Where’s Alex?”
Everyone looked around in that way people look around when they realize someone is missing.
“Give me your flashlight,” Gladys told Jude. He signed his concern to her.
“Yes I can handle whatever’s out there. I’m a mother. Motherhood starts at conception so I’m already one. And that means I have special powers: I can lift a whole car if I need to and I always know where to find lost things. Also I’m pregnant and not in the mood to be fucked around with.”
He gave her the light. She went out into the violence, Jean running after to keep up. But moms on missions have strong powerwalk game.
But instead she had found Ubanian Lisa, bloodied.
“Lisa! Are you alright?”
“Where are you hurt?”
“I am not hurt.”
“This is the blood of my father.”
“Oh God, I’m sorry Lisa, where is he we can–”
“He is dead. He was a dirty Spacek. I killed him.”
“But. What about empathy?”
“I feel empathy. Perfect empathy. You cannot feel it for everyone in the world, for then it will be stretched like a piece of gum that can no longer blow bubbles. I choose to feel it for the victims of the dirty Spaceks. For Saint Alex.”
“You’ve seen Alex?”
“Yes. I felt what they did to her down to my bones and it gave me strength to fight back.”
“Where is she?”
For an answer, Ubanian Lisa kissed Gladys. “Thank you, Gladys. You made this happen.”
She disappeared. Gladys began to run.
“Wait!” Jean cried. “You are not prepared for what you are about to see!”
But she ran far past the power of Jean to stop her, until she tripped and her flashlight went out. Then she heard…it was a barely human sound.
“Sorry,” the girl managed to get out.
“What? Where are–”
“I made you trip.”
Gladys found her outlines, and cradled Alex in the darkness.
“Oh shit. Oh, Alex, are you–oh Christ.”
“What, what happened to you?”
“It’s a little foggy. Something something group of men. Something something broomstick.”
“You can see it if you want. A piece of it broke off and it’s still inside me. I think.”
Nothing but the rain for a moment.
Nothing more, then… “Yes?”
“I think I’d like to leave the circus.”
“Okay. I think I’d like to work in a Sunglass Hut.”
“Yeah. I’ve wanted to do that since I was little, but I knew I wasn’t ready. People are different people when they wear sunglasses, just like when they wear hats, chew gum, and get naked. At Sunglass Hut you have to have a good eye for the right different people they ought to be so you can recommend the right sunglasses.”
“The first time I saw you, I knew I was ready. Because I could see the different person you ought to be.”
“What kind of different person is that?”
Only now did Alex sound scared. “Don’t you know?”
Silence. “Yes, I guess I do.”
“Good. I was afraid I’d seen it wrong.”
“I think you should take the hate out of your act. If you don’t come leave the circus with me I mean.”
“Good. I’m a saint now.”
“Yes you are.”
“Can I have some water?”
“I don’t, I’m sorry baby I don’t have any.”
“That’s alright. I’m just going to close my eyes.”
“No don’t go to sleep, Alex, you’ve got to, Alex! Alex!”
Jean stood behind her.
Gladys was impossibly still. She spoke without moving.
“Do you have it with you right now?”
He did it.
There was a big gay explosion.