The woman wore a hat made of paper and a very plain but bleak costume, a kind of rebuke. It said that she was doing something you should be doing, or should have done. What was that?
She was pushing a wheelchair across broken pavement and she did not stop at cracks or breaks. She did not see them. The job to her was pushing the wheelchair between places. It was explained to her. You will push the wheelchair from this place, a place in the children’s ward, to this place, a place in the zoo, and you will push it back. They did not say the pushing was the job, but she saw it so. What was in the wheelchair and its condition mattered less to her. Sometimes it was a girl, sometimes a boy. Or it might have been. Who could say? No one else had been there. The child could be delighted, tearful, insensate, incensed, insufficient, it didn’t matter.
Whoever was in the chair that moment (had she even looked?) was bounced rather awfully by the cracks, and the wheelchair made some sort of slow but wild progress towards the double doors of the zoo building. The nurse felt the deteriorated pavement was her burden. She was trying to smooth it out with the large round wheels of the chair, but it had no effect at all, except that it hurt her hands and arms quite badly, and shook the chair nearly to pieces.
They called it a zoo, but it wasn’t much of one, was it? She shoved the footplate of the chair into the spot where the doors met, slamming the chair forward into the doors and the doors buckled back, eliciting a small cry from the one in her tow, but the doors buckled just enough, and an opening brushed along the sides of the chair. They went through it, and then they were on carpet.
That was the moment – the wheels running easily on the woven fabric. He could feel something like magnificence – or the possibility of it, in his curled little body. He had clung to the chair as it bounced and threw him this way and that, but now he need do nothing. He was drifting through a place of shadows, and on either side windows had been cut into places no one had ever been – jungles and forests, deserts. There was anything you wanted to see, but you didn’t know it was, and when you saw it you knew even less, but wanted more still. None of it meant anything to him, though, anything to him like going to the beaver dam at the extreme end. The beaver dam. He could think of nothing else. He would wake in the narrow cot of the cripple ward, and call out for water, and what he meant when he called out was, take me to the beaver dam, please. When they carried him to the lunch chair where he was forced to eat things he never would, he would mutter it again, by pressing his head into the table. Take me to the beaver dam. Someone finally noticed after days of this that they should do that. They should take him to the beaver dam. So on the chart it was written, weekly visit to the zoo, w. esp. attention to beaver area.
He tried sometimes to talk to the nurses about the beavers. He knew nothing really to say, but they knew even less, and though he tried as hard as he could to make them feel what he saw in the beavers, it was of no use. Their nurses’ faces were painted shut, had always been that way. Not something wrong or bad, just the case.
There were four beavers in the pathetic little river that lay behind the plate-glass window. One he called Ganthor. One he called Stueben. One Mouselet. One Ganthor. He called two of them Ganthor because he hadn’t yet decided which was which, and he thought it was more accurate that way. Still he knew one Ganthor was female. He just couldn’t say how it worked, and the beavers moved so unpredictably, it was not easy to learn.
The beavers were known as being something like fish, but also they could cut down trees. He liked that. Unfortunately in the place beyond the glass there were only things that looked like trees, but no real trees. The things that looked like trees had been made to appear to have been cut in half by the beavers, but he knew they hadn’t done it. As a salve to the beavers, small pieces of wood were brought to them in a cart, and Stueben would rummage there all day, but could never discover what to do beyond that. The other beavers had no interest.
Mouselet was quick and her nose was cleaner than the others. That was how he knew her. There was a point by the glass that she would approach, but none of the others would. That was another sign.
Ganthor maybe kicked with his feet while swimming a bit more than seemed necessary. Stueben rummaged. That was the beavers and their ways.
The nurse stood heavily, breathed heavily before the glass. Her heart was beating and she always felt it was someone else’s. That was an illness people died from once: the sensation that your heart was someone else’s, and the terror of having it beat near you. A heart that is overseen like that starts to flutter, and soon enough it stops, like a fish in a dry pail, smashing its silhouette, losing its nature.
He said, look, Ganthor is coming out of the dam. Look. But the nurse wouldn’t look.
Ganthor wants to get to the other side because he likes it there better. Now there is Ganthor on the other side, and also over there, and they want to be together, so they meet in the middle.
This was another reason they were both Ganthor – they kept meeting in the middle who knew why.
Stueben had something wrong with his head, and when he would rummage he would sometimes stop and press his head against some sharp part of the wood, as if he were trying to discover what had happened. However long ago it had happened he was still trying to find it out. It did not look good for him.
Sometimes the beavers would come and line up near the glass. Mouselet in front, in her spot, either Ganthor anywhere behind her, and Stueben off to one side, kind of crouched. They would stand there and stare out and then it wasn’t clear whose side of the glass was whose. The nurse hated it.
Oh, they’re doing it, she would say, and curse quietly, massage her wrists, and turn the wheelchair around. That’s it for the fucking zoo.
But today he didn’t want to go, and when she turned the wheelchair, he tried to turn and keep looking at the beavers. He was sure they had seen him. He felt they had actually seen him through the glass. Could it be? He tried to cry out, and he did, he cried out, something he had never heard, this cry of his.
Behind him there was an enormous crash, and the nurse started to run.
The beavers waited, and bided their time. They got a feel for when he would come, and they tried to show him, through semi-ritualized behavior, what he needed to know. At the end of each performance they would gather to bow, and then they would resume from the beginning. However many times we have to do it, they would say to each other. However many times.
They spoke in the darkness of the dam about the time when he might call out and what they would do. It was a hope beyond hope, and sometimes Ganthor felt it would never happen. Ganthor would say, we are waiting for nothing, actually for nothing. And then Mouselet would hit her head against the ground, and Stueben would vomit, and Ganthor would piss. But they were sturdy as boards, and their strength came back each morning. However much was taken, it always came back, for there was no work for them to do but that – and there is always strength to do the work that is yours.
We love him, said Stueben one day. It is a matter of love. Ganthor said he did not love anyone. Ganthor agreed. Mouselet said everything is done through love, there isn’t anything else, so . . .
But Stueben insisted it was different. I am not doing the job I should. There is something I can do in that woodpile that will reach him. I just know there is.
And when it comes, he said, when the moment comes, be ready Mouselet. You are the one to crack the glass.
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– – –
– – –
The nurse ran on, her paper garments ripping freely in her fear. She shoved the wheelchair haphazardly before her, and it turned, turned on its broken wheel, tangled her leg, and she fell past it, heavily on the ground, screaming her flapping tongue. The beavers came, and were among them. It was a madcap question, shouted into the face, and the beavers drove like arms through the air. The nurse was dead in moments; they turned from her, and they pulled the chair off the one who had fallen.
My love, they cried, my love, my dear, and they beat at him with their hands and feet, with their tails and mouths, with their eyes and noses, bristles, combs, beaks. They tore at him, revenged him, delivered him. He crouched under it, and his crippled legs were ripped away, and his twisted shoulders, his false little neck, his squinting eyes, the little dive of his hair about his ears, ripped away it all went. And there he was then, one of them, fresh and clean, his rough fur lapping at the edges of himself, his strong teeth, his flatness of whip, his sternness of leap and swim and cant.
They drew him up, and he held himself to them, and so happy they all were,
so complete was their victory
they hardly knew – should they go back to the dam or somewhere else? Where else could there be? They looked at each other and they were so many but also so few. They were too old and too young. All the years left to them could not be crossed except by accident, but suddenly it felt – they were poised above, could somehow see the flat rush of time. But it curled and tore like heat at their eyes.
They were there together on the stupid carpeting and the sound they were making was the sound of beavers.
My friends, what I mean is, this life is shallow like a plate. It goes no further.
I love you all. Now I know you and I love you, and it doesn’t matter for this life will kill us without knowing us and ruin our beautiful hearts without seeing them, and there is nothing breathing never nothing anything to breathe inside a stone.
Photograph courtesy of the author