‘You’re sure you’re not snacking on something? Cheese? Pickles? Or could there be a change in your hormones or skin chemistry?’ Weren’t pregnant women driven to eat odd things? In Cambridge, Massachusetts you could buy anything. He imagined strange viands, bottles with Asian labels, half-hydrated roots, reeking, tucked into the recesses of the kitchen cabinets where he thrust his stretched-out fingers that brushed only cobwebs and dead moths. He waited till she was out, then interrogated her dresser drawers as well as the steamer trunk and the bathroom’s medicine cabinet: nothing. Their tenth-floor studio in the married students’ dormitory lacked hiding places. Their room was shaped like a pie wedge, the wide end being a single panoramic window overlooking a city of brick, a river, and low-flying gulls. They had two computer desks of the cheapest description, a sofa-bed partly covered by a kilim, and lots of empty beige carpet. Their dining set consisted of two chrome chairs and a formica table inherited from the university and dating back to the Atomic Era; it was the butt of cosy jokes, dear to them as only an ugly trysting-place can be to a couple in love, sitting together. Their wide window – never curtained – showed a night sky dominated by a neon sign that towered up across the river dividing Cambridge from Boston. The sign cycled through its performance in a minute: Coca-Cola came gradually into view, as if the name were a hollow tube filling from the bottom with bright red light until it glowed solid; then it blinked, reappeared in an encore, and dissolved into a white foam that whirled round the letters and faded into blackness . . . a blackness against which his eyes insisted on seeing a faint, neuro-ophthalmic Coca-Cola where the real one would, shortly, continue its cycle. The couple were as fond of the sign as a country pair might have been of a mulberry tree shading their house and splattering it with berries.
In the nighttime, the room’s walls flushed and paled; over the old chrome chairs and battered aluminum tea kettle glided a momentary candy glaze; the beige carpet reddened and sizzled with fuzzy luminosity. On their bed, the young artist’s wife was a spectacle of cherry-tipped breasts casting ruddy shadows, of brown hair glinting like flame, thighs bloodied with red light, of eyes reflecting a dazzled pallour. Tracing her spine, as she lay against him, he saw its groove flow red, then white. As she neared term, the gaudy pattern of the monumental sign painted her swollen body with strange poignancy, as though the essence of their time together, of this early life, were stroking their baby from outside with hands of fluctuating light.
He adored her. But she smelled wrong.
‘Don’t you want to check with your doctor if you’re eating anything unusual?’ By daylight, she was a medium-sized brunette, rather pear-shaped even before pregnancy. Her chin dipped into her neck and out again, with a gulp of amusement that raised her lovely eyebrows. Her short-nailed scholar’s hands rested on his chest.
‘Come away sweet love and play thee, lest grief and care betray thee,’ she sang, clear as a wren; then lifted, with effort, her book bag and slung it over her shoulder, where it hung awkwardly off her maternity dress. ‘Nobody in the group says I have B.O.’ She ran a madrigal group; she was getting her master’s degree in musicology and had a flair for arcana.
‘It isn’t B.O.,’ he protested. ‘You just smell like . . . ’
‘Some incredibly weird curry. Is Jamshed feeding you his leftovers?’
‘No, silly, if he did I’d share them with you. But. Maybe we shouldn’t eat at Jamshed’s all the time. Maybe there’s a clove up your nose.’ She kissed his nose and left.
They had eaten weeknights at Jamshed’s since arriving in Cambridge. Jamshed, the director of a digital fabrication laboratory, was the artist’s collaborator: he believed in the alliance of the arts and sciences to defeat the global forces of ignorance and greed; he believed that if you mixed the arts and sciences together, they created the glorious combustible thing called truth. He had brought the artist here, to the lab that he ran, which was funding and producing the artist’s project, an installation called Menu: Extinction. It was to take the form of a grand banquet, celebrating – in a spirit of black irony – humanity’s power to extinguish other species. There would be a table recalling the Last Supper, and a series of sculptures representing dishes. Each dish would serve up, elaborately cooked, the last member of an endangered species – the very last of its kind. Beside each offering would lie a menu, turned to the page describing it. The banquet’s sinister cuisine would have, of course, a chef. What sort of chef, the artist had asked himself, would write that menu? Who would glory in serving up the last animal of an endangered species? The artist and his wife agreed that the chef would write with casual wit and nasty self-satisfaction, the style of the devil himself.
‘He’s Pico,’ she mused. ‘Who said that man is unique among the animals. But Pico gone horribly wrong – like, man is unique because he can eat all the animals.’ These plans had excited him, yet the artist’s first attempts were one long stumble. For weeks, on paper and with digital aid, he conjured scores of endangered animals – spiny anteaters, silky sifakas, hirolas and addax. Hooves, horns, snouts, plumes. They fascinated him, but when he’d tried to compose the banquet scene, it flopped. Something crucial was missing. The mock-ups of Menu: Extinction kept resembling nothing so much as a prank in a natural history museum, or a severely misguided theme restaurant. The lab crew liked every one of the mock-ups: they saw the logical outcome of the project proposal. They were engineers. The artist saw the failure of his imagination. Then a breakthrough came.
One evening in late October, the artist and his wife had entered the elevator outside their apartment door and headed down two floors, speculating as usual about how their bachelor host had gotten to live in a married dorm. They’d found Jamshed in an irate mood, throwing a kick with his small Nike’d foot at some torn envelopes heaped in the middle of the beige carpet, which was even emptier than theirs. The room held only a beanbag that he slept in, some tenuous lamps, and a priceless, black mahogany, Chinese-Victorian settle carved with writhing grotesques, which had somehow followed him from the family estate in Mumbai, and was abundantly littered with papers. The Coca-Cola sign was in its ruby phase, rouging Jamshed’s round cheeks puffed with indignation. With thumb and forefinger he plucked papers from the settle and hoisted them like bits of soiled laundry. He rattled the papers, which – they learned – were marriage applications sent by his aunts in the hope that he would interview a suitable girl or two.
‘This one speaks French. Should I take this one? What about these ones?’ He hurled the applications in the air and blew at them, like wishing on a dandelion. They floated down through the Coca-Cola sign’s white carbonate strobe, while the artist’s wife laughed.
‘You don’t have to marry them, do you?’ Jamshed turned on them his black eyes, fringed with curly lashes and unusually moist, the eyelids naturally stained purple as though his ancestral line had lost sleep.
‘Damn right,’ he grated. ‘I’m sorry. This really bugs me. Come sit down. I don’t need a wife anyway. Look at how I cook.’ He had prepared a delectable, conversation-quelling dinner. The couple ate with gusto, yet, seated by his wife at another Formica table spattered with butter-drops, the artist felt her constraint. Their host’s rawness dictated it. He felt the indelicacy of touching her shoulder, or lifting a hair that dropped near her lips to tuck it behind her ear. And she would not pat his knee or nudge his foot. They tried to hide what Jamshed, so likeable, was excluded from unfairly. The whole game (the artist thought) of getting someone to love was unfair. To a sensitive man like Jamshed, the game was so high-stakes, and so uncontrollable, that he would naturally want to leave the table, but the table had animal legs and followed you around. Perhaps the tension of keeping his hands from their tender habits was the triggering factor, the friction needed to strike a match in the artist’s mind at the moment when his wife, turning a lump of apricot-glazed meat around on her fork, asked:
‘What kind of meat is this?’
‘What do you think?’ twinkled Jamshed. ‘Maybe it is owl.’ There were rumours of an owl loose in the dorm; his wife wagged the unidentified lump and hooted, sounding more like a primate than a bird; and the artist said involuntarily:
‘That’s the problem.’ He told them, there at the crowded, messy, redolent table. An animal on a plate was meat. Intellectually, you could deplore the sight of the last dodo’s drumsticks, but at a primal level you were thinking, ‘Yummy drumsticks.’ That was why Menu:Extinction wasn’t working. Nobody was moved at the primal level – the one that counted – by the sight of animals on plates. It was foolish.
‘But . . . I thought . . . it worked,’ protested Jamshed, chewing. His wife lifted her chin, adorned with a shiny fried crumb.
‘Suppose I ask you to imagine,’ he said, ‘a mermaid. The last mermaid in the world. As an entrée in Menu:Extinction. A baked mermaid, prepared, a la Julia Child, with her tail obtruding from her open mouth, and her little fried fingers presented on a mother-of-pearl comb. How would that strike you?’
His wife blinked, then said that it struck her as perfectly horrid. Which was perfect.
After that evening, the Menu: Extinction team set out to fill the banquet plates with imaginary animals, the last members of their imaginary species; the last phoenix, the last Pegasus, the last clutch of dragon hatchlings, all done in the high cuisine of past centuries, the royal dishes prepared for the jaws of crowned heads, those symbols of humanity’s might. The artist felt happy and energized; he slept well and rose eager for work. He laughed as he wrote the chef’s menu copy: A Chinese legend says that if you trap a mermaid, she will cry pearls until you release her – but, the legend warns, only an evil person would trap a mermaid. This charmingly expresses life’s choices. You can be good and do without pearls. Or you can relish my sensational experience of fine dining and the good things in life! Everything went along as smoothly as could be, with the sole exception of the fact – the obstinate conundrum – of the artist’s wife having begun to smell.
It was in January when, at his wife’s suggestion, they stopped dining at Jamshed’s for a short period. Still, she smelled of seared meats, brine and pungent aromatics; of stewed fruits, savouries, vinegars and malts; of edible roots, fungi and grapefruit peel.
‘Nobody else says that I smell, and I have asked,’ she sighed, giving his buttock a sneaky pinch as he shaved. ‘You’ve got, like, psychosomatic hyper-nosmia, or something.’ Maybe she was right, he thought. A new baby, a new project; one might reasonably surmise that his nose registered the phantom smells of internal stress. When all this was over (vaguely, he meant the pregnancy and/or the project) he would go to a doctor. He’d never felt healthier, or happier, though, and inwardly protested that to contract an exotic psychic disorder was alien to his body, his character and his history. As for other people’s opinions, well, it put a man in a very awkward spot to have to ask his friends if they thought his wife smelled strange.
‘It’s not so great to keep telling me I stink,’ she announced one night. Her back was turned to him, her profile blued by the computer screen and her bare swollen feet, on the carpet to either side of her chair, bleached by the Coca-Cola sign to a fish-white puffiness. He saw her shoulders, unapproachable. The studio darkened as the neon sign re-started. Her remark had come out of nowhere, and he realized the gross humiliation of having given his wife a memorable hurt. The very next day he bought her a bouquet of stargazer lilies and sweetheart roses, a hugely expensive armful. The apology made them festive; they dressed for dinner and ate at a good restaurant; they came home and made love. The bouquet scented the studio, and the lilies’ fleshy fragrance reassured him, while they lasted.
The pageant of the January snows, to which the holiday glamour clung, gave way to February’s inhuman and violent storms that made their building quiver. The view from the wide window showed a baggy sky and a river like cement. Outside, in streets transformed into wind tunnels, their eyes streamed tears that their numbed faces didn’t feel. In that obliterating cold, no smells survived except the noxious diesel of a passing truck or bus. The artist found himself savouring the weird flavours of his wife’s neck, as he nuzzled into the scents of pickled limes and burnt dough, fermented hay and coffee grounds . . .
Menu: Extinction’s public opening was slated for early March, The installation looked great, and the artist trusted that it would bring his family – in March the baby was due! – some money as well as the recognition he craved. The night before Menu: Extinction opened, he and Jamshed spent a couple of hours tossing back shots at a local bar. He got home just before midnight. He undressed, crept into bed and cuddled his big-bellied spouse, who kept drowsing off. He let her sleep, one arm over the blankets that rose and sank. The apartment was overheated, the air dry; the Coca-Cola sign’s white burst was like static. He leaned into the small cloud of her breath, and sniffed her cheek: oily old lilies – no, saltier – whiff of untinned sardines . . . All at once his limbs rebelled against the pointlessness of sleep; it had nothing to do with him. He went and stood naked at the wide window. Far below, the thawed river was a winding rift in which columns of lights hung. The familiar dance of the Coca-Cola sign was twinned in the black deep. Farther upriver, a greenish smudge showed where the university’s Great Dome hovered above Cambridge, lit up like the moon. He imagined its Doric portico in the floodlights, a row of fossil tusks under the grandiloquent brain-case of the Dome that symbolized the brilliant activities going on beneath it, in the long gut of the university’s corridors . . . Dozens of people were awake, now, working in their labs. He needed his work: the installation called him. Dressing hurriedly, on tiptoe, he watched as he closed the door, slowly, to make sure that his wife slept on undisturbed.
There was dim ambient light from monitors on equipment tables. Months of work were emerging in a final shape that seemed imminent yet far away, like the birth of his child. He unzipped his parka, tore loose the Velcro tabs on his gloves, loud rips in the semidarkness; he paused, having felt, more than heard, someone walking behind him – some lab tech on an all-night project? Nothing. Stuffing gloves into pockets, he walked to the gallery entrance and saw that his crew had set up the blood sacrifice. The sliding doors were open: in the doorway hung floor-length streamers of butcher paper bathed by a blood-red spotlight from inside. The plaster ‘font’ protruded from the left side, proffering rubber steaks in a dark fluid. Biting his lip, the artist picked up one of the rubber steaks, squeezed; it felt raw and moist. He wanted every visitor to feel symbolically part of that sacred slaughter, which brought people together and defined their roles, by inclusion and exclusion: king, priest, citizen, woman, foreigner, slave . . . Still holding the rubber meat, he pressed it to a streamer, and saw a stamped human hand. Yeah, he was right to have come here early, in the dreaming hours, to check it all out, but really to revel in the unspeakably delicious pleasure of tumbling headlong down his own hard-earned rabbit hole . . .
The artist rotated, pupils widening with a stretch he could nearly feel, to absorb the melting and reforming green-blue, yellow-tan, black-lime . . . He’d composed this video stream of endangered species’ images morphing into one another like a molten safari, ringed toes and plated nostrils, striped eyeballs and iridescent feathers and shaking, fringed lips and acid-blue eyes and eyes like faceted hematite, like evolution happening before him, flowing, melting, reforming, luminous as a summer’s dream, across the four walls of the exhibit. Wherever he turned (he was turning around slowly) there were dewy gazes that shimmered into fulminous undersea worms; shocks of spines and wavy fur stared at him out of unspeakable grimaces. The walls were a magical bestiary come to life.
He saw a bubble forming, a white hole in the tapestry, to represent extinction, and now other bubbles were entering the stream, expanding and popping circles of blankness. Now the bubbles were inseparable from the stream, a leprous effervescence that was bound to mess with everybody’s nerves. He felt anxious himself. Perfect! He turned to the banquet table. The walls’ aquatic light changed the banquet into a sort of shadowy coral reef; the figures that he’d created were gathered there, in the brooding mystery of completion; he felt a flutter as he picked out the details of their silhouettes and gleaming surfaces. The head of Pegasus staring into the four sauce-boats of its hooves. The Lamb of Gold, fleece aglitter, upright on its hind legs . . . He couldn’t read the menus in which his own calligraphy, laser-etched on simulated rare woods, conveyed the words of the evil chef. And the major figures sprouted deformities that, under his fingertips, turned out to be shadows . . . He might have left. He might have returned to the sighing wife who couldn’t get enough rest, with the weight of generation planted in a spot that prevented her from sleeping soundly. He might have gone home to her. He might have rubbed his straining eyes, shrugged and walked out of the gallery before the impression – more felt than heard – of footsteps began again behind him.
‘Hey!’ he called, looking into the rush of images that would have camouflaged anything (they were, after all – the animals – adept at camouflage). Must be a ventilation duct, he thought, turning back. A whispering began. Ignoring it, he stretched his hand toward a spectacular, three-foot-high, gelatinous column, with an Ionic capital that resembled colliding snails. The Galantine aux Petits Dragons – the flock of the last dragon hatchlings, small miracles of resin, paint, suggestion – served up in one of those great Baroque jellied salads that had really been filled with whole flocks of birds and schools of fish. A dainty dish to set before a king. The thing looked actually wet. He touched it. It was wet.
‘What the fuck,’ he muttered, sniffing his fingertips. They smelled like brine, aspic . . . The artist felt a jolt go through his entire body. He came completely alert, yet felt trapped in a dream; he touched the Galantine again. It, faintly, quivered. Which it could not do. A column of solid resin. No. While his mind shrieked about pranks, last-minute novelties, his mouth took the measure of the situation and went dry. He’d heard of mouths going dry; it had never happened to him. His tongue was cotton. He was beside the mermaid, her hair, braided strings of brown freshwater pearls, her eyes popping around the impediment of her great forked tail, pulled out from her grotesquely stretched mouth. Onions, celery, white wine, garlic, fennel, lemon, capers, pepper, verjuice, charcoal, singed flesh . . . he smelled the baked tail, he touched the elastic give of its scales . . . The artist wiped his hands frantically on his jeans and took a deep breath, held it, turned around. He began to walk away from his creation with the tread of a man venturing out on a frozen pond, not sure of its ability to sustain his weight. The banquet’s smells overwhelmed him – it was as if he were walking away from the devil’s kitchen. Together with his feet, his mind stepped slowly, with extreme caution, over the surface of its sanity. Together, mind and body reached the butcher-paper veil, the low red beam of light. As he parted the paper strands he saw, on the wall, a single white bubble his own height, with legs and arms and a fraying head, half-human, half candle-flame. It wiggled along the wall, a flat ghost mirroring him, and he heard the whispers again, but they sounded . . . they sounded like sniggers. He went through the butcher paper veil back into the main lab area where nobody was around, but his back insisted that footsteps followed him. He walked out, feeling followed, into the long gray corridor, the gut of the university, that was nicknamed the infinite corridor. When he reached the infinite corridor, he began to run.
The dormitory elevator emitted a chime for each floor it reached. The artist, eyes shut, offered a wordless prayer for each chime. His knees were trembling. He had turned into one compact yearning for his wife, who was just a couple of elevator stops away. He wouldn’t wake her. But he would tell her – he started framing words, words to tell her. That now he knew what evil was. That he’d summoned the evil chef in laughter and folly and arrogance, because he was after the glorious combustible thing called truth and he’d thought that protected him, but it didn’t. How evil was impersonal and didn’t care about his laudable intentions. How evil was also incredibly personal, and when you summoned evil, it split you so you didn’t know yourself, it became the thing that held your parts together, tricked you into thinking you were whole. That he’d been a fool, he’d been a reckless idiot, he had sat the core of human evil to its portrait, but it was done, over, and all to the good, and he loved her, loved her, loved her.
The elevator chimed for the tenth floor. It was almost dawn. He gripped his right hand with his left hand to steady his key in the lock. The studio apartment was bathed in the Coca-Cola sign’s fullest red glow, that glow that had often reminded him of a hearthfire. In the bed, his wife lay under mounded blankets as she had when he’d closed the door, a few hours earlier. With the clairvoyance of memory, he saw that she lay in the same, but the exact same, position, immobile. As the artist caught his breath, he identified the stench of carrion.
Photograph by Quinn Dombrowski