This Is My Disclaimer, Bitchez: The following work constitutes intellectual property of Mariliza Derveni, who is the sole owner of all the rights to it. Unauthorized use of this material is strictly prohibited. © Mariliza Derveni, 2010.
The hand reaches out and slides between the bars. Once inside the cage, the fingers stretch and curl, rubbing against the inside of the palm. A soft papery sound rises and dissolves in the cool dark air. The warmth of the palm follows the sound to the farthest corner of the cage, where it settles on the wall in tiny watery bubbles. The bubbles stick to the wall for a moment (it will be like theyre catching their breaths) when a hollow rustle from the cold ground below shakes the stillness and they all levitate and burst open. Confess, and they all speak up and rain the same name down the wall. Then the animal understands who has come to see it.
Come out, the man says in a loud voice, Ive come to visit you and bring you treats.
The cage has no ceiling; it is an open semicircle of thick bars that reaches across the two ends of a concrete wall. It has no door either. The ground is covered in filthy rags and huge chewed cat toys. A plastic mouse the size of a childs bicycle (it has one eye) and a mouldy fluffy ball as big as the wheel of a truck. Daylight has followed the man inside the hall, but now all the doors behind him slowly start sliding shut until all that is left is a milky dusk, like the hall is filled with fog. The air is warm and heavy with smells, bad smells that somehow come together in a pleasant mixture of old talc powder, ammonia and wet cardboard. Nothing moves. There is no movement, except the suction of the mans smell by the depths of the cage, which is becoming so intense that the fog seems to be filled with zooming bees, plunging diagonally to the wall where they crash and melt. Then suddenly, that stops as well.
Come on, come out to greet me! Its been such a long time since weve seen each other! You havent forgotten about me, have you, animal? Ive missed you so badly! Look, treats!
The man reaches in his pocket and pulls out a few stale fizzy sour sweets. He aims blindly where he thinks the animal lies, and starts throwing them like darts. But they all hit the ground, one by one. The man is becoming impatient, but his voice is still the soothing wave that babies and puppies love so much.
Animal, you were always my dearest friend. I was wrong to leave you here by yourself. I was wrong to think you were too violent. I realise this now. This is why I have come to visit you. I want to take you with me he coos. Beautiful animal, graceful animal. See how unkempt your cage is, how lonely you are here. This is not fitting of a marvellous animal like yourself. Come out to greet me and have your cuddle like you used to.
A low sneering growl comes from the dark end of the cage. The man sees this as an encouraging sign and pushes his face so close to the bars that his lips now speak from the inside of the cage. He tells the animal of all the time he spent travelling the world, of all the places he saw and the friends he made. He makes sure he sounds dismissive, like all these things would only make sense in another world, the correct world, where the animal would not be locked up like a criminal and it would escort him lying on its own velvet pillow. He says: Tigers are not tigers unless they are measured against you. He says: The huge white bird from the Mariners tale saw you were not there and fled before I could kill it. He says: The infantas of Spain refused to pose for me without you as their steed. What he really says is: Please. Please. Please.
As the man speaks, something moves soundlessly in the dark; his eye catches it and his voice becomes steadier. One of the sweets, the one closer to where the man stands curled against the bars, is suddenly pulled backwards. There is a sharp intake of air, wet chewing and the staccato coughy breaths after the fizz hits the palate. The man smiles but makes sure it cant be heard in his voice. The palace of Farouk
the Aeolian Islands with volcanoes talking to each other in smoke signals
liquorice and tiger prawns
an owl that killed a sloth, he pauses to catch his breath and because he knows this is where the animal will come out,
and knights. Knights, he says, I saw some real-life Maltese knights.
It is not important that he has lied, he thinks, because all he really wants is to see the animal again. He has to see it to remember. He has to touch its fur to regain his senses. There is a layer to the world that is always lifted and absent without the animal; it is as if all the reds are missing, or the high notes in all the pianos. Such a peculiar thing. Because the animal is a burden altogether. Its presence used to weigh him down like a boulder. It smelled like wet hair and it followed him everywhere and it kept biting his friends when they came over for dinner in the garden. Animal, stop following me! he would scream from the top of the stairs. So the animal would stop following him and hide in the wine cellar without food and water for days, until he would almost die of sadness and guilt, and then it would come out again, famished and unrepentant as ever, and it would lie on his bed and sleep for hours on end, drooling on the white pillowcases. But the animals reign had come to an end, he had put an end to it and now here he was again, willing it to come out of the cellar.
Only this is no cellar but a cage, and one cannot look at it without realising, or wondering, or both, how the animal could have been put inside without a door. The intention of this cage is unquestionable. Who knows what bitterness the animal has bred in here. Who knows what thoughts an animal can think and what murderous motives keep it from dying. Surely this has become a vicious animal; there is no sense in reasoning with such a beast. The man starts sweating and he doesnt feel so determined anymore. His face leaves the bars and his fists unclench around them and now his hands unconsciously draw a line of safety against the cage. This is the line that has always separated men from animals, the line that puts bells around cats necks and writes if only the wolves would howl less loudly and such. The animal comes to the bars.
The man feels like he has already been bitten.
The memory of the animal and the reality of the animal are two very different things. The animal that steps out of the shade is emaciated and almost furless, except for patches of greasy grey hairs here and there. Its back arches terribly like a hyenas and infected wounds where its claws have been yanked out make it limp and stumble with every step. Its eyes are cloudy white and from what can be seen inside its mouth, all the fangs are chipped and blunt. It comes forward (the man steps backward) and sits on its hind legs behind the bars. The eyes blink slowly and the head follows the nose to where the man is. Then the animal stands motionless and allows the man to admire it.
But the man cannot stand the sight, so he turns and runs out of the hall, through all the doors to the world outside. The animal sits there for a while, then goes back to its bed and falls asleep.
A few days later the man comes back. Every night since he visited the animal he has dreamt of it; in his dreams the animal is still a cub. The animal is little and he is little and they are walking together on the side of a wide road (there will be no ants. It wont rain). The animal is circling him as he walks, and it jumps up and down as he waves a plastic mouse. The animal was silly when it was a baby. It was like the animal was the shape of all the tiny hearts in the girls notebooks. This dream brings him back here, because he knows the little animal is still inside the old animal and in any case this is his best chance.
This time he finds the animal sitting behind the bars. Its revolting condition is still overwhelming, but the man is prepared this time; all he has to do is look away. The animal cannot see that, the animal can hardly see the floor it sits on. So he looks away and tries to make conversation.
Who did this to you? he asks in a sad voice. Who let this happen? You were so beautiful when I knew you, so different than anything else I have ever seen. No creature of wing or claw matched you in those days. Your sight comforted me, you were my red and my high note, animal! Somewhere far from the cage in the dusty hall, the baby animal takes shape and plunges towards him with happy yelps, and as he is lost in this vision his hand forgets about the bars and it reaches inside. Two animals plunge towards him, the little one outside the cage and the old one inside, and as they find themselves almost paralleled over his body, they lock eyes midair. The cub howls in terror and is wrenched backwards into dust, but the real animal, the real animals eyes suddenly clear and it lands so precisely and soundlessly that the man only knows hes being attacked when he realises his fingers are snapping like twigs.
The man screams and screams, and its more surprise than pain.
It takes him much longer to come back this time. More than a couple of days. He blames the animal for heartlessness. Each time he looks at his hand, the hand is a reminder of the animals inability to forget. The bite marks are like the handwriting of a bitter woman, and the words on his skin are all curses. He tries to read them in all the different ways theyre meant to be read, hoping that one combination will reveal softness in the animals voice. Here is the catalogue of days, here are the maps of elaborate secrets; one particularly deep line is the trail of the animals thoughts since he abandoned it. But theres no forgiveness to be found, so much so that the wounds dont heal as the days pass. Weeks later they are still raw under the bandages and the man is now aggravated. This is not my fault he thinks. All I wanted was to spend some time with the animal and keep it from being lonely; how is it my fault that it had a rough time? This is the thanks I get! Fine, this is fine, I will go ahead with my proper life and the animal can go back to being sad and miserable but once more days have passed, he changes his mind. This happens on the morning he wakes up to a Satie piece on the radio that sounds like boots marching on mud.
Inside the cage, the animal is licking its paws. The man is possessed by a sudden malice that the animal doesnt seem excited to see him again. Without thinking about it, he slips his shoe between the bars and kicks the animal in the ribs; it jumps up and bares its fangs. It tries to smell the mans exact position and its eyes roll back in their sockets, but as it tries to balance itself for the leap its attention shifts so violently and completely that the man would swear a lasso has been thrown around its neck. The animal turns its head to the back of the cage, stands tense for a few moments as if it is trying to listen to something, then its whole body relaxes and its lines soften in a way that makes it look like a drawing of a Chinese dragon the man had seen in an encyclopaedia when he was a kid. The animal turns to face him again, but now it is calm and peaceful, and it settles down on the ground where it starts making a friendly growling sound like its talking to itself.
The man now understands that the animal is mad. This saddens him incredibly, because he had a hope that the animal could be tamed again and kept as a pet, probably down in the wine cellar, where no one would see it and make fun of it. Animal, my dear he says finally, I see that you are very angry with me and will never forgive me for all the things you imagine Ive done. This breaks my heart, you know. It breaks my heart, but I can do nothing but agree and leave you to resume this life youve earned yourself here. He says all that in one breath and waits for the animals reaction, but the animal doesnt seem to notice him anymore. The man turns away and leaves the hall, and he cant help wondering whether he has just resigned himself to a lifetime of grass-coloured sunsets.
The doors have closed and the hall is dark again. The animal gets up and walks to the back of the cage, where it has its bed. It pushes things out the way and tries to lie down, but as its body touches the ground, its bruised ribs make it impossible to get comfortable. So it just stands there with its eyes closed and waits to fall asleep.
Lets give me a chance, a voice whispers in the animals ear as two small hands hug its lowered head, perhaps Ill come back and tell us all about the knights.