(From her new novel, The Time of Quarantine)
WHEN HELEN was a girl, Helen had a rabbit. Helen did not, so far as she knew, have a mother--only the memory, the idea of a mother. But she did have a rabbit.
Of course, the rabbit wasn't really hers, but it was a real (not a simulated) rabbit, a living pet with real fur, real blood red rabbit eyes, long rabbit ears and a furtive rabbit manner that made her the only one who could take care of it, so in a sense, it was hers. One dewy morning--all the mornings were dewy in those days--Helen went out to the back where it was her job to water the plants her father grew in rotting half tubs of old whiskey barrels and to check them for aphids and other dangerous insects or fungi, and there it was--the rabbit--just there in the backyard, crouched motionless in a patch of what had once been a lawn but was now reduced, like all the residual lawns, to weeds and voluntaries, the plants that moved in when the watering stopped.
Helen stared the rabbit down, forcing herself to seem calm. Her hand went over her mouth. I wonder if it's real, she thought. Then the rabbit's nose twitched and its red eyes turned on hers, two glistening ruby jewels of animal apprehension.
Where could such a thing--a rabbit!--possibly have come from, she thought, taking in both the rabbit and the ruined vats of lettuce. Oh, Helen thought, her father was going to be mad. But this thought, as it formed, was a slow, dull, not very urgent thought, surprisingly depleted of dread, which Helen attributed to the force of the opposite thrill she felt at the idea of what might be a pet. And it was only lettuce, the limp winter planting, and not her father's beloved, if failed, tomatoes: lettuce in the winter, tomatoes in the summer. You could get anything in cans, but not lettuce. So her father grew it, and she watered it--and now, this rabbit had eaten it.
Oh, Helen thought again, oh no.
Helen had never had a pet. Helen had never known a single other person who had had a pet (though she did know plenty with mothers). Helen was barely even familiar with the concept of pet except as something they studied in school. People had owned dogs for pleasure--before. They'd owned cats and gerbils and resplendent talking birds; some people had even owned large animals, horses and pigs. No, pigs were for eating, and horses--utility or sport? Sometimes it was hard to keep things straight, what things were like before the plagues changed everyone's allegiances and habits, with survivors split between those who had chosen quarantine, giving everything up, and those who had not. But of course, like Helen's father, they'd had less to begin with to give up. Hence, the paucity of animals, but here it was again, and now the rabbit's ears twitched. What a savory stew it would make! But what Helen thought instead was how did one even care for a pet, much less a rabbit, which had just eaten up all her father's lettuce, all three five-gallon tubs of various edible leafiness, new and tender and green. All gone.
Between then and when Helen grew up to be a court reporter, a woman adept at effacing herself, calamitous world events would include such drastic changes in the weather that no one had backyard gardens anymore--a sad time in the history of the world. But in the beginning, when the fat and furtive rabbit had first appeared to Helen, a remote child with all the regular dreads and yearnings, the rabbit triggered such a visceral animal recognition that, despite the twin dangers of disease and disappointment, Helen felt something like hope.
Helen did all the right things--the things her mother would have had her do, if she had had a mother. She went door-to-door in the neighborhood. She posted signs: rabbit found, please call. She fed it, first carrots, then proper rabbit pellets she ordered off the NetZ from somewhere in the heart of the country, and she occasionally cleaned up and collected the other round pellets of rabbit refuse her father regarded as good for the soil. What Helen loved about this rabbit was not the warmth, or affection, a pet might have provided--the rabbit, in fact, was not at all cuddly and Helen almost never touched it--but its quiet randomness and the surprise of it, looking back at her, or not, each of its moist red eyes glistening and alive.
Helen liked to have it there, crouched among the tough shrubs in the backyard where she would often sun herself in secret, reading long tragic novels from prior centuries. Sometimes, Helen and the rabbit would just sit staring at each other, and sometimes Helen would find herself falling into the animal gaze, falling and falling like Alice, she thought, which would sometimes be her last thought as she sank into a kind of zen-like reverie, detached and wholly serene.
In other respects, the rabbit was inconstant, disappearing for weeks and leaving the back yard emptier, by its absence, than ever, until it would reappear again, as random and as unexpected as at first, if a bit scruffy-looking and reduced, to munch on some bit of opportunistic sage or wandering horsetail or broom.
This went on for years.
As much as Helen could be said to love anything, Helen loved her rabbit.
Helen was the only child she ever knew to have a living pet of any kind. Well, maybe fish. Some children had bowl fish, but they didn't last long, rotting in their water with fatal bloom-like extrusions that were almost pretty if you didn't know.
Then, when she was twelve, a raw-edged bundle of girl misery on the ragged cusp of adolescence, the rabbit disappeared. At first, Helen hardly noticed--that rabbit had been disappearing for years--but then week after rabbitless week had gone by and a kind of desolation set in that made Helen feel as if some essential part of her were splitting off forever. Soon her hair fell out and a sort of high-pitched whistling started in her ears. Also, Helen stopped growing.
Well, puberty can do that--make a fat child thin, or a thin child fat. But Helen suffered more from a kind of late onset failure to thrive, a slow, insidious wasting so persistent that by the time--years later--like the rabbit, Helen disappeared, she had become the thin, almost child-sized and thoroughly bald adult she would, for the rest of her life, remain.
The first sign that something was wrong was random clumps of hair appearing, like the rabbit, out of nowhere--in the bristles of her brush, on the nap of her flannel pillow, around the openings of the necks of her sweaters--until her scalp had developed a pattern of female baldness that resembled nothing so much as a map of the world that was coming.
One day she went into the bathroom and shaved off the rest of her hair, and when she emerged, her father (who had so wanted a normal child) poured himself another drink and said, you look like a failed Remainder.
By this time, Helen was deeply worried. More and more it seemed as though she would never grow again, and the whistle that had started in her deepest inner ear just kept getting louder. And although she had hoped that removing what remained of her hair would release it through the channels of her open roots, her bare head had only grown more sensitive, picking up such a startling range of aural acuities--registers beyond the range of human hearing, sounds from all over the world, things she never wanted to know--that she fell into deep adolescent anguish. Helen blamed her father. If she only had a mother, she might even still have hair. A mother would have bought her medication or herbal salves and other treatments. A mother would have noticed.
Her father, instead, had her adapted, waking her early one morning in the summer of her fifteenth year.
It's time, he'd said. Pack some things.
And when she came back two weeks later, he'd shrugged. Well at least your head is shapely, he had said, clasping her in a clumsy embrace.
Awkward, they'd walked down the street, her hand swallowed up in his hairy paw. Almost grown by then, Helen knew this wasn't right--people would see. But he was trying to make it up to her, she knew, the missing weeks. And maybe he was trying to hide his own disappointment--had he expected her to come back with hair?
Looking around, she saw that, indeed, some of the others had come back with breasts, or biceps, or uncommon intuitions. But because she also knew adaptees were designed to blend in, developing as though they were normal, she understood with stunning finality that even her father's hand, hot on her own, the rueful tenderness of it, could do nothing to stop or undo the implant inside her he had bound them both to.
I'm just thinking, he had said, about your future. Someone has to. You will thank me, he said, when you are older.
Everything Helen touched felt new and strange, her whole body ached, and she wanted to sleep for at least another week.
From now on, he had said, we will call it your tattoo.
And the hearing had only gotten more acute.
Not all the adaptations took, of course, and later, Helen knew, there would be more tests and training, but for now she'd be allowed some little time to heal as her implant got used to her body and took root inside her.
And so it was that in the night room of Helen's lonely years of adolescence, she'd lain awake listening to the nearby Remainders, as clearly as as if she could somehow see them too. Helen hated the whole process of Remaindering, but now she could not shut it out, and even though she could hardly remember, she knew she'd known them once, the people who had lived by their natural rights in the houses that echoed now around her, or at least her father had, her mother. Once they had been neighbors who had borrowed things like sugar or downloads for movies, who eaten had her father's tomatoes and baked cakes or knitted socks to thank him, or children like her. Helen imagined she'd played with those children, and squabbled over things like candy or toys. She imagined there had been birthday parties.
Not all, of course, had crossed over in the plagues. Some had simply wandered off to embrace the end of time, but when the plagues ended instead and the ic's reopened, the people inside them, pale and listless as worms, had to live somewhere. Some lodged futile court battles to reclaim what they'd once freely turned over to the government in exchange for sanctuary, but most of these left-over survivors, known as Remainders, had simply drifted aimlessly among the empty houses--there were so many anyway--as though they might make themselves at home there.
And this was what kept Helen up at night, their awkward missteps and anxious attempts somehow to fit, but underneath the wrongness of their racket, she also heard the lost love and laughter, the fears and vulnerabilities, the rage and confusion and longing of those who were gone, like her mother, before them, and underneath all that, the poignant misalignments of the Remainders themselves--in the infant's bassinette, the soft padding sound of the feet of the child who would have been growing by now; in the solitary bed of a sole survivor, the murmured endearments of men and women bound forever together; the clicking of phantom computers.
And in Helen's silent home, always, the lack of a mother's tongue, which might at least have provided some comfort or counsel for her dreaded voyage out into the world. Because after what her father had had done to her, there was nothing for it but to wait out the remaining time of childhood, which would end--there was no stopping it now--with the summons she'd receive on her eighteenth birthday. Helen was not going to be able to avoid it coming any more than she could have avoided her hair falling out, but a mother might have helped her find a mate instead, and although Helen knew it was useless to hope for, there were days, whole days, when she'd imagine that, if things had only been different, she might have gotten a husband instead of a chip, a man who would share both house and labor, and who would take her to his bed at night, the both of them filled with hope for an undoomed offspring.
But because Helen also knew this hope was wrong, she spent much of the rest of her final days missing her rabbit and trying to memorize the world she'd soon be leaving forever--the softness of her childhood bed, the old aluminum window that framed the shadowy street below, the floor with the paths where her feet had crossed--here to the bookshelf, there to the closet, and there to the door that led out into the world.
When the day came at last, Helen lingered a little too long in her bed. One last time she imagined that her father might have had a change of heart. For years she had nurtured his futile plants. She had watered them and weeded them and picked them when it was time to pick them; she'd distributed surplus to neighbors, when they had neighbors; and when they had Remainders, she gave them food too. Her father, who never noticed anything, might yet be waiting in the kitchen with two mugs of coffee steaming--Helen was grown up now--and a little gift of seed money, something to help her start out. Well, times were hard all over. She mustn't be bitter.
Instead, what she found at her place was a glass of pulpy orange juice and a piece of dry toast with a boiled egg, cool and serene. Aside the glass, a small medical cup, and in it, a memory capsule designed for ingestion with two shiny halves, one red and one black, and two metallic tips at either end glistening, like the juice, in the morning light. And beneath it a note: forgive your mother, sweetie. She--we--loved you very much.
Helen was delivered to a moldy cubby on the fifth floor of an ancient boarding house where most of the other residents, well past training days, were closing in on fifty and noisy with phlegm. The tightly made bed in one corner lay close to the ground with a rudimentary panel set into a ledge beside it and, on the opposite wall, a yellowing screen. Otherwise, the room had few adornments--a closet with four or five hangers, a washstand with toothbrush and paste, ceiling lights, a fan, one bare rug by the bed.
That first night, Helen sat on the bed until lights out, listening to the old ones drag oxygen tanks down the corridors just beyond, their lungs scarred and useless from--before. Sometimes Helen wished she and her family had crossed over back when times were bleakest, or if they'd had the means, to have joined an ic. But no, for people like them, the world would end, or not; they, too, would go on, or not. Either way, what did it matter?
By the time the first crude adaptations came along, people were so desperate to protect their children they'd do anything to get them, and soon a vast illicit trade was booming.
And look at her now.
Helen sat and listened, not daring to hope things might be different here, but if anything the noise was worse than at home, with sounds coming at random and from everywhere now--the hacking just beyond her own door neither more nor less pronounced than those of men and women making love down the block, or parents wailing in the streets below, or whole species expiring on the far other side of the planet, the last exhalation of the last of each animal--sphinx moth or tiger or clam--as clear and immutable to her as the sound of her own heartbeat or breath. Helen heard it all--the fluttering moth, the thin winds of dying forests, a mother instructing her children on how to find freedom in their closest major vein--when all she ever wanted, starting from that moment, was not to hear anything at all.
In the morning, she welcomed the distraction of the pull-down training menu, for now she was here, the only thing to do was complete the adaptation. But really, it was all so confusing, the lists and lists of occupations for which she might be suited and range of training options--futures for her--and a private torment, for Helen also knew that once she started, there was never going to be a way out. If she started out as cook, cook she would be for the rest of her natural born days, and the same was true for artisan, bartender, colorist. She'd be good at what she did--that was what the adaptation was for--but once the circuits started integrating into her natural capacities, that was who she was going to be. If she only had a mother to tell her what to do, but between belly dancer and beautician, how could she possibly choose? For days, Helen tried, but the menu kept shifting, opening or closing whenever someone else chose or finished or simply went out, their adaptation having failed, but although she found herself unable to get past the letter c, she developed in this time the unusual serenity and fathomless reserve of placid patience that would be such an asset later, for it marked her, almost to a fault, as a model of discretion, a woman detached, the old people rumored, from basic human interaction.
Helen waited three weeks before taking the capsule. She didn't really want to--didn't trust its metal tips, never mind her father's note. But it was there and she was here, stuck and unable to decide, until finally it began to seem a quid pro quo. The capsule, after all, had been her father's parting gift. Perhaps there had really been a mother.
The instructions said to take lying down with eight ounces of water and twelve hours to devote to the memory that was coming. There was also a powder to be mixed with the water and a cracker to settle the stomach. The water, slightly fizzy, left a sour taste in Helen's mouth that lingered only long enough to signal the tingling that passed with a rush from her head, down her neck and spine, and all the way out her limbs, the tips of her fingers and toes. Vaguely recursive, the current rippled through her, electric and liquid as, little by little, Helen felt the capsule release. Seconds later, she was gripped by a wrenching wave of nausea, and then her skull exploded with pain and not pain--the idea of pain--then nothing at all, just blankness, a dark, soothing silence.
The man who enters through the door in her skull is not her father but an official looking man in a white coat, with a young woman trailing behind. Beneath her tingling skin, Helen can hear something--the man's coat crackling, but maybe also the woman, pale beside him and visibly trembling. Reddened by rash, the man's Adam's apple bobs up and down excitedly as he bends over Helen to prod her here and there--first her temple, then her throat, then her wrists, her groin.
But she is not fifteen--she is three or four, hardly more than a toddler. She is small and white and her body looks pinched.
It won't hurt her, will it? the woman says.
Pretty, the man says. What does she like? His blunt fingers on her wrists smell of antiseptic.
She likes to read, the woman says, her voice vaguely familiar. Words, you know, and pictures. She'd like an animal--could you arrange for that?
In time, but the man sounds distracted. He sounds, Helen thinks in the tingling part of her brain, strangely hungry. Everything in its own time.
In the boarding house, Helen's larger body lies pinned to the whiteness of her bed, watching with a separate part of her brain her child self on the other bed. In that room, in that bed, everything is white--the man, the sheets, the woman who is handing her over. Now, as the man examines her feet, each toe and each translucent toenail and the spaces between, Helen tries to squirm away, but something holds her down there too.
Finally, the man stands and straightens his shoulders. She'll do, he says.
Do you have the consent papers signed? Then he turns to the woman and adds in a lower, hardly audible voice, good luck. You've done the right thing.
Helen doesn't see the woman go--she is there, then gone, forever--but she's alone with the man now, who is rubbing ointment on her neck, down the inside of her arms, all around her wrists, along the rounds of her palms and each finger, one by one. Still and white--every bit as white, she thinks in the separate part of her buzzing brain, as the room itself--the child Helen lies immobilized, her arms bare and open to the man. Beside him, a tray of cruel instruments gleams.
Relax, he says. I'm not going to hurt you.
Then he lays one hairy ear on the arc of her shivering chest and listens for a long time to the thumping of her tiny, child heart. Helen can feel his breath going in, going out, the rasp of his chin on her icy skin, his hands as they continue their examination, and then a strange savage sound comes out of him. Seconds later, he straightens himself up, takes a gleaming scalpel, and makes two tiny cuts, just there in her neck, on either side, and carefully threads the implant down the length of her arms.
By the end of the following morning, Helen will have chosen court reporter and begun her training in the oblique encrypted language of transcription. She'll have done this with no further thought to the future, telling herself it was a C--after Chef and before Courtesan. She'll have done this without even looking at her hands, which lay inert at the ends of her arms, as if waiting to be activated. Helen couldn't really look, but she knew they were there, strange and translucent and with new indentations at the backs of her wrists that shimmered from within, like mercury or silver tattoos--like the tips of the memory capsule.
But it wasn't like that, she would think. My father sent me to that camp. Some of the girls came back with breasts. It wasn't like that at all.
What Helen really wanted was a way to let the noise out. She'd have done anything to quiet the world.
Thus, in time she will look back and wonder was it accident or fate? True, she had had to choose something. One after the other, the people in the hallway were beginning to go out, leaving little holes of silence where they'd been, and whatever was leaking from the center of those holes formed a dangerous vortex for her. Still, she could have chosen nurse, choreographer, semiotician, or something regular, like data entry. With her steady mind and agile fingers, she'd have been good at that, recording live births, gene mutations, extinctions. Even inventory work, keeping track between the claims of those returning from ic's and Remainders taking up their sqauatting occupations here, there. She could have been anything, really. People still could.
Or could she?
The ten years between Helen's induced memory and her natural one was such a long time in the history of the adaptations. Helen wanted to know but she didn't suppose she ever would now what, exactly, had happened to her, but it didn't really matter anymore, for as the diodes she'd ingested took hold at the base of her wrists, already they'd started to glow, like tiny ancient stars, and sometimes they ached, and heat came from them too--both heat and speed. Flushed with the shock of it, Helen worked her way through the training modules in such spectacularly record times that rumors were already starting before she was fully licensed--the fastest court reporter on record, and utterly discrete, who could take down anything every bit as if she were not there.
But while another person might have taken pride in her achievement, Helen turned, inside herself, ever more remote and sad, for she could not help but look at her hands as somehow alien to her and wanted nothing more than to get rid of them like an old pair of gloves. Nights, she would thrash, unable to sleep, flailing at her pillow, hating her father--the one who stayed behind, for her. Her mother, she would wake up crying. Why had they taken her mother and not him?
Helen so wanted to have been like the others--two parents at home and only moderately altered. Helen tried not to, but she couldn't help from envying their openness of destiny, what still remained of their capacity for human interaction, for choice and change, for intact memory. She'd heard the black-haired boy who came back buff had quit the fighting cage and started teaching, the girl with exceptional recall had managed to mate as well. Helen wouldn't really have minded a less noteworthy skill that might have left her, like them, with a more resilient remnant of her purely human self. It was possible, she told herself bitterly--every bit as possible as that the rabbit had been real or that her hair might one day grow back.
But even as she told herself this, Helen's talent for transcription was evolving into something wholly different, a new and multivalent system that even in the moment of its coming into being had already begun somehow to deepen. For underneath her perfect record of the court proceedings, another record lay, and another, as Helen began, in her own way, to transcribe a greater field, one that transcended even language to include the very thing she most longed for in her life--human intimacy itself. In layer after layer, Helen peeled story back, beginning with the courtroom, its assembled body and each of its participants, then burrowing into the lives played out there until her transcripts began to replicate the visceral experience of having been not only at the trial, but also at the crime scene, and before that, at the conflicts that preceded, layering and layering with such subtlety and nuance that, like ancient photographic negatives, each layer could be superimposed, one on the other, until taken together at once they could be said to contain not just the telling but also the told, an uncanny post-verbal replica of that time in the history of the world.
And so this was how it happened that Helen, a small bald woman of impeccable discretion, began her meteoric rise from the obscurity of her father's failed tomatoes to her curious renown as a court reporter, a profession she'd selected just because it was a C.
Equally sought after for high profile celebrity cases and classified government work, she soon became known as the woman in gray, perpetually dressed in a neat charcoal jacket and mid-calf length skirt and a delicate pearl gray blouse. Modest and reserved, almost diffident in person, she hardly ever spoke, and when she did, it was in the same low, modest tone she used to attend to basic needs--to request certain foods at the market, or to arrange for sundry items of clothing to be laundered and delivered to the small room where she lived, as parsimonious with spoken language as she had grown expansive at the stenograph machine.
And, true to her profession, Helen had started not so much to disappear behind her gray uniform and discrete appearances in court as somehow to fade. Her own father, passing her on the street, would never have noticed, athough anyone who really looked could make out the contours of an actual woman, especially the hands. But no one did because in Helen's perfection of craft, she'd so utterly effaced herself as to become, in some true sense, imperceptible.
When Helen had exhausted the literal capacities of all existing stenograph machines, she set out to have one built for that would transform the trajectory of human discourse itself, for on it she would soon begin not just to represent the moment, but in some heretofore unimaginable sense to recreate it. And in the recursive logic of her system, Helen began finally to exceed the limits even of writing.
For Helen at work (or at least Helen's hands), could be said to perform intransitively, so completely porous that all things passing through her, almost at the molecular level, would be transformed to public record, up to and including the judge's asides and distracted inner thoughts, the defendant's remorse, and Helen's own sensitivities to the long, sad exhalations of the world going out. The effect was so stunning that it soon began to alter the actual course of events, with prosecutors and defense attorneys responding more to what they read in Helen's transcript than to their own courtroom exchanges. After that, it was only a matter of time before there were junkies among them, addicted to the rush of being other than themselves, and then the journalists, and before long a vast underground file-swapping network had sprung up for Helen's work fueled by people all over the world who craved the trial records more real than their own lived lives.
As for Helen, who remained oblivious of the following she inspired, she'd begun almost from the moment she'd chosen court reporter to live fully and only in the cusp of her own capacities. From the first heady moment of jury instruction to the last of final verdict, she would be caught up by the competing versions of the truth that circled fiercely around her, addicted to the fluid charge that started each time her new stenographic apparatus began rising from the floor to unfold like a flower on a slender stalk. It began, just there, at the place on the pale underside of her wrists. It began with a terrific zinging. And Helen knew herself to be as powerless to circumvent it as she had been to circumvent the charge of her father's potent capsule, for after the zinging, a kind of bliss, or coming down of silence which carried with it no further obligation than accuracy and speed. In the subsequent wash of syllable and syntax, Helen's fingers found their rhythm and their purpose, linked to the steady beating of her heart, the extraordinary sensitivities of her inner ear, and the immense juridical database to which they were uploading even in the instant of their coming into being.
In this way, Helen's transcripts passed from record to reality to lore, with her the still, small conduit that fixed and stabilized events--the final arbiter of what had happened and had not.
Until one day she turned out to be at least partly human.
Later, much later, she would hope it was the human part of her that had grown impatient. For anyone might have gotten bored, she would think, in that tedious haze of corporate corruption and general bleariness of greed.
Anyone might have intervened.
It wasn't like her, really, but after that first time, she couldn't stop herself, and whenever the clicking started inside her, she knew it was futile to resist, first the clicking, then the will-less acceleration of her own hands beyond the capacity for human thought or speech. But oh, they were beautiful hands, long fingered and finally free, so quick that no one, watching them, would have guessed they were now subject to the hot and radiant pain that from that first day on would accompany such moments, a pain that ran all the way up the length of each bony metatarsal and back to its source at her wrists. For this was the moment, the exact moment, that Helen began not just to record but to anticipate things.
After that it didn't matter, nothing mattered, really, as she could not stop herself from entering an even subtler state of mind, her fingers flying over the silky membrane of her apparatus and, independent of her body, faster and faster, spinning and flying toward the sound only she could hear which, if she could only get it out--get it down--would stop. But like the spinning center of an elusive circle, Helen never could, until finally she'd exhaust the sudden burst, bow her head, cast her eyes demurely toward the floor, and with a barely perceptible sigh or flush, let her hands finish. And it was this, not any sign of irritation from the judge, or hesitation from the witness, or rustling in the jury box, but Helen's sudden stillness that would signal the attorney he was flagging, that he'd better hurry now to catch up with the recorder and find out what was going to happen next.
Copyright 2012. All rights reserved.
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