This selection, which is drawn from the forthcoming novel In Partial Disgrace, appears with the permission of Dalkey Archive Press.
Once Mother had me in my own blue room, she rarely returned there, respectful of or disgusted by male privacy, it is hard to say. I spoke my own dead, rich language until I was three, when I abruptly forgot it and cried out in my sleep. Mother, surrounded by her bed curtains and hillocks of damask, could not hear. At dawn she would arrive for a brief moment, the cold nosed Chetvorah beating their famous nail tango about the bed, and with a half-erotic, half-maternal muzzle, she would bring me into that dazed state where all the cells and little filia are growing a millionth of an inch. Like her Shaman forebears, she would put a bit of her saliva in my nostrils, to awake me to the sweetness of the world, while leaving the Devil unexorcised. But when past midnight, I continued to yowl, Father came with a candle, put the flat of his cool hand upon my wet brow, carrying on imaginary conversations with Innkeepers, Coachmen and Ferrymen as counter-apparitions. But my bed sweats remained severe. I was aware that I had a scent not unlike that of a dairy. And for the next seven years I did not sleep, a continuous vertiginous lucidity, both congenital and painful. The problem with not sleeping of course, is all that time you have to spend with yourself. Everything in Life is a preparation for a sleep which will not come, for life is only bearable with the discontinuity it provides. Sleep is the secret of life and uninterrupted sleeplessness forced from me the inability to forget. Aged prematurely by this dark-circled nothingness, the negative alertness of those nuits blanches future interrogations by even the most determined and devious institutions were mere child’s play. Indeed, I often went to sleep during them.
In my bedchamber, in the only closet, deep as the room was wide, the tyrant Voo held sway—an enormous well-formed stool, fanned with a bandolier of cartridges, strange drooping epaulets upon his shoulders, and on his helmet an insignia resembling a bolt of broken lightening. He carried a paraffin lamp and a riding crop. Father ignored him, yet acknowledged his presence by telling me not to show fear. The closet door was warped and would not close properly.
The Voo’s tactics were not those of surprise or concealment; indeed, at times he did not seem to know where he was. His drill was routine. Father would read me a final story, kiss me, plump the pillows up and extinguish the gas jet. Shortly after his leave taking, the closet door would slowly open and the Voo would emerge with his lamp, turn towards me with perfunctory acknowledgment, then move silently out of the room and down the hall, and I was left waiting frozen with terror until he returned from whatever business he was conducting. He generally hurried back in without looking up, returned at once to the closet and slammed the door.
Needless to say, it took me a very long time to get to even half-sleep, a state which like half-drunkenness, I came to loathe. Eventually, I learned how to rest without losing consciousness. I occupied myself by singing merrily through the night: ribald folk songs, my own transcriptions of symphonic works, American pop tunes, Christmas carols and Astingi funeral marches. No song was too sentimental for me.
As my art developed, my parents moved further and further to their respective ends of the house, and the servants made certain my windows were locked even in the most desultory of summers. In my maturity, I still hum these tunes softly, and make do with cat naps. But most of what passes for my childhood could only be called insomnia. My childhood was something I did not share, or could have had I wanted to.
At breakfast, I would invariably relate the experience of the Voo in all its terrible redundancy, and while at first, if Mother was present, she expressed sympathy, but finally said, “Look here, I am sorry for you. But why must you tell me all this? It is exactly the same each night, and you are well enough in the morning. Don’t you see, dear, there’s nothing to be done about it.” It was the goddess in her talking, her utter boredom with any twice-told tale.
Father did not often have to endure my narration, as he was out on his three-hour morning constitutional, bursting in by the end of the cereal, his glowing face as cold to the touch as steel. But when Mother paraphrased my dream for him—and it seemed to me both more trivial and terrifying when she did so—he would stroke his beard, put his boots upon an andiron and say, “Well, there’s more to fishing than fishing,” or some such phrase, leaving the matter there, floating in the air like smoke from a sour pipe. His only therapeutic suggestion was to bring in the veterinarian, Vogel, to teach me the anatomy of the horse, as if its tendons and arteries would relieve my mind of the apparition, but which only confirmed my growing disinterest in that walnut-brained species.
After the veterinarian was dismissed, and I continued to relate the all too-predictable previous evening’s event throughout the years, Mother finally declared that she was washing her hands of the matter—and I must confess I did not blame her, for owing to her upbringing, she could not quite distinguish between fear and boredom, dream and nightmare. In Father’s considered view, the Voo ought to be accepted simply as another kind of pet, who did not exist to amuse us, or assuage our loneliness, or show off our good taste, but to remind us of the existence of strong opposites—and how by dealing with such otherness with gallantry, we might accumulate value from good habits. And I took his point. What good was it having only superior animals around?
But when I asked him for a watchdog he hedged. While he acknowledged that my unusual ‘wakefulness’ might be useful in housebreaking, he preferred his method, which was to split the litter between his own and Mother’s beds, roust them out early, thanking them profusely for not fouling their coverlets—and indeed, they were usually housebroken in less than a week. But he found it hard to trust me with a Chetvorah, a ‘real pup,’ as he put it, for he feared I might communicate my fear to it—and in any case, to teach a Chetvorah to be a guard dog was a waste of his abilities—something on the order of teaching a ballerina Kung Fu. The pups, they loved him more. They always loved him more. And in this too, they were blameless. The last thing a young pup needs is a child with a Voo.
One day (or perhaps one night, it was increasingly all the same to me), something mysterious happened, a first-order experience such as losing my first language. The Voo had come and gone with his benign regularity. He seemed rather more withdrawn, as if he were preoccupied, but there was, nonetheless, no peace to be had. I diligently fought my way into a final imitation of slumber, a battle on the heights of the abyss, and the next morning I ‘awoke’ late, groggy and unfulfilled, aware of some heat about my feet. I looked up thinking that the Voo had finally gone deadly, only to see a pair of bright eyes staring back at me and a tail like a fan wiping the air behind them. It was a new companion. It was Mr. Mooks.
Mooks clearly was not one of Father’s fine dogs, those superior animals who moved through life with an aristocratic detachment and dignity, cool and not always accessible. No, Mr. Mooks wore his mongrel origins like a shiny penny, his limbs a pastiche of elongations and foreshortenings, a veritable salmagundi of spots, half stripes, and even different lengths and textures of coat, patchy and silken by turns, brown and black and white. And Mooks had one brown eye and one blue eye. Crudely drawn, but full of vibrant affirmation, Mr. Mooks looked as if he might carry the sun like a balloon, a sun that was just as mixed-up as he was. He seemed to realize that I was just a boy, and that it was not necessary to expend a great deal of bravura protecting me or showing me his version of real life. He crawled up the channel of bedclothes on his belly and laid his tricolor nose upon my chest.
My first thought was, of course, how Father would take to a stray on the premises. Mooks’ ungainliness, even on a featherbed, suggested that he had not been put on this earth for field and stream. But nevertheless, I took him down to breakfast, where he slunk with perfect humility beneath the table. Mother was for some reason up early, and when Father suddenly burst in from his constitutional, hair awry, cheeks filled with blood, and Mooks lunged at him, I thought the game was up. But Father, apparently so filled up with oxygen and endorphins, was oblivious.
Mooks then began to investigate all corners of the kitchen, where the scents of generations of dogs must have seemed to him almost archeological. He sidled past Mother’s ankles, and fairly spun about by her perfume, let out a bellow of surprise. Then as Father poured his coffee into the great bowl with the built-in mustache bridge, I realized that Mooks did not exist for them any more than the Voo, and this naturally was a source of considerable relief. I did not want him kenneled with the exemplars of the race, in their private boarding school with its infinite hierarchies, cruel initiations, and arch sophistications.
Mr. Mooks possessed an inner discipline like no other animal I had ever seen. He was seemingly all but indifferent to food. I never saw him evacuate. He had no voice to speak of, only a low guttural rumbling like a not particularly well made, but nonetheless reliable machine, which I first heard that night from the foot of my bed. When the closet door had opened perfunctorily, and the Voo appeared in all his hunchbacked excrescent sullen arrogance, the surface of his fibrous, unfeatured face glistening from the paraffin lamp, Mooks went rigid as a cornerstone as he emitted that ratchet-like growl. The Voo was brought up short and rotated his sluglike body towards us. He was clearly taken aback, although that seemed only to heighten his authority for the moment. But then he straightened up, or rather recongealed himself, and resumed his customary movement to the door and down the hall. Mooks did not move a muscle, and his low growl startled me when the Voo returned, not acknowledging that his retreat to the closet was hastier than usual. I sank a few levels in the general direction of unconsciousness, and was awakened only at dawn. I could not believe it. For the first time I had lost consciousness, tasted the cocktail of oblivion, the vast dissolute ecstasy of total blackout, without feeling and without recall. I was still terrified, but thanks to Mooks, not altogether helpless and alone.
I spent much of the next night explaining things to Mooks, speculating on what the Voo meant, what we meant to him, as well as how Mooks had chanced upon the one house in all the world who had for its head the dogmeister supreme, holder of Hauptzuchwart. He listened in a patient, affirmative way, his paws extended and crossed over one another, always alert, though his broken ears sank with a certain despondency when I moved the discussion to the project of our life together.
The next morning we reconvened at breakfast. Mother again put in a highly eccentric appearance, wheeling about in a whirlwind of activity which produced only cold porridge and some brown apples. Father was not in a good mood, as sheets of rain and lightning had canceled his walk. The day’s blood was still high in his cheeks; the arteries alongside his neck were two blue cords, a barometer of heavy weather. I noticed then that Mr. Mooks’ claws were not only untrimmed, but actually curled—except for passing gas, his only really unattractive feature. The nails had grown long and yellow and hollow, curled under at the ends like a Mandarin’s, and made a very unpleasant noise upon the stone floor. I was not yet convinced of my parents’ inattention (which was often feigned) to my companion, so I politely asked Mother to set out another plate at the table, which she did with an incredibly acrobatic developeé. But Father focused upon the small addition to our table setting with intense curiosity.
“For . . . whom?” he enunciated slowly.
“Mooks,” I said. “Mr. Mooks.”
“Mooks?” he repeated, somewhat embarrassedly, thinking perhaps he had forgotten an honored overnight guest. “Mooks?”
“Mooks is my new friend,” I said. “A dog. I don’t know what kind.”
The two blue cords on either side of my father’s neck swelled slightly. Though he said nothing, I saw immediately the aspect of betrayal in his eyes. If he had been capable of speaking at the moment, it would have gone something like this: ‘I have spent a lifetime creating a race of animals which exceed in their deeds and speciespower anything which has yet appeared on this earth. All this I bequeath to you. And you might choose from them any member to lavish your attention on. But no, you must sneak in, like a servant girl, some anonymous insubstantial mutt, and place him at my right hand!’ And this, indeed, is almost word for word what he did say to me several days later.
Mooks seemed to sense this disapproval as he hopped up with downcast eyes upon the bench beside me. But he did not take offense. Father’s eyes were now, as they often were, on the ceiling, which gave him an aspect of those historical figures in bas reliefs. The fact that he could see no dog there did not in the least mitigate my platonic betrayal.
Mother, sensing that all was not well, leapt between us, and with a large spoon, plopped a portion of white-hot cream of wheat into Mooks’ plate.
“We certainly hope Mr. Mooks likes American cereal,” she said.
As it turned out, he did not. The cereal sat there throughout the day, and then day after day, turning not just cold but gelid, then oddly crusty, and only when it took on a terminal green hue was it removed, a rebuke to my new companion.
I must say I preferred Father’s hurt feelings and internalized rage to Mother’s hypocritical concession to my new friend, as I have always found intemperate scorn more instructive, and kinder in the long run, than halfhearted lies. This should have told me something important about myself, but what astonished me was that both my parents assumed Mooks’ appearance was due to something they had done or not done. If I had sufficient power, I would have inflicted upon them the Voo himself, that faux friend from the rim of civilization, and not some harmless, innocent, fake animal.
In any event, due to Mooks’ eternal vigilance, the Voo’s visits became more intermittent, and when he did appear, it was not with quite the same claustral charisma of old. Mooks himself seemed irritated on those nights when he did not make an appearance, and little balls of tension appeared in his short neck. The Voo seemed to be having problems with self presentation, and with my new companion, rather than gaining any confidence, I was simply losing interest in the tyrant. But, I was fated to learn that as the Voo’s visits became less predictable, it gave him the advantage of surprise. His passages were more varied, less choreographed. He appeared at different hours, when I least expected it and when Mooks was dead asleep. He also acquired a larger repertoire of gestures and movements, some of them quite bizarre, and once, after a long absence, he appeared in the late afternoon while I was doing sums, in a kind of pathetic shuffle without his lamp.
But then one night I awoke to the creak of the closet door, and I could make out by the light of his lamp a newly-beguiling Voo, eyes twinkling like kernels of corn in horsemanure, and something very like a grin across his fecal-face. He moved without his usual sluggishness and I saw that he had also acquired a companion. At his feet there sat the cutest monster you ever saw, a three-headed hound, its back covered with snakeheads and the tail of a perfect little dragon. Mooks was stunned silent, obliterate. The monster sat obediently and focused at the end of a velvet rope. I had to give him credit. It was a standoff. The Voo sashayed out into the hall dragging the brute with its tail thrashing behind him. He would not return.
I believed then, if I could only reclaim the dead language of childhood, that the Voo would disappear from my life, or become a mere augury whom I could interpret as I liked. Indeed, I was becoming bored with my fear and less anxious about its source. The Voo, after all, had a certain authority and detachment which seemed admirable. The magic of in extremis had always appealed to me. His situation was clearly more interesting than mine. From the demands of the infant, one can come to understand the tyrant’s point of view, because it is we in our stinking bedclothes who are most totalitarian. I had never questioned the fact that I deserved to be frightened and judged by this assassin of disfigurement. And I was attracted by a spirit who had the hardness to go to any lengths! In short, I had to summon up the honesty to admit that I would have preferred to be very like the Voo, and insert myself into his world, but simply couldn’t muster up the will or wit to do so. I had also come to notice that as the Voo was vain and self-regarding, he was basically human, and therefore defeatable. But this in no way made me less interested in what went through the villain’s mind; what it was like to be in his large red shoes. How I missed my absent mute interlocutor!
As the days went on, and I became more attached to Mooks, cosseting him without qualms, hugging him until he burped, I began to have other concerns—not the least of which was the wedge which my small companion had put between me and my parents. I also began to speculate what would happen if the tyrant, cornered as it were, might alter his routine irrevocably—strike out, injure and overwhelm Mr. Mooks, even sic his three-headed monster dog upon him. For when you thought about it, Mooks was not their match in any respect. He had altered our relations by a kind of irrational bravado, not to mention a certain stupidity which would eventually irritate a cosmic presence like the Voo.
This was not real sympathy; it was only a bloated sense of myself, having nothing to do with self-confidence, but merely a kind of spiritual elephantitis, mercilessly requiring enormous amounts of new territory and stimulation. How stupid of me not to have made an alliance, a pact with the Voo before Mooks had entered the scene!
Most disturbing of all, it occurred to me, what if the Voo was indeed eternally banished, would that not imply that the Mooks who had conquered him might get a swelled head, no longer feel useful, and perhaps disappear from my life? Or would he become, as smug victor, so insupportable in our civil family that I would finally have to hide him out?
The Voo, for all his threats, did not require interpretation. Everyone understood what Vooness was. But Mooks required an explanation and endless lies. Moreover, I came to see, as I reached out to stroke his rigid little neck, that out there where he lay was a little bit of me . . . but more real than me, less easily satisfied perhaps, but certainly more alert. And that indeed if he saw me in this light, he might be tempted to hold his bravery over me, constantly reminding me of my inferiority, and making me appear somewhat ridiculous, talking to an underpedigreed dog, all but invisible.
My insomnia never much improved, though later with the help of kind ladies and fine liquor, I was able to enter the closet of total oblivion so necessary to surviving the good life. Buffeted by fate into the most various corners of the world, I have accepted gratefully many a generous and gentle woman’s easement and aid. But I did not infer, even then, the most interesting symptoms—that as a grown man, I would long for those nights of direct confrontation, total absorption, that lucid ecstasy when the door swings open at its appointed hour as the madman, the True Shaman, the most eternal playmate, punctually presents himself in all his naked, colossal, and unambiguous endedness—as you piss all over your insides.
Finally the day came when I realized I spent more time worrying about Mr. Mooks—that he might be hurt, or abandon me, or show me up, that it would all somehow turn out badly—than anything else. And this caused me more anxiety than the Voo. For if the Voo would never go away on his own, did that also mean that Mooks would live forever? And who, after all, was the more instructive, even entertaining, presence?
And so one breakfast morning before Father returned from his walk, I asked Mother to remove Mook’s plate, and hypocritical tears welled up in her eyes.
“Has Mr. Mooks gone somewhere,” she said. “Is he not feeling well?”
I did not reply, for I had lost yet another language. Mooks had melted away, spot by stripe, blue eye by brown eye, sentence by sentence. My companion, Mr. Mooks, had scurried out of my life without so much as a fare-thee-well; a fact, if you reflect upon it, much more mysterious than his appearance.