Things That Live And Seek by Will Kaufman


by Will Kaufman

I had long suspected that the Earth was not so solid as some insisted. On a road-trip a handful of years ago I observed how the sun-beaten highway ahead seemed a sea that fled before our car, all shimmer and reflection. I pointed at a shadow that bobbed in that elusive ocean and said, "Look, a fishie."

"It's a car, not a fucking fish," said my father.

My mother turned to me and smiled, and said, "I see it, too."

"Christ," said my father.

As with any sea, strange beasts must lurk beneath the surface of the land, navigating those same currents upon which the continents drift, and must, at times, surface, and feed. Where else could my mother have gone than into the belly of some magma-blackened leviathan?

My father scoffed at me when I attempted to lay my suspicions out to him. "Get the fuck out the way of the teevee," quoth he, "nothing took her." But I knew him to be wrong, as my mother had left me The Book, and not, I believed, for no reason. "And get me a beer out the fridge," said my father, "a cold one, from the back."

A number of tear-stained days (tears stained my pillow first the night my mother failed to return, when I awoke from an unremembered nightmare that perhaps involved running or hiding and she failed to appear when I called out for her and the house echoed with my entreaties and my father's insistent snoring that sounded like the wash of waves against the hull of my desolation) after my mother was somewhere swallowed up, I heard the rustle of plastic trash-bags from my parents' bedroom, and I attended at the threshold to bear witness to my father stripping her clothes from the hangers in her closet, which rattled and clattered together like so many bones as they danced on the rod. And he hauled open drawers and shoveled out her undergarments as a whaleman, in his victory, scoops spermaceti from the cavernous skull of the great beast.

A package tumbled out from among her socks, wrapped in red paper with green Christmas trees, and my father took it up and furrowed his brow as he deciphered the tag affixed to the wrapping. Then he dropped the package at my feet.

"It's for you," he said. He said it without anger or invectives, without any of his usual dour humor, and I feared a storm so deep and brooding that it might be beyond sight or sound, so I snatched the gift and fled to my room, closing the door behind me as quietly as I could, turning the knob so that the latch would not click against the plate. I slipped into my bed with the flashlight my mother had given me the year before, to protect me should I ever awake frightened of the dark, which I assured her I was too old to do, yet I had accepted the gift, and thanked her, and kissed her cheek to make her smile.

There, protected doubly by my cotton wigwam and my closed door, I aimed a beam of light at the tag on the gift and saw that it was meant for my mother's son (me), on the occasion of his sixteenth birthday (as of the time of this writing, an event yet to occur), that he might better understand the world (I believe I do), and accomplish great things (I promise). With love (gratefully accepted and offered tenfold in return), and hugs (O! to know that embrace once more), Mom.

I divested the contents of their wrapping with great care, so as to preserve every part of the parcel, the manner of its appearance and method of its delivery bespeaking the sort of finality that means a future of stranded memories, the clarity of which can only be earned with hyperconscientiousness. As I said, I unwrapped this final gift, and found therein The Book.

And I understand, Mother. Though, in fairness, I have only read the first third-part of the tome, yet its message is clear enough: the strong feel safe, and make safety. I will be a harpooneer for you, Mother. I will pull after the leviathan, and dart iron at its side. Mother, if I am unlimbed by your loss, I vow revenge. And if, by chance, like Jonah, you are kept safe in a midnight belly, I will be a Nineveh with blade in hand. I will dare God, and cut you free, and whatever ground you slip out upon, slick with the gore of the beast, I will call the promised shore.

But I should not dwell on such Mab-touched hopes. One may as well expect to reclaim a leg, well digested, and sew it back. No, science tells us that stomachs are filled with all-consuming acid, and my mother is not a copper penny, to be passed whole.

Through my window I heard my father's grunting, and the lid of the trashcan slam shut on the bags of my mother's clothes, and I am not too proud to admit I wept anew.

What then did I require? A boat, a crew, and an iron.

I knew what boats men employ to navigate the asphalt channels of this world, but their piloting was beyond me; my sixteenth birthday, as I have indicated, still some years in the offing. Perhaps my crew and ship could both be earned in one, careful strike, in a manner indicated by The Book. I sought to prepare my harpoon first, so I should be ready, were my plan to succeed.

You may wonder where I might look to procure such a terrible instrument, me, a child of land bordered by mountains that are themselves land-locked, and that locking land further entrenched with furlongs of dirt. But hark ye, have ye not noted that your neighbors all defend their walkways and yards with barbed iron? Have ye not passed through black gates tipped with spearheads as ye seek entrance to the home of a friend? It seems to me a sign that our race, though refusing to acknowledge it, shares a presentiment that there may be more to the roads that make islands of our blocks of houses than simply lanes and crosswalks, that we should erect a warning so clearly aimed at striking terror into the heart of the only beast to have been so thoroughly chastised and persecuted, nigh to extinction, by such a shape, and the only beast man still pursues, in an industrial fashion, with such instruments: the whale.

 My own home had a gate of this sort, hanging askew from a broken hinge, held upright by a tangle of weeds and a heavy rigging of cobwebs. A few solid tugs served to liberate the gate from its moorings, and I dragged into the driveway, in front of the perpetually half-open garage door, where I set about with a hammer attempting to separate a harpoon from the frame. The noise soon attracted my father's attention.

"Fuck are you doing?" he asked.

By this time I was panting with my exertion, and could not communicate myself as clearly as I would have liked. "Taking it apart," I said, "For Mom."

"Not the gate keeping Mom away," said my father.

"No," I said, "To hunt."

"What?"

"They're harpoons," I said, indicating the barbed tips, "See? So I can hunt the thing that took her."

My father opened his mouth but no sound followed. He stared at me for a moment, long enough to make me shuffle my feet, then he said, "You'll never get one loose with a hammer."

He entered the garage, the door grating on its rusty track as he lifted it fully open, and worked his way around the battered car, and through the piles of crates and miscellany. He took hold of a stained canvas, which I assumed covered still more detritus, and pulled, loosing a substantial cloud of dust, dust that choked us, made us cough, and rub at our eyes, and when we could look again the dissipating cloud revealed a tool-box, enameled blood-red, drawers glinting chrome, clean, bright in that drab room. He placed both hands on the box, rubbing it with his thumbs, and seemed entranced, as though our garage were the tabernacle and he had been given leave to touch the holy ark.

Opening then a particularly deep drawer, which, in contrast to all the rusted joints in the rest of our house, slid smoothly on its tracks, so smoothly those bearings must have been enchanted so they could not decay, no matter how many years of dusty disuse they may have gathered, he produced a coil of orange extension cable and a blue-bodied tool with a rough wheel at one end.

"You need a grinder," he said, mating the cord with a plug that protruded from a metal box on the side of the garage. He flipped a switch on the grinder and, with a whir that made the roots of my teeth rattle and itch, the wheel sprung to life, spinning, spinning, its features all blurred, outline wobbling.

"Oh," said my father, and he turned off the machine and returned to his toolbox, from whence he drew a pair of plastic eye glasses. "Here," he said, offering them to me, "can't hunt if you're blind."

The glasses were too big for my face, the ear hooks sitting well behind my ears, and I found I had to hold them in place lest they slip from my nose. My father nodded, brought the machine to whistling life, and set the wheel against the metal.

That union gave birth to sparks, and sparks showered the driveway, skittering over the pavement as though possessed of frantic life and a vital desire to flee to the street, to quench their fire in the saltwater road, and any beast of the darkness that beheld those sharp and screeching lights dancing towards its leery eye must surely quail, and turn, and flee towards the deep, and the safety of the dark, and know that I was preparing, that we were preparing, my father and I, our revenge.

But I had to be sure he would be with me, would dare those jaws, and The Book had shown me how to make him mine, how to secure myself my pilot and my ship.

That night I brought him a beer without him asking, as I knew it a powerful tonic for inducing imperturbable sleep. He took it but did not open it; steadying it on his knee as he sat sunken in the couch cushions, he regarded the thing.

"Don't you want it?" I urged.

"What do I want?" he asked, addressing himself to the can. Then he squinted at me, and I saw something of the same glimmer as when he found me working at the gate with a hammer. I felt looked upon, and abruptly unsure, though unsure of what I still, to this day, cannot say.

"I never thought," quoth he, "I'd miss her." He opened the beer and took a short draught and a long swallow. "It's your bed-time, right?"

The question seemed genuine. I nodded.

"Brush your teeth, then. Go on."

I acquiesced, and then, ensconcing myself in my bunk, waited, being sure to keep my eyes open, despite the phantoms that danced before them in the dark, despite the shadows that stirred and slunk at the periphery of my vision, despite all ghosts and creatures that made the walls creak and the windows whisper and weighed the counterpane down on my chest as though to hold me there, still and helpless, and I waited for my father to snore.

He did, eventually, and I snuck from my bed, careful to avoid the floor where it creaked, to set my feet in quiet places, and to ease my weight up on the arm of the couch that I might not disturb him as he slept with that same can settled between his thighs, his head thrown back as though to howl, but only to breathe that rattling breath. I positioned my nose over his open mouth, and I exhaled sharply, so that something might shoot from my dilated nostrils, and he might inhale it in his lungs.

He breathed in, coughed, and stirred, but did not wake. He was mine, my Satrbuck. The Book promised it. I returned to my bunk and closed my eyes, untroubled by the massless things that lurked, and slipped from the meager clay.

 

The morning greeted me with cursing and the sour smell of burnt eggs, and for a moment I feared something had gone terribly awry, that somehow I had poisoned or corrupted my father's essence, and he had become the opposite of tame. With trepidation dragging at my feet like iron manacles I entered our kitchen, and found my father scraping a ruined omelet into the sink.

"Thought I'd make breakfast," he said. "You want cereal? That shit doesn't burn, right?"

He poured me out a generous measure, and doused it with milk as though to ensure the grain would continue not to combust.

"Look," he said, "Maybe we should go somewhere. Get out of the house, what do you think?"

"Can we drive?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, "Of course we can drive. There somewhere you want to go?"

"We can just drive. Around. On the road."

"Get dressed," he said, "I'll pull the car out."

My heart and I raced, together, to dress and gather supplies. It had worked! Soon, soon, leviathan, shall I dart iron at your dusty flank, and pay you in kind for what you've taken! I took up The Book and my harpoon and dashed out of the house, where the car rumbled, ready, I thought, to roar, to give voice to the raging spirit of my vengeance.

For a moment it seemed my father might not allow the harpoon. "But I need it," I said.

"Fine," he said, "but put it on the floor so it don't poke you."

And we were off! Off on the sun-soaked road, the shimmering softness ahead, retreating just apace of our ship.

"Faster!" I cried, and my pilot obliged, and yet that nimble sea still escaped from us.

"Faster!"

And my father laughed, and the engine shouted, and the road signs were all blurs, and my harpoon was within reach, and I grasped The Book, my bookmark firmly set with the ship under sail and the crew rallied to their captain's cause, and I thought, surely, the ocean that flees must tire, and we must catch it, and plunge into it, and there I would find the beast, and drive my iron through its side, and punish it for all I had lost.




BIO: Will Kaufman's work has appeared most recently in Metazen, Sundog, and McSweeney's Internet Tendency, with more coming soon from Litro, 3:AM, and Bourbon Penn. He also provided the text for UFOs and Their Spiritual Mission, published by Social Malpractice Press. He has an MA in Creative Writing from UC Davis, and an MFA from the University of Utah. You can find a full list of his publications, with links, at willarium.wordpress.com.